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Thread: The root causes of environmental problems

  1. #1 The root causes of environmental problems 
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    I would be interested in investigating the VERY UNDERLYING causes of those self-made environmental problems we are facing right now. I believe it is very important to actually understand this. What has driven mankind to weaken our ecological systems to such extent? What is it about 'homo sapiens' that makes it the only species on this planet that does not live in harmony with its natural environment? Are we greedy and profit-driven? Are we defining ourselves through consumption? Are we short-sighted by nature? Are we self-centered by nature through our unique ability to reflect on ourselves? Are we too curious about new discoveries that make us push the technological frontier further and further, not thinking about what side effects this entails? And if the answer to these questions is YES, then I ask further: WHY? Let's be critical about ourselves and get to the very bottom of this...


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    Quote Originally Posted by erwinigel1000
    What is it about 'homo sapiens' that makes it the only species on this planet that does not live in harmony with its natural environment?
    I don't think there is anything unique about humans in this regard - most organisms would do the same if given half the chance (indeed, many do). The "harmony" you speak of is not really all that harmonious - it's more a case of factors such as disease, limiting resources and predation that puts the checks and balances on things; it's not a paradise out there. It's not as if the natural world has a higher moral standard than we do (if I can phrase it that way).

    Boom and bust population cycles are quite common.

    Recognising the problem and doing something about it is the real issue.


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    Quote Originally Posted by Zwirko
    I don't think there is anything unique about humans in this regard - most organisms would do the same if given half the chance (indeed, many do). The "harmony" you speak of is not really all that harmonious - it's more a case of factors such as disease, limiting resources and predation that puts the checks and balances on things; it's not a paradise out there. It's not as if the natural world has a higher moral standard than we do (if I can phrase it that way).

    Boom and bust population cycles are quite common.

    Recognising the problem and doing something about it is the real issue.
    Unfortunately I have to agree with Zwirko, humans are in a population boom cycle do to the oil economy we currently have now. Populations are always in equilibrium with the resources available. So we actually have two major problems to solve. One, we need to find a replacement for the oil economy before we run out, but I fear we will be into our bust cycle before that might happen. Second, we need to find a better way to handle our waste products, so that our biosphere doesn't take a big hit.

    Changing the way a whole world full of diverse peoples live their lives won't be easy and it may take the start of the bust cycle to get everyones attention focused enough to make the changes needed.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Zwirko
    I don't think there is anything unique about humans in this regard - most organisms would do the same if given half the chance (indeed, many do).
    If by that you mean population overshoot and collapse, I agree. But if you mean unsustainable extraction of resources, consumption beyond satisfying basic needs and damaging environmental sinks beyond repair...could you give me a few examples?

    You raised an interesting point by saying "...if given half the chance...". That is probably an important distinguishing factor. We have a unique ability to invent and constantly improve technology and then use it to our needs.

    Quote Originally Posted by Zwirko
    The "harmony" you speak of is not really all that harmonious - it's more a case of factors such as disease, limiting resources and predation that puts the checks and balances on things; it's not a paradise out there.
    I agree that interspecific relationships (between species) are NOT harmonious. However, I believe the ecological system (the biosphere) is. It constantly keeps itself in an equilibrium (even though a dynamic one). Think about Gaia theory, although I do note that this theory is not well grounded scientifically.

    What I'm saying is: Yes, boom and bust cycles are common in the natural world. But don't think it is so common that such a bust cycle has ever meant the blow-up of the entire ecosystem (let alone that this would be common).

    [/quote"Lance Wenban"]Unfortunately I have to agree with Zwirko, humans are in a population boom cycle do to the oil economy we currently have now. Populations are always in equilibrium with the resources available.[quote]

    Yes, but isn't it true that there is always an indefinite number of paths possible that can result in different equilibria? You mention resources (oil)...there can be different rates of extraction. I assert that humans have a very specific rate of oil extraction. (Of course when I say that I imagine that other species can also extract oil.) We need so much of it because we consume way beyond our basic needs. WHY DO WE DO THAT though? Perhaps a sociology/psychology question...

    Of course, I don't know how sustainably ants, for example, would extract resources if they were able to, and, in this sense, maybe Zwirko has come up with one of the most fundamental differences between humans and other superorganisms...that we simply have the ability to do so. But isn't there more to it? I have a feeling there is something missing. I'm talking about 'individualism', 'short-sightedness', 'tendency to discount the future', 'exuberance', 'animal spirits' and things like that...of course hard to compare to other species.

