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The anxious quality of the discussion about the events in Japan prompted my to post a couple of long comments to an excellent plain-language diary on nuclear energy and the health effects of radiation by Dr. Linda Shelton.  I decided to combine the comments into a diary entry here.  Some obvious questions are not being asked.

More below the fold:

Most importantly, why are we using this obviously dangerous and foolishly underdesigned technology in the first place?  It shares the same root cause as our drilling for oil miles deep under the sea, filling once beautiful Appalachian valleys with the remains of the mountaintops to get at the coal lying underneath, and spewing thousands of tons of CO2 into the atmosphere every hour.  

There is a simple fact that most do not want to face.  Our entire civilization right down to the basic food we put in our bodies is the product of energy consumption.  We are EATING oil, and coal, and nuclear energy, without which we would quickly starve in cold, dark, and empty cities. And, we are doing this like there is no tomorrow.

Sadly, there will be a tomorrow, and it's not going to be a happy day.  Put simply:  The earth cannot and will not sustain much longer the weight of 7+ billion human animals, driving around in 2 tons of steel and plastic, flipping the switch expecting the lights to come on.  This is inexorably true because of fundamental laws of nature which we have chosen to ignore.  To whit: All life requires a flow of energy and other resources.  The earth is finite, and we keep pretending in our vanity and cleverness that we humans are infinite.  We are not.

There are those who will say: Don't worry, technology can solve our problems, that our difficulties arent technical; they are social and political. Resources aren't really a problem.  We will always figure out a way to feed everyone on the planet with ease and in an environmentally sustainable way if only put in force the right policies and develop the needed technological solutions.

We need to understand that our challenges are a combination of ALL the named factors.  Taking technology:  One important aspect of the technological world is that it results in the exploitation and inevitable depletion of resources at an ever increasing rate, and many of these resources are already in short supply.  Starry eyed believers in infinitely beneficent technology would have us accept  that this can continue forever, that we will ALWAYS develop new and better technologies to replace depleted resources, etc..  This is simply wishful thinking.  As I said, the earth is finite.  

Today for instance, we are using more fixed nitrogen from fossil fuel sources to grow crops than ALL the nitrogen from natural sources combined.  There is today no existing, proposed, or even theoretical alternate source for this fertilizer, and given oil depletion, global warming, and other finite PHYSICAL parameters there is not likely to be a future solution.  Who can say now, except as an assertion of faith, that technology will always find alternatives?  This is exactly the same hubris that leads foolish engineers to assert that accidents can NEVER happen.  

It is possible to conceive a world with a much reduced standard of living, supporting today's large population, farming organically, and living like third-world peasants.  However, the world population is projected to grow to over 10 - 12 billion in the next half-century.  At what point does this become an insoluble problem?  Where exactly do we find the political mechanisms and public will (short of widespread war and famine) to do anything about this hard fact of demographics?

Perhaps the engineers in Japan will regain control of this horrible situation, perhaps not.  Nevertheless, we are ridng the back of a tiger.  I include myself in this selfishness -- what choice do we have?  I imagine the history of this age of decline, if there is anybody left who cares to write, will begin with:  "It all started with the earthquake in Japan......"  In my reflective moments the best I can come up with is: "I am glad to be 64 years old.  It's been a hell of a party.  I sure wish we had listened to Malthus and Erlich when we could still have done something about it."

One must remain hopeful (morally one must), and wish humanity would wake up and take the needed steps to dramatically reduce population, environmental degradation, and resource depletion, however I don't see any real movement to those ends.  I do not say that the world is going to end, just that it's not likely to be a very pleasant place for our children to live in.  

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Comment Preferences

  •  Tip Jar (8+ / 0-)

    Labor was the first price paid for all things. It was not by money, but by labour, that all wealth of the world was originally purchased. - Adam Smith

    by boatwright on Thu Mar 17, 2011 at 10:03:40 AM PDT

    •  There's not much room for hope (0+ / 0-)

      when the human population just keeps going up, resources are being depleted, and the poisons are just piling up everywhere.
      When we've gotten to the point that many folk think killing the natural wealth of the planet with radioactive pollution and GM pseudo-foods is a good thing as long as they can survive in front of their TV for a little longer, you know we're screwed.

      "I almost died for the international monetary system; what the hell is that?" ~ The In-laws

      by Andhakari on Thu Mar 17, 2011 at 10:22:52 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  I liked your diary, but I have to (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    bythesea, the fan man

    respectfully disagree that the planet can't support 7 billion. This planet could support 14 billion if we all lived in cities that were built vertically and used the surrounding areas for reforestation.

    •  Why would anyone want that? (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Neuroptimalian

      Can you imagine that it might ever happen in anything other than a sci-fi novel?

      "I almost died for the international monetary system; what the hell is that?" ~ The In-laws

      by Andhakari on Thu Mar 17, 2011 at 10:24:39 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Life in a single-room occupancy... (0+ / 0-)

        ...hotel is what that would be like.

