Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Flourishing under Limits to growth

Reflecting today on a presentation by Prof. Brian Fath centering on his new book, which looks great. A few thoughts, not really that connected to each other:

1) A list he posted of countries that are giving a relatively large share of their GDP as foreign aid shows Scandinavia near the top. Ok, great, but note that some of those countries are richer than others due to substantial mineral wealth. In other words, they can afford to put out some foreign aid because they're making bank by selling oil. Another, Sweden, is apparently a major arms exporter. Ugh.

2) I'm really curious about how his group models technology, if at all. He's right to point out that most of our effort goes into increasing how much we consume, and that's not going to improve our situation on the earth. At the same time, there is progress made every year about being more efficient every year. Take a look at the graph about halfway down this page labelled "Carbon Intensity of the US Economy." Every year we are doing more with less, and though we'd all like to see more, it's not like no progress at all is forthcoming.

More after the break...


3) Also, I'm curious about whether his model takes climate change into account. How will global production change with rising temperatures and increasing variation in precipitation and water flows? Can't be good, IMHO.

4) I haven't read the book yet to know whether this is a big topic, but he also threw in some concern about Peak Oil . Those who've taken my class know that this is not a big concern of mine. While the largest, most accessible reserves of oil have been tapped, we aren't seeing many signs of scarcity at the moment. Prices are so low that many types of exploration for new petroleum reserves are on hold. (Less exploration and extraction is definitely good for the environment, though low prices also discourage investments in clean technology. Not as many people looking to buy a Prius today as there were a few years ago.) Is there a limited amount of oil? Sure. At the moment, though, people aren't even working on scratching out the less accessible pockets of it, so I'm pretty skeptical that the End of Oil will come crashing down any time soon.

5) At the end he also threw in support for local food. While I'm all for planting a backyard garden (go Towson Urban Farm!) the fact is that speaking economically and environmentally it's a lot more efficient to raise corn in the midwest and raise potatoes in Idaho and let the two trade instead of trying to grow everything everywhere. Yes, the cost is transport, but that cost is a tiny fraction of the carbon footprint associated with using chemicals to grow tomatoes in Maine or whatever.

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