    Would be great to discuss this a bit more...
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    Examples I had in mind would range right across the scale range from things like elephants, goats, crown of thorns starfish, birds, mice, and locusts all the way down to algae, bacteria and even possibly some viruses.

    When the checks and balances I briefly alluded to previously are removed then just about any organism will make hay while the sun shines, without paying too much heed to the consequences that lie ahead. You mentioned an "equilibrium" - that's basically what lies behind my thoughts on this. For example, an increase in a scarce, limiting nutrient can result in a rapid increase in population of one species which then proceeds to wreak havoc on its local environment (although not on the entire biosphere such as we are able to do).

    I'm no ecologist, so I'd recommend not taking anything I say on the matter as the last word.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Zwirko
    Examples I had in mind would range right across the scale range from things like elephants, goats, crown of thorns starfish, birds, mice, and locusts all the way down to algae, bacteria and even possibly some viruses.
    So what do they do? Do they do this?

    Quote Originally Posted by erwinigel1000
    unsustainable extraction of resources, consumption beyond satisfying basic needs and damaging environmental sinks beyond repair
    How? I don't think so, but I'm happy to let myself convince, if you elaborate on your examples a little. By the way, I think we are actually almost on the same page but we are slightly cross-talking: We both think there is a dynamic equilibrium in ecological systems that is maintained by a fascinating system of "checks and balances". And you argue correctly that, if the latter were removed then all sorts of things would happen to the former.

    Well, my question, I guess, is then: What are the underlying reasons for us humans (a) being able to break out of that system of checks and balances and put ourselves above it and (b) being willing/programmed/predestined (?) to exploit our abilities to our short-term avantage so such that it becomes our (and the whole ecosystem's) long-term disadvantage? That is what I would like to investigate. Do people have thoughts on this?
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    Quote Originally Posted by erwinigel1000
    Well, my question, I guess, is then: What are the underlying reasons for us humans (a) being able to break out of that system of checks and balances and put ourselves above it and (b) being willing/programmed/predestined (?) to exploit our abilities to our short-term avantage so such that it becomes our (and the whole ecosystem's) long-term disadvantage? That is what I would like to investigate. Do people have thoughts on this?
    I hope this will help answer your question a bit, it will be somewhat simplistic, but it should get the point across.

    When we discovered oil and were able to upgrade our ability to grow a great deal more food than at anytime in history, naturally population was able to expand to much higher levels than it would have been possible before the industrial revolution. More population requires more power, more power requires burning more carbon based resources causing more CO2 to be put into the atmosphere, which in turn causes a green house effect.

    While I'm sure we will find ways to keep up a level of production when the oil starts on the downward spiral to being used up. Those products that depend on it will start going up in price, and that includes food, and shall we talk about our favorite mode of transportation and peoples heating and cooling bills. I see this becoming noticeable over the next few decades and at about that same time we should start seeing problems from a rising ocean level (Damn! That's going to be distracting), having to deal with many millions of people needing to be relocated and that's just locally. World wide were talking maybe as much as two billion relocation’s. Does anyone think we will have a peaceful world while all this is going on?
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    Quote Originally Posted by Lance Wenban
    When we discovered oil and were able to upgrade our ability to grow a great deal more food than at anytime in history, naturally population was able to expand to much higher levels than it would have been possible before the industrial revolution. More population requires more power, more power requires burning more carbon based resources causing more CO2 to be put into the atmosphere, which in turn causes a green house effect.
    Yes, and to an extent we have this in common with other species which all increase their population until they encounter a limiting environmental factor (space, food, predators, water, etc). But other species exploit their surrounding resources just so to satisfy their primary needs. In contrast, WE are not only exploiting resources (such as oil) so as to allow our population to grow further, but also to allow our existing population to increase its living standard, which involves secondary and tertiary needs as well. Think of all that unnecessary stuff we buy (little electronical devices, all sorts of fancy clothes, wooden furniture for which primary forests are being logged, etc...).

    It is only now that we are learning about the concept of sustainability. And it is surprising to me that we didn't think about it way earlier. Growth can not continue infinitely on a finite planet with limited resources. Easy. Even renewables are finite. So our constant desire for economic growth and growth more generally is by definition unsustainable. But why are we not able to see this? One of the reasons perhaps is that we have difficulties to imagine the implications and consequences of exponential growth (think of the example of the rice corn and the chess board).

