Middle Class

The success of modern society gets measured by the strength of the middle class. This group of people has a certain level of security where they can live for today expecting that their standard of living will continue onto the next day and the next. This security allows them to have a diet due their enabled means. That is, they can eat steak and potatoes at every meal or fish and rice at every meal. Even both. The middle class can direct the whole food industry by sheer volume purchasing.

Today we see the middle class directing the global food industry toward a diet with a higher meat content. While this may seem trivial, it’s the scale of the issue which makes this noticeable. For the last few decades over 20 million people on Earth have entered the middle class. Note that the energy production efficiency of flesh to vegetation is 25 to 1 [1]. So it takes 25 times as much effort to produce meat for eating than to produce vegetation. The middle class in 2009 was estimated at 1.8B people and may grow to 4.9B by 2030. Let’s add this up. The food industry will soon need (3.1e9people x 25times x 8700KJ/d*365days=) 2.46e17Joules more energy each year to satisfy the demands of the middle class.

The burgeoning middle class makes for a stable society and a dependable economic model. It may not make for a sustainable future if it decides to try to maintain its diet. More energy will need be allocated to food production. But energy is finite so will another industry give up energy? And what about all the land, feedstock, water, and services needed to grow the meat? Can the flesh eating middle class’s diet lead to a better, sustainable future?

Love to Death

Love is a powerful emotion. It makes us forsake all reason and act quite irrationally. At one time we reserved its usage only for strong, passionate feelings one person has for another person. Now though we can also ‘love to read’ or ‘love to eat’. Yet we can probably take these statements as meaning an action done for pleasure even though other actions may have led to more and better results. Yes, it is safe to say that love means being irrational.

Let’s showcase love by our interaction with the Great Auk. This bird lived in the north Atlantic. We loved to use its feathery down to make soft pillows. We loved to eat its chicken like meat. We loved to use its body parts for baiting fish. We loved it so much that it became extinct. It must have been love as no rational person would knowingly remove such a valuable, useful member of the ecosystem. Could we have loved it to death?

The Great Auk may help us understand love. Further help may come from a current symbol of love; this is chocolate made from the cocoa bean. Yes we love chocolate. We love it to the tune of harvesting over 5 million tonnes of cocoa beans in a year. Using rough estimates we calculate that over 17 million hectares of land have been cleared for dedicated cocoa agriculture. That’s land that’s probably with the greatest ecosystem potential. This is because the cocoa plant, originally from South America, needs very particular growing conditions. Today, due to human intervention, the cocoa plant is predominantly grown in Africa. But with ongoing environmental changes it may die out there and everywhere else in the world. Concern for its survival is so great that we plant to modifying the genes of the cocoa plant so that it can keep growing. And we can continue loving its produce. Do you wonder what the Great Auk might have thought of this plan?

How much do we love our planet Earth as it is today? As it was? If we use all the available energy resources and we love much of the ecosystem to death then what? If we use large amounts of energy to replace nature with genetic modifications then what does this say about the future? What will our love make of our planet in the future?

Ecological Strain

When Xerxes marched on Sparta he reputedly led an army of perhaps 100,000 plus consorts. A ridiculously vast number of humans marching in close formation across nearly 1000km. Herodotus said that whenever the army stopped it drank entire rivers dry. Whole hills were denuded of trees for evening campfires. One can’t even imagine where they got all the food in 480BCE. Assuming a march of 200 days then we can easily imagine the ecological strain imposed by this mass of humanity as it moved through the countryside.

Today mechanization allows for humanity to have the same effect on the land. But with machines bringing food and water to people, we sit to eat. We are the new Persians committing an ecological strain. In 2004 our estimated consumption used 13.4 billion global hectares. The Earth annually makes available 11.3 billion global hectares. That is, we were consuming 20% more than what is available. From another measure, Earth Overshoot Day has moved up to August 2 in 2017. That is, from August 2 onward we are taking more than our planet can sustain. And still our population keeps increasing along with our consumption. As we take more for ourselves then there is less for other life forms. As the land isn’t becoming more capable. Rather, humans are adapting the land to our bidding. But our bidding hasn’t withstood the test of billions of years. And we don’t know the long term effects on the land.

An ongoing audit assesses a 76% seasonal decline of insect life. Is this loss of insect biomass the tipping point of the ecological strain as predicted by Friedman? Should we continue on as per usual to wait and see? Or do we balance our civilization’s needs against ecological necessities so as to avoid a strain? Maybe there is a Leonidas ready to champion the ecosystem for the insects and all the other lifeforms that we depend upon.

Moth

Clothing

Humans lived the hunter-gather lifestyle for many years. Eventually with the control of agriculture, we became sedentary farmers. Then, with the industrial revolution, we learned to use advanced machines to aid or replace our labour. The result was a great quantity of textiles. Textiles became clothing. Clothing got produced at a very cost-effective rate. And once people were paid enough wages, they purchased this clothing to complement their lifestyle.

And just imagine the complements we bestow upon each other as we acknowledge additions to our wardrobe. We hear phrases like, “Wow, that looks great on you.” But to what cost? Let’s compare. There’s an estimated 22 million tons of cotton grown globally and sold each year. Yet at the same time in the United States alone over 13 million tons of clothing are thrown away each year. Seems with this that our clothing is part of our throw-away culture. Perhaps it’s the complement that’s desired over the clothing.

Now imagine the energy costs to make the clothing. To grow cotton, to make cloth, to cut into clothing and to sell at a distributor. And enabling all these steps is the essential but energy hungry transportation sector. How long can the Earth support a throw-away culture? What happens if the cotton harvest fails or the transportation sector loses fuel? Could we think of something more important than the next complement?
Seeds

Addiction

Addiction: an irrational desire to continually undertake an action that is harmful. One can be addicted to drugs, to gambling, to stunts. At a personal level it will sooner or later lead to a significant lowering in one’s lifestyle; possibly to one’s death.

Often the expression “addicted to oil” is used. Usually on a societal level. Saudi Arabia has held this moniker. And with a burgeoning state debt it may be realizing the consequences. While its per capita oil consumption is somewhat high, it likely has enough reserves to satisfy its citizen’s needs for quite a while. Yet its exports rely upon its oil reservoirs; over 75% worth. In the short term Saudi Arabia can keep playing the debt game whereby they spend more than they produce; addicted to a lifestyle as it were.

What will happen on a global scale as people get addicted to lifestyles that aren’t sustainable? Has a dependence upon readily accessible energy made us complacent; even lazy? Will there be a time when human lifestyles can’t be supported; whether depletion of readily accessible oil reserves or consumption of other critical resources? And if so then what sort of lifestyle awaits and how will we get there?
Egret