Waves of the Future - The Magian Age

Climate Change, Non-Renewable Resources, Energy, Contaminants, Carbon Pricing...

The 21st Century Environmental Revolution

3. Energy: The Past and the Future

4. The Resource Conservation Failure

5. The Silent Poisoning of the Earth

Breakthrough Structural Strategies and Best Solutions for Global Warming and the Environment

We need to deal with the causes of problems rather than the symptoms.

Overview  Reviews

See also Book II of the Waves of the Future Series


3. Energy: The Past and the Future

This chapter provides a general introduction to energy issues and will serve as a basis for the development of the environmental strategy proposed later on. If you already have an advanced knowledge of the topic, feel free to fast forward through this part or jump to the next chapter.

Ancient Energy
Two defining characteristics at the core of contemporary society are technology and fossil energy. The massive productivity of modern machinery is not only the result of engineering designs but also of energy. The work that machinery produces does not come from human muscles but from fuel.

A lot of today's industrial technology is based on petroleum. One of its distinctive characteristics is that it is a fossil fuel. Oil, like other mineral resources, comes free from the earth. What we pay for are the costs of extraction, refining, and distribution (getting it to the gas pump).

We are vastly more successful than Stone Age people not only because of the technology we have developed but also from tapping into vast and inexpensive sources of energy produced in ancient times. When the price of oil increases as has been happening, we see how quickly it can affect our standard of living and how much of modern society's success depends on cheap fossil energy: the cost of everything goes up, some countries face food crises, and a lot of wealth simply disappears.

The Carbon Cycle
Oil, coal, and other fossil fuels come from biological (plant and animal) matter or biomass. Over millennia, vast amounts of vegetation and animal wastes were deposited at the bottom of bodies of water or submerged as a result of one cataclysm or another. Under certain conditions, part of the sediments eventually turned into coal, petroleum, natural gas, or other fossil fuels. In areas of the world where non-permeable layers formed on top of the biomass, even the more volatile elements, such as natural gas, remained trapped.

The question is, what is the vegetation that turned into oil made of? Most of us would say dirt, but we would be wrong. If you remember your biology lessons, you know that the bulk of the weight of a tree is composed of only a small fraction of soil. The two largest components of plant matter are water and carbon, as in carbohydrates or what the body uses to produce energy.

The latter does not come from the soil but from carbon dioxide gas (CO2), which is a natural component of the atmosphere. It is one molecule of carbon attached to two of oxygen. Breaking these apart takes energy. Recombining them gives energy. With power (light) from the sun, leaf cells break apart the molecules of the gas and use the carbon for their own growth in a process called photosynthesis. That element is the main building material of plants. The oxygen is released into the air and left behind for us to breathe.

When vegetation decays under specific circumstances, it is transformed into hydrocarbons—the main components of petroleum. It is another way in which the carbon originally captured from the air by plants is stored in organic matter.

When you eat and burn the carbohydrates from food in your own body, you recombine carbon and oxygen to reform carbon dioxide, which you breathe out. The process releases energy that fuels the muscles and other functions in your body. In the same way, hydrocarbons are burnt in car engines in a process that recombines carbon to oxygen from the air (combustion). The carbon dioxide gas produced is released back into the atmosphere via car exhausts. Of course, as petroleum is not pure hydrocarbon, many pollutants are also created and vented out through the combustion process.

Global Warming and the Carbon Cycle
Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, or a gas that significantly contributes to global warming problems. It is also one of the main targets for reduction under the Kyoto Accord. As we should all know by now, it acts as a blanket around the earth and reduces heat radiation into space, keeping the planet warmer. Higher concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere result in rising global temperatures that threaten to melt the polar ice caps, raise sea levels, flood coastal regions, disrupt global weather patterns, and even trigger a new ice age.

Vegetable oils are also a form of fuel. They burn like petroleum and can be processed to produce biodiesel which can be used in regular engines. Whether you burn petroleum, coal for electricity generation, wood, or biodiesel, you always end up recombining carbon with oxygen from the air to re-form carbon dioxide, which is emitted back into the atmosphere. Growing vegetation reduces global warming. Breathing and burning fuels, on the other hand, increase it.

The carbon dioxide that humans and animals breathe out is not what creates global warming problems. Neither is it the burning of wood. What we eat and the logs we burn are carbon that has recently been taken from the atmosphere by vegetables or trees in their growth process. We are just putting it back in. These activities are carbon neutral because of that: one ton of CO2 removed plus one ton added equals zero. Based on the same principle, renewable fuels generated from corn or other crops are technically carbon neutral. In practice, their production does currently involve large amounts of gasoline or diesel, making the process far from carbon neutral.

Fossil fuels are the major culprits behind the greenhouse effect. Today's large-scale mining of coal and extraction of oil release massive amounts of carbon from deposits that were produced millions of years ago. This results in increasing concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and rising global temperatures due to its blanketing effect. The problem is worsened by the fact that we are emptying vast pools of ancient energy in a relatively very short period of time: decades, perhaps a century or two.

Another significant source of greenhouse gases is the large-scale and permanent deforestation of the planet. As seen earlier, trees store carbon. Growing one and cutting it down for fuel is carbon neutral: plus one minus one equals zero.

However, the total forestation on the planet is itself a vast reserve of carbon just like the underground pools of oil. Although a single tree may live or die, the forests themselves have been around for millions of years. Reducing global forestation without replanting adds new carbon to the atmosphere and contributes to global warming. Worse, decreasing the total amount of forested area around the globe has a secondary effect: it also reduces the planet's ability to take carbon out of the atmosphere.

The world’s oceans play a significant role in carbon absorption. Analyses show that oceanic waters have been able to absorb about half of the carbon dioxide emitted as a result of human actions (anthropogenic global warming) since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. This has served to slow down climate change.

