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Golden Age or Peak Civilization?

By John Scales Avery

28 May, 2013

The 21st century will be a time of crisis for human civilization. We are facing an environmental megacatastrophe, financial meltdown, and the threat of nuclear war. Politicians seem unable or unwilling to address these problems, becuse they are influenced by powerful lobbies. It is up to individual citizens to force their governments to take action, and if they will not do so, to work for a change of governments.

One of the greatest problems in mobilising individuals to become active problem-solvers is that the problems are not so apparent today as they will become in the future. Our present era has the appearance of a golden age. All curves are moving upward: population, gross national products, fossil fuel use, the rate of scientific and technological discovery, industrialization of the developing countries, and so on. All are growing.

Never before in history have there been so many people; never before has there been so much collective and individual wealth; never before has there been so much knowledge; never before so many inventions. Ordinary people in China and India are experience levels of well-being that they never had before. Smart phones and Ipads are commonplace in Mongolia and Kenya. Automobile traffic fills all eight lanes of highways in Manilla. The Internet makes the knowledge and culture of the entire world instantly available to all of its citizens. Science and technology are triumphant. It is indeed a golden age.

But although we are experiencing a golden age, the fact that we have reached a peak implies that ahead of us lies a period of decline, a period of scarcity, a period of economic trauma, and a period of ecological catastrophe. The severity of the decline, and of the scarcity, trauma and ecological catastrophe depends on the actions of ordinary people living today. But how can we mobilize ordinary citizens to the action that will be needed to save civilization and the biosphere when they are lulled into inaction, both by the stupifying trivia of the mass media and by the pleasures of their daily lives?

According to the Hubbert Peak Model, the time-dependence of the production and use of any non-renewable resource follows a bell-shaped curve. When the resource is approximately half exhausted, production and consumption reach a maximum. Thereafter they gradually decline. As the decline continues, the resource does not disappear entirely, but its price increases, partly because of increased costs of extraction, and partly because the demand for the resource exceeds the supply.

This model of the time-dependence of use of a non-renewable resource was introduced in 1956 by the geophysicist and oil expert M. K. Hubbert, who predicted that the production and consumption of conventional oil in the 49 contiguous states of the US would follow such a curve, and that the peak would occur in the early 1970's. Although this prediction was met with skepticism, it proved to be surprisingly accurate. In many other cases since that time, the Hubbert Peak Model has been vindicated by accurate predictions.

When it is applied to the global production and consumption of conventional oil and natural gas, the Hubert Peak Model predicts that a peak for oil will occur within a few years, and that a peak for natural gas will follow by 2020 or 2030. Supplies of coal are much larger. Burned at the present rate, they would last roughly a thousand years. Burned at a rate that would be needed to compensate for the end of oil and natural gas, coal would last only until the end of the 21st century. But to avoid disastrous climate change, we need to leave the world's reserves of coal in the ground, rather than burning them. Thus the fossil fuel era is ending, and its end will have an enormous impact on human society.

Global population and fossil fuel use plotted on a time scale of several thousand years. The dots represent population estimates, while the spike-like curve is fossil fuel use. When plotted together, the explosive growth of population and the upward surge of fossil fuel consumption are seen to be simultaneous, and probably causally connected.

When plotted together on a time-scale of several thousand years, the global population of humans and the use of fossil fuels show a dramatic and worrying behavior: The world's human population remained at a very low level for millenia, at the level of only a few millions. But driven by the inventions of the industrial and scientific revolutions, population has shot upward, and is now increasing by roughly a billion every 11 years.

When plotted on the same graph, fossil fuel use shows a remarkable spikelike behavior. Starting almost at zero a few hundred years ago, it rises to a sharp peak today, and in the future it will fall to almost nothing again, all within the space of a few hundred years. When plotted together, the spikelike graph of fossil fuel use, and the dramatic upsurge in global population are seen to be simultaneous. This raises the worrying question of whether the explosion of global population has been caused by fossil fuel use, and whether there will be a population crash when these fuels are exhausted.

Petroleum and natural gas, upon which modern agriculture depends, will become prohibitively expensive in 2040 or so, just when the global population of humans reaches the unprecedented level of 9 billion. Modern agriculture, the basis of our enormous population, will be dealt a severe blow by the end of the fossil fuel era. At the same time, melting of glaciers in the Himalayas will deprive both China and India of their summer water supplies. Rising sea levels will drown many productive rice-growing regions in Southeast Asia. Aridity produced by global warming will reduce the output of grain in many areas that are now important producers of wheat, maize and soy beans. Thus, added to the threat of nuclear war, is the threat of global famine on a scale never before experienced, involving billions rather than millions of people.

We need to act today to save the future. We need to stabilize global population today; we need to achieve world peace today; we need to abolish nuclear weapons today; we need to drastically reduce the emmission of greenhouse gasses today; we need to make the transition to renewable energy today; we need to stop overefishing today; we need agricultural research today; we need to save the rainforests today; we need to conserve topsoil today. But today is so comfortable, today is the golden age of humankind. Yes it is, it certainly is, but we must act today. Tomorrow will be too late.

John Avery received a B.Sc. in theoretical physics from MIT and an M.Sc. from the University of Chicago. He later studied theoretical chemistry at the University of London, and was awarded a Ph.D. there in 1965. He is now Lektor Emeritus, Associate Professor, at the Department of Chemistry, University of Copenhagen. Fellowships, memberships in societies: Since 1990 he has been the Contact Person in Denmark for Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs. In 1995, this group received the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts. He was the Member of the Danish Peace Commission of 1998. Technical Advisor, World Health Organization, Regional Office for Europe (1988- 1997). Chairman of the Danish Peace Academy, April 2004. http://www.fredsakademiet.dk/ordbog/aord/a220.htm. He can be reached at avery.john.s@gmail.com






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