Prophets of doom are everywhere. We are headed for global catastrophe: climate change, population growth, shortages of water, deforestation, food shortages, and the end of oil are all converging to destroy the planet and modern human civilization as we have known it! We must stop economic growth in order to ‘save the planet’ and survive as a species!
There are even calls to ‘de-develop’. James Lovelock (of Gaia fame) has said: “… the whole idea of sustainable development is wrongheaded: we should be thinking about sustainable retreat.” Environmental activist George Monbiot says that the campaign against climate change “… is a campaign not for abundance but for austerity… not for more freedom but for less… it is a campaign not just against other people, but against ourselves.” We must forgo our growth fetish and addiction to unfettered consumerism and embrace the halcyon simplicity of years gone by. Monbiot says this policy must be achieved by ‘political restraint’ – i.e. enforced by the police power of the state; in effect criminalizing innovation and creativity.
American consumer capitalism is claimed to be a luxury that the eco-system of the planet cannot sustain. We are already at one and a half times the carrying capacity of the planet and the rate of environmental degradation is increasing. We must change the habits of the developed world and disabuse billions in the undeveloped world of their ambition to emulate the West.
Such calls for simplicity are often made by celebrities with 7 figure incomes, or by tenured academics and NGO groupies with 6 figure incomes who supplement their earnings with books and speaking tours. However, the ‘wretched of the earth’ in the developing world already living in ‘halcyon simplicity’ and the working and middle classes of the developed world struggling not to slide back into such ‘simplicity’ are less enchanted by this eco-romanticism. The middle class will not give up its life style and the non-middle class will not cease striving to become middle class.
Having lived and traveled widely in pre-consumerist societies, I can attest to how culturally barren and harsh the life of the vast majority of people in these societies is. The collapse of Communism, as well as the ‘Arab Spring’, reflects the collective scream for escape from such a barren environment.
History matters! It teaches us that prophets of doom – from Malthus to Ehrlich to ‘The Club of Rome’ – have been proven wrong time after time by that “infinite resource” – the human mind. This essay will challenge the assumptions of the ‘catastrophe industry’. It will show that growth in value (of GDP) is not synonymous with growth in the volume of raw materials – that we can grow value while using less of our natural resources; and that the ‘wealth of nations’ can increase as the human burden on the carrying capacity of the planet decreases.
It has been estimated that close to 30% of world GDP is moved by air transport, but that this constitutes only 1% of the volume of goods and services transported around the globe. By this reckoning, air transport per unit of GDP is the least environmentally damaging form of transport, even when energy use is figured in.
According to IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [of the UN]), aviation currently accounts for about 2 percent of human-generated global carbon dioxide emissions, the most significant greenhouse gas—and about 3 percent of the potential warming effect of global emissions that can affect the earth’s climate, including carbon dioxide.
If 95% of greenhouse gases are produced by nature and 5% by human activity then air travel produces 0.0015% of total greenhouse gas. Compare this to greenhouse gases per unit of GDP produced globally by conventional field agriculture and one discovers that air freight is greener per unit of value than agriculture. Globally, agriculture is responsible for 20% of manmade greenhouse gas emissions (or 0.01% of total greenhouse gases).
When one factors in the growth of the proportion of GDP of services, the picture becomes even less foreboding. Services have become the major drivers of global economic growth. They constitute over 63% of global GDP and well over 70% of GDP in the developed world, and the proportion is increasing. While services such as translation, consulting, planning, accounting, massage therapy, legal advice, etc., also consume some natural resources, the quantity is infinitesimal in relation to the economic value produced.
If I manufacture a car for $10,000 I have consumed a huge amount of natural resources and energy. But if I translate a 100,000 word book for $10,000 I have consumed the electricity and wear and tear on my computer and the electricity used to send the translation as an email attachment and little else that is even measurable.
Consumers and the consumer society are not the problem. The problem lies in the production methods presently used by manufacturing, mining and agriculture. And the solution lies in the revolutions that are also presently taking place in material science, water engineering, energy harvesting, and food production.
We might speculate that the world economy can continue to grow indefinitely at 4-5% a year while our negative footprint on the planet simultaneously declines; if so, then by the end of this century the planet will be able to carry a population of 12 billion people with an American standard of living and one-tenth the present negative environmental impact.
My Environmental Due Diligence
The energy/environment conundrum is the central issue of human civilization in the 21st century, but how are we to evaluate the facts while steering clear of fashionable catastrophism? After all, if it is “already too late” and the earth is doomed, why even bother? Anxieties about global warming are so severe, that there are reports of children requiring psychological treatment, and in some areas a sub-specialty of psychology that treats “Global Warming Anxiety Disorder” has arisen.
Every rational human being is essentially an environmentalist. Who wants to breathe, eat or drink pollution? But by what standards do we relate to the issue? Rational humanism is my personal standard – rational in that our judgments are based on rigorous scientific standards; humanist in that we place human welfare at the center of our concerns. This standard has been the foundation of Western civilization from the Renaissance to the Scientific Revolution to the Enlightenment.
