Sunday, March 7, 2010

Are Dinosaurs Finally Going Extinct? Part of the Carbon Sharing Guest Blog Series by John Ausiello

Are Dinosaur’s Finally Going Extinct?

In 1700, the world was comprised largely of small agrarian communities, the population totaled less than one billion people and the average life span was less than 30 years. Today, nearly 6.8 billion people walk this earth with almost 500 million living in megacities around the world, all interconnected through a dizzying array of intercontinental flights, internet connections and I-phone conversations. The average life span in the United States is currently 77 years. In a mere 300 years we have radically transformed how we live, were we live and for how long we live. How did this happen? A complex question no doubt but in part it is because we learned to harness the energy sequestered in the fossilized remains of carbon-based plants and animals from millions of years ago: first coal in the 1700s and later oil in the 1800s. With abundant and cheap fossil fuels we have created an industrialized food system that is dependent on energy-intensive machinery and diesel-powered transport, enabling us to feed 6 billion mouths. With abundant and cheap fossil fuels we have created a multi-trillion dollar economy that is dependent upon the production and distribution of oil-based products on a daily basis while in the process generating more wealth than the world has ever seen. And with abundant and cheap fossil fuels, we have created a complex public health/health care system dependent on cutting-edge technology to cleanse our water, sanitize our cities and revolutionize our understanding of human disease, all combining to more than double our average life span in a few hundred years. In short, affordable energy has quite literally helped reshape our world.

Unfortunately, there is growing concern that our fossil fuel endowment is not as robust as most think and not as large as currently needed. On the surface, such fears may seem preposterous (despite all the talk about the renewable energy sources, oil, coal and natural gas still power approximately 85% of our daily endeavors). Yet an ever expanding group of learned professionals would argue otherwise due primarily to their concerns about “peak oil”, the moment in time when the world’s annual oil production has reached its peak.

The story begins in 1956 when a geologist name King Hubbert predicted that US annual oil production, then the largest in the world, would peak by 1970 followed by a permanent decline. At the time his ideas were ridiculed but history was ultimately on his side. In the early 1970s, US oil production did peak, rather quickly transforming our nation from the undisputed international leader in oil production to the largest oil importer in the world. Today, numerous geologists and oil experts are predicting that world-wide oil production has reached or will soon reach its peak. While it is not possible to explore in detail all the ramifications of “peak oil” (quite literally countless books are now available discussing some or all aspects of this phenomenon) suffice it to say it will pose a tremendous challenge to our energy intensive society where oil remains our most widely used primary energy source. If production peaks and demand continues to rise (which is almost a certainty in the rapidly growing economies of China and India) basic economic principles dictate that prices will increase, perhaps dramatically, effectively ending the era of cheap oil.

Of course, alternatives to oil exist but the most likely short-term replacements are coal and natural gas. Since these fossil fuels are already in wide-spread use, ramping up production in the short term would not be difficult. However, with the threat of global warming growing by the day, it will be necessary to decrease fossil fuel consumption, particularly coal, the dirtiest of the fossil fuels. Further complicating the picture, coal and natural gas are finite resources themselves and are likely less abundant (at least at easily affordable prices) than commonly believed (some contend coal and natural gas production could peak in the next couple of decades). Renewable energy remains our best option but at this moment wide-spread use exists only in the dreams of environmentalists, raising serious questions about our ability to quickly and affordably replace declining oil production with any combination of renewable energy sources. It is quite likely therefore that we must accelerate our conservation efforts.

It is time to realize that our primary energy sources are not as stable as many think. Some fear that within the coming decade, peaking oil supplies will trigger an energy crisis characterized by volatile and escalating prices. Amazingly, despite the threat of peak oil, this evolving story has received little attention within the mainstream public. As with most challenges there are solutions (in my mind the most important is conservation) but first we must begin to acknowledge the threat. Until we do so, we will continue to squander our remaining fossil fuels, making eventual solutions that much more difficult. So I challenge those less familiar with this subject to pick up one of the many books currently available and to educate themselves on the matter. If we truly are entering the twilight years of the fossil fuel age, we need more informed leadership than is currently available. We need to replace the child-like cheers of “drill baby drill” with the more nuanced, informed mantra of “conserve baby conserve.”

Blog is part of Carbon Sharing, a guest blog series by John Ausiello

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