Global long term sustainability represents one of the most complex and difficult challenges that will need be solved by the human race in the decades to come. The steps that will need to be undertaken, will alter the current environmental, political, economical, and societal norms everywhere. For this reason, it requires broad and willing participation in reducing our carbon footprint, limiting the release of greenhouse gasses, and transitioning away from fossil fuels and natural gasses. The latter of these three options will prove the be the most difficult task in my opinion. While countries have taken dramatic steps towards reducing their carbon footprint, removing the dependence on fossil fuels and natural gasses will face much opposition due to it’s deeply ingrained status within societies. To prove this point, Europe has spent just under 80 billion dollars this year importing over 50 million tonnes of fossil fuels and natural gas. This number is very significant; as it accounts for 37% of the European Union budget.
Looking at this issue of removing dependence on fossil fuels another way, Saudi Arabia relies extremely heavily on their ability to export and sell oil on the international market. Accounting for 42% of their GDP, oil and natural gas profits and hungry markets all over the world have been at the heart of many political decisions and actions undertaken by Saudi Arabia. This should reflect how important natural gasses and oil are in the well being and prospering of Saudi Arabia.
Whether you view the issue of burning natural gas and fossil fuels as a sustainability issue or an economic one, one thing that remains constant is the significant grasp that these products have over almost all nations on earth. If we, as a people want to transition away from this source of energy in favor of renewable it will mandate complicit communication on a political, economic, environmental, and societal level.
My post this week focuses on the utilization of nuclear energy as a viable energy source for the future. The process of nuclear fusion (slamming two lighter molecules into one to create a heavier molecule while harnessing the energy released in the collision), is the same process that is employed by our sun. In addition to having the potential to provide an almost unlimited source of renewable energy, nuclear fusion emits no pollutants or greenhouse gasses. Nuclear fusion is currently utilized in 47 out of 50 states and this trend represents a positive step towards transitioning the United States away from fossil fuels. While the risks for meltdowns and other failures in the operating systems of these reactors is still a possibility, advancing technology in the building of such reactors has significantly marginalized the percentage of failure. This is important because as it exists today, the U.S. Energy Information Administration reports that nuclear energy accounts for about 20% of the total energy produced in the United States. So while we have already made nuclear energy an established part of energy production in the United States, we have many structural, engineering, and ethical questions that will need to be answered in the future before we can fully begin the discussing about leaving fossil fuels behind.
One of the aspects of sustainability that interests me the most, pertains to the studying of world population numbers overtime. Citing the, United Nations Secretariat, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, humanity reached one billion people on planet earth around 1804. Then in 1927, earth reached two billion humans needing only 120 years to add another 1 billion people. Surprisingly enough however, in another 33 years by 1960 earth reached 3 billion people. This was followed by another 14, 13, and 12 year growth span in 1974, 1987, and 1999 to where the population increased from 3 billion to 6 billion people. This shocking rate of growth would appear to be infinite for individuals looking at population trends in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Due to the study of sustainability and understanding the concept of a carrying capacity however, it becomes clear that this population growth is not an example of exponential growth but rather, very carefully instructed growth that will keep doing adding numbers to the population until the resources of earth are stretched to their limit, and we fail to provide adequate tools necessary to expedite and accompany the increase in population. At this time, we will realize that humanity is growing very specifically and within a very specific range of comfortability.
I found this graph to be very interesting. Illustrating the poverty rate in the United States since 1990, there seems to have been a few high points and low points that correlate with various economic depressions or surpluses. As much as these numbers may spike and drop significantly, the poverty rate in the United States never deviates greater than 4% in the last 28 years. In addition, it should be noted that the lowest and highest levels of poverty existed in 2000 and 1993. Following the surplus left by President Bill Clinton, the country saw a dip in unemployment down to 11.3% percent. After a steady rise following 9/11 however, the unemployment rate sky rockets to just over 15% when the economic recession of 2008 hits. For most of President Barack Obama’s second term, these numbers remained pretty consistent. From the end of 2014, to present day our poverty rate nationwide has been dropping pretty consistently and at quicker margins. I would like to point out however, that these graph only focuses on the overall poverty statistics. As it is, the U.S. Census Bureau states that African Americans make up over 20% of impoverished people throughout the United States. So despite these poverty rates decreasing overall, I would be interested to see a more thorough break down of poverty rates by demographic as well as races within that demographic, in order to see if these graphs and statistics are truly accurate and not misleading.
One component of sustainability, focuses on the effect that occurs on the environment when harnessing fuel and energy. As the United States hit the Post Civil War Reconstruction Era, the use of coal supplanted a vast portion of the total energy usage done by the United States. Moving along the 20th century, the use of natural gas and petroleum has shot up exponentially. Curiously, following the invention of nuclear weapons and the creation of nuclear reactors, the energy usage as a percent of the total United States energy usage does not exceed 10%. This number surprised me, but I think it alludes to the extreme dependency and emphasis that the United States (as well as the rest of the world) places on petroleum and natural gas. As a result of our dependence, marginalizing and scaling down petroleum and natural gas extraction methods for the sake of environmental cleanliness will be met with steadfast opposition. Therefore, the dichotomy between the profits and ingrained role that natural gasses and petroleum play in our society, and the destruction these processes do to the environment will remain a powerful debate for decades to me. An important question must be asked when looking towards the future however. Should we transition away from Petroleum and Natural gas for the sake of environmental health and if so, should we pursue nuclear energy, hydroelectric energy, wind energy, or look towards the creation and utilization of an entirely new energy source? The answer to this question will reflect many possible futures not just disclosing the fate of energy consumption, but also the attitudes and difficulties that will arise in regards to stemming production to save the planet.
