Is it enough to “solve” energy?

Some comments under Kent Welton’s Growthism essay raise a subject of profound importance. There’s a widespread notion that if we could just make the transition to completely clean and renewable energy – which we certainly need to do – our ecological problems would be over. Unfortunately it’s not that simple.Historically, there’s been a striking correlation between increases in energy consumption and population growth. It seems increasing access to energy has actually been a major driver of population growth, perhaps in large part because of the associated increase in food production. William Catton shows this so clearly in his book, Overshoot, that it knocks you over the head with new awareness.

Now add the observation that a great deal of resource depletion and ecological degradation occurs apart from the consumption of energy, and the conclusion is that we will not achieve sustainability by addressing energy without tackling population (not to mention economic growth) as well.

Paul Chefurka noted some of the resource problems which remain for a population as large as ours, even after energy is “solved.” There are also some key observations, such as those Trinifar made recently, to the effect that a population closer to carrying capacity, perhaps especially one which has reduced consumption in order to increase carrying capacity, is less resilient. It’s less able to adapt to stress, cannot scale back consumption in times of scarcity, is simply more fragile.

I wonder, as well, why we, as one among millions of species, feel we have a special right to grow our numbers completely out of proportion to those of other comparable species (mammals, great apes …). What is the largest number of gorillas ever to exist on Earth? (Of course today they’re in danger of extinction due to human activity including, obviously, human numbers.)

The problem of population apart from energy is ripe for further examination. It’s ignored today by mainstream environmentalists. I hope that changes.

For further illuminating discussion of the topic, see the Democratic Underground thread to which Paul referred.
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Up next (unless another brief note pushes its way to the surface), a new guest essay.
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24 responses to “Is it enough to “solve” energy?

  1. John: “I wonder, as well, why we, as one among millions of species, feel we have a special right to grow our numbers completely out of proportion to those of other comparable species (mammals, great apes …).”

    My italics.

    I don’t know if this is a choice by consensus, John. If other (large) animals have a choice they would probably do the same. The fact that we are more successful at it doesn’t mean we made this decision as a collective but rather as individuals. Again as individuals we are not producing more children, but retaining them more successfully. By this I mean lower mortality rates, both by our lower infant mortality and greater longevity as a species.

    Doesn’t this mean the carrying capacity is the only way this (or our) number will reduced? Is reduction by choice impossible, seeing that our (all too animal) instinct of procreation is at work?

  2. Hey Signature,
    Reduction by choice is, to my opinion, nowadays out of reach, for several simple reasons.
    -our tendency to think selfishly rather than in a global perspective, a typical feature that is bound to lie in our genes and that has been exacerbated by our consuming society pushing forward the concept of private belongings as the only way to be happy.
    -the lack of knowledge. No one knows the facts, partly because nobody politically influent dares to raise the question. Everyone just reads the UN statistics and see we are heading towards 9-10 billion ppl in 2050, then says “wow, that’s a lot”, no more. Because we have come to trust that our technological society can fix it somehow. And maybe we also prefer to close the eyes in front of a threatening truth and try to save our own lives selfishely.
    -The lack of “world community” feeling. We are still thinking in terms of countries, whereas everyhting has become worldwide. I don’t think there is any meaning in saying I’m french or Norwegian, we are Europeans and citizens of the world. What I mean by that is not that Norway should join Europe 😉 rather that we don’t give a damn about what’s going on on the other side of our planet because it’s “far away”, although everything we buy comes from other places and through our consuming patterns just shift the ecological destruction to far-away-countries. And we don’t feel bad about it, partly because once again we don’t wanna know about it… And even if we did, what would we do? Think “eh but I’m just one consumer among several billions”. We don’t feel close enough from our fellows 3000 km away. And feeling linked in a common challenge would definitely help us understand our problems.
    -Our concept of democracy. When I discuss with people about population reduction through voluntary actions and government help, then they would say “hey man, I’m living in a free country, I can have as many children as I want to”. And the simple idea of putting constrains on how many kids they could have, be it directly by edicting a law or indirectly through tax incentives, does not work. Because we’ve been raised in an “individual rights” society… And that’s the way the developing world is taking, little by little.

    So no, I don’t really think reduction by choice is possible. I have been through the discussion ignated by Paul on democratic underground, and realized that there are not so many that understand the issue of population growth in a world which carrying capacity has already been overwhelmed in every sense. Nature and human violent, animal nature will fix it by themselves.

