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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
(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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
index.html. Whether the new exploitation methods prove feasible
remains to be seen. It would certainly much enhance the value of
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
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
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”
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
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
the rate of resource depletion will only
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
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
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
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 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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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)
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
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?
(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.
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
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,
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.
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.
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).
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
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
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 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
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