Monday, May 16, 2011

The Challenges We Face Redux

I've had time to mull over where to go here. I may reboot the whole thing in the future on Wordpress. One thing I've done is update my profile, and I'll explain my "recovering academic" description in a long-winded rant sometime this week (we're all entitled to a few of those). I'm also going to try a daily Marcellus news update, since a once a week or more post takes a lot of time to put together.  First and foremost though I want to restate and define the main theme I'm pushing.

Since I've started this little blog, I've refined the challenges I think we in America and the world will be forced to address in this decade.  There are, as always, many, but I think there are three big interconnected ones that are now prominent and will overshadow the others.

First of all, let's consider energy. People in 1811 lived much like those in 1511 or 1211. There were some major improvements in the technologies they used over those times, but the energy sources were largely the same: wood, water, wind, animal and human muscle power. All these were mechanical except for the burning of wood. In 1811 steam was first being harnessed. Compared to those people we live like gods today. I'm on a laptop in a room artificially lit with electricity, with cool and frozen food downstairs and a full larder of foodstuffs, some maybe transported long distances by wondrous machines unthinkable in 1811 or 1511. I even have one of my own. Not to mention all the amazing materials (paint, plastic containers, medicines etc.) that would seem miraculous to our ancestors. This amazing advance has literally been fueled by hydrocarbons long accumulated and buried in the crust, especially petroleum.  Crude oil is really an amazing substance. Being a liquid at surface temperature and pressure, it is easily transported in containers or pipelines. It is a stew of hydrocarbons that can be economically separated into substances as diverse as asphalt, diesel fuel, gasoline, white gas, petroleum jelly, baby oil, propane and paraffin wax.  We also use it as chemical feedstock to make plastics, rubber, medicines, etc. It is even our main source of sulfur and helium. Coal is still in heavy demand for generating electricity and natural gas is being used for transportation, heating, chemical feedstock and fertilizer feedstock. It is not an exaggeration to say these fossil fuels drive our entire modern civilization.

But these fossil fuels exist in finite amounts. There will be point for each where global production can no longer rise or remain steady and will begin to fall. With petroleum this has been called Peak Oil, a useful term ruined by various survivalist types who have latched onto it as the latest source for their apocalyptic fantasies. But it appears that production may have peaked in 2005-2008, a development that will impact the global economy, food production and geo-politics. It will also increase demand on the other fossil fuels. This energy crunch is my Challenge Number One.

Extraction and refining of fossil fuels creates many environmental problems, as does their use.  One byproduct of our massive use in the modern technological world is the constant increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide, a gas that absorbs infrared light or heat energy.  As an effective greenhouse gas, its gradual and continuous increase will increase retention of heat in the atmosphere, land and sea. Since weather systems are just heat transfer mechanisms, increasing the heat will disrupt the long-term weather patterns and averages we call climate.  The recent extremes in weather around the globe may just be the beginning of instabilities in this system, such weather disruptions will impact the global economy, food production and geo-politics. Climate change and in particular near-term climate instability is my Challenge Number Two.

You'll notice I said that both the energy crunch and private and public expenses incurred by weather disruptions will impact the global economy. Add this on top of a poorly regulated market based not on production of goods but on financial transactions on transactions with socialized losses and privatized profits and we wind up with increasing income inequality and economic instability. This laisse-faire system promoted and accepted by those with pseudo-religious understanding of market economics hinders any attempt to address challenges one and two and will lead to political conflicts. Resolving this slash and burn economy is Challenge Number Three.

You can see that all these challenges are interwoven and it follows that they all must be addressed together or none will.  So in addition to my random observations, political rants and so on, watching the developments in these challenges will be the main focus of this blog.

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