Let us first define our terms precisely. Ecology is a science; environmentalism is an ‘ism’ – i.e. an ideology, a set of beliefs about how human beings ought to live in their ‘environs’. Ecology literally means knowledge of our house (our house in this instance being nature itself) as economy means management of our house (our house in this instance being commercial human society). Environmentalism is a value-laden philosophy and a social movement concerned with how human beings treat their environment (both natural and social). This ideology can either be based on the science of ecology (knowledge) or it can stray into theology (a dogmatic system of beliefs).
Environmentalists can be defined as:
1. Human Centered (anthropocentric) – advocating a clean environment because it is good for human beings. This is my viewpoint, which I call humanistic environmentalism.
2. Nature Centered (biocentric) – advocating the value of nature per se, and denigrating anthropocentric motivations. I call this pagan environmentalism – a latter day version of nature worship.
There is a third minor category which I call Marxist environmentalism; ideologues who are resentful that human history has refuted Marxist historicism but who still wish to influence economic policy by maintaining that consumer capitalism is the root cause of environmental degradation. This, of course, ignores the environmental desolation left by the former Soviet Union – devastation several times greater than the capitalist West without the saving grace of having delivered a high standard of living.
I accept two axioms about global warming based on the science of ecology:
- Global warming has been a natural phenomenon for the past 20,000 years. 20,000 years ago New York City was covered by a mile thick sheet of ice and ocean levels were 60 meters (200 ft) lower than today.
- Human activity since the industrial revolution has increased the pace of global warming beyond what natural cycles can account for and might trigger a cascading effect that could be catastrophic for human civilization.
Since it is a natural phenomenon, I believe that “stopping global warming” and “saving the planet” are unscientific catchphrases. The globe will warm or cool as it pleases (we are in for another “ice age” in about 10,000 years no matter what we do) and the planet will be here for billions of years after that and will eventually be destroyed by our expanding sun. More accurate but less sexy slogans would be to “minimize the human contribution to the present natural cycle of global warming” in order to slow its rate and “save ourselves”. It is not the planet that needs saving or even life on this planet – it is us, the human race, that needs saving.
The planetary eco-system has survived mass extinctions in the past (95% of species wiped out; 65% of species wiped out etc.). Evolution will certainly rise above our puny efforts to lay waste the eco-system. The real question is will the human race survive its own criminal negligence regarding the environment?
The view that reducing humanity’s burden on the environment would wreck our economy is silly. If history is any judge, the opposite will likely be the case. It will create a more robust economic foundation for human civilization and expand economic opportunity for more individuals. The positive economic potential of environmentalism is a subject that has long been overlooked. The space program could serve as an analogy. At the time, no economist would have recommended it on purely economic grounds. Its great expense was considered justified for security and political reasons alone. Yet our entire modern economy has derived from it. “No other government program can match the economic impact of space program spin-offs that include applications in medicine, computer technology, communications, public safety, food, power generation and transportation.”
Might we not expect that a massive national or international project to liberate the planet from dependence on fossil fuels by 2050 could have much the same results? We would create economic sectors and products (and thus economic opportunity and growth) that we cannot even imagine. There is a rich history of how other proactive national projects instituted for non-economic reasons have revolutionized the economy. These include the U.S. interstate highway system and the Internet.
Acknowledging the Limits to Growth Arguments
Before I make my case of “no limits to growth” I want to make the case of the “limits to growth” advocates. I do this out of fairness to, and respect for, their arguments but also to avoid possible future objections to my position.
I will never convince those whose entire intellectual careers are invested in gloom and doom about the future of the human race. Their historical analogy is the Renaissance university men who pressured the church to persecute Galileo because his proof of the Copernican universe threatened their academic careers, which consisted of teaching Aristotelian/Ptolemaic cosmology. However I hope to convince those who have no personal interest in the gloom and doom prophecies but have bought into them because they appear internally logical and because, heretofore, no coherent alternative has been presented to them. Following are MY ‘limits to growth’ arguments.
Resources, Food and Water
Two billion people today are without clean water. 10 billion people will inhabit the planet by 2060. How will these people be fed? We will have to add a farmland area the size of Brazil. Eighty percent of the land that can be used to grow crops is already in use and 15% of that is degraded. There are not enough mineral resources on the planet even to satisfy the basic needs of 10 billion people, much less provide them all with a middle class life style.
The average age of U.S. farmers in 2007 was 57.1, up from 55.3 in 2002. More than one out of every four farmers is now over 65 years old and near retirement. Less than 6% of all American farmers are younger than 35 years old. Moreover, the majority of farmers are reluctant to see their children become farmers and their children even more reluctant to follow in their footsteps. Infatuation with “the good earth” has always been the fantasy of urban romantics or rural gentry that did not have to do the real work. Real farmers, subject to the unpredictability of nature and market and who actually perform the back breaking labor have usually been less enamored. Dissatisfaction with life ‘on the farm’ has become a global phenomenon. People are voting with their feet. In 2008, more than half the world’s population, 3.3 billion people, was living in urban areas. By 2030, this will reach 5 billion.
Thinking conventionally and extrapolating from our present methods of doing things, the claims of the anti-growth crowd are accurate. But there are different ways of doing things already in the pipeline regarding water, food and material science that can obviate these arguments and enable us to expand the prosperity of the entire human race to American levels while reducing strain on the environment.
