Housing Starts

News of the water cycle inundates us every day. We call this ‘the weather’. Most of us love the warm, bright Sun and complain about the rain. Some who get too much Sun have the inverse regard. Yet hidden within this cycle is the process that makes the water on Earth drinkable. Without this cycle we’d very quickly run out of water to drink and our future would be very dim. So one would think that we’d value all expects of the water cycle.
A recent announcement enumerated housing starts in Canada as well over 200,000 a month. The same for most of the previous decades. The average housing lot size is 30ft by 100ft in the suburbs. Each year as for many of the previous decades new houses made about 67000 hectares sterile landscape. Void of autotrophs. Void of water processors. Void of natural energy capturers. And there’s no expectation that housing starts will diminish as the country’s economy relies upon it.
Yet we cherish our homes. Our nests. Our safe havens from which to bear children. Raise them. And set them out to seek their way in the world. How many new human nests can our world accommodate? And will our children end up with a world full of human nests and not much else? Not even the water cycle.


Being sustainable lets us believe in an endless continuance. If people lived sustainably upon Earth then we’d expect things to remain roughly the same for a very many lifetimes. Just as we saw happened for the dinosaurs; at least according to dinosaur fossils. However we know energy or rather its potential doesn’t get recharged and we haven’t a replacement yet. This prevents us from living truly sustainably.

The same concern can be said for other resources such as water. Most people live within ready access to water but of course we know that all water is not equal. We drink potable water. And we sail upon ocean water however we’d never drink it! To make it potable we utilize desalination plants. Seems we’re relying upon these plants a lot. Worldwide we have well over 18000 of them pumping out over 86.8 million cubic metres of potable water every day. This is a recent phenomenon as their construction began only in 1955. What’s its energy cost. One reference puts the plants’ average power draw at 3 kWh per m3. This calculates to 3.4e17 J per year of energy dedicated to providing us with water. At least half of this energy for desalination comes from fossil fuels. And of course there’s a waste stream. The effluent from a desalination plant gets discarded nearby usually to a negative effect upon the ecosystem. Yes indeed we see from this that our use of the Earth’s water resources isn’t sustainable either.

About 1% of our human population relies upon water from desalination plants. They have no other ready source of potable water. This percentage continues to increase. How do we affect a sustainable, endless continuance when we our reliance upon artificial means grows? And the ready supplies of energy get consumed? What does this makes you think about sustainability and our future?

Texas Size

Pull up a chair and listen closely. I’m going to give you today’s lesson. It’s something neat. Something we’ve already taught here. This is more about the concept of energy returned on energy invested; EROEI. Don’t be frightened, it’s just reality of which I speak to you today.

Let’s begin. With great fanfare the U.S. Geological Society announced the identification of the largest oil and gas reserve in the continental US. “Big?” you ask. Yes it’s huge. About 20 billion barrels of oil and 16 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. That’s equal to about 3 years of total petroleum consumption by the U.S. “What a wonderful discovery” everyone exclaimed. “We always knew that those peak-oil advocates we’re just spouting alarmist speech” they continued. Not only were car drivers happy but also national economists who envisioned a return of world leadership and luxuries for all. This is the first part of our lesson.

Now the average person is no slouch. They certainly would have thought “this can’t be new as we’ve already got a pretty good idea on what’s economically available.” Well some went further and punched the numbers. Art Berman at Forbes did this. He agreed that the oil and natural gas could be extracted using today’s technology. But at today’s prices it would cost $700M to extract. It would cost! Simply put, it would take more effort to get the energy out of the ground than would ever be returned. The EROEI would be less than one. How’s that for not being a slouch?

Knowing that all the easily extracted energy stores have long since been consumed do you wonder when the global EROEI will slip to less than one? What then my precious students?

Energy Comes and Energy Goes

Think of every being’s life as they go through a cycle from birth to growth and then finally death. Trees, birds and humans follow this progression; all being connected, all directly or indirectly linking with each other. Typically the success of an individual rests upon its ability to acquire resources, principally energy and chemical compounds. By linking this flow of resources we see how all life is connected as it progresses.

Blue whales wonderfully depict a point in this simple connection. Their principal source of resources is krill; a very small creature living in the ocean. A whale being the largest animal on earth eats lots of krill. By some accounts 3600kg a day. Today about 25,000 blue whales swim the oceans of Earth. That’s a consumption of 5.75E16 Joules of energy. That’s a lot! But long ago, before they were hunted to near extinction there were over 300,000 blue whales swimming the ocean. That’s 6.9E17Joules of the Earth’s animate energy budget assigned to these creatures.

In contrast consider the United States’ military. Yes they are at peace today. Still their annual consumption of fuel for Operational Energy is 5.1E17Joules.

Compare these values. See that the military force in peacetime consumes as much energy as the Earth’s ecosystem had allocated to the blue whale species before we nearly drove it to extinction. Does this mean people have more concern about physical strife and safety than they have concern for other species? Last, think of what happens when the connections between living things start breaking; think extinction. Does this breakage mean resources get freed up to humans or do they simply disappear?

The First Sip

See our Sun gently break the line of the eastern horizon on its slow ascension to its mid-day peak. You sit quietly by the window. Watching and contemplating life. You slowly sip on the cup of fresh coffee you just prepared and you wonder how the people on Earth can stay vibrant when the Sun provides only finite energy.

Perhaps your thoughts will extend to the number of people all about. This is key. Take for example something as simple as your cup of coffee. You enjoy it but every day 2.5 billion other people enjoy a cup of coffee. That’s over 1.6e+11 litres of water annually for coffee. And 4.5e+9 litres of cream. And 3.6e+9 kg of sugar. Focusing solely on the coffee shows the sheer magnitude of human consumption. Coffee comes from the seed of the coffee plant. Each year humans harvest 8.6e+9 kg of seeds. That`s equal to 20 of the largest ship’s afloat today. The plants require 5.4e+6 hectares of suitable land. That’s larger than the area of Costa Rica. And just to brew the coffee requires 3e+10 kWh of energy, more than the total electric power produced by nuclear in Belgium. Do you see now how the sheer number of humans scales every common action to supersize.

Some have said that the purpose of life is to pursue happiness. Following this means that we will continue to enjoy our cups of coffee even if it means consuming the seeds from over 9 billion domesticated, particularized plants. They can’t make more plants as their seeds have gone. The land can’t support other life as it’s dedicated to coffee production. Should we consider the choices that we make as we sit back and enjoy the small things in life, like sipping on coffee and watching the Sun rise?