Sunday, November 28, 2010

"The World in 2050" - Thank goodness I'm old.

'The World in 2050: Four Fources Shaping Civilization's Northern Future'
by Laurence C. Smith
Dutton, 336 pp., $26.95
Laurence C. Smith's "The World in 2050" is both important and depressing. A professor of geography and earth and space sciences at UCLA, Smith examines four forces — population demographics, resource demand, globalization and climate change — to try to figure out what the world will be like in future decades. While some people and countries along the northern rim may benefit far more than others, his story is overwhelmingly bleak.

Population is booming. We are adding the equivalent of "two Pakistans or three Mexicos every four years." We are blazing through natural resources at an alarming rate. And as globalization spreads prosperity to Third World countries, the rate of consumption will increase.

To make matters worse, many of the most heralded "solutions" create problems of their own. Nuclear power seems an obvious way to generate power. It's clean. Its price is competitive. And it's reasonably safe. France gets 80 percent of its energy this way, and there's never been a mishap there.

Nevertheless, most people, fearing another Three Mile Island or Chernobyl, have a NIMBY (not in my back yard) attitude about nuclear plants. Moreover, we still have not resolved the issues of waste disposal. And terrorism remains a constant threat.

Solar energy is a great alternative, but still too expensive compared to electricity produced from coal and other fossil fuels. Moreover, to get solar electricity from where it is best produced — deserts — to where it is consumed requires the expenditure of billions of dollars in infrastructure, something we in the U.S. have not shown the will for.

Corn-based biofuel is inefficient, "requiring as much or more in fossil fuel in its manufacture as is delivered in its final product." Wind farms seem to be the best choice for now, but Smith predicts that "in 40 years the bulk of the world's energy needs will still be coming from coal, oil and natural gas."

The litany of potential disasters in our future in this book is too long to mention. Here are just two of dozens:

The U.S. may be running out of water. To feed our agricultural needs, underground aquifers in the Midwest that took thousands of years to fill may soon go dry.
The "ice cap is melting even faster than the most pessimistic (computer) models predicted" — a problem on many levels. The ice reflects the sunlight, and its absence is why the Northern Hemisphere is heating up more than the Southern. The entire food chain — from microscopic phytoplankton to polar bars — depends on the presence of sea ice. Moreover, its loss is resulting in higher sea levels. By the end of the century. Smith predicts, much of Miami may be underwater or behind tall dikes. "Roughly a quarter of Bangladesh would be underwater," he writes.

Is there any good news? Some. What Smith calls the Northern Rim countries — the northern U.S., Canada, Russia and the Scandinavian countries — will experience dramatic and positive economic changes. Melting ice will put previously untappable natural resources within reach. Additional arable land will open up new farming opportunities.

There are other possibilities, too. Scientists are working on ways to produce ethanol in an economic and climate friendly way. Algae may prove another source of liquid biofuel. Some say the economy will eventually be hydrogen based — with solar energy splitting hydrogen from seawater.

There may also be technological advances in solar panels and perhaps a major breakthrough that is unimagined now. But we can't wait. We have to start ramping up our capital investment in the future. Now.
"The World in 2050" is an important book, a wake-up call for doubting Thomases who believe it's OK to drive gas guzzlers because they can afford it. As I read it one thought I never had before kept reoccurring: Thank goodness I'm old.

SHOOT: One basic condition is driving change:  Expensive energy.  What that really means is that going into the medium and long term, people will pay more for less - of everything.  In sum that means one thing: contraction.  A contraction of choices.  A contraction of possibilities. A contraction of stuff we want, from music, to movies, to different kinds of toothbrush or mobile phone.  But also a more austere constration: a contraction of essential resources, including food and water.  And ultimately, probably the beginning of a contration of human beings on this planet, or at least, acceleration to the turnaround point where Spaceship earth no longer adds more human passengers to the total but initiates the long overdue process of subtraction.

No comments: