Friday, August 19, 2005

Liebig's Law of the Minimum - limits to growth

Liebig's Law of the Minimum states that a population's growth is limited by the scarcest available neccessary resource. This law has been proven in plants and animal species alike. Take plant-life--they need N, P, and K to survive. If K is defficient, you can infuse all of the N and P you want into the soil, and the plant is still going to die. Take algae living on a pond. It needs oxygen and energy (from sunlight). Give some algae a pond, plenty of sunlight and few predators, it will eventually grow to overtake the whole pond. At this point, the water in the pond can no longer exchange enough gasses with the atmosphere to stay oygenated and the algae quickly depletes the pond's oxygen. You can increase the sunlight but it doesn't matter--the scarcest resource is oxygen and without it the algae dies of until it reaches equilibrium.

Take human life. Energy (food falls under this category), air and water are the resources we need to survive. Of these 3, energy is the most scarce, followed by water--a close second. If we want to continue to have a net population growth (we're growing at about 1.14 percent per year (source), which means the population doubles about every 61 years) we need to have net energy increases to match--since our current global energy demand meets or excedes our supply. As we near our capacity to pump a certain amout of oil from the earth in a day (we currently both use and produce 84 million barrells per day), we are threatening our ability to have continued population growth.

"Well that's no problem, we're finding new oil all the time, we'll just ramp up production..." Actually... no. We now consume 6 barrels of oil for every 1 that we find. Production is running full bore all around the world, and EVERY oil producing region other than the middle east has seen a constant decline in production over the past several decades. We cannot add more capacity. We have to use less.

"Well that's no problem, we'll just develop alternative energy sources like solar, wind, fusion, hydrogen, etc." Ask yourself these 9 questions and then get back to me on that one...

"Well that's no problem, we'll just develop more effecient ways to use energy--it will go further and last longer." Again... no. Jevon's Paradox states that as technological improvements increase the efficiency with which a resource is used, total consumption of that resource may increase, rather than decrease. This is evidenced by our current practices of extracting oil. It is common knowledge in the oil biz that once half of an oil well's total reserves have been extracted, the rate at which the rest can be extracted falls as the well's pressure decreases. So we've taken to injecting water, detergents, and other substances into the bottom of the wells to increase pressure and therefore sustain peak levels of production from wells that are nearing empty. Technological advancement that allows us to more effeciently extract oil--only depletes the resource faster. It is also evidenced by the introduction of James Watts' more effecient coal-fired steam engine in England. After Watts made the steam engine more efficient--using less coal to do the same amount of work, coal became a more cost effective power source, and subsequently the usage of coal in the UK skyrocketed. Hybrid cars? They use less gas--they don't lessen the amount that we drive. At the same price, gasonline becomes a more cost-effective fuel solution for a vehicle that uses less of it to go the same distance. You can see where this is going...

"Well... that might be a problem... But it's OK because it won't happen in my lifetime." You misunderstand the way exponential growth works. Let's go back to the algae in the pond. Let's say the algae doubles its population once per day. It starts as a tiny little patch of green close to the shore, and day by day, it gets twice as big as it was the day before. Everything proceeds happily along for a few months, and one day the algae has overtaken 1/16th of the pond. 94 percent of the pond is algae free. It took months for this algae to go from a tiny little blotch of nothing to get to 1/16th of the pond's surface. Still a very small amount. So it would take years for it to cover the whole surface, right? Wrong. It will take 4 more days. The algae is doubling in size every day. In day 1 it will cover 1/8th of the surface, day 2 it will cover 1/4, day 3 it will cover 1/2 and on day 4, the pond is completely covered. How does this example translate to energy usage and limits to population growth? At this point, we will assume that we are in agreement that our global economy is dependant on oil. It's in everything we do, use, eat, drive, wear, it got the things we use to the store and it will take us to the store to get them and the dollars that we use to buy the things only have value because OPEC currently only accepts dollars for oil so despite our multi-hundred billion dollar budget deficit, our currency retains its value because other countries have to buy dollars to buy oil. Pretty cool, huh? Anyway--we're increasing our demand for oil by about 2 percent per year. At this rate, our demand will double every 35 years. So we have to increase production by 2 percent per year to satiate demand and continue to make our scarcest resource available at levels that will continue our current level of growth. What does that mean in real terms? We have to continually add 1.68 million barrels of daily oil production EVERY YEAR. ANWAR will produce about that much. So that covers year number one. They're talking about some huge find in Nevada. Let's say its true and that comes online and ramps up to 3 million barrels per day. Okay, years 2 and 3 are taken care of... Oh--and let's also take into consideration that we need to have a NET growth. So all of the fields around the globe that are currently depleting--which is most of them--we have to take that into account and offset that with increased or new production elsewhere. OPEC will be called upon to increase their production to meet global demands. But they're not going to be able to keep up for long. And in trying to keep up they only deplete what's left even faster. Hmm... it seems that in 5 or 10 years tops, we will be at the point where supply cannot possibly meet demand, and we are doing NOTHING to decrease our demand--which would seem the most logical thing to do.

"Well, it probably will happen in my lifetime, but I don't care. I'll drive less, turn the heat down a bit in the winter, it won't affect me." Sadly, you are mistaken again. I mentioned before that our currency is currently supported by the oil trade. And also that everything that we do in our overprivledged american lives is dependent on an abundance of cheap oil. Our currency will collapse. If you're totally self-suffiencient, well, then, you're right. It won't affect you that much. The rest of us who are dependent upon participation in society to survive...

Well I for one am getting concerned. I am not self-sufficient. I am in a lot of debt. I don't own land. I would be able to exist without a car, but it would make things difficult. While I would very much like NOT to be, I am almost totally dependent on society for my continued existance. My only hope is that more and more intelligent and motivated people will stop listening to the voice of "mother culture" and wake up to the fact that there is indeed a problem here.


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