Global warming, or man made climate change might be the greatest disaster to ever befall humanity, it could wipe us all out and cause human extinction completely. However, it could all be a complete misinterpretation of the facts, according to some people, and blown out of proportion. Okay then, let’s forget Global warming and ignore all the climate scientists. What about the health implications of using fossil fuels? Well we know that a lot of the particulates from burning fossil fuels are unpleasant to breathe in, and there have been numerous studies that link the emissions from petroleum and coal burning to cancer, and other respiratory diseases. All of these studies are relatively conclusive, however, there is a difficulty in isolating people who do not breathe in the exhaust gasses from the burning of fossil fuels altogether as a control. Almost every human on Earth has either been exposed, or is part of an uncontacted tribe and therefore unavailable for sampling, so let’s completely disregard any health implications from the burning of fossil fuels. What about the detrimental effect on the natural environments we acquire our fuel from? Oil spills, deforestation, chemical pollution and of course, acidification of the seas, all pretty nasty stuff and very well documented. We could investigate this further, but let’s put that to one side for now, and imagine that it is all a drop in the proverbial and literal ocean.
How about the economic impact? Capitalism is currently a model of perpetual or even exponential growth, fuelled primarily by a resource that is finite, and actually scarce. Fossil fuels are not in great supply, they are buried in the ground, and there is a fixed amount of them. Then we burn them and they are gone forever. There will come a time when we have gotten every last whiff of gas, drop of oil and lump of coal from the subterranean deposits, and those under the ocean. When this time comes, we will either be completely powerless, in the most literal sense, or we will be unconcerned because we have already developed a robust infrastructure of alternative power sources. With an economy built on a power source that will inevitably exhaust, surely there will come a point of hyper-inflation, when the price of everything will be based on the rising price of the fuel required to produce it and move it. We have experienced this already, when the production costs of oil were inexpensive, the price of everything we consume was very low and the world economy grew steadily. Then when supplies run lower, the price of oil goes up and so does the price of everything else. Consumers become more hesitant to spend, the global economy fluctuates wildly, and people lose their jobs as whole industries crash, all because we can’t find enough oil.
Of course there is always a war, but wars over oil have a global impact. The majority of oil comes from a region of the world where the most armed conflict takes place. Countries unite against countries, cultures turn against cultures, and people even fight in the street over a few gallons of fuel. Humans have always had battles over resources, but the scale we are currently experiencing such conflict is massive. The past forty years of human history have been marred by conflict over oil, from the Falklands, Gulf War 1 and Gulf War 2, to the current civil unrest in Venezuela. Nobody is being killed to build solar panels, or forced to flee an area being used to erect windmills. There are however hydro-power refugees, as unfortunately whole regions have been flooded to create hydro-electric dams in China. Recently the Chinese government has improved the compensation packages to such “Hydromigrants”, so that they can start new lives, often in much better circumstances than they had before.
When the last lump of coal burns to create electricity, either the lights go out, or we have already switched to renewable methods for generating this power. If the companies and conglomerates that currently make their fortunes digging energy out of the ground, all started developing alternatives now, they will continue to compete in the new renewable economy, however different it may be. If they choose to ride their current wave of success into the ground, then we, the people who need this power, will suffer the consequences. Power, however, is only one part of the problem.
Forget Microplastic Pollution!
Plastic is not just a problem in terms of it polluting the ocean, we also use it for lots of applications where it is almost irreplaceable. We have invented millions of items, and devices, that need to be made out of plastic in order for them to work. Almost all of the plastic used today to make the things we need, comes from the petrochemical and fossil fuel industry. It is a by-product of the refinement of crude oil, into petroleum and diesel fuels and natural gas processing. Materials science has some ideas on how to replace plastic, as recycling only means we will have a slightly longer period between running out of oil, and running out of plastic. Silicon and carbon are two of the most abundant elements in the universe, and also two of the most useful when it comes to developing alternatives to plastics. Organic polymers are being developed that are biodegradable, however one of the most useful applications of plastic is as a food packaging, which means that biodegradable packaging is not so useful if it could react with the food it is in contact with, or biodegrade before we get a chance to eat its contents. The alternative to plastic packaging could actually be no packaging. In fact a number of supermarkets are trialling “fill your own” stations where customers pay for their product by weight and simply fill their own containers. The downside of this is of course the need to bring an empty container to the store when purchasing your goods, and of course clearing up spillages when customers inevitably make a mess of getting their goods into the container.
Whatever the solution to the ever reducing supply of plastic, we have already created a massive problem of plastic in the ocean which will need to be dealt with. There is research being done on microbes that can eat it, chemicals that can break it down, or skimmers that will literally sweep it all up. Until then, it is breaking down into tiny pieces, being eaten by fish and other sea creatures, and then being eaten by us. There is no telling what kind