General Question

Hobbes's avatar

Why can't we provide everyone on the planet with air, water, food, shelter, and medicine?

Asked by Hobbes (7355points) February 26th, 2011

I’ve asked similar questions before, but it still seems incredible to me that we can’t organize ourselves even to this degree. The first two don’t even need to be produced, we just need to stop poisoning them. Moreover, if everyone had free access to all these things, what would be left to fight about?

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57 Answers

kenmc's avatar

Because there are people that want more than that.

The_Idler's avatar

We can, but then the world would not be based on inequality.

And in that case, the elite establishment would have no purpose or meaning. The whole power-structure that defines their wealth, power, position is based on inequality and scarcity.

If you hadn’t already guessed, the elite establishment doesn’t want this, and if you hadn’t already guessed, they’re the ones running the show…

Ladymia69's avatar

@The_Idler I will have to correct you on that last one – they are under the illusion that they run the show.

Hobbes's avatar

What more could you want, besides love? Perhaps music, stories and games to pass the time? What else could you possess that would truly improve your life in any way?

I think the ultimate tragedy is that the elites will come to the ends of their lives and realize that all their money, everything they’ve caused so much pain to acquire, means nothing in the face of death.

Axemusica's avatar

I’ll be needing Sex & Music added to that list please and thank you.

dreamer31's avatar

This is an incredible notion and sounds like a perfect world but where would that leave the money/power hungry? I don’t see how they would be able to stand the thought of equality and would find something else to monopolize, to quench their insatiable desire to be “better” and “above” something/one.

@Hobbes this scenario would awesome in a perfect world wish it was

Hobbes's avatar

Do you think, assuming that such a world could exist, war would cease?

ththththth's avatar

It can be done! Where would that leave us? Who cares?! ... Let’s try it and see!!! Change always causes good, bad and the unexpected. But unless we try change then we stay stagnate like algae growing in a pond

Hobbes's avatar

As I said, all we have to produce is food and shelter. We just have to stop poisoning the air and the water and the soil, and killing all the animals, and cutting down all the trees.

Hobbes's avatar

Are human beings all insane? Is that the answer? Why else would we destroy ourselves like this?

Axemusica's avatar


That’s all I’m going to say about that.

nikipedia's avatar

To answer your last quip, I think it mostly has to do with a lack of closer temporal pairing between cause and effect. If I eat a cheeseburger or drive my car or buy a plastic bottle right now, I am unlikely to see any of the dire environmental consequences those decisions made for decades.

Hobbes's avatar

Because the consequences have been exported, and obscured. How can we wake people up to the connections? Perhaps art really is our only chance.

flutherother's avatar

With our technological resources it should be very easy, but with our population trends it becomes impossible. For example it took the entire history of mankind up to the year 1800 for the population to reach 1 billion. It will take just 12 years from today to add a further billion to the population. Where are these people going to live? Where will they get their water? How can they be fed? The Earth’s resources are finite.

LostInParadise's avatar

How much would you be willing to sacrifice to provide the world with fresh air and water? It is nice to blame the elite, but as citizens of industrialized nations we are part of the elite. Would you be wiling to drive less and use less heat and air conditioning?

optimisticpessimist's avatar

If provided air, water, food, shelter and medicine, why bother to contribute anything to society?

The_Idler's avatar

@optimisticpessimist for personal satisfaction and to further the collective consciousness of humanity.

Oh, you mean “why would anyone go and do a soul-crushing, mind-numbing repetitive job serving the establishment”!?

Well they wouldn’t. The only reason anyone would is because they have to, because the carefully engineered socio-economic structure of society forces them to.

And without that necessity, the establishment loses the basis of their power and effectively ceases to exist, leaving people to truly contribute to society, in forms which satisfy them, such as the arts or experimentation or exploration.

If you’re thinking of all the people that just get in from work and zombify in front of their TV all evening, before going to bed, don’t you reckon the state of their consciousness might have something to do with the nature of their work?

optimisticpessimist's avatar

@The_Idler Well, this presumes the overwhelming mass majority of people are altruistic. I assume farmers do not labor in the fields for long hot hours because they enjoy it. I assume they do it for food and to have something left over to trade (in the form of money currently) for other things they need.

