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?


Humans utilize natural resources in myriads of beneficial ways. For example, we see a swamp or bog and, instead of avoiding it, we learn to use its contents for agriculture, pharmaceuticals and even energy production. In particular, we’ve learned to use the peat that’s typically found in bogs.

Peat bogs exist throughout the world, though principally in the north of the northern hemisphere. Peat accumulates but at the very slow rate of about 1 mm depth per year; and only when conditions are perfect. If we leave the peat undisturbed, then it would transition to coal, but over a time of perhaps millions of years. We aren’t that patient. Today, we directly or indirectly consume peat at a much faster rate than its accumulation.

For simplicity, let’s say peat is a fossil fuel. That is, it’s non-renewable and to access its energy, we release its carbon into the atmosphere. We’ve discovered that the world’s peat reserves hold more carbon than all the land vegetation. If we burn all the peat, all its 24×1021Joules of stored energy, we’d also release vast quantities of carbon as greenhouse gases.

Instead, we have promulgated a Wise Use of Mires and Peatlands “to meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. The aim is to sustain the benefits of peat. Any chance we could do the same for all fossil fuels?

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

War in Europe

A critical, non-renewable resource should be safeguarded. Wisdom recommends it be used only as necessary. With the ongoing climate crisis, there’s also greater cause for safeguarding non-renewable fossil fuels due to their noxious by-products. And we can use the energy contained in fossil fuels only once; thereafter, it’s gone forever. Hence wisdom dictates restricting it to essential usage.

Yet folly has replaced wisdom as war returns to Europe. War, as typical, serves to destroy. In effect, combatants use large amounts of natural resources to ruin their opponent’s infrastructure. There’s little regard for the attendant loss in nature services or the commensurate loss of nature. Presumably the combatants assume that they can easily rebuild infrastructure and that nature regenerates itself. This isn’t wisdom given the constrained availability of energy and the finite ability of nature.

Let’s remember, non-renewable fuels can only be used once. As we use natural resources to build and rebuild infrastructure, we take more of nature for ourselves. And release more noxious emissions for future generations. Let’s also remember that when a species goes extinct, we’ve lost its service forever. Can we accept war as common in the future? Assuming not, how do we end war?
Fire at Chernihiv oil depot. Credit: nexta
Oil depot burning. Photo Nexta_TV

Rebuilding After COVID-19

Through the ages, lethal viruses continually attacked homo sapiens. While at personal levels the attacks can be devastating, they’ve not slowed human population growth. For instance, the Spanish Epidemic of 1918 killed about 2% of the global human population, a horribly huge number. Yet, on looking solely at population growth rate, this pandemic had no visible effect.

Currently our species is being attacked by another virus, COVID-19. Through great determination and effort we seem to be slowly countering its deadly effect. In consequence, we see many leaders setting post pandemic return-to-work targets. Often, they borrow now to pay later to keep our population busily consuming resources as demanded by the markets. In consequence, as COVID-19 surrenders, we expect to see our species return to business as usual meaning more people and higher consumption, especially energy consumption.

In 2019, our primary energy consumption exceeded 583 exajoules annually; sourced mostly from non-renewable sources. On average, each person’s annual energy consumption exceeded 75 gigajoules. This is a huge amount, being over 1.5 times greater than the average in 1965 and obviously a huge increase over preindustrial times. But the supply of fossil fuels will end. So, when we build back better after COVID-19, wouldn’t we be wise to enable lifestyles for the future 10 billion inhabitants that doesn’t rely upon fossil fuels?
Tree recycling