    I also think that we have the underlying attitude built in our system that we can do "business as usual" until we approach our limits and then, having reached it, just stay there. But, of course, it doesn't work that way. Limits don't exist in the form of solid walls we can not trespass. Instead, signals about limits are delayed and we are temporarily allowed to overshoot our limits. To make things worse, once we get the already delayed signal, our response itself is delayed also, unless things are already so bad that our population is externally forced to collapse suddenly.

    So perhaps our dilemma is this: On the one hand, we are very intelligent upright apes indeed and have certain capabilities that other species don't have, and these unique abilities have allowed us to break out of the "checks and ballances" system and make ourselves as comfortable on this planet as our imagination permits us. On the other hand, we are very short-sighted in that we have difficulties imagining the dynamics of our behaviour and decision-making, but also in a sense that we place too much weight on short-term profits and too little weight on long-term risks. This is aggravated further by the complex organisational structures we have put in place, which don't allow us to cooperate efficiently to make quick decisions.

    Any thoughts?
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    @ erwinigel1000

    I think the reason is a little more complex than you are making it out to be. People want to have and raise families and they need to feed and educate their children and in order to do that they must work. Just where do you think those jobs are going to come from, if we are not producing and selling all those things that are using up our limited resources? Everyone has their priorities and family is first on that list. Then we worry about the other stuff and have these conversations with our friends and on forums and maybe help a little at least in our own personal understanding.
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    I am much more optimistic about the future of huamnity than many of those who follow more 'politically correct' approaches to the environment. By 'politically correct' I mean the kind of pessimistic and anti-human view that is expressed by environmental groups on the greenpeace model.

    Humans are, indeed, special. We are more ingenious and more able to engineer our environment than any other species. The result to date, from a humano-centric view, is nearly all positive. We are able to maintain a high population and keep our people healthy, and live a longer life than any time in the past - at least in the wealthy west.

    We have already overcome a number of crises through that ingenuity, and despite the pessimism many people show, there is no real reason why humanity should not overcome all future crises, for the foreseeable future.

    There is a view to human ecology that is often not expressed. Often the adaptation between people and the environment goes both ways. People adapt to a particular environment. The environment also adapts to the people. I woke up to this after reading an article on Australian aboriginees. This article raved about the way the aboriginees had adapted to the environment in Australia, and how such things as their use of fire for 'mosaic burning' enhanced plant growth.

    I realised that, since this people had been part of that environment for 45,000 to 65,000 years, the adaptation probably went the other way. It is not that the aboriginees modified their way of life to help the environment. It is more that they imposed their way of living on the environment, which altered to adapt. This alteration partly took the form of all unadapted life forms going extinct. (There was a mega-extinction event in Australia about 45,000 to 65,000 years ago.)

    Much plant life adapted to regular fires. The plant life that could not, either died out or became rare. The dominance of the gum tree there may be no accident.

    I have a suspicion that the reason modern humans have such a profound effect on the natural environment is because our society changes quickly, and the natural environment cannot adapt quickly enough to keep up.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Lance Wenban
    I think the reason is a little more complex than you are making it out to be.
    I agree that the reasons are more complex. That's why I started this thread. To learn more about them. More than happy to discuss...

    Quote Originally Posted by Lance Wenban
    People want to have and raise families and they need to feed and educate their children and in order to do that they must work. Just where do you think those jobs are going to come from, if we are not producing and selling all those things that are using up our limited resources?
    Yes, you are right. And in saying that, of course, we assume that the way our society currently works is the best. What if we could lower our expectations? You are absolutely right: If we people wouldn't demand those superfluous products, there would be fewer jobs and less earnings to spend. But we wouldn't need that much money because we don't demand those goods any more in the first place...see what I mean? It all depends how we organise our society. With a few changes here and there, it would even be possible to imagine that everybody keep their jobs, with merely average working hours declining a little.

    I'm not even arguing that we must produce less or consume less? But why constantly strive for more? Why are our societies based on the growth principle? Why not be happy with what we have? Growth has to come to an end eventually anyway. We can have a hard landing or a soft one. The choice is entirely up to us.

    Back to the original question: So do we have some sort of built-in growth engine? Is it impossible for us to be satisfied with a given living standard? It is well-known that that consumption does not increase peoples' happiness in the long-run. We enjoy a ne good we purchase, then we get bored or take it for granted and our marginal happiness is gone...we buy the next product...bigger and better of course.