I may enjoy painting pictures; however, it does not ensure I am good enough at it that others would find it in anyway a meaningful contribution to “the collective consciousness of humanity.” If provided with all the basic necessities, I would want to only do what makes me happy (or feel good). This may or may not include things which contribute to society in general depending upon where my interests lie.

Who would do all the hard work so others could pursue their passions? The food, shelter, medicine, and clean air and water have to come from somewhere. Are there enough people whose passions are to build, grow, heal and decontaminate to support all of the people whose passions lie elsewhere? It would be awesome if everyone were that altruistic and socially focused, but I have my doubts.

Hobbes's avatar


That’s something I really am worried about. I’m not sure though whether our population is absolutely unsustainable, or whether it is only so because of the environmental damage we’re causing. I do believe there are ways to produce food and shelter sustainably, possibly even for a population of billions.


I am a member of an Industrialized Nation, and a white, educated, upper-middle class one at that. I try to detach myself from the system as much as possible. I don’t own a car and don’t ever intend to. I try to live as simply as I can and to cut down on energy consumption as much as possible. I intend to study sustainable agriculture and hunting so that I can produce some or all of my own food. There’s only so much I can do because I am, like everyone I know, entrenched in this system, and at the end of the day me taking shorter showers won’t do much, but I’ll do what I can.


“If provided with all the basic necessities, I would want to only do what makes me happy (or feel good).”

Is there something wrong with this? What is there that needs to be “contributed to society” beyond the necessities? Society isn’t a thing that increases or improves over time, and I don’t think people should feel obligated to “add” to it beyond making sure that everyone can live so as to do whatever else they wish.

I don’t know exactly how the work of producing food and shelter and medicine and cleaning the air and water would be organized. I think if it could work, it would probably involve us abandoning cities, since they require the mass importation of goods. I think food would have to be produced locally, using polycropping and permaculture techniques. Maybe the only fair way to do it would involve everyone working at one of those things, and it seems to me that if everyone contributed a bit, no-one would have to work very hard.

The organization that seems to have worked for a very long time is the hunter-gatherer model. People lived in small groups and all contributed to the work of finding food and building shelter. Modern medicine didn’t exist of course, though many groups had quite sophisticated methods for dealing with wounds and illnesses. Air and water weren’t much of a problem. I don’t think we can all go back to being hunter gatherers – there are simply too many of us now for that, and the destruction of the environment has progressed to far. I hope that perhaps a similar model might be used, in which groups of people who know one another all help produce food, shelter etc for that group, and all benefit from it.

I know I’m a terrible idealist. I just can’t help it.

optimisticpessimist's avatar

@Hobbes There is absolutely nothing wrong with being an idealist. Idealists help us to hope and dream for the better. I was called naive when young because I had thought people wanted to do and be the best for the sake of doing and being. (That is my optimism.) I became a realist. I realized most people are not altruistic or follow the “anything worth doing…” model. Most people are caring and loving at least to an extent.

I was thinking the only time this model appeared to have worked was with tribal entities (such as the hunter/gatherers you mentioned). In this model, they depended upon each other for survival, health and well-being. Each giving according to what they could. (Yes, I know this is over simplified.) This worked because they had a vested interest in helping each other. I think taking this global is a little bit of a stretch.

Hobbes's avatar


“I think taking this global is a little bit of a stretch.”

You’re probably right, but what other options are there? Humans haven’t fundamentally changed since then, why couldn’t we do it again, or something similar? I can’t think of any other system that wouldn’t eventually collapse.

flutherother's avatar

@Hobbes How many people the Earth can sustain depends on the life style they expect. The present population of the Earth is too many for a western lifestyle because of the intensive use of resources and consequent environmental damage therefore we should begin to examine ways of reducing population now.

optimisticpessimist's avatar

@Hobbes Did you watch the short-lived TV series Jericho? Or read the Emberverse series by S. M. Stirling? These kind of go into the going back to tribal type lifestyle through a catastrophic event. I realize this is not what you are talking about. You are contemplating heading into the lifestyle globally rather than starting over, but both are interesting in seeing how people who are used to having everything deal with starting over from scratch.

mattbrowne's avatar

We’re getting there.

