- It’s the end of the world!
- Peak everything
- Global warming turbo-charges all these dangers!
- Scientific panels sound the alarm every few years, but are largely ignored
- Enter the doomers
- The Eclipse is Now
- The Rules for Recovery
1. It’s the end of the world!
2004 felt like the end of the world to me. My fun loving and affectionate 5 year old boy developed Leukaemia, aka blood cancer. It was a very stressful time with long days and even longer nights. We had little sleep. Sadly, right when I should have been focussed on my boy and family, when browsing the net one night to forget about cancer I came across some science that changed my life forever. In two words: peak oil. Basically, it’s not when oil runs out, it’s when we can’t get it out of the ground as fast. It’s when we permanently move from increasing supplies of sweet crude to decreasing, harder to get at, vastly more expensive oil. This was from conservative, peer-reviewed geologists with a lifetime of experience in oil exploration. The implications were enormous. The world’s transport and airline industries run on oil. But the big one was agriculture. It costs 10 calories of oil energy to grow 1 calorie of food energy. As the wiki says:-
Since supplies of oil and gas are essential to modern agriculture techniques, a fall in global oil supplies could cause spiking food prices and unprecedented famine in the coming decades. Geologist Dale Allen Pfeiffer contends that current population levels are unsustainable, and that to achieve a sustainable economy and avert disaster the United States population would have to be reduced by at least one-third, and world population by two-thirds.
OK. That got my attention. It seemed like I was going to have to try and save my boy from cancer, then civilisation from peak oil! Yet governments opened new car-dependent suburbs regardless, plodding along with business-as-usual. The Australian Senate said that even if there was a risk of peak oil in our generation, we should be planning for it now. But nothing changed.
2. Peak everything
I became a member of a few groups and started reading many books and academic articles on the subject. It was like a crash course in science and history and the history of civilisation itself. Cheap energy has grown our civilisation from a billion people before the industrial revolution to 7 billion now. It has turbo-charged our economy and our population. Cheap energy sped up how fast we mine, fish, farm, hunt, log, build, and even how fast we breed! Peak oil is only the tip of the iceberg, or the proverbial canary in the coal-mine. As mentioned above, the Haber process has vastly accelerated how fast we can grow food. But industrial agriculture kills our soils. 100,000 square kilometres dry up and blow away annually! Scientific American said the world’s farmland topsoils could be gone in 60 years. Global warming could cut crop yields by 10% per degree of warming, and our increasing use of fossil fuels will commit to 2 degrees by 2028. Farming is also being hit by the overuse of underground aquifers that took thousands of years to accumulate. Also known as ‘fossil water’ or ‘bore water’ in Australia, they are are running dry. This is already hurting agriculture. So if our finite resources like oil and soil and fossil water are in trouble, how are our renewable resources going?
Fish stocks are dying, as 75% of fisheries are on the verge of collapse. As George Monbiot says, “Since 1996 the fish catch has fallen by a million tonnes a year, as stocks are exhausted. Sieving the seas for what remains, fishing fleets will trigger the collapse of entire ecosystems.” Forests and other important animal and ecosystem habitats are also under stress, with mankind nearly using half the land surface of the earth for grazing and farming. (Cities only take up 3% of the land). We also corrupt the land, introducing pests, hunting predators, and polluting with plastic and other toxic wastes. We will mine most conventional metal ores by 2075, being forced to use more and more energy extracting non-conventional ores from thinner tailings and even grains floating in the ocean itself.
All these trends are accelerating as the population explodes and the number of people on earth grows around 75 million annually. It’s like adding a new United Kingdom every year.
The speed of growth is amazing. Did you know that if anything grows at just 1% per year for one lifetime of 70 years, there would be 2 times as much in just 70 years? Over 70 years 2% growth per is 4 times, 3% is 8 times, all the way up to 6% growth per year being 64 times as many people or cars or bacteria or crimes or whatever you are projecting! This is just basic maths — the speed of growth really is amazing.
What are we to do about population growth? Just try putting a ban on how many kids people can have! The growing population seems to aggravate what some have called ‘peak everything‘ which is defined as using too many finite resources too fast. For the first time we are sailing into a comprehensive range of resource and environmental limits on a global scale. Previous civilisations rose and fell as they used up local resources and environments, such as when Roman topsoil washed into the Mediterranean, shrinking the supply of cheap food. These civilisations sometimes took decades or centuries to unwind. But once the environmental damage was done, the outcome was inevitable. We are about to crash into a number of global resource limits, all at once, on a warming and overpopulated planet. What could go wrong?
3. Global Warming turbo-charges all these dangers!
Climate change can accelerate every negative trend discussed above, threatening farmlands and ecosystems, disrupting rainfall patterns and turning break baskets into dust bowls, drowning millions of hectares of rice paddies and wheat belts under seawater, and spreading flood and famine and disease and death and refugees across the world. I summarise it all as our climate FOES; Famine, Oceans rising, Extinctions and Storms. Basically climate change harms any social cause you care about, whether it is education for children or care for the homeless or elderly, because it will hurt the global economy and potentially send some countries into famine, or even collapse.