    Quote Originally Posted by skeptic
    I am much more optimistic about the future of huamnity than many of those who follow more 'politically correct' approaches to the environment. By 'politically correct' I mean the kind of pessimistic and anti-human view that is expressed by environmental groups on the greenpeace model.
    I'm not trying to talk us humans down. On the contrary, I think we are pretty amazing creatures. And the fact that we can sit here and discuss these issues (and if only for "our own personal understanding") shows something. The aim of this discussion is also not to point the finger, but I think it is incredibly important to get to the bottom of how we have made and are making our choices. We often assume ourselves to be a bunch of rational individuals who will make logical decisions based on the set of information we have. But this doesn't seem to be true to me. First of all, our information is imperfect, our capacity to understand important things limited. We understand much, but will never understand all. And second, we often make irrational choices. And one of these is founding our way of life on the principle of growth. At the individual level, our irrational thought is "more is better" (which is true but MORE OF WHAT is the question). Irrational exuberance is just one more key word.

    Finally, I'm also quite optimistic about the future. But in order to overcome the challenges we face, we should be critical with ourselves and try to understand the most basic "roots of the problem".
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    erwin

    For what it is worth, I think the root of the problem is simply timing. Humanity is developing and growing. We are moving towards a new way of life. However, change is dramatic, and sometimes damaging. We are learning to live in a more environmentally friendly way. For example : 100 years ago, we produced in the west, the most awful smogs. We poisoned rivers like crazy. Even 30 years ago, we were producing acid rain. Western nations no longer do any of these things. We are learning.

    Developing nations are now moving through the phase that we did that 100 years ago, but will get clear of it even faster than we did. We continue to face challenges, and the current one is global climate change. Over the next few decades, we will clean up our act there too.

    So basically, it is all timing. We make mistakes. We learn. We correct mistakes. As time passes, we get better at what we do.

    It is not about reducing growth. In fact, cleaning the environment is part of our economic growth. It is known as a growth industry. As time passes, the economy will continue to grow, and more and more wealth will be generated. However, our economic activities will be redirected in cleaner directions.

    I see no reason why the average person in 50 years should not be wealthy to the degree that a millionnaire is today. Everyone is a millionaire. After all, the average westerner today lives in a manner than King Henry VIII could not have. It is just a matter of economic activity directed in the correct way. That should also be much less damaging to the environment.
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    Quote Originally Posted by skeptic
    It is not about reducing growth. In fact, cleaning the environment is part of our economic growth. It is known as a growth industry. As time passes, the economy will continue to grow, and more and more wealth will be generated. However, our economic activities will be redirected in cleaner directions.
    Yes, I thought it through, and I think you are right with this. I previously assumed that economic growth necessarily entails growth in resource use, but that is obviously wrong. Our stock of resources will eventually run out, but if production technologies become more and more energy efficient, it could be thinkable that renewables (one day) will be entirely sufficient to support the status quo. Of course, one caveat to this is that only the FLOW of energy generated by renewables is renewable, but there is a limit to the SIZE of this flow. As such, any ongoing economic growth would have to be driven by ongoing efficiency improvements, and I'm not sure if that is a reasonable assumption to make. Wouldn't you think there is a limit to technological progress?

    Another issue is that economic growth requires growth in physical capital. And I think there would be a limit on the amount of capital we can accumulate:

    1) It requires physical non-renewable resources and
    2) eventually space would become a problem. Even though I agree with you that we are likely to shift towards a service-based (as opposed to goods-based economy), services require physical capital (buildings, etc) as well.

    So I think you raised an interesting point, which I will have to do some more thinking on.

    Quote Originally Posted by skeptic
    For what it is worth, I think the root of the problem is simply timing. Humanity is developing and growing. We are moving towards a new way of life. However, change is dramatic, and sometimes damaging. We are learning to live in a more environmentally friendly way. For example : 100 years ago, we produced in the west, the most awful smogs. We poisoned rivers like crazy. Even 30 years ago, we were producing acid rain. Western nations no longer do any of these things. We are learning.
    We had this discussion in the other topic the other day (I think you participated in it): It is true that developed countries pollute less by means of their own production. But unfortunately, they demand a large volume of goods that are produced in developing countries that still pollute heaps. And I agree with you that developing countries will eventually also become less polluting as they climb the development ladder. But there is a long way ahead and I really hope that it won't be too late by then. We have already overshot or are about to overshoot many limits in our ecosystem. I think we can not afford to lean back and wait for developing countries to become devloped.