Prosperity keeps spreading. Worldwide on average we are better off than 20 years ago, much better off than 50 years ago and significantly better off than 200 years ago. Life expectancy, wealth, literacy rates, access to medicine, food supply, safety, social freedoms, and the general state of the environment are improving. Imagine the choice of food a king in the year 1650 had compared to us today. Our grocery stores are no match for even what the richest people at the time could get. And they had to use really smelly toilets. Compared to them we are all kings today. King of kings. Switch of a button. And there was light. Turn a faucet. And there was clean water. Hit another button. And there was music performed by an orchestra. News from Europe or America. Ah, two mouse clicks.

The media focus on bad news for two reasons:

- prosperity is so commonplace and therefore not worth mentioning
– prosperity of the media themselves heavily depends on selling bad news

We need to continue using our creativity to deal with the challenges ahead. We can’t afford to just have fun. New ideas and innovation are key, especially to deal with the energy and resource problem. But collective intelligence will find solutions.

Hobbes's avatar

Medical technology, and the increased life expectancy it has given us is probably the most unarguable benefit of modern civilization. However, wealth is still extremely concentrated in the hands of a tiny minority, food recently became much more expensive. As for safety, armed conflicts and genocides still happen all the time, as do catastrophic natural disasters. Plus, the whole world could still be destroyed by various weapons of mass destruction. I would also argue that the general state of the environment is degrading rapidly, not improving.

Today’s elites are even more surrounded by luxury than those of 1650, but I don’t think that’s an accurate measure of the true state of the world.

mattbrowne's avatar

@Hobbes – People had to work longer for the same food 20 years ago, 50 years ago or 200 years ago. Yes, there are temporary spikes and the speculation by banks about future food prices makes the problem worse and biofuel production in developing countries is a problem too. But this doesn’t change the fact that the average of all 6.7 people are much better off today than 20 years ago, 50 years ago or 200 years ago. You need to check hard data and not draw conclusions from highly selective bad news stories conveyed by our media. The same applies to safety. More people were affected by armed conflicts and genocides in the past. More people were affected by catastrophic natural disasters in the past. Had the 2004 tsunami happened 50 years ago at least 2 million people would have been killed instead of the 230,000. Imagine the progress the world community’s rescue forces have made.

Yes, people still get killed. Mass destruction is still possible. Climate change creates huge problems. But this should not make us blind when it comes to acknowledging hard data that clearly show all the improvements I mentioned. Fostering and promoting baseless negative views just tells our kids that everything is more or less hopeless. It demotivates them and they won’t make the extra effort to learn math and science and engineering.

Hobbes's avatar

Could you point me to some of that hard data?

I don’t think my views are baseless, but I also don’t think that things are hopeless. I think things are pretty grim, and I don’t think the answer lies in more technology. I think it lies in re-examining the cultural assumptions that have led to us destroying the support systems which underlie our existence.

Some people have to work fewer hours for the same food, but many people are still barely scraping by through indentured servitude to multinational companies, and many in “developed” countries are working 60 hour weeks at mind-numbing jobs to pay off debt they accrued paying for crap sold to them by a relentlessly consumerist society. Working conditions are certainly better in this country than they were 200 years ago, but what about 10,000 years ago? There’s a great deal of evidence that hunter-gatherers only had to do a relatively small amount of “work” to supply themselves with the necessities I listed in the first post.

I think we’re facing more than a “temporary spike”. Considering in particular the fact that the average farmer uses 10 calories of fuel to produce 1 calorie of food. Oil not only powers and makes the machines we use to harvest crops, it is used to make pesticides, to package food, to make and power the vehicles we use to transport it, to power the stores its sold in and the cars that drive there. When the price of oil starts to climb, as it inevitably will, the spike will just keep getting taller and taller. Add to that the effects of climate change, the depletion and erosion of soil, and the enormous water requirements at a time of increasing fresh water scarcity, and you have a food crisis of massive proportions. That’s not even mentioning the possibility of our pollinators all going extinct.

