What sustainable really means…

Yet again in the Advertiser we have an article on drastic climate change and more bad news but with no real discussion. There’s lots of numbers which to most people probably mean nothing and no real explanation of what a 1 degree temperature rise really means to everyone. Same old, same old. Sure they had their lift out articles a few weeks ago but the latest article doesn’t have a link or reference to that, sort of like a poorly written high school essay. Actually, I’ll take that back, my daughter is in high school and they have to reference all their material. Perhaps we’re talking primary school level, whatever the lowest common denominator is I guess. At least the website for the paper has a link to the CSIRO report for the few who really care. It’s here.

However all this is a bit moot because what really matters for a civilisation and climate change is what happens over the long term. I’m talking hundreds and thousands of years, not for a few decades or even worse, the next political election. People bandy about the term sustainable, seemingly without really thinking about it. When you do think about it then everything to do with your life comes into a sharper focus. A much sharper focus.

To be sustainable basically entails that when you die there is just as much available stuff around as when you where born. This stuff includes things like:

  • Energy sources such as gas and oil.
  • Basic foodstuffs and the land to grow it on.
  • Raw materials such as iron, copper and timber.
  • Fresh water.
  • ..and of course an ecosystem to make sure the above is all available.

Throughout our lives we use much of the above and all of it has to be there for long term sustainability. Energy sources are a simple case so lets talk about them. We all need energy for transport and power generation. Pre-industrial society needed animals for local transport and wind power ships for longer range transport. The animals are at least sustainable, the ships take a bit more effort. Power generation was basically for cooking and smelting only and so fire sufficed. Compare that with today where we need huge amounts of power just to survive in our modern society. Now work out how to do that with using something 100% sustainable. Not 10% , 20 % or 50% but 100%. Everything must always be there but don’t forget the extra energy you need for making the machines that supply your energy. This isn’t for a few years, it’s forever and so most of our existing energy resources simply don’t count because most are non-renewable. And that includes nuclear.

Even if we think of only solar, then from when you are born to when you die all your energy must come from the sun. Direct voltaic say for electricity and this can be used for cracking water to get hydrogen or for supplying the base load needed to run farms to produce a bio-something. So throughout you life everything is supplied this way, plus the power needed to run the factories for everything you want to buy plus the power for factories to make more solar cells as the existing ones run out.

So if you want a loaf of bread from a shop because you live in the city and dont want to make it, then this is how it goes. Someone grows wheat using energy to drive the tractors, make the fertiliser (of just move the organic fertiliser onto the field) and harvest the grain. Transport is needed to move the grain to a mill and more power is needed to make the flour. Yet more power to move the flour to the bakery. The bakery of course has used power to get built, get water and get everything else needed to make bread such as the ovens, the control equipment, the packaging machines etc. . Even when your loaf is made it needs to be transported to a shop, which needs power to run it’s till, run some lights etc. And then you have to get there and buy it using money you were paid in your job which also used a large amount of power. And the cost of your on special cheap loaf in 2007 is roughly $2. I’ll argue that this is the cost of the energy used to make it if you trace everything back to it’s source. You basically used and required $2 worth of power to make that loaf, however your annual salary is say $50,000. So if you consume this amount of stuff a year and lets face it, on this sort of salary your aren’t going to be saving much, your life is using $50,000 worth of power a year. And you thought your $1000 to $2000 annual power bill was bad enough. This hopefully shows how much power is really needed to run our modern society with all it’s technological advances.

Now all this power use needs to be converted to something sustainable so back to our solar farm we go. Replacing all power and oil production facilities with something 100% sustainable is a big job. It makes the Manhattan project or the Apollo project look totally pathetic. This isn’t really an option of some hippy dream, some pie in the sky wild idea. It’s what a civilisation has to do to survive so we don’t go the way of the Incas or the American Indians or countless other civilisations that no longer exist. To survive a LONG time requires our civilisation surviving everything nature and ourselves throws at us without running out of stuff. No more landfill, 100% recycling, no more waste, at all, ever. Metals don’t grow on trees and neither does plastic made from oil or natural gas.

This is really what’s at the core of the issue with CO2, we take oil and gas from the ground, consume it and the waste goes into the atmosphere in what appears to be a rather non-sustainable manner. The whole concept simply doesn’t work in the long run, we run out of stuff and in this case modify the atmosphere in an experiment I’m quite sure wouldn’t get through ethics approval of the most 3rd rate university. Can anyone really imagine our present society being the same in 1000 years? What about 100? The model simply doesn’t work but the change is so drastic so unbelievably huge it’s not overly surprising very few really talk about a sustainable modern society. It’s also not cheap and I imagine the change will drastically lower everyone’s standard of living a LOT. Our standard of living is closely tied to energy consumption and if we want to get it lower we have use less power and more importantly buy less stuff. To compare energy consumption in Australia to other countries see this graph Per Capita Residential Electricty Consumption from this paper.We also need to drop the unsustainable idea of constant economic growth, over the long term it simply doesn’t work.

Of course we could all move all of our energy requirements to sustainable energy sources but based on the present acceptance that our energy use is a problem, I wouldn’t be holding my breath. How long do people really think it will take kick the oil and coal habit?

I’m yet to see a prediction with the eventual flat line of 100% renewable energy resources.


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