    Quote Originally Posted by skeptic
    So basically, it is all timing. We make mistakes. We learn. We correct mistakes. As time passes, we get better at what we do.
    I find this is an extremely simplistic way of seeing things. Yes, we learn, but it seems to me we are learning the hard way only. And along the way, some irreversible damage is being done (unsustainable CO2 concentration, destruction of biodiversity, land degradation, unsustainable resource extraction, etc). If by the time we have learnt and, more importantantly, incorporated the lessons in our behaviour (which takes time), the polar ice caps have already melted significantly and the sea level has risen significantly, then all learning is useless. Sorry, as I said, I'm not as pessimistic as it may look here, but I don't feel too comfortable minusculing past mistakes.

    Also, I don't understand what you mean by saying "timing" is the root of the problem. Do you mean it is our bad luck that the "dramatic changes" you mention are occurring at this particular point in time and not at any other?
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    @ erwinigel1000

    Yes, we learn, but it seems to me we are learning the hard way only.
    Not at all, it's just that the hard way makes headlines and the easy way doesn't.

    When it comes to economics, any consequences more than a couple of decades down the road are not considered. I need to feed my family now and more than two decades from now is somebody elses problem.
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    Re timing

    By that I mean the time in history. Early 21st century will be very, very different to early 22nd. For example, I anticipate major advances in robotocs this century. In 100 years, there will be enormous armies of tiny robots generating economic activity. Imagine, for example, a field of soya beans, with a thousand small and specialised robots. Instead of sprays, the robots will individually tend the plants, killing harmful insects, and cutting off weeds at the tap root. Each plant has the soil around it individually tested, and treated to ensure optimal fertiliser content. No excess fertiliser to be washed off to pollute streams etc.

    This is just one of a million improvements to our way of life that will ensure a way of life that is both wealthy beyond what we currently imagine, and environmentally clean.
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    @ skeptic

    What are you? The skeptical optimist. That's a contradiction. Anyway given mans knack of taking the road of hard knocks. It seems likely we will have a population crash before the 22nd century, and that will become so distracting that any continued advancement will either be very slow, non-existent or in reverse. After all a society built on technically is but a house of cards that could come tumbling down by losing just one card. An example is what would happen to us if we could no longer maintain and replace our satellites? What happens if we can't feed our population do to whatever? What happens if the oceans start rising more than they are now?...etc?
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    LW

    You are getting skeptical and cynical mixed up. Being skeptical is not innately optimistic or pessimistic. A skeptic is simply someone who doubts what he/she is told if insufficient credible evidence is supplied. This is one of the qualities of a good scientist.

    As it happens, I look at historical evidence. The last few hundred years show well how human ingenuity has led to the solving of problems. Human welfare has improved and continues to improve. There is ample evidence for this, and evidence is what a skeptic needs.

    No, there will not be a population crash unless there is something major and unpredictable. The best population demographers in the world work for the United Nations, and they have predicted that world population will stabilise at around 9 billion, around 2040 to 2050. www.un.org/popin

    Humans are very adaptable. They are the only mammal to colonise all the world's land masses, without help from another species. We have adapted to living in ice, like the Inuits, to living in tropical desert, like the Tuareg. Our modern technology simply increases that adaptability. Pessimism about humanity's future might be fashionable, but it is also wrong.
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    Quote Originally Posted by skeptic
    LW

    You are getting skeptical and cynical mixed up. Being skeptical is not innately optimistic or pessimistic. A skeptic is simply someone who doubts what he/she is told if insufficient credible evidence is supplied. This is one of the qualities of a good scientist.
    Conceded

    As it happens, I look at historical evidence. The last few hundred years show well how human ingenuity has led to the solving of problems. Human welfare has improved and continues to improve. There is ample evidence for this, and evidence is what a skeptic needs.
    That is also true. However as a species we've never faced the type of global problems that are about to happen to us, and humans are notorious for not taking action before the disasters have happened or are happening. Maybe I'm being a bit negative, but sometimes that's needed in order to focus attention. Even if we do come through the future challenges, it won't be unscathed and without a great deal of hurt and suffering by billions. But then the dead are soon forgotten and life is for the living.

    No, there will not be a population crash unless there is something major and unpredictable. The best population demographers in the world work for the United Nations, and they have predicted that world population will stabilise at around 9 billion, around 2040 to 2050. www.un.org/popin
    I do hope this will be true, but experts never really know what's going to happen in the real future which might obsolete all the data they are basing their predictions on. Even the best predictors aren't much better than 50% out past 50 years in the future. But that also goes for unexpected good things happening too. For instance fusion power might happen much sooner than expected and that would change a lot of things quickly.

