“The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function.” — Albert Bartlett, professor emeritus of physics at the University of Colorado
The exponential function relates to what a cancer tumor does.
First, there’s one cell, then there’s two. Then it doubles to four. Then eight. Then sixteen. Then a few more doublings. Then you’re dead.
This also relates to a lot of what civilization does. Our use of fossil fuels — until very recently — has been growing exponentially. Likewise, the harm we have been inflicting on the planet has been growing like a cancer. At the root of it all, however, is exponential population growth.
Population growth has been the elephant in the room that no one wants to acknowledge. Oh sure, we’ll glance over at the developing world and make disparaging remarks about breeding like bunnies. But we won’t remove the beam from our own eye. We won’t admit that every new child in Canada will use up a magnitude or two of resources more than a child in India will. Or maybe we will admit it, but figure that there’s more than enough open sky in a place like Alberta to do our own profligate breeding (or enough open sky in Canada for us to have one of the highest immigrations rates in the world).
That might be OK, if only our pollution stayed with us. But it migrates. Just like the pollution migrating over here from a billion Chinese assembling the shiny plastic junk that sits on the shelves of our big box stores.
But never mind. Because soon enough, the looming shortage of cheap crude oil (more on that in my next column) will rear its ugly head and force some very severe adjustments to our current tally of 6.8 billion souls.
If we look back to the 1850s, before we started using petroleum in a big way, the world only had about 1.5 billion people. If we don’t rapidly switch to alternative sources of energy, are we destined to get culled back to that number? After all, petroleum makes our fertilizer and powers our tractors and keeps us warm in the winter.
The first areas of the planet to be affected will be those where every square inch of potential farmland is already used, where fossil fuels are heavily relied upon for fertilization and irrigation, and where the people are already living fairly low on the food chain (ie, consuming grains more than meat and dairy).
That means large parts of Asia. The famines, purges, genocides and wars of the 20th century will be nothing compared to the looming die-offs of the 21st.
The next areas to be affected will be densely populated cities in the rest of the world. These are places where asphalt and concrete rule, and where it takes a lot of fossil fuel energy to get farm output trucked in daily to consumers (never mind the energy needed to grow the stuff in the first place).
But is this our destiny? Can’t we switch over to alternative energies in time? Perhaps. Perhaps not.
In the long run, we had better hope that we will be able to build wind generators (from the ore in the ground to the final product) using nothing but the energy produced from other wind generators . . . and with a lot of energy left over to feed and clothe and shelter us. However, it remains to be seen whether we can accomplish this on a societal scale via any sort of alternative energy.
In the meantime, we — and more importantly, our leaders — would do well to ponder the nature of exponential growth.
Evan Bedford is a local environmentalist. Direct comments, questions and suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org.