SUSTAINABITY BY CHOICE, OR IMPOSED BY NATURE ?
Sustainability is not an option, its only a question of whether we choose, or nature forces it on us. Sustainability will be just be the latest planet wide transformation in our history that has changed the arc of evolution. There are key events have changed the arc of evolution enabling the development of humans, civilization, and science. For 200 M years the dinosaurs ruled the earth. The first event changed that arc 65 M years ago when the K-T meteor killed off the dinosaurs and allowed humans the opportunity to become the dominant species on earth. For 200 K years humans lived as mobile hunter gatherers. The second event changed that arc 10,000 years ago with the development of settled agriculture in the Fertile Crescent which in turn enabled the evolution of cities, a ruling class and mass religion - all the hallmarks of civilization. For 9000 years warring rulers invaded their neighbors and imposed their religious culture. The third event that changed that arc 600 years ago was the invention of the printing press that allowed the masses access to the insights of the Renaissance, and prevented authoritarian rulers and religions from reasserting control. The scientific and technological revolution has inevitably resulted in an explosion of population, food and energy use that has led to us terraforming our planet - not in a good way. This latest key event that is going to force us to become sustaining residents of our planet.
In the last 100 years we have used up half the reserves of fossil fuels, that took 400M year to deposit. The result has been a 1C temperature increase and the melting glaciers, sever weather that have become familiar. As a reference point, In the dinosaur era temperatures were 10C higher, no ice caps and sea levels 300 ft higher. We have 50 years worth of oil and 100 years of coal left. If we do nothing, we are looking at 4-6C temperature rise by 2100. At some point, some point we will simply run out of fuel, and food and there will be an inevitable population catastrophe.
What we need to do is quite clear, all fossil fuel applications need to be electrified, and all electric generation needs to be renewables. The largest single application that must be changed is the personal car which represents 25% of your personal global warming bill. A few applications such as air travel and cement manufacture need new technology. Sustainability could take an investment of 2% of GDP for 20 years , a lot of money but not impractical. For comparison, in World War 2, the US spent of 40% GDP for war expenses in 1944.
It will take wide public support to sustain that level of spending. A world wide survey in 2021 concluded that 35% of the population wanted urgent action, 36% wanted no action, and the balance wanted slow action - which not yet a mandate for a big push. Meanwhile there are well funded forces in favor of the status quo such as fossil fuel companies and opportunistic politicians resisting action.
The real question how bad is it going it to get before we reach sustainability ?
The evolution of life started 3.5 B years ago with cyanobacteria, and it took 3B years for dinosaurs to evolve. For 200 M years, dinosaurs ruled the world as massive apex predators. Very small mammals such as shrews had evolved along with the dinosaurs. As the dinosaurs ruled over a single mega-continent "Pangea", carbon dioxide levels were 3 times today, temperatures were 10C higher and there were no ice caps so sea level was 100 meters (300 ft) higher.
After 200 M years of dinosaur domination, the first key event 65 M years ago, was the KT meteor which produced an explosion of a billion Hiroshima's that killed everything larger than 50 lbs. With large predators gone, the mammals thrived as did small dinosaurs that became our birds. It took around 64M years for humans to evolve. Over 200 K years they then populated the earth as hunter gatherers used ice age bridges to move from continent to continent.
After 200 K years of hunter gathering, the next key event occurred in the Fertile Crescent, 10,000 years ago, with the development of settled agriculture, urban communities and "civilization". As the ice disappeared leaving fertile marshland, the Fertile Crescent became home to the eight founder crops important in early agriculture (emmer wheat, einkorn, barley, flax, chick pea, pea, lentil, bitter vetch) that can self-pollinate and cross-pollinate, and the most important species of domesticated animals—cows, goats, sheep, and pigs. The ability to live in one place and feed yourself year round transformed society. Ownership of land and permanent housing now had real value. Once a farmer could grow more than they could consume, the excess could be sold, exchanged and taxed. In addition, people could now live in urban centers, have specialist occupations such as priests and craftsmen, and buy their food. The ability to raise money and pay militia, led to a ruling class. The need for documentation leads to the first hieroglyphic scripts.