However, the absorption has had a dramatic impact on marine life. As carbon dioxide is taken up, it transforms itself into carbonic acid which increases the acidity of water and removes calcium carbonate from oceans. The latter is needed for the constitution of shells of many marine species, some of which form the very basis of the oceanic ecosystem. Plankton, for instance, is at the bottom of the food chain and is critical to the survival of many species. Its reduction can have devastating effects throughout the marine ecosystem. This also implies that global warming problems could not be solved through the injection of carbon dioxide into oceans (Lean, 2004, August 1).

Transition Fuels
Because fossil fuels are used so massively in today's society, most of the experts in the field do not believe that a full direct conversion to renewable energy is going to be possible. They talk about transition fuels that are less carbon intensive and that could be used in the short and medium term. Here is a brief look at them.

Coal, which is abundant in many countries, is being investigated as an alternative source of energy for the future. It is already widely used in the industry for steam, heating, and the production of electricity. As fossil fuel, it is not renewable or carbon neutral. Its combustion is a source of mercury and other types of pollution around the world and contributes to global warming.

Cleaner coal technology is being researched. The production of liquid fuels (for example, diesel through the Fischer-Tropsch process) and extraction of hydrogen from coal are possible future avenues for the exploitation of this resource.

The industry is also looking at carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) as a means to making this fossil fuel a viable alternative for the future. This avenue generally involves pumping emissions underground. At this point, it is risky and unproven, with the potential for leakage, ground water contamination, and creating geological instability.

Contrary to news headlines, clean coal does not exist and may never do so. Its potential for being a transition fuel will greatly depend on how clean it gets with respect to not only greenhouse gas emissions but also its mining and extraction as well as other pollutants related to its use.

Nuclear energy has seen a renewal in the wake of the oil crises. However, like metals, fissile materials are minerals that are depletable. Furthermore, we still do not have any fully safe options for long-term storage of the radioactive waste produced by the industry.

Spent fuel poses a security threat as it can be used to build dirty bombs (standard explosives packed with radioactive material). Although these would not set off a nuclear explosion, they could contaminate a wide area. Multiplying the number of reactors worldwide would also increase the risks of meltdowns. Nuclear energy is cleaner but not a clean option per se.

The use of natural gas has been increasing over the last decades and is expected to continue to do so. Growing interest in this source of energy and more exploration have resulted in an increase of known reserves. Although natural gas is not a renewable energy and is depletable, it is many experts' best hope as a bridging fuel. It has good prospects for enabling us to make the transition from petroleum to the renewable energy sources that will power our future.

Natural gas burns much more cleanly than gasoline, diesel, and heating oil. Its combustion also produces less greenhouse gas than other fossil fuels and does not release any sulfur dioxide—a toxic agent—or particles. Furthermore, the emissions of nitrogen oxide in gas-fired power plants are much lower than those of newer coal technology for electricity generation (Geller, 2003, p.25). Those of carbon dioxide in natural gas power plants are less than half (55% to 65% lower) of those of their coal power equivalents (Geller, 2003, p. 25).

Natural gas is more widely distributed on the planet than petroleum, thus decreasing the world's dependency on Middle East oil. A number of mega-projects for the development of new sources of natural gas are under way in many countries around the world. The sheer size of the capital investments already involved may simply preclude turning back the clock on natural gas even though it does contribute to global warming. Next, we will take a closer look at renewable energy options.

Renewable Energies
Renewable energy is a vast and quickly evolving field of research. It could be in itself the subject of an entire book. This section provides a brief overview of the variety of renewable energies currently in existence and of some of the issues relating to specific resources.

Hydroelectricity, a relatively clean and renewable energy, is generally produced by damming rivers and is more abundant in some countries than others. However, it is not a new form of energy. Hydroelectricity production saw an expansion as a result of the world oil crises of the 1970s and 1980s.

It is expected to continue to grow in the future. However, its expansion is limited by the availability of sites and the impact of hydroelectric projects and their construction on the environment (damage to fish habitats and spawning routes, release of mercury, etc.).

An important aspect of this renewable energy is that dams have a limited lifespan. Reservoirs eventually fill up with silt, rendering projects uneconomic after 60 to 100 years on average.

The future of hydroelectricity may lie in smaller scale technologies—which are more environmentally sound and less disruptive to sport and commercial fishing—as well as in measures to prevent siltation.

Biomass is also an old form of renewable energy. It accounts for a significant amount of primary fuel and power production in many countries and comes in different forms, of which some are old and others, new.

Wood has been used directly as combustible since the domestication of fire. To this day, it is still used for heating as well as electricity production. The technology has evolved, but the principle is still essentially the same: combustion. Slow-burning stoves, wood pellets made from byproducts of the lumber industry, and external air intakes combined with heat exchangers are some of the new technologies designed to make combustion more efficient and take advantage of plentiful and cheap leftovers from the forestry and other industries.

Increasingly, wood derivatives and residues are also used for low-grade heat, steam, and even for the generation of power in the lumber industry itself. Wood is plentiful in many countries. It is a renewable resource as long as the industry is properly managed. It is carbon neutral but not really a clean energy.

Having a few houses in the countryside use wood stoves is one thing, but an entire city doing so is something else altogether. It would vastly add to the smog and pollution problems that already exist in many urban areas. Montreal, Canada, sees many days of winter haze on account of the increasing use of wood stoves. Some small towns in Ontario have been experiencing air pollution levels similar to Toronto’s for the same reason.

New advanced catalytic combustion stoves are believed to reduce particle emissions, smoke, and other pollutants by about 80% compared to earlier models. Whether or not this new technology will make feasible their use on a large scale remains to be seen.

Also included in the biomass category are solid wastes from both municipal (garbage) and industrial sources. These can also be burnt to generate steam, heat, and electricity.