  3. We are collectively choosing to continue expanding population via a wide array of public policies. Economic development: cities and states compete to attract businesses and workers, driving local and regional population growth. Nations are doing the same. Some companies and countries today provide financial incentives to increase birthrates. Even in the U.S. we offer tax deductions that reward families with children. If at every level – local, regional and national, we are trying to increase population, then we cannot expect anything different globally. By ignoring and/or allowing these policies to exist, we’re collectively making the decision to overpopulate the planet, don’t you think?

  4. Austin Texas

    IF we were to find a wonderfull new energy technology such as room-temperature fusion, effecient sustained hot fusion or some other as of yet unknown source, we could solve the environmental problems with this tool. We could also begin to colonize the moon and Mars. In my opnion, growth per se is not deadly, but growth in relation to quantity and quality of input energy is.

  5. Signature and Julien,

    Unfortunately I don’t have time to respond to every point and question you guys raise (and they’re important points), but I’ll add to Dave’s comment to say that not only are there policies promoting population growth, but in many developing countries there are social conditions which seem to be correlated with it, and which can be ameliorated. I’m referring to such things as improving the status of women. An older post here touched on these.

    Along those lines I think it’s important to be clear that the idea is not to tell people they can’t have kids. It’s to change the social conditions which lead to high fertility rates.

    Also, I should mention that I don’t think it’s things like infant mortality rate differences which lead to our population being so much larger than those of other species. In fact, in countries with very high infant mortality rates, fertility rates are high – due to the fear of losing children.

    What has led to our large population? Well, the answer is complex, but as I mentioned in the post, historically it was in part likely a function of our learned ability to produce vastly more food than other species. See the Hopfenberg material here for more on that.

    Nevertheless, there seems to be some consensus that those social conditions (and some economic factors, childhood survival rates, etc.) mentioned above do seem today to influence fertility rates as well. In any event, we could do so much more than we’re doing now to try to bring them down.

  6. Austin,

    If I get the chance (I’m pretty swamped at the moment) I’ll come back to say more, but your comment is exactly the idea I was responding to in the post above.

    The simplest thing I can say is also the most unambiguously true:

    Austin: “growth per se is not deadly”

    That would be true if earth were infinite. But …. 😐

    Even if we bring in the notion of space colonization (and we’re way, way too close to catastrophe right now for that to figure into the matter in any realistic way) the universe has limits, and if we grow the human population at a rate of, say, 1% per year (current rate is more than that), we’d have more people than atoms in the known universe in something like 17k years.

    But, as I mentioned, there is little practical point in discussing space colonization in the context of today’s environmental discussion. We have only decades at most to make sweeping, fundamental changes in how we inhabit the earth. And some would say that’s too optimistic.

    Then there’s the issue of degradation and resource consumption apart from energy. But that’s more than I have time for right now. More on that in the links I provided above. (Few readers click the links, but if you want the full substance of what I’m talking about, it’s necessary.)

  7. Dave: “We are collectively choosing to continue expanding population via a wide array of public policies.”

    I think the the term “collective choice” needs to be clarified here. This seems a bit of a oxymoron because if I had a choice it could not be be called collective. Sure there are public policies and paradigms that choose to promote higher birth rates, but we still have a choice to fight them (like we are here) once they have been exposed for their true agenda.

    What “worried” me was John’s phrasing was that it seemed to lean towards total consensus. I know John would not think that but that is what it sounded like. Besides we, as bloggers fighting for the environment and the future, are basically against this consensus type thinking here.

    John: “In fact, in countries with very high infant mortality rates, fertility rates are high – due to the fear of losing children.”

    But John, are we not forgetting these high birth rate nations also have much shorter life expectancy? The maths needs to be done and I am not up to it.

    Also there is a sense of an argument somewhere in some of these comments that we seem to know that we are overpopulating the earth and that this knowledge should be enough to make us act responsibly. It seems to fail to take into account that the vast majority of the world’s population are undereducated (as pointed by the Millennium Development Goals) which means that most people do not even know the number of our species let alone that it is considered a problem by some.

    Some might consider sustainability, population and peace common or general knowledge (or an ideal) but the vast majority of people are just worried about whether there is food on the table or whether they will be alive tomorrow.

