Oil And The Myth Of Sustainability
By Peter Goodchild
06 September, 2006
One often hears of the need for
"sustainability," and of plans to re-engineer human society
in some manner that will enable the production of goods, and the consumption
of resources, to extend more or less eternally into the future. Civilization
will thereby, we are told, become both more pleasant and more equitable,
and the planet itself - land, sea, and sky - will no longer be traumatized
by the presence of humans. But those who believe in such sustainability
might wish to consider whether such an ideal state is possible.
It is a well-known fact that
the human race is in big trouble with overpopulation and with excessive
consumption of resources. These two problems reinforce one another;
they are synergistic. The message has been around for several years.
In 1970, for example, Paul and Anne Ehrlich published _Population Resources
Environment_. In 1972, Donella H. Meadows et al. published a book entitled
_The Limits to Growth_ (and there is later edition called _Limits to
Growth: The 30-Year Update_).
The population of the earth
in 1950 was less than three billion. In the year 2000 it was six billion.
What it will be in the future is not certain, but a fairly good estimate
is that it will be about eight billion by the year 2030. That figure
could be off by a billion or so either way, but that would not make
much difference. The fact remains that the human population will be
doubling again in the near future - unless, of course, something kills
us off in the meantime; nearly half the population of England was wiped
out by bubonic plague in the fourteenth century.
Nor can we count on a leveling-off:
a slowing of population growth usually occurs in countries that have
first become industrialized, and today's overcrowded countries have
neither the money nor the political power to become industrialized.
Right now the world is using
about thirty billion barrels of oil per year. But the oil is going to
run out. The peak of oil production will probably be sometime early
in the twenty-first century. (We may have even passed the peak late
in the previous century, although it's hard to tell.) After that point,
oil production will rapidly decline. But the demand for oil will not
decline. The population, as noted, is still climbing. And contrary to
popular belief, computers and other high-tech marvels are not creating
a world in which "information will replace transportation."
The sales of oil have not decreased with the advent of the "age
of information." So - in terms of oil alone, there is a serious
problem of resource depletion.
energy" doesn't work. As John Gever et al. explain in _Beyond Oil_,
it is physically impossible to use windmills etc. to produce the same
amount of energy that we are now getting from thirty billion barrels
of oil. "Alternative energy" will never be able to produce
more than the tiniest fraction of that amount.
Roughly half the people in
the world are either undernourished or malnourished, but agriculture
presents one of the worst resource problems. Topsoil is being depleted
everywhere. And there is simply no more land available for increased
agriculture, unless one considers marginal land that can only be used
with expensive high-tech methods of irrigation or perhaps desalination;
projects of this sort obviously cannot last long.
One can debate some of the
above numbers, but even if we shift them up or down by fifty percent,
the general effect is still the same. It is just not possible for the
planet Earth to handle "the human condition," nor is there
any way of improving those numbers in any significant way. And that's
the bottom line. The numbers cannot be changed. The present numbers
are just not "sustainable."
If all of the above is true,
then there is no point in talking about "sustainability."
What will happen, in fact, is not sustainability but _disaster_. The
future will be one in which the reciprocal effects of overpopulation,
resource-consumption, and environmental destruction reach a cataclysmic
maximum, resulting in a massive die-off of the human species. There
may be survivors, but there will not be many. All talk of sustainability
is just fashionable chitchat. The word has use mainly as filler for
political speeches. It always sounds good when politicians talk about
"sustainable development," when what they really mean is "business-as-usual
but with a little ecological whitewash." "Sustainable development"
is an oxymoron. If the human race is on a collision course with the
three above-mentioned problems, and if there is no way of averting disaster,
then there is no point in talking about how to how to deal with that
disaster. It would be far more practical, far more useful, to say: "Okay,
disaster is inevitable. What do we do after that?"
The ancient Roman world went
through very much the same stages as our own. While Rome was a republic,
not an empire, the Roman people adhered to the four virtues of prudence,
fortitude, temperance, and justice. But the Roman world became bigger
and bigger. There were conflicts between the rich and the poor. There
was a serious unemployment problem created by the fact that slave labor
was replacing that of free men and women. The army became so large that
it was hard to find the money to maintain it, and the use of foreign
mercenaries created further problems. Farmland became less productive,
and more food had to be imported. The machinery of politics and economics
began to break down. The fairly democratic methods of the republic were
no longer adequate for a world that stretched from Britain to Egypt,
and the emperors took over. After Augustus, however, most of the leaders
were both incompetent and corrupt. The Goths sacked Rome in A.D. 410.
The Empire was crumbling. The cities and main roads were finally abandoned,
since they no longer served a purpose. For the average person, the late
Roman world consisted of the village and its surrounding fields.
If we have already established
the premise that "the human race faces unsolvable problems,"
the answer is not to waste further amounts of time and energy in asking
whether those problems exist. The best response is to find ways to survive
within that problematic world.
BIOGRAPHICAL NOTE: Chicago Review Press has published Peter Goodchild's
_Survival Skills of the North American Indians_, _The Spark in the Stone_,and
He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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