Monday, December 19, 2005

Which Way Will the World End?

Roll up, roll up! Which way will the world end? Place your bets!

Of all the scenarios presented below, all but one of them is actually happening right now. All of the scenarios happening right now are very close to the critical point, or on the critical point, or (perhaps) have passed the critical point.

There are some degrees of mutual dependency amongst the various scenarios. For instance, exceeding the carry capacity of the planet and intensive agriculture are almost two faces of the same coin. Yet we could exceed the carry capacity of the planet without intensive agriculture and intensive agriculture could doom us even if we were nowhere close to the carry capacity of the planet. The fact that we are at the carry capacity of the planet and the fact that we use intensive agriculture both contribute strongly to global warming. In the cases of dependencies like these, which scenario we blame for the calamity will depend upon which one is perceived to have the dominant effect.

Bear in mind when you read this that the world population is increasing by 1.1% per year. This may not sound too bad, but it is compound increase: if you start with 1 billion people then 1 year later you have 1.011 billion people; two years later you have not 1.022 billion people but 1.022121 billion people (1.011 × 1.011); three years later you have not 1.033 billion people but 1.033364331 billion people. The discrepancy may seem small, but as the years go by it becomes increasingly larger. If the growth were not compound then it would take 91 years for the population to double; because the growth is compound it will take only 64 years for the population to double.

This means that if you could take any of the resource problems below and magically reduce our consumption by half (e.g., cut oil consumption by half) or double the effective resource (e.g., make agriculture produce twice as much food) in only 64 years we will be at the same point. There is no magic that will allow us to do these things anyway. Also note that Bush has put restrictions on medical and humanitarian aid to under-developed and developing countries so that they cannot use it in facilities which promote birth control or contraception, so the population increase is likely to rise back to the high point it had in the early 1960s of 2.2%. With a population increase of 2.2% the population doubles every 32 years.

Here are the scenarios.

Exceeding the carry capacity of the planet
There are many limits on the carry capacity (how many human beings it can sustain in perpetuity) of the planet and we have exceeded several of these in various geographic locations and are close to exceeding them globally.

Some areas are dependent upon artesian wells drawing up underground water to sustain their population. Underground water that comes from rain falling on mountains hundreds or thousands of miles away and travelling underground. It can take several thousands of years for rain that fell on the mountain to percolate to the well from which it is drawn. As long as you draw off no more than is replenished, all is sustainable. When you go beyond that point eventually you will hit problems.

In fact there is an impending water crisis all over the planet. Freshwater is being diverted to sustain populations and agriculture. But the populations where the water is being taken from are also increasing. There is only so much fresh water to go around and we're using all of it. The population is growing...

The populations of some countries have outstripped their capability to sustainably grow crops. In Nepal the attempts to force greater crop yields have caused topsoil to lose its structure and wash away into rivers. That loss of topsoil, of course, increases the pressure to grow crops on what remains, causing more destruction of topsoil. It takes many thousands of years for topsoil to form.

In parts of Africa the need for fuel (for cooking) has caused people to chop down trees. Trees which prevented high winds from blowing away topsoil.

The Amazon rainforest is being relentlessly destroyed so the ground can be used to feed cattle which end up in MuckDonalds' burgers. The loss of rainforest is contributing to global warming (see a later scenario).

Over-fishing has collapsed fish stocks in the North Sea and around Canada to the point from which they may never recover even if fishing were banned completely (politics means that fishing will continue at ever lower rates until there are no more fish).

And so it goes. Part of the starvation problem in Africa is due to dicatators forcing populations to grow cash crops for export (to countries like the US) instead of feeding themselves. A large part of the problem is our insistence on high meat diets. It takes roughly ten times the crops (and water resources) to feed people meat raised on those crops as to feed them the crops directly. Chimpanzees, our closest living relatives, consume a diet which is around 2% meat; their intestinal tract is almost identical to our own so it is likely that we evolved to eat that little meat and many health problems are related to excess consumption of meat. But even if we all switched to diets that are mainly vegetarian that will only delay the problem by a century (not all farmland is suitable for crops, such as the hills of Wales which are suited only for raising sheep).

