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Welcome to the Energy & Environment (E&E) Exchange, a blog dedicated to science and engineering topics that are (generally) related to energy and the environment. This blog is meant to encourage discussion about the challenges and possibilities surrounding sustainability through science and technology. The blog's owner, cheme_wordsmithy, is a former technical writer and engineering editor at IEEE GlobalSpec, the company that powers CR4.

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Sustainability in a Growing World

Posted November 23, 2011 12:09 PM by cheme_wordsmithy

When looking for solutions for a sustainable future, the tendency is to either hope for the development of technology or point fingers at institutions or corporations to make changes. But in a constantly expanding world, how important is individual consumption in making steps forward?

Studies show that energy consumption in the United States climbed up again in 2010 after a twelve year low in 2009. Total energy usage increased to 98 from 94.6 quadrillion BTU between these years and the same steady increases can be expected in most other countries as the demand and use of resources continues to increase.

While an individual's energy needs may be truthfully insignificant, it makes sense that even small changes across a whole population could drastically cut energy usage and costs. But is this big picture perspective practical?

The Consumer Mindset

Energy and natural resources have nearly always (in some form or another) been seen as commodities to be bought, sold, and used. In a consumer driven economy, this means that individual consumption depends largely on the price and availability of the resource.

When availability is high and cost is low, a significant portion of resource and energy consumption is wasted due to convenience. For example, Debai (a city of the UAE) lights up the sky every night with a multitude of lights kept on through the early morning hours. And while resources could be saved by turning these lights off when not in use, the individual expense (or lack thereof) makes it not worth the effort.

The Dubai skyline at night, including the Burj Khalifa (the world's tallest building). Image Credit: Reuters

This is because Dubai residents and businesses pay only 32.2 percent of the full cost of fossil fuels, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA). Subsidies from the state pay the remainder. Other Middle Eastern countries provide even more generous cost reductions. And with cheap and available energy comes the convenience to waste it without worry.

When looking at water consumption, the average person in the United States uses 575 liters daily, as compared to 374 liters/person in Japan, and 149 liters/person in the UK (info from data360). Larger water footprints are due to larger daily household usage as well as the heavy consumption of products like meats, which come from water-intensive industries.

This may not be seen as a problem if the resources are readily available. However, population is growing, countries are developing, and quality of life is increasing for the average person. Consequently, the questions regarding energy availability and cost are becoming more concerning.

Population Problem?

Regardless of technology advances, policy changes, and industry focus, the natural resources available to sustain life on earth are limited. As population increases, the demand for these limited resources will rise.

This table was originally compiled from Google's public data figures in a previous post. It shows figures of the world's increasing population, which has more than doubled in the last half century.

If trends continue in this way, quality of life could drastically decline as available resources (particularly water and agricultural land) become more and more scarce. Simon Ross, CEO of Population Matters campaign group in the UK, argues that the best way anyone can promote sustainability is to have less children (or in less controversial terms, consider family planning).

Current family planning initiatives and education seem to be under-resourced and under-publicized. In fact, most "green" and energy saving groups and practices never mention the impact of having less children, which is arguably the most significant contribution any individual can make towards sustainability. But is this possibly contentious suggestion one that people are willing to consider?


Data 360 - Average Water Use

ScienceDaily - Americans Using More Fossil Fuels


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Re: Sustainability in a Growing World

11/23/2011 10:35 PM

While this is nicely written, there is no problem.

It is simply supply and demand. When the supply dwindles, the price will go up and demand will drop.

In other words, it is a self correcting problem. All you need to do is keep the politicians out of the loop and it will seek its own equilibrium.

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Re: Sustainability in a Growing World

11/24/2011 9:02 PM

When the supply of essential commodities dwindles - food, energy, shelter, water - the demand doesn't drop. There may be less voluntary waste of surplus resources, but the essential demand will not drop or "self correct" unless there is mortality because of the shortages.

The humanitarian attitude is to try to find solutions without the gross suffering of a "self correction" due to a crisis. The proactive business/economic attitude is also to find solutions where supply can increase to meet increasing demand, and to avoid destabilization of the economy in crisis precipitated by famine, drought, disease, war.

I would be the last person to say that our governments are perfect or that our resources are well spent and our rights well protected.... however, we do enjoy elected governments, which are paid to represent the best interests of all citizens. This is not the case in business, where the objective is profit and there are no committments or obligations to serve public interests.

Yes, I've read about disaster capitalism, and it's obvious that an organization which exists exclusively for the goal of maximizing its own profit, may do so very effectively in a crisis. Therefore I can't agree with your assessment that this will "self correct" by keeping politicians out of the loop, at least, not without a huge toll of human suffering.

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Re: Sustainability in a Growing World

11/26/2011 2:09 PM

How many times do we need to hear this high minded trash.

The wealth of a Nation is in its people.

Population control, government forced (China,) or socially realized (most first world courtries,) has the potential to destroy societies outright.

Aging populations without replacement plus some margin in young people is a real problem in some areas and the problem is growing especilly in parts of eastern Europe and Russia. There is a tipping point at which where a population can not recover and will drop into decline based on the median age of that population. There will be some people born into these circumstances but most will choose to move away to places where there is opportunity and economic action.

You need young people for a bright future, and a constant stream of them.

How does this play to the limited resources of food, water, and energy?

My question is, which has never been answered to my satisfaction by the "It is all going to run out someday crowd" is:

Where is the data regarding what the limits of the earth are a system to support human life (and life generally) relative to population?

Everything I have ever looked at from the less is better guys points to localized effects which don't seem to have any bearing on the reality of the world as a whole based on available resources.

No one starves because there is not enough food being produced on earth.

Getting it to people who are going hungry is the issue, and a complicated one.

Here in the U.S. alone we have enough farm resource to feed everyone on earth plus far, far more. If you have never driven through the American heartland you would be shocked at our capacity.

No, no, no the sky is not falling. Do not spay and neuter your children.

Now more on topic-using resources in effecient and thoughtful ways is the right thing to do. Everyone should use what they have to the greatest effect, it can't help but make things better.

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