Saturday, July 17, 2010

Hybrid cars cannot save us, only less population can.

We are often told that one major consequence of industrialization and modernity is the resulting climate change and its deleterious effects. We are further told that if we value planet earth then we should avoid all the activities that result in a major reallocation of carbon in the world. Note that based on the first law of thermodynamics no element is ever destroyed, all what we can do is to release carbon from being locked in fossil fuels to be released as a gaseous compound in the atmosphere. Is such a minute reallocation important for the planet? If we are to recall that this planet has been hit by a meteorite travelling at a tremendous speed, has experienced a cooling process and has a tremendous capacity to adapt and heal itself. In the words of James Lovelock the earth is a “homeostatic super organism” that will constantly change and adapt as to ensure its survival. So does the planet care about our reallocating carbon or any other element for that matter? Physics and common sense tells us that the answer is an unequivocal no. But that does not mean that climate change is not the biggest challenge that humans have ever been faced with. The operative word in the previous sentence is human.

In order to fashion a real and meaningful solution to any problem requires a clear understanding of what is the problem all about. Climate change is not about maintaining a carbon balance for the sake of the earth but it is a purely anthropocentric concern about life for the human species. No one can deny that human civilization has evolved to become an evolutionary factor. A major by product of human activity is climate change which will result in putting into motion a process that many ecologists are calling the sixth extinction. Climate change combined with the growing needs for more roads, buildings, deforestation have radically changed the nature and characteristics of the habitat and thus is leading to more and more extinction.

If we do value these changes, and we should value them, then the solution is not to develop an alternative to the internal combustion engine, although that is desirable, but what is required is a recognition that the biggest threat to human civilization and biodiversity as we know it is the human species itself. The threat is not purely that of numbers, although numbers do count but it is a combination of numbers and levels of affluence. The expression I= PAT as developed by Paul Ehrlich emphasizes clearly the relationship between environmental degradation (I), pure number of humans (P), lifestyles (A) and the level of technology (T). Note that if we are to constantly seek a higher level of affluence, for a larger and larger population then the inevitable outcome is greater and greater ecological degradation.

There are a number of studies that show conclusively that the planet is already beyond its carrying capacity. A popular and easy to understand measure is the estimate of how many global acres are required to provide a particular life style. Such estimates vary from one country to the other and from one household to the other. A simple back of the envelope application of the above shows that if a Western life style is to be adopted by the 7 billion inhabitants then the resources of six planets will be required.

Sustainability is everyone’s concern, large countries, small countries, poor countries and rich countries. Since sustainability does not recognize artificial political boundaries then it must be dealt with on a global level and coordinated policies. Yale University in cooperation with Columbia University have developed a rather sophisticated Sustainability Index based on 76 variables and 21 indicators that shows a weak relationship between GDP and Sustainability Index of each of the 146 countries sin the study. For example, three of the top ten most sustainable countries are not OECD member (Uruguay, Guyana and Argentina). Other rankings that are of interest: Japan is the 30th while the US is the 45th and the UK is the 65th.

Unfortunately, but understandably Lebanon ranks as the 129th most unsustainable country out of the group of 146. The other countries in the region are slightly better but all are very highly unsustainable. An application of the ecological footprint to Lebanon would not make things any better. The average footprint for an individual leading a Western life style is over 22 global acres when the world has on the average only about 6 global acres and Lebanon offers an average of just over ½ a global acre, a deficit of over 21 acres per Lebanese.


Mustrapha said...

Malthusian pessimists have always been proven wrong by human ingenuity.

Besides, it doesn't sound like a terribly sensible thing to do to divert huge amounts of resources from fighting hunger, disease and poverty (immediate threats) to the creation of a bureaucracy that fights an uncertain future catastrophe that could or could not happen.

I like you Ghassan, but I hope you too will be proven wrong by the future..

ghassan karam said...

There are many things that we would like to be wrong about. An imminent collapse of the system is one of them.
As you well know it is not easy to capture all the nuances of a complex issue in 700 words or so.
You are an educated, well read individual and yet you seem to have misunderstood my point. This tells me that I have failed to communicate my intention behind this issue clearly.
I have written , taught and lectured a lot about climate change and its importance. I have not changed my mind. What I was conveying is the simple idea that hybrid cars, solar and wind energy ... are not enough to avoid an impending collapse.
If we are serious about our concern for an ecologically sustainable future then practically all measures and developments will not amount to much unless the single most important underlying cause for all the stress is dealt with head on. There are simply too many of us and we are leading an unsustainable life style.
Carrying capacity is very much influenced by scale. Yes we need to use more alternative clean energy, yes we need to redesign our cities, yes we need a more equitable income distribution.... but none of that will amount to a hill of beans unless we control our numbers and accept a simple lifestyle. Yes the hippies of the 60's were right, money can't buy you love/happiness.
We have to deal wit the root cause of the crisis: economic growth.
Arguably nothing is sustainable in the very very long run. Life on planet earth will cease to exist in a billion years or so. But if we are serious about sustainability in the medium run then a steady state economics is essentially the only solution.

Mustapha said...

I have of course understood your point very well, and I accept its value and rigor.

My beef was simply with the proposed solution: "Since sustainability does not recognize artificial political boundaries then it must be dealt with on a global level and coordinated policies".

Which in my ear sounds like: "a Huge bureacracy should take care of this problem"

ghassan karam said...

You might be a Libertarian or maybe a market fundamentalist but in this case my pronouncement is not a subjective one. It can be shown mathematically that whenever there are two or more actors in a world defined by self interest then they will never individually be able to promote the global good. This is the principle ofopen access or Tragedy of the Commons and it can be shown that the result ,if we act rationally will be ruinous. That is why one cannot expect the major players in this drama to deo the right thing. The only way to ensure a good outcome is a global governance of some sort a la Kyoto / Coenhagen. Note also that the only "solution" to a global environmental issue thus far has been that of the Montreal Protocol which required setting up a global treaty signed by and adhered to by all players.


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