Reporting: Synthesis

Exercise 36

Read the articles below and, in a paragraph of not more than 250 words, discuss the problems and solutions for the future.

Text 1

Alternative Futures

In human affairs, the logical future, determined by past and present
conditions, is less important than the willed future, which is largely
brought about by deliberate choices — made by the human free will.
René Dubos (1901-82)

Where is development leading us? What can we say about the future? Probably the wisest thing we can say is that the future is essentially unknowable; it cannot be predicted. If this is so - and the dismal record of past predictions leads us to believe it is - then we might ask, "Does it make any sense to think about the future at all?" I would answer, "Yes, it does." Although the complexity of life and natural and spiritual forces make the future unknowable, human actions can make one future more likely than another. It is this ability to influence the future that concerns us in this chapter.

If we can accurately recognize some of the major trends and currents in the past and the present, we can make an educated guess about where we are heading. And if we do not like the direction in which the world is heading, we can examine our individual behaviours and governmental policies to determine if they should be changed so that they contribute to a more desired future. As an old Chinese proverb states, if you do not change the direction in which you are headed, you will end up where you are headed.

René Dubos, the late well-known bacteriologist, coined the phrase, "Think globally, act locally." This is the way, according to Dubos, that an individual can help bring about a desirable future. Dubos no doubt realized that the great benefit of local action is that not only does it help solve problems but it helps the individual's spirit grow. It also effectively combats the sense of powerlessness and depression that can come by "thinking globally," by becoming aware of the immense and serious problems the world faces.

Of the many possible futures the human race faces on earth, three look most likely at present: doom, growth, and sustainable development. Some catastrophe might lead to the death of hundreds of millions of people; economic growth might continue into the future; or the world might achieve development that can continue indefinitely because it does not undermine the environment and resource base upon which it rests. There could, of course, be a combination of two of these or of all three. For example, one part of the world might experience a harsher life in the future while another part continues to expand economically. Or part of the world could reach sustainable development while another part continues to grow. Or even within one country, two or all three scenarios might exist at different times in the future: a period of growth could be followed by a catastrophe that is followed by sustainable development.

Doom

There are a number of writings today warning that if humankind does not change its ways some kind of disaster will occur in the future. The implicit or explicit purpose of most of these authors is to help prevent the expected disaster by suggesting changes in human behaviour or policies. Thus these works are not really predictions of what the future will be like, but rather what it could be like if present trends continue. The most frequently discussed disasters are those caused by nuclear weapons, food shortages, pollution, overpopulation and overconsumption, the depletion of non-renewable resources, and cosmic collisions.

Nuclear weapons

Jonathan Schell (1982) argues that the nation-state system, with its competition among big nations armed with nuclear weapons and with the proliferation of nuclear weapons to developing nations, is leading the world to a nuclear war. Schell argues that such a war could bring about the extinction of human life on our planet.

Pollution, famines, overpopulation, resource depletion

Since the early 1960s, several widely publicized books have been written that forecast some sort of disaster coming because of industrial pollution, scarcity of food, overpopulation, or depletion of non-renewable resources. One of the first was Rachel Carson's (1962) Silent Spring, which predicted premature death to humans and other animals because of the growing use of pesticides and other chemicals.

Similarly, Paul Ehrlich (1971) spelled out the threat of overpopulation. He argued that during the 1970s and 1980s hundreds of millions of people would starve to death in spite of any programs embarked upon and that no changes in behaviour or technology could save us unless we achieve control over the size of the human population.

The Limits to Growth (Meadows, Meadows, Randers & Behrens, 1970) was a report by the Club of Rome, a private group concerned with world problems. The report was based on a computer analysis of the world's condition by a research team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The book emphasized that the earth is finite and that there are definite limits to its arable land, non-renewable resources, and ability to absorb pollution. The study concluded if the present growth trends in world population, industrialization, pollution, food production, and resource depletion continue unchanged, the limits to growth on this planet will be reached sometime within the next 100 years.

Growth

Julian Simon, professor of business administration at the University of Maryland, was one of the main spokespersons for the second position on the future, that economic growth will and should continue indefinitely into the future.

