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The crucial question

denis's picture

There is a question that will be increasing asked in knowledgeable quarters as the over population, climate change, oil shortage and financial bubble burst hit hard. The question is how independent of the availability of natural goods and services is society by virtue of the advances made through innovativeness in the application of technology. It is easy to see that our modern way of life is so much easier through the know how and technology that transforms these natural goods and services into the forms we utilize. It is now hard to visualize life without electricity to provide a very wide range of necessary and luxuriant services. The fuel for transportation is now regarded as an essential element of every day life in most regions of the globe.

It would be possible for these inquisitive people to estimate the relative contribution of natural resources and human know how using technology to the worth of the goods and services provided. For example, appreciable raw materials and energy was used in the construction of the Sydney Harbour Bridge and in its subsequent operation and maintenance over the past seventy years. These processes entailed a very ineffective usage of the natural resources in the construction and operation because they resulted in the production of appreciable waste heat and waste materials. For example, they made a very small contribution to greenhouse gas emissions, so to the irreversible global warming that is under way. This means that the material value of the Bridge is appreciably less than the eco cost. Also, its material value will continue to irreversibly decline due to wear and tear and the influence of weathering. At the same time, the aggregated eco cost will be irreversibly increasing due to the necessary maintenance and operation. That is, the effectiveness of the Bridge will be continually decreasing until, eventually, it will be zero when the Bridge is no more.

Its worth to the Sydney community has been clearly much greater than the ecological cost entailed in its construction, operation and maintenance. Human cleverness has enabled an appreciable profit on this ineffective ecological expenditure using technology. It is common to use the term ‘mechanical advantage’ in those situations where a lever can enable an operation. It would seem appropriate to use the term ‘value advantage (VA)’ for the type of situation we are examining here. Suppose such estimation for the Bridge yielded a VA of 15 to date. It would be possible to carry this estimation into the future with the continuing worth of the service it provides being only partially offset by the continuing eco cost of servicing it. It is quite likely that the projected VA would continue to increase because of its increasing contribution to the movement of people and goods. However, some problems could well arise that evoke an appreciable additional eco cost that would temporarily reduce VA. Eventually, the VA will be zero when the Bridge is demolished.

To sum up, the temporary usefulness of the Bridge to the community comes about by the inherently irreversible and ineffective use of natural resources being more than offset by human know how combined with technology. The draw down of the natural bounty capital, however, is irrevocable and continuing.

The same ecological accounting principle could be applied to, say, the Australian economy. Its development has come at an appreciable eco cost. It has used up an appreciable proportion of its limited oil bounty. Usage of its coal resources has made a major contribution to the supply of electricity but also to global warming. It has drawn down a substantial amount of water from the Great Artesian Basin. It has used farming practices that have eroded soil fertility and increased salinity problems over a high proportion of its very limited arable land whilst eliminating much of the natural bio systems. This is in addition to covering over arable land with housing developments. Water has been appropriated for use in the cities at the expense of ecological flows in the few rivers this country has. Logging has further degraded natural water flows as well as devastating bio diversity. Many indigenous species have become extinct in recent times as a consequence of humans taking over the operation of much of the eco system. Ground water has been polluted by chemical industries, artificial agriculture and sewerage. Housing developments have affected natural storm buffering capabilities.

These eco costs have been entailed in building the trappings of civilization. A number of cities house and provide employment, cultural activities, operating services and recreation for most of the twenty million people. Roads, rail, airports and seaports help to ease the tyranny of distance in the sparsely populated countryside though encouraging the tyranny pf congestion in the cities. Vulnerable water works enable irrigation to assist food production, supply potable water to the cities and even help to generate the electricity that powers many of these operations. Australia has enjoyed a number of advantages in building up these trappings. These include having a vast store of mineral resources, including coal, iron ore and uranium. Consequently, the current VA is probably about 6 and would be higher if there had been less dependence on using coal for power generation and more attention had been paid to building up public transport in the cities. Again, the ineffectiveness of using the natural bounty has been more than offset by human know how and its technology in installing value, despite the ineffectiveness of the methods for using this bounty.

