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The Essence, I Suppose - Part I

Our anthropocene world is rapidly becoming a post-industrial wasteland, where most people are impoverished, left behind, and may not know how to live with dignity. These desperate individuals need a framework to counteract the bad things that are happening in their lives, and they need basic means of survival: a functioning family, home, medical care and decent education for their children. In too many countries, including the US and UK, poverty and desperation lead to voting decisions that are suicidal. Similarly, so many of the educated and affluent people are disoriented and running scared, because they too do not understand the deep and complex connections between the human economy and nature.

A beach in Beirut 12/03/2019.  Source: The New York Times.

Over the last twelve years, my small-scale solution to this overwhelming problem has been to teach a class that brings many of the elements of human-nature interactions together and roots them in science, mostly in thermodynamics. This semester I had 25 graduate students in my class, plus 2 graduating PhDs, who audited the class. One of these two senior students explicitly disobeyed her thesis advisor, a well-known marine biologist, who did not want her to sit in my class. Hmm...

For so many of you out there seeking enlightenment and guidance, it might be helpful to learn how in three months my class has changed the young lives; all for the better I hope.

What follows is a slightly edited essay of a female student, S. A., a biologist.

Someday in 2012, it was the first day I knew about Saudi population statistics in terms of age groups. I was around 17 back then. The graphs were comparing with other countries age distribution of the Saudi population. Saudis below 18 years group was the highest in that graph. The statistics were in a Saudi high school biology book, and I cannot remember in which context they were used. But I remember clearly my teacher trying to deliver the message that overpopulation is catastrophic for societies and we need to stop it. However, all in the class, including me, were convinced that being too many is a good thing because we will have more great minds to build our country. Obviously, the teacher had a great message but she failed to deliver it to a younger audience eager to enter adult life.

When I joined college, my view of our ridiculously growing population has changed, because I faced the consequences of it. I had to spend many hours daily stuck in traffic. In addition, at that time I started to notice the lack of job opportunities and the high competition for average income jobs. All of this was because we are too many.

Similarly, I knew about global warming. They taught us that greenhouse gases trap heat radiated by the earth, and all of the implications associated with that. However, they did not teach us how to reduce our emissions. Since temperature in Saudi Arabia gets really hot, I could not think back then of a way to reduce my emissions except for not using refrigerator and air-conditioning, which is impossible. In addition, I could not live carless because cars are the only transportation option in Saudi. Thus, all of what I had back then were small pieces of information and unsolved problems that did not have a direct effect on my daily life. Moreover, drying of oil reservoirs is a well-known Saudi knowledge/ nightmare, so I knew about it from an early age. But, the future drying of oil reservoirs did not affect me directly so I did not spend time thinking about it. I thought it was a problem my grandchildren would deal with.

Early in this class, I finally was able to connect all the previous knowledge I have with their consequences on me and on millions of people. This course has helped me to have a clear picture of my actions and their effect on the environment. For instance, in the first assignment we were required to calculate our water, electricity, and gas consumption, which I never thought of in my life. In class, we compared our personal consumptions, and I discovered that my household had the highest water consumption. My household's high water consumption was due to the watering of our large garden (mostly trees). So, after class I had this long discussion with my family about it and whether they prefer clear air around our house or less carbon emission (from water desalination plant) to the world, they chose the former of course! However, this discussion shed light on the consequences of the daily actions my family practice and take for granted.

The second assignment was about mitigation of climate change. The article suggested four actions ones should do to decrease his carbon emission significantly. The article also discussed the lack of awareness about those high impact actions in school textbooks, which was the issue I faced when I learned about global warming at school. They presented problems without suggesting actions to at least reduce them.

I consider the third assignment to be a wakeup call for me. In that assignment, we calculated global power production and consumption of fossil fuels and we compared it with power produced from renewables. We were able to conclude by numbers that renewables would not ever replace fossil fuels at our current energy consumption. Moreover, this assignment made me think critically about any product or project marketed as “environment friendly” or “green.” Nevertheless, when I saw the global population growth plotted against power consumption, everything became clear to me. Pollution, global warming, traffic, unemployment all are because of us. It is because of our overpopulation and energy overconsumption. Although this seems obvious, I think that many people are like me: they have the knowledge but they never connect the dots, because what happens with the world does not seem to affect them at present. There is something in human nature to prioritize things based on their present or future effects. This course made me realize that everything is connected to everything and that my present actions will affect people in other countries and will affect the subsequent generations.

Thus, in my opinion, successful teaching is not about delivering knowledge, but it is about the way of delivering the knowledge. In order to make change, school teachers must be trained to simplify the message in a way that makes it stick in the younger generation's minds, rather than delivering random facts about the environment and global warming.

The Hillville fire in Australia, 11/03/2019.  Source: The New York Times.