Some European countries are currently making plans for building several wood-burning power plants as part of their Kyoto Accord commitment to reduce greenhouse gases. The operation would involve importing wood—which is technically carbon neutral—from Brazil and other countries.

It is unclear, however, how much better that would be for the environment. The long-range transportation involved would not be carbon neutral, and the scheme would amount to trading non-toxic greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide for toxic pollution (many of the byproducts of the combustion process). The approach would also increase pressure for deforestation and the replacement of biodiverse tropical forests with non-biodiverse tree plantations. This is an instance of what can occur with single-focus strategies: a problem is fixed by creating another, or problem displacement.

Biomass can also be used to generate bio-gas. Methane—an alternative to natural gas—is increasingly produced from a variety of organic byproducts and leftovers from industry and other sources. The gas can be collected from landfill sites, generated from municipal sewage, or produced through anaerobic fermentation of agricultural crops and byproducts.

Gasohol, ethanol blended diesel, and E85 are other forms of biomass energy. Gasohol is a mix of about 90% gasoline and 10% ethanol, or regular drinking alcohol. It is cleaner and deemed to be a superior fuel for winter driving. Ethanol can be produced from several types of crops: for example, wheat, barley, and corn. Unfortunately, these are the same grains that feed people around the world. As we saw in the summer of 2008, the production of biofuels using prime agricultural land and crops can have a dramatic effect on the price of food.

Ethanol blended diesel contains 10% ethanol. It is cleaner burning than the fossil fuel alone. Both gasohol and ethanol blended diesel can be used directly in regular engines.

E85 is 85% ethanol with only 15% gasoline. Its use requires engine modifications. Some U.S. automakers have already begun to make new motors that can burn either gasoline, gasohol, or E85.

The production of liquid fuels from agricultural residues and non-food crops grown specifically for energy (for example, switchgrass and trees such as willow and poplar) has attracted growing interest. Some of the issues related to biofuels are the initial capital costs (equipment, facilities, etc.), the development of a common distribution system (i.e. gas stations), and the competition with food crops for land.

Biodiesel is an alternative to regular diesel. It can be made from vegetable oil. Many crops are suitable for its production: soy, sunflower, canola, hemp, etc. It can be used in pure form or blended in different proportions with regular diesel. This alternative can often be fed directly into existing diesel engines with little or no modifications. Unlike fossil fuels, the vegetable oil alternative is carbon neutral and does not contribute to global warming. It also burns more cleanly. Biodiesel combustion produces fewer gas and particulate emissions and lower levels of carcinogens (Pinderhughes, 2004, p. 176).

Wind provides one of the fastest growing and most promising sources of clean and renewable energy worldwide. Turbines are erected in fields to capture the energy from the wind and transform it into electricity, often feeding it directly into the existing electrical grid. However, this type of energy is only available on an intermittent basis. Without air movement or wind, no electricity is produced. This somewhat affects its usability in that power has to be stored or supplemented from another source. Despite this limitation, several countries already have a number of wind farms and are planning for many more.

There are also a number of smaller players in the renewable energy field. For example, tidal power—energy captured from waves and the rise and fall of tides—is clean and renewable but is obviously limited to coastal areas. Geothermal power, or energy extracted from the earth's crust, has fair prospects in a number of locations around the world. It is essentially the same energy as that responsible for hot springs.

Earth-energy systems (EES) are a slightly different approach for the exploitation of geothermal energy. Heat pumps extract low-grade energy from large earth subsurfaces that are warmed by the sun or underground water sources. Conversely, if cooling is needed, heat is extracted from a room and sunk below the ground. EES systems are capital-intensive technologies.

Solar power is probably the most well-known source of renewable energy. It attracted attention when people first began considering alternatives to fossil fuels following the oil price hikes of the 1970s and 1980s. It is currently used for both space and water heating in domestic and industrial sectors worldwide.

There is a variety of systems for capturing energy from the sun. They fall into two categories: passive and active. Passive solar systems primarily capture heat from the sun through windows or sun-absorbing matter for direct space or water heating. Historically, windows were not energy efficient. They provided lower insulation than walls. However, new technology that offers better heat-loss prevention and lower emissivity has improved windows to the point where advanced models now provide a positive energy supply.

Solar walls and green roofs are other instances of passive technology. The former consist, for example, of perforated metal paneling designed to absorb solar energy from south-facing walls on buildings. The technology is usually used for air and hot water heating as well as cooling in industrial plants. It is gaining grounds in renewable energy markets because of its cost-effectiveness and relative ease of installation. It can provide up to one third of a building's heating and air make-up needs. Solar walls are also being investigated internationally for use in other applications such as commercial and agricultural drying.

Green roofs are usually flat rooftops covered with live greenery. They provide passive insulation against heat in the summer and cold in the winter. Other benefits include the reduction of stormwater runoff and lowering of urban temperatures in the summer. They are relatively low tech and are quickly gaining in popularity.

Solar photovoltaic energy (PV) is an active type of technology. Semi-conductors are used to transform sunlight directly into electricity. PV has historically been too pricey to replace conventional sources of energy, but its economics are changing. It has uses in distant areas where there is no existing electrical network and in stand-alone applications. Examples of these are residential locations where grid extension would be expensive, road signage, coastguard systems, and remote monitoring. The main challenge for PV as an energy for the future is cost reduction. New technological developments and production automation are avenues through which more competitive prices may be achieved.

Concentrating solar power (CSP) indirectly produces electricity by focusing sunlight with parabolic mirrors or fields of mirrors onto a small surface to produce steam to power turbines. An example of this is the PS10 solar power tower in Seville, Spain, in which a semi-circular array of mirrors directs sunlight to the top of a multi-story structure where steam is generated. Both PV and CSP are increasingly the focus of larger scale operations.

