Saturday, February 13, 2010

Here's an excellent conversation on the challenges and possibilities for the next 40 years between Vaclav Smil, a professor at University of Manitoba and Andrew Revkin, NYTimes journalist and Dot Earth blogger.

The whole video is worth watching, but at 78 minutes, rather long. So here are some important points:

The Challenge:

  • 5 % of global population in North America consumes 35% of all resources. If India and China reach the same level of consumption, we need 5 planets.
The Good News:
  • Global population may never reach 9 B. Currently there is a 70-80% probability to peak between 8.2-8.5 B.
  • The Japanese consume half as much energy per capita as North Americans.
  • We have a lot of options for energy (shale gas) and other mineral resources.
  • Supercrops (nitrogen fixing, low water requirement, low phosphate requirement) may be possible with advanced genetic engineering*.
  • Human beings are amazingly adaptable.
The Bad News:
  • We are not going to change our personal behavior and economic structure unless we actually undergo a catastrophe.
  • China is moving rapidly towards NAm consumption levels. India wants to outdo China.
  • Alternative energy resources are currently very inefficient. Carbon sequestration is impractical, but will continue to consume attention.
  • Nitrogen fertilizers may become cheaper now due to cheap gas, but cheap and clean sources of phosphates are rapidly depleting.
  • Western economies is in grave danger. US is the biggest debtor nation in the history of the human race, and the debt is growing at $2T/six months.
The best things you can do now are:
  • Read anything and everything you can, become more numerate, and learn about the physical world around you.
  • Drive smaller and fewer cars
  • Eat less meat (Feed to meat ratios for factory farmed animals: Chickens - 3:1; Pigs - 7:1; Cows - 25:1)

* BTW, definitely check out these articles on Synthetic Biology in NYTimes -
Genetic engineers have looked at nature as a set of finished products to tweak and improve — a tomato that could be made into a slightly better tomato. But synthetic biologists imagine nature as a manufacturing platform: all living things are just crates of genetic cogs; we should be able to spill all those cogs out on the floor and rig them into whatever new machinery we want. It’s a jarring shift, making the ways humankind has changed nature until now seem superficial.
and also The New Yorker -
The deeply unpleasant risks associated with synthetic biology are not hard to imagine: who would control this technology, who would pay for it, and how much would it cost? Would we all have access or, as in the 1997 film “Gattaca,” which envisaged a world where the most successful children were eugenically selected, would there be genetic haves and have-nots and a new type of discrimination—genoism—to accompany it? Moreover, how safe can it be to manipulate and create life? How likely are accidents that would unleash organisms onto a world that is not prepared for them? And will it be an easy technology for people bent on destruction to acquire? “We are talking about things that have never been done before,” Endy said. “If the society that powered this technology collapses in some way, we would go extinct pretty quickly. You wouldn’t have a chance to revert back to the farm or to the pre-farm. We would just be gone. ”


Joanne said...

25:1 ratio for feed to meat for cows! Wow! as if the fact red meat is bad for the organs wasn't enough.


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