Despite past and present administration’s hope that the transition from a society dependent on fossil fuels to a world of controlled population growth, sustainable economies, and alternative green energies will be forthcoming, the vision seems a bit optimistic. This shift will take strong political and emotional fortitude and decades to accomplish.
The transition is not only necessary for the planet’s ecological survival; it’s critical to the health and well being of every human. Each year the health of 54,000 Americans is compromised by air pollution generated by power plants. Premature death can be caused by acid rain and by particulates in the air that we breathe. Carbon-dioxide emissions are a major culprit in the rapid global warming, which remains a long-range fossil fuel problem.
Virtually everyone agrees that the extraction, distribution, and burning of fossil fuels contribute significantly to many of the planet’s environmental problems. This knowledge hasn’t yet stopped the ever-increasing consumption of oil and gas by an ever-increasing world population. There are over six billion people on Earth now, nearly double since 1960, and sometime in the next century, there will be about 12 billion. According to Jennifer D. Mitchell in World Watch magazine, “We don’t have anything like a century to prevent that next doubling; we probably have less than a decade.”
The fundamental problem is the world’s population growth. Right now, there are about 98 people for every square mile of the Earth. That amount is increasing rapidly; every second there are 2 more people on the Earth; every hour 9,000 more; every month adds 6 million more. In other words, this rate of growth is like adding another Mexico to the world each year and another China every decade. In the modern day century, from 1950 to 2050, the world’s population is estimated to grow from 2.5 billion to 9.3 billion – an increase of almost 3 times. Currently, the planet’s human population is doubling about every 39 years.
By 2050, the U.S. population alone will have increased the equivalent of adding four more states the size of California. It took 10,000 generations to reach a world population of 2 billion in 1930, while it will only take us a decade in the 1990s to produce around 1.5 billion more! Not to mention all the environmental and humanitarian losses this overpopulation problem is causing.
With more and more developing countries wanting to offer their growing populations the opportunity to consume fossil fuel products such as gasoline and electricity, it is obvious that the global oil supply will not sustain an overpopulated planet. But the United States and Europe have been consuming a disproportionate amount of energy for 150 years, and it is unreasonable for the industrialized West to expect developing economies, such as the Asian Pacific, to forego the power and wealth that burning fossil fuel brings to industry and commerce.
Indeed, U.S. economists are counting on services and products sold to these emerging markets to fuel the growing U.S. economy.
In the near future, the world’s economic dependence on fossil fuels will continue to grow because we have implemented few energy alternatives. But there is only so much oil and gas in the ground, and it won’t last forever. While gas prices in the US have retreated to lows of $2 MMBtu because of the extensive shale oil and gas reserves, and the development of the technology to access it in the US and elsewhere, the continuing expanding population and demand for energy will mean more than likely that oil prices around $100 a barrel will be the norm rather than the exception thought of a few years ago.
Either way, oil will be getting more expensive in the future. As the price of oil increases, the first to suffer will be the world’s poorer nations. When oil becomes too costly, their oil-based energy consumption will falter. A graphic example of this scenario occurred recently just 90 miles from Miami, Florida. It started with the collapse of communism, when Russia was forced to cut off cheap oil imports to Cuba.
An observer in 1993 wrote: “Cuba has become an undeveloped country. Bicycles are replacing automobiles. Horse-drawn carts are replacing delivery trucks. Oxen are replacing tractors. Factories are shut down and urban industrial workers resettled in rural areas to engage in labor-intensive agriculture. Food consumption is shifting from meat and processed products to potatoes, bananas, and other staples.”
Life will become more difficult in the industrialized West too. Besides the increasing immigration pressure from suffering Third World populations, Europe and especially the U.S. will be scurrying to find alternative and renewable sources of energy.
In their book, Our Ecological Footprint: Reducing Human Impact on the Earth, authors Mathis Wackernagel and William Rees state, “With access to global resources, urban populations everywhere are seemingly immune to the consequences of locally unsustainable land and resource management practices at least for a few decades. In effect, modernization alienates us spatially and psychologically from the land. The citizens of the industrial world suffer from collective ecological blindness that reduces their collective sense of ‘connectedness’ to the ecosystems that sustain them.”
Under tremendous and increasing pressure politicians will have to address the fossil fuel and pollution crisis. Difficult questions will have to be answered. Key among them are: What alternative energy sources exist to replace our present great dependency on petroleum? New technologies will need about 50 years to replace existing sources in terms of convenience of use. Can they be obtained in significant quantities and how widespread around the world are they? What are their environmental impacts? It would be ideal if politicians began dealing with these problems now, but in democratic societies, political representatives are elected for short terms.
Most politicians succeed by delivering short-term benefits and have little motivation to adopt costly, sustainable, long-term energy policies with the aim of preparing for the inevitable energy crisis. The Alliance to Save Energy believes that with just a few adjustments, society will make the jump from unlimited oil consumption to sustainable economies based on improved energy efficiency. But greater energy efficiency, fuel-saving technologies, and the installation of minor adjustments in our daily lifestyles will not solve the coming oil crunch.