mattbrowne's avatar

There are many examples. I’ll first use a UK example from Matt Ridley: “If you sat and read a book by the light of an 18-watt compact fluorescent light bulb and you read by that light for an hour, you would consume 18 watt hours of electricity. If you’re on the minimum average wage (£479 a week) and pay the average tariff for your electricity (9p per kWh), that hour will have cost you about a quarter of a second of labour – a little more if you include the cost of the bulb. To get the same amount of light with a conventional filament lamp in 1950 and the then average wage, you’d have needed to work for eight seconds. Using a kerosene lamp in the 1880s, you’d have needed to work for 15 minutes; a tallow candle in the 1800s, more than six hours. From a quarter of a day to a quarter of a second is an 86,400-fold improvement.”

More people in developed countries were working 60 hour weeks at mind-numbing jobs 50 or 100 years ago than today. Again, I’m not saying further improvements are not necessary. We need to become more energy efficient and we need better ways to replace crude oil. For example by cultivating saltwater micro algae. Increasing fresh water scarcity is a huge issue too, but many of the technologies are already available such as gray water use or use of desalinated non-drinking water. But challenges do not contradict the overall positive prosperity trend.

Here’s another example: “In 1958 only 36% of all Americans had air conditioning. Today 79% of Americans below the poverty line have air conditioning.”

In my opinion it’s great to have Greenpeace and WWF and

Shrill warnings are absolutely necessarily. We cannot afford to overlook anything that significantly matters to our future.

But we have to make sure people do not get the impression that all in all the worldwide trend is negative and we are doomed anyway. That a food crisis of massive proportions is almost inevitable or that our pollinators will most likely go extinct.

Our communication should be solution oriented.

We should not limit ourselves to problem-oriented thinking and problem-oriented communication.

So instead of talking about a food crisis of massive proportions we should talk about concrete measures how to feed 7 billion people in the year 2013 and 8 billion people in the year 2025 and 9 billion people in 2045.

In all of your posts @Hobbes you have not mentioned even one single solution. Sorry, but you just keep adding problems. That’s not enough. That’s predicting doom and nothing else. But people do ask the question: What can I do? What can we as a global community do?

Hobbes's avatar

I’m not sure that access to light is an accurate measure of quality of life, and in any case these advances are based on a system that is fundamentally unsustainable.

You may be right that more people were working these jobs 100 years ago, which I’m not sure of, but again, what about 10,000 years ago?

There are alternative sources of energy, but none that I know of which are efficient enough in terms of energy invested to energy returned to come anywhere close to matching oil. Not only that, but we’ve sunk so much money into oil extraction and distribution systems, and so many products are based on oil that I really can’t see how alternative sources could be a large-scale replacement without enormous investment very soon. But of course Big Oil is dead set against that happening.

Again, I’m not sure that access to air conditioning is a good indicator of quality of life, and again it is based on a system dependent on oil.

The argument in the article you linked essentially seems to be saying that because some environmentalists made predictions of disaster 30 years ago which haven’t come to pass, the current predictions must be wrong. That doesn’t follow, and he doesn’t provide any actual counter-arguments to the problems of peak oil, climate change, species extinction, etc. The world may not have ended thirty years ago, and the American consumerist lifestyle may have been preserved for a little longer, but the situation has worsened considerably since then.

I must say I’m a little offended that you call these warnings “shrill”.

“we have to make sure people do not get the impression that all in all the worldwide trend is negative and we are doomed anyway.”

I don’t think the one follows from the other. There are ways to have a soft landing, but they don’t lie in technological solutions, they lie in reconstructing our culture and our relationship with the world.

mattbrowne's avatar

Access to light is absolutely critical to our quality of life. I’m not just talking about being able to read books. Let’s imagine a power outage that only affects lighting. So all the freezers and air conditioners still work. But otherwise it’s just candles. Would you undergo surgery when you’re surrounded by candle light? Next air conditioners are affected as well including those in all of our nursery homes and it’s 100 F outside. Heat can affect life expectancy for the elderly.

Sorry, about using the word shrill. To me this stands for talking about doom without solutions.

Big Oil can delay but that’s it. Progress is unstoppable.

By the way, here’s a great book that talks about solutions, even strategies to counter Big Oil’s delaying tactics:

The challenges are great, but the potential for solutions is huge !