Sense and Nonsense about Energy
Energy is central to the arguments of ‘limits to growth’ proponents and their critique of the present energy paradigm is essentially correct. But first, let us be clear about terminology. Energy independence and energy self-sufficiency are not the same thing. Self-sufficiency or ‘autarchy’ is the attribute of being completely self-contained – i.e. not needing to rely on the external world for any resources. Modern examples of attempts at autarchy include Communist Albania, the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, North Korea, Burma and Maoist China. Not only did none of these attempts succeed, but the policy itself guaranteed grinding poverty for their people.
Energy independence, on the other hand, simply means not being dependent on any one supplier or group of suppliers or on any one resource for your energy supplies. For example, the United States is energy independent and almost self-sufficient in regard to its electricity supply. It draws on a variety of sources: coal, natural gas, nuclear, hydro-electric (some of which it imports from Canada) and increasingly on ‘alternative energy’ sources as well.
Regarding transportation, however, the planet is heavily dependent on a single substance: petroleum, and thus on 14 major oil exporting nations, most of which are unstable/unpredictable non-democratic countries that have created a de facto cartel that precludes true competition.
Petroleum also dominates consumer products. It is estimated that 300,000 products are made out of materials whose feedstock is oil. Worldwide, 40% of the petroleum consumed is used to manufacture products (25% in the U.S.). Oil-derived products include plastics, chemicals, herbicides, pesticides, fertilizers, medicines etc. Petroleum is the most versatile, multipurpose natural resource that Mother Nature has provided us with and we burn it to move mass from a to b. Future historians will probably look back at us and conclude that human society must have had a collective psychotic breakdown to use this resource in this way. We might as well burn Louis XIV furniture to move mass.
Here are some more misguided ideas about energy.
Let’s Build Hundreds of Nuclear Plants
Nuclear power cannot supplant oil in transportation or as a feedstock for products. Nuclear provides electricity only and always incurs local opposition (NIMBY). It is not a weapon against OPEC. Also there are objective limitations.
There is a worldwide shortage of master welders. A master welder is defined as having 10 years experience and ‘perfect every time’ welding ability. Catastrophes related to poor welding include the Bhopal gas leak and Chernobyl. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has an entire web entry entitled “Reactor Coolant System Weld Issues”. Casual Internet surfing on this issue reveals that welding has been a significant factor in almost every nuclear accident since the advent of nuclear power. Master welders are in such demand that they can earn up to one million dollars a year. There certainly are not enough of them to build another 100 reactors safely.
There is also a dearth of civil engineers in the USA, India, England, South Africa, New Zealand, Australia, and Canada as well as other countries. The causes differ from country to country. In the U.S. it has been caused by decades’ long lack of state investment in infrastructure and the consequent decline of enrollment in civil engineering degree programs; in India it is being caused by huge state investments in much needed infrastructure at a time when many civil engineers are leaving the profession for better paid computer programming jobs. Since: “Civil engineering has an important part to play at every stage of the nuclear fuel cycle”, building another 100 nuclear plants without adequately trained engineers might well come under the heading of ‘criminal negligence’.
The U.S. has 13 universities issuing mining engineering degrees, down from 20 programs in the 1980s. Current statistics indicate that out of a total of 5,206 mining engineers presently in service, 90% are over 50 years old. The average yearly retirement numbers projected by the industry in coming years are: around 300 will retire at 62 every year; about 230 at 65; and 170 at 70. One doesn’t have to be an expert in statistics to realize that the U.S. mining industry is heading for a severe shortfall of mining engineers. So who is going to mine the uranium needed for 100 new reactors?
Uranium is also a finite resource. In 2007, Gerald Grandey, the president of Cameco Corporation—the largest uranium producer in the US— said that he expected uranium demand to grow at 3% annually for the next decade, but that he doesn’t see uranium mining being able to keep pace with this demand. The fact is that available uranium supplies only enable us to maintain the current nuclear infrastructure. There were 433 working reactors worldwide in 2010 and these consumed 65,000 tons of uranium. But the world only mined 53,663 tons. The remainder came from nuclear warheads deactivated as part of various nuclear arms agreements. However, that source of uranium will soon run out. There simply isn’t enough uranium to supply another 40, 50, or 100 new nuclear power plants. Add to this the impending demographic crisis of skilled welders, civil and mining engineers, and the world will have difficulty even maintaining its present nuclear plants in good condition.
But it doesn’t end there. According to the Nuclear Energy Institute (the lobby for the nuclear energy industry) “… 38 percent of the nuclear industry work force will be eligible to retire within the next five years. To maintain the current work force, the industry will need to hire approximately 25,000 more workers by 2015”. Few people are presently studying nuclear engineering or other nuclear-energy-specific skills. The American Nuclear Society (the industry’s professional organization) states that 700 nuclear engineers need to graduate each year to satisfy demand but at present only 250 are graduating.
Drill Baby Drill – Mantra for Morons
In 2010, a total of 37,892 oil and gas wells were drilled in the United States. Over 50,000 wells were drilled outside the United States during the same period and 12,000 wells were drilled in Canada in 2011. Half the wells drilled in the world are in North America. Almost 90,000 wells a year are being drilled worldwide but we still only find one new barrel of conventional oil for every 4 we consume.
