Us or Them?

Satellites can’t see national borders as they cruise silently through their orbit about Earth. Often, even on Earth, there’s little distinguishing one side of a national border from another. Sadly, there’s an ongoing tendency to erect barriers and fences to separate “us from them”. And so, with great expenditures of energy, we have divided up the Earth’s land surface into “mine and theirs”.

We use even more energy to maintain these artificial divisions. For one, sum the energy used to conscript armies, to purchase state-of-the-art equipment and to maintain militaries while waiting for “just in case“. For another, sum the net energy loss when we replace vegetation with physical barriers such as fences and walls all across the world’s continents. These show that the need to identify and maintain differing group identities is strong within us.

While it’s often been said and often sung, “why can’t we just get along?“ There is no simple answer. Likely, we will continue to expend great amounts of energy upon national defence. What will happen when we run out of energy? Will national borders become irrelevant and peace break out? Or will we consume every last joule of available energy to continually separate “us from them“? Do we wait and find out or do we challenge this portent by trying peace beforehand?



Spending more than you make leads to bankruptcy. What about energy expenditures? Today, the largest per capita energy consumers use over 160,000kWh/a in some nations. For all 8 billion of us on Earth to consume this amount, we need to produce over 1.28e15 kWh per year. Our current energy production is 627 exajoules; slightly less than a seventh of the desired. This deficit began with the industrial revolution as top consumers continually consumed ever more while every other tried to catch up. In effect, our continual energy deficit has us facing an energy bankruptcy.

Given the climate change challenge and other factors, we expect to never produce enough energy. So, how do we counter this energy bankruptcy? Let’s correlate actions of a business facing bankruptcy to our needs (in italics below):

1. Concentrate Efforts on Best Customers – nurture developed nations
2. Explore Funding Options – look for alternative energy sources such as solar, wind and fusion
3. Cut Costs and Repay Creditors – maximize energy efficiency and rebuild fossil fuel reserves
4. Offer Discounted Prices in Return for Immediate Payment – subsidize renewable energy production
5. Cut Non-Essential Costs That Don’t Contribute to ROI – use energy only where essential

Many of today’s global activities do correlate to an energy bankruptcy. This supports our conjecture that we’re facing an energy bankruptcy.

Can we consider grander actions, including:

6. Revise Business Plan and Budget – have an achievable plan for civilization
7. Evaluate if major stakeholders (nations) will support a restructure
8. Determine if the business (civilization) is worth saving

Is civilization like a business? Can we afford to let civilization go energy bankrupt? If not, how do we recover from our continual energy deficit? Do you agree that our civilization needs a plan? What do you want to see in the plan?


The Pyramid of Life

We dominate the animal kingdom. We are the apex predator on Earth. We control, eradicate, or nurture others, whether as large as a mammoth or small as bacteria.

The trophic pyramid is an illustrative segregation of Earth’s life into 4 levels. A lower level provides energy and nutrients to the higher level. Level 1, the lowest, includes all the autotrophs or plants. Level 2 has herbivores. Level 3 has carnivores. Level 4, the apex, contains the omnivores that consume almost anything. Most people live at Level 4 of the pyramid.

Assume everyone lives at Level 4. People require 12,500 Joules per day. As a rough metric, the ecological efficiency is 10% meaning that only a tenth from a lower level gets transferred to the higher level. Thus, 3.65e+19 Joules of energy from Level 1 supports the 8.012 billion people alive today. On average, Level 1 life annually stores about 2.3e7 Joules per sq.m. of energy. Thus, overall, we annually consume about 32% of energy that is captured by Level 1 life.

Being at the apex and in full control, we can form a future of our choice. So far, people have co-opted more than half the land surface for agriculture to support this consumption. We and our livestock outweigh all other wildlife 24 fold resulting in another mass extinction event. Our future could include wildlife or it will only include living creatures that directly support and maintain the human population? Which do you want and what will you do to achieve it?

Forecasting GDP

We have developed a measure of our productivity that we call the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). By this measure, we can estimate the totality of what we do. Historically, with an agrarian lifestyle, the GDP related primarily to two factors being the quantity and quality of farmland. With mechanization, the GDP also related to access to machinery and energy to power it. On viewing the world GDP over the millennia, we see its steady increase.

Notably, the GDP relies upon our access to resources, whether pastures to grow food or deposits to mine ores. Equally, we need energy to power our machines. If we assume a boundless world, then we could continually farm new pastures, dig new mines and burn fossil fuels. In consequence, the world’s GDP would continually increase. Obviously this assumption errs on a finite Earth as we will eventually have put all available land under pasture, have dug up all accessible ores and have burnt all fossil fuels. Equally, this assumption does not consider potential negative feedback such as today’s climate change as caused by burning fossil fuels. Thus, while GDP will continually rely upon our access to resources, we cannot assume that our access to resources will continue.

So how will the GDP change? According to models, GDP will steadily increase for the duration of this century and result in an overall increase from year 2020 by 3 to 10 times. On an infinite world, without negative feedback, this is possible. But what if the negative feedback has a significant impact? Should we plan to decrease GDP or do we simply react as need? If you foresee the need for a decrease, how do you ensure it occurs long into the future?

Further, what will happen to the Earth’s wildlife? Note that the GDP does not include wildlife, even if it’s a fundamental basis for life. Do we assume it will mostly disappear as our GDP grows? To what effect?
Life Cycle

Livestock and Wildlife

We humans are omnivores. We eat and digest almost anything. This ability enabled us to be a very successful species. Now, as we continue to usurp control of the Earth’s ecosystem, we adapt more and more land toward our food production. We change grasslands into pastures and forests into orchards and cropland. This is because we’re choosing what we want to eat even though we are omnivores.

As our population grows and we refine our diets, we’re adapting more and more land for agriculture. By using the GCAM Earth System Model inputted with median expectations and with a population that aligns with our current 8 billion people, we can estimate the amount of change. From it, we expect by the year 2100 there will be a 200% increase in the amount of livestock together with a 50% increase in cropland. Further, there will be a 50% increase in our usage of forests whether for logging or biomass (e.g. firewood). This scenario of the future shows the impact of our growing population and its diet.

We need to think about these increases. Already our livestock accounts to over 4% of all of Earth’s biomass while wild life amounts to 0.3%, a ratio of more than 10 to 1. If, in the future, we double our livestock and expand the land we use for agriculture then we’d expect a ratio of well over 40 to 1 of livestock to wildlife. Not so long ago, no livestock existed within the Earth’s ecosystem. This is worth thinking about.

This negative impact on wildlife is just one way that our species impacts the Earth’s ecosystem. The ongoing loss of wild lands will cause a mass extinction of wildlife. No amount of energy will bring species back from extinction. Is a future without wildlife really what we want?
Marmot in fog