For the next 9000 years, there were cycles of invasion between warring rulers all over the world. Many rulers associated themselves with local religions often as god-kings. There were occasional experiments, such as the Greek Enlightenment, with democracy and scientific analysis of the world. These experiments were reversed as soon as authoritarian leaders took over. The Renaissance started in the Florence Republic around 1400 AD funded by the Medichi's. The Medichi's then took over the papacy with a very liberal approach to dogma, and the Arts and Science flourished. The authoritarian reaction was swift with the Catholic Inquisition and the Protestant Reformation.
The key event that allowed the intellectual freedom of the Renaissance to continue was the invention of the printing press. In 1455, the Gutenberg printed the first bibles. By 1500, at least half a million books had entered circulation. These books ranged from Columbus’ account of the New World to classical Greek texts. Printing enabled greater literacy and enabled the acceptance of new ideas. At the same time the Christian church was fragmenting into Catholic and Protestant, preventing one church from imposing control. The combination eliminated the control that organized religion had exerted over the spread of knowledge.
Science and technology have become the dominant drivers of modern society. Modern medicine has transformed life expectancy, resulting in a 10x increase in population producing a similar demand for food and energy. The inevitable consequence has been terraforming of the planet with loss of habitat and global warming.
The next key event has to be a revolution in how we live on the planet, moving to a sustainable future.
In the last 100 years we have used up half the reserves of fossil fuels, that took 400M year to deposit. The result has been a 1C temperature increase and the melting glaciers, sever weather that have become familiar. At the current rate we have around 50 years of oil left and 100 years of coal. If we do nothing, we are looking at 5-6C temperature rise by 2100 and are headed towards dinosaur era temperatures that were 10C higher, there were no ice caps and sea levels were 300 ft higher. At some point, we will simply run out of fuel, and food and there will be an inevitable population catastrophe. The "Limits to Growth" project started in 1972 attempted to illustrate the idea that the combination of unlimited use of finite resources, pollution and population increase would lead to a collapse.
Under a high emissions scenario of 4.4C warming, 41% of land vertebrates will experience extreme thermal events by 2099, according to the paper, published in Nature.
Once society gets near the edge, it seems likely that some combination of external events, disastrous weather or volcano will precipitate a collapse. Given that there is 50-100 years worth of fossil fuel left, it certainly looks as though the edge will be approached well within 100 years. Nature will have imposed sustainability on the world.
What we need to do is quite clear, all fossil fuel applications need to be electrified, and all electric generation needs to be renewables. The largest single application that must be changed is the personal car which represents 25% of your personal global warming bill. A few applications such as air travel and cement manufacture need new technology.
Estimates of how much money it would take to end global climate change range between $300 billion and $50 trillion over the next two decades.
Sustainability could take an investment of 2% of GDP for 20 years , a lot of money but not impractical. For comparison, in World War 2, the US spent of 40% GDP for war expenses in 1944.
Change has been transformational; dinosaurs went extinct, hunter gatherers disappeared, religions lost their clout. The resistance to change should be no surprise because however quickly we address climate change there are going to be some big losers; the profiteers from fossil fuels, values of communities that are climate sensitive such a costal communities, farmers, winter sports, and politicians who see votes in vilifying "progressives". They collectively are incentivized to maintain the status quo in the short term, whatever the long term damage.
It will take wide public support to sustain that level of spending. A world wide survey in 2021 concluded that 35% of the population wanted urgent action, 36% wanted no action, and the balance wanted slow action - which not yet a mandate for a big push.
The "Peoples’ Climate Vote " a world wide report from the UN in 2021
The real question how bad is it going it to get before we reach sustainability ?