Environmental Crisis

Our planet has a problem in that 3 emerging phenomena have converged making our planet dangerously unstable, namely global warming, the stunning rise of the middle class all over the world, and rapid population growth. This convergence is tightening energy supplies, intensifying the extinction of plants and animals, deepening energy poverty, strengthening petro-dictatorships and accelerating climate change. These 5 problems characterise the new era we are moving into as a global system.

Rapidly growing population
There are currently 6,7-billion people on the planet but by 2050 the United Nations projects that there will be more than 9-billion people on the planet. The additional 2,5-billion people to be born before 2050 will largely be absorbed by the less developed regions, whose population is projected to rise from 5,4-billion to 7,9-billion in 2050. In contrast, the population of the more developed regions is expected to remain largely unchanged at 1,2-billion.

The growing middle class
A combination of technological, market and geopolitical events at the end of the twentieth century have levelled the global economic playing field in a way that has enabled more people than ever, from more places that ever, to take part in the global economy and enter the middle class.

This flattening of the world playing field helped to lift 200-million people out of poverty in the 1980 and 1990s in China and India alone (according to the International Monetary Fund) and moved tens of millions higher up the economic ladder into the middle class. These several hundred million new economic players have begun earning wages enabling them to consume more things and produce more things. Each consumer has his own version of the “American Dream” to live up to, often including a car, a house, an air-conditioner, a cell phone, a microwave, a toaster, a computer and an iPod – creating a new demand for things, all of which devour lots of energy, natural resources, land and water and emit lots of climate changing greenhouse gases from the time they are produced to when they are discarded.

Global warming
Our planet is undergoing a warming trend over and above natural and normal variations, largely due to human activities associated with large-scale manufacturing.

Increased human activity since the beginning of the industrial revolution has resulted in the emission of large quantities of greenhouse gases into the earth’s atmosphere. These greenhouse gases build up in the earth’s atmosphere like a blanket making the planet warmer. One pound of CO² is thrown into the atmosphere for every mile we drive, according to the California Institute of Technology. Even more frightening is that the deforestation in places like Indonesia and Brazil – characterised by the burning and clearing of forests - is responsible for more CO² than all the worlds cars, trucks, planes, ships and trains combines – about 20% of all global emissions.

Other greenhouse gases include methane released from rice farming, petroleum drilling, coal mining, animal defecation, solid waste landfill sites and cattle belching. In fact, a herd of cattle belching can be worse than a highway full of Hummers. Livestock gas is very high in methane which has a heat-trapping power in the atmosphere of twenty-one times stronger than carbon dioxide. With more than 1,3-billion cows belching almost constantly around the world, livestock gas is one of the chief global sources of gas, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency. The average cow expels 600 litres of methane a day.

The convergence of global warming, global flattening and global crowing is driving the development and worsening of 5 major problems facing the planet today:

1. Energy and Natural Resource Supply
When the phenomenon of global population increases meets the rapid rising of the middle class there are just too many people on the globe consuming too much stuff and as a result our demand for energy has increased dramatically. Energy economist Philip Verleger Jr. points out that global energy consumption grew by 5 percent per year from 1951-1970. A similar increase is expected to take place between 2001 and 2020 as China, India and other countries move from developing to developed nations. These countries are involved in massive new infrastructure developments which are energy-intensive and it is expected that global consumption of all forms of energy will at least double between now and 2050, according to Royal Dutch Shell’s energy scenario team.

2. Petro-Dictatorships
Politically there is another important phenomenon developing as a result of the world’s reliance on oil and gas. There is a massive transfer of wealth taking place from energy consuming countries to energy producing countries as the price of oil and gas has soared and remains high. This huge transfer of wealth is strengthening these states and many of the nondemocratic leaders within them, giving power to leaders who are often not interested in building their economies or educating their people. And in some cases, it is strengthening the most conservative hard-line religious leaders across the Muslim world through financing from Saudi Arabia, Iran and other oil-rich Persian Gulf states.

In 2006 the OPEC oil cartel earned $506-billion from oil exports. In 2007, OPEC income rose to around $535-billion, and was expected to surge to over $600-billion in 2008 according to the Centre for Global Energy Studies. In 1998 OPEC earned $110-billion for selling the same quantity of oil at much lower prices. Post 2000 oil prices have soared to record highs increasing the wealth transfer from oil consuming nations to oil producing nations.

3. Climate Change
As the Earth’s temperature continues to rise, we are leaving an era when climate change was manageable and reversible, including acid rain, ozone depletion and conventional pollution; and entering a new era in which our effects on the climate are becoming potentially unmanageable and irreversible. One of our first examples of this was Hurricane Katrina which, on August 29, 2005 smashed into New Orleans and impacted many other regions of the world. The United Nations sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, in its 2007 report stated that without a dramatic reduction in human-induced CO² emissions, climate change may bring abrupt or irreversible effects on air, oceans, glaciers, land, coastlines and species. Panel chairman Rajendra Pachauri told reporters that “if there is no action before 2012, that’s too late. What we do in the next two or three years will determine our future and this is a defining moment.”

4. Energy Poverty
The provision of electricity is vitally important to human living, but in an increasingly flat world it becomes even more important. If you don’t have electricity you cannot get online and you cannot compete, connect and collaborate globally. Also in a world with ever worsening climate problems it is those with inadequate housing, shelter and tools who will suffer most. However, in a crowded world, many places in the world are experiencing power shortages and blackouts. These shortages affect entire economies which are designed to run with electricity and therefore affect income, and employment rates. The shortages are expected to continue in the medium term and even then it is unlikely that enough power stations will be able to be built and maintained in order to provide power to all those wanting to be on the grid.

Energy poverty and the unequal distribution of energy and electricity worldwide is a subject not debated much and a cause not championed, but it remains a real problem in undeveloped areas where 1,6-billion people, or one in four, don’t have regular access to an electricity grid.

5. Biodiversity Loss
The rate of development in our flat and crowded world is resulting in extreme natural resource extraction, overfishing, the destruction of open land, coral reefs and tropical forests, disrupting ecosystems, despoiling rivers and driving species extinctions across the planet.

A quote to be debated by James Gustave Speth, dean of the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies at Yale states “For all the material blessings economic progress has provided, for all the disease and destitution avoided, for all the glories that shine in the best of our civilization, the costs to the natural world, the costs to the glories of nature, have been huge and must be counted in the balance as tragic loss.”

“Half the world’s tropical and temperate forests are now gone. The rate of deforestation in the tropics continues at about an acre a second. About half the wetlands and a third of the mangroves are gone. An estimated 90% of the large predator fish are gone. 20% of the corals are gone and another 20% severely threatened. Species are disappearing at a rate of about a thousand times faster than normal,” says Speth.

We are entering a time when everyone will have to pay the true cost of the energy they are using, the true cost of the climate change they are causing, the true cost of the biodiversity loss they are triggering, the true cost of the petro dictatorships they are funding and the true cost of the energy poverty they are sustaining. We have already passed the tipping points regarding these 5 issues and there are no cushions left. In addition, the true costs of all these things are becoming visible, measureable, assessable and inescapable. Going green is no longer a choice, fad or statement, but is now the only smart efficient low-cost way to grow, build, design, manufacture, work and live when all the true costs are taken into account.