Thursday, April 22, 2010

Resource demands and scarcity

It's Earth Day.

The greatest challenge that will face the human race in coming decades is the same one that has loomed for the entire history of life itself: resource scarcity. There's only so much stuff to go around that living things need to go about the business of living. In the case of humans, we can replace "need" with "want", and humans will still work just as hard to get it.

Humans have lived outside of the state of nature for tens of thousands of years, since hunter-gatherers became herders and farmers and freed up their own resources to develop civilization. From then to now our civilizations have defined which resources we want and need to consume.

Our technological society demands energy, and lots of it. For our homes, for our cars, for our factories, for the electrical grid upon which we are almost completely dependent. We get what we need through the use of coal, oil, natural gas - and to a much lesser extent, nuclear energy, hydroelectric power, geothermal energy, and the power of the wind and the sun.

We're receiving reminders all the time that these energy sources come with a price tag attached. Twenty-nine coal miners dead in West Virginia in that industry's latest tragic accident. Eleven oil platform workers missing in the first oil platform disaster that I can recall in ages. Groundwater supplies - another critical resource - being contaminated by the "fracking" technique used to extract natural gas from the Marcellus Shale formation in Dimock, Pennsylvania. Even that pesky volcano with the unpronounceable name in Iceland serves to remind us of just how geothermal energy works.

Our hunger for resources grows with our increasing population - and sometimes faster, as previously technologically unsophisticated areas come to partake in the modern world and add their resource needs to those that already exist. In 1988 Douglas Adams visited a China where the streets were clogged with pedestrians, trucks, and bicyclists. Today those same streets play host to a vast array of cars, all of which have propelled China into a distant second behind the United States for national petroleum consumption.

Meanwhile, the climate itself is changing. In part this is due to the effects of resource consumption itself - the use of fossil fuels resulting in a release of climate-changing greenhouse gases. And this has a feedback effect as well: as the climate changes, resource demands will change as well. Not necessarily for the better: reductions in consumption of oil and natural gas for heating homes may be offset by increases in coal used to generate electricity to cool those same homes.

And where does all this resource consumption lead to? Damned if I know. Maybe the resource demands of the human population will exceed the resource availability, with a result all-too-familiar to fans of nature documentaries. Maybe resource availability will grow along with resource demands, as new resources are identified, or previous restrictions on resource availability are eased - also not a pretty picture, in many versions of this scenario. Maybe the demand will suddenly drop off, resulting in a surplus of available resources - though it may not be pleasant to think about what sort of events would result in a sudden and sustained drop in resource demands.

It's Earth Day.

Where are we going?

See also:

Susquehanna River Sentinel: +++ Earth Day 2010 +++
The Lu Lac Political Letter: The LuLac Edition #1159, Apr. 22nd, 2010
Gort42: Earth Day
Circumlocution for Dummies: Frick the freaking fracking!
GDAC Earth Day Statement « FRACK MOUNTAIN
SPLASHDOWN!: 1970 ~ EARTH DAY ~ 2010


joy said...

I'm old enough to remember the first Earth Day. Until people who claim they care about the environment STOP MAKING MORE PEOPLE, it's a lost cause. Birth control is the only hope. There are just TOO MANY PEOPLE already.

Anonymous said...

"Maybe the resource demands of the human population will exceed the resource availability, with a result all-too-familiar to fans of nature documentaries". Well put.

Our environment has been shaped,in many ways, by the large scale capital intensive centralization of utilities and food. Human needs met for a price, a monthly payment for this and a monthly payment for that - until the day you die.

I also agree with Joy. This world cannot accommodate the populations we have. But you don't hear about overpopulation any more. It is anti-corporate. Corporations are always craving growth, and in the global market, the more consumers the merrier.

Thanks for the links at the end.