> If fast reactors are 60 times more efficient, the same extraction of ocean
uranium could deliver 420 kWh per day per person. At last, a sustainable
figure that beats current consumption! – but only with the joint help of two
technologies that are respectively scarcely-developed and unfashionable:
ocean extraction of uranium, and fast breeder reactors.
I appreciate the optimism in this article that humans are "on the right path", but the bottom line is humans have already caused a major disruption to the biosphere via carbon emissions, and the carbon emissions are still increasing which will have an effect of ocean life, thus humans.
I'd like to see more thought going into "helping people live better lives while living in balance with nature", rather than "We can expand the human species to 20 billion - let's do it!"
Nature is inherently unbalanced:
For instance, the biosphere has managed to royally mess itself up at least once:
(see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Snowball_Earth#During_the_froze... for some of the effects)
When people talk about sustainability, they're acknowledging that humans can have an impact on nature, or more to the point, on our ability to sustain our own species. It's pretty fair to say that no matter how royally we mess things up, the biosphere will probably eventually "recover"... it'll simply be drastically different.
So, given that we can be agents of change in nature, it's not unreasonable to consider not only whether we can simply survive as a species, but whether we can or should show restraint with respect to the effects we have on the rest of the natural world.
McCarthy seems to be of the opinion that efforts thus far have been not just ineffective, but actually harmful to ourselves. That is to say, we're better off allowing progress to happen naturally without "artificially" trying to mitigate it. Others would appear to disagree, or at least still consider the pursuit of sustainability, in the popular sense, worthwhile.
That's not what I've argued, please read my comment again. On the contrary, my point is that the biosphere is a very unstable system, and there are no guarantees of "recovery" from anything. It can kill itself on a whim, and has come close to doing so in the geological past. In the long run, nature is a chaotic, not a homeostatic system, and "balance with nature" is an oxymoron.
I'm not sure what you mean by "close to" killing itself. In the geologic past, life itself has survived rapid toxic oxygenation, the complete freeze-over of the planet's surface, and the complete sterilization of surface life including boiling off the world's oceans. Microbial life still survived that last one in insulated rock miles below the surface. What catastrophe are you proposing we could induce that would do worse?
>> In the long run, nature is a chaotic, not a homeostatic system, and "balance with nature" is an oxymoron.
Now I invite you to read my comment again.
Considering that there have been very severe extinction events in the past; that the best evidence we have for Mars indicates it sustained life in the past, and then lost it; it is special pleading to argue that life on Earth, or at least multi-cellular life, has some hypothetical property that will make it go on forever. On the contrary, the multitude of documented dangers, the suddenness and magnitude of shifts in the paleobiological record indicate that life on Earth may yet go completely extinct within a relatively short geological time span, even were all humans to commit suicide today.
As to your other point, the very fact that life on Earth has come close to extinction, and yet survived, so very many times indicates that there is an empirical (not theoretical) basis for my claim that life (in some form) tends to bounce back. The mechanism is the fact that bacterial and archael life forms live deep within insulated areas of Earth's crust and retain relatively (geologically speaking) modern genes for traits such as aerobic respiration. Survivorship bias does not imply that in some situations there are no survivors, that is a misapplication of the idea.
Now, it's certainly possible that life could be extinguished in a short geologic time span, that I don't refute. And of course, in around a billion years the sun's total radiative output will make life all but impossible on Earth's surface. But in the mean time, evidence suggests life is incredibly hardy.
I suspect, anyway, that we are talking at cross-purposes. The topic was sustainability vis a vis human activity. You rightly point out that we are not in total control, that things can go awry without our intervention. Nature is indeed a chaotic system. However, I suspect you do not disagree that we can choose to avoid certain paths that would inevitably lead to our own destruction. We probably can't avoid all of them, as we are not omniscient, but my main point is that it behooves us to think about it, and to attempt to act responsibly, not in a sense of maintaining the natural state of the world as a static equilibrium, but merely to survive as best we understand how.
