Posted on 08 April 2009.
Published in 1968 “The Population Bomb” became an enormously influential book, postulating, among other things, that humanity’s population growth, at current rates of expansion, would within perilously few centuries become a spherical ball of human flesh expanding at the speed of light in all directions into the universe. Like other such doomsday tracts, the Population Bomb extrapolated select demographic trends into the future, and predicted catastrophic shortages – land, food, energy, water, even the air itself.
Now we know better. We know, for example, that greater overall prosperity combined with female literacy – both ineluctable trends – lead to declining human populations, not an exploding population. Within the next century, humanity’s most likely demographic challenge will be how to maintain economic and scientific vitality amidst an aging and declining human population. We know that human population is unlikely to ever exceed 10.0 billion, and that most people seem to voluntarily prefer living in fairly dense urban areas. Despite the apocalyptic and emotionally compelling visions of doomsaying artists and analysts, from Soylent Green to the Population Bomb, these Malthusian messages are incorrect.
With respect to energy, for example, even though easily extracted light crude may becoming somewhat scarce in the world, at $100+/BBL, our planet’s remaining supply of fossil fuel is in no way limited by any realistic constraints. As we document in “Fossil Fuel Reality,” at 1.0 quintillion BTUs of energy consumption per year – 100 million BTUs per person per year on a 10 billion person planet, we have a 300 year supply of likely fossil fuel reserves. This clearly affords us plenty of time to discover and deploy cheap fusion power, or whatever.
With water the argument of the Malthusians remains more credible, at least on the surface. Water is the “new oil,” and pundits predict wars over water as humanity’s industrializing multitudes relentlessly consume more water than ever. The raw materials of prosperity are energy and water, and there are already alarming examples of regional water scarcity that could disrupt the lives and delay the economic development for billions of people. Nonetheless the Malthusians are wrong about water, too.
|Ethiopian raindancers – now joined with the
raindancers of technology & free enterprise.
For thousands of years, human societies turned to raindancers who would perform their sacred rites in an attempt to bring on livegiving rains. But to address the water needs of 10 billion thirsty humans it is not necessary to only bring on the raindancers of antiquity – we now have several new promising technologies that will deliver water abundance at a global scale.
Desalination is a cost-effective, energy-efficient option for many water challenged regions – it can offer a backup source of water as well as a less expensive source of water. Using California’s Los Angeles basin as an example, a desalination plant constructed for $5.0 billion dollars could desalinate 1.0 cubic kilometers of water per year from the California Channel, enough water to satisfy the urban residential needs of 5.0 million Angelenos (ref. Desalination Costs). And the perhaps 5-to-1 waste water brine could easily be safely dispersed by outfall pipes running well into the California Channel, where more than 20 sverdrups (one Sverdrup equals 35 thousand cubic kilometers of water) of ocean water per year is passed along the coast by the California current.
The energy to desalinate water, 2.0 kilowatt-hours per cubic meter, is less than the amount of energy necessary to move, for example, up to 6.0 cubic kilometers of water per year over the Tehachapi Mountains (a lift of about 700 meters), from California’s Central Valley into the Los Angeles basin. That is, at somewhere between 500 and 700 meters of lift, it takes more energy to pump water over a mountain than it takes to desalinate an equivalent quantity from the ocean.
Another technological raindance, again using California as an example, is seasonal runoff harvesting. During even routine droughts, especially now that California’s policymakers intend their state to host up to 50 million residents within a couple of decades, Californian’s fret over finding enough water for the burgeoning annual needs of environment, agriculture, industry, and residents. But even during droughts, often during spring, there can be significant torrential storms that will each introduce cubic kilometer quantities of runoff, temporarily overwhelming streams and rivers downstream from reservoirs. If anything, this runoff often can seriously disrupt ecosystems, and should instead be captured and sequestered. At the same time, hydrologists estimate there are at least 10.0 cubic kilometers of aquifer storage already identified in California, with far more storage than that potentially available. California needs to develop systems to harvest runoff and refill her acquifers. In addition to percolation ponds and direct injection facilities, this particular raindance will require massive construction of weirs and holding ponds, aquaducts, pipes, and pumping systems (ref. California’s Water System).
Reuse and recycling technologies deliver additional raindancing enablers of water abundance. The potential of water reuse and recycling technologies is only beginning to be tapped, and the proliferation of these technologies is only beginning. Closely tied with these advances is the phenomenon of miniaturization and decentralization, whereby water harvesting, storage, reuse and recycling technologies can be implemented to create a water-positive usage profile at the building scale, at the scale of a community, or at the scale of a mega-city. Water, like energy, has the potential to be realized in an autarkic mode, and hence can make any building, community, or city able to elect to live off-grid or on-grid.
Last but not least are the raindancers of the market, where a well-regulated water grid, of sorts, operates like an energy grid, with spot prices and as much fungibility as can be cost-effectively facilitated. Water shortages need never occur if there is a well-established market-oriented grid for water supply and delivery among a pluralistic assortment of water suppliers and consumers, using the entire array of new raindancing technologies. A grid of exchange and delivery, where for each ton of Alfalfa or Rice not grown, for example, residential users purchase the water instead at a fair price, and within the arbitrage of such transactions are extracted revenues to finance increasingly advanced water infrastructure.
The essense of the Malthusian fallacy is the notion that human innovation cannot create abundance, cannot alleviate all needs. As long as the spark of individual creativity is not squelched by the vested interests of those who only benefit from extrapolations of the status-quo, abundance in all things is our destiny.