Friday, July 14, 2006

Bigger Body Count

This year the United States will have a population of 300,000,000. We have a net gain of 1 person every 11 seconds. The U.S. is now the fastest growing "developed" country in the world.

James Howard Kunstler's book The Long Emergency is worth reading. Kunstler's thesis is that cheap fossil fuel has made the modern world possible; it is the "platform" from which our rapid technological advances have occurred, including everything from democratic institutions to improved health care to discussions about what our existence means. And it all may be coming to an end. Cheap, readily available fossil fuel is an anomaly in human history.

In the end, according to Kunstler, we may get optimistically 200 years or so out of cheap fuel--and we've already used up about 150 years. We're running out of it because it's a finite resource, although we sometimes act as though it's not. Most important, there is nothing we know of today that's going to remotely replace it or make it possible to enjoy continued growth or increasing levels of prosperity. It's going to get pretty bleak, what Kunstler calls the "long emergency." Some will find Kunstler's thesis implausible and others on target. But most people will nevertheless find it disturbing....

We have more than 6 billion humans living on the planet right now, and our rapid population increase began at the start of the industrial revolution around 1800 and really took off in the early twentieth century. In the late eighteenth century we had approximately one billion inhabitants on Earth. This could once again become the upper limit of our sustainable population.

America is now the third most populous country in the world. We are by far the worst polluter on the planet, emitting nearly twice the carbon dioxide emissions as our closest competitor, China. We average some 1,300 gallons of water per day, per citizen, the highest rate in the world. We Americans individually generate hundreds of pounds of trash each year, with paper, plastics, and metals leading the way.

One in three teenage girls in the U.S. become pregnant, and more than 50% of Americans now live within 10 miles of polluted water. The current American government has essentially restricted international family planning funds to sexual abstinence policies because of the dysfunctional influence of Christian fundamentalism. And we haven't even talked about the growing environmental disaster that's occurring in China and to a lesser degree in India. These two countries have a combined population of more than two billion inhabitants.

Even with cheap, readily available fossil fuels, we've got a planet in acute trouble. What are we willing and able to do? What are we willing to give up--because those of us in the developed world will have to part with a great deal? How fast are we willing to do it? The options are vanishing fast.

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