Walter Youngquist: Geodestinies Exponential growth

Preface. I was fortunate enough to know Walter for 15 years. He became a friend and mentor, helping me learn to become a better science writer, and sending me material I might be interested in, and delightful pictures of him sitting in a lawn chair and feeding wild deer who weren’t afraid of him. I thought his book Geodestinies: The Inevitable Control of Earth Resources over Nations and Individuals, published in 1997, was the best overview of energy and natural resources ever written, and encouraged him to write a second edition. He did try, but he spent so much time taking care of his ill wife, that he died before finishing it. I’ve made eight posts in Experts/Walter Youngquist of just a few topics from the version that was in progress when he died at 96 years old in 2018 (500 pages).

Other Youngquist Geodestinies Posts:

Alice Friedemann  author of “Life After Fossil Fuels: A Reality Check on Alternative Energy“, 2021, Springer; “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer; Barriers to Making Algal Biofuels, and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Collapse Chronicles, Derrick Jensen, Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report

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World population continues to grow and all our economic systems are based on growth. What politician or business is against growth? “Growth is the Santa Claus,” which presumably is used to solve economic problems (Laherrere, 2004). But growth is the creed of the cancer cell, which eventually destroys its host, and ultimately itself. As Albert Bartlett has told us repeatedly, “sustainable growth is an oxymoron.” A brief note in Science, April 7, 2006, reports that about 95 million hectares of arable land in Africa have been degraded to the point where they are virtually nonproductive. Population destroyed the environment, and imported food supplies cannot solve the problem indefinitely. Populations there must not only stop growing, but must shrink if that environment is ever to be restored to productivity.

At the current rate of consumption is often used as a comforting phrase to assure the public that “at the current rate of consumption,” a given resource will last for at least X number of years – usually, this is quite a long time. The fallacy is that “the current rate of consumption” does not continue into the future. The rate of consumption almost always increases. The increase in resource consumption is due to three factors: (1) population growth, (2) demand for an increase in per capita consumption of a resource to raise living standards, and (3) discussing a larger number of uses for a given resource.

A resource may have a life of 100 years at the current rate of consumption. But, at a seemingly low rate of a five percent annual increase in demand, the resource will only last about 36 years.

One example of such a statement regarding world oil reserves was made on a popular TV investment program (Wall Street Week, 1996). It was that current supplies were enough to last us for 40 years “at the current consumption rates.” This statement is misleading for two reasons. First, current consumption rates are transitory. Demand for oil will continue to increase as population increases. Second, if the statement were taken literally, it would mean that for 40 years, we would have the same amount of oil available as we have today. But in the 41st year, there would be none. This also has no relation to reality.

Far more energy and mineral resources have been used in the world since 1900, than over all previous time. In the case of oil, the first 200 billion barrels of oil in the world were consumed between 1859 and 1968, but it only took the following 10 years to consume the second 200 billion barrels. Now 200 billion barrels of oil are just a six and one-half year supply. We have used the first trillion barrels of oil during the past 125 years. We will use the next trillion in 30 years. Then what?

To illustrate how fast the human population target moves, and the inability of material resources to keep up with the demand from such growth, the late geochemist Harrison Brown (1978) calculated that if world population continued to increase at the rate of two percent annually, in two thousand years, the Earth would be a solid mass of people expanding out into the universe at the speed of light. In just six hundred years (not really long in terms of human history), the Earth would pass the standing room only situation of five square feet per person, covering both the continents and the oceans. This is what “only a two percent growth rate” means.

In a finite world, moral behavior must recognize both physical and biological constraints. Because modern man is rapidly exploiting the natural wealth that took the Earth millions of years to create, the evidence is mounting that a rapid environmental decline is now occurring on a global scale…. Hence it becoming more and more urgent that ethical theory be grounded in the environmental principle…. It will require that the human population be reduced to numbers that the renewable resources of the Earth can support (Elliott, 2005).

The Earth’s riches accumulated from geological events over millions of years have, in a brief three hundred years, been significantly depleted through mines as deep as 10,000 feet, oil extracted from below 16,000 feet, and gas produced from depths below 20,000 feet. Aquifers are being depleted faster than they can be recharged. Soil is being lost many times faster than nature can replace it. This has brought us to the brink of a third turning point. Succeeding human populations will cope with a permanently reduced resource base. For the first time, the Earth will provide humanity with a future of less. The human response to this reality could be orderly or it could usher in an age of social and economic chaos.

Natural resources will continue to control the destinies of nations and individuals. This is hardly a profound statement, for what else do we have to live on? It is the irregular distribution of the Earth’s resources and how nations have or have not been able to exploit them that cause the great differences we now see in nations’ social and economic structures.

Earth materials and energy sustain industrialized nations. But we have been using these resources at an unsustainable exponential rate. Hughes (2007) studied energy supply issues, and points out that 50 percent of all oil consumed has been used since 1984, and 90 percent of all oil consumed has been used since 1958.

Through its very success in extracting nonrenewable resources from the Earth (minerals and fossil fuels), industrial society possesses the seeds of its own destruction. We have used more of these vital Earth resources in the past 60 years in all previous Earth history.

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