  8. Signature,

    On the “collective choice” question, I don’ t think any of us really disagree. When Dave says “collective choice,” or when I say, “I wonder why we feel we have a special right to grow our species so completely out of proportion…,” I think (not trying to speak for Dave, but…) we’re both just saying, “Many leaders are promoting these things, a fair number of people seem to agree with them, and too few people are fighting such choices.” Clearly a sizable number of people do see the folly in such growth, but not enough, and fewer still choose to do anything about it despite the threat of pretty dire consequences.

    “But John, are we not forgetting these high birth rate nations also have much shorter life expectancy?”

    I may be missing your point here, Sig. Yes, I’m sure their life expectancy is lower. But we have the greatest population growth in such countries. I believe high mortality rates, shorter life expectancy, and high fertility rates are all among the characteristics of countries that are “pre-demographic-transition.”

    So one response would be to focus on helping them make the demographic transition – which is in large part a function, I think, of rising economic status.

    At the same time, though, there are also more purely social factors, such as the status of women, which appear to be capable of affecting fertility rates. There are basics like access to family planning info and contraception as well. So while economies are rising, we should be assisting with programs such as those promoted by groups like PAI and the Population Media Center. Some material of Paul’s reminded me that a place like the Indian state of Kerala, which has a low fertility rate and relatively high quality of life despite being quite poor economically, suggests these factors are a real key in addressing population, particularly given the problem of rising consumption that goes along with economic growth.

    Signature: “It seems to fail to take into account that the vast majority of the world’s population are undereducated (as pointed by the Millennium Development Goals) which means that most people do not even know the number of our species let alone that it is considered a problem by some.”

    Absolutely. I want to be very clear that I’m not suggesting the populace of developing countries where populations are growing fast should be well aware of the problem and change their behavior to fix it. I’m not blaming them. I believe the change has to result, in large part, from our assistance, helping them improve the social and other conditions which fuel population growth.

    There are, in fact, persuasive arguments that the policies of countries like the US have contributed heavily to those conditions being what they are. So I don’t put the blame or the onus on the people of Nigeria, say, to get their act together and stop growing their population. Yes, I’m in favor of helping them acquire the information and tools necessary to create their own programs, their own self-driven change. But they need our help.

    There is also the Hopfenbergian food argument, which I think has validity as well. But really, my main focus these days is just on raising awareness that population is a serious problem. It would be a huge step just to have more international consensus and action on that. We could then look more closely at the pros and cons of various solutions.

  9. By the way, concerning the question of whether it’s enough to “solve” energy, I think one of the best lines is this one of Paul’s in the thread on Democratic Underground:

    “Is there any reason the rest of the planet’s inhabitants might not appreciate a fusion-powered humanity?”

  10. Austin Texas

    As you have pointed out, even if we were to ‘solve’ our current resource upper-limits by moving out of the solar system with some new practically limitless energy source, we would ‘soon’ face galactic limits. I was first exposed to this idea through the Fermi Paradox.

    In my mind, the Fermi Paradox is an argument against ‘cheap’ energy, or the ability to ‘solve’ the energy problem. If we were to solve the problem and colonize the galaxy, we would presumably stick out like a statistically sore thumb for being the first to do so.

    However, given unlimited cheap energy, I still suspect resource constraints would be a hell of a lot easier to deal with via technology. We could de-salinate water, implement vast recycling programs, remove pollution from the atmosphere. Growth would sky-roket, and technology would bloom. Surley during this time of vastly increased natural wealth, we would build space elevators and begin to transfer biomass to the moon and mars. After all, financing is free.

  11. Austin,

    Interesting points. Clearly, a full transition to clean and renewable energy is essential. Reliance on nonrenewable energy is fundamentally unsustainable. I’m just trying to underline that such a transition, alone, wouldn’t solve our environmental problems, as population growth would remain a problem (apart from its current role in energy consumption), and may even be exacerbated by such energy if it were abundant.

    But you raise some fascinating points about the idea of unlimited (or nearly so) cheap energy. It would indeed make space colonization far more feasible. But, as you suggest, when we talk of spreading our kind throughout the universe, it does lead to the question, “Where are the other species which, by now, should have done the same thing?” Of course one can speculate in all sorts of directions on that, but it does hint it must not be as simple as just hitting on an unlimited clean energy source and then going out there and populating the universe.

  12. Okay, here’s a great example of why it’s not enough to just solve the energy challenge:

    “Walking to the shops damages environment more than going by car”
    http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/uk/science/article2195538.ece

    While this piece makes some unfair assumptions (that we all eat a lot of beef) to make its point, the bottom line is still true – conservation and efficiency alone are not going to solve our sustainability problems.

  13. Heh, good find Dave. And there’s an interesting quote in it which had me shaking my head:

    “It means we need urgently to work out how to reduce the greenhouse gas intensity of our foodstuffs.”

    Okay, but not a word about how we’d not be in this mess had our population not quadrupled in the last nanosecond of human history — which just might point to an issue worth addressing aside from the greenhouse gas intensity of our foodstuffs. 🙄

  14. John: “I believe the change has to result, in large part, from our assistance, helping them improve the social and other conditions which fuel population growth.”

    Yes, it is the social (and other) conditions that need to be changed. I said in my reply to you on my blog that perhaps we need to look at micro-living concerns which is what you and I are talking about here. So we are on the same page. It is a matter of emphasis. 🙂

  15. Austin,

    You say, “However, given unlimited cheap energy, I still suspect resource constraints would be a hell of a lot easier to deal with via technology.” While that might ideally be true, two comments spring to mind.

    The first is that we do not live in an ideal world. Unless dealing with the externalities of eliminating resource constraints is truly free, universally available and enforced, it probably won’t happen. Additionally, sytems as complex as industrial civilization are by nature chaotic and unpredictable, so the probability of encountering unintended consequences while trying to mitigate a known problem is extremely high.

    The second concern is more fundamental to points I’ve made elsewhere. It is, “What about habitat?” Say we were able to come up with the 3 times our current energy production needed to achieve universal demographic transition (along with an additional order of magnitude or two to clean up the existing mess), human population would still top out over 10 billion people. That many people need a LOT of lebensraum, all of which currently has other occupants. No amount of energy is going to fix that situation.

    With unlimited energy we might be able to decarbonize and desalinate, but we will still cause extinctions due to habitat loss. Again, the intrinsically chaotic nature of the system and our own limited understanding of its interactions will work against us – how do we predict which species are crucial to the web of life?

  16. Great stuff here! And lots of good discussion on the central issue of our time. I’ve added you to the blogroll at The Natural Patriot. I’ll be back . . .

  17. Welcome Emmett,

    I’m glad to learn of The Natural Patriot too. Just had a nice look around there, and found it to be a great resource. Thanks for stopping by.

  18. I think one of the best lines is this one of Paul’s in the thread on Democratic Underground:

    “Is there any reason the rest of the planet’s inhabitants might not appreciate a fusion-powered humanity?”

    I really don’t think nature is going to miss deuterium. That being said there is considerable controversy whether or not fusion will ever become economical. Plus by the time it gets here it will be too late to stop ecological disaster if we are still using fossil fuels.

    As for the theme of this thread may I ask what is the strongest quantitative argument? There is a lot of logic here but not much in numbers. Lets pretend energy is solved. What will be the first bottleneck that humanity runs into?

  19. Wacki,

    Let me first emphasize that we absolutely do need to transition completely away from fossil fuels. Using nonrenewable resources is, by definition, unsustainable.

    Now, we both recognize that solving energy is highly unlikely to happen in time to avoid serious impacts of peak oil. But the question is — if somehow it did, or somehow we managed it somewhere post peak oil, would that solve our environmental problems? You see, that is the argument made by many who dismiss the role of population in our ecological woes. They say, “If we could just develop abundant clean renewable energy, population growth wouldn’t be a problem.” (For some reason they ignore that reducing population size would be much easier and cheaper than developing such sources of energy. Again, though, it’s not that we don’t need to do the latter as well. We do.)

    An important preface is that population has historically grown in tight correlation with energy use per capita. It seems fairly clear, in fact, that energy availability and use has been a central driver of population growth. Here’s a graph Paul got somewhere or made. William Catton talks about this in his book Overshoot, which you should definitely read. It’s a true classic.

    I’m not sure there are any precise numbers to quantify this, but the question, then, is whether any environmental problems would remain given a growing/larger population using abundant clean energy. The answer seems clearly to be yes. The problem is not in the depletion of deuterium. With abundant energy (and continued pop growth) there is still the problem of growing energy use and associated kinds of depletion such as ground water, minerals (copper, aluminum… whatever… these things are nonrenewable, and so their extraction is unsustainable), and sea life, as well as the takeover of land for farming and associated soil erosion, and waste associated with manufacturing and disposal of goods.