Give it a try.

And try to inspire other people. Discouragement cannot be the answer.

We can provide everyone on the planet with air, water, food, shelter, and medicine.

Not yet. But in the future. Because of the overall trend.

Gotta go now. Will be back soon.

Hobbes's avatar

Alright, I will accept that access to light and air conditioning are necessary to continue our current way of life. That doesn’t change the fact that these technologies are based on an unsustainable system.

It’s OK. I am proposing solutions though, just not technological/engineering ones.

“Progress” is an idea created by our current culture. It is tied to the idea of infinite growth, which is absurd on a planet with finite resources. It is also entirely possible that Big Oil will delay alternative technology that it becomes impossible to develop it, because the construction of energy extraction/transformation/distribution technologies requires an investment of energy, which at the moment means oil.

Again, I’m not trying to discourage people, or tell people that the situation is hopeless. I just think that solutions lie in changing the way we think, not in continually trying to bend the world to our will.

optimisticpessimist's avatar

@Hobbes It does stem from the way people think, and people’s thinking is changing. I just do not think it is changing at the large and fast pace you would like to see. More people are looking into alternate energy sources and as they become cheaper are willing to incorporate. Take solar power and electric cars as examples. A decade or two ago, a person would have been considered weird to use these. They are now consider smart by most. The USMC is incorporating solar power in Hawaii and has the potential to sell excess power back to the electric company once completed. Small steps, but steps.

Hobbes's avatar

Let’s just hope the ground doesn’t fall out from under us before we realize that we need to start running.

optimisticpessimist's avatar

Most innovations have been perpetuated by catastrophe or war (born of necessity) not of peace. I am not saying this is ideal. I am saying; maybe most of humanity works through this type of motivation. Maybe they need to feel a more pressing need in order to act. When you have two (or more) people of the same qualifications saying polar opposite things, it can be confusing on whom to believe.

mattbrowne's avatar

I agree that we have to use fewer resources to achieve a particular benefit. Here are two energy examples: In 1989 we owned a car in Kansas moving us 12 miles using 1 gallon of fuel. Today in 2011 my Ford Fiesta allows us to move 65 miles using 1 gallon of fuel. More than 20 years ago double-glazed windows were already standard in Germany while most of the UK still relied on single panes. Today we are moving toward triple-glazed windows and the insulation of walls and roofs are far superior. It costs less and less to heat a house in the winter.

What about other resources? Well, the ultimate goal must be cradle-to-crade manufacturing, see

Our global intelligence will get us there. At some point garbage dumps will become obsolete. This will create a sustainable system. Of course we also need to change our way of life, but it will still be a better life than in the past. Sophisticated 3D technology will reduce the need for expensive travel. More and more people will work from home. Cheap intercontinental flights are hard to imagine in the year 2050. Maybe there will be slower airships with complete work environments and conference rooms. Global shipping might rely on wind. Our civilizations will continue to evolve.

But we need people who want to be part of the solution instead of being part of the problem.

So instead of just predicting doom, let’s find answers when people ask the question:

What can we do? What can I do?

Hobbes's avatar

Have you ever heard of Jevon’s Paradox? Oil usage has actually increased greatly despite those improvements.

Cradle to Cradle design sounds really interesting, and I’ll look into it more deeply in a bit. It does sound like a viable alternative, but it would entail the sorts of cultural shifts I’ve been advocating.

“garbage dumps will become obsolete.”

How will garbage dumps become obsolete? People will stop throwing things away? Even if they did, all the trash would still be there.

“Sophisticated 3D technology will reduce the need for expensive travel”

You mean personal vacations? How could 3D Technology actually replace the experience of being in a place? Wouldn’t it only be available to the rich anyway? What about actual transportation of goods?

“But we need people who want to be part of the solution instead of being part of the problem.”

Do you think I’m part of the problem? I am proposing a solution: change the way we think about the planet and our relationship to it.

Hobbes's avatar

You want a solution? Here you are:

We must find a sustainable way to produce and distribute water, food, shelter, and medical care.

We must abandon technologies based on fossil fuels and use clean, renewable energy sources to produce and power necessities.