Simon argued (1981) that natural resources are not finite in any real economic sense. When there is a temporary scarcity of a mineral, prices rise and the increased price stimulates new efforts to find more ore and more efficient methods to process it. The higher price also leads to the search for substitutes that are able to provide the same service as the temporarily scarce mineral and so minerals become less scarce rather than more scarce. There is thus no need to conserve natural resources because of the needs of future generations or of poor nations.

As with natural resources, the long-run future of energy looks very promising according to Simon (1981). In general the trend of the cost of energy has been downward; an hour's work has bought more rather than less electricity. This means that energy has become less scarce rather than more scarce. It is likely that an expanding population will speed the development of cheap energy supplies that are almost inexhaustible.

It is true that the more developed an economy becomes the more pollution it produces, but overall we live in a healthier environment than ever before. The best indicator of the level of pollution, Simon (1981) suggests, is length of life, indicated by the average life expectancy of the population. Life expectancy is rising, not falling, around the world. Furthermore, a rising income in a country often means a greater desire to clean up the pollution and an increased capacity to pay for cleaning it up. This is why the streets of rich countries are cleaner than those in poor countries.

Since World War II, the per capita supply of food in the world has been improving. Famines have become fewer during the past century. The price of wheat has fallen over the long run. The trend toward cheaper grains should continue into the future. Overall, nutrition has been improving and there is no reason why it should not continue to improve into the indefinite future.

Additional children mean costs to the society in the short run, but in the long run these children become producers, producing much more than they consume. For both less-developed and more-developed countries, a moderately growing population is likely to lead to a higher a standard of living in the future than is a stationary or rapidly increasing population.

Past studies of animal behaviour have often been cited as evidence that crowding is unhealthy, both psychologically and socially, for human beings. This is probably true for animals, but not for human beings. Isolation is what harms human beings, not crowding. In fact, a dense population makes necessary and economical an efficient transportation system. Such a system is essential for economic growth. Simon also argues that the most important resource we have on earth is the human mind. The human mind is the source of knowledge. The more human minds we have, the more knowledge we will have to solve the problems we face.

Sustainable Development

A widely accepted definition of sustainable development was given by the World Commission on Environment and Development (1987, p. 56) in its report, Our Common Future: “sustainable development enables current generations to meet their needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."

The term "sustainable development" probably originated with Lester Brown, head of the Worldwatch Institute, a research group established to analyse global problems. In his book, Building a Sustainable Society, which was published in 1981 - the same year Julian Simon's book was published - Brown claimed that present economic growth in the world is undermining the carrying capacity of the earth to support life. The Worldwatch Institute believes that if the world does not achieve sustainable development in about 35 years, environmental deterioration and economic decline will probably be feeding on each other, leading to a downward spiral in the human condition. However, with proper planning, a sustainable planet could exist by 2030.

According to Brown (1981) by 2030 renewable and clean solar energy and geothermal energy could have replaced fossil fuels as the main energy sources for the world. The type of solar energy used would vary according to the climate and natural resources of the region. Northern Europe would be relying heavily on wind power and hydropower. Northern Africa and the Middle East would be using direct sunlight as their main energy source. Japan, Indonesia, Iceland, and the Philippines would be tapping their ample geothermal energy reserves, while Southeast Asia would be using a combination of wood, agricultural wastes, and direct sunlight. Solar thermal plants stretch across the deserts in the United States, North Africa, and central Asia. Most villages in the less-developed world would now receive electricity from photovoltaic solar cells, which are much less expensive than they were in the mid-1990s. Wind power could be common not only in northern Europe but also in central Europe, and vast wind farms exist in the Great Plains of the United States.

By 2030, the efficient use of energy could be widespread. Many of the technologies to achieve high energy efficiency already existed in the mid-1990s. The fuel efficiency of cars will have been doubled from that in the mid-1990s, the energy efficiency of lighting systems will have been tripled, and typical heating requirements have been cut by 75 percent. Refrigerators, air conditioners, water heaters, and clothes dryers could all be highly energy efficient. Improvements in the design of electric motors will have made them highly efficient and easy to maintain. Cogeneration, the combined production of heat and power in the same plant, may be widespread, thus greatly reducing the use of energy by industry.