There are many other solar technologies—both passive and active—in use and in development for various applications: electricity generation, residential and commercial water heating, and air make-up.

A Concrete Example of the Renewable Energy Potential
Brazil has millions of cars running on ethanol or one of its blends. This came as a result of a government program aimed at decreasing the country's dependency on foreign oil and producing energy domestically from sugar cane, a local and plentiful crop. The National Alcohol Program (Pro-Alcool), as it is called, was instituted following the first oil crisis. Thanks to the initiative, Brazil has been a net energy producer since 2006 (Gerson Lehrman Group, 2009, July 16).

Part of today's U.S. transportation could be powered by energy produced by Americans to the benefit of the entire country. Brazil—a country much less well off—has been doing it for decades, proving that renewable energy strategies are feasible. Of course, the use of prime agricultural land for the production of biofuels is becoming less and less of an option, but there are alternatives. Ethanol, biodiesel, or methane (the main component of natural gas) can be produced from agricultural surpluses, crop residues, garbage, industrial waste, sewage, manure, and even cellulose (wood).

From an economic point of view, the National Alcohol Program enabled Brazil to plow back its wealth into its own farmers' fields, creating jobs and boosting its local economy. The strategy paid off handsomely. During the same period (since the first oil crisis), the U.S. took massive amounts of American wealth and plowed it into the Middle East, enriching countries like Saudi Arabia and impoverishing itself by trillions of dollars.

Many renewable energy technologies have existed for a long time. In many cases, they already made a lot of economic sense decades ago. Had the world followed the example of Brazil when it went through its own transition following the first oil crisis, global warming might not be the issue it is today, and most countries—including the U.S.—would be closer to self-sufficiency in energy, and likely much better off economically.

Renewable Energy Issues
Renewable energies have significant advantages over fossil fuels in that they are generally cleaner, unlimited, and do not contribute to global warming problems. However, many are not as concentrated or portable as petroleum. These two qualities are important factors in their potential for replacing fossil fuels in the transportation industry. Electrical power may be suitable for commuting to work, but storage capacity is still low at this point in time, making it impractical for heavy-duty and long-range transportation. There may also be temperature issues in cold climates.

Technological development is not the most important obstacle to the widespread and large-scale use of alternative energies, to their replacing fossil fuels as power base for economies around the world. Up until very recently, ups and downs in the price of oil were the problem. We saw bursts of R&D (Research and Development), government subsidies, and investment in alternative fuel technologies in the wake of the oil crises of the 1970s and early 1980s. Many of these were subsequently lost when the cost of petroleum dropped.

Several types of renewable energy are only profitable when the price of oil remains high. As such, unpredictable petroleum prices were a stumbling block for the industry in the last three decades. This is now changing as most experts in the field believe that the cost of oil will remain fairly high and trend upward. A more recent problem is the rise in the price of food from the use of edible crops and good agricultural land for the production of biofuels. There are ways to address the issue, but as the world's population continues to grow, the pressure on land and crops will likely remain an ongoing concern.

Another issue is that converting to new energies often requires a substantial investment in infrastructure. For example, gas stations need to be modified to accommodate new fuels or a new distribution infrastructure might have to be built parallel to the existing one.

Methane Hydrates: Energy of the Future?
Methane hydrates have been heralded by some as a potentially major source of energy for the future. They are gas molecules trapped in ice on the ocean's floor. Research is still very preliminary at this point in time. Reserves estimates range from a few hundred to a few thousand years. Methane is considered a relatively clean burning gas.

There are a number of issues relating to the exploitation of hydrates. Firstly, they are not carbon neutral and pose the same problem as other fossil fuels in that respect. Secondly, there are the logistics of mining a resource several hundred meters under the surface of the ocean. Thirdly, methane is a greenhouse gas 20 times more powerful than carbon dioxide in its contribution to global warming. How much of it would leak into the atmosphere as part of the extraction process? Furthermore, it is believed that mining activities may destabilize the ocean's floor and cause landslides that may disturb hydrate deposits and result in the release of vast amounts of methane into the atmosphere.

Research is currently looking at carbon-neutral ways to exploit the resource. The methane removed would be replaced with CO2 hydrates. Visit the following web site for more details: http://www. eee.columbia.edu/research-projects/sustainable_energy/Hydrates/ index.html. Whether the new exploitation methods prove feasible remains to be seen. It would certainly much enhance the value of this resource.

We certainly cannot afford to add another 3,000 or 4,000 years' worth of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. However, if carbon-neutral extraction methods are developed, methane hydrates do offer some hope in terms of significantly easing the transition to renewable energy. At this point, too many questions remain to be answered, one of them being whether we will ever be able to trust the industry to exploit the resource safely and report truthfully on leakages and disasters.

We have to come to terms with the fact that fossil fuels are on their way out. Many types of energy will be helpful in facilitating the changes that need to occur during the transition period. Carbon-neutral means of exploiting coal, petroleum, methane hydrates, etc. can help but are high risk and should only be considered if proven safe and as a means to bridging to a sustainable renewable energy future.

We also need a change in attitude: wiping out one resource after another to prop up our standards of living is an incredibly small-minded and selfish thing to do. We share the planet and its resources with all of the generations to come.

The New Global Warming Equation
Even with a successful Kyoto Accord, we will still continue to add huge amounts of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. The strategy will not solve climate change problems, only slow down the process.

Global warming is ultimately a function of two factors: how much greenhouse gas is added to the atmosphere and how much is removed from it. We increase global warming not only by burning fossil fuels but also by deforesting the planet. We reduce it by cutting down emissions and growing vegetation.

