Reaching Limits in a Finite World

We don’t usually think about it, but we live in a finite world. In other words, in theory we can count precisely how many atoms make up the earth. We can also theoretically count how many humans live on earth and how many of any other species live on earth at a particular point in time.

At some point, in a finite world, we start reaching limits. There are now about seven billion people in the world. We could probably add some more, but how many? What is it that limits our ability to add more people to the world we live in today?

Too Much Population “Morphs” to an Energy and Financial Limit

One obvious guess as to what might limit world population is the amount of fresh water that is available. If we don’t have enough fresh water available, we can’t continue to expand population.

The amount of fresh water that is available can be changed, though, by adding desalination plants. There are many other ways of getting fresh water. To give an extreme example, the amount of fresh water available could be increased by melting ice in Antarctica and importing it by ship. Either of these solutions would require energy in an appropriate form—either to run the desalination plant, or to melt the ice and transport it by ship. Thus the fresh water shortage, at least for the foreseeable future, can be worked around if there is sufficient energy available of the right type.

The other not-so-minor detail is that the cost of desalination or of importing melted ice from Antarctica needs to be inexpensive enough that users of fresh water can afford it. In order for this to be the case, the cost of the appropriate type of energy must be extremely inexpensive. Continue reading

Reaching financial limits–What kinds of solutions are available?

We live in a finite world. At this point, we seem to be reaching limits in several different areas:

  • Cheap oil. Our economy runs on cheap oil, but there is a limit to the amount of cheap oil that can be pulled out of the ground. There is still a lot of expensive-to-produce oil left, but this is not a substitute for cheap oil.
  • Fresh water. Fresh water is used for drinking, for growing food, for producing oil and gas, and for creating electricity, among other things. In many parts of the world, we are using fresh water faster than aquifers can replenish.
  • Climate Change. Our agricultural system depends on relatively constant climate. Changes to climate, whether caused by humans or not, are a problem. It is possible that this year’s hot summer is caused by climate change.
  • Soil fertility. Soil fertility depends on adequate depth of top soil, adequate humus content, suitable bacteria in the soil, and proper mineral balance. We have been able to hide soil fertility problems through greater use fertilizers, pesticides, and irrigation, but these are not permanent “fixes”.
  • Pollution. There are many types of pollution that are problems, from excessive carbon dioxide, to mercury in food sources, to endocrine disruptors, to algal blooms.
  • Human population. The number of humans on earth is out of balance with world ecosystems and keeps growing, year after year.
  • Financial system. Our financial system depends on growth, but growth in a finite world system cannot continue forever. High oil prices tend to lead to recession, and reduced economic growth–hence the need for cheap oil, rather than expensive oil.

The question then becomes, “What can we do?”  Are there any solutions available, even if they are only partial solutions, as high oil prices and other limits squeeze the economy?

Many of us sense that we likely are not too far away from a contraction imposed by nature–something that looks like a severe recession that will help bring the world back into balance. While we probably cannot completely “fix” the situation, there seem to  be several things we can do, in the way of mitigation. Continue reading