The transportation of people in 2030 should have undergone major changes from what it was 35 years ago. The typical European and Japanese cities in the mid-1990s had already developed the first stage of the new urban transport system. Fast and efficient rail and bus systems will be used to move the urban population rather than the automobile. In the future when automobiles are used in the cities, they are non-polluting and highly efficient electric or hydrogen-powered city cars. Larger cars are available for rent by families for use on long trips. As in some European cities and in many Asian cities in the mid-1990s, bicycles are widely used, for example, by commuters to reach rail lines that are connected to the city centre.

People live closer to their work in 2030 than they did 35 years ago, thus contributing to the reduced use of energy. The widespread use of computers to shop from one's home has greatly reduced the use of energy. Telecommunications are permitting many people to work from their homes or in satellite offices, thus greatly reducing the need for travel. Employees and supervisors are connected by computers and other telecommunication devices instead of by crowded highways.

The throwaway mentality that was widespread in the mid-1990s has been replaced in 2030 by the recycling mentality. Many countries have a comprehensive system of recycling metal, glass, paper, and other materials, with the consumers separating the material for easy collection. The principal source of materials for industry is recycled goods. Waste reduction is greatly aided by pervasive recycling, but even more by the elimination of waste by industry in the production stage. Waste produced by industry has been cut by at least 30 percent from that produced 35 years ago, as many industries have redesigned their industrial processes. Food packaging has been simplified, thus also reducing much waste. And human wastes, after health procedures have been followed to remove the threat of disease, are used in fish farms and in greenbelts surrounding cities for vegetable growing. This practice was already being followed in the mid-1990s in a number of Asian countries. Many households have also helped reduce wastes by composting their yard wastes.

A shift of employment could have taken place so that losses of jobs in coal mining, auto production, road construction, and metals prospecting have been offset by gains in the manufacturing and sale of solar cells, wind turbines, bicycles, mass transport equipment, and recycling technologies.

The trend toward ever larger cities has been reversed in 2030. Decentralized, low-cost, renewable energy sources have fostered greater local self-reliance and made smaller human settlements more attractive. GNP - the amount of goods and services produced - is no longer accepted as the measure of human progress because it is now seen to undervalue what is needed for a sustainable society. A sustainable society needs qualities such as the durability of products and resource preservation; it does not need waste and planned obsolescence.

20 years in the future, a slow change in people's values could be taking place, so that concern for future generations now has a higher priority than it did earlier. Materialism and consumerism are gradually being replaced by voluntary simplicity, a recognition that personal self-worth cannot be measured by the amount of goods one owns. More efforts are being made to form richer human relationships, and stronger communities, and more emphasis is now placed on music and the arts. As the desire to amass more personal and national wealth has subsided, the gap between the rich and the poor in the world has gradually been reduced. This has led to a reduction in social tensions. There is an expanding recognition in the world of the value of democracy, human rights, diversity, and the freedom to innovate, as these are seen as helping nations achieve sustainability.

References

Brown, L. (1981). Building a sustainable society. New York: Norton.

Carson, R. (1962). Silent spring. New York: Fawcett Books.

Ehrlich, P. R. (1971). The population bomb. New York: Ballantine books.

Meadows, D. H., Meadows, D. L., Randers, J. & Behrens, W. W. (1972). The limits to growth.  London: Pan.

Schell, J. (1982). The fate of the earth. New York: Avon.

Simon, J. (1981). The ultimate resource. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

World Commission on Environment and Development (1987). Our common future. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

(From: John L Seitz, Global Issues, Oxford: Blackwell, 2002, pages 236-247)

Text 2

Energy and Fuels

Access to cheap energy is a linchpin of modern industry and civilisation. Energy, mostly from fossil fuels, allows us to heat homes, and power factories and transportation systems. Worldwide every day, we devour the energy equivalent of about 200 million barrels of oil, but much of this energy comes from coal, gas and nuclear fuel too.

