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One of the live oaks that bless my home

Monday, October 21, 2013

UT Energy Students Debunk Modern Myths

Angela Kelechi Eluwa is a graduate of Geology from Nigeria, and is currently a Master of Science Student in the Energy and Earth Resources Department at UT Austin.

The human species has been growing exponentially since the World War II. Any population of living creatures is constrained by the availability of food, water, land, or other important resources. Once those resources are depleted, a population won't continue to grow exponentially. It will plateau, or decline, as a result of disease or malnutrition.

The major driver of technology is fossil power (energy/over time). The accumulation of fossil fuels is a slow process that took hundreds of millions of years, yet in just the last few hundred years we have depleted a large percentage of their total accessible endowment.

It can be argued that technological advancement has made a major positive impact on our living conditions like access to clean drinking water, toilet systems, antibiotics, etc. However, technology cannot advance without the use of Earth’s resources. Both renewable and conventional sources of energy are needed to help technology function and grow. Electricity, for example, can be generated on a global scale only with hydrocarbons or coal. The same dependence on hydrocarbons is true of metals; in fact the better types of ore are now becoming depleted, while those that remain can be processed only with modern machinery and require more coal and hydrocarbons for smelting and refining. In turn, without metals and electricity, there would be no means of extracting and processing hydrocarbons and coal.

The world’s deserts have an area of about 47 million of square kilometers, and the solar energy they receive annually is 300,000 EJ, which at a typical 11-percent electrical-conversion rate would result in 33,000 EJ.

Annual global energy consumption in 2010 was approximately 665 EJ. To meet the world’s present energy needs by using solar power, then, we would need an array (or an equivalent number of smaller ones) with a size of 665/33,000 x 47 million sq km, which is about 947,000 sq km - a machine the size of France. The production and maintenance of this array would require vast quantities of hydrocarbons, metals, and other materials -- a self-defeating process. Solar power will therefore do little to solve the world’s energy problems.

In the entire world there are 15,749,300 square kilometers of arable land, this is 11 percent of the world’s total land area. The present world population is over 7 billion. Dividing the human population by the area of arable land, we see that there are 444 people per square km of arable land. On a smaller scale that means about 4 people per hectare. Less than a third of the world’s 200-odd countries are actually within that ratio. In other words, too many people are already supported by non-mechanized agriculture.

With the inevitable depletion of the readily available biotic and abiotic components of the Earth's ecosystems, technology - and all it has to offer - will be available only at a cost, and in that case technology will become the “survival of the richest”. This may be described as the Earth check-mating the greed and excesses of humans. The exploding cost of living in the developing countries serves as a clear indicator.

Ryan Kelkar was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He is a senior student of Petroleum Engineering at UT Austin.

The author of the article “Over Population is Not a Problem” perpetuates the same cognitive dissonance that many people have towards the very large (pun intended) problem of over population. The author of the article makes the fatal flaw of assuming technological advances will always be capable of being ahead of the population reaching its carrying capacity. The flaw associated with this line of thinking is that these technological advances require the depletion of natural resources, and without these resources no technological advances will be able to save us.

For instance, the Haber-Bosch process uses natural gas (or coal in the old days) to create ammonia for fertilizer. This technological advancement had a dramatic effect on the carrying capacity of the earth, as agriculture was able to become more efficient and humans overwhelmed the natural nitrogen cycle by a factor of several. Some estimates are that more than half of the earth’s population would not exist today if it wasn’t for this technological advancement. The author of the article would like the reader to believe that the Haber-Bosch process is another example of a technological advancement staying a head of any impending population problems. However, the flaw in that line of thinking is that the Haber process, while ingenious, requires the use of a finite resource, natural gas. Without natural gas or coal and lots of water, the Haber-Bosch process simply can not work.  You may appreciate this circular reasoning of the author: Without fossil fuels and clean water, the Haber-Bosch process can not create fertilizer to sustain the population it itself created. Technological advances are not independent of the fact that they are dependent on resources from earth to sustain them.

The author also ignores the direct correlation that the access to cheap hydrocarbons has had on the earth’s population. At the beginning of the 20th century the global population was around 1.5 billion people and now the population is approximately 7.1 billion people. That is nearly a five-fold increase in the global population. If the author’s assumption that technological advances and human ingenuity alone were the reason for increasing the earth’s carrying capacity then why is it that only in the last century has the population increased so dramatically? Human ingenuity didn’t only begin at the start of the 20th century. The truth is that without the large-scale production of cheap hydrocarbons the population today would be much closer to what it was at the begging of the century (around 2 billion people).

All of this would be perfectly fine if we were able to produce cheap energy forever. Unfortunately, reality is rarely what we would like