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.



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?


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?


With controlled release of energy you can send people into space. Stand back and watch the uncontrolled release of energy and you appreciate your insignificance. Hurricane Harvey showed us both sides of this story.

Hurricane Harvey recently swept into Texas. It was huge. Assume it covered the state of Texas. That’s almost 700,000km2. The hurricane dropped about 40 inches of water across its area. This amounts to about 7e11 m3 of water. All this water came from the evaporation of surface water. The energy to evaporate all this is around 1.6e21 Joules. That’s more energy than people utilize each year.

As part of controlled release the people in Texas withdraw oil from under the ground, distill it then distribute it to market. Hurricane Harvey has interrupted this flow. While Texas isn’t the only source of oil some places on the same continent as Texas have experienced a 30% increase in the cost of fuel because of Hurricane Harvey. This demonstrates the expense of acquiring and distributing energy in a controlled form. And the fragility of people’s control of energy.

Electric Cars

We’re growing up watching new technologies aid and abet our way in the world. With them those in first world countries wouldn’t break a sweat doing an honest day’s work. And littered by the wayside are countless of technologies that grew, were favoured and then tossed. Such is the Darwinist view of our aids.

One technology nearing the chopping block is the internal combustion engine. Think vehicles. These devices allow people to travel vast distances with almost no effort. This convenience has often been credited with making the greatest advance in our standard of living. Affordable mobility for goods, services and people. But at a very observable and measurable cost to the environment. So great a cost that most European countries and India are banning their sales starting as early as the next decade. With vehicles consuming over 19 million barrels of oil per day (4.2e19J/a) the loss of the engines would drastically change energy consumption.

But will people simply walk away from this convenient technology? Not likely. The infrastructure investment and the convenience are too great for most. So bring on the electric vehicle. On the same road network. Using the same tires. And powered by electricity generated from burning fossil fuels in industrial plants. And the number of cars is expected to double from the current 1billion. It does lend credence to the question as to whether our technologies aid us or enslave us.