    Humans are very adaptable. They are the only mammal to colonise all the world's land masses, without help from another species. We have adapted to living in ice, like the Inuits, to living in tropical desert, like the Tuareg. Our modern technology simply increases that adaptability. Pessimism about humanity's future might be fashionable, but it is also wrong.
    Yes we are very adaptable and technology does increase adaptability, but it can also act like a crutch that we might find hard to live without. If the power we've come to depend on starts becoming a rare commodity and the cost goes up in a big way, well I know I would have a problem enjoying all of our wonderful technology.
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    As LW pointed out, predicting the future is fraught with problems. I could raise all kinds of examples of those who predicted things that have not come about, and that is just the respectable ones!

    My own predictions are very general, and based on long term historic trends. For example : our ability with science and technology will continue to grow. A pretty safe prediction!

    There is a long term trend towards living in increasingly artificial environments, and I think this will continue, meaning that a lot of humans will live in buildings, or even caves, with light, air, temperature, humidity etc all controlled to within pre-set optimums. Possibly arcologies?

    This trend in it's ultimate form will mean whole populations living off the Earth, either in caves on Mars or other lumps of dirt, or in gigantic space habitats, with carefully controlled life support systems. I am not prepared, however, to suggest when. Predictions of events happening too soon are common in the futurism business.

    A more recent trend is the ability to grow more food in smaller acreages. This will continue via GM, hydroponics, and even robotics. Eventually, the human world will be able to return large areas of farm land back to nature.

    I could go on.
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    @ skeptic

    A more recent trend is the ability to grow more food in smaller acreages. This will continue via GM, hydroponics, and even robotics. Eventually, the human world will be able to return large areas of farm land back to nature.

    Good comment, I like the idea of every city having it's own high rise and high technology farms. Each high rise farm could be set up to take care of a set number of people say 100,000. that way feeding a city would be modular and could easily be adjusted for changes in population. By being local they would save a great deal on transportation cost. By being in a controlled environment they won't be subject to seasons or pest problems and will use 10 times less water. All very good things if climate does start changing. I don't like being dependent on food that has to travel any distance before I can buy it.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Lance Wenban
    When it comes to economics, any consequences more than a couple of decades down the road are not considered. I need to feed my family now and more than two decades from now is somebody elses problem.
    Sure, but we seem to consume much more than would be necessary to "just" feed our families.

    Quote Originally Posted by skeptic
    By that I mean the time in history. Early 21st century will be very, very different to early 22nd. For example, I anticipate major advances in robotocs this century. In 100 years, there will be enormous armies of tiny robots generating economic activity. Imagine, for example, a field of soya beans, with a thousand small and specialised robots. Instead of sprays, the robots will individually tend the plants, killing harmful insects, and cutting off weeds at the tap root. Each plant has the soil around it individually tested, and treated to ensure optimal fertiliser content. No excess fertiliser to be washed off to pollute streams etc.
    That may very well be the case. However, what does that change in terms of our ecological footprint? Your whole argument seems to revolve around that we are not actually facing a real crisis, but merely a technological transition which is only a matter of time to be completed. You are right in saying that maybe one day robots will produce all the crap we purchase. But robots are physical objects, they are made by real people from resources we will continue to dig out from the Earth, and their production will require energy. What I'm saying is that anvances in robotics will sure have an effect on society and our economy (via productivity), and maybe the human labour resources we save by this trend would be able to be allocated to work on more important tasks such as the climate challenge. But that's all you achieve. You do not solve the resource problem or the consumption problem or the emissions problem.

    Technology will no doubt be important in increasing energy efficiency, but I don't think technology alone will be the answer to the problems we are facing. In my opinion, there will have to be behavioural changes, at the individual AND collective level.

    Quote Originally Posted by skeptic
    No, there will not be a population crash unless there is something major and unpredictable. The best population demographers in the world work for the United Nations, and they have predicted that world population will stabilise at around 9 billion, around 2040 to 2050. www.un.org/popin
    I haven't looked at this yet, but I could imagine that they don't take climate change effects into account? There are certainly risks to this forecasts. And it is well-known that the timing of these effects are very uncertain. If we fail to stabilise atmospheric CO2 concentrations in the near term, the effects could hold off for quite some time, or affect us as very suddenly and quite severely as early as 2050. The dynamics are still not well understood.

