By David L. Brown
We write endlessly about the changes that are taking place in the world, and there is mounting evidence that we are at a cusp of history, a brief moment in time after which things will be far different than they have been in the past. In this essay we are going to look a bit further down the road and see just how different the future is going to be.
Readers of Star Phoenix Base and perhaps anyone who drives a vehicle know of the challenge of Peak Oil, which was predicted more than half a century ago and is now taking place.
To give you an idea of what an unusual position we are in history, and how the future will not be anything like the present (although not exactly like the past either), here is a graph that gives a long view of fossil fuel energy use by the human race, over a period of four thousand years, starting at the time of Christ and extending to 4000 A.D. That puts our present era right in the middle, and it provides a little perspective on the subject:
In effect this graph is a condensed, long-term view of the bell curve used by M. King Hubbert to predict future oil resources, the so-called Hubbert Curve. That same curve can be applied to other non-renewable resources as well. We have in recent months discussed the concept of Peak Food, a time when the world’s ability to produce food is falling behind the needs of the human population. This is a very real phenomenon, and is likely to result in another culminating event: Peak Population.
The UN continues to blithely assume that population growth will continue for another generation or so, reaching something like 10 billion humans by the middle of this century, and then (almost magically) leveling off and remaining stable into the far future. (I am reminded of my image of the Rabbit of Unreasonable Hope hopping out of a magician’s top hat, my analogy for the denial that is so widespread in the world today.
Well, there are more things going on than that, my friend. Everywhere you look there are peaks looming. Some of these will not yield quite so dramatic a curve as the one shown above, but let’s take a look at a few of the resources that may soon reach peaks or have already done so:
WATER — The world is running out of water everywhere. Not only are underground aquifers being pumped dry to irrigate crops and provide water to expanding metropolises, but the very rivers are drying up. It has long been the case that the Colorado River never reaches the sea, because every last drop is used up before it gets there. The same is rapidly becoming true of major Asian and European rivers as well, and not only because humans are using so much of the water but also because the Winter snowpack and glacial melt in high mountains is diminishing. Instead of steady flows of water, the pattern is shifting to Spring flooding as rapid melting occurs, followed by a drop in water flow during Summer when the water is most needed for crops. We have probably passed Peak Water, although it is not a strictly limited resource.
LAND — There is only a limited amount of arable land on which the entire agricultural base of human civilization rests. Not only are there more people dependant upon that finite resource, but the amount of arable land is actually declining as a result of human development (houses, roads, parking lots), not to mention losses to desertification, erosion, and soil depletion. We are no doubt past the time of Peak Land and Mother Nature is not making any more. Land is thus a limited resource.
FERTILIZER — There are three major ingredients in plant fertilizer, nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus. Not only has the cost of fertilizer been zooming upward (just yesterday I reported here that fertilizer prices in the U.S. have tripled just since last year), but the resources are being used up.
Nitrogen fertilizer is produced from fossil fuels, and we know what that means. Peak Oil and Peak Natural Gas means peak nitrogen fertilizer. Nitrogen is a limited resource and will follow the energy Hubbert curve into the downward dive.
Phosphorous from the mineral phosphate, is another key requirement of corn and other crops. Phosphate is mined from the Earth and that resource, too, is fast disappearing. According to Su McInerney of the University of Technology, Sydney, Australia, the earth’s supply of phosphate “could be exhausted within the next 50 to 130 years.” According to the U.S. Geological Survey, “There are no substitutes for phosphorus in agriculture.” So phosphate is a limited resource and Peak Phosphate is looming down the road.
Potassium, or “potash,” is another major plant nutrient that is in short supply. A recent news report said that China, a major importer of the mineral, accepted a 220 percent price increase for this crucial nutrient on which its agricultural production is so dependent. Can it be long before we reach Peak Potash?
METALS — The world supply of many important metals is peaking, or has already peaked and is in the decline phase. This includes copper, lead, zinc, gold, silver and platinum, all of which are substantially depleted and could become virtually unavailable except at extraordinary cost within a few years or a couple of decades at most. We are approaching multiple Peak Metal events and all of these resources are non-renewable — when they’re gone, they’re gone.
FISHERIES — The world’s oceans are in the final stages of being mined as a source of protein. Giant fishing fleets dragging drift nets up to 50 miles long are straining every living thing out of the oceans, leaving behind a watery wasteland. Recent news of the precipitous decline of penguin populations blamed the die-off in large part on competition by fishermen for the aquatic birds’ key food source. The once vast cod population of the North Atlantic is long gone and may never recover. Everywhere there are fish remaining, you can count on the the fishing fleets to be there soon. Peak Fish has long ago been passed. Fish stocks are being depleted beyond the chance of recovery in most cases, and thus even many major species of fish must be considered as a limited and non-renewable resource.
FOWL — You don’t read much about this, but the danger of avian flu becoming a human pandemic overlooks the fact that among wild and domestic birds it is already a devastating pandemic. Chickens, ducks, geese and other domestic fowl are a major source of protein in the world, through their flesh and eggs. And when you read as I recently did about events such as the one in Hong Kong where every single chicken was destroyed because of an outbreak of avian flu, you must realize that this is a serious problem. Most humans depend upon at least some animal protein, and we seem to be working up the food chain, with fish and fowl fast going away and higher animals such as cattle, sheep, and pigs increasingly expensive and in short supply. It is very likely that we have reached Peak Fowl, and avian flu even has the potential to kill off large numbers of wild birds as well as devastating the poultry industry worldwide, which it is already doing.
Those are some of the resources that have peaked, are peaking, or soon may peak. The future will of necessity have to be one in which those resources are in limited supply or have disappeared entirely. What kind of world will that be? Well, it sure will be different from the one we have been living in, and I think it is safe to say that it will not be a Star Trek world. Scotty will not be available to beam us up from this, our very own Planet Earth, when we have completed robbing it of its precious natural resources. It will be a far, far poorer world in that future time.