Renewable green energy sources can help reduce pollution and dependence on petroleum products. Wind and solar energy do not create dangerous waste products and are indigenous, secure, and freely available. The American Solar Energy Society (ASES) recently called on Congress and the President to increase federal purchases of renewable energy. The federal government spends $8 billion per year for all of its energy needs, including $3.5 billion for electricity.
Unfortunately, existing regulations often prevent the federal government from buying renewable energy. ASES wants Congress to give federal agencies authority to purchase green power and renewable energy technologies and to provide adequate funding to agencies to pay the higher up-front costs. Many believe that the problem is more political than technological and that the next presidential election will offer an opportunity to make some changes.
Grassroots efforts among green consumers have already begun to carve inroads into the American economy. About 25 percent of the adult population is starting to integrate environmental and social values into purchasing and investing decisions. According to Cliff Feigenbaum, publisher of the Green Money Journal, one dollar out of every 10 invested on Wall Street now passes through some sort of social screen. The Institute for Noetic Sciences reports that given equal price and quality, 76 percent of consumers would switch to a company with socially or environmentally responsible products and services.
Regardless of whether the process will be easy or extremely difficult, sooner or later we are all going to have to face some major changes to our current way of life. It is not that we lack the knowledge of how to adopt sustainable measures. We are simply resisting such constraints, as many would call them, which might threaten the luxuries in life that we have grown so accustomed to. The point is that we now know the Western fossil-fuel-based model is sustainable neither for the West nor for the rest of the world.
The challenge is to help developing countries leapfrog to a more decentralized, efficient, renewables-based system. The alternative to this is following the coal or oil-based path; suffering from price volatility, import dependence, mounting pollution and health problems, and expensive retrofits. Ultimately, the question is not when will the global economy switch from burning environment-damaging and limited petroleum products to using more earth-friendly alternative energies, but how will industry and humanity handle the transition.
Conservation Solutions for the Transition from Non-Renewable Energy to Sustainable Energy
For thousands of years, humanity has subscribed to the doctrine: “Be fruitful and multiply.” Thus there are almost six billion human beings now crowding the planet. But when it comes to the Earth’s life-sustaining and basic natural resources, an addendum would read: “Now, divide.” Since 1600, the human population has increased from about one billion to nearly six billion. The increase in the last decade of the twentieth century exceeds the total world population in 1600.
The explosive population growth and the spread of affluence in the last few decades have put tremendous pressure on the planet’s natural resources. Unlike wildlife, forests, and people, the world’s fossil fuels and minerals are limited and finite. They can only be used once.
Conservation by definition implies preserving something for the future. Currently, humanity operates as though all resources are for use now for the present generation. Occasionally, significant efforts are made to conserve and protect wildlife, a lush forest, or a scenic river.
When it comes to non-sustainable, non-renewable fossil fuels, however, it’s a one-shot deal. Whatever is not used in this generation is left over for the next. If future generations follow in our footsteps, they will also take what is available to them. Since the most accessible and higher grade energy and mineral resources tend to be consumed first, the remaining resources will generally require more and more energy to process.
Unless advancing technologies compensate for the diminishing quality and availability of these critical resources, future generations will be forced to pay a painful price.
The United States already consumes twice as much energy as it produces. If U.S. oil fields increased their production of petroleum, which would hasten the day the last drop was pumped, domestic industry would still be forced to import more oil from other sources. Industrialized nations that cannot extract vital minerals and fossil fuels from their own territory buy them from other countries.
These other countries are happy to sell their resources if they are burdened by a heavy national debt. In essence, many countries are selling off their future generation’s standard of living by cashing in on their valuable resources now in desperation for the money that the sale earns.
Energy efficiency and resource conservation fit hand in glove. The dictionary defines efficiency as “effective operation as measured by a comparison of production with costs as in energy, time, and money.” Conservation is defined as “a carefully planned management and protection of something, especially planned management of a natural resource to prevent exploitation, destruction, or neglect.”
To achieve such goals would require increased efficiency regarding energy consumption. Not much can be accomplished unless individuals take the initiative where they live. The typical house is responsible for more than twice the level of carbon dioxide emissions than the average car. For starters, houses can be made more energy efficient with better construction and insulation.
Homeowners with drafty windows, uninsulated attics, and inefficient appliances are literally dumping tons of carbon into the atmosphere each year due to wasted heat generated by the burning of fossil fuels.
The installation of efficient fluorescent lights in the place of wasteful incandescent lights is also an energy-saving step. A typical compact fluorescent can save over $25 in electricity cost over its lifetime. “Leaky” electronic household appliances such as TVs and VCRs gobble up significant electricity resources; even turned off, these appliances account for 5% of the total amount of electricity used in the United States. This adds up to $30 per household or more than $1 billion annually in electricity costs.
Energy conservation incentives are becoming more common, pushed by federal and state energy officials to encourage people to lower their consumption.
In addition to tax and stockholder incentives for conservation endeavors, banks have started loaning more money to people who build more energy-efficient homes, and some institutions that have builders’ recertification programs will offer an energy efficiency course that gives the builders more points toward recertification of their licenses. “Their message is part of a resurging effort to teach builders and homeowners the financial perks of building and upgrading homes with energy-efficient improvements that rely less on oil and coal.”
