14 April 2008

It's probably a good time to buy stock in Soylent Green

Recently, listening to a conservative Christian talk radio program, I was treated to the host and his callers mocking and ridiculing media mogul Ted Turner for his outlandish predictions on the grim meathook future, due to the impending doom of unchecked global warming.

If steps aren’t taken to stem global warming, “We’ll be eight degrees hotter in 30 or 40 years and basically none of the crops will grow,” Turner said during a wide-ranging, hour-long interview with PBS’s Charlie Rose that aired Tuesday.

“Most of the people will have died and the rest of us will be cannibals,” said Turner, 69. “Civilization will have broken down. The few people left will be living in a failed state — like Somalia or Sudan — and living conditions will be intolerable.”

Turner’s remarks are indeed alarmist exaggerations, but the central theme about getting serious and attacking the problem should resonate with serious minded Americans. Let’s put our best and brightest minds on the tackling the “dwindling resource” problem. Past efforts in a similar vein resulted in spectacular technology advancements that ensured victory in World War II, put a man on the moon and gave us the internet.

And as we watch daily the escalation of energy prices, it should serve as a warning beacon.

According to the IPCC, the Earth is going to warm up between 1.4 degrees Celsius and 5.8 degrees Celsius in the next century (equivalent to 2-10 degrees Fahrenheit). According to National Geographic science writer Mark Lynas, an increase of 4 degrees Celsius would mean massive species extinctions, more powerful hurricanes, increasing areas of the earth rendered uninhabitable, food supplies critically endangered, complete disappearance of Arctic ice cap and resultant rise of global sea levels.

On another conservative talk radio station (basically, that is what dominates the radio dial), another host trivialized the current episode of warming mark of 0.7 degrees Celsius as insignificant. Of course, global warming deniers disregard the 99% consensus of mainstream scientists and declare that we keep our heads buried in the sand like an ostrich.

Maybe the breakdown of civilization won’t be trigged by the onset of catastrophic climatic change due to global warming — perhaps the advent of peak oil, where we will be incapable of burning ourselves to extinction. But if many geologists, oil investment bankers, etc.… are correct, we’ve reached the point where we’ve extracted half the oil that exists in the world. The remaining half will be much more costly to extract, and production will not keep pace with the increasing demand, as emerging developing nations like China and India seek to ramp up to the level of the United States and Western Europe. The inelastic demand for oil translates into skyrocketing prices.

Geologist/petroleum engineer Kenneth Deffeyes declared 2005 to be year global oil “peak happened”, as global oil production in 2006 and 2007 declined slightly. In January, 2008, the 2005 mark may have been eclipsed, but at best, production seems to have stagnated. And there have been no big oil strikes in over 30 years. Instead, the solution space seems to range from alternate energy sources that offer no comparable ERORI (Energy Return on Energy Invested) to burning food for fuel.

The U.S. circa 2008 is built almost entirely on the existence of cheap and plentiful oil. From the affordable Wal-Mart consumer goodies to our food that travels an average of 1,500 miles to get to our dinner table (or favorite restaurant/short order takeout joint). Food production itself is heavily reliant on cheap oil. Everything is wrapped around the price of energy, and even adjusting energy prices for inflation is a pointless, circular exercise.

If a massive recession strikes the U.S., many Americans are going to find themselves in a world of hurt. $10 per gallon gasoline will make it economically prohibitive to travel distances typically driven from exurban and suburban homes to urban centers. And runaway food costs could trigger hunger, perhaps food shortages, and paralyze many, as many no longer know how to even cook, let alone grow their own food.

Even more sad is that self-professed American Christians who give little regard how less than 5% of the world’s population consumes 25% of its resources (and create 30% of its major pollution). They have no qualms over workers in the third world that toil from dusk to dawn for a bowl of a rice (a tiny fraction of the end product price) so American consumers can enjoy cheap disposable plastic household goods and overpriced tennis shoes. They snicker at any mention of population increases and dwindling resources, and wish to remain to oblivious to the fact that if all the world’s inhabitants adopted an equivalent American level of consumption, it would not even be feasible or sustainable.

I will not wager what condition and state the future will deal us and will not dispense apocalyptic scenarios. But blind ignorance is not a prudent course either.