    Quote Originally Posted by Lance Wenban
    That is also true. However as a species we've never faced the type of global problems that are about to happen to us, and humans are notorious for not taking action before the disasters have happened or are happening. Maybe I'm being a bit negative, but sometimes that's needed in order to focus attention. Even if we do come through the future challenges, it won't be unscathed and without a great deal of hurt and suffering by billions. But then the dead are soon forgotten and life is for the living.
    I agree with you on this one, Lance! Yes, skeptic is right, we may have a good track-record in solving problems, but there are two very significant caveats to this:

    1) As Lance pointed out we tend to solve problems with a delay that usually leaves a legacy. However we got away with it so far.

    2) We should acknowledge tht the current problem (climate change) is unprecedented in scale (global vs local previously) and potential effect on our civilisation.

    Quote Originally Posted by skeptic
    This trend in it's ultimate form will mean whole populations living off the Earth, either in caves on Mars or other lumps of dirt, or in gigantic space habitats, with carefully controlled life support systems. I am not prepared, however, to suggest when. Predictions of events happening too soon are common in the futurism business.
    Nice outlook. But why not avoid having to do all this in the first place?
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    Let me comment on resources.

    The late, great economist, Professor Julian Simon, had interesting take on this. He thought, and taught, that the only resource that is truly limited is human ingenuity, and we have that in abundance.

    Large scale resources are not limited. Just our ability to access them. For example : take Uranium. Currently mining is extracting up to 80 parts per million by weight ores of uranium. Lower concentrations are not economic to mine. But there are unbelievably enormous quantities of granite with 20 ppm uranium. If we can learn to extract the stuff from granite, we will 'never' run out.

    If we look at the history of mining, we see a long, slow trend towards extracting ever smaller percentages of minerals from rock. The good thing is that each incremental step in our technology results in a much larger resource being made available. If pure gold is scarce, then 1% gold in quartz rock is far more abundant, and 0.01% is even more abundant. As we get better at extracting ever smaller amounts, we gain access to more and more resource.

    The other way round resource shortages is to find alternatives. When we run out of crude oil, there will be no more. However, scientists are already making its equivalent out of biomass. Substitution will suffice.

    So basically, humanity is not short of resources. We are sometimes short of the technology needed to obtain essential resources. That technology continues to grow.
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    To skeptic:

    Have you read the book "Limits to Growth - The 30-Year Update"? A fantastic read. It basically argues that there is not only ONE limit to economic growth (such as resources), but a whole layer of limits (resources, energy, money, labour, capital, land, food, pollution absorption capacity, etc).

    If you remove or raise one limit (for example by investing more in resource exploration and extraction) and so allow the global economy to grow further, then you will soon encounter another limit. Especially when growth is exponential, i.e. the rate of growth is constant. We certainly won't run entirely out of resources or land, or anything else. But what we run out of is the "ability to cope". We can always divert resources to stitch some wounds here and there, but only at the expense of other wounds opening up elsewhere.

    Sure, our abilities to cope with environmental pressures can grow, if we invest in developing them. But at any given point in time, it is limited. It can only handle that much. The cunning thing about exponential growth is that output will double every x years (where x is a constant; x = 70/constant rate of growth (%)). So without efficiency improvements, you will need double the amount of energy and resources to sustain that growth. As a result, in order to achieve a decline in our resource and energy use, you would need efficiency improvements of MORE than 50% every x years.

    For example, our global economy is currently growing at just above 5% per annum. This means that output will double every 70/5=14 years. And within these 14 years, energy efficiency in production would have to be increased by 50%. Every 14 years, indefinitely. And that will just slow the RATE of extraction (note that there will still be significant extraction). Over time, some resources (perhaps not uranium) will become more and more scarce, which means we will have to mine lower and lower grades of resources. As resource grades decrease, mining costs rise non-linearly, and we will have to divert a huge amount of resources (money, capital, etc) which we will then be lacking for investment in pollution control technologies, land yield enhancement technologies, land erosion protection technologies, etc. Does that make sense?

    On this note, I wish you a merry Christmas :-)
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    Merry Christmas to you, too, erwin. And all others.

    On exponential growth. I do not know how economies will grow in the future, and I am not prepared to make such predictions. However, I do know that the nature of such growth is constantly changing. For example : we can predict that certain materials will change. When car makers build a car body today, it is all metal. In the future, carbon fibres and the like will be a big component. Things change, making today's predictions turn to bulldust.