The Ocean Acidification scare falls directly under the types of scares this article talks about. It is unproven, untested and not subject to high levels of certainty. Talk of changing the entire ocean pH fails to cover the fact that there is no one set pH level for all the oceans as whole.
Further to that, shellfish and crustaceans are a pretty ancient life form, and have existed throughout many different levels of atmospheric co2.
All I'm saying is that the article advises a data-driven approach to these matters, and the data on the ocean decreasing pH theory is still full of a lot of 'maybe, possibly and if' disclaimers.
Reocities link for the rebuttal linked at the bottom of the article.
But the idea behind peak oil is that even a relatively small decline in oil can lead to drastic increases in prices, which would have devastating effects on the world economy. Peak oil isn't even addressed in McCarthy's writing, as far as I can tell.
Related is agriculture: McCarthy portrays it as an issue of water and arable land. But it's also an issue of fertilizer, and fertilizer production is dependent upon petroleum. So if we have a drastic spike in petroleum prices, that will lead to a drastic spike in fertilizer costs, which would lead to a drastic spike in food costs. See Egypt for an example of what happens when that occurs.
Finally, the Ehrlich/Simon bet. Again, compelling at the time, but the bet ended in 1990. 21 years ago. That's hardly a compelling statement on the state of the world in 2011. What would the result of that bet been had it been replayed from 2000 to 2010? From looking at this:
it looks like all 5 metals in the bet have risen in price over the last decade.
EDIT: I found one reference to peak oil on the Hydrogen page, but it's given no serious analysis.
Our biggest challenges are social and economic ones. First and foremost, is to push against the tides of conservatism on both the left and the right, which see sustainability as either a matter of "going back" or as unworthy of a goal at all.
You may then counter that a decoupling of economic growth from its material and energy underpinnings is possible. This has yet to be effectively proven. We have only seen partial decoupling so far. For more information on this see the writings of Tim Jackson in his book Prosperity without Growth.
I also urge you to download this spreadsheet (from the BP website) showing the growth in usage of fossil fuels (http://tinyurl.com/2yhx7d). We may find alternatives to these but if we do, we will have to bring the alternatives online at roughly the same level to supply our societies with the energy they now require to function. This is no easy feat. It's good know, quantitatively, just what's required.
the readability of many modern pages is considerably improved over plain text.
that would be bad. No need to evolve in any cardinal way. Only needed changes would be minor adjustments to fit humans most comfortably into the tecnological civilization cradle. Just like dinosaurs who evolved to fit most comfortably into their Earth dominating niche ... until the meteor stroke, super vulcanos erupted , etc...
Anyway, i don't agree that technological civilization is not intrinsically unsustainable. The civilization has already established its exponential nature. Good thing about exponentially increasing speed is quickly hitting whatever natural limits are there, and that induces need for change. Yes, in many cases we naturally prognose (McCarty incl.) the response to be a new improved technology. Yet, artificially limiting human species response to a need for change only to technological type of responses seems ... artificial.
However, other curves are possible too. Overshoot and collapse can also occur.
The S-curve scenario can only happen under the following circumstances.
a) the limits are recognised by us
b) they are responded to immediately with no delay.
Another scenario, called "overshoot and oscillation" occurs when:
a) there is a delay in the response
b) AND the the limits that we have exceeded recover quickly. i.e. the limits are no erodable.
"Overshoot and collapse" occurs when we erode some resource that does not recover quickly. Unfortunately, I can think of many resources that are very erodable. The most obvious being fossil fuels which take millions of years to replace themselves. Top-soil and biodiversity are also examples of highly erodable resources.
Again, you bring more assertions out of thin air, this time actively contradicting the source. McCarthy explicitly mentions space colonization, though he doesn't make it a central part of his argument. Who anywhere said the only response to change would be technological? You're criticizing McCarthy for ideas that you're the one bringing up in the first place. That's not fair.
Objection! That sentence should be taken out back and shot.