We live in a era of exponential functions - population growth, oil demand, food demand, clean water demand, yet the Earth's finite resources aren't growing. Our human population of 6.5 billion is growing about 78 million each year. It takes a greater effort to feed, clothe, and transport everyone and this is causing stress on the supply side.
The problem is that we're near the 'knee' in the exponential curves, the point at which growth accelerates rapidly, so we feel the change more profoundly. Being that we are creatures of habit, we tend to think the current year will be pretty much like the last one, the next road will be like the one we're driving on, and the supermarket will always have full shelves because it's always been that way.
Were it not for those who have lived through a world war, a drought, or a major hurricane, it would be easy to forget that dramatic change can occur at any time, breaking the normal rhythms and creating a chaotic response by nature and humanity. Katrina showed us the scary side of nature's tremendous power. The summer 2007 ice melt in the Arctic was another example, and enough of these events could lead one to conclude there is a trend. In fact, these could be unrelated events, with coincidental timing. The subprime mortgage crisis, our getting mired in Iraq, and the recent runup in crude oil prices could all be coincidental, or perhaps not.
One thing that more of us might agree on is that our systems have evolved from cash in the bank (or in the mattress), and inventory on the shelves, to a more leveraged model where cash comes from a credit card and product comes from just-in-time manufacturing. The trend in systemization probably got its start in the Victorian era, but didn't really take off until the auto assembly line and time-and-motion studies of the 1920s. Our penchant for efficiency and its attendant statistics has been a boon for the accountant in us, but supply chain management has its downsides. Among these: interrupting the chain causes greater disruption because we have eliminated our staying power: inventory. Anyone who wants to buy birthday presents the week after Christmas, baking materials a day or two after Thanksgiving, or beer right after the Superbowl can attest to our frequent mis-calculation of needs. Were our consumption regular or scheduled, it would be much easier.
Water, oil, and foodstuffs are in another class beyond manufactured goods. We have quite a bit of control over "production", but none over the weather. While the oil companies know how to extract crude from the ground, so-called "above ground factors" make it hard to plan ahead. Like population growth and the value of real estate, the population at large buys into the Cornucopian belief in continued growth in the supply of fossil fuels. Since the 1940s, we have integrated this "cheap" commodity into virtually every facet of our "first world" existence. Oil powers most of our transportation infrastructure, leaving it especially vulnerable. Oil and natural gas together provide the raw materials for fertilizers, plastics, and an incredible array of products used in our daily lives. Add coal, oil, and natural gas and you have the source of perhaps 70 percent of our nation's electricity as well.
While we enjoy the benefits of cheap fossil fuels and all of the consumer products and services they enable, we lose the sustainable, resilient aspects of a less complex life. Our systems are inefficient and expensive to maintain. How can we be more resilient?
Let's look for a minute at some of the relatively recent introductions to the American Way of Life, whether intentional or not:
|Microwave Oven||Faster Cooking||Damages certain nutrients?|
|Instant Communication||Loss of Privacy|
|Agribusiness||Supply-chain food||GMO Crops|
Single point of failure
Reliance on FF inputs
The list goes on and on. We are an inventive species and have come up with numerous innovations that have demonstrable positive benefits, but in every case there is a downside. We tend to ignore the negative parts until we reach awareness of an impending crisis. Along these lines, the international phasing out of chloro-fluorocarbons (CFCs) has helped avoid certain destruction of the ozone layer, one of the most profound environmental successes our recent past. Why do we continue to develop products with obvious negative side effects? Much of the time, we probably don't fully understand the risks early on, but another reason might be explained by adding yet another column to the table, labeled "Shareholder Profit".
Our increased dependence on fossil fuels has pushed our risk envelope far. True, cheap fertilizer and cheap transportation fuels have helped feed the third world, but they have also increased their dependence on an energy source reliable in the short term, but not long relative to our civilized existence. Our dependence is profound. The U.S. consumes 21 million barrels of oil daily -- about a quarter of the world supply -- yet we represent only 5% of human population. We import nearly 15 million barrels, two thirds of which comes from OPEC countries in the Middle East and Africa. As compared to relatively level consumption by the US and Europe, consumption by China, India, and other developing countries is increasing rapidly and is pushing world consumption to the limit of available supply. As a result, there is little excess production, and a market of relatively limited excess supply tends to be more volatile, prone to dramatic and unexpected price increases.
What does all of this mean to our small town life? Certainly, we would like to think we would be little affected by power outages in South Africa or unrest in Zimbabwe, but can these things happen here? What can we do to be more resilient, to further reduce the chances we will face unexpected shortages or outages here in town? Lets look briefly at food and energy alone, for residents of Boxborough.
|Electricity||Natural Gas - 40%|
Coal - 25%
Nuclear - 20%
Hydro - 10%
|Oil||US - 25%|
Imported - 75%
Gardens - 1%
|All of us|
See the dependencies above? Imagine the impact on our daily life if there wasn't enough gasoline to commute to our jobs, or not enough natural gas or heating oil to keep our homes warm, or not enough diesel to truck in all the food we buy at the market. This isn't an issue of running "out" of oil, but of oil becoming expensive and unaffordable. When regular gasoline was $0.60/gallon in the mid-1970s, we spent little time deciding whether to take a 50-mile car trip. Now at over $3.50/gallon we think about combining trips and carpooling. At what point do the truckers stop delivering produce? Our web of existence is highly complex, and highly dependent on fossil fuels.
What can we do?
If this sounds remotely like disaster planning, well, it is. We have become so accustomed to cheap energy that it will be shocking and hard to do without it. But do so we can, and more easily if we work together.