This is because the flow rates at legacy fields of easy to find and extract ‘conventional’ oil are rapidly decreasing by 6-7% a year. As energy maven Jeff Siegel notes “Approximately 75 percent of the world’s current oil production is from fields that were discovered prior to 1970, which are past their peaks and beginning their declines”. Much of the remaining 25% comes from fields that are now 10 to 15 years old.
This is compounded by increased domestic use by the major oil exporters. Russia pumps about 10 million barrels a day and consumes 5 million of those barrels – leaving only 5 million for export. Several years ago it was pumping 10 million barrels a day and consuming only 3.5 million barrels a day. Iran already consumes 50% of the oil it pumps. Not only is the standard of living in many of the oil producing countries rising, but they are moving up the value chain by building their own refineries and selling product instead of crude, leaving less for export.
Indonesia is a case in point. It was forced to leave OPEC (of which it was a founding member) in 2008 because it had become a net oil importer – a consequence of its growing middle class and accelerating domestic consumption. Ten years ago it was exporting a million barrels a day and today it is a net importer. Mexico is on the same course and may also become a net oil importer by 2020. We tend to forget that prior to WWII, the U.S. was the largest oil exporter in the world and that within a decade after WWII it became the world’s largest importer.
This enables us to clarify what is meant by “peak oil.” It does not mean peak volume of resources of hydrocarbons, nor does it mean that we will run out of oil in this century. It means peak exports and peak availability for world markets as they are determined by peak flow rates. We must differentiate between ‘resources‘ (what is in the ground); ‘reserves‘ (what can be extracted with current technology) and economic reserves (what can be extracted at a profit) as well as the potential flow rates of those reserves. For example, we often hear that “North America has 10 Saudi Arabia’s in Oil Sands and Oil Shale”. This statement confuses resource with reserve, reserve with economic reserve, and economic reserve with flow rates. A resource is what exists; a reserve is that part of the resource that can be extracted technologically; an economic reserve is that portion of the resource which can be extracted economically; flow rates are the rate at which they can be extracted (which depends on technology). New technologies will always move resource to reserve and thus raise the reserve statistics. But the cost is generally higher, development times longer and real flow rates often lower (especially so in the case of sands and shale).
Those who reject peak oil cite the fact that the United States has had between 30-40 billion barrels of proven reserves for decades and today still has 30-40 billion barrels of proven reserves. But this is because technology has moved resource to reserve, which it will always do. We can now drill in places we never could before and instead of only being able to extract 35% of the oil in a well we can now extract 45% and probably will eventually have the ability to extract 70-80%. But there is a price to be paid in flow rates.
In 1970, the US was pumping almost 10 million barrels a day and today is pumping about 6 million barrels a day. This is because even though the quantity of US reserves is the same, they are viscous and flow more slowly. Viscous oil also costs more money and energy to refine. In other words the US reached peak oil in terms of flow rates in 1970. The planet earth almost certainly reached its peak flow rates of conventional oil in 2010 and is now in decline. The increased production of oil from non-conventional sources (sands and shale) can just about match this decline but it cannot match projected increased demand.
Energy Return on Energy Invested (EROEI)
It takes energy to extract energy and as we deplete the easy-to-find and easy-to-extract oil, the amount of energy needed increases. When Colonel Drake drilled his first well it took one barrel of oil (energy equivalent) to find, extract, and process 100 barrels of oil. That ratio has declined steadily over the past century to about ten barrels gained for one barrel equivalent energy used.
Some sources say it is as little as THREE barrels for each invested when you aggregate energy costs over the life of the well. Imagine the aggregate energy costs of constructing and maintaining gigantic offshore rigs over their lifetime as well as the energy consumed to drill miles below the sea and further beneath the sea floor plus the cost to supply, maintain, and eventually dismantle them. The cost simply to build and position a new offshore rig can run between 300 million and a half a billion dollars. Their operating costs are about $400,000 a day. The recent Brazilian deep ocean discovery (same size as Alaska’s ANWR field) will take at least 15 years and around 200 billion dollars to develop. Costs, development time and flow rates for shale and oil sands are similar.
One axiom of the ‘drill baby drill’ camp is the “great potential” of Alaska’s ANWR field which holds between 5 billion and 15 billion barrels of recoverable oil. This means there is a 95% chance there are 5 billion barrels and a 5% chance there are 15 billion barrels. Whatever the reality of the ultimate reserves, if permission to drill were given tomorrow, it would take about 8-12 years before the first barrel could be recovered. This is based on the following timeline:
- 2 to 3 years for potential suitors to obtain leases.
- 2 to 3 years to drill a single exploratory well.
- 1 to 2 years to develop a production development plan and obtain Bureau of Land Management approval.
- 3 to 4 years to construct infrastructure to process and transport the oil.
Optimal production/flow rate (based on a 9 billion barrel mean) would top out at only about 800,000 barrels a day by 2028. This output is so insignificant given the various other vectors impacting the world oil market that one wonders how otherwise intelligent people can advocate it with such enthusiasm.
The oil industry, too, has a human resource problem: 50% of the global oil workforce will retire within the next 10 years; the average age of skilled oil workers is already now over 50 and, in certain areas, there is a 38% shortage of workers.
