Saturday, June 2, 2007

Overview: Sustainability

I used to consider “environmentalism” as a fringe movement of people who strangely seemed to care more about trees and animals than people. Sure, there was pollution, and a few weak species were going extinct, but with it was a small price to pay for our rightful domination of the Universe. Now when I hear those sentiments, I get very, very angry.

Earth’s natural systems are showing signs of wear and tear, brought on by the exponential growth of resource use and waste by the human species. We are causing a mass extinction of species not unlike those brought on by asteroid impacts in the distant past, and we may be next. I now realize that environmentalism and its close cousin the “sustainability” movement are social responses to this crisis.

As a former physicist and engineer, I applied my favorite tools to studying the issues (in what I call a “consumption model”). I discovered that the cumulative consumption of resources by humans is closely correlated to the trajectories of population growth for our species and others, and that all populations may crash (drop to zero) in this century as a result. If somehow technology enables us to live without the natural systems that have supported us, consume entire planets, and travel near the speed of light, the conversion of mass associated with the kind of exponential growth we’re used to can only be sustained for a few hundred years at most, because we can not reach the required planetary and interstellar mass fast enough.

When I was 16, I participated in a program to get kids to understand the ongoing energy crisis. I revisited the issue in my forties and learned that fossil fuels will dry up in this century, even if we survive the ecological crisis we’ve precipitated. Non-environmentally destructive alternatives are urgently required to deal with whatever (hopefully small) demand for energy we might have.

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