Intensive agriculture
Intensive agriculture, using artificial fertilizers, artificial pesticides, and oil-powered agricultural machinery has greatly increased the amount of food we can raise per acre. Without it we could not feed the world's population today (unless they went vegetarian). But it comes at a horrendous cost.

Artificial fertilizers and pesticides require large amounts of oil to make. Agricultural machinery requires oil to power it. Transporting food long distance by roads requires oil. Intensive agriculture is a major contributor to global warming (see later) and Peak Oil (see later).

Prior to intensive agriculture most people lived and worked on the land. There were no sewerage facilities so people used cess pits to ferment their excrement which was later returned to the land as fertilizer. Some food was shipped to the cities, where the excrement was lost to the land through sewerage systems. Now we have relatively few farm workers (driving monster farm machinery to replace the manual labour of days gone by) and major connurbations. The nutrition locked up in the soil goes to the crops; the crops go to the city; the city shits the nutrition into the sewers; the sewerage is dumped out at sea where it feeds algal blooms that poison fish.

To replace that lost nutrition we instead use artificial fertilizers. Unlike sewerage, which releases its goodness very slowly, artificial fertilizers get washed away into rivers within days of application. This means they must be applied frequently so that the crops can snatch up a tiny part before it is washed away. The washed away artificial fertilizer poisons streams and rivers before it eventually ends up in the oceans to feed algal blooms that poison fish.

Intensive agriculture is also destroying topsoil which takes many thousands of years to replace.

Global warming
Global warming is happening. It's measurable. There are a handful of honest scientists who think otherwise. There are a larger number of shills paid for by the oil companies who say otherwise whether they believe it or not. The vast majority of scientists are absolutely certain that global warming is happening. The only questions are how fast, how extreme, when will we reach the point of no return and what the exact changes will be.

One effect will be a melting of the icecaps and an increase in sea level. Most major coastal cities arose as ports: land which is close to sea level or near the mouth of a navigable estuary. Most major coastal cities will be flooded. Much low-lying land across the globe will be flooded.

Some of the effects of global warming are paradoxical: the United Kingdom and much of Europe may get very much colder. The UK is at the same latitude as Siberia but is very much warmer. This is due to the Gulf Stream: a warm ocean current starts from the Gulf of Mexico, follows the eastern coastlines of the US and Newfoundland, travels across the Atlantic, splits into two, one part flowing past (and warming) the UK and Northern Europe. It continues towards the Arctic, getting colder and saltier as it goes. At the arctic it is colder and saltier than the Arctic waters so sinks, and then makes a return journey to the Gulf of Mexico at a much lower depth. This "conveyer belt" is slowing down because of the melting of the Arctic icecap.

The change in temperatures around the globe will mean that some currently arable lands will become deserts. Areas which are still capable of growing crops will find that traditional crops are unsuited to the new conditions.

The Alaskan and Siberian permafrost is thawing. Permafrost is soil or marsh laced with ice that never melts and is strong enough to build houses on. Houses in Alaska are now suffering subsidence, or tilting over, or collapsing. The Siberian permafrost is mainly frozen marshland, and as the permafrost melts that marshland starts to decompose and release the greenhouse gas methane, increasing global warming.

The retreat of glaciers across the globe, and the melting of the icecaps, means there is less ice to reflect sunlight and more ground which absorbs sunlight, increasing global warming.

The exposure of Siberian marshland and the melting ice means that even if we stopped all greenhouse gas emissions right now (we can't) then things are going to get worse before they get better. In fact, they may already have reached the "tipping point" where nothing we can do will stop runaway global warming.

Take a rectangular carton of orange juice. Place your finger in the middle of one of the longer top edges and push a millimeter: the carton tilts. Release your finger and the carton drops back (it may rock a little). Repeat, but push a little further: again the carton tilts and again drops back when you remove the push. Keep going, pushing a little further each time. Eventually you push so far that the carton topples over even though you remove the push as soon as it starts to topple. That is the "tipping point" and we may already have passed that with global warming.