The chronic shortages of skilled human resources in mining, nuclear and oil reflect a revolution in values. Mining and petroleum production are no longer fashionable subjects to study.
The False Promise of Coal
Coal reserves have been greatly exaggerated. Until recently they have been evaluated on the basis of volume rather than energy content. Revised figures indicate that the U.S. has about 120 years of reserves at current rates of use, not the 250 years that has been cited in the past. By energy content, China has only about 60 years of reserves at current rates of use.
The energy content of mined coal has been in decline as we have moved from bituminous to sub-bituminous and in some areas to lignite. Since 1998 the US has increased the volume of coal mined by 1% a year. It is now mining almost 15% more coal by volume. But the aggregate energy content of this coal has declined by 4% since 1998; the US reached peak coal (by energy content) in 1998.
Wind and Tidal
The laws of nature are not revoked because something is fashionable. Energy generated from wind and tide USE wind and tidal energy. The amount of wind that ‘exits’ from the blades of a windmill is less than the amount of wind that ‘enters’ the blades of the windmill. The same is true of tidal energy that ‘enters’ and ‘exits’ a tidal turbine. That energy is of course preserved in another form, but it is no longer energy that is part of the natural environment. Use of either or both on a large enough scale to significantly affect global energy supply must necessarily have major—and largely unpredictable—impacts on climatic patterns that may be no less catastrophic than those predicted for the CO2 induced greenhouse effect.
I am reminded of an article I read in the Popular Science magazine over 30 years ago (during the height of the 70’s oil crises) discussing the possibility of using the Gulf Stream as a major alternative source of power. One of the contrarian views cited in the article was that using only 1% of the energy of the warm Gulf Stream would turn Great Britain into a gigantic ice cube. Environmentally speaking there is no free lunch. Wind, tidal and most geothermals are alternative sources but they are not renewable (as is solar) – once you use them, they are gone.
It takes 5-10 times more concrete to produce a watt of energy from a windmill than from a nuclear reactor, and concrete manufacturing is one of the most significant sources of CO2 (7% of all manmade CO2). It also releases numerous other particulates and toxic materials into the environment. Moreover, we have no idea of the additional aggregate energy costs over the lifetime of a windmill. Given their tremendous torque, how much will need to be invested in maintaining them – replacing parts, moving repair teams by sea or land and so on; all of which requires energy. If wind has a future as an environmentally safe energy source it will be by way of mini-windmills that can be located on the top of buildings like television antennas or by using the ambient ‘wind’ produced in subways, tunnels and on the sides of well traveled highways, not by these giant eyesores.
The Middle Class Revolution
According to the Brookings Institute and other sources, the global middle class has been growing by 80 million people per year and this rate is increasing. By 2015 the number of Asian middle class consumers will equal the number in Europe and North America combined. By 2021, on present trends, there could be more than 2 billion Asians in middle class households. By 2025 China alone could have over 600 million middle class consumers compared with 150 million today. According to the McKinsey Global Institute, India’s middle class will be 20 times its present size by 2030 – somewhere around a half a billion people. By 2020, the global middle class will have grown to 52% of the global population, up from 30% in 2008, and heading toward 80% by 2060.
The energy needs of such a population are tremendous. In 2005, China added as much electricity generation as Britain produces in a year. In 2006, it added as much as France’s total supply. In India, more than 400 million people still don’t have electric power. The demand for electricity in India will grow fivefold in the next 25 years.
The middle class desire for cars will negate the effects of increased petroleum production from non-conventional sources. The U.S. has 750 cars for every 1,000 people while China only has 12 cars per 1,000 people, but it is already the world’s largest car market. There will be 200 million cars in China by 2020 – its market is growing by 20% a year. India and the rest of Asia have begun to follow suit (some projections have India passing China in car ownership by mid-century).
The middle class also consumes ‘stuff’ – including those 300,000 products based on petroleum. Even if the developed world increases energy productivity and cuts energy consumption, global energy consumption will still rise by 1.5% a year.
The Case for No Limits to Growth
Notwithstanding all of the above, I want to reassert that by imagineering an alternative future – based on solid science and technology – we can create a situation in which there are ‘no limits to growth’.
Food Production and the Environment
A new paradigm for producing food (the urban vertical farm) is being developed. This is a concept popularized by Prof. Dickson Despommier of Columbia University. A 30-story urban vertical farm located on 5 square acres could yield food for 50,000 people. We are talking about high tech installations that would multiply productivity by a factor of 480: 4 growing seasons, times twice the density of crops, times 2 growing levels on each floor, times 30 floors = 480. This means that five acres of land can produce the equivalent of 2,600 acres of conventionally planted and tended crops. Just 160 such buildings occupying only 800 acres could feed the entire city of New York. Given this calculus, an area the size of Denmark could feed the entire human race.
Vertical farms would be self-sustaining. Located contiguous to or inside urban centers, they could also contribute to urban renewal. They would be urban lungs, improving the air quality of cities. They would produce a varied food supply year-round. They would use 90% less water. Since agriculture consumes two-thirds of the water worldwide, mass adoption of this technology would solve humanity’s water problem. Food would no longer need to be transported to market; it would be produced at the market and would not require use of petroleum intensive agricultural equipment. This, along with lessened use of pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers, would not only be better for the environment but would eliminate agriculture’s dependence on petroleum and significantly reduce petroleum demand. Despite increased efficiencies, direct (energy) and indirect (fertilizers etc.) energy use represented over 13% of farm expenses in 2005-2008 and have been increasing as the price of oil rises.
