We celebrated the 40th Earth Day this week, and I have to admit that the optimism and idealism of 1970 seem a long time ago as I think about how much the environment worldwide has deteriorated over the last four decades. Despite some positive steps, the general trend both here and in most countries has been for accelerated economic growth, which disrupts ecosystems in ways and at rates that were inconceivable just 40 years ago.
In 1970, the world’s human population was “only” 3.5 billion people and China and India barely made an impact on Earth’s environments. In 2010 world population is nearing 7 billion people and China has passed the U.S. as the world’s largest user of resources and emitter of pollution. India and most other developing countries are striving to match China’s “progress.”
We are using up resources worldwide at rates that will be impossible to sustain no matter how many “economically viable substitutes” we can come up with. We are disrupting the very ecosystems that sustain us and our economies so that they are becoming stressed to the point of collapse. Human society cannot exist without a sustainable economy and sustainable economies cannot exist without stable environments to support them. No amount of technological breakthroughs can alter this extremely important and immutable fact of human existence.
Two of the most alarming problems that have become apparent over the last 40 years are the twin issues of peak oil and climate disruption. Both were anticipated as long as 100 years ago, but both were dismissed as fringe ideas that wouldn’t really be any problem for hundreds of years in the future, if ever. However, beginning in the 1950s, first a few and eventually many who actually study the oil industry and the climate system came to the conclusion that we were quickly reaching a crisis situation.
The 20th century saw the world quickly find and use up all the easiest-to-exploit oil deposits worldwide. The U.S. reached peak oil in 1970 and our production has seen a steady decline ever since even though our use has steadily risen. Many oil experts, including some who work for big oil companies, have concluded that world supplies are reaching a similar peak. Without cheap oil, we never would have been able to fuel the global economy that is today considered “normal” and desirable.
But the reality is that all new discoveries have been in hard-to-access places such as the Arctic, the ocean and in tar sands, making them much more expensive and more environmentally disruptive. In addition, China and the developing countries all are competing with us for these more expensive reserves. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out where that leaves us and our oil-based civilization in the coming years.
It has been known since the late 1800s that the concentration of atmospheric greenhouse gases is a main climate regulator with higher concentrations leading to global warming. Since 1958, continuous measurements of carbon dioxide (the key greenhouse gas) show a 20 percent increase to levels not seen for millions of years, according to recent studies of past climates. Earth then was warm enough to be ice-free in the Arctic and sea levels were many meters higher than today.
Computer models, which have consistently underestimated the degree of melting that we’re already seeing, continue to show additional warming as atmospheric carbon increases. The added energy in the atmosphere has already disrupted “normal” climate patterns that have underlain human agriculture and civilization for the last 10,000 years. Intense rain and snowfall events as well as “stuck” weather patterns worldwide leading to both droughts and floods are to be expected when “normal” circulation patterns change in a warming atmosphere. Again, it doesn’t take a genius to understand that unrestricted current and future emissions of greenhouse gases are a recipe for disaster.
A few years ago, some people in Britain understood what was happening and what changes would be needed in the future, whether we act or just let nature takes its course. They started to encourage communities around the world to carefully examine their fossil fuel dependence and to plan for its reduction.
Transition Towns resulted and our local group is Dexter Area Towns in Transition. Our goal is to look at all aspects of area energy use and then come up with ideas on how to use less while involving the entire community. We seek to combine the wisdom of “old-timers” with the appropriate technologies of today while re-creating a truly local economy and enhanced quality of life not based on accumulating “stuff.” Anyone interested in helping in this process should contact DATT at 924-3836, 277-4221 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Edward P. Hummel is a semiretired meteorologist living in Garland. He also taught high school math and science.