Humankind cannot bear very much reality

August 22, 2009 by Tony Noerpel Sustainable Planet Comments Off on Humankind cannot bear very much reality
Tony Noerpel

Tony Noerpel

“Humankind cannot bear very much reality”
-T. S. Eliot, the first Quartet “Burnt Norton”

This is the first of a series of articles exploring human society and sustainability. To be blunt, in its current configuration, human society is not sustainable. That means it will change. In this series we will explore the problems we’ve created for ourselves, i.e., why our society is not sustainable, and what we might be able to do to address these problems. The first task is painful and unpopular, hence the relevance of the Eliot quote, but necessary. President Jimmy Carter, understanding reality, tried to explain it to us and we booted him out of office. Much of what we needed to understand was well known at the time. Donnella Meadows and her colleagues had written “Limits to Growth”. M. King Hubbert’s 1956 prediction that peak oil production in the United States would occur in 1970 had come true. And Svante Arrhenius’ 1896 theory of anthropogenic global warming had been confirmed.

In February, 2005, the Department of Energy published a report written by Robert Hirsch, Roger Bezdek, and Robert Wendling, which estimates that the transition from oil to some replacement fuel would have to be initiated 20 years ahead of the peak oil production date if a world wide liquid fuels shortfall were to be avoided. The world peak production of regular oil appears to have occurred in 2005. Thus Jimmy Carter was giving us five years of advanced warning. Sweet, but did we listen?

One cannot do reality justice and be shy with numbers. That may be part of the reason reality is so unpopular. Petroleum geologist Colin Campbell’s estimate for ultimate recoverable reserves (URR) of regular oil is 1900 billion barrels. This is the estimated total regular oil that will ever be pumped out of the ground. His estimated total for all liquids is 2425 billion barrels. The Earth produced all of this petroleum since the Cambrian Explosion 543 million years ago. The Earth’s average production of URR has been about 4400 barrels of oil every year. We currently burn 31 billion barrels a year. Thus we are burning buried sunshine at the rate of about 7 million years worth of Earth’s production every single year. This has obvious consequences.

Our society is made up of three components. The first is the input or the Earth’s resources. The second is the output or wastes. The third is our economy which is what we accomplish with the flow of matter and energy from resource to waste. We have thus created three classes of problems for ourselves. We are running out of good quality resources, the best known example being peak oil. We are overwhelming our environment with our wastes, anthropogenic global warming being the most obvious consequence. And our priorities, what we do with those resources as they flow through our economy, are badly misplaced. Instead of investing for the future, like good stewards, we steeply discount the future, like desperate drug addicts.

Our economic problems are perhaps most acute but actually the least catastrophic considering we did survive the depression. While they were predicted well in advance by many generalists, including the aforementioned Colin Campbell, most economists were taken completely by surprise. The economist Nouriel Roubini’s prediction of recession caused by the housing bubble and financial malfeasance which earned him the nickname Dr. Doom was not at all remarkable but the reaction of mainstream economists, of disbelief and surprise, was. The study of economics must be fundamentally and rather tragically flawed if a consensus view of the recent economic collapse did not clearly emerge many years ago among the very experts specifically educated to be able to foresee it. The ecological economist Herman Daly points out that this is indeed the case as economic theory does not take into account the thermodynamic limits on resources and wastes described above. Physical reality turns the economist’s world view on its head.

In his second Quartet, East Coker, Eliot writes: “The only wisdom we can hope to acquire is the wisdom of humility.” Humility requires us to be willing to abandon preconceived opinions and ideologies. This is the only way to do good science and to learn. I recommend four prescriptions: we must not be afraid; we must not be dogmatic, we must be humble and we must be skeptical. A minister friend of mine would add a fifth tenet: we must be kind.

Tony Noerpel

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