The Major World Dilemma

The desire to continue the good life of modern civilization vs. the pollution of the natural world in the production of goods and services.

Scientists understand the consequences to the natural world of the use of fossil fuel energy. Burning coal, petroleum, and natural gas creates carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and other emissions that are stored in the atmosphere, the oceans, and on land. Since the beginning of the industrial revolution, these gases have increased, reaching their highest amount today.

Refined scientific models also project the probable results of continued use of fossil fuel energy. Even the most conservative models show that to continue “business as normal” will result in global warming that exceeds limits beyond which natural and social disasters will occur. Based on these models, many international groups of climate scientists and government officials have established goals to limit greenhouse gas emissions to safe levels. 

These goals cannot be met when greenhouse gas emissions of recent decades continue to increase as projected for the next few years, let alone for decades, into the future. The questions must be asked: Why are the nations of the world unable to meet those goals?

The basic social/cultural fact is that the energy from fossil fuels underlies modern civilization. Unparalleled rapid release of concentrated energy from the burning of fossil fuels has created a panoply of tools, goods and services that support human life today.  Humans’ desires to continue and expand the goods and services of modern civilization is the first half of a dilemma.

The second half of the dilemma is that the use of fossil fuels to make the desired goods and services releases pollution in the form of heat, chemicals, and other waste products into the natural environment. Only in recent years have many people become aware of the undesirable effects of worldwide pollution.

Modern civilization is based on ideas of growth and progress and measured in terms of more goods, more services, and longer life. It has been extremely successful. More goods and services are available than at any other time in history. No emperor or king was so well served. In the last 224 years, the world population has grown from one billion people to more than eight billion people. (Over seventy million people will be added this year, alone.) 

Natural resources were able to supply, sustainably, the demands of humans until 1970, at which time the global footprint exceeded the ability of the Earth to absorb the pollution created by emission of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, the oceans, and land surfaces. Since 1970, the world population has doubled, placing additional demands on agriculture and grazing lands, ocean and forest resources and urban uses. The excessive demands of the ‘developed’ world are strikingly exemplified by the ecological footprint of the United States. Even as the biocapacity (the natural resources) of the United States is great, demands on it vastly exceed its ability to supply them, i.e., its ecological footprint exceeds the resources of the Earth by more than four and a half times. The result is that many of its resources come from outside the country; and its waste products are sent to the atmosphere, the oceans, and less useful land. 

The natural resources of the Earth are limited, absolutely. (The Earth’s biocapacity is exceeded by 37 %.) Technologic processes may find substitutes for some current resources. But those substitutes must be evaluated as to their energy demands, concomitant pollution, and effects on other ecological systems. Because all processing of concentrated energy releases degraded energy in the form of heat, the production of goods and services must be evaluated in terms of their waste. Of course, the processing of minerals and organic matter, as well as the eventual disposal of manufactured goods also place demands on the natural ecology of the Earth. The demands for more energy and more natural resources are both the successes and the unwanted consequences of modern society. As a result, growth and progress must eventually decline as the ecological systems of the Earth are altered irrevocably. 

Climate warming is the most recognizable major ecological problem facing the Earth today. Because its effects are now widely experienced, the physics of climate systems has become a focus of many natural scientists. Some people still deny climate change, let alone its human-causes and effects; yet others believe that global warming can be solved by specialized technological innovations. However, modern technology depends on energy now primarily supplied by fossil fuels and innovative uses of minerals and organic materials.

Renewable energy has become the prime candidate as a substitute for fossil fuel energy. However, renewable energy has not been effectively analyzed for its useful energy gains, let alone for its ability to provide adequate energy to maintain modern civilization. Artificial intelligence may assist in making energy more efficient. However, the processing of information artificially has already greatly increased the demand for new sources of energy and water.  The hopes for renewable energy and AI largely remain disconnected from the ecological processes of the natural world. They rely on the hubris of believing that human intelligence, at least in the short run, does not depend on the long-term wisdom of evolution and ecology.

Almost no one in dominant economic or political positions of power wants to acknowledge the overwhelming extent that humans are animals and, as such, are part of the long evolutionary tale of nature. A dominant evolutionary principle is that all organisms want to reproduce and grow. Humans have been able to become, at least temporarily, the most successful large animal because they have captured the large stores of fossil fuel energy to grow and reproduce goods and services that it wants. Only, very recently, has this dependence been confronted by another evolutionary principle: that the growth of all organisms is limited by their environment.