4. Scientific panels sound the alarm every few years, but are largely ignored
As Pulitzer Prize winning scientist Jared Diamond said, “People are worried now.” Hardly a year goes by without a careful, cold, calculating scientific organisation sounding the alarm. My Limits Page documents a growing list of recent papers, from the classic and disturbing 1970’s Limits to Growth which is still on track 40-something years later, through to recent work by the Stockholm Resilience Centre in 2015. The science is clear, and from so many different sources. This is not a problem of scientific credibility but of greed, apathy, and a feeling of powerlessness with activists. (But some activist groups are gaining more money and momentum, and some technologies have the potential to achieve the seemingly impossible. Read on!)
5. Enter the doomers
I became horrified to learn how many people were depressed about our ability to achieve anything, and saw some sort of Mad Max collapse of civilisation as inevitable. Worse, some of them were not just pessimists (aka “doomers”), but some forums were cluttered with Apocalyptic Outsiders, people salivating with excitement over the possibility that civilisation might crash and burn. But if you read my page on doomers you’ll see that this misanthropic meme can be deadly to young people, even causing suicide! This is what motivates me to write. There has to be some hope, and I see plenty of grounds for hope in today’s scientific endeavour. Over the years, my son recovered and I gradually began to feel some hope that our civilisation might recover from it’s addiction to oil as well.
6. The Eclipse is now!
My old motto was too melodramatic: “We must eclipse ourselves or be eclipsed.” It was binary: all or nothing; success or failure; life or death. I guess it reflected the terrible time I had trying to accomodate all of this new information into my life while my son was so terribly sick.
But all these years later, and with my son now in university, I now think that there are a thousand ways we might succeed in some areas and fail in others. While we might not “be eclipsed” and collapse back to the stone age, we still risk being stuck in the twilight. Unless we roll out the Rules for Recovery below, our children will inherit a planet we hardly recognise, with half the biodiversity extinct by 2050 and possibly billions living in poverty, hunger, and war. There are dangers ahead. What if water stress becomes too much, and existing international tensions boil over into water wars? What if we fight over the remaining oil, water, and farmland? How will we respond when today’s refugee crisis is multiplied tenfold, maybe a hundredfold, due to rising sea levels and famine? How do we prepare for mega-droughts, especially when America has almost used up all their fossil water? What other wild-cards are coming our way?
We can and must do better. You can make a difference, and help us emerge out of this gloomy period into a bright green new world! If just one cause below grabs you, take it up as a hobby. Read the pages I link to below, watch some documentaries, and join an online group. Get involved. You can change the way it goes. You’ll make some great new friends along the way.
7. The Rules for Recovery.
You may not agree with all my solutions, but the many professors signing onto the EcoModernist Manifesto agree with the most important ones. If you find my activist writing irritating, please stop and read the Manifesto instead.
We need to:–
REFUEL on safe, modern GenIV nuclear reactors that eat nuclear ‘waste’ to prevent the worst of climate change. Just today’s nuclear waste could run the world for the next 500 years. Nuclear waste is not the problem, it is the solution. Nuclear power MUST give us the reliable baseload power that modern grids need. They also allow some wind and solar, and help intermittent, unreliable renewables to play their part.
REZONE our cities around RAIL using trains, trams, and trolley buses as appropriate and cost effective. New Urbanism can then creep around the transport network, gradually adding places of social life, beauty, and economic vitality that our dull suburbs can plug into. There are a variety of New Urban and eco-city plans that might work for your area.
RECHARGE electric transport batteries or even renewable fuels rather than mine them. There are a variety of options for a post-oil world including Electric Vehicles, synthetic diesel from seawater, and even a recyclable metal powder called boron that can be burned for fuel!
RECYCLE all our waste using Plasma Burners that rip waste apart and sort it at the molecular level. We can get rid of rubbish tips forever, and turn household waste into many of the materials necessary to build the next house or car or boat!
REINVENT industry to run on mostly renewable materials. We need to reinvent processes so they use clean, recyclable materials. Governments should encourage Green Chemistry, Nano-technology, and even lower technology solutions like building Skyscrapers out of wood!
REPLENISH the soil and not mine and destroy it through Industrial Agriculture. This means adopting nutrient recycling schemes, using biochar to bring the soil back to life, and not flushing the invaluable phosphorus and other nutrients in our sewage out to sea! It means our sewerage departments need to speak to our agricultural departments.
REPAIR ecosystems so that nature will continue to give us ‘Ecosystem services’. Nature gives us free services that increase our health and wealth. Without them we would have to pay for all our fresh water, soil, clean air, certain waste processing, etc. But we can repair ecosystems by making more national and private parks, keeping threatened animals in zoos and breeding centres, and gradually replanting and restocking the wild.
RE-GREEN deserts with seawater greenhouses producing fresh food and possibly protein from seawater bug-houses!?
REDUCE population growth by meeting all human needs, especially by empowering and educating women! Empowering women in developing countries not only helps them and their families achieve their potential, it helps those families not see children as some form of superannuation. Studies have proved it prevents population growth, and can stabilise the population.
Does a cause above grab you? Read the pages, google around, find an online group and please, get involved! Support just one of the causes above. You could make an incredible difference, and make friends along the way.