Dienstag, 6. Januar 2009

The problem

I would now like to proceed in three steps: firstly, elaborate a bit on a few key aspects of the problems I see us facing. Secondly, based on that, argue why I think the current German debate on measures to boost the economy is going into the wrong direction. And thirdly, try to exlore what can be done about it.

This post is the first step: re-iterate what the issue is, and why it is an issue. At the heart of the problem is energy. We need it for everything we do - mobility, heating our houses, growing our food, producing and transporting whatever you can buy in the supermarket, you name it. This energy can come from different sources. Some of them are "renewable" - most of them in the end stemming from the fact that the sun is sending us energy in the form of photons, and will continue doing so for a few billion years (before it eventually blows up and destroys the Earth, but that's a different story). Others are not "renewable" - namely, burning fossil fuels such as oil, gas, or coal. Why they are not renewable is clear: it took millions of years to produce them, and we're using them up in a matter of, maybe, two centuries. When you burn something, it's gone. The problem now is: the biggest part by far of our energy consumption currently comes from non-renewable sources (we'll be quantifying that a bit in a later post). And they're bound to run out.

Surprisingly (at least to someone my age), none of these insights are really new. Here's some basic vocabulary: The Club of Rome is a think tank that published a report called "The Limits to Growth" which contains all those ideas. That was in 1972. In fact, it's pretty natural to assume that populations and economies on a finite planet with finite resources (oil, metal ores, clean environment) can't keep growing unlimitedly. With that in mind, it's odd to observe what a "holy grail" economic growth has become in our political debate. (I'll admit that I know little about economic theories which deal with that, and I'm hoping to learn more here. But at least I find incessant growth hard to imagine.)

Another idea, that of Peak Oil - that oil production from an individual source, but also the Earth as a whole, will peak and eventually decline again, goes back to work that M.King Hubbert started in the 1950s. Interestingly, when oil prices soared in 2008, my personal perception was that hardly anyone bothered mentioning this, while the public debate in Germany was full of speculation about the role of the financial markets, calls for tax cuts, and demands to increase production...

Now the question is when we're going to run out of the resources we're still so dependent on, and as always, predictions vary. But it looks like like the question is how many decades, certainly not centuries, it will be until (as it is sometimes so aptly described) "the shit hits the fan". Chances are that I'll live to see it happen. (And even if you're not worried for your own sake, you should be for your children's - if you have any.) I'm not so optimistic about human nature that I'm convinced everything will happen peacefully at that point. If you need something, and there's not enough for everyone, people tend to fight over it. If it's children in a sandbox quarreling over a shovel, that's one thing. When it comes to nations and resources, it's another - we all know what the most powerful/horrible weapons invented by mankind are capable of.

All this should be enough to state that we have a problem. But if it's not enough for you yet, here's another piece of the puzzle that I haven't even mentioned yet: climate change. I'm consciously saying "climate change" rather than "global warming": as always, there's scientific controversy. When you walk out of Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth", you're pretty convinced that it's happening. But then at some point people throw statements by sceptical scientists at you until you, not being an expert yourself, are not really sure any more what is genuine controversy and what is targeted disinformation by one lobby group or another. So if you don't have the time to do a Ph.D. in climatology yourself, all you're left with is once again your common sense, and mine tells me this: It's plausible that we're changing the chemical composition of our atmosphere by burning fossils and thus creating more CO2. And it's plausible that a changed composition of the atmosphere can change the climate, be it in the form of global warming or whatever else may happen in such a complex system. At any rate, I'd rather not enjoy the optimistic interpretation that there is no problem, only to find out in 50 years that Gore was right.

So here's my cloud of thoughts around the issues I think we need to face. Stay tuned for articles on why I don't currently see that happening to a satisfactory extent, and whan can possibly be done about it.

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