        Now, if you want to apply a big tech fix, think powersats.

        Me? I live in Illinois: 11 nuclear reactors supply almost 60% of our electricity, with the biggest chunk of the remainder from burning coal. Just a sliver comes from wind, which is growing oh-so-slowly. And the New Madrid Fault meanders up into the Land of Lincoln.

        Make me glad Calamity Jean and I didn't have kids.

        Float like a manhole cover, sting like a sash weight! Clean Coal Is A Clinker!

        by JeffW on Thu Mar 17, 2011 at 10:28:54 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  Me, I live in Norway (though born a Hoosier) (2+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          JeffW, k9disc

          and I'm surrounded by forests and my electricity comes from hydroelectric and my heat comes from my renewable trees.  A low population density is so nice.
          Steam from coal, and then power from oil and nukes allowed the planet's population to increase from 1 or 2 billion to nearly 7 billion today in almost no time - at least compared the span of human history. Without cheap energy the population will fall even faster.  It won't be pretty.

          "I almost died for the international monetary system; what the hell is that?" ~ The In-laws

          by Andhakari on Thu Mar 17, 2011 at 10:57:09 AM PDT

          [ Parent ]

      •  Why would anyone want that? (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        psilocynic

        Many people might like the idea of living in the equivalent of Manhattan a short daytrip from surrounding equivalent of National Forests, at least certainly as an alternative to massive die-offs and/or famine I'd think.  Whether it will happen or is politically feasible outside of a SF novel is another question.

      •  It wouldn't matter if people wanted to. (0+ / 0-)

        We might have to.

    •  They still have to eat (0+ / 0-)

      and if we mostly live in dense population centers like that, then distribution of food and other resources from their origins is probably a more energy-demanding process.

      I'd have to see the detail. The reality is that if as we consume more resources just to eat and so forth, there are fewer available for everything else. There exists a limit L...

      I suspect the planet probably could support 14 billion humans, but I'm pretty dubious that it could be a world any of us would like to see.

    •  Theoretically... (0+ / 0-)

      ... this may be possible, but I'd have to rate it with living like a third world peasant as a practical matter.  Crowded cities in some parts of the world are already going up -- in Hong Kong for example -- but I wouldn't say much for the quality of life living in that human beehive.

      We already have hit or exceeded the practical limits of public finance and engineering science's ability to provide things like clean water and adequate sewerage in cities at today's densities.  There are so many huge engineering and practical problems associated with such dreams that I would have to put them in the same category as a flying car in every driveway -- looks cool on the cover of Popular Science Magazine, but not likely to happen.

      Labor was the first price paid for all things. It was not by money, but by labour, that all wealth of the world was originally purchased. - Adam Smith

      by boatwright on Thu Mar 17, 2011 at 11:02:41 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  I hear you (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    boatwright, citisven, k9disc

    gotta say, my move into ecology and conservation was really not so much good for my mood. It's impending catastrophe everywhere you look, and we've got a culture battling like crazy over just sort of nibbling away at fuel efficiency in light vehicles, say.

    Part of the issue is that so many of the things we're facing are interconnected with so many other major issues. Population is a prime example, and it is the biggest underlying issue here, the thing that connects all the dots. But you're not going to see serious movement toward population stability in most of the world, for example, until you address poverty, access to health care and reproductive choice, and education. You cannot ask people who are scratching out the barest survival, who need kids to help work, fetch water, tend goats, who fear losing them to malaria, to sacrifice much while we here in the US use so many of the world's resources to uphold a standard of living that is unthinkable in much of the world.

    If you want to address population growth, you have to address distribution of wealth.

    And handling our energy needs with a growing population worldwide, in a way that doesn't continue catastrophic CO2 buildup in the atmosphere -- even with major conservation efforts there -- is going to require some kind of breakthrough, and very soon. The scale of the problem is absolutely huge, we won't solve it even with dramatically increasing our reliance on nuclear plants. We're essentially having to count on research coming up with a terrific set of ideas in solar, say -- but breakthroughs don't happen just because we really really need them.

    There are limits. There's only so much air to fill with carbon. There's only so much uranium to mine easily. There's only so much platinum for fuel cells. There are only so many fish -- the oceans are struggling under the load of our needs and our pollution. There's only so much ability for the planet to support our huge population, and it comes at the expense of available resources for most other species on the planet, many of which are going through hair-raising population declines.

    Paying for all of that is no longer something that is generations away. I'm in my early 30's, and I have every reason to think I'm going to spend the last half of my life watching massive environmental disasters that snowball into humanitarian ones as well. We're getting the first wobbles of it already. And we have, despite what many may assert, absolutely no idea how to really stop it, at scale.