Starting with coal, and then oil and gas in the 1800s, we have plundered our fossil fuel riches to drive development. But now, an energy crisis looms. New oil sources are dwindling, and smothering greenhouse gases threaten the Earth - yet energy demands will rise by 50% to 60% by 2030. We need to rapidly develop sustainable solutions - from hydrogen cells to wind turbines - to fuel our future. Most of the energy on Earth comes from the Sun. In fact enough energy from the Sun hits the planet's surface each minute to cover our needs for an entire year, we just need to find an efficient way to harness it. So far the energy in oil has been cheaper and easier to get at. But as supplies dwindle, this will change, and we will need to cure our addiction to oil.

Thirst for oil

Today petroleum provides around 40% of the world's energy needs, mostly fuelling automobiles. The US uses up a quarter of all oil, and generates a similar proportion of greenhouse gas emissions but the majority of oil comes from the Middle East, which has half of known reserves. Most experts predict we will exhaust easily accessible reserves within 50 years, though opinions and estimates vary. We could fast reach an energy crisis in the next few decades; when demand outstrips supply.

Gas, naturally

Natural gas reserves could plug some of the gap from oil, but reserves of that - some of which are in Russia, the Middle East and the Wadden Sea - will not last into the 22nd century either. We currently use it for around one-third of world electricity generation.

In the next few decades, one way for the UK and others to meet greenhouse gas reduction commitments, could be increased nuclear power generation. Currently, about 440 reactors in 32 countries generate 16% of world electricity. Despite a slow decline of support for nuclear power in the west following the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, many countries, such as the US, Japan and India are now embracing the technology again.

Sustainable alternatives

Less-polluting renewable energy sources offer a more practical long-term energy solution. They may benefit the world's poor too. Hydroelectric power is now the most common form of renewable energy, supplying around 20% of world electricity. In 2003, the first commercial power station to harness tidal currents in the open sea opened in Norway. As prices fall, wind power has become the fastest growing type of electricity generation - quadrupling worldwide between 1999 and 2005. Modern wind farms consist of turbines that generate electricity.

Catching some rays

Using solar power to generate electricity has been considered since Victorian times and clever building designs that use it to regulate temperature have been around for millennia. Today solar power is used in several ways. In thermal solar power, sunlight directly heats water in rooftop panels for household supplies, while sunlight can also be converted to electricity using photovoltaic cells, which use semiconductors to turn photons into electricity.

Driving efficiency

Some argue that the "hydrogen economy" is a distraction from meeting future energy needs and slowing climate change, and that we need to focus on more immediate solutions. Making social change might be more difficult than solving technical problems.

Solutions that could be put in place right now include filtering carbon dioxide out of emissions and burying it in oil seams or under the sea. The US is among 6 nations that have turned their back on the Kyoto protocol to curb climate change and are focusing instead on "clean energy" from fossil fuels. Increasing efficiency in energy production could also yield massive savings, as it did during the oil crises of the 1970s. Methods vary from reducing the friction of trains to lowering speed limits for cars. Producing combined heat and power with small generators at home, makes use of a lot of the energy wasted in power stations, and might one day feed energy back to the grid. Wind and solar power could also be rigged up on a rooftop near you in the future - even the Queen of England is now generating her own power from the River Thames.

(From an article in the New Scientist, September 2006, pages 15-17, written by John Pickrell)

Text 3

Electric Generation

Because of its many economic and environmental benefits, natural gas has become the fuel of choice for electricity generation. In the 1990s, there was a dramatic shift to natural gas for the generation of electricity. Large coal and nuclear generating plants were the choice of electric utility planners in the 1970s and 1980s, but a combination of economic, environmental and technological factors have resulted in a pronounced movement to gas. In fact, virtually all new generating capacity being added today will rely on gas.

Gas-fired combined-cycle technology is the overwhelming choice in these new generating plants. Combined-cycle plants offer extremely high efficiency, clean operation, low capital costs and shorter construction lead times. The efficiency of combined-cycle units is now approaching 60 percent compared with roughly 34 percent efficiency for traditional boiler units - regardless of the fuel source.

Higher efficiency means lower fuel bills and less pollution. For example, replacing a coal generating unit with a gas-fired combined-cycle plant could eliminate sulphur dioxide emissions (the primary cause of acid rain), cut carbon dioxide (the principal greenhouse gas) by as much as two-thirds and cut nitrogen oxides (the primary cause of smog) by as much as 95 percent. Also, not only is the lead time for construction of a combined-cycle unit shorter than that of a new coal-fired plant, but construction can be implemented in a modular fashion. So rather than constructing one large coal or nuclear unit today and hoping that the forecasted demand for electricity will be realized, smaller gas units can be constructed as warranted - without the economic penalties associated with building "small" coal or nuclear plants.

