Let’s imagine how we’d plan land usage for the future. First, we’d set three simple land usages types; urban, agricultural and natural. Second, we assume we could readily change land usage type between the three, though each change requires energy. Third, let’s acknowledge that the Earth’s land surface is finite, so summing these three always results in 100%. With this, we can plan the future.

But before we plan for the future, let’s quickly consider the past. For around ten thousand years, we transformed natural forests and plains into croplands and houses. Effectively, we’ve reduced the amount of natural land cover to less than half of its original amount. And we continue this reduction. So, knowing this, let’s plan.

Assume a ‘business-as-usual’ approach where we continue to transfer the natural land to agricultural usage. With this, we can feed everyone. But, the reduction of natural land surface obviously means an equivalent reduction in nature, in wildlife. If we continue as usual, then do you foresee the eventual loss of all natural land?

Or, we can choose an approach to sustain the current ratios of land usage. But how do we accommodate the expected 2-4 billion additional people in the same urban area as today and with the same agricultural area as today?

Or, we can plan to increase the natural land surface area by re-wilding. But as the urban land area is so small, we could only effectively do this by decreasing the agricultural land usage. How do we feed a burgeoning population with a reduced agricultural area?

Some planners do have a vision. They aim to protect 30% of the land’s surface for nature. Perhaps this means that 30% of the wildlife from ten thousand years ago will survive. What do you think are optimal ratios? What are your plans for the future? And how are you getting them enacted? Is there enough energy available to achieve your plans?

A Home for Everyone

Sweet dreams are made with homes. Imagine your own space where you can live as you want, listen to your own music and make your own meals. All this without having others to provide a running commentary on your choices and actions. Making things our own turns houses into homes.

Understandably, houses come at a cost. Houses also come in a variety of sizes. Using reasonable metrics for these, and aligning them to typically energy rates, we can estimate an equivalent energy cost for building a house. For a smaller house with a less expensive energy cost, a new build is the equivalent of about 8.6×10^12 Joules. If we assume that all 8 billion people live in groups of 4, then we would need 3.9×10^22Joules to build a house for each group’s dreams.

Is this a lot of energy? The energy cost to build a house for each group is over 100 times humanity’s current annual primary energy consumption. If we set the annual house maintenance cost to the typical 1%, then the energy to maintain these homes becomes equivalent to our annual energy consumption. Further, we would need to allocate even more energy for rebuilding houses as they typically last for only 100 years. And, our population continues to grow. How will the Earth satisfy everyone’s dream for a home?
Bird song

A Hot Start to the Year

Forest fires are a natural process. Trees burn. The ensuing clearing allows new growth, which rebuilds into a vibrant ecosystem.

This year, however, things are out of whack. In Canada, already over 8 million hectares of forest have burnt. In a typical year, less than 10 million hectares of forest fires burns globally. This year’s global total will certainly be much, much greater given Canada’s current area lost as the fire season has just started in the northern hemisphere.

How can we scale 8 million hectares? The easiest is to use the element carbon as typically done for climate change calculations. Using standard values for Above Ground Biomass, the loss of the trees amounts to about 8.7×10^14 grams carbon. If it was totally burnt, there would be a subsequent release of about 3.5×10^19 Joules of energy. Recall that trees are autotrophs. Thus, their loss means that all creatures above them on the trophic pyramid also perish; the herbivores and the carnivores. This scales the immediate loss to forest fire.

There is also the loss of future photosynthesis. The burnt trees no longer remove carbon dioxide or add oxygen. Using the Net Primary Productivity for a temperate forest, the loss of the trees equates to about 1.2×10^14 grams of carbon dioxide not being removed. Trees will regrow, but many decades will pass before the burnt area absorbs the same amount of carbon dioxide.

To compensate for this loss of carbon dioxide removal, we could drive less. That is, we could remove 27 million vehicles from the roads. However, only time and a reasonable climate will replace all the lost living beings; the trees, the foxes, the owls.

We may think it better to not have forest fires. But remember, they are a natural process and they should continue to occur. While we can’t stop forest fires, we can reduce our carbon dioxide emissions and try to return the global temperature to that of pre-industrial times. Or, we can simply watch things burn. Which do you think is best for the future?
Blood red moon arising

Your Personal View

Let’s say that you become energy conscious. Or, rather, energy sustainable. In doing, you strive to reduce your energy consumption. Electrical power comes from local, renewable resources. Batteries keep energy ever present. You become a vegetarian and obtain all your food from local providers. Your home could be classified as tiny. Inside it, consumer durables are mostly absent. Such actions showcase you as a very energy conscious person.

How much benefit do these actions give to other life on this planet? Less oil consumption means more stays in the ground. And, if you stop eating meat at every meal, then there would be fewer domestic animals and thus more land for wildlife. Such feedback makes being energy conscious worthwhile.

The error in this is in believing that others will continue to consume the same amount as you decrease your consumption. Without feedback or a social prerogative, people continue on their journey of excess consumption. Only by convincing the vast majority of people to be energy conscious will consumption patterns change. If enough change then other living beings benefit. Can you think of a global method to begin this change? Some have suggested a global carbon tax. Or, do you think our children’s future will be better if we continue our instinctive goal to maximize personal consumption?

Gradually Abrupt

So we’re realizing that our species needs copious quantities of energy to sustain our technical wonders. How do we know? Well, even with all the recent research and reports on warming climate and species extinction, we’ve still increased our energy consumption by 50% since year 2000. Though renewable energy sources exist, their contributions remain trivial compared to the energy we extract from burning fossil fuels. If we maintain this trend then by year 2100, our consumption will increase by over 250%. Our consumption; mostly for our technology.

There is a desire, even an expectation, that energy reserves remain sufficient and that no actual harm will come to our ecosystem. This desire allows us to continue to burn oil, coal and biomass. If our expectation is met, then we are on a path of continual, immediate rewards. And we need care little about consequences.

Imagine if we are wrong. Let’s say that the energy reserves empty abruptly. And let’s say that the climate becomes unpredictable, and the weather varies enough to make living difficult. And let’s say that a homogeneous ecosystem covers the Earth’s surface, with the remaining species being overly susceptible to disease. Given these, will our species realize that our technical wonders do not provide the desired lifestyles?
Redwing Blackbird