  •  One of the biggest issues (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    boatwright, Spit, k9disc

    is having an economic system that's based on eternal growth. I think that's the biggest fallacy of it all. What that's done aside from ravage the earth is that it has created this irrational fear of non-growth, which is the very foundation of sustainability. Somehow we've convinced ourselves that life would be horrible or would simply not be possible without constant growth and increasing consumption. I think we need to challenge that type of thinking if we want to fundamentally change the dynamics of our current predicament. Is it possible to have less material things and be as satisfied and happy? I think so, I truly believe we could live perfectly happy lives if we placed less value on material possessions and instant gratification. In fact, a lot of people in less developed countries show that it's possible to live much less wasteful yet content lives. I'm not talking about a choice between glamor and squalor, but simply the possibility and feasibility of a modest but fulfilling life for all.

    •  Grow or Die is stupid. Totally agree, sven. (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      citisven

      Steady State economics is our only hope.

      One of the reasons I can't stand pols that stay within the corporate "Grow or Die" consumption and extraction economy.

      It's suicide.

      Ugh, what a depressing diary. A good one, but depressing. It always hurts more when you hear or read it from other people.

      We are looking to get a large Yurt to live in. Looking to go off grid. Hopefully we can...
      peace

      Democracy - 1 person 1 vote. Free Markets - More dollars more power.

      by k9disc on Thu Mar 17, 2011 at 12:32:53 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  good luck k9disc (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        k9disc

        It's true, it's depressing, but it's also a call to get serious about challenging the status quo. Obviously we may already have passed a crucial threshold but I figure it's never too late to try. And personally I'm most committed to pointing out how nice a more simple life can be. People imagine it to be so horrible to be without all their conveniences, but they don't realize that all that stuff often makes our lives more complicated and difficult. Again, it's not an all or nothing proposition, but most of the stuff we use energy for is really just wasted energy.

  •  Riding the back of a tiger indeed, but there (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    k9disc

    are serious problems with some of your assertions. Why every population diary fails to mention the near negative pop growth of developed countries is beyond me.  This was not anticipted by Ehrlich. Disease and malnutrition still takes it toll in many developing countries.  Sadly, AIDS is trimming populations In Africa to the extent that villages face collapse from lack of healthy adults.

    On another note, this last century has proven nothing if not the ability of technology to substitute one resource for another. The elephant of course, is fossil fuels. Here, it's not a lack of innovation, but vested interests that prevent us from moving forward.

    Farming? Pollution from nitrogen (GHG) is an issue already. Green and animal manures can help reduce the need for chem nitrogen substantially.  The quicker we can move from unsustainable food production to one that treats the soil as a living, non-renewable resource, the better. There's so much low hanging fruit in ag, it's ridiculous.

    “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.”, Theodore Roosevelt

    by the fan man on Thu Mar 17, 2011 at 11:01:46 AM PDT

    •  I didn't read it as assuming endless exponential (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      boatwright, k9disc

      10-12 B is the prediction with a flattening of the curve. Current thinking balances us out somewhere in the 12B range, give or take a billion or so.

      There is no other species at our trophic level on the planet that has anywhere near a population like that. I mean, anywhere near.

      "Developed" nations do indeed have much slower growth, some even achieving zero or negative growth. But even with the constant pain and loss of life through disease and malnutrition going on in much of the "developing" world, those populations are growing overall. That's baked into the 12-ish billion.

      I use quotes, as an aside, because i hate the terminology -- like we're done "developing," and all of these other places are just working on it. At least the biases in "first world" vs. "third world" were clear, I guess. Also makes me think that if the so called "developing" nations do develop into full-fledged "developed" just like us, we'll have global catastrophe even if their population growth stops, just based on consumption. If everybody currently on the planet lived like Americans, we'd be well and truly fucked.

  •  One of the things that .... (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    k9disc

    ... has me in such a dark mood lately is the recent issue of National Geographic.  Included are several depressing and scary photos of our human world as well as a graphic of the "IPAT" Equation.

    I = P x A x T   --  I (Total Human Impact) = Population X Affluence x Technology

    The graphic show the equation expressed as a box, with the size of each of the above factors representing one dimension of the box.

    If the box in 1950 was the size of a big city phone book, today it's about the size of a medium sized refrigerator.

    From the article:

    The bad news is that 2030 is two decades away and that the largest generation of adolescents in history will then be entering their childbearing years. Even if each of those women has only two children, population will coast upward under its own momentum for another quarter century. Is a train wreck in the offing, or will people then be able to live humanely and in a way that doesn’t destroy their environment? One thing is certain: Close to one in six of them will live in India.

    I have understood the population explosion intellectually for a long time. I came to understand it emotionally one stinking hot night in Delhi a couple of years ago… The temperature was well over 100, and the air was a haze of dust and smoke. The streets seemed alive with people. People eating, people washing, people sleeping. People visiting, arguing, and screaming. People thrusting their hands through the taxi window, begging. People defecating and urinating. People clinging to buses. People herding animals. People, people, people, people. —Paul Ehrlich

    Labor was the first price paid for all things. It was not by money, but by labour, that all wealth of the world was originally purchased. - Adam Smith

    by boatwright on Thu Mar 17, 2011 at 11:24:48 AM PDT

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