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"A Year From Now You Will Wish You Had Started Today"

When I started this blog in the spring I had several goals. I wanted to provide the scientific background to local, national, and world events in an engaging way. I wanted to promote discussion of science and technology issues in the community. I also felt the need to sound an alarm, because everything is about to change. The next few decades will be dramatically different from the past few and we are far behind in our preparations.
I began Common Science with a two-part series to help you to understand that the world runs on the energy provided by the sun as captured by plants via photosynthesis. Photosynthesis provides all of our food and almost all of our energy since petroleum, coal, natural gas, biodiesel, and ethanol all come from plants. Once you understand this you will see that there is essentially no difference between biofuels and fossil fuels. Fossil fuels are simply biofuels which have been around for a long time. In the last 100 years we have burned a couple hundred millions years of stored solar energy as contained in petroleum, coal, and natural gas. All three of these fossil fuels have now reached critical junctures. 
We have already used about half of the world’s petroleum reserves. At first this sounds OK since it means we have a lot of oil left, but there’s a catch. World production of petroleum has leveled off at about 88-90 million barrels a day from 2008 to 2011. Over the last few decades we have been exhausting oil fields at a rate much faster than we are able to discover new ones. As a result the rate of production is going to start declining for the first time. Recall that petroleum, in addition to being the source of gasoline and diesel fuel, is also the primary raw material for plastics, clothes, pharmaceuticals and hundreds of other products in our modern market place.
While we continue to mine more and more coal in the U.S., since the 1960’s we have been increasing our reliance on grades of coal which contain lower amounts of energy per pound. As a result, even though we continue to increase the tons of coal that we mine, the amount of coal energy that we extract has leveled off and is about to start declining. Nearly all of our electricity comes from coal and we will not be able to build solar and wind power stations quickly enough to maintain our current level of electricity production.
Natural gas is primarily used for domestic heating and cooking and as an energy source for industrial production. Since our national memory is short, few seem to recall the dramatic increases in natural gas prices which occurred in 2004 as demand was outstripping the supply from traditional natural gas wells. These price spikes nearly bankrupted the chemical company which I worked for at the time. This situation was eased by the introduction of hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” to liberate natural gas trapped in small pockets of rock several miles below the ground. While it has generated significant concern about possible water supply contamination, fracking has temporarily eased the supply and demand situation for natural gas.
Our global economy and modern civilizations are designed based on the assumption that there will be never ending growth. Over the next 10 years the amount of fossil fuel energy available per person on earth is going to start to drop, and drop rapidly, which will bring an end to economic growth. We do not have any experience in dealing with the problems that will stem from this including, deflation, hunger, a reduction in global trade, and massive defaults on government debts. There have been a large number of books written which predict how the world will deal with this impending crisis. Most, to be diplomatic, are not optimistic.
But what about alternative fuels you ask? In my series on biofuels I laid out how we cannot grow enough biomass to keep up with our inefficient and consumption-based global economy. This is particularly true if we want to also grow food.   In fact, our current approach to biofuels production takes food out of the mouths of millions of poor people around the world as land that formerly was used to grow food has been put into service to grow crops to make ethanol or biodiesel. 
Essentially all other alternative fuels, nuclear, hydroelectric, solar, and wind are used to produce electricity. While electricity is vital to the functioning of modern society, it is not an effective power source for cars, trucks, and boats.  We do have the technologic know-how to make a good electric car battery, but we will be quite limited in the number of batteries we can make due to limitations in the supply of the rare earth metals used to make them.
So what does this all mean? Here are the trends I expect to play out over the next 30-50 years:
  • The supply of liquid transportation fuels, gasoline, diesel, biodiesel, ethanol, is going to drop for the first time since the introduction of the internal combustion engine. This will rapidly erode our car-based culture.   With time, car ownership will be increasingly limited to the affluent.
  • Railroads will make a comeback in moving both people and goods. Short distance railroads will be electric and long distance trains will run on biodiesel. The installation of new tracks will become easier as decreased personal automobile usage will free up space on roads and highways to lay rails.
  • The cost of transportation will rise eroding the rationale for locating factories half way around the world from the consumers to access low-cost labor. This will revitalize manufacturing in the US and Europe and cause economic hardship in most of the rest of the world.
  • Food will become more local, but I am not sure if it will be “hyper local”. For example, I expect that that farms in the mid-west will diversify their production beyond their current over-reliance on wheat and corn and shift towards vegetables which will be shipped to population centers on boats and trains.
  • Reduction in car ownership will cause the far suburbs and exurbs to become obsolete. Forward thinking municipalities will seize the opportunity to leverage suburban utility infrastructure to build manufacturing facilities.
  • Responding to these challenges effectively will require cooperative efforts among people via local, state, and federal government programs. This will be resisted vigorously by “conservative” political factions.
In the present political climate we cannot expect meaningful assistance from the federal government in preparing for these challenges. Consider the difficulty that we are experiencing in something as simple as establishing and implementing improved energy efficiency standards for light bulbs. Responding the challenges stemming from increasingly scarce resources will require both data-based decision making and the building of consensus through relentless communication. 
We have the opportunity to take some action of a local level to prepare for the future I have described above.   The title of this week’s blog, “A Year From Now You Will Wish You Had Started Today” is a quote from author Karen Lamb. I am trying to take her advice to heart. So to kick off Common Science in 2012, I am planning as series on what steps we can take now, instead of a year from now, when we will regret not having started today.
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