We must actively repair the damage we have done to the ecosystem and work to sustain a mutually beneficial relationship with it in the future.

We must stabilize and then humanely lower our population through education and widespread availability of birth control.

We must help one another when we are in need.

We must teach one another what we can.

We must turn our attention on science and art and love for their own sake.

mattbrowne's avatar

Yes, @Hobbes, I know about the paradox. Cars require only a quarter of gas than they did in the past, but people cross eight times longer distances, so in absolute terms more fossil fuels are being consumed. Something needs to be done about this, no doubt. It is a problem. So what is the solution? There are plenty. Car pooling, HOV lanes, working from home 1–2 days a week instead of driving to the office every day, using trains running on electricity based on renewable energy sources, modern public transport in our urban regions (the US should learn from Europe here), car sharing i.e. not owning a car (saves resources to produce cars) at all. This list doesn’t end here. My argument with you isn’t about trying to make these problems sound harmless. It’s about restricting oneself to negativity overlooking the potential of collective intelligence. Kids have begun to admonish their parents and other more careless kids, when the environment is being harmed. That is a very good sign!

The ultimate vision of cradle to cradle is about getting rid of landfills altogether. Everything is being reused. The existing trash won’t go away, but the increase is slowing down and at some point becomes zero.

I expect 3-D technology to be very cheap in 2025. A lot of business travel won’t be necessary anymore. People will still hike in the mountains and enjoy beautiful beaches. But flying 1000 miles to spend the weekend in Majorca or Cayman Island only works with cheap and fast air travel which seems unlikely in 2030. Retired people with plenty of time who like to travel might take slow helium-based airships carried by the jet stream. No kerosene needed.

Yes, you are part of the solution by combining discussions about problems showing people a way out. If people get the impression that it’s too late anyway and everything is headed for doom, they won’t stop harming the planet.

I love your “We must” list and I totally support it !

Hobbes's avatar

“Car pooling, HOV lanes, working from home 1–2 days a week instead of driving to the office every day, using trains running on electricity based on renewable energy sources, modern public transport in our urban regions (the US should learn from Europe here), car sharing i.e. not owning a car (saves resources to produce cars) at all.”

These all help of course, and we need everything we can get, but I remain unconvinced that even all of these changes (some of which, like a public transit system, take energy to implement) will make much of a dent in the overall problem. The thing is it’s not just cars – it’s everything.

“The ultimate vision of cradle to cradle is about getting rid of landfills altogether. Everything is being reused. The existing trash won’t go away, but the increase is slowing down and at some point becomes zero.”

It would be wonderful if there were no more landfills, but without Cradle to Cradle design being implemented on a massive scale, I don’t see that happening. How do you know that the increase of trash is slowing down? As far as I know, it’s accelerating.

“I expect 3-D technology to be very cheap in 2025.”

Where exactly would the energy to produce and distribute such technology come from?

I agree that a “we’re all doomed so who cares” outlook is very counter-productive. I don’t think a collapse scenario is inevitable, but I do think it is a possible outcome. That’s what I’m arguing for, the very real possibility of an enormous but preventable catastrophe.

The_Idler's avatar

“That’s what I’m arguing for, the very real possibility of an enormous but preventable catastrophe.”

I’m pretty convinced that there is a significant possibility of this happening within my life-time (me being 20), in the context you describe. That is why I have chosen to study Chemistry, rather than Business or Finance or Economics or some other pseudo-science.

Whilst those might make people lots of money, when society collapses those useless bankers will be the ones carrying rocks (to construct a megalithic monument to my terrible greatness), because all they ever learned in life was how to shuffle bits of paper around to milk a vast and powerful, but ultimately utterly contrived, machine of wealth generation.

When all that goes out the window, I’ll have the skills to create all sorts of useful things (including drugs, which will be in much higher demand than those little pieces of paper with the Queen’s head on, for sure) and those bankers and such will mostly be pretty useless and can be gotten rid of, or put to some real work… (though, I do say, the first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers…)

So, y’all know who to call… I’m also a pretty good shot, but I don’t have a gun, so if you have a spare, perhaps you might like to trade it for some medicine or soap?

mattbrowne's avatar

There are plenty of good ideas, not just for cars. Zero-energy buildings are a reality already. Of course it will take many decades for them to become widespread.

