[Note: The following was first published in the November 2015 Alberta Outdoorsmen.]
Copyright © 2015 Don H. Meredith, All Rights Reserved.
Outdoor Writers of Canada
2016 National Communications Awards
We all know what happens when a battery runs out of power or discharges. Some device (e.g., flashlight, GPS, smartphone) ceases to work. The fix is simple: replace the spent battery with a fully charged one. But what if you don’t have a replacement battery or the ability to recharge the spent one? Obviously, you can’t use that particular device. Now, what if that “device” is the planet we live on?
That is the metaphor three U.S. scientists used in a recent paper published in the prestigious science journal, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (August 4, 2015). The title of the paper, “Human domination of the biosphere: Rapid discharge of the earth-space battery foretells the future of humankind,” suggests it should be read by more people than normally visit a scientific journal. However, as reported by Andrew Nikiforuk in The Tyee (August 10, 2015), although the paper made headlines in such countries as China, India and Russia, it didn’t get much attention from the news media in North America. That’s a shame because the message presented and backed by considerable basic science is very informative about why climate change and resource conservation are such major issues affecting our future as a species.
The premise is simple. All the energy our biological systems and we humans use on this planet ultimately comes from the sun. Light energy is converted into biological energy through the process of photosynthesis in green plants. This energy is stored in the plant, some of which the plant uses to grow and reproduce. When the plant is eaten or decays in the soil, some of the stored energy is used by other organisms, which also store some in their own bodies. Not all the stored energy is consumed and some accumulates on the ground, mixing with minerals to form the soils that nourish plants. It can take hundreds to thousands of years to build a good soil layer. Over millions of years, some of that energy is locked in sediments and concentrated into what we humans call fossil fuels, energy that takes a very long time to store and accumulate.
This laying down of energy stores—in the form of the living biomass found in forests, fields and oceans and in fossil form (coal, oil, gas)—is in effect the sun trickle charging the earth-space battery. Until humans came along, the charge slowly built, maintaining a diversity of life with the excess bio-energy being buried and fossilized into coal, oil and gas. As humans learned to exploit energy resources beyond what we used for food, we began to use more of that stored energy. For example, the discovery of how to start and control fire allowed us to cook and warm ourselves, using energy stored in dead plants. Because our population was small these changes were easily accommodated by the ecosystems in which we lived. In other words, what bio-energy we consumed building fires was replaced by other plants.
Then we learned to domesticate plants and animals for food, and cleared forests for our crops and pastures. This dipped further into the biomass portion of the planet’s battery but again it was modest and easily accommodated, mainly because there were not many of us.
When we figured out how to mine and smelt metals—like tin, copper and iron—to create tools and weapons, we dug deeper into the planet’s bio-energy stores. Smelting metals requires a lot of energy. Forests were cleared to provide the fuel needed for the process. All these advancements allowed us food security, resulting in more of our children surviving to adulthood and producing children of their own. Thus, our population grew more rapidly and so did our demand for fuel sources.
Compared to today, our population growth in those early days was modest. It took over 10,000 years for the number of humans to grow from a few million to one billion people in the latter half of the 19th century. Then the industrial revolution arrived with the mining of coal as a consistent supply of cheap energy. Steam engines revolutionised transportation and industry while dipping deeper into the fossil-fuel energy store. The cheap energy provided opportunities for technology to improve such things as health care and hygiene. Food was produced evermore cheaply. More children survived to produce more children. As a result, over the last 150 years our human population has increased exponentially from one billion to over seven billion people. That’s a lot of mouths to feed and shelter. It’s also a tremendous drain on the planet’s biomass that supplies the energy all living things need.
We’ve seen the results of this depletion: worldwide fisheries collapses, wholesale clearing of forests and topsoil, air and water pollution, and the steady increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. The latter is causing the climate to change rapidly, creating extreme weather and fire events, raising sea level and changing landscapes.
What is obvious to those who wish to address the issue is that this situation is not sustainable. Eventually batteries run out of power and the only way to recharge the earth’s battery is through that trickle charge coming from the sun. However before that battery fully runs out, humanity will be facing crises that determine our future. For example, it has been argued that the series of disasters in the Middle East—from “Arab spring” through the rise of terrorism to the exodus of refugees and economic migrants—is related to crop failures in that region as a result of prolonged drought in an already arid climate. Hungry people become angry people who want change.
Climate-change scenarios predict that many places, especially in and near the tropical regions, will suffer crop failures in the not-too-distant future. Many people in those regions will be looking for a new place to live. Countries in more temperate climates, like Canada, will be pressured to take more of these migrants. How many migrants can a country absorb before its own ability to cope with crises is compromised? For example, how many people could Canada feed if food imports from other countries ceased because those countries had no food to spare?
We are certainly not immune to these issues here in Alberta. All you have to do is look at how fast we are exploiting our petroleum and forestry resources to know we are part of the problem. During a recent hunting trip to northern Alberta, we couldn’t help but notice the large tracts of forest cleared to provide lumber and pulp as well as space for oil/gas field developments. Those trees stored a lot of carbon taken from the air. They aren’t doing that anymore. Likewise, much fish and wildlife habitat has been removed or compromised. It will take decades for those forests and habitats to come back and provide the environmental services they used to provide, including storing the sun’s energy.
Of course, we cannot stop our dependence on fossil-fuel energy overnight. However, we have to make and implement plans to reduce it, sooner than later. Although many of us don’t yet see (or wish to see) the energy in our battery fading here in the first world, many are seeing it dim in their portion of the world and are wondering what’s going to be done about it.
Comments are always welcome (below).