More Questions and Answers

I've heard people some people say that technology will solve any resource shortages we might face. Is this true?

Humans are an incredibly inventive, creative species. But it is important to realize, technology does not create resources. Technology cannot create fertile topsoil or produce abundant fresh water. Technology allows us to use resources - including the "master" resource of energy.

Over 80% of the globe's total energy is supplied by non-renewable and depleting fossil fuels, and this proportion has changed little over the past several decades. Industrial and information age technologies alike require enormous quantities of non-renewable fossil fuels, metals, and minerals. As these resources become scarcer, they also become more expensive.

Technology can make our use of resources more efficient. In the short-run this can make resources cheaper but, in the long-run, with steadily increasing population and consumption the demand for resources increases and so does the cost.  Then we have to find some new technology to increase efficiency and lower cost - and the process continues - all the while more and more resources are consumed.  

Also, our technological advances in recent decades have not been as amazing as many of us assume. Some areas of modern life, such as our communications technologies with computers and smartphones, have indeed grown enormously in the past two decades. But technologies used in essential areas such as agriculture and energy have seen no major breakthroughs. Other areas, like transportation, have remained nearly the same for decades. And some areas, like the built infrastructure in the developed countries - are moving backward as roads, bridges, rails, and ports crumble and decay for lack of maintenance. 

Technology can help us devise smarter ways to conserve resources. But we cannot rely on technology to "save" us from the overshoot we are in and the collapse we face if we continue overpopulating and over-consuming the planet. 

I've heard people say that the planet could support far more people. Is this true?

There's a lot more to it than just discussing how many people we could cram onto the planet. Yes, we could physically have more people on the planet, but right now our human population is gobbling up resources faster than the Earth can create them and producing pollution faster than the Earth can absorb. We live on a finite planet, and we simply have too many people consuming and polluting too much for the Earth to sustainably support long-term.

And what about the quality of human life? What is the role of our species? Should we keep trying to grow human impact and artificially modify this planet more and more? Should we keep using up many precious resources faster than they can be replenished, leaving little or nothing for our great-grandchildren and driving thousands of species to extinction in the process? Should we keep trying to test the limitations of natural resources and the planet's pollution-absorbing capacity, hoping that technology can buy us a little more time? From a biological, ethical, and philosophical standpoint, it is far better for us to reduce the human presence on the planet for the sake of all species - including our own. Wouldn't future generations want us to do that?

Are the world's resources really all that finite? For instance, I've heard we've got more than enough food for everyone on this planet.

Food production has increased an impressive amount in the past several decades. Most of that increase was due to what's called the 'Green Revolution' - which involved better seeds, more irrigation, more farm machinery, more fertilizer, and more herbicides and pesticides.

Only the "better seeds" part of the Green Revolution involved pure human ingenuity. The rest of the increased production was due to the intensive use of fossil fuels to power machinery, pump groundwater, and synthesize fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides.

The fossil fuels of oil and natural gas that have fueled the Green Revolution are depleting non-renewable resources. Similarly, two essential minerals found in fertilizer - phosphorous and potash - are being mined at industrial scale and at unsustainable rates. Meanwhile, the environmental impacts of producing food for 7+ billion of us are staggering: huge amounts of soil erosion, groundwater depletion, and deforestation; water pollution from fertilizer tun-off; and large amounts of greenhouse gas emissions.

Nearly 40% of the Earth's land surface is used for cropland and pastureland, and only marginal land remains. According to the UN, an area of cultivated land the size of Iowa and Wisconsin combined is lost every year to erosion and more population sprawl.

If current population and consumption trends continue, the UN estimates that food production will need to increase by 50% by 2050. Meanwhile, the growth in yield for our staple crops is slowing, and agricultural researchers see no 'Second Green Revolution' in sight. 

All this points to steadily increasing food costs in the coming century. And, in the global auction for food, the poorest will suffer most. Reducing birth rates will allow our soils and aquifers to replenish and help build a sustainable agriculture that can provide adequate nutrition for everyone on the planet.

What about water resources? Aren't there lots of ways to become more water-efficient like drip agriculture?  Can't we just desalinate ocean water?  Or what about moving water from wet to dry places? 

On a global scale, we are currently over-pumping groundwater aquifers 3 1/2 times faster then they can be recharged. The UN predicts that by 2030 almost half the world's population will live under conditions of high water stress. Climate change is altering rainfall patterns and large areas of the planet that have typically received sufficient rainfall are now going dry.

There is much we can do to conserve water and use it more efficiently. Drip irrigation is very water-efficient, but it also requires an expensive investment in resource-intensive metal pipes. Desalination is energy-intensive and expensive. Moving water is also hugely expensive. Water weighs 8 pounds per gallon, and it requires canals and pumps to move it long distance. 

And water's not just needed for us humans. Freshwater and ocean marine life are under stress as we continue to pollute the planet's waters and warm and acidify the oceans. Sadly, increasing numbers of aquatic species are threatened with extinction. 

Give me a quick rundown on the world energy situation. So what if we run out of fossil fuels? Won't we just find other energy sources?

Unfortunately, nothing we've found so far can give us as much cheap, reliable energy as fossil fuels do. Lower greenhouse gas emissions are necessary to avoid ongoing climate change and renewable energy use is growing. But renewable energy - hydropower, solar, wind, biofuels, biomass (mostly wood), and geothermal - supplies only 11% of total world energy use. By themselves, solar and wind comprise about 3% of total global energy. Nuclear energy remains expensive and dangerous and dreams of nuclear fusion are still dreams. 

The fossil fuels of oil, coal, and natural gas continue to make up over 80% of total world energy. And billions of people around the world want the cheap energy fossil fuels provide so that they can have the agricultural and industrial machinery, lighting, heating, cooling, transport, and modern industrial products that most people in the developed countries take for granted.

These cheap fossil fuels are finite and, as they continue depleting, they will become more expensive over the long-term. The transition to renewables is necessary, but the transition will take decades and it will be difficult and costly. 

Like any animal, we humans have increased our numbers as we've increased our access to energy. Since the fossil fuel era began two hundred years ago we've increased our numbers from 1 billion to over 7 billion. As the cheap fossil fuels deplete we will need a smaller global population to achieve an adequate standard of living for all. Dramatically reducing birth rates can greatly ease the necessary but difficult transition away from fossil fuels and toward the renewable energy future. 

Won't sending humans into space solve the population problem on Earth?

The resources it takes to send just eight or nine people into space right now are enormous! And we continue to add over 220,000 people a day to the world's population, net gain! It is highly doubtful that any time soon we will "solve" the world's overpopulation problem by sending over a million people into space every week!

At present, Earth is our "spaceship" -- and a very beautiful and fertile one at that, but it is one that is under tremendous ecological strain. People choosing smaller families in countries all over the world can create a more habitable planet and a brighter future for all species.