Sunday, April 20, 2008

Reaching Our Limits

It's not easy being green these days. It can be frustrating when there are just too many things to write about. Things that seem to be happening all at once.

Take the news last week. Food riots throughout the Southern Hemisphere. The global price of staples like rice doubled in a very short amount of time and doesn't appear to be coming down any time soon.

The higher price of food is probably due to a number of factors: Crop failure in Australia and other places due to drought probably caused by global warming; There are almost 1.4 billion Chinese and more of them are eating meat as China rapidly industrializes; Industrial farming of beef and hogs required more grain than the grain we grow for human consumption; All kinds of industrial farming have sharply increased costs due to the increase in the price of oil; And, misguided Bush Administration subsidies have encouraged American farmers to grow corn for ethanol instead of for food.

The process of industrialization has reached the point where we are screwing up the weather. That means that humans have reached their first global limit. We've so polluted the atmosphere that the huge climate system of the earth is responding to us. The earth is finite and the problem with limits is that once you reach one, the others are not far behind.

Industrialism , which has so far lasted about two hundred years, has always been fuelled by cheap supplies of coal and oil. Oil is getting too expensive because global demand is overtaking supply; Coal is costing too much in terms of air pollution and environmental destruction; Biofuels are crowding out food production.

There are no other cheap and easily available sources of energy that can replace fossil fuels. You cannot run an automobile or a tractor on solar or wind power. Nuclear plants take decades to build and require huge expenditures.

With the development of the Chinese and Indian economies industrialism has become a global reality and it is quickly exhausting the world of cheap resources. Sure, there is still plenty of oil, coal, iron, fresh water, etc., but the bigger the global population gets, the faster it needs to extract resources, and the more expensive it becomes to extract those needed resources. And the more expensive resources get the more expensive food gets.

What to do? If we make the world more equitable we can slow population growth, because, up to a point, people who have more income have fewer babies. And we can also slow the growth of chronic hunger the same way. To avoid collapse we could slow down and stop the growth in demand for the world's finite resources by stopping industrial growth. Then we could hook economic development onto using what we already have more intensively and efficiently.

If we recycle everything we can maintain society without the need to extract more resources from the ground. Japan was able to keep its economy in a steady state for three hundred years, during the Edo period. If we learn to conserve energy we can decrease our carbon dioxide emissions and slow down global warming before it runs away from us.

Everything is connected. The fact that we have already caused the global climate to heat up means that we will soon run out of slack with other systems of resources. Better by far, to anticipate reaching our limits before it happens, then allowing ourselves to overshoot and cause civilization to collapse permanently.

There are so many things to be aware of. Economic and environmental systems are highly complex. What I am saying here could be wrong. But when we press infinite demand on a finite world how can we not avoid coming up against limits eventually?

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