Saturday, July 7, 2012

A Sobering Saturday

I woke up this morning reading a post by Jonathan Smith on Google+.  There I found a link to a video of a lecture by Albert Bartlett on YouTube.

It was the most sobering 80 minutes I have spent watching and listening anything online.  So what was so sobering?

I recently blogged about the need for civil and informed discourse for a successful democracy.  That post was about the Affordable Healthcare Act.  But there is an even more important issue facing the country and the planet that is similarly reduced to a squabble of statistics and jargon and conflicting emotionally charged opinions.

Humans have created a system where short term performance outcomes counted in terms of money are used to measure success e.g. corporate performance measured in quarterly cycles, Presidential performance measured in 4 year election cycles.  Another fundamental problem with the system is the assumption that if people look out for and vote for their own interests, and if the majority of the people vote for something, the country will be better off.  In essence we now have a system that will prevent a minority who have the knowledge and altruism and want to work towards long term global benefit from ever accomplishing something.

Imagine that everyone knew that at some point in the future we will run out of fossil fuel.  What would that mean?

  • Most of the food we eat uses fossil fuels to produce and transport.  
  • Our personal comfort - heating, cooling, communication, travel, entertainment requires energy - a lot of it produced from fossil fuel.
Suppose we knew that regardless of when we reach/reached peak oil state, we are depleting a finite resource and as our population grows and our economics require each economy to grow, this depletion will occur faster and faster.  Finding more fossil fuel sources will only postpone this inevitability.

Suppose we knew whether impacted by mankind or not, the planet is getting warmer and will lead to dramatic extremes of weather including floods, droughts, storms, blizzards all requiring more energy and causing more scarcity.

Suppose we knew this incredible change in our lives was going to occur sometime this century.  What would we do?
  • We would scramble to find solutions that make non-fossil fuels possible
  • We would force our governments and corporations to invest in these technologies
  • We would build small self-sustained communities
  • We would move towards using agriculture to produce food for humans rather that for cattle
  • We would conserve all the fossil fuel for critical activities that focus on solving this huge problem
    • Dissemination of information for education of people
    • Communication and collaboration among scientist and engineers working on this problem
    • Manufacturing renewable energy producing units like wind turbines, solar panels etc.
    • Ensure that we don't run out of fossil fuels before we had implemented solutions
  • We would start planning like we would for a local disaster
    • Install solar panels on our roof and a wind turbine in our backyard and a geothermal heat system in the basement.
    • Find a way to get to work without a car or work from home
    • Install a greenhouse and divert all the effort from maintaining a lawn to growing vegetables
    • Drill a well with a solar powered pump and an overhead water tank.
    • You get the idea...
    • But we don't because we are in denial and because we worry about the cost of all these modifications and whether they are worth it or whether they will be needed in our lifetimes.  "With fracking, gas will be cheap and we will have unlimited supplies to heat our homes" right?
Our current socioeconomicpolitical system will not be able to turn this ship around without a serious wake up call. Unfortunately the best chance of having something like this expired in the 1970s when the national and global awareness was at a peak.  If we wait for the next peak in awareness, it will be too late.  It is probably already too late.  The question is whether it will be a crash or a slide.  

The best consolation for the current generation is that when they pass away they will not be missing out on seeing a great future.  The best years of humankind are probably already behind us.  Everything that they learned to love and depend upon is going to be at a premium in the near future.  Also we probably don't want to be alive to hear the curses from our grandchildren!

Does economics violate the laws of physics?
Playlist of Dr. Bartlett's lecture
ABC interview with Michael Mann

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