As conscious creatures, humans have created stories to explain their lives. Their dominate stories concern their daily lives, which in turn are placed within economic, political, social, and religious stories. In modern times, prevailing public stories have been made by politicians, economists, technologists, and other leaders who can focus on maintaining the surfeit of goods and services that are part of daily life. As recognized by Lewis Mumford, power, in modern societies, is found in ownership of energy and property, in the ways to make profits from manipulation of land and energy, and in the production, publicizing and the desire for goods and services. It is these stories that have come to guide our actions and thoughts about the world, not the physical world of ecology and evolution.

Suppliers of fossil fuels want to continue their profitable operations. 2024 will see the most production, ever, of fossil fuels and fossil fuel producers are making record profits. Banks want to lend money to further profitable development of fossil fuels by exploitation of new lands. Governments continue to subsidize new fossil fuel projects, often on public lands, to increase economic growth and to develop and supply military weapons. Politicians and the public are influenced by hundreds of energy lobbyists and media publicists.

Politicians’ constituents are afraid of losing jobs in ‘the economy’ if fossil fuels aren’t available to manufacture and provide desired goods and services. No one wants to see the cost of gas and home heating fuels increase. No one wants to see their travel, retirement, and vacations plans cost more. No one wants to see their education and medical costs go up. All of us, even those of us who want to reduce the use of fossil fuels, are the products of the cultural stories that we have learned throughout our lives. We have also individually inherited the organic wisdom to want to ‘grow and progress.’ We are no longer animals that must cooperate with nature to survive. We have become cultural creatures that live by the stories and artifacts of our own creation.

The overall result of these underlying human beliefs that have created modern societies, ignore that humans are but one part or process of a wider natural environment that is the Earth. Humans have evolved to be the temporarily dominant organism within the ecological processes that operate on the planet Earth. Their consciousness has allowed humans to create stories and abilities that have changed the rate and kinds of processes of major natural systems of the Earth. Now, however, these stories and abilities have come face to face with natural limits that they can no longer overcome. That is the overriding dilemma facing humanity today.

Modern, technological civilization can no longer survive because most technologies ignore the dynamics of the natural world of Earth except as humans can use them. The present holders of power may survive in greatly limited, but radically altered, societies. Survivors will live with greatly reduced goods and services. Human population will reach limits from nature and decline. Evolutionary processes will, possibly soon, cause human extinction. The wonders of Nature and the processes of evolution and ecology will continue with or without humans. 

I believe that the consciousness of the human animal is unique in Nature. It is desirable to preserve consciousness. However, it should not be used to distort the tested and long continuing ecological and evolutionary processes that are unique to all life on Earth. Humans must learn to enjoy and find beauty in Nature without destroying the very processes that have made human life possible.

 “We have created a Star Wars civilization, with Stone Age emotions, medieval institutions, and godlike technology.” 
― Edward O. Wilson, from The Social Conquest of Earth

 1. Pollution is a cultural term. It refers to damage, directly or indirectly, to habitats of humans and other organisms.

 2. Resources are cultural creations. Natural resources simply refer to Earthly things that humans find valuable.

 3. See the Global Footprint Network for details.

4. Lewis Mumford wrote extensively about technology. Especially note his book: The Pentagon of Power. The five sides of the pentagon are Power itself (energy), Property, Production, Profits, and Publicity.

5. Even if through some miracle the problems of global warming are solved, the continued massive exploitation of the natural environment will reach limits. Fossil fuels themselves are in limited supply and are discussed under the rubric of Peak oil and Gas.


This article was written by Alvin (Al) Urquhart: 

Alvin is an Emeritus Professor of Geography and was a founder and director of the Environmental Studies Program at the University of Oregon. With three degrees from the University of California, Berkeley, he was trained in anthropology, soil science, ecology, and geomorphology, as well as in his home department, geography. Al is also a member of the Job One for Humanity Advisory Board.

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  • Al Urquhart
    published this page in Blog 2024-05-12 20:00:09 -0700
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