Is it just about the energy?
February 16, 2009, 9:13 pm
Filed under: Global change, Uncategorized

Andrew Revkin has an interesting post on dot.earth. It’s common to talk (as I sort-of did back here) as if cheap energy solves, if not everything, all the big stuff. But might it just bring more problems in its wake — perhaps by pushing the human population so high that much of the rest of the natural world is pushed out, or perhaps through some other dire and unforeseen consequence? Andy:

On a finite planet, where would limitless energy, combined with humanity’s infinite aspirations, take us? This leads to a question that’s been touched on here periodically. Does a shift in values and aspirations have to accompany the technological leaps that will assuredly be made in the coming decades?

There have been heaps of warnings for a very long time about unintended consequences from a rush to new technologies. (If you haven’t read Bill Joy’s 2000 essay for Wired, “Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us,” I encourage you to do so — possibly with a stiff drink nearby.)

Jesse Ausubel of Rockefeller University has often asserted that technological advances will inevitably lead to more space for nature, allowing forests to expand, fisheries to rebuild and the last refuges for wild things to persist. But others warn that creeping deterioration of the world’s biological patrimony is happening in parallel with our creeping disinterest in the diversity of life and ecosystems. As Edward O. Wilson explained here in laying out “Wilson’s Law,” if we focus too much on the physical infrastructure that sustains us, without sustaining the planet’s variegated veneer of life, we’re in deep trouble.

It probably won’t surprise readers that with various caveats I am more of the Ausubel opinion. I don’t think that higher standards of living necessarily correlate with worse environmental outcomes. And I don’t think energy breakthroughs will have the same sort of demographic effect that fossil fuelled modernioty has But I am aware that it is an inductive argument. The history of the past few centuries suggests that the phenomenon of the demographic transition is real: from a situation where birth rates and death rates are both high, you move to a situation where death rates drop (leading to an expansion of the population) that is followed after a lag by a period where birth rates drop, too, and the population thus stabilises.

The demographic transition, from Keith Montogomerys online essay

The demographic transition, from Keith Montgomery's online essay

It seems likely to me that in the near term world population is going to play out this way, and that after nearly three doublings in the past few centuries we have less than a single doubling left to go. I don’t think a massive influx of clean energy will change that and lead to the sort of growth seen during the fossil-fuel era again. The precise height of the plateau, though, remains unknown, and important: things are probably a lot easier with a world of nine billion than of twelve billion.

And that which might lie in wait further on down the x axis should also give us some pause. It’s a bit end-of-history to think that humanity goes through millennia of premodernity, a couple of centuries of transition and population growth and then millennia of postindustrial population stasis, end of. This seems to be demographics a la Christopher Robin: “Now we are six we’re as clever as clever, and we think we’ll stay six for ever and ever”.

Not that any of this matters, people will say, if the planet’s carrying capacity is surpassed over the long term. But how many people the world can support depends on how they live and what technologies they live with: applying a simplistic ecological notion of carrying capacity that doesn’t take differential attitudes and technologies into account makes littlesense. Humans need to understand the environment and the ecosystem services it offers a lot better, but not so that they can discover some set-in-stone carrying capacity and adapt to it. They need to do it to understand how to engineer and sustain a carrying capacity that suits, within the limits of what is possible.

Which brings us to “Wilson’s law” , which Andy has quoted E O Wilson as defining thus:

If you save the living environment, the biodiversity that we have left, you will also automatically save the physical environment, too. If you only save the physical environment, you will ultimately lose both.

I can’t make up my mind whether this is trivial or obtuse, and I haven’t seen the argument that Wilson makes to back it up. The first part seems true by inspection, in that saving “the living environment” would necessarily entail massive action on the physical-environment side (curbing climate change). The second part sounds like something that Wilson would like to be true and that might be true but that can’t be proved true. A priori it seems unlikely that the current living environment is uniquely capable of providing non-substitutable ecosystem services without which the physical environment collapses, taking humanity with it. Other biospheres — perhaps differently or more simply arranged — might do as well. They might have less resilience, but a lack of resilience isn’t the same as certain doom, especially when there is active observation and course correction going on.


1 Comment so far
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Great post! I also think that most clean energy isn’t so cheap from an energy return on investment perspective. If we believe that energy surplus is highly correlated with population growth and that the surplus will be smaller with green sources than with early oil, coal, and gas, then the population growth will be smaller, too.

Comment by Alexis Madrigal

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