Biomass has been stored over millennia not only as fossil fuels but also as live plant matter. As discussed earlier, when we harvest trees for one industry or another and reforest afterwards, we do not add net amounts of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. Over the long term, carbon is re-stored into the biomass of the new trees. When we clear cut a forest without replanting, we reduce the total amount of plant matter on the planet. When this occurs, atmospheric greenhouse gas levels are increased exactly as if fossil fuels had been burnt because the carbon added to the atmosphere is never re-stored into new trees and forests.

If the total live biomass on the planet increases, it could compensate for some of the fossil fuels we are burning. The problem is that it is actually decreasing, not only adding to global warming itself but also reducing our capacity to absorb carbon from the atmosphere or compensate for fossil fuel use. The more trees there are, the faster carbon can be absorbed back into biomass. This capacity has been decreasing in the last few decades as deforestation has occurred in many countries, the clear-cutting in the Amazon rainforest being only one of many examples.

With the discovery of methane hydrates, we now add a third component to the global warming equation: the indirect release of potent fossil greenhouse gases. As the earth warms up, we can expect that water will also see a rise in temperature. As this occurs, the massive beds of methane hydrates at the bottom of the oceans could begin to thaw out and release into the atmosphere large amounts of a greenhouse gas which is 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide. This will accelerate the greenhouse effect, which will result in the release of more seabed methane and the speeding up of global warming. This is a vicious circle that may make things happen much faster than anticipated. That was written in 2008. As I work on the 2010 edition of this book, the news headlines are reporting just that.

There are fears that global warming will likely result in the thawing of the permafrost in northern regions and the release of the millions of tons of carbon dioxide that are trapped in it. So, there might just be a fourth and significant component to the global warming equation.

How many other factors are yet to be discovered? In view of even only the last two components of the global warming equation, we have every reason to speed up the shift to renewable energies.

We should get used to the idea of droughts and increasingly disruptive weather patterns. The flooding of coastal areas will likely also occur much sooner than anticipated. Rebuilding New Orleans may turn out to be a major mistake. The fate of the Maldives is also very likely already sealed. The highest point of the chain of islands is about 2.3 meters (7.5 feet) above sea level, and most of its landmass is only 1.5 meters (4.9 feet) higher than the surrounding waters.

4. The Resource Conservation Failure

The Rise of Consumerism
Technology grew by leaps and bounds through the 20th century. A large number of inventions have enabled us to produce all kinds of gadgets to make our lives easier and our leisure time more interesting and entertaining.

But, has that technology run out of control? Producing more and more means that we are using up more and more non-renewable resources. And, we are now over six billion consumers on the planet. According to Malcolm McIntosh (2000), a writer, broadcaster, and lecturer on corporate responsibility and sustainability, “Since the mid-20th century the world has consumed more resources than in all previous human history” (p. 47).

Minerals are limited in supply and do not belong to us alone but also to future generations. In but a few decades, we have used up several times our share. What is our plan for the next half century? Double that?

Today, we use up materials at a much faster rate than a few decades ago. As such, we might match the amount of resources used between 1950 and 2000 in only the first 20 years of the 21st century, or less for that matter.

Worse, the rate of resource depletion will only accelerate as developed countries only want more and more. In addition, China has a population of about 1.3 billion and has been exporting goods for a long time. However, not until recently has it seen enough income growth to support a significant amount of consumption. With its recent wave of trade and economic liberalization, things are changing fast.

India is not far behind in terms of population, and its economy is growing equally fast. Both are entering an era of consumerism. Together they represent about one third of the entire world population, currently estimated at 6.5 billion. The amount of resource depletion that will result from the growth of these two countries alone will simply be staggering. In the next 50 years, we are likely to use up three to five times the total amount of resources consumed in the second half of the last century.

The Corporate Solution
Corporations do not suffer or die like we do. As resources become scarce, they will continue to sell goods to us and keep making profits for their owners. In fact, the oil experience has shown that shortages often result in greater profits for them... and, of course, much higher prices, pain, and suffering for us.

What they do is use the cheapest, most economical resources first. For instance, the oil that is the least expensive to extract is pumped out first and used up. Then, the next cheapest source is used. Once it is exhausted, they move on again, so on and so forth.

As the price of resources goes up, substitutes that were more expensive or not as suitable become profitable and can be exploited. For example, natural gas, which is generally more difficult to handle than petroleum, could partially replace oil in transportation as the latter becomes scarce. When natural gas reserves suffer the same fate as petroleum, the market would again look for the next less suitable or pricier alternative, etc.

Problems With the Business Resource Model
The beauty of the above is that corporations will still make profits when the price of a liter of gasoline reaches $10.00 (about $40 a gallon). In the 1970s the giant oil corporations were criticized for price gouging. Three decades later, the headlines on CNN/Money read, “Big oil CEOs under fire in Congress. Lawmakers spar with execs from Exxon, Chevron over high prices, record profits, consumer pain” (Isidore, 2005, November 9). If you follow stock market news, you will notice that when the cost of a barrel of oil goes up, the price of petroleum industry stocks increases, signifying an expectation of greater profits.

Corporations will make profits selling us gasoline at $2 a liter. They will also do so when its cost reaches $20 a liter. We, however, will suffer a great deal. Resource depletion is not good for us, and the situation will be much worse for the generations that will follow us. The business model leads to one thing: the depletion of one resource after another.

Planning for the Future
Successful planning anticipates problems and fixes them before they arise. We need to plan ahead and conserve minerals to prevent a catastrophe from happening. Once non-renewable resources are gone, they are gone. Depletion is irreversible and will leave future generations with high resource costs, dysfunctional economic structures, and much lower standards of living. The stakes are high.