Gas consumption by central-station electricity generating plants will more than double over the next 20 years although the increase may be lower than projected by some forecasters. Gas consumption at central-station electricity generating plants (including electric utility plants and independent power producers) is currently at 3.3 quads (quadrillion Btu) per year. The accelerated projection indicates consumption will more than double by 2020 to 6.7 quads per year. Although this growth is far above historic levels for this sector, the total is somewhat less than the current projection of 7.8 quads and significantly less than the 9.2 quads forecast by the U.S. Energy Information Administration in its 1999 Annual Energy Outlook.

While the accelerated projection includes a very high penetration rate for gas in new generating facilities, capacity additions are somewhat limited. These limitations are due to the assumed life extensions of both nuclear and coal plants, increasing the use of coal and nuclear plants, growth in distributed generation and some construction of new coal plants in the later years of the forecast.

By 2020, the operating licenses of half of all nuclear generating plants will expire, but not all of these plants will be closed. About 100 gigawatts of nuclear generating capacity are operating in the United States today, providing 20 percent of the country's electricity. The operating licenses of many of these plants will expire over the next 15 to 20 years. In fact, if no operating licenses are extended, nuclear generating capacity would be cut in half by 2020. However, as a result of industry restructuring, significant consolidation is occurring within the nuclear industry. This consolidation, combined with environmental pressures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, will likely result in efforts to renew the licenses of many nuclear plants. The accelerated case includes an assumption that two-thirds of the nuclear units scheduled to retire will be granted license extensions.

The role of coal will stay fairly constant, and it will remain the nation's primary source of electricity. Currently, coal provides 56 percent of the electricity generated in the United States, and this percentage remains essentially constant throughout the forecast period for the accelerated scenario. Since electricity consumption will continue to increase and the coal share is stable, coal consumption is forecast to actually increase from the 900 million ton level today to 1.1 billion tons by 2020.

Growth in renewable energy will be robust but not a panacea. Renewable energy such as wind and solar power accounts for approximately 12 percent of the electricity generated today, increasing to nearly 15 percent by 2020 in the accelerated projection. At first glance, this growth appears somewhat modest. However, it must be considered that the lion's share of the renewable mix today is attributable to hydroelectric generation. No new hydro capacity is anticipated in the forecast period due to concerns related to fish habitat. Thus, the non-hydro renewable growth is impressive - more than doubling over the next 20 years.

Electricity generation will begin to shift from central-station facilities to distributed-generation facilities. In the accelerated projection, 20 percent of the new generating capacity added throughout the forecast period is accounted for by distributed generation, providing about 5 percent of all electricity generated in 2020. It should be noted that over the past decade cogeneration, a form of distributed generation that produces both electricity and useful heat, accounted for 25 to 30 percent of the total generating capacity added.

(From the book: Fuelling the future by William F Martin & Scott F Campbell, New York, McGraw Hill, 2007, pages 27-28)

Text 4

Going down in history

Near the end of the year 2001 the world shifted on its axis. Something unprecedented happened to Tuvalu, a small group of nine Pacific islands, home to only 11,000 people. The authorities in Tuvalu publicly conceded defeat to the sea that was rising around them. Global warming was claiming its first national victim. The Government of Tuvalu is in private negotiation with that of New Zealand to agree terms for the progressive migration of Tuvalu’s population.

Tuvalu is paying with its nationhood for the rich world’s experiment with the global atmosphere. It may be a land of ‘no mobile phones, one radio station’ and no regular army but Tuvalu is literally going down in history.

The atmosphere is by definition a global commons – no-one owns it and we all need it. Scientists are agreed that the atmosphere can only absorb so many waste greenhouse gases from human activity before its balance is upset. This means that ideally our total emissions would be fixed at a level that will not disturb the balance. Also, logically, we would all get an equal share of the atmosphere’s ability to soak up our pollution.