Peak Oil
In 1956 Shell geologist M King Hubbert came to the conclusion that the production rate of an oil field (or a region of oil fields) followed a "bell curve" (a curve which resembles the profile of a bell). Eventually you hit peak production (at the top of the bell curve) and thereafter production declines. Hubbert predicted US oil production would peak in the 1970s and his colleagues laughed at him.

Hubbert was proven right. US production did peak in the early 70s and precipitated the oil crisis when the US stopped being a nett exporter of oil and became a nett importer. The same principle applies globally and even the most optimistic estimates say that global peak oil will hit around 2020. In fact, there is some tentative evidence which indicates it may already have hit (production fluctuations mean it's hard to spot the exact peak). As it happens, we are just managing to fill demand with current production, but demand is increasing exponentially as the population grows and as the developing world becomes more industrialized.

When Peak Oil hits demand will continue to increase but supply will fall, leading to vastly increased prices ($100/gallon may sound high, but that is only decades away and it will get far, far worse in the years after). Driving less and using energy-efficient lightbulbs isn't going to help. Peak Oil doesn't mean that there is no oil left (in fact, there will be about as much left as we have extracted to date) but that there is not enough to go around and prices go through the roof.

Intensive agriculture is very dependent upon cheap oil to produce fertilizers and pesticides; to run agricultural machinery; to transport food long distances. Without cheap oil there can be no intensive agriculture. Without intensive agriculture approximately 90% of the world's population will die of starvation.

We have long since used up all the minerals and resources that could be obtained using a pick and shovel and a mule or two. The days when a small band of people using pickaxes and shovels could dig enough coal, iron ore, and limestone to set up an iron smelter have long gone. Today mineral resources are only accessible through the use of machinery powered by cheap oil. Without that we lose the ability to manufacture the items relied upon by modern civilization (most of which require vast amounts of cheap oil in addition to mineral inputs). In short, after Peak Oil we are headed towards another Stone Age. One from which there can be no escape because there are no longer any resources which can be obtained without cheap oil.

We have many alternative energy sources but none can compete with oil in terms of Energy Return on Investment (EROI). The EROI of oil is currently around 33 (by burning one barrel of oil you can obtain another 33 barrels of oil). Some of the best alternatives have an EROI of 1.5 and many alternatives still have EROIs of less than 1 (it takes more energy to make them than they ever pay back). None of the alternatives has the energy density of oil that would allow them to be suitable for the long-distance transport essential to today's society or even to power farm machinery.

Even if we already had an alternative energy source could provide an alterntive to oil for transportation, none of the alternative energy sources are deployed widely enough to replace more than a fraction of our energy usage. Most of them (solar and wind) cannot produce continuously and would require storage mechanisms we just don't have. The alternatives we have just don't cut it, even if they were far more widely deployed. And developing and deploying better alternatives would require a massive investment of time, money, and (most importantly) energy (in the form of cheap oil).

Had we started to develop alternative energy sources back when Hubbert made his predictions we might now have alternatives that could replace oil. Evn had we started back in the 1970s when US Peak Oil hit we might have the alternatives. The economic pressures that will direct real research towards alternatives will only happen when oil prices go through the roof and by that time it will be too late: any alternatives will require cheap oil to develop and deploy. By the time the economic pressures force politicians to admit that there is a problem we will no longer have the resource (cheap oil) needed to solve the problem.

See Life After the Oil Crash for details. However, I think his post-crash survival scenarios are somewhat implausible. When Peak Oil starts to bite, the starving with guns are going to seek out the prepared. If all those who had not prepared ahead were to just sit down and starve then his scenarios might just work for those who had prepared. The reality of the situation is that there is going to be a lot of fighting and very few survivors.