In conclusion, my attitude toward many things changed after taking this course. I started to use reusable shopping bags, turn off all lights in my room, even though I know that these actions have low impact. I started to read more about this subject, more precisely about the biological effects of plastic accumulation. Shockingly, in a recent study, I read they found that plastic nanoparticles enter the living organisms and have serious negative effects mostly on the reproductive system. What is more shocking is that the effects of plastics are transgenerational, meaning that if plastic nanoparticles enter a living organism, its subsequent offspring will be affected by the plastic, even though they have not encountered the plastic nanoparticles directly. Moreover, I am trying to decrease my aviation and I have decided not to have children. Also, I am trying to take an active role in society and raise awareness about spaying stray cats instead of eliminating them by unethical means.


Comments

  1. What is somewhat amazing to me is that you are teaching this class to graduate students!

    Surely, by the time a person has graduated from college, their understanding the nexus of energy consumption, population growth and the combined impact of the two on a fixed planetary surface area should second nature.

    The basic concepts found in such important works as "The Limits to Growth" can be understood by secondary school students. The basics of peak oil could be easily understood by elementary school students. Is it really true that issues of such fundamental importance as carrying capacity and overshoot are being left until graduate school?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Well, dear Joe, when it comes to understanding the connections between us and the planet, the general level of education is frighteningly low. Most people, with PhDs or not, are in active denial of reality established by the cold facts of the human-driven Sixth Extinction that is taking place right in front of our eyes wide shut. When you limit the statistical population to the individuals with PhDs in technical sciences, and further to faculty, the intensity of ignorance and denial, but also of sophisticated self-delusions, explodes. Faculty have staked their safe lives on the continuity of the current global system that treats us very well in exchange for selective vision and not teaching our students what's what outside of our narrow technical disciplines.

      Delete
    2. Most people cope with the negative realities of the world by believing some deus ex machina will swoop in and save us from ourselves. It's easier to believe that buying and driving a Tesla will solve our environmental problems rather than realizing that lithium, cobalt, silver, iron and copper are finite non-renewable resources just like fossil fuels. I give lectures every year on energy, population and resource depletion with many people getting angry that empirical evidence points to humanity in an unsustainable state of overshoot or that battery resource extraction and production creates ecological devastation in far off lands. Most people aren't trained in math, engineering and science research which forces you to differentiate evidence from opinion, especially when you compare peer reviewed articles with your own research.

      Thank you for your blog, Tadeusz. You are one of very few voices unafraid of broaching the subject of overpopulation and overshoot.

      Delete
    3. The global Titanic is sinking, the Fossil Amoeba orchestra is playing an arousing march, and all passengers think that they have a secure spot in an unsinkable lifeboat. Such is the scope of human delusions.

      Delete
  2. https://www.wsj.com/articles/banks-get-tough-on-shale-loans-as-fracking-forecasts-founder-11577010600

    Banks Get Tough on Shale Loans as Fracking Forecasts Flop
    Oil and gas companies face tightened credit after wells produce less than projected

    Prof. Tad, are we close to the tipping point??

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. There is no single tipping point, just a series of disappointments at an ever increasing price each time the Wall Street Journal cares to write on the subject of shales. The truth is that there is a lot of gas and oil locked in a truly dismal quality rock. Given enough environmental resources (ability to stave off climate change, availability clean water and high quality sand), fossil power (pumps, trucks, rigs, roads, etc.), and credit (how much are you willing to pay for house heating and cooking, and your ability to eat and drive?), shale production will stumble on for a few more decades. Or less, because the entire life support system for shale production may crumble in the meantime.

      Delete
  3. 1. These newsies are filling off the 2015/2016 dates from old stories and rerunning them. Somehow despite the previous negativity, US managed to grow oil production 3 M bopd since APR15 and gas production by 20 BCF/d since same month. In any case, reacting to news articles like this, versus in depth analysis, as some sort of bombshell revelation is silly. Even sillier, when those reacting to them (like Charlie Brown to Lucy's football) are unaware of the previous breathy news stories from years ago.

    2. Shale oil has its issues sub $60 (and especially sub $50 or sub $40). So sure..."quality of rock". However shale GAS wells are not that dissimilar to conventional gas wells. And they are extremely price competitive--putting the entire industry of GOM gas-directed drilling out of business, for instance. And growing supply dramatically into sub $3 prices, with less than 200 gas-directed rigs (and less than 800 oil directed rigs).

    UT, Art Berman, Mason Inman, David Hughes, etc. etc. have all gotten spanked hard by shale gas, which is rather widespread, cheap, and has high amounts of resources. Facts trump beliefs--this is not religion class. And I can stack actual production results in shale gas versus negative peaker comments all day long.

    ReplyDelete

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