Animal/Crop water needs: Give an example of water consumption by one type of livestock or one type of crop:
One type of livestock that consumes a significant quantity of water, proves to be cows. It is interesting to note however, that the amount of water consumed, varies significant depending on the age, sex, weight, and weather conditions present for the cow. Cows consume an average of 3 to 30 gallons of water per day. While this is just a general range, effective water consumption can be calculated by adding 1 gallon of water per 100 pounds of the cow during cold weather, and 2 gallons per 100 pounds during hot weather. On a national scale (measuring the United States as a whole), the amount of water usage necessary to produce 1 pound of beef, proves to be an estimated 1,799 gallons of water. Compare this with 576 gallons of water for 1 pound of pork, 216 gallons for 1 pound of soybeans and 108 gallons for 1 pound of corn, one can deduce that the production of beef requires enormous quantities of water consumption. This can be accredited too the size of cows in comparison to other live stock; as bigger animals require larger water intake, yet also have more inedible parts (such as bone) so producing one pound of edible flesh requires numerous cows. While this water usage is quite large, it is a tad misleading because an estimated 88% of the water needed in cows in obtained through lactation or the milk they drink daily. Nonetheless however, the water usage required for livestock is a far larger quantity than most, if not all other agricultural processes.
Upon reading a study conducted by Phillip Hunter of the U.S. National Library of Medicine, it became more clear that excess Carbon Dioxide represents an interesting paradox that will have to be dealt with by humanity eventually. On one hand, CO2 represents an integral process that is paramount for the future development of trees and most non-marine plants. On the other, it can be attributed too the extreme degradation of Coral life, as well as, the stemming and expulsion of grass. Correlating excess Carbon Dioxide to the loss of Coral life is possible because of CO2’s effect at changing, ” the pH of their environment, which will challenge their biochemistry—particularly organisms such as corals, coccolithophores (single-celled algae), crustaceans and molluscs, all of which use calcium carbonate (CaCO3) to produce external skeletons or shell coverings.” This is important to understand because these creatures have evolved to accommodate minimal light and nutrients on the sea floor. Combining the presence of large amounts of CO2 can irreparably change their fragile environment. And while their is an estimated 406.99 PPM (according to www.co2.earth), an estimated 75% of the Carbon Dioxide is sucked into the ocean. As humanity increases it’s CO2 output, the destruction of habitats for these creatures has the potential to become imminent.
While understanding CO2’s harmful effects on aquatic life, it can be considered a miracle grow for relatively all plants found on land. Accounting for approximately 96% of the mass of a plant during photosynthesis, the organic molecule of CO2 is the primary conductor that spreads the growth of plants. So much so that, “across a range of FACE experiments, with a variety of plant species, growth of plants at elevated CO2 concentrations of 475–600 ppm increases leaf photosynthetic rates by an average of 40% (Ainsworth & Rogers 2007). Carbon dioxide concentrations are also important in regulating the openness of stomata, pores through which plants exchange gasses.” How can this been seen as useful for humans? In gauging third world countries such as those find in Africa or Asia, the increased levels of CO2 in their atmosphere could act as the best possible fertilizer for most agriculture being grown. In addition, this increased output of plants represents an integral part of the many African and Asian towns and villages all over the world. This could be seen as a way out of poverty, with the increased promise of wealth coming from the stronger agricultural yield. So while, CO2 can be seen as having detrimental effects on one aspect of life, it can be viewed as an extremely prosperous and lucrative measure for many countries and people around the world.
The Mathematics of Sustainability is a very interest concept for me. Ordinarily, I found math to be quite dull and linear. I enjoy looking at the world and conceptualizing various causalities for events that do not follow a simple equation. When it comes to studying sustainability however, it adds a crucial element in dissecting why various world leaders or other political actors do the things they do. For example, studying the sustainability of OPEC producing countries reveals a large percentage of these countries acting in accordance towards sustaining their oil outputs. I find this fascinating, because these economies depend almost entirely on the export of oil and natural gasses. Studying how the methodology and strategic actions taken by countries all across the world to preserve and sustain their resources and themselves, highlights a considerably important variable that would normally go unnoticed.
As we move towards 8 billion people, the calculations of sustainability become that much more critical. Resources such as water, electricity, natural gasses, Coffee, and Chocolate will all see their expanded status in luxuries or delicacies. There is no question that humanity will reach Earth’s carrying capacity (barring disease or war) so the main question that arises concerns the preemptive planning. How can humanity as a species brace for the increasing scarcity of resources? How do we choose to whom to allocate these resources too? Both of these questions represent powerful dilemmas but allude to vast importance of thinking in sustainable terms. For this reason, I am excited to pursue and educate myself on the mathematics of sustainability.