    The previous post emphasizes problems. I have never denied that we will have problems. They, like the poor, are always with us. Just their nature changes. Humanity will always be chasing resources, and looking for new ways to make resources more available and less expensive. Sometimes one resource becomes too expensive, and is substituted by another.

    Take fresh water. There is a lot of literature about the present and forthcoming fresh water shortage. These ideas are correct, of course. But what they do not mention is that they are not new. Fresh water has been in short supply somewhere in the world since the dawn of agriculture. In ancient Persia, water was so much in short supply for growing crops, that this bronze age culture dug underground canals, hundreds of kms long, to carry water from the mountains to the plains for crops. These canals were called qanots, and had to be underground to prevent the water disappearing by evaporation. Imagine the sheer labour involved, with just bronze hand tools!

    Today, fresh water is still in short supply. In 100 years, it will still be in short supply. In the mean time, though, modern techniques will supply a lot more to a lot of very dry areas. It is an ongoing problem, though, and demand grows to keep pace with the problem solving.

    Minerals will always be in short supply. However, new techniques will keep the supply flowing. Which minerals, I do not know. Some will become more important, and some less. Some minerals, like rare alkaline earths, are scarce. Others, like aluminium and iron, are in such abundance they will never become scarce. Techniques will change, and the way we use these resources will change. Humanity will always have problems of supply, but we will always find a way to cope.
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    Quote Originally Posted by skeptic
    Humanity will always have problems of supply, but we will always find a way to cope.
    In the past, we often coped through starving to death, killing each other and taking each other's stuff, reducing exploitable ecosystems to wastelands of sand and thorns, installing rigid and tyrannical authoritarian overlords to ration our food and curb our behaviors, fostering plagues, and so forth.

    Entire civilizations found themselves unable to innovate past some suddenly critical shortage or change in circumstance, and vanished, their degraded remnants hardly even traceable to their former state of prosperity and health.

    Sure, humanity will probably "cope", in the sense that it is hard to kill off completely. But if we want to keep what we regard as a good life in enjoyable circumstances for our children and theirs, the historical record of "coping" is more of a sobering warning than a reassurance.
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    Iceaura

    If you study your history, you will find that those situations happen for political reasons. Some nation decides to go a conquering. Some dictator takes over and institutes an autocratic rule. Almost never is a disaster the result of simple resource limitation.

    The best example I can remember is the loss of copper/tin for making bronze, nearly 3,000 years ago in the Middle East. Lack of bronze led to some hardship, but also led to the rapid development of the smelting of iron. Before the bronze ran out, making iron was just too difficult. When they were forced into it, the Iron Age began.

    There have been other cases where writers with agendas try to tell us that a society collapses due to resource loss. Classic is Easter Island (Rapanui). However, the major depopulation there 'coincided' with the coming of the Spanish and smallpox, along with the taking of slaves for middle American plantations.

    Disasters to societies are generally man made, not the result of resource depletion.
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    Quote Originally Posted by iceaura
    Quote Originally Posted by skeptic
    Humanity will always have problems of supply, but we will always find a way to cope.
    In the past, we often coped through starving to death, killing each other and taking each other's stuff, reducing exploitable ecosystems to wastelands of sand and thorns, installing rigid and tyrannical authoritarian overlords to ration our food and curb our behaviors, fostering plagues, and so forth.

    Entire civilizations found themselves unable to innovate past some suddenly critical shortage or change in circumstance, and vanished, their degraded remnants hardly even traceable to their former state of prosperity and health.

    Sure, humanity will probably "cope", in the sense that it is hard to kill off completely. But if we want to keep what we regard as a good life in enjoyable circumstances for our children and theirs, the historical record of "coping" is more of a sobering warning than a reassurance.
    I agree with what you just said, but would like to add to it. Back in the old days they also weren't using up the resources we've been using up today. The problem being that if we get into a bind and have to recover again, we won't have the same resources to work with and get us back to where we are today.

    From now on we are in big trouble if we have to do it again. I won't say that it will be impossible but it won't ever be as easy as it was this time around.
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    These are not environmental "problems." The environment is what exists in our world. Science doesn't assign value but and considering changes in the environment as "problems" is subjective.
    To the extent there are problems, they are mans - what affect man on context of survival comfort, esthetics, etc.
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    Skeptic,

    Hadn't Easter Island's population significantly crashed before the arrival of Europeans?
    Also, what about the Anasazi? Their civilization rose and fell without European influence.
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