I meant the increase of trash will slow down. Because mining will become more and more difficult and the price for metals and other resources will increase dramatically. Reusing them will become more and more attractive.

We will be able to run a lot of 3-D servers cutting global travel by half. Future data centers should be built in colder areas of our countries with access to natural cooling (e.g. melting snow). Most of the electricity in use in large data centers right now isn’t for CPUs and hard drives, but keeping them cool.

Creative chemistry will help us solve the problems. We need a few bankers, but right now we got far too many. Implementing Desertec in the Sahara will require investment banks, but right now we got far too many. Same goes for lawyers and a lot of other professions.

Hobbes's avatar

“Of course it will take many decades for them to become widespread.”

This is a big part of the problem. So much depends on when the Oil Peak occurs and how steep the decline is. If it’s already happened and the decline is sharp, there just won’t be time to make such a conversion.

Also, the fact that many of these ideas are being actively resisted and suppressed by very powerful companies makes the possibility of a timely conversion even more unlikely.

“mining will become more and more difficult and the price for metals and other resources will increase dramatically.”

This doesn’t seem to present any problems to you? Not all things can be recycled, and those which can be do not give a 1:1 return, or even close to it. What happens when recycling just isn’t enough to lower the prices of various resources to the point where they’re affordable?

“We will be able to run a lot of 3-D servers cutting global travel by half.”

Sounds to me like you just pulled that figure out of thin air.

“Most of the electricity in use in large data centers right now isn’t for CPUs and hard drives, but keeping them cool.”

We also use an enormous amount of energy in producing them, in producing the machines which produce them, in mining the materials they’re made from, etc.

Plus, I still don’t get who exactly would use these 3-D computers. Are you saying that a bunch of rich first-world people would rather go somewhere cold to see a 3-D representation of a place rather than actually visit it? Or are you saying people will use it for communication?

mattbrowne's avatar

Of course this presents a problem. And then pressure to come up with new ideas will increase. Before the invention of fertiliser people were worried about the growing population as well.

Well, your disagreement seems to be pulled out of thin air too. I wonder whether you are restricting yourself to reading problem and doom books. How about challenging your assumptions?

Here’s another valuable solution book:

These world-class scientists are not talking about cutting things by half. They go far beyond.

I’m not talking about rich people. I’m talking about business people getting the impression of sitting in the same conference room.

Hobbes's avatar

The question is whether this pressure will become effective soon enough. It takes a lot of time to implement any solution on this scale, and if things start falling apart before a transition can be made, we will be in serious trouble. This is why I believe we have to act now instead of trusting “market forces”.

From Time magazine:

“Ammonia from crude oil is a key ingredient in fertilizers”. Therefore when Oil starts getting more expensive, so will fertilizer. How else will we produce food in quantities large enough to feed the world? Especially since most industrially farmed soil is essentially dead, a sort of sponge which relies almost entirely on synthetic fertilizers.

To be honest, I’m somewhat new to these ideas, so I haven’t had a chance to read extremely deeply. The reason I’ve been starting debates on this topic is so that I can challenge these ideas and see whether they hold up under scrutiny. I’ve also read various anti-peak oil blogs, articles etc, and none of them have yet convinced me that a catastrophe is not a possibility.

“I’m not talking about rich people. I’m talking about business people”

Is there a difference?

“getting the impression of sitting in the same conference room.”

How is this different from conference calling or (more recently) Skype? Even if this were possible, I doubt it wold make a very significant impact on oil usage for transport, since an enormous amount is used for the distribution of goods, and since rich people are still going to want to take vacations.

From the summary of the book you linked:

“For instance, if we fail to respond to Sir Nicolas Stern’s call to meet appropriate stabilisation trajectories for greenhouse gas emissions, and we allow the average temperature of our planets surface to increase by 4–6 degrees Celsius, we will see staggering changes to our environment, including rapidly rising sea level, withering crops, diminishing water reserves, drought, cyclones, floods… allowing this to happen will be the failure of our species, and those that survive will have a deadly legacy.”

