The Question – Planned or to be Planned

We’re quickly depleting the Earth’s stores of non-renewable energy. Oddly, the date for absolute depletion keeps getting extended outward. Noting this, some people proclaim that non-renewables will endure forever. They say that economic theory will control consumption and thus ensure continued availability. And they also say that the future will be rosy. Is this forecast reasonable?

In response, let’s consider economic theory as it relates to energy supply. As energy demand exceeds supply then cost increases, which thus reduces the demand. This is economically reasonable. But is it valid if energy is an essential commodity? Let’s look at an example. Most of today’s advanced societies rely upon ready, inexpensive transportation. If energy costs increase, such as with a carbon tax, then, presumably, consumption falls. Yet, we don’t see any indication of consumption falling. Indeed, with populations increasing and desire for evermore technology, then we expect energy consumption to continue to increase apparently with minimal impact from cost. For transportation, our insatiable demand for energy isn’t following the dictates of economic theory, leading us to presume that energy is an essential commodity.

This example leads us to ponder the expectation for a rosy future. As long as there’s unlimited energy supply, then owning a vehicle or enabling a technology is inconsequential. For example, data centres, at the heart of the new information technology, consume about 500TW per year (1.6e22J). But what if energy supplies become constrained? Do we react by excising technologies? Do we plan for this drop-off of energy supply? Have plans already been made? Did you provide comments to these plans? Let us know.
Redwing black bird

Earth, Start-point or End-point

Do you enjoy watching science fiction cinema? There, people dramatically meet other life-forms or overcome daunting obstacles. From it, we have the sense that our species is special and capable of anything. Given the plethora of such films over the last few decades, perhaps we over-confidently believe that such events will be our future. It’s just a matter of time.

The science fiction genre really developed just prior to the turn of the previous century. Its progenitor, Jules Verne, wrote ‘From the Earth to the Moon’ in 1865. In that year, about 1.3 billion humans used an estimated 2.9×1019J (8,005 Twh) of energy in their annual strivings. Today, on Earth, over 8 billion people use an estimated 6.4×1020J (178,899 Twh) annually, mostly from fossil fuels. But, instead of reading about space travel, we routinely watch films having people comfortably zip at faster than light speed to remote stellar galaxies.

In reality, space travel is anything but routine. A lucky few have visited Earth’s Moon. Will our future include space travel? Unlikely. As demonstrated with the USA’s Apollo space program, tax dollars only get expended on undertakings that benefit all or most. Further, individuals can’t afford to encamp our species on another world. So, Artemis and ILRS will go the way of the Europa settlement. That is, nowhere. Instead, people will continue watching science fiction and imagining. What does this say for our future?

Swallow flight

A Democratic Future

Greece claims to be the birthplace of democracy. Democracy is a governing method whereby everyone chooses policies to define their civilization and thus set the future. Ours is a representative democracy whereby one elected person represents many others. In this way, representatives make and vote on choices that (should) lead to better livelihoods.

While democracy seems optimal for shaping a society’s future, it has weaknesses. Principle among these is that a policy choice must be of immediate or near-immediate benefit to the majority. There’s no appetite for a choice that begins by incurring detriments and then delivers benefits much later. Another weakness is that a representative only considers their region of responsibility. Thus, even though a choice may inconvenience people outside an electoral region, the representative does not consider their inconvenience. These weaknesses ensure that democracies can, at best, maintain the status quo. Democracies might have a 4 or 5 year plan, to the next election, but not any further into the future.

Assuming we want better than the status quo, then where do we look to define and to progress toward a planned future? Is there such a thing as a benevolent dictator? Could corporations consider more than maximizing their shareholder’s compensation? Or do we simply stumble forward and react to whatever arises? What do you want in your civilization’s future in 10 years? In a hundred years? In a thousand years?


Hawk

Lemmings

Lemmings are small rodents that live in the Arctic. Sadly, we have given them a bad, inaccurate rap. We assume they breed to outrageously large numbers and then they stampede to a cliff edge and throw themselves off to their deaths. This misconception haunts them to this day. But, it’s also a great analogy. That is, people who rely upon the guidance of others may rush madly forward, maybe toward the proverbial cliff.

Consider today’s life goals advertised as being consumerism and wealth generation. If these are our sole life goals, then we could readily relate our actions to those of the misconceived lemmings. And it seems for many, this is true. We’ve seen an expanding population bent on consumerism that has fuelled GDP growth for millennia. There’s little expectation in the growth stopping as we expect a continual rise in global population and energy consumption for many decades. There are indicators of abatement. But, how do we encourage a life that is more than satisfying these economic metrics?

Last year (2021), humans consumed 696 exajoules of primary energy. The greatest annual amount ever. It’s safe to say that our species’ consumption of energy has increased monotonically every year over the last 10,000. Initially, we consumed biofuels, e.g. wood and charcoal. Now we utilise non-renewable fossil fuels; oil, natural gas and coal. These amount to over 70% of all primary energy sources. Eventually, we will consume all remaining sources. And then what? Is our consumerism heading us for a cliff?
Berry

Tragedy

Winter in the northern hemisphere brings cold. Fortunately, controlled climate in housing enables people to live comfortably. Heat comes from the release of energy, often from burning natural gas or wood. Often, the house’s occupant uses a simple control device, a thermostat, to control the temperature inside the house to whatever they believe is most comfortable.

As we know, burning non-renewable fossil fuels comes with problems. Two of them are: the emission of pollutants; and the eventual need to replace the energy source. Obviously, setting a house’s temperature higher will burn more fuel, which results in greater amounts of pollution and a sooner need to replace the energy source. Thus, from a sustainability perspective, it’s better to keep one’s house temperature as low as possible.

But, you have no way of knowing the temperature set inside a house. Nor does anyone know what temperature you have set inside your own house. The only consequence of setting a higher temperature is the increased financial cost to purchase the fuel. You can set your house temperature as high as you want so that you are as comfortable as you want and no one will know.

This conflict between personal betterment or social betterment is known as the ‘tragedy of the commons’. The tragedy is our inherent, continual desire for personal betterment to the detriment of society. Will this tragedy be the downfall of our species? Or will we act socially even when no one sees?
snow