Actual estimates of reserves of different minerals vary not only from year to year but also according to technological developments, politics, and geopolitics. Recoverability and prices are also variables that make it difficult to determine accurately how long resources will last. The issue will be discussed in more details in the second book of this series. Suffice it to say that the only absolute in terms of non-renewable resources is that estimates are in terms of dozens of years for most minerals and a few hundreds for certain ones—not the thousands and millions of years that they will be needed for. In the long term, there is only one trend: reserves will decrease and prices will rise sharply.

Known oil reserves were extended as a result of a number of scientific discoveries, processing innovations, new exploration efforts, etc. Petroleum prices did increase more slowly on their account. However, most of these factors do not have a significant impact over an extended period of time although they did extend reserves temporarily.

The consensus among economists and experts with respect to oil is that its price will only continue to go up in the long term. Liberal estimates are that reserves will peak in 10 to 20 years. Some market analysts argue that they reached their highest levels around 2004-2005.

The Case of Energy
Energy looks like a poster child for the business resource exploitation model because of its substitutability. Although oil itself is not renewable and will run out eventually, it is highly substitutable. That is, when it and other fossil fuels are gone or get to be too expensive, we will shift to energies that are plentiful, unlimited, and renewable. That model only works because many of the long-term alternatives to petroleum and other fossil fuels are good and relatively inexpensive substitutes.

In fact, the whole transition to renewable energy has already begun. The world will eventually get by on hydro, wind, biomass, and solar power at a relatively low cost.

The business model does not work with other mineral resources, however. Its fundamental aspects are true: use the cheapest source first, and move on to the next cheapest after that. Science has also led to greater efficiencies. But...

The Case of Metals
One problem with the business resource model as it pertains to non-renewable resources is that energy is one of the few fields where the theory works. Would all other mineral resources have the same characteristics as energy, conservation would be much less of an issue. However, that is not the case.

The Substitution Argument
Steel, aluminum, and copper can be substituted for each other in many applications. They are mainstays of the modern world, being used everywhere in buildings, electrical infrastructure, and a variety of consumer goods. Although there is the possibility of substitution, these three metals are not renewable. They are all being used up simultaneously and would generally see their costs steadily increase as time goes by. If their depletion rates and costs go up in parallel to each other, then they are not true substitutes. That is, one could not replace the other in case of depletion.

For example, if 50 years from now reserves of iron have been exhausted, you would not be able to switch over to a plentiful supply of aluminum because it would also have been used at the same rate and be in shorter supply or near depletion by that time. We might even have already been considering switching from aluminum to steel as our supplies of the lighter metal ran low. If a metal is not renewable and is being depleted at a similar rate as another one, it would not solve a shortage problem and therefore not be a true substitute for it.

Furthermore, an excessively priced alternative—as would be the case if its reserves were highly depleted—would be useless. A true substitute needs to be both plentiful and reasonably priced at the time of substitution, i.e. not now but when the first resource is near depletion.

The Suitability Issue
Although metals may theoretically replace each other in many applications, they are not necessarily good alternatives. For example, gold, steel, and lead could probably all be used in electrical wiring but would be poor substitutes for a number of reasons. Gold would be extraordinarily expensive, steel would lack flexibility, and lead is toxic.

Most metals would actually be very poor substitutes for each other because of economic and suitability issues. Their use as such would create a dysfunctional society and be the result of the actions of very desperate people. Furthermore, this would probably occur at a point when society itself has already reached a state of economic crisis. Socio-economic dysfunctionality is likely to increase as resources are being exhausted.

To a large extent, substitution is a myth when talking about non-renewable resources. For us to live in a fantasy land with illusions of unlimited resources and substitution is dangerous. The reality is that, rather than jumping from one mineral to another as they are being exhausted, the world will see most metals depleted more or less concurrently. When their prices begin to rise sharply—just like oil—panicked and dysfunctional substitution will make little difference.

The Issue of Massive Use
There are no true substitutes for most common metals because they are all mainstays of the modern world and massively used. Alternatives would have to be available in enormous quantities at the time of substitution, which will not be the case. Furthermore, because of the massive use made of them, the substitutes would be quickly depleted, giving us but a very short reprieve, if any.

There are no real substitutes for many of the basic materials on which society's infrastructure is built. Their massive use underscores our fundamental dependency on them.

Once again, there will not be a substitution or jumping from one resource to another and another ad infinitum into the future. There will be a gradual increase in prices until that process starts to accelerate. By then, it is going to be too late. Panicked substitution will barely mitigate the problem and only last for a short time before reality comes crashing down on us. That process will likely begin around the middle of this century, that is, within your own lifetime. The issue is further discussed in the second book of this series.

The Issue of Resource Ownership
Another problem with the business model is the issue of price and ownership of non-renewable resources. These do not belong to us alone but to all generations the planet will see over its lifespan. The business model blindly skips over that part. It assumes that all these resources are ours to waste at will and with reckless disregard for anyone else coming after us. In economics, non-renewable resources are actually considered capital items—not on-going manufacturing inputs as they are treated at the moment. This has the strict implication that they should be used as sparingly as possible.

The Scientific Breakthrough Argument
Another major problem with the business resource model is the scientific breakthrough argument. One of the most powerful forces behind the fantasy world of unlimited non-renewable resources is the belief that science will solve all our problems. It has not in the past, and there is no evidence that it will do so in the future.

The business resource exploitation model is based on the assumption that future scientific discoveries will be made and that we can waste non-renewable resources in anticipation of that. By doing so, we seriously mortgage our children's future. Planning should be based on reality, not fantasies. Just a decade ago, most people thought that oil would last forever and remain cheap. Resource economics did not support that. The current state of science is that minerals (except energy) are not renewable and do not generally have true substitutes.

The Easy Science Issue
Science behaves to some extent like a resource. For example, in exploiting minerals, the most plentiful and easily accessible deposits are usually wiped out first. In several countries, including the U.S., many of the mines closest to population centers have already been depleted. As a result, resources are increasingly found further and further away and are more and more costly to process and bring to markets.