Many of the world’s damaged ecosystems would be repaired by the consequent abandonment of farmland. A ‘rewilding’ of our planet would take place. Forests, jungles and savannas would re-conquer nature, increasing habitat and becoming giant CO2 ‘sinks’, sucking up the excess CO2 that the industrial revolution has pumped into the atmosphere.
Countries already investigating the adoption of such technology include Abu Dhabi, Saudi Arabia, South Korea and China; countries that are water starved or highly populated.
Material Science, Resources and Energy
The embryonic revolution in material science now taking place is the key to ‘no limits to growth’. I refer to ‘smart’ and superlight materials. Smart materials “are materials that have one or more properties that can be significantly changed in a controlled fashion by external stimuli”. They can produce energy by exploiting differences in temperature (thermoelectric materials) or by being stressed (piezoelectric materials). Other smart materials save energy in the manufacturing process by changing shape or repairing themselves as a consequence of various external stimuli. These materials have all passed the ‘proof of concept’ phase (i.e. are scientifically sound) and many are in the prototype phase. Some are already commercialized and penetrating the market.
For example, the Israeli company Innowattech has underlain a one kilometer stretch of local highway with piezoelectric material to ‘harvest’ the wasted stress energy of vehicles passing over and converting it to electricity. They reckon that Israel has stretches of road which can efficiently produce 250 megawatts. If this is verified, consider the tremendous electricity potential of the New Jersey Turnpike or the thruways of Los Angeles and elsewhere. Consider the potential of railway and subway tracks. We are talking about tens of thousands of potential megawatts produced without any fossil fuel.
Thermoelectric materials can transform wasted heat into electricity. As Christopher Steiner notes, capturing waste heat from manufacturing alone in the United States would provide an additional 65,000 megawatts “enough for 50 million homes”. Smart glass is already commercialized and can save significant energy in heating, air-conditioning and lighting – up to 50% saving in energy has been achieved in retrofitted legacy buildings (such as the former Sears Tower in Chicago). New buildings, designed to take maximum advantage of this and other technologies could save even more. Buildings consume 39% of America’s energy and 68% of its electricity. They emit 38% of the carbon dioxide, 49% of the sulfur dioxide, and 25% of the nitrogen oxides found in the air. Even greater savings in electricity could be realized by replacing incandescent and fluorescent light bulbs with LEDS which use 1/10th the electricity of incandescent and half the electricity of fluorescents.
These three steps: transforming waste heat into electricity, retrofitting buildings with smart glass, and LED lighting, could cut America’s electricity consumption and its CO2 emissions by 50% within 10 years. They would also generate hundreds of thousands of jobs in construction and home improvements. Coal driven electricity generation would become a thing of the past. The coal released could be liquefied or gasified (by new environmentally-friendly technologies) into the energy equivalent of 3.5 million barrels of oil a day. This is equivalent to the amount of oil the United States imports from the Persian Gulf and Venezuela together.
Conservation of energy and parasitic energy harvesting, as well as urban agriculture would cut the planet’s energy consumption and air and water pollution significantly. Waste-to-energy technologies could begin to replace fossil fuels. Garbage, sewage, organic trash, and agricultural and food processing waste are essentially hydrocarbon resources that can be transformed into ethanol, methanol, and biobutanol or bio-diesel. These can be used for transportation, electricity generation or as feedstock for plastics and other materials. Waste-to-energy is essentially a recycling of CO2 from the environment instead of introducing new CO2 into the environment.
Waste-to-energy also prevents the production, and release from rotting organic waste, of methane—a greenhouse gas 25 times more powerful than CO2. Methane accounts for 18% of the manmade greenhouse effect. Not as much as CO2, which constitutes 72%, but still considerable (landfills emit as much greenhouse gas effect, in the form of methane, as the CO2 from all the vehicles in the world). Numerous prototypes of a variety of waste-to-energy technologies are already in place. When their declining costs meet the rising costs of fossil fuels they will become commercialized and, if history is any judge, will replace fossil fuels very quickly – just as coal replaced wood in a matter of decades and petroleum replaced whale oil in a matter of years.
But it is superlight materials that have the greatest potential to transform civilization and, in conjunction with the above, to usher in the ‘no limits to growth’ era. I refer, in particular, to carbon nanotubes – alternatively referred to as Buckyballs or Buckypaper (in honor of Buckminster Fuller). Carbon nanotubes are between 1/10,000th and 1/50,000th the width of a human hair, more flexible than rubber and 100-500 times stronger than steel per unit of weight. Imagine the energy savings if planes, cars, trucks, trains, elevators – everything that needs energy to move – were made of this material and weighed 1/100th what they weigh now. Imagine the types of alternative energy that would become practical. Imagine the positive impact on the environment: replacing many industrial processes and mining and thus lessening air and groundwater pollution.
