Saving the Planet: The Basics

Channeling my Inner Pedant yet again.

Want to Save the Planet (whatever that means, but I’ll go with the general & vague notions of: not recklessly eliminating species or the environments they live in, keeping the place tidy, and not doing anything that would keep our kids from enjoying the same lovely planet we’ve got now)?  Here’s a few things to get straight:

– Buying a new hybrid car doesn’t help. Every hybrid car needs to be manufactured, meaning resources such as iron and aluminum ore, lead for the batteries, lots of energy and so on get consumed. You might argue that buying a new hybrid car is better than buying a Hummer – that might be true, but only if it’s a new Hummer, because if you bought a used Hummer and thereby reduced demand for new hybrid cars by one, you’ve Saved the Planet from having to cough up all the resources needed to manufacture that new car (not to mention disposal of those nasty batteries), while only costing the planet the difference in net fuel consumption – not even close, buy the used Hummer.

– Recycling ain’t it. Don’t get me wrong, recycling is a good thing, mostly, but hardly addresses the parenthetically mentioned goals above. First off, it’s not like most things other than compost recycle themselves – you’ve got to collect and process them. That means trucks, fuel, processing plants, energy – is short, recycling become yet another consumer of energy and resources.  Recycling may net out to a lower total consumption level than using new stuff (key word: may. It’s not a given), but it’s a relatively tiny reduction, assuming consumption level continue to increase.

– Green energy ain’t it. It’s a lovely idea: get all of our energy from totally clean and renewable sources – sun, wind, hydro (sort of – damming huge rivers and drowning square miles of former valley lands is iffy)  and get rid of dirty stuff like coal, oil and even natural gas burning plants. Over time – a pretty long time, like 50 or 100 years – it might even be possible to supply an appreciable amount of energy by these sources, provided that, contrary to all historical trends, energy demand doesn’t keep growing really fast. But current green technology involves two big problem: first, what happens on windless nights in a dry year? In other words, unlike a coal, gas or oil based generating plant, you can’t turn green energy off and on at will, and storage technology (batteries) is decades away from having an answer, if there even is an answer. Second, like the new car issue above, it’s not like green energy generation itself doesn’t cost vast investments in resources. One painful example pointed out by the inestimable Mike Flynn: a 6 mile wide lake of toxic chemicals created by demand for wind turbines. Nuclear would work – but there’s issues, there.

– Population control ain’t it, either. The dirty little secret lurking behind all of the above points is that efforts to control the bad effects of consumption (cars, energy, stuff in general) doesn’t mean diddly if consumption itself continues to spiral out of control. Thought Experiment Case Study: How many people can the Planet support? Answer: it depends on consumption. Let’s compare two ‘consumers’.

The first is a third-world farmer, comfortably prosperous by local standards – he works his own land and feeds his own family, trades a little for necessities he can’t easily make, and is loved and respected by his family and neighbors. He doesn’t waste any time wishing he had gobs more stuff, as is considered and considers himself a happy man. Let’s call him Jose.

Next we have an upper class American, with 15,000 square feet of personal living space spread across three homes he shares with no one, a fleet of cars and a squad of servants, and a habit of jetting all over the world many times a year, often in nearly empty personal or charter jets.  As he is loved by pretty much no one, he longs for many goods, but especially for the power to manage the world. Let’s call him Al Gore.

So, how many of Jose can the Planet support? 10 billion? 20 billion? How many Al Gores? 100,000? 200,000?

Sure, there’s a theoretical Malthusian limit to the total number of people the Planet can support, but we’re nowhere near that number – as long a we all consume like Jose. If we consume like Al Gore, we’re doomed – the existing numbers of Al Gores on the planet now are far more than the Planet can sustain.

It’s fascinating that the Al Gores of the world, people who consume 1,000 times or more what Jose consumes, never talk about consumption, but can’t shut up about population.

Bottom line: to Save the Planet, high consumers – that’s you and me – must reduce their consumption drastically.

Reduced consumption is not without its consequences.

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Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

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