The Weakest Link

by Eric R. Pianka

Among the biggest menaces in the impending future is declining supplies of fossil fuels. American prosperity depends on their continuing availability, but world supplies cannot possibly keep up with the soaring demand. The invention of agriculture about 100 centuries ago allowed us to build cities and develop technology and human knowledge. Ample food supplies also allowed human populations to grow to present-day unsustainable levels (food leads population). Production and delivery of food to livestock and people relies on continuing supplies of oil and natural gas. In the early 1900s, just as natural fertilizers such as bat and bird guano began to run low, two industrious Germans invented the Haber-Bosch process, which allowed production of ammonia from atmospheric nitrogen and water by burning it at high temperature with the natural gas methane. When combined with nitrogen, the resulting ammonium nitrate can be used both as a fertilizer and an explosive (some say Germany could never have gone to war without this complex technology). This technology came to the rescue of agriculture, which depends on continuing supplies of fertilizer, which of course, fed burgeoning billions of hungry humans. But such technology has led us out on to thin ice, for everything now depends on fossil fuels and these will soon be exhausted.

Greed is a natural human instinct that drives us to allow short-term financial returns to override long-term prospects. Our economic system based on the ongoing pursuit of profits and runaway greed is insane because it requires that growth continue forever, an obvious impossibility in a finite world. To stop the economic bubble from bursting, we must reign in runaway greed. Fuel shortfalls will lead to food shortages and higher prices, ultimately deepening the present recession and quite likely will lead to worldwide depression. We cannot afford to ignore the upcoming crunch and wait to react, but we must be proactive and use the last of our diminishing oil reserves to invest in infrastructure, especially electricity grids and railways. We should also develop and install green technologies, such as solar water heating systems as well as photovoltaic and wind turbine driven electrical generating plants.

Earth was a pretty durable spaceship for all its earthlings, but we humans have managed to trash its life-support systems, especially the atmosphere and oceans. In the past century, we have burned fossil fuels that took millions of years to form. Humans now consume (primarily via agriculture, fisheries, forestry, and pastoral activities) HALF of the planet's total production. Today we consume more than half of available freshwater as well as over half of the solar energy trapped by plants. Many species have gone extinct due to human pressures over the past century and many more are threatened and endangered. The planet can no longer dissipate the solar energy that falls to its surface (Hansen et al, Science, 2005), let alone the excess thermal waste heat generated by burning fossil fuels. Access to more energy would lead to the ultimate ecocatastrophe, thermal collapse. If humans survive, our descendents will have to live much more frugally than we have.



Realistic Perspective on The Decline of Oil Supplies

Wikipedia: Peak Oil

Al Gore's bold new goal

Storing Wind Energy: Gravity Batteries

Searching for a Miracle

CSIS: The Age of Consequences

Overpopulation: The Real Crisis

To go to Pianka Lab Homepage

Last updated 22 January 2010 by Eric R. Pianka