A director of a housing group remarked, “We’re in the Sunshine State, and we’re just not using the sun like we should be it’s plain stupid.” Many people realize that the initial installation expense of energy-friendly home appliances is compensated by a lifetime of reduced utility bills. Although money is the motivating factor, at least this effort will lengthen the availability of diminishing resources.
Legislation has even been introduced for the implementation of conservation measures. Legislation regarding New York’s 1995-96 budget included a State Energy Conservation Program called Energy Efficiency Services “to ensure increased energy efficiency and lower operating and maintenance costs for industrial, commercial, and institutional customers.”
The main goal is a reduction in pollution while improving productivity and competitiveness in the economic arena through the identification of energy-saving, cost-effective strategies. Topics involved include alternative fuels, efficient motors, “green” buildings, indoor air quality, and “environmentally preferred products.”
Unfortunately, even with enthusiastic conservation of the Earth’s resources, at some point in the future, the non-renewable assets will be exhausted. The United States ‘ coal supply is perhaps two or three centuries away from total consumption. As far as the oil supply is concerned, this country has not been self-sufficient since 1970, every year importing more than it produces.
Since most U.S. consumers know little about the production and distribution of such forms of energy, they continue to demand reliable, efficient, and economical service from the least expensive energy-delivery system in the world. Energy costs in Britain are 1.5 times, Germany two times, and Japan three times the U.S. energy costs. But a further reduction in energy costs is not expected due to the ever-rising costs of fossil fuel production.
Despite the inevitable development of localized green energy sources such as wind, solar, photovoltaics, geothermal, etc., many less-developed countries are investing billions of dollars in a centralized energy distribution infrastructure based on diminishing petroleum reserves. Energy use is expected to increase rapidly at a rate of 6-8% annually by 2010, which will be accompanied by increasing pollution as China’s and India’s populations continue to multiply.
In Brazil, the growth of energy use will cost $50 billion in infrastructure development and five million students must be trained for the energy industry. Privatization of industrial fossil-fuel-based infrastructure is thought to be the best way to “accelerate the rate of change in new energy technologies” and the World Bank has the ability to encourage privatization in the 137 projects it has funded since 1986. However, the emphasis seems to be on the conservation of conventional fossil fuel use rather than investment in completely new forms of energy.
Since 1992 the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development has invested around $1.2 billion in fossil-fuel burning power plants in Eastern European countries like Poland, Ukraine, and Armenia. The total estimated lifetime carbon dioxide emissions from these projects is about 6.55 billion tons. Unfortunately, there is insufficient money being invested in Earth-friendly green technologies by many of these countries.
Many private companies, as well as developing and industrialized economies, are unaware of recent advances in this field and have a poor grasp of the new energy technologies now being commercialized in various parts of the world. This lack of information in countries that have spent billions on the extraction and distribution of fossil fuels will seriously hinder the implementation of new forms of energy.
The conservation and efficient use of energy can only go so far. The population in the year 2000 of an estimated 8 billion will create tremendous demands on energy producers. Pacific Rim countries are expected to use more energy than the United States, and disruption of oil imports to the U.S. could cause the economy to come to a standstill in 90 days. Uncontrolled population growth generates a serious impediment to any program trying to conserve world energy.
There are 100 million more people on Earth each year. Regardless of the level of conservation implemented, if the world population keeps growing indefinitely, there is no way to keep up with energy demand. An increasing population demands greater amounts of energy, forcing technology to find a way to develop more mineral and energy supplies.
In Hal Fox’s words, “The basis of the national energy policy should include offshore oil development, new methods of oil recovery, and new energy sources. We must continue to support energy efficiency. We cannot reduce the quality of life in the U.S. We have the best lifestyle in the world’s history. Our energy policy should encourage incentives, not just in dollars but also in education. Other nations look to the U.S. for leadership and they need our help in building clean, efficient energy sources. We must draw a line in the sand and say 50% of our oil and no more will be imported. Encourage other means of energy production.”
Whether you believe in his idea that the luxurious lifestyle in the U.S. should not be altered, we are still going to have to make some changes. At some point, unless the population stabilizes, technology will not be able to produce more non-renewable resources to keep up with the population’s needs. We must realize on a global scale that conservation is not a solution; it only buys a little bit of time until the resources are gone.
Conservation implies sacrifice, and the American people may not be ready to sacrifice to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. According to the administration’s mythical scenario, taking advantage of fuel-saving technologies and making minor adjustments in our daily lifestyles would be sufficient enough to stop global warming.
As we move into the next decade, our dependence on fossil fuels will shift. Renewable energy, smarter appliances, industrial efficiency, new approaches to construction, and a well-informed public will ameliorate some of the problems.
Unfortunately, at present, there is little evidence that much progress is being made toward matching the population to a sustainable level of consumption. Until the human population explosion is brought under control, conservation and efficiency will just be a small Band-Aid on a critically injured patient.