Local VS Global

Recently North America is seeing consistently lower prices for petrol as compared to a decade earlier. The credit for this is mostly attributed to the infrastructure build-out for natural gas: its extraction, processing and delivery. I.e. the ‘fracking’ news story. This lower cost has improved the living standard for people in North America. Does this improvement extend to the world?

The answer is somewhat yes. And somewhat no. It is yes in that there are natural gas reserves constantly being discovered all over the world. With today’s technology, these reserves can be extracted economically and the resource shipped for sale throughout the world. The answer is no in that there is still a finite amount of natural gas available. Only those people in the locales getting the resource will get a boost in their standard of living. And the boost will only endure for the lifetime of the resource. From the BP analysis the ratio of primary fuel reserves to production (R/P) is:

Oil R/P is 50.6 years

Natural Gas R/P is 52.5 years

Coal R/P is 153 years

These durations represent the time to effective resource depletion. They are important as even today, with all the focus on renewable energy, 85% of energy consumption is sourced from these three primary fossil fuels.

Now we don’t know what will become of the Earth over the next 50 years.  Or the number of people that will want to live comfortably on the Earth. But projections aim at well over 11billion people. And we show few signs of reducing individual consumption. So, we can expect a rather abrupt correction when the energy resources get exhausted. Both locally and globally.

Trees

Bitcoin

A refrain from an old song has it that ‘money makes the world go round’. There is a lot of truth to it. Many people spend their lives to obtain as much money as they can. And really, with the way our society functions, it’s hard to be a part of society without it. In result, or some say in cause, the financial institutes aid us by assigning value to money and by moving money from here to there.

While a bank as an institution may be a fairly recent construct, the concept of money is quite older. It was just so much more convenient than bartering. Yet money has changed. From commodity money, representative money and on to fiat money. What hasn’t changed was that money could be placed in the hand. Until now. Along came cryptocurrencies like bitcoin. This is valued like money. It is computer based. It requires a computer to be on so as to keep it in existence. And there’s a lot circulating about the Web. A recent debate argues that it requires too much energy. Counter to that claim is that the traditional financial institutions require more. From four times to ten times the amount. What isn’t argued is that the concept of money is very valuable and worth expending large amounts of energy. How much energy? In rough calculations the combined forms of money use 0.443 quadrillion BTUs or 4.63e17Joules each year to be in existence. And using energy may be the oldest concept known.

Cryptocurrencies use a lot of energy. Some say as much energy as Cuba does. And yes money does facilitate living in our society. Though it may not make the Earth turn. It does make for easy, fair trade. At an energy cost. Summing cryptocurrencies and financial institutes results in a usage of less than 1% of humanity’s energy expenditure. Per year. Will our future include real and virtual financial institutes no matter what their energy cost? Will we ever have to choose between energy for machines and energy for people? While the Earth keeps going round.

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