Land Use

The Earth is a rocky sphere that orbits the Sun. Via plate tectonics it recycles its surface. Currently the land portion of Earth’s surface has an area of about 148.9 million square kilometres. This is expansive. For example, the whole surface area of the Moon is only about 6% of this; just the area of Europe. So we have lots of land to use as we see fit.

Let’s consider our use of the Earth’s land surface. We know the use from satellite data that measures the area of certain types of biomass. In 2017, the FAO estimates that agriculture covered 4.83 billion hectares, that forests covered 4 billion hectares and that other land such as deserts and barrens covered 4.165 billion hectares. While these numbers are just shy of the estimated total land area, they provide a very clear division of land use.

Let’s stop and think about these values. From them we see that humans have mastered the planet’s surface. Our agricultural area exceeds the forest area. Add infrastructure area (i.e. cities) to the agricultural area and the human affect becomes noticeable greater. We have taken over! And to think that only a few thousand years ago people had neither agriculture nor cities. What does this imply about land use for the future?

Land Use – All within 1km


We may be surprised at how seemingly small decisions can make for a big impact. Pets are an excellent example. A pet is an animal kept for companionship or pleasure. They serve no purpose other than to help make us happy.

Apparently we need lots of joy. For example, we are enjoying an estimated 200 million to over 1 billion domesticated cats. Chances are good that you’ve encountered domestic cats so we won’t describe them. But do you know their effect? For one, a typical cat needs 250 to 300 food calories a day. Taking this as an average and assuming a median number of cats then these carnivores take about 2.5e+17 Joules of energy each year. That’s a lot of energy.

Also, while cats reportedly originated in Egypt, we’ve placed them everywhere except the Antarctic. And we’ve let some of them run wild. Thus, in the U.S. alone they are responsible for the deaths of about 2 billion birds and 15 billion small mammals annually; including the extinction of some.

Small decisions, such as having a pet, can lead to big consequences. A consequence of having cats as pets has led to them getting a much larger share of (autotrophic) energy than they would have naturally obtained. And through extinctions, they’ve eliminated future competition for this energy. How will other small decisions be affecting our future?

Feral Cat – Unsplash

Essential Services

Depending on where you live, you may be experiencing the end of a government mandated stay-at-home order due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This order has minimized commuting and constrained work activities to whatever can be accomplished in-residence. Only essential services continue. In consequence, there’s been a dramatic drop in our energy consumption.

Let’s look at this via oil. By the numbers, the world oil production has been hovering at just less than 100 million barrels per day. This value has been somewhat consistent for the past two years as demand and supply were well matched. Due to the order, the estimated consumption drop for the month of April 2020 is 29 mb/d. That is, we are using 1.77e17 Joules less energy from oil each day because of COVID-19 and the stay-at-home order.

This number is spectacular, especially from a conservationist point of view. Even more spectacular however is the amount of energy still being used. That is, even though the global economy is nearly shut-down we are still using 4.34e17 Joules of energy from oil. Each and every day! And this is solely for oil.

Oil supplies about 34% of the total primary energy consumption across our world. Assuming all primary energy consumption experiences the same drop means that humans need 12.77e17 Joules per day of energy (208 mb/d). This equates to about 700 dams the size of the Three Gorges Dam. This is just to sustain ourselves. One could say that this is the basal daily amount for our civilization.

Can we sustain this? Is it possible to create this amount of primary energy without affecting our planet? What will we do when the fossil fuels are no longer available?

Resource Extraction

Today we have a very clear view of our civilization’s dependence upon energy. Or, really, the effect when we break that dependence. The break is caused by COVID-19. The effect is the near total stoppage of the economy as governments have ordered stay-at-home isolation. Thus, with no one going to work, or working, or returning from work then we consume a lot less energy.

Oil remains the dominant source of our civilization’s energy. Not long ago a barrel of oil was trading for well above $100US per barrel. Today, in the futures market, the cost of a barrel of oil has gone negative! That’s right, effectively producers have to pay someone to take the oil of their hands.

What really happened? Simply put, the oil producers did not want to contract their operations even though COVID-19 reduced demand. Thus for weeks they have been pumping an excess of up to tens of million of barrels of oil each day. Obviously if it’s not being consumed then it must be stored. And storage costs money. And the available storage space shrank very fast. Thus the drop in price.

Which of course brings up a sticky point. As the producers stop producing they will stop their oil rigs. And walk away. For example, Canada last week provided $1.7B to clean up orphaned wells. Orphaned means that the producer has walked away and the government must clean up their mess. Their sticky mess.

Expect COVID-19 to be temporary and this situation to be temporary. But it does highlight our civilization’s approach to resource extraction. That is, we are keen on getting the value from the resource but less keen on spending money to clean up the mess. Is this a sustainable plan with which to go forward? Which dependencies should our civilization maintain?

Photo by Donald Giannatti on Unsplash


There’s nothing like a crisis to showcase the qualities of a civilization. For instance, the global wars of the twentieth century had some of the most amazingly displays of cruelty and some of the most wonderfully compassionate moments. And, plagues like the Black Death or Spanish Influenza swept over defenseless populations which then rebounded. There’s even ongoing swarming locusts in Africa that’s causing widespread, temporary challenges. The common factor to all these is that the event ends and, usually, a wiser civilization emerges.

The current international crisis is the COVID-19 pandemic. While much is being said about its characteristics, including its lethality, there is no doubting its global impact. Everywhere people are being asked or ordered to remain isolated at home with only occasional sojourns for essential matters. Less travel, and less work has an immediate effect on resource consumption and especially energy consumption. This reduction has an effect. A barrel of oil is cheaper; now costing the same as it did twenty years ago. Fewer airplanes traverse the skies. Mass fuel storages are full. And bankruptcies challenge the oil fields. It’s as if this pandemic has set our civilization’s feast on energy to pause.

This pause should be considered as just that, a pause. Our civilization will continue on the other side. It can continue as it did before COVID-19 or it could alter. Is there a wiser direction for our civilization? Is the free market and consumerism the optimal path? Perhaps now is the time for people to realize that we constitute one big global civilization. And people should realize that they are wise enough to consider and choose an optimal future. Let’s use this pause to consider the qualities we most admire and cherish and then let’s pursue them as we rebound from this crisis.