We have two major issues and a lot of minor issues when it comes to achieving a sustainable economy. An economy that provides for our needs without destroying our environment requires substantial changes in the way that we provide for our energy and food needs.
Peak Oil is bunk. I’ve stated this before. There are plenty of hydrocarbons present in the earth such that, if we had infinite atmosphere we could burn them for centuries to come to supply our energy needs.
Planets tend to have higher percentages of volatiles the farther away they are from the sun. Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, primarily hydrogen, helium. As you get farther in planets tend to be made more of heavier elements. The size of the planet is also a factor since lighter planets like Mars don’t have enough gravity to hang on to their volatiles well, particularly hydrogen.
But Earth and Venus, similar planets in many ways. Venus is only about 85% of the earths mass, and consequently has slightly less mass and thus gravity. It is also closer to the sun which means it should have lost more of it’s volatiles. Yet, Venus has an atmosphere 100 times thicker than earth made primarily of carbon dioxide. There were enough hydrocarbons on Venus to create this atmosphere. Earth should, and probably does have even more.
We don’t have infinite atmosphere, that’s the real problem with a fossil fuel energy economy. That and the fact that fossil fuel energy production can only be scaled so far economically and that isn’t far enough to do a lot of the things we could do and need to be able to do.
The limiting factor in terms of deriving energy by burning hydrocarbons is not lack of fuel, it’s lack of atmosphere. We are already seeing the effects on our weather. We can’t afford to continue burning fossil fuels for energy. The oil companies know this and created “Peak Oil” to try to squeeze every penny they can out of their existing investments before a change in our energy source becomes mandatory.
Running out of atmosphere isn’t the only problem with burning fossil fuels for energy. Combustion is inevitably not complete and a lot of very toxic products of partial combustion result. The hydrocarbons fuels have other elements in them also, sulfur, radium, mercury, arsenic, and putting these things into our atmosphere is unhealthy to say the least.
Another problem with fossil fuels is that they can not scale economically as an energy source to levels that would allow us to do things that would provide a good standard of living for all of humanity.
The other problem that we have is that our current methods of producing food has been very damaging to the environment. We clear forest to make farm land, then we use poor practices, lack of crop rotation, over watering, that render the land non-productive in a short time, so we cut down or burn down more forest.
We use artificial fertilizers to try to maintain the productivity of the soil, then we over water and wash all of those nutrients into rivers which ultimately flow out into the ocean, causing huge algae blooms near the surface cutting off sunlight from reaching deeper levels, resulting in oxygen depletion deeper and killing every living thing. Huge plumes of dead zones now radiate from major river deltas.
We shoot our livestock full of hormones and antibiotics. The antibiotics enter the environment and cause resistant bacteria to develop so that we can no longer efficiently combat human bacterial infections. The hormones are affecting other life forms, causing feminization of fish threatening some species.
We use pesticides that cause harm to many other lifeforms beyond the insects they were meant to control.
In addition to fertilizers being washed into the rivers, animal manure also is entering the water and adding to the pollution problems.
These are the two major issues. We have many other issues that are also of a large scope.
We are depleting aquifers faster than they can be replenished by nature. The CO2 we are putting into the atmosphere is changing the rain, snow, and snow melt patterns creating further problems. Inefficient and wasteful watering practices are large consumers of water. If we had unlimited energy, this wouldn’t be a problem, because we could desalinate as much water as we need. But we presently do not have unlimited energy at our disposal.
We could make much more efficient use of the water we have however. Switch farming to drip irrigation, this would also reduce the need for fertilizers because it is over watering that is leaching minerals from the soil and drip irrigation prevents that mineral loss.
Waste of various sorts is a problem, house hold garbage, industrial chemicals, nuclear waste, what do we do with it? Virtually every element in our waste stream could find a use, but we find it less expensive to mine and extract new materials rather than re-use the old. Energy is a part of this equation also, adequate economical energy would enable us to recycle many things we presently can’t because it is not economically feasible.
Modern Technology has allowed many people with serious genetic defects to live and reproduce that otherwise would not have. For the victims of these genetic problems this is great, but the result is that defective genes are becoming more prominent in the gene pool. I don’t know how we can fix this in a humane manner, at least not with the technology we have now. Perhaps some day we will have the technology to manipulate DNA at will and can just fix these defects, but at present this is an issue.
The Biggest Problem
The biggest problem however isn’t any of these, it’s our inability to get along with one another and cooperate to achieve the greatest good. I truly believe all of the material problems are ultimately addressable, if we could cooperate towards that ends, it is our inability to cooperate with each other that causes me the most concern.