The concerns on the left of Figure 11.7 involve land, climate change, water, and food, but at bottom it is energy that is the key to them all. The right side of the figure shows some of the tools we have to deal with them.

Predictive modeling. As we’ve said, it is better to anticipate than to react. To foresee a problem is the first step in solving it. Fail to do so and you start with a self-inflicted handicap. No one pretends that meteorological and economic modeling is exact, but both are developed sufficiently to have useful predictive power. The IPCC (2007) Report on Climate Change is revealing in this: the many models for the effect of atmospheric carbon on global warming, and the effect of global warming on climate, and the many scenarios that can be run through such models converge on a set of conclu­sions that are sufficiently robust that it would be foolish not to use them as a basis for anticipation. Modeling is becoming one of the most valuable tools we have for mapping future strategy. One such has to be a transition to carbon-free energy.

Carbon-free energy. As we saw in Chapter 10, it is possible but not easy to generate power on a global scale without burning carbon. Until now the cost of fossil fuel has been so low that there was little incentive to look elsewhere—all the alternatives were too expensive. Shifts to alternative sources, particularly nuclear power, become economically attractive when oil costs over $100 per barrel. But to do so requires new technology and enormous capital investment.

Science and technology. The scientific and technological resources that could be deployed to develop safe, carbon-free power are enormous. Recall from Chapter 2 that over three quarters of the scientists and engineers who have ever lived are alive and working today; it is one reason that the tech­nologies of information, genetics, surveillance, and defense have developed at the speed they have. They offer a resource that, if deployed to tackle the threats (as I am sure they will, ultimately, be), can do much to ease the pain. It is not clear, though, that technology offers solutions to them all; some problems lie beyond its reach.[49]

The wealth of nations. How will it be paid for? The required investment is huge. But so, too, is the wealth of the developed and the oil-rich nations. Estimates of the cost of the transition to carbon-free energy (see Further Reading for details) vary from 0.5% to 2% of the global GDP, painful but not impossible.

The digital economy. One way to reduce the manmade stress on the envi­ronment is to develop ways to use less material and energy per unit of GDP. The digital economy—one in which the trade in information is as central as that in goods—is one way of achieving this goal.

Adaptability. Perhaps the greatest unknown is the extent of human adapt­ability. Tools and resources exist to plan and implement strategies to deal with the concerns of Figure 11.7. The acceptability of the strategies, how­ever, remains an unknown: can governments and populations be persuaded to adopt them? We should not forget those words of Thomas Malthus, uttered 210 years ago: "the power of population is so superior to the power of the Earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race." He didn’t say when, just that it would. Others, starting from quite different standpoints, have converged on a similar view. The full weight of scientific evidence and of advanced climate modeling now points that way, too. It begins to look as though Malthus might be right. Can we, in the 21st century, find ways to prove him wrong?

11.2 Summary and conclusion

For the past 150 years materials have become cheaper and labor more expensive. The ratio of the two has a profound effect on the way we develop, use, and value materials. In countries where this ratio is still high

(India, China), they are conserved and recovered. Where it is low (most of the developed world), they are discarded; it is frequently cheaper to buy a new product than to pay the labor cost of having the old one repaired.

Things are now changing. One change is the steep rise in the price of energy, shown in Figure 11.1b; at least part of it is here to stay. And there are others, all acting as drivers for change. The global population has now grown so large that there is insufficient productive land to support it adequately. Global warming caused by atmospheric carbon is causing climate change; allowing it to ramp up further will have harmful effects on health, agriculture, water availability, and weather, all with economic penalties. The dependence on oil, much of it sourced from a few oil-rich countries, has bred a depen­dence that is increasingly troublesome for the oil-hungry developed nations.

All these will change the ways in which we design with and use mate­rials. All have the effect of making materials more precious. They create incentives to develop materials that better meet the constraints imposed by the design, to care for their health in service, and to cherish them when retired so that they can be retrained, so to speak, to do a new job.

There are many challenges here. They relate both to the materials and to the ways in which we design with them. Exactly how to tackle them is, I think, an interesting topic for further debate.

11.3 Further reading

Hardin, G. (1968), "The tragedy of the commons", Science, Vol. 162, pp. 1243­1248. (Hardin argues, with convincing examples, that relying on technology alone to solve the problems listed on the left in Figure 11.7—particularly that of population growth—is mistaken. Some problems do not have technical solutions.)

Kaya, Y. (1990), "Importance of carbon dioxide emission control on GNP growth", Report of the IPCC Energy and Industry Subgroup, Response strategy group.

(The origin of way of breakdown the energy consumption or carbon emissions of GDP into component terms as in equations 11.1 – 11.3).

Lawson, N. (2008), "An appeal to reason: a cool look at global warming",

Duckworth Overlook, London UK. ISBN 978-0-7156-3786-9. (Nigel Lawson, a distinguished economist and policy maker, argues that almost all currently proposed reactions to the perception of climate change are economically absurd and morally misdirected. The book is interesting for the differences it reveals between the perceptions of scientists and those of political economists – or at least of this political economist.)

Lomberg, B. (2001), "The skeptical environmentalist: measuring the real state of the world", Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-01068-3. (Aprovocative and carefully researched challenge to the now widely held view of the origins and consequences of climate change, helpful in forming your own view of the state of the world. )

MacKay, D. J.C. (2008), "Sustainable energy—without the hot air", Department of Physics, Cambridge University. www. withouthotair. com. (MacKay’s analysis of the potential for renewable energy is particularly revealing.)

Malthus, T. R. (1798), "An essay on the principle of population", Printed for

Johnson, St. Paul’s Church-yard, London. www. ac. wwu. edu/~stephan/malthus/ malthus. (The originator of the proposition that population growth must ulti­mately be limited by resource availability.)

Meadows, D. H., Meadows, D. L., Randers, J. and Behrens, WW (1997), "The limits to growth", Universe Books. (The “Club of Rome" report that triggered the first of a sequence of debates in the 20th century on the ultimate limits imposed by resource depletion.)

Meadows, D. H., Meadows, D. L. and Randers, J. (1992), "Beyond the limits",

Earthscan. ISSN 0896-0615. (The authors of The Limits to Growth use updated data and information to restate the case that continued population growth and consumption might outstrip the Earth’s natural capacities.)

Nielsen, R. (2005), "The little green handbook", Scribe Publications Pty Ltd, Carlton North. ISBN 1-9207-6930-7. (A cold-blooded presentation and analysis of hard facts about population, land and water resources, energy, and social trends.)

Schmidt-Bleek, F. (1997), "How much environment does the human being need? Factor 10: the measure for an ecological economy", Deutscher Taschenbuchverlag. ISBN 3-936279-00-4. (Both Schmidt-Bleek and von Weizsacker, referenced below, argue that sustainable development will require a drastic reduction in material consumption.)

von Weizsacker, E., Lovins, A. B. and Lovins, L. H. (1997), "Factor four: doubling wealth, halving resource use", Earthscan Publications. ISBN 1-85383-406-8; ISBN-13: 978-1-85383406-6. (Both von Weizsacker and Schmidt-Bleek, refer­enced above, argue that sustainable development will require a drastic reduction in material consumption.)

Walker, G. and King, D. (2008), "The hot topic: how to tackle global warming and still keep the lights on", Bloomsbury Publishing. ISBN 9780-7475-9395-9.

(A readable paraphrase of the IPCC (2007) Report on Climate Change, with discussion of the political obstacles to finding solutions—a topic on which Dr. King is an expert; he was, for some years, chief science advisor to the U. K. Government.)

11.4 Exercises

E.11.1. An aluminum saucepan weighs 1.2 kg and costs $10. The embodied energy of aluminum is 220 MJ/kg. If the cost of industrial electric power doubles from 0.0125 $/MJ to 0.025 $/MJ, how much will it change the cost of the saucepan?

E.11.2. An MP3 player weighs 100 grams and costs $120. The embodied energy of assembled integrated electronics of this sort is about 2000 MJ/ kg. If the cost of industrial electric power doubles from 0.0125 $/MJ to 0.025 $/MJ, how much will it change the cost of the MP3 player?

E.11.3 Cars in Cuba are repaired and continue to be used when 25 years old. The average life of a car in the United States is 13 years. What is the underlying reason for this?

E.11.4 Use the Worldwide Web to research the meaning and history of "The precautionary principle". Select and report the definition that, in your view, best sums up the meaning.

E.11.5 Use the Worldwide Web to research examples of problems that are approached by predicitive modeling.

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Updated: October 5, 2015 — 9:31 am