Present costs and production methods make this impractical but that infinite resource – the human mind – has confronted and solved many problems like this before. Let us take the example of aluminum. A hundred and fifty years ago aluminum was more expensive than gold or platinum. When Napoleon III held a banquet he provided his most honored guests with aluminum plates. Less distinguished guests had to make do with gold! When the Washington Monument was completed in 1884 it was fitted with an aluminum cap – the most expensive metal in the world at the time – as a sign of respect to George Washington. It weighed 2.85 kg or 2850 grams. Aluminum at the time cost $1 a gram (or $1,000 a kg). A typical day laborer working on the monument was paid $1 a day for 10-12 hr day. In other words today’s common soft drink can, which weighs 14 grams, could have bought 14 ten-hour days of labor in 1884.
Today’s US minimum wage is $7.50 an hour. Using labor as the measure of value, a soft drink can would cost $1,125 today (or $80,000 a kilogram), were it not for a new method of processing aluminum ore. The Hall-Héroult process turned aluminum into one of the cheapest commodities on earth only two years after the Washington Monument was capped with aluminum. Today aluminum costs $3 a kilogram or $3000 a metric ton. The soft drink can that would have cost $1,125 today without the process now costs $0.04.
Today the average cost of the various grades of nanotubes is about $1,000 a kilogram or one million dollars a metric ton. This is already 15 times cheaper in real cost than aluminum was in 1884. Yet revolutionary methods of production are now being developed that will drive costs down even more radically. At Cambridge University they are working on a new electrochemical production method that could produce 600 kg of carbon nanotubes per day at a projected cost of around $10 a kilogram or $10,000 a metric ton: one-hundredth the present cost.
This will do for carbon nanotubes what the Hall-Héroult process did for aluminum. Nanotubes will become the universal raw material of choice displacing steel, aluminum, copper and other metals and materials. Steel presently costs about $750 per metric ton. Nanotubes of equivalent strength to a metric ton of steel would cost $100 if this Cambridge process (or others being pursued in research labs around the world) proves successful.
Ben Wang, director of Florida State’s High-Performance Materials Institute claims that: “If you take just one gram of nanotubes, and you unfold every tube into a graphite sheet, you can cover about two-thirds of a football field”. Since other research has indicated that carbon nanotubes would be more suitable than silicon for producing photovoltaic energy, consider the implications. Several grams of this material could be the energy producing skin for new generations of superlight dirigibles – making these airships energy autonomous. They could replace airplanes as the primary means to transport air freight.
Modern American history has shown that anything human beings decide they want done can be done in 20 years if it does not violate the laws of nature. The atom bomb was developed in 4 years; putting a man on the moon took 8 years. It is a reasonable conjecture that by 2020 or earlier, an industrial process for the inexpensive production of carbon nanotubes will be developed and that this is the key to solving our energy, raw materials and environmental problems.
Mitigating Anthropic Greenhouse Gases
Another vital component of a “no limits to growth” world is to formulate a rational environmental policy that saves money; one that would gain wide grassroots support because it would benefit taxpayers, businesses, and would not endanger livelihoods. For example, what do sewage treatment, garbage disposal and fuel costs amount to as a percentage of municipal budgets? What are the costs of waste disposal and fuel costs in stockyards, on poultry farms, throughout the food processing industry and in restaurants? How much aggregate energy could be saved from all of the above? Some experts claim enough liquid fuel could be obtained from recycling these hydrocarbon resources to satisfy all the transportation needs of the United States. Turning the above waste into energy by various means would be a huge cost saver and value generator, in addition to being a blessing to the environment.
The U.S. army has developed a portable field apparatus that turns a combat unit’s human waste and garbage into bio-diesel to fuel their vehicles and generators. It is called TGER–the Tactical Garbage to Energy Refinery. It eliminates the need to transport fuel to the field thus saving lives, time and equipment expenses. The cost per barrel must still be very high. However, the history of military technology being civilianized and revolutionizing accepted norms is long. We might expect that within 5-10 years economically competitive units using similar technologies will appear in restaurants, on farms and perhaps even in individual households – turning organic waste into usable, economic fuel. We might conjecture that within several decades, centralized sewage disposal and garbage collection will be things of the past and that even the Edison Grid (unchanged for over one hundred years) will be deconstructed.
The Promise of Algae
Bio-fuels produced from algae could eventually provide a substantial portion of our transportation fuel. Algae has a much higher productivity potential than crop-based bio-fuels because it grows faster, uses less land and requires only sun and CO2 plus nutrients that can be provided from gray sewage water. It is the primo CO2 sequesterer because it works for free (by way of photosynthesis), and in doing so produces bio-diesel and ethanol in much higher volumes per acre than corn or other crops. “The biggest challenge is how to slash the cost of production, which by one Defense Department estimate now runs to more than $20 a gallon”. But once commercialized in industrial scale facilities, production cost could go as low as $2 a gallon (the equivalent of $88 per barrel of oil) according to Jennifer Holmgren, director of renewable fuels at an energy subsidiary of Honeywell International. Since algae uses waste water and CO2 as its primary feedstock, its use to produce transportation fuel or feedstock for product would actually improve the environment.