If you were to scrape off the portion of rich countries’ income that is based on the unsustainable consumption of fossil fuels it would be worth trillions of dollars – around $13,000 billion a year for the seven richest countries.

But costs and benefits in a warming world are even more unfairly distributed. While countries like the US enjoy the free ride of a cheap-fuel policy, the brunt of climate change is borne by countries least able to cope, like Tuvalu, Bangladesh and Mozambique. The UN already calculates that the extra cost of natural disasters attributable to climate change is running at over $300 billion per year – and the difficulty of costing damage in poor countries means that figure may actually be twice as high.

The complex challenges presented to the international community by global warming and ecological debt are summed up by Eun Jung Cahill Che of the Honolulu-based Pacific Forum. ‘What will become of [Tuvalu’s] territorial waters?’ he says. ‘What are the economic and security implications of disappearing exclusive economic zones? Can there be compensation for the loss of a country, its history, its culture, its way of life? How do you put a price on that? Who will pay it?’

What can be done to claim this ecological debt? If poor countries merely demand cash payments they are likely to get the same response they get when asking for more aid or debt relief. But there is something that could be done which draws on pragmatism, morality and logic.

The legacy of ecological debt can be recognized and dealt with by adopting a forward-looking plan on climate change. Developing countries can argue for a global deal that acknowledges their logical entitlement to an equal share of the global commons of the atmosphere. Instead of the historical expansion of greenhouse-gas emissions and divergence between the world’s rich and poor, there needs to be a plan for both contraction and convergence.

(From: Andrew Sims, New Internationalist, 2002, January/February, pages 20-21)

Text 5

Stealing from the future

Since 1950 global economic output has jumped from $3.8 trillion to $18.9 trillion, a nearly five-fold increase. We have consumed more of the world's natural capital in this brief period than during the entire history of humankind.

It has been estimated that around 4-6 hectares of land are used to maintain the consumption of the average person in the West. But he says the total available productive land in the world is about 1.7 hectares per person. The difference is called 'appropriated carrying capacity' - which basically means the rich are living off the resources of the poor.

The Netherlands, for example, consumes the output of a productive land mass 14 times its size. Most Northern countries and many urban regions in the South already consume more than their fair share; they depend on trade - using someone else's natural assets - or on depleting their own natural capital. Such regions run an unaccounted ecological deficit - their population either appropriating carrying capacity from elsewhere or from future generations.

Faith in economic growth as the ultimate hope for human progress is widespread. A central tenet of economists on the Left and Right has been that the carrying capacity of the Earth is infinitely expandable. The belief is that a combination of ingenuity and technology will eventually allow us all to live like middle-class Americans - if only we can only ignore the naysayers and keep the economy growing.

Unfortunately, reality shows otherwise. There is every indication that human economic activity supported by perverse trade and growth policies is well on the way to perturbing our natural environment more and faster than any known event in planetary history, save perhaps the large asteroid collision that may have killed off the dinosaurs. We may well be on the way to our own extinction.

Globalisation is accelerating the process of global environmental decline. Export-led growth and Third World debt have combined to speed up the rapid consumption of the Earth's irreplaceable natural resources. Some environmentalists argue that primary resources (nature's goods and services) are too cheap and that their price does not reflect either their finite nature or the hidden social and ecological costs of extraction. To conserve resources we have to make them more expensive. There is some truth to this, especially since world-market prices for raw materials - commodities like timber, sugar, coffee, copper and, until recently, oil - have never been lower.

Prices plummeted during the Asian financial crisis. But debt in the South, the source of many of the world's commodities, has also kept prices low. Adjustment policies imposed by the IMF/World Bank as the price of admission to the global trading community mean that poor countries are obliged to service their debts before they are allowed to do anything else. Their only option is to expand raw material exports to world markets.

And therein lies the problem. Because all poor countries have to increase their exports at once, there is a glut and prices fall - sometimes by half. So that twice as much has to he exported to earn the same amount of foreign currency. The beneficiaries are the rich countries and Western-based corporations. They not only get their debts serviced, but cheap commodities keep prices down, profits up and inflation under control in the North. The losers are the people of the South - and the global environment.

(From: The no-nonsense guide to globalisation by Wayne Elwood, published by Verso in London, 2001, p93).

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