blunt essays with sharp points

Will coal, oil, and gas destroy us?

by Scrvpvlvs
Jun 8, 2010 12:34 AM–A friend has posed the question, are we in the End Times? Surely not the event predicted by believers of bronze age myths. But I am slower to reject the idea in the form of an economic argument.

Today our population is huge, and growing exponentially. Despite this, in some parts of the world, poverty has become rare.

This is new for humanity, and caused by a temporary windfall. Like an ant colony living off a honey spill, or a starving person living off stored fat, we have begun to live off fossil hydrocarbons. They are not merely our power source. Much of what we call “fossil fuels” we literally eat (ammonia based agriculture) or make stuff out of (plastics, cleaning compounds, etc.).

Nature finds a balance. But she does not do it kindly. If this trend continues, then once we consume her stored fat, many of us will starve, and maybe our remaining grandchildren will learn what it was like to live before the Industrial Revolution.

We imagine we can replace fossil hydrocarbons with alternatives. But, at our current and future population level, we do not know how to build the number of solar panels, wind farms, cellulose farms, etc., we actually need and still leave room for living space; to build and maintain them indefinitely we would still need plenty of fossil hydrocarbons.

There are only two technologies that I know of with the potential to stave off enormous human misery. Population control would reduce the demand for fossil hydrocarbons. Nuclear power, especially fusion power, would provide an adequate supply. But we face political barriers to both, and we may need another hundred years to make fusion power practical.

The smart money may not be on the happy ending.

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