The Promise of the Electric Car
There are 250 million cars in the United States. Let’s assume that they were all fully electric vehicles (EVs) equipped with 25 kWh batteries. Each kWh takes a car two to three miles, and if the average driver charges his car twice a week this would come to about 100 charge cycles per year. All told, Americans would use 600 billion kWh per year, which is only 15% of the current total U.S. production of 4 trillion kWh per year. If supplied during low demand times this would not even require additional power plants. If cars were made primarily out of Buckypaper one kWh might take a car 40-50 miles. If the surface of the car was utilized as a photovoltaic the car of the future might conceivably become energy autonomous (or at least semi-autonomous).
A kWh produced by a coal-fired power plant creates two pounds of CO2, so our car-related CO2 footprint would be 1.2 trillion pounds if all electricity were produced by coal. However, burning one gallon of gas produces 20 pounds of CO2.
In 2008, the U.S. used 3.3 billion barrels of gasoline, thereby creating about 3 trillion pounds of CO2. Therefore, a switch to electric vehicles would cut C02 emissions by 60% (from 3 trillion to 1.2 trillion pounds), even if we burned coal exclusively to generate that power.
Actually, replacing a gas car with an electric car will cause zero increase in electric draw because refineries use 7 kWh of power to refine crude oil into a gallon of gasoline. A Tesla Roadster can go 25 miles on that 7 KWh of power. So the electric car can go 25 miles using the same electricity needed to refine the gallon of gas that a combustion engine car would use to go the same distance.
The goal of mitigating global warming/climate change without changing our life styles is not naïve. Using proven Israeli expertise, planting forests on just 12% of the world’s semi-arid areas would offset the annual CO2 output of one thousand 500-megawatt coal plants (a gigaton a year). A global program of foresting 60% of the world’s semi-arid areas would offset five thousand 500-megawatt coal plants (five gigatons a year). Since mitigation goals for global warming include reducing our CO2 emissions by 8 gigatons by 2050, this project alone would have a tremendous ameliorating effect.
Given that large swaths of semi-arid land areas contain or border on some of the poorest populations on the planet, we could put millions of the world’s poorest citizens to work in forestation, thus accomplishing two positives (fighting poverty and environmental degradation) with one project.
Moving agriculture from its current field-based paradigm to vertical urban agriculture would eliminate two gigatons of CO2. The subsequent re-wilding of vast areas of the earth’s surface could help sequester up to 50 gigatons of CO2 a year, completely reversing the trend.
The revolution underway in material science will help us to become ‘self-sufficient’ in energy. It will also enable us to create superlight vehicles and structures that will produce their own energy. Over time, carbon nanotubes will replace steel, copper and aluminum in a myriad of functions.
Converting waste-to-energy will eliminate most of the methane gas humanity releases into the atmosphere. Artificial photosynthesis will suck CO2 out of the air at 1,000 times the rate of natural photosynthesis. This trapped CO2 could then be combined with hydrogen to create much of the petroleum we will continue to need. As hemp and other fast growing plants replace wood for making paper, the logging industry will largely cease to exist. Self-contained fish farms will provide a major share of our protein needs with far less environmental damage to the oceans.
Population Explosion or Population Implosion
One constant refrain of anti-growth advocates is that we are heading towards 12 billion people by the end of the century, that this is unsustainable, and thus that we must proactively reduce the human population to 3-4 billion in order to “save the planet” and human civilization from catastrophe. But recent data indicates that a demographic winter will engulf humanity by the middle of this century. Over 60 countries (containing over half the world’s population) already do not have replacement birth rates of 2.1 children per woman. This includes the entire EU, China, Russia and half a dozen Muslim countries, including Turkey, Algeria and Iran. If present trends continue, India, Mexico and Indonesia will join this group before 2030. The human population will peak at 9-10 billion by 2060, after which, for the first time since the Black Death, it will begin to shrink. By the end of the century, the human population might be as low as 6-7 billion.
The real danger is not a population explosion; but the consequences of the impending population implosion. This demographic process is not being driven by famine or disease as has been the case in all previous history. Instead, it is being driven by the greatest Cultural Revolution in the history of the human race: the liberation and empowerment of women.
The fact is that even with present technology, we would still be able to sustain a global population of 12 billion by the end of century if needed. The evidence for this is cited above.
The current crisis of human civilization is not a consequence of the consumer society or of hyper-industrialization or of the spread of vulgar Americanization. It is a consequence of the incompetence and dearth of imagination of our politicians and intellectuals coupled with the inertia of outmoded ideas.
The ‘limits to growth’ advocates are right: if we continue to run our societies and economies as we have been doing, extrapolation shows that we are headed for environmental and civilizational catastrophe. But there is no reason to continue to run our societies and our economies as we have. Nor is there any reason to deprive ourselves and our progeny of the material comforts that the industrial revolution has provided us in the name of “saving the planet”. Instead we can envision and then construct a planetary civilization totally committed to enabling the self-actualization of every single human being on the planet; a civilization that will have banished want and hunger for all time; a civilization dedicated to realizing the god-like potential of the human spirit. And in that day we will finally be free, Amen!
Tsvi Bisk is an American Israeli futurist; director of the Center for Strategic Futurist Thinking and contributing editor for strategic thinking for The Futurist magazine. He is the author of The Optimistic Jew: A Positive Vision for the Jewish People in the 21st Century. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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