Feedback

When we feel hungry, we eat assuming there is food at hand. When we’re full then we stop eating. This represents feedback at the biological level.

There is also feedback at the technological level. For example, we experience easier lives by using semi-autonomous powered assistants such as vehicles. As we desire more ease, we want more assistance. However, we have no feedback saying we’ve got enough assistance. Rather, with easily available financial credit, there is no feedback to limit our access to technology-based powered assistants.

Nevertheless, the use of powered assistants comes with its own feedback mechanism. Principally, as over 85% of mechanical power comes from a carbon base, the use of powered assistants results in airborne pollution. This leads to an increase in the Earth’s global temperature which results in the melting of the polar ice caps and desertification of many regions. This is a very strong environmental feedback to our use of technology-based assistants.

If we ignore the feedback and continue to eat though full, then we suffer health consequences. If we continue to use powered assistants and ignore the environmental feedback are we ready to accept the consequences?

Human impact via machine tools
Machine tools

Housing Starts

Human numbers are exponentially increasing. Our impact on the world shows the effect as buildings and roads replace trees and glades. “Housing starts” is an excellent indicator of our impact. This indicator quantifies the number of new homes being built. While more houses entail more jobs for construction workers and manufacturers, each new one means less for nature.

Houses are artificial, miniature worlds. We install in them automatic climate control, robust security and on-demand entertainment. While its windows allow us to view the natural world, we purposefully build houses to prevent the natural world from entering. And sometimes, such as during a pandemic, we purposefully don’t even exit our house. As if the natural world was no longer relevant to us in our homes.

Each year well over 20 million houses are started. Each house replaces the natural land cover. Each house requires large amounts of energy during its construction and its operation. Each house needs replacing, usually in 50 to 100 years. With world population growing to well over 10 billion can we afford to keep starting houses? At what cost will we maintain all these houses?

Foundations

People make stuff. A lot of it. By one account, we’ve made more stuff than there is stuff in nature. Let’s assume this is true; it probably is. What stuff have we made? Well, we made roads, buildings, machines and such. What has nature made? Through evolution, nature has trees, elephants and amoeba. Our stuff, for the most part, needs humans to maintain it and to get value from it. Nature on the other hand has effectively created autonomous beings that fend for themselves.

Where is the future leading? The trends indicate that the quantity of human stuff continues to increase by about 30Gt per year. All this stuff needs human effort to maintain usefulness. In contrast, the amount of natural stuff has remained somewhat the same for a very long time. Exceptions are for global catastrophes such as asteroid strikes, massive volcanic eruptions and climate change. However as Homo sapiens take over, we replace nature with human stuff. Thus, the future necessitates increasing human effort, energy, to sustain stuff.

Nature continued over billions of years. Changes occurred such as the extinction of dinosaurs and the expansion of mammals. Will the future see the same for human stuff? Will it remain useful after global catastrophes? And will people leave enough natural stuff to sustain the future?

Foundation
Foundation

Bhasan Char

Imagine a brand new island. Being surrounded by water serves to keep strangers away and you could build what you want and do what you want. It could be a brave new world. Bhasan Char is just such an island. It didn’t exist in the previous century. But now it lies off the mouth of the Meghna River; a river that washes sediment from the Himalayas all the way to the Bay of Bengal. In doing so, this river created this island.

Let’s stay imagining. As this island is new then we’d imagine little life, perhaps some vegetation though no soil yet. Maybe some birds. But not much else. Also, being little more than a sandbar then it’s close to sea level. So close in fact that storm surges would flood most if not all the island. This is perhaps less idyllic than most people would imagine.

Now add people to our island, to Bhasan Char. To make analysis easy, let’s use a round number of 100,000 people. This equates to 400sq.m. per person; note, Canada has 266,000sq.m. per person. The 400sq.m. must include everything; a home, agricultural land, (solar) energy production and any industry. Seems like a lot to include for a sandbar doesn’t it?

There are plans for a large number of people to live on Bhasan Char. As it is over 20kilometres from the mainland then supplies, such as energy, will need to be ferried frequently and regularly. The supplies must continue even during extreme climate events. Is this the life you imagine when you think of living on an idyllic island? Can Earth keep supporting people to do what they want and when they want?
Shoreline

Electric Vehicles

Going green is our new mantra. This mantra espouses sustainability. While a clear definition of sustainability awaits, we do know that some things seem more sustainable than others. For example, electric vehicles get proclaimed as the new, sustainable transportation, i.e. they don’t emit green house gases. Let’s see if this satisfies our mantra.

Humans are enamored by vehicles. We have over 1.2billion in operation today. But transportation needs energy, about 1.1×1020Joules annually, much of which is for vehicles. Further, we should surpass 2billion vehicles by the year 2035 hence more energy is needed. As transportation is key to our GDP, then human prosperity may well depend upon continued infatuation.

Today, we produce 1×1020Joules of electricity. Fossil fuels generate about 63% of this. Fossil fuels are not sustainable. Currently, electric vehicles consume an insignificant amount of electricity. But, to meet our mantra, we need to remove fossil fuels from electrical production. And to meet future energy demand for vehicles, we need to at least double electricity production. This future for electricity isn’t sustainable.

From the above, can you see whether electric vehicles satisfy the mantra? Going green by replacing petrol burning cars with electric vehicles wouldn’t reduce energy consumption. It may sustain the GDP, at least temporarily. We ask, “Can we maintain personal transportation in our mantra and still go green?”