This is pretty much what I’m saying. I believe it is possible to make a smooth transition, I’m just pessimistic about humanity’s ability to institute such a change before the problems become immediately apparent, by which time it may be too late.

mattbrowne's avatar

Don’t underestimate the power of the collective brain.

Our argument here is basically about these two views:

1) Humanity as a whole got serious problems and change for the better is too slow
2) Humanity as a whole got serious problems and this is what we need to do

We seem to disagree about the psychology, not the science. Again and again I’ve warned about the serious consequences of climate change here on Fluther. Of course Sir Nicolas Stern is correct. But your quote ends with the words “will have a deadly legacy”. Wrong ending in my opinion.

Hobbes's avatar

Don’t underestimate human greed and shortsightedness either. People still don’t make the changes even after numerous scientists, experts and people like you and I have explained exactly why they’re necessary over and over.

The essential point I’m arguing is that the “deadly legacy” is a real possibility. It is preventable, but the potential for catastrophe does in fact exist. Of course, there are so many variables at play it’s very hard to determine what will happen with any real degree of certainty. Nobody can predict the future. All I’m trying to get you to acknowledge is the possibility that humanity will fail to adapt in time, to some degree or another.

mattbrowne's avatar

I do acknowledge this possibility, but the potential of humanity avoiding this failure is immense.

Hobbes's avatar

I hope so.

mattbrowne's avatar

According to M. Ridley ideas are “having sex with other ideas” from all over the planet with ever-increasing promiscuity. We can’t extrapolate in a linear way from the present state of society. R. Kurzweil calls this the law of accelerating returns. We’ve seen paradigm shifts every decade or so for the past 300 years. It’s reasonable to predict more of these shifts in the near future. Therefore the potential of humanity avoiding failure is immense.

Hobbes's avatar

I agree that “We can’t extrapolate in a linear way from the present state of society”, in that it is not possible to accurately predict the future of Civilization with any certainty. There are just too many unknown variables interacting with one another.

The idea of “paradigm shifts” is a theory, and one which I buy for the most part. But this doesn’t mean that all shifts are positive, or that any upcoming shift will necessarily steer us away from disaster. In fact, a large part of what I’m arguing is that the “infinite growth/free market” paradigm has led us to the current impending disaster.

You also seem to be assuming that the collapse of Civilization would equate to the “failure” of humanity. I think a catastrophic collapse would in many ways be horrific and terrible, but I believe the idea that Civilization continuing to grow equals “success” and that its collapse equals “failure” is a big part of the mentality that got us into this mess.

LostInParadise's avatar

I wonder if there are any historical instances of a society deliberately conserving resources to avoid catastrophe. I know there are cases of societies that collapsed due to depleted resources, like the Mayans.

Hobbes's avatar

This is from a summary of Jared Diamond’s book “Collapse”:

Part Two describes past societies that have collapsed. Diamond uses a “framework” when considering the collapse of a society, consisting of five “sets of factors” that may affect what happens to a society: environmental damage, climate change, hostile neighbors, loss of trading partners, and the society’s own responses to its environmental problems. The societies Diamond describes are:

* The Greenland Norse (climate change, environmental damage, loss of trading partners, irrational reluctance to eat fish, hostile neighbors and most unwillingness to adapt in the face of social collapse)
* Easter Island (a society that collapsed entirely due to environmental damage)
* The Polynesians of Pitcairn Island (environmental damage and loss of trading partners)
* The Anasazi of southwestern North America (environmental damage and climate change)
* The Maya of Central America (environmental damage, climate change, and hostile neighbours)

Finally, Diamond discusses three past success stories:
o The tiny Pacific island of Tikopia
o The agricultural success of central New Guinea
o The Tokugawa-era forest management in Japan.

optimisticpessimist's avatar

@Hobbes Maybe I am not up on the latest info, but I thought they were unsure about why the Azasazi left the region. Last I knew it was speculation with some archaeological evidence which also include new people moving into the area.

Hobbes's avatar

Well, this is the opinion/analysis of Jared Diamond specifically. He’s a well respected historian, but I don’t know if his view is the consensus one.

optimisticpessimist's avatar

Sorry, I have only read about half of the book.

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