    Just a guess, but I would think the first bottleneck would result from groundwater depletion since it’s already a growing problem and verging on a disaster in the coming decades. Next in line could be impacts of accelerating extinction rates resulting from habitat loss. We’re already in the “sixth extinction” (human caused this time!) and there’s little reason to think that wouldn’t continue as more land were taken over for farming, urban development, etc. We really don’t know what the “tipping points” would be, but it seems pretty clear we humans are dependent on the web of life just like other species. And there are apparently cascade effects associated with species loss whereby impacts suddenly and unpredictably grow. We don’t know where those will happen, but we’re playing with fire.

    So I think we’d have clear ecological problems remaining until we begin acting on an awareness that we are just one species, and that any species which grows its numbers hugely out of proportion with those of comparable species., thereby eliminating other species as it goes, is heading for trouble.

    In his paper, “The Tragedy of the Commons,” Hardin says, “[G]iven an infinite source of energy, population growth still produces an inescapable problem. The problem of the acquisition of energy is replaced by the problem of its dissipation….” And even that seems to ignore things like land takeover which isn’t included under “energy.”

    Well, I suppose there are numbers that would highlight this. For instance, some analyses have concluded [1] that humans now appropriate as much as 40% of the products of photosynthesis. Of course some digging could turn up numbers for available water and its projected depetion, and so on.
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    [1] Original article in BioScience, Vol. 36, No. 6 (Jun., 1986), pp. 368-373

  20. Hello Dr Feeney,

    Thanks for the response. That graph is interesting but if solar and battery technology pans out then it will be pretty easy bring 10 billion people up to the standard of living currently enjoyed by Americans (at least energy wise). The metals argument is interesting. I’m not sure if I’d consider metals as non-renewable as we can always recycle them. I’m sure after a while extraction and collection costs can go through the roof though. Heck the cost of copper is skyrocketing right now. The 40% of photosynthesis argument is, if accurate, very disturbing.

  21. wacki,

    The question is – what would be the environmental impact of those 10 billion fossil-fuel-free people?

    Alternatively, the question could be – does anything besides pollution from fossil energy use have an environmental impact?

    I think that gets at it more clearly than my previous long comment, no?

    BTW, I’ve seen another estimate which put the photosynthesis stat at 25%. I haven’t looked into it in much depth, but even 25% is an awful lot.

  22. The question is – what would be the environmental impact of those 10 billion fossil-fuel-free people?

    I honestly don’t know. I’ve never seen a detailed quantitative analysis.

    Alternatively, the question could be – does anything besides pollution from fossil energy use have an environmental impact?

    Sure, lots of things do. Edward Norton once hosted a series called “Strange Days” which covered a lot of stuff you might be interested. Only saw a few of them but the ones I saw were excellent. Best environmental DVD/Movie/series I’ve ever seen.

    Linky to Strange Days

    One of the episodes showed a researcher genetically modifying plants to soak up and decompose different types of pollution.

    linky

    So with many forms of pollution, where there is a will there is a way….

    I think that gets at it more clearly than my previous long comment, no?

    Abstract thinking is not my forte. I need a mechanism to analyze or a hypothesis that can undergo quantitative analysis. I strongly suspect that you are right and we will run into another pollution problem but at this point I have no idea what that problem will be.

  23. Probably there will be unanticipated forms of pollution. But most worrisome to me is biodiversity loss, followed by depletion of resources — particularly ground water in the shorter term (noting that we’re talking about a post oil, energy solved scenario).

    It’s interesting to consider how the UN recently upped its projection of global population for 2050 from 8.9 billion to 9.2 billion. The difference doesn’t seem like so much until you stop to realize that’s the population of the US today. 😯 Not to mention that that amount of growth (from today’s 6.5 billion) is more than the entire world population of 1950. But I digress… :-/

    I’ll definitely take a look at the Strange Days series.

    Now, links back at you…. A small film which I just received, and so haven’t seen yet, but which is highly regarded is What a Way to Go. From what I hear of it, it should be a good (if somewhat pessimistic) way to take in a whole lot of our ecological plight in one sitting.

    Another which I should have seen by now, but (sigh) I still haven’t gotten to, is The Planet. Not sure which link here goes to the film itself, but Magne Karlsen, who comments here praised it highly and provided these links to part 1 and part 2.

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