Monday, June 24, 2013


My friend Walter Youngquist is a 92-year-old rock star — a retired geology professor and consulting geologist.  Some of his former students are now top executives in the oil industry.  His book, GeoDestinies, is an in-depth discussion of the long relationship between humankind and the mineral world.  This relationship has become increasingly abusive, as more and more people consume more and more resources.  It can’t last much longer in its current form.
Youngquist is acutely aware that we are racing down a dead end road.  For many years, he’s been trying hard to warn us.  The local paper wrote a story about one of his talks, “Dark Picture Painted by Youngquist,” which was printed December 13, 1973, 40 years ago.  Any endeavor that depends on consuming nonrenewable resources at a rapidly growing rate is on a fast path to ruin.  What could be more obvious?  Unfortunately, his honorable efforts turned him into a pariah.  He gave many talks to Chamber of Commerce groups, and he was almost never invited back.  We don’t enjoy bad news.
His core message is a sharp warning.  “My observations in some 70 countries over about 50 years of travel and work tell me that we are clearly already over the cliff.  The momentum of population growth and resource consumption is so great that a collision course with disaster is inevitable.  Large problems lie not very far ahead.”
It is widely understood that we are rapidly depleting the most precious mineral complex of all, the one that enables life on Earth: topsoil.  Sustainable societies do not need gold, diamonds, iron, or oil.  All forms of mining are the opposite of sustainable, including soil mining.  Dirt is created so slowly that, from a human perspective, it’s essentially nonrenewable.  The problems associated with soil destruction are widely understood, and widely disregarded.  Soil conservation is simply not the path to short-term wealth creation, and wealth is all that matters in this civilization.
Two hundred years ago, the world was an immense treasure chest of resources.  They seemed to be infinite.  We were certain that economic growth could continue forever.  We were wrong.  But this fantasy has deep roots, and remains alive and well to this very day.  Our highly educated ruling elites continue to be obsessed with the notion of encouraging growth by any means necessary.
The industrial production of oil began in 1859.  Since then, the quantity of new oil that was discovered every year increased until 1962.  Following this peak, new discoveries have been on a downward curve.  Each year, less new oil is found, and what we’re finding is more and more expensive to extract, hence the rising prices at the pump.  The era of cheap fossil energy is over, forever.
Meanwhile, the consumption of oil continues to grow, as more and more cars take to the road.  Most of the oil that we consume today was discovered before 1973.  Many believe that world oil production peaked in 2005.  This level of production cannot be continued for long, and it is certain to proceed into an irreversible decline.  Alternative energy sources will never be able to replace the energy we now get from fossil fuels, or even come close. 
Youngquist is one of the grandfathers who revealed the Peak Oil story to the world.  I began corresponding with him in 1996.  At that point in time, the concept of Peak Oil was a mad theory from the farthest regions of the lunatic fringe.  Almost nobody understood what you were talking about, and very few agreed.  Seventeen years later, far more people have a rudimentary understanding of the issue, and it has become acceptable for dignified people to privately discuss it on rare occasions.  What is spooky is that this learning process has resulted in almost no significant changes in our goals, values, or way of life.  (Neither has our growing understanding of climate change.)
Youngquist’s lifetime has been an era of technological miracles — radio, TV, air travel, moon landings, computers, antibiotics, and so on.  Like most people, he perceives this to be a high standard of living, one that is beneficial and desirable.  At the same time, he is acutely aware that his lifetime has been an era of ecological catastrophes.  When he was born, the world population was less than two billion.  It’s heartbreaking to observe the catastrophic effects of population more than tripling in your lifetime.  So much has been destroyed.
I wish that living the American dream was ecologically harmless, but it isn’t.  We can’t have both sustainability and technological wonders.  We have a responsibility to leave the planet in no worse shape than we found it, or better.
Youngquist clearly understands the meaning of genuine sustainability.  It means “capable of being kept going on an indefinite basis — not until the end of the week, or the end of the decade, or even the end of the next century, but indefinitely.”  He clearly understands that a sustainable population is far, far less than seven-point-something billion.  He clearly understands that the only sustainable form of energy is sunlight.  He understands that a sustainable future is inevitable, because only the sustainable can endure.  We could get there faster, causing less harm, if we made this our goal.  I wish we would. 
It would also be wise to seriously reassess the meaning of a high standard of living.  Today, this notion implies a lifestyle that has enormous costs, and causes enormous harm.  Is it an oxymoron?  Is there real value in a high standard of living that is the opposite of sustainable?  We have no easy answers.
For many thousands of years, nomads wandered across the Arabian Peninsula, never tormented by a powerful urge to extract the billions of dollars of oil stored underground.  It never occurred to them.  They had what they needed, their lives were perfectly fine, and their ecosystem enjoyed robust good health.  I sense that we will find the path to salvation on the day that we can perceive this elegant simplicity to be the genuine high standard of living.
Youngquist, Walter, GeoDestinies, National Book Company, Portland, Oregon, 1997.  A second edition is currently in process.


Riversong said...

One "answer" often proposed by the technocrats and geeks is improved energy conversion efficiency - i.e. better photovoltaic cells and solar concentrators - to more productively capture that endlessly renewable solar energy. But efficiency is really an industrial value and not an organic one.

The overall planetary solar conversion efficiency by photosynthesis (the basis of the entire web of life) is about 1%. To an engineer, that would seem terribly wasteful due to poor design. But it's the rate which Gaia has found to be sustainable over hundreds of millions of years.

Until we learn to "think like a mountain", we will never truly understand what it means to sustain the planet in perpetuity.

What Is Sustainable said...

Riversong, I agree. When solar energy is used for photosynthesis, it can cause no harm (if the plants are not slaves on tilled fields). I don't think that the conversion of sunlight to electricity can be sustainable.

VAST amounts of energy are wasted now. There are abundant opportunities for shrinking our footprints.

Anonymous said...

Quoting Youngquist to just about anybody is akin to carrying Darwin's famous work into a fundamentalist church.

A companion volume to Youngquist's text is William Catton's "Overshoot," especially his eleventh chapter on Space Age Cargo Cults.

Good news: my pasture this year finally has 100% coverage, no embarrassingly bare sand hills.

What Is Sustainable said...

Brian, I visited Walt yesterday. The second edition of GeoDestinies is scheduled for an August release, but don't hold your breath. Dates can be very slippery.

He gave me a book: Scarcity: Humanity's Final Chapter by Christopher O. Clugston

I'm almost done with it, and it's a mind-blowing book. It will be the next review on my blog.