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Earth is Not a Closed System

Deconsumption Nazis, shrill advocates of "peak-oil" induced collapse, and "die-off maniacs" have missed the point. So have the so-called "cornucopians." No rational person would assert that earth’s resources are unlimited. But humans today are limited by our concepts and approaches as to what constitutes an effective solution to a problem. Most governments have chosen oil subsidies as their solution to almost everything. This has led to ever increasing technological efforts to extract more energy, faster. We are quickly approaching the limits to this type of growth. Oil production will peak sometime between now and 2014, depending on whose estimates you believe. World production will then begin an inexorable decline, much as U.S. production has declined since 1971.

But the surface of the earth is not a closed system, so Malthusian arguments about the Second Law of Thermodynamics do not apply. The earth receives constant massive input from the Sun, which for any human purpose, is virtually unlimited. There is also a large amount of heat energy in the form of radioactive decay within the earth, which is again for all intents and purposes unlimited. Ocean temperature differentials, wind power, etc., etc., but they are all derivative of solar energy.

If we look at the energy problem as simply a resource problem, then we will miss any number of possible solutions. In so doing, we rhetorically condemn a large portion of the human population to death. Without oil for transport, so the argument goes, and fertilizer for crops, the earth can only support 1.5 billion people or so.

I’ll place my bets along with Alex Steffen at World Changing, with his fantastic essay "Winning the Great Wager." The stakes are high, indeed, and we only have one chance to do it right. Human creativity is up to the challenge. In fact, it is the only hope.

If we have nothing but a downscaled existence and billions of deaths to look forward to for the future, why care about anything? Why not just get it over with?

Fortunately most people will spend their time working on solutions rather than engaging in hand wringing. What the more shrill and deluded of peak-oilers so snidely deride as the "techno-fix" will, in fact, save humanity.


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