Global thermonuclear war
By now you might be wondering if Peak Oil is why Bush invaded Iraq (actually, that invasion, and the eventual take-over of all the oil resources in the Middle East, had been on Cheney's and Wolfowitz's hit-list since 1992), and you'd be right. Saddam probably speeded things up a little by trying to switch from selling oil in dollars to selling it in Euros because if the rest of Opec had followed the US economy would have collapsed. But the main reason is Peak Oil.

Had Bush done this to buy time to develop alternative energy sources, and promised to share the oil with Russia, China, India and Pakistan, and had he promised to then use those alternative energy sources to help bring the rest of the world out of the Stone Age, I might have supported him. I live in a country that would probably had gone into the Stone Age and I would not have survived, but I would like to see civilization survive even if I am not part of it (we all have to die some day). But it's quite clear this is not the case. You only have to look at the withdrawal of tax incentives on fuel-efficient hybrids and the tax breaks given to the purchase of gas-guzzling SUVs to know that. Bush just wants to steal the oil so that the US is the last country standing and the last country to collapse into a Stone Age (actually, his motives may not even be that high).

All of the world is dependent upon cheap oil, not just Russia, China, India and Pakistan. But those countries have nukes. Are they going to sit back and let the US steal the world's oil while their citizens starve and their countries descend into a Stone Age? I very much doubt it.

Despite what the Strangelove types in the Pentagon say, a global thermonuclear war is not survivable, even by countries that don't get hit. Atmospheric tests were cancelled when it was realized that the fallout was causing up to a 5% decline in SAT scores, a die-off of 50% of the fish in the mid-Atlantic, and a whole host of other problems. The fall-out from an all-out war would certainly kill all higher forms of life on the planet, if not all the lower forms too.

Depleted Uranium
Depleted Uranium munitions are likely to kill all life on the planet. They are, in effect, "dirty bombs" releasing toxic radioactive material.

They have greater penetrating power than any other type of munition. They have the "advantage" that the uranium burns, and so after penetrating a tank or a building also acts as an incendiary round (resulting in Iraqi tanks containing what the troops refer to as "crispy critters"). As the uranium burns it produces particles of uranium oxide ranging in size from visible particles in cigarette smoke down to far smaller nanoparticles. These particles spread far and wide from the impact point.

Depleted uranium is slightly radioactive, but that is not its main danger. It is a heavy metal and therefore interferes in all sorts of ways with cellular machinery. It is carcinogenic (causes cancer), mutagenic (causes mutations in sperm and egg producing cells) and teratogenic (causes birth deformities). Bush-the-slightly-smarter used only 350 tons of DU in Iraq and the rates of cancers and serious birth defects went up between 8 and 14 times (the number depends on the particular cancer or type of birth defect). Of a group of soldiers who served a few months in the first Iraq war, over one-third went on to father children with serious birth defects. We don't have any figures for how much DU has been used in this war other than a release from the Pentagon saying 2,220 tons had been used in March and April of 2003.

We've probably used up enough to kill all life in Iraq. But the uranium oxide is in the form of very fine particles and Iraq is subject to dust storms which carry it all over the planet. We may be using it in Iraq but it's going everywhere. We may soon use enough to kill all forms of life everywhere on the planet, down to the lowliest bacterium at the bottom of the ocean. We may already have done so.

So those are the scenarios. All of them apart from global thermonuclear war are in progress right now. Of the ones in progress, all are so close to the critical point that we don't know if the critical point is yet to happen or if it has already happened. It's pretty much a race as to which of them is going to have a big enough effect to wipe us out before the others get a chance to.

One day, in the future, your descendents may sit around the campfire flaking flints to make arrowheads while telling their children tales of which of those scenarios predominated in wiping out civilization and most of humanity. Most likely not, because it's unlikely anyone will survive.

More likely, archæologists from another planet will spend decades trying to figure out what happened and what form of collective insanity allowed it to happen. Those archæologists might even be fortunate enough to find enough to let them figure out that the collective insanity was funadmentalist religion which preached that when the shit hit the fan then God would come down from Heaven and save the righteous.

So roll up and place your bets. Note that this game is for fun and amusement only since payment cannot be made if civilization does not survive.


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