Friday, January 7, 2011

Running Out of Time

I'm almost ashamed to admit it, but I'm a big fan of the recently-ended television series 24. It seemed that in almost every season, the terrorist-fighting hero, Jack Bauer, would exclaim what could be the tag line of the series: “We're running out of time!” That's the way I feel these days.

Last week, I updated the numbers in my population-consumption model, increasing its accuracy and finding almost no change in its dire projections for the future trajectory of the world's population if we continue with our historical behavior. The alternatives that allow the longest survival time continue to be the exploitation of the rest of the Solar System (increasing the mass of resources by at least 5% per year if we start now and can travel no faster) and relying entirely on renewable and reusable resources (“capacity”) here on Earth by the end of this century (reaching half, by mass, of today's constant consumption by 2024).

Waiting longer to start requires faster changes, mainly because we will be consuming more resources and the cost of consuming less is a loss of population. While I still haven't identified most of why the consumption equation works the way it does, and there is evidence that many of us can live on far less than we do, the historical trends are clear. Whatever we do, it will be too late when the population peak occurs, in 2021. If we waited until 2020, a procrastinator's dream, we would either need to be getting half that larger amount from capacity by 2025 (28% the first year) or start increasing our non-renewable resources by 17% per year; it's highly unlikely that even the most ambitious technologies could achieve those goals.

Many of the so-called engines of industry are fighting to maintain their expected growth in profits by paying lower wages, cranking up demand for more products at lower quality, and buying off governments and disseminating propaganda to avoid paying the social and environmental costs of their activities. As access to non-renewable resources gets harder, this is a natural response for a competitive enterprise: restrict the number of people who can see growth at the expense of the others who can't (this may be a big part of the “reality” behind some of my model's variables). What I've decided is the most practical choice – increasing capacity – is almost certain to be extremely unattractive to a profiteer, especially the end state of using a fixed amount of totally replenishing and long-lasting resources.

As ocean ecosystems are decimated by oil spills and birds literally fall dead from the sky, the public is getting a glaring wake-up call that something really bad is going on, and we may be the cause. We certainly can't save other species by getting additional resources from other planets, without reducing the amount of resources we get from this one. Extracting more from the Earth results in less for other species, and when converted to waste, fouls their environments and ours. It's probably no coincidence that my model projects our own population to start crashing soon after the time (five years from now) that the amount of resources we're using corresponds to double the amount of ecological resources (ecological footprint) that the Earth can support.  We are clearly running out of time.

1 comment:

Bradley Jarvis said...

See the post "Limits to Capacity" for an update: