Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Juggling With Eggs (follow-up on "Eggs, and the Baskets that Hold 'em")

Which of the potential global crises and disasters ahead of us does one prepare for?
That is not a frivolous question. It is not like, "Pick a card, any card." To some degree there are preparations that one can and should make that will stand you in good stead whatever crisis overcomes us first. And, to be sure, the crises ahead of us are not theoretical, not remote possibilities. All are strong probabilities. The common question concerning all of them is; When? Which one will we have to deal with first?
In order to properly evaluate the risk and imminence of the various impending crises it is necessary to evaluate the underlying, mitigating factors involved. What are the variables that will affect when any of those crises will explode upon us and how seriously they will impact global society?
There are two clear and unmistakable mitigating factors common to all of the global crises we are facing; 1) human population; 2) lifestyle and its utter dependence on global fossil fuel usage.
The risk of a global pandemic is exacerbated by our massive human population, our incursion into more and more areas of virgin wilderness exposing new disease vectors, the ease of global travel and the associate potential of quickly dispersing a pandemic to global proportions, the global overuse of antibiotics and vaccines and the resultant overall weakening of human immune systems. At the same time, our ability to quickly, and hopefully successfully, respond to a global pandemic is heavilly dependent on the global medical infrastructure that our use of cheap fossil fuels has allowed us to construct. Once peak oil is upon us and as global society is impacted by diminishing oil and other fossil fuel energy supplies both the ease with which a pandemic can spread globally and our ability to contain and control it globally begin to diminish. One of the first casualties of peak oil will be an accelerating loss of the ease of global travel. Although the risks of a global pandemic are high, therefore, that risk is itself heavilly mitigated by peak oil.
Global overpopulation and its dependence on a human-created, artificial carrying capacity, is itself the most serious problem underlying all of the potential crises ahead of us. That human population, however, and the ability to produce, process and distribute enough food to support that population, is very, very heavilly dependent on cheap oil and other fossil fuels. The green revolution that allowed our human population to explode from two to 6.75 billion people is heavilly dependent on artificual fertilizers (produced from natural gas), herbicides and pesticides produced from oil, mechanized irrigation dependent on oil-derived fuels, and a global food processing and distribution system that is critically dependent on oil-derived fuels. When the global oil goes into decline, therefore, the artificial carrying capacity that supports our current population will begin to decline at an accelerating pace.
Global warming, though it may be debated whether fossil fuel usage is the cause, is certainly seriously exacerbated by our global use of oil and other fossil fuels. If peak oil and subsequent oil decline, coupled with a global decline in natural gas, sees a rush to the use of "dirty" fossil fuels such as coal, oil shale, and peat, our human impact on global warming will, in fact, worsen.
Our global consumer lifestyle, coupled with our massive human population, is depleting this planet's finite resources at a breakneck pace. We are not only looking at near term acceleration of depletion of oil and other fossil fuel reserves but also of a host of other finite resources including a wide range of base metals, arable top-soil, underground aquifers, climate- stabilizing rain forests, potable ground water, arboreal forests, and more. We cannot have our cake and eat it too. If we continue to "consume" earth's finite resources those resources will run out. That's what "consume" means. If we will not alter our patterns of resource "usage" we are looking at near-term very serious resource problems, problems that simply will no longer be able to support "business as usual". That global consumerism was built on and continues to rely critically on cheap oil and other fossil fuels. There are over 300,000 man-made products in every day use that are derived from oil or oil derivatives. Look around your home and see if you can find one product for which oil, in some form, was not involved in its manufacture and distribution.
Oil is at the very heart of human society. All of the man-made or man-exacerbated global crises before us are, to a greater or lesser degree, dependent upon our use of oil and other fossil fuels. Peak oil will, as a result, have a profound impact on all of those global crises ahead of us. Oil depletion will either exacerbate them or, in some instances, oil depletion and its impact on our population and global lifestyle may be a blessing in disguise. The singlemost crisis with the greatest potential for a severe near-term impact on global human society will be peak oil. The only problem is we do not, at this stage, understand to what degree and in what way declining global oil reserves will impact the severity and timing of these other global crises.

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