Australia is starting to suffer the consequences of climate change brought on by the malfeasances of the industrial giants. They add to the problems stemming from the cancerous growth of the cities. Traffic congestion and ineffective public transport are contributing to a loss of value in living in a city. Water supply problems are affecting biodiversity, food production and posing problems regarding supply to the cities. Tackling these developing problems will involve eco costs even as the value of this component of civilization declines. That is, the VA is most likely to have started to decline rather than continuing to increase. The adjustment to the transportation systems to cope with the consequences of the reduction in road and air transport brought on by high fuel prices is another factor that will contribute to a decreasing VA.

There is good reason to believe the VA of the Australian civilization has peaked and the populace will have to adapt to a powering down. Governments at local, state and federal levels will have to introduce additional remedial items into their budgets in an attempt to maintain the goods and services required for the effective operation of their communities. They will have to raise additional taxes to balance their budgets. As a consequence, the community will have to adjust to a lower standard of living as the higher taxes combine with the higher costs of many of the basic needs, like food and water. The coming generations will have to pay for the free lunches of the present and previous ones.

There will doubtless be plenty of moaning about the lack of foresight in the development of this civilization, including the problems created by the dependence on cheap oil and the encouragement of population growth. The emerging dismal view of the future in Australia will not be alleviated by the fact that the situation is much worse in most other countries. There will doubtless be many in positions of authority who will down play the decline and portray a brighter future for the up coming generation with technology being the supposed savior.

This again brings up the question of the correlation of the capabilities of civilization with the eco cost entailed. The VA seems to provide a realistic measure – or does it? The answer has to be a resounding no. It is a common view of the situation but it is a delusion because it is based on the false premise that the eco cost entailed can always be met. It presumes the required natural goods and services will always be available. Common sense says that presumption is ridiculous yet that fallacious thinking under pins the operation of society. It is questionable as to which shortages of the natural resources will have the greatest impact and when. Oil could well top the list in the developed countries but concerns about the availability of water are arising in many regions. And global food supply is falling short of demand. It is clear, in aggregate, that the globally available natural bounty capital is depleted. The barrel is nearing empty so the capability of meeting the increasing demands of civilization is declining, as is the value of civilization.

Returning to the Sydney Harbour Bridge example can indicate the fallaciousness of the current view of the economy. The current VA is estimated to be 15. Governance doubtless has included an ongoing budgetary item for its operation and maintenance. It may also have given consideration to its eventual replacement as it is seventy years old and there will be signs of aging despite the rigorous maintenance. That is, there is the implicit presumption of something like business as usual. That there will be continuing progress in using up natural goods and services even as many of them become really scarce. Australia has vast amounts of iron ore so supplies of this for making steel may not become a problem. But steel making and forming uses up a lot of energy and this could be very scarce. The bureaucrats may well then be in a quandary. Does the steel for the replacement bridge have priority over the steel for rail lines or for replacement ships? Does the power for producing the steel have priority over the power for houses in the suburbs? Finances will have little influence on these basic logistics questions. Money loses its power when realities have to be faced, as it cannot create these declining natural resources.

To sum up, society is very adept at using its knowledge and technology in building up the edifice of civilization but it ignores the fact that this is achieved by irreversibly drawing down on the limited natural bounty capital. It has operated without recognizing one of the most fundamental natural laws, the Dependence on Nature Law. It will not remain ignorant of this reality for much longer as it tries to cope with problems like over population, climate change and declining food, water and oil supply with fewer available natural resources. Technology may, if wisely applied, make good use of the remaining capital as society powers down to essentially live on natural bounty income, as their forebears did before the Industrial Revolution set in train the transient unsustainable gluttony period.

Civilization now has to face up to the depreciation of natural bounty capital. Depleting oil supply is only one, albeit quite apparent even to the powerful, component in a complex mix of the declining capital. The loss of fertile soil will hit the headlines when food becomes scarce for many. The senescence of civilization will need wise treatment to ease the pain of making do with less.

Denis Frith
denisaf2000@yahoo.com.au

‘What went wrong? The misdirection of civilization.’
http://users.bigpond.net.au/jaymz/download/Gaia_and_Us-Denis_Frith-jun07.doc

‘The Usufruct Delusion’
http://candobetter.org/node/204

‘The Dependence on Nature Law’
http://candobetter.org/StarkReality

‘The Immutable Duality’
http://candobetter.org/node/238

‘Unsustainability of civilization’
http://candobetter.org/node/279

‘Industrial civilization Pandora's box’
http://candobetter.org/node/280

‘simple science’
http://candobetter.org/node/285