“One Last Chance” for a Sustainable Future?

“It has often been said that, if the human species fails to make a go of it here on the Earth, some other species will take over the running. In the sense of developing intelligence this is not correct. We have or soon will have, exhausted the necessary physical prerequisites so far as this planet is concerned. With coal gone, oil gone, high-grade metallic ores gone, no species however competent can make the long climb from primitive conditions to high-level technology.
This is a one-shot affair. If we fail, this planetary system fails so far as intelligence is concerned. The same will be true of other planetary systems.On each of them there will be one chance, and one chance only.”
Sir Frederic Hoyle, British Astronomer, 1964

Hoyle’s “necessary physical prerequisites” are not yet gone, but the extraction of our most critical non-renewable energy resources will soon reach a geological milestone, and production will peak and then decline. This will set a two to three decade clock on our last and only chance to achieve a sustainable society.

  • The consensus is that the production of oil has already peaked (2006) or will peak shortly and that serious shortages will occur by about 2010
  • Natural gas production in N. America will peak between 2010 and 2015
  • Uranium extraction will peak in 2025 and shortages are possible as early as 2013 when we can no longer depend on the recycling of Russian nuclear warheads to meet demand.
  • Coal will peak around 2025 at about 30% above the present production

“…we don’t have to run out of oil to start having severe problems with industrial civilization and its dependent systems. We only have to slip over the all-time production peak and begin a slide down the arc of steady depletion.”
Howard Kunster ,The Long Emergency, 2005

We are left with the choice of only two future paths of development. The “business as usual” path will lead us to tragically overshoot the earth’s carrying capacity, resulting in economic collapse, and a dramatic reduction in the earth’s population as we return to a pre-industrial revolution standard of living. The second path represents Hoyle’s “last and only chance” to wisely use our remaining fossil fuel resources to build a sustainable and renewable energy foundation for a new steady-state world economy. An economy and society with a stable population that falls within the limits of our planet’s carrying capacity. I fear that the greater probability lies with the first path, but know we have both the knowledge and means to forge the second

On the supply side, the second path requires that we rapidly replace our current extractive, non-renewable energy model with renewable sources like geothermal, solar, wind, and wave power. It will be a future dominated by electrical power as liquid fuels become increasingly scarce. However, it will not be enough to reach a stable, sustainable future without major changes to the demand side of the energy equation,

As we enter this period of sustained crisis and begin the journey down the path of ecological stability, it will quickly become evident that the only reasonable standard for building design will be a standard of net zero energy consumption. Because we lack information, initially this will be part science and part intuition based on passive heating and cooling lessons from the past. Eventually we will come to know the embodied energy of every building material and component and make many decisions based on the EROIE (energy return on investment of the energy embodied) of building products like insulation, low-e glazing, PV panels, and wind turbines. Houses will become smaller and change shape as energy trumps fashion and becomes the primary design factor. A whole new industry will emerge to help homeowners convert over 100-million thinly insulated, poorly constructed homes into some semblance of energy efficiency. Pattern’s of development and zoning laws will change as the age of the automobile comes to a close. Populations will shift and migrate as the end of cheap air-conditioning makes living in many parts of the country less desirable. Home landscaping will change from ornamental to edible, and gray water irrigation will become commonplace as the energy costs to move and purify water change our attitudes about this precious natural resource. Local materials will dominate construction and the age of imported Italian granite countertops will come to an end

The longer policy makers wait to take action the lower the probability of success. When shortages become evident we may still fall into denial. Demagogues and special interests will deny the limits of geology and blame OPEC, Islam, environmentalists, or speculators. If allowed, they will cloud the issue and cost us precious time.

Our “last chance” will be a battle. It will not be an easy time.

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3 responses to ““One Last Chance” for a Sustainable Future?

  1. It is beyond evident that no other species stands a chance of surviving at the rate we are destroying the natural earth beyond miccrorganisms. New standards need to be implemented because the world has becoming too populated, too globalized to look back now. Other countries like China, Japan, the UK have recently implemented federal environmental policies that are the first baby steps toward climate control and the US needs to be thinking green too. http://energybill2007.us is a great source for learning more about CAFE and RES standards and provides a petition for supporters of better fuel and energy standards. Please sign the petition asking Congress to not back down.

  2. Great piece John, but I’m not sold on the 1-chance theory yet. I’d think that after some number of millions of years the earth would have a way of cleansing, expunging, or neutralizing the carbon and toxins and such. No?

  3. Thanks Max,
    I agree that it is not the Earth’s last chance. The Earth (Gaia) will definitely cleanse and restore itself to some new, healthy, and natural balance with or without us troublesome humans. However, it is the last chance for our species to replace fossil fuels with enough renewable energy sources to avoid a catastrophic decline in our own population. For this or any other planet, there is only one opportunity to build a sustainable energy platform for longterm survival, and if we wait too long there will not be enough fossil fuel left to fuel the transition.

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