Pique the Geek 20100926: Sustainability (and Connexions) Part the First

I have been thinking about sustainability for a long, long time.  Unfortunately, in my scientific analysis, it not possible if we continue on the route that we have chosen.  This is an extremely complex topic, and might even deserve its own, new, date.  I am thinking that Wednesdays might be a good time for it.  This is more speculation than science, so it does not properly belong on Pique the Geek for the long term.

This will be the most controversial topic that I have ever tackled.  I may be dead wrong in some of my speculations, but a lot of thought has gone into them.  I offer no easy remedies but do ask the hard, horrible questions and illustrate them with facts.  I will ask that you, my readers, tell me whether this deserves a new series, uncoupled from Pique the Geek. Please read further.

The Geek apologizes for being absent last week.  He was a bit under the weather, not really ill, but did not feel like staying with the comments for the several hours that he usually does.  He has too much respect for his readers to be a “post and run” writer, and besides the comments are the best part of his posts.

First, let us define sustainability.  That is pretty broad term, but for these discussions, I define it thusly:

The ability for the human population to maintain a lifestyle that does not impact the economy, the environment, or natural resources in such a way that any are destroyed, exhausted, or significantly and irreversibly degraded.

Well, this is pretty broad.  Sustainability runs the gamut from natural resources, to the global economy, to the overload of people on our planet, to energy supply and use, and many other factors as well.  One of the problems is that all of these issues are connected to a greater or lesser extent, so when one is perturbed, so are all of the others.  This complex set of relationships makes it extremely to model “what if” scenarios, especially without a tremendous amount of data to put into such a model.  In addition, some of the data that exist are of questionable validity.  However, I can make a couple of speculations.

First, I am quite pessimistic that our western lifestyle can be maintained, let alone improved, unless we (the developed and especially the rapidly developing) counties change the way in which things are done.  India and China MUST be major players in these endeavors, because that is where the bulk of the population is.  These two nations have a combined population of 2.53 billion at present, out of a projected 2012 world total of 7 billion.

When I was born, the world population was just under 3 billion people.  I have lived through a population doubling event, and have a good chance of living to see the population triple in my lifetime if projections based on estimated rates of growth are accurate.  This is an astonishing number of people.  Also note that India and China alone currently have almost as many people as existed on the entire globe when I was born.

These numbers are disturbing as well as astonishing.  To feed 7 billion people requires significantly greater resources proportionately than to feed 3 billion, because the amount of arable land has not increased since 1957, and actually has decreased because of poor land practices and the physical area required for 4 billion more people to live.  Here is how we have managed to do so:

First, mechanization and intensive agricultural practices have increased the amount of crops that can be produced from a given land area.  However, mechanization requires natural resources and energy, and intensive cropping often destroys topsoil and the fertility of the land.  There is not much that can be done about topsoil, but intensive use of chemical fertilizers can offset heavy cropping.  Heavy fertilizer use has its own problems, including loading waterways and eventually saltwater at river outlets with excess nutrients, causing things like the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico.  It also requires lots of natural resources and energy to produce, transport, and apply the fertilizers.  To complicate matters, projections show that the amount of phosphate (one of the big three nutrients of nitrogen, phosphate, and potassium) that can be economically exploited will be worked out in less than 100 years.

Second, irrigation has increased the productivity of formerly marginal land.  One of the most striking examples is in the Central Valley of California, which is pretty much a desert without irrigation.  Now that there is a prolonged drought in the western United States, we are seeing almond trees being bulldozed to make was for crops that have a better return on water used.  In addition, those 4 billion extra people have to have fresh water to drink and for other domestic uses.  Another nasty little secret about fresh water is that industrial operations consume a tremendous amount of fresh water, much of it rendered unfit to drink or for irrigation without expensive and resource intensive treatment.

Third, the introduction of superior varieties of crops has increased the productivity of staples, but with the more sophisticated techniques available today there is a big controversy about genetic engineering contaminating the genetic makeup of “wild” plants and even animals.  I personally think that this is one of the least of the problems.  In my estimate, the real danger is the greater and greater reliance on only a few, highly productive strains of staple crops rather than hundreds of varieties in the past.  The danger with this is that when (not if) some pathogen or pest evolves that attacks these few strains that devastation of the strains that provide the bulk of the food occurs.

And these are only a very few of the factors involving just food production.  There are many other aspects of supporting civilization that are also becoming harder and harder to sustain.  Energy is the 800 pound gorilla in the room, because everything operates off of energy.  Many projections indicate that peak oil either has already been attained or will be by 2014.  In other words, after the instant of peak oil, less and less will be produced as time goes on, until finally there are no more economical sources for oil as an energy source.  (Oil will always be valuable as a raw material for everything from plastics to pharmaceuticals, even if it is too expensive to burn).