Science follows a similar pattern. Centuries ago, few things in the physical world were understood. Discoveries that appear to be insignificant today—the invention of the wheel, the mastering of fire—were major breakthroughs that changed the dynamics of entire societies. Today, we are much further ahead.

Scientific fields still in their infancy—the computer and information technologies, genetics, medicine, biotechnology—will continue to see lots of new and exciting developments. However, in the physical resource field, where knowledge is at a more mature stage, we should expect the breakthroughs to generally come less easily and less frequently as time goes by. In science like in other things, we have to make the difference between speculative illusion and reality.

The Five-Billion-Year Question
The earth was formed approximately five billion years ago. Its remaining life expectancy is about another five billion years. Ultimately, non-renewable resources should be managed in such a way as to last that long as they also belong to the generations that will live at that time.

In the last 50 years, we have used up as much of the earth's resources as have all the generations before that. In the same period of time, we have depleted maybe 25% of the known oil reserves. Experts estimate that in about 10 to 20 years these will have peaked and will begin to decline. In total, the bulk of world oil reserves will have lasted maybe 200 to 300 years. If the earth's lifespan had been 24 hours, our oil reserves would have lasted less than a second!

The reality we live in is not one of unlimited resources and infinite science. It is one where the physical capital (mineral supplies) on the planet is very limited, especially in terms of supporting large populations.

There are two very important distinctions to be made with respect to metals. One is that they do not have true substitutes like oil does. As such, you can expect much steeper price increases. The other is that if we wipe them out, there will not be a second chance because of their lack of substitutability.

The petroleum experience has shown us that as reserves decline, costs increase and commodities become the object of power. As time goes on, the process accelerates and price hikes turn into spikes. The summer of 2008 gave us a very brief glimpse of how quickly things can go bad. We would still be there today had it not been for the financial crisis. Other mineral resources will likely follow a similar pattern, with irreversible and devastating consequences.

Manganese Nodules: Panacea or Temptation?
First discovered in 1803, manganese nodules are potato-size nuggets of rocky material containing manganese, iron, and a number of base metals. They are found in many sites around the world, generally thousands of meters below the ocean's surface. They lie in large seabed deposits and in significant quantities.

They are seen as a potential source of ore for the future as reserves of surface metals become depleted. Manganese nodules could be a renewable resource as they are believed to be formed by bacteria depositing minerals from sea water onto their surface. They grow very slowly, at a rate of about 2 mm per 1,000,000 years. Their renewal speed is believed to depend on the amount of surface available to receive mineral particles. Mining them will reduce the total area for depositing and result in slower growth rates.

There are many issues with respect to their exploitation. Firstly, there are environmental concerns. There are also questions about our ability to extract minerals two to five kilometers below the ocean's surface. Their exploitation may turn out to be uneconomical or simply unfeasible. As manganese nodules only contain certain metals, they would not solve all our problems. Their excessively slow growth may mean that the new resource is to some extent depletable. Lastly, this may be our last frontier in terms of mineral reserves. We may want to preserve it for future generations and formally set it aside until we have reached a certain point in the future.

It is difficult to estimate how long existing surface resources will last at our current rate of use. Forecasts are from a few decades to a few hundred years, depending on the mineral. If we were to preserve enough resources for only 1% of the remaining lifespan of the earth, we would have to stretch what we have for another 50 million years!

We cannot even cope at this point with managing or preserving resources that are renewable. World species are dwindling and disappearing. We are totally impotent at preventing deforestation, be it in Nepal, India, or the Amazon basin. The cod fishery in Eastern Canada has all but been wiped out. Seabed resources are probably the only thing future generations will have left after we are done. The last thing we want to do at this point is to move into this last frontier. The solution to our problem does not consist in wiping out one resource after another. It lies in bringing ourselves under control.

Managing Resources for the Present and the Future
The earth has been around for five billion years, humans have been around for less than 10 million years, and civilization, for under 10,000 years. The planet has another five billion years to go. In 200 to 300 years, we will have practically wiped out petroleum resources on the planet! Other mineral resources have already seen their prices rise and are, in many cases, but a few decades behind oil.

So, what do we do?

5. The Silent Poisoning of the Earth

Over the last few decades, we have addressed some of the most obvious environmental problems. However, our efforts have only touched the surface, dealing mostly with only the worst crises and only once lives are at stake. Many less poisonous elements—but extremely damaging because of their pervasiveness—are slowly but surely accumulating in the environment.

This section provides a brief overview of some environmental contaminants. Its intent is not to cover the field in a comprehensive manner but rather to give some perspective to the pollution debate, show the extent of contamination, and support the case that the earth is slowly being poisoned. For those who may want more details, there are many works published on the subject, among others, Nadakavukaren's Our Global Environment: A Health Perspective (2000). Those already familiar with the topic should feel free to read selectively.

Historical Perspective on Contaminants
We have known for centuries that lead, mercury, and asbestos are health hazards. They are not new enemies but old foes. For example, author and lecturer in environmental health, Anne Nadakavukaren (2000) writes,

Hippocrates described the symptoms of lead poisoning as early as 370 B.C.; mercury fumes in Roman mines in Spain made work there the equivalent of a death sentence to the unfortunate slaves receiving such an assignment. (p. 225)

The 20th century saw the development of even more toxic substances. Scientific progress, rapid economic growth, and mass production spurred on the phenomenon. They introduced to the environment an entirely new array of compounds. Many of these are now part and parcel of our lives, found everywhere from the Arctic to the Antarctic, to the tissues of human adults and the unborn. They were and still are spewed out of smokestacks or flushed down our rivers on a daily basis. Others are accumulating at waste disposal sites and elsewhere.

Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs)
First manufactured in 1929, PCBs are extremely stable in the environment and better known for their use in electrical transformers and capacitors. They found their way into the environment through electrical equipment catching fire, the burning of certain types of wastes, and illegal dumping into waterways by unscrupulous corporations trying to avoid disposal costs.

PCBs are toxic to several species at low concentrations and result in a variety of birth and health problems, including liver disease and cancer. Recent research points to their causing endocrine problems in humans and significant damage to developing embryos and fetuses.

PCBs have the ability to bioaccumulate, i.e. to concentrate up the food chain, from preys to predators and humans. According to Nadakavukaren (2000), in early research “virtually every tissue sample tested, from fish to birds to polar bears to animals living in deep sea trenches, contained detectable levels of PCBs” (p. 232).

PCB production and use in open systems were banned in the U.S. in 1976. However, the toxic compound is still legal in closed operations. As such, PCBs still pose a threat today. How much is left out there in warehouses and equipment in the custody of corporations? How much will eventually be leaked into the environment or get dumped illegally?

Dioxins (polychlorinated dibenzodioxins, PCDDs) are a large group of chemicals related to PCBs. They bioaccumulate and end up in the environment in a number of ways: as byproducts of some manufacturing processes, through the incineration of medical wastes and PVC plastics (polyvinyl chloride), via the smelting of metals, as a result of natural causes, etc.

Dioxins are believed to cause a number of health problems, including chloracne, developmental abnormalities, immune system interference, thyroid disorders, cancer, and diabetes.

Regulations have resulted in significantly lower levels of dioxins in the environment. They are often present in fatty tissues and foods like eggs, meat, fish, and dairy products. As a result, dioxins can be found in everybody, with industrialized countries being more affected. Breastfeeding is believed to increase the chemical's concentration in children's tissues (Polychlorinated dibenzodioxins, n.d.).

Asbestos' reputation as killer is well established. Nadakavukaren (2000) reports that 30% to 40% of the current and retired asbestos workers who have been exposed to large amounts of the mineral are expected to die of cancer (p. 243). Many others will suffer from asbestosis, a crippling lung disease.

Asbestos is a fibrous mineral found around the world. Its harmfulness was known to ancient Greeks and Romans, the mineral having been found to cause lung problems to slaves wearing clothes made with it. The fabric could be magically cleaned by simple exposure to fire (Asbestos, n.d.).

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), about 700,000 buildings (residential as well as commercial) in the U.S. contain some of it in friable form. The EPA further estimates that over 6,000,000 children and teachers may be exposed to fibers everyday in schools (Nadakavukaren, 2000, pp. 243, 246).

Lead, Mercury, Vinyl Chloride, Fire Retardants, and Jet Fuel
Both mercury and lead have been known for a long time as health and environmental hazards. Romans once lined their wine casks, cooking ware, and aqueducts with the latter. Lead poisoning can lead to mental retardation and death. Its main use today is in car batteries. Nadakavukaren (2000) reports that more than three million tons of it are mined every year and that “not surprisingly, lead is now found throughout the environment—in soils, water, air, and food” (p. 250).

Mercury, the quicksilver of ancient times, has been known and used for more than 2,500 years. It can damage the liver and kidneys and is believed to be responsible for a number of nervous system ailments. Mercury bioaccumulates and is found throughout the environment especially because of its ability to evaporate. It is present in many fish species and continues to be added to the environment from, among other things, the combustion of coal, the incineration of medical wastes, and the smelting of some ores.

Another significant environmental concern is vinyl chloride. It is a known carcinogen that is released into the air and ground water as the millions of tons of PVC plastics (polyvinyl chloride) we produce every year break down in the environment (Markowitz, 2002, pp. 9-10).

Brominated fire retardants are often sprayed on plastics to reduce their flammability. They are thyroid toxins which bioaccumulate and persist in the environment. A study by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) in the U.S. found that these chemicals were present in surprisingly high concentrations in all their samples of American women breast milk (Lunder and Sharp, 2003, September 23). More information on the study can be found at the EWG web site (www.ewg.org/).

In 2004, perchlorate—a rocket fuel ingredient linked to thyroid damage—was found to be present in cow milk in California and in the drinking water of almost half the states in the U.S. (Rocket fuel, 2004, June 22).

As seen in the few examples above, the earth is rapidly being poisoned. We already live in a chemical soup, one that not only pervades the environment but also permeates our bodies through and through. We are leaving our children and grandchildren a planet that is highly contaminated, and many toxic compounds are expected to continue to accumulate in the environment.

The Conspiracy of Silence
The responsibility for the current environmental crisis does not lie solely with some corporations. It extends beyond them. We keep silent while the earth is slowly being poisoned.

We have had some success with regulations and incentives, but they do cost money if not directly, then indirectly. Governments are not interested in making a costly commitment to the environment if it means that they will be voted out in the next election. We have to play our part in this.

In the last few decades of the 20th century, there was a lack of funding commitment. As a result, we failed to bring environmental issues to a head.

The Missing Link
There is a missing link between the green society that we need to achieve and the rallying cry of environmentalists. There is a reason why their efforts have remained largely fruitless, why we are destroying the environment for our children instead of preserving it, why we are decimating not only our share of resources but also those of hundreds of future generations.

Our failure is due in part to the lack of real commitment to the environment: money. It is also partly on account of the absence of an economically-viable strategy powerful enough to turn things around for the environment. What we have done so far has not worked. Regulations and had hoc funding is just not enough. We need new thinking.

We have to create an economic environment that will bridge the gap between theory and practice and reshape the current system into a mean lean green machine.

Copyright Waves of the Future, ©2010

More information: National Wildlife Federation Alliance to Save Energy NRDC Global Warming Cap-and-Trade