Well, we have lots of coal, right?  Actually, Great Britain, the ancestral home of coal mining, reached peak coal in 1919!  Several experts have projected that 90% of the economically workable coal will have been extracted in or around 2074.  That is not that far off, and of course coal is a terrible fuel insofar as its environmental impact goes (unless you are like The SOBber from that false “news” channel who does not believe in anthrogenic climate change).

Natural gas is a better alternative, and is much better from an environmental standpoint.  However, the United States is already importing natural gas, and will increase imports unless new sources are found.  I am cautiously optimistic that methane hydrates on the seafloor can be exploited for its gas content in the fairly near future, but that has yet to be seen.

Nuclear energy may well be a bridge until truly sustainable sources of energy are developed, but the bottom line is that energy, regardless of any government energy policies, will continue to rise in price as long as demand is strong.  The only thing that I see that would significantly reduce demand is either a massive economic collapse or a fairly large change in standard of living, neither of which is, according to the conventional wisdom, a good thing.

All the talk about ethanol is pretty much nonsense.  Since ethanol today is mostly produced by fermenting and distilling corn in the US, corn prices are already on the rise in north America.  There were riots last year in Mexico because of the increase in cost of corn meal, the staple starch in that country.  As I said, everything is connected to everything else.

I think that I shall stop here except to mention another idea that The SOBber has.  His numbskull solution (just one of many numbskull ideas that he has) is just to make more of everything.  He was on his self titled show the other day wearing a baker’s apron that had the lettering,

I’m a Baker, not a Divider.

His application was specifically about the US enonomy, and his implication is that all that we have to do is expand the economy (and ONLY the unfettered, regulation free private sector can do it) everything is fine.  To do back to his pie analogy, he completely neglects to mention that it takes more resources (apples, flour, lard, sugar, fuel) and capital investment (piepans, ovens, etc.) to make more pies.  It is not something that just happens, because there are costs involved.  I am not against expanding the economy, but the conventional wisdom that this is a panacea is just plain wrong.  In the final analysis, there are finite amounts of resources, and these resources are the limiting factor.

The bottom line is that, in my estimate, we are getting dangerously close to the limit of resource availability worldwide, and without serious action we will find ourselves in a position that more conflicts, some perhaps armed, will arise as competition for the remaining resources increases.  That is why I have sort of a heavy heart this evening.

Well, you have done it again.  You have wasted many more einsteins of perfectly good photons reading this discouraging essay.  And even though The SOBber decides to slow down on baking when he reads me say it, I always learn much more than I could possibly hope to teach writing this series, so please keep those comments, questions, corrections, and other feedback coming.  Remember, no technical or scientific issue is off topic here.

Warmest regards,


Crossposted at Docudharma.com and at Dailykos.com


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  1. ideas about better sustainability?

    Warmest regards,


  2. are, insofar as UIDs go, in perfect succession, 3,6,9.  That must be an omen that I ought to start a new series about sustainability!

    LOL!  I do not believe in numerology, but there are several folks at the big orange who what to make it so.  But my loyalties are here, now. What say ye?

    Warmest regards,


    • on 09/27/2010 at 08:55

    I think it could be a great diary series.  It is certainly an important issue.

    But right now I want to pique the geek.

    I read recently (don’t recall where: Orange or the NYT or both) about some incredible topsoil in South America — I’m pretty sure it was in Brazil.  Seems the Native Brazilians there, some couple of thousand years ago, created topsoil that is incredibly rich for growing crops.  When scientists analyzed it, they found all kinds of stuff: burnt bits of wood, bits of clay…read this a few weeks ago & don’t remember everything, but apparently this topsoil has been a “breadbasket” sort of thing for thousands of years and is still producing.

    Your thoughts?  Did you see the story?

    Then there’s “better crop varieties.”  Putting aside the issue of GM crops, I think the people who are against monoculture have it right.  If you only have one or two varieties of, say, corn or tomatoes being cultivated then you run a huge risk of them being wiped out by a mutated virus or other crop disease.  To this end, it is in everyone’s interest to increase the genetic diversity of all plants: and NOT to trademark a single GM variety that is supposedly superior (mostly meaning Roundup resistant).

    Ah, well.  Your diary has many thoughts to consider & it’s late & I worked 10 hours before sitting at my computer, so I’m not going to reply to the rest of your points right now.

    But, yes, I think sustainability could make an excellent series.  

  3. You lost me until you got to the pie part. Lemon pie is my favorite.

    Contrary to the expressed opinion, some energy can actually last forever.  Just when we fear it is depleted, there is a tiny spark.  It usually comes out of the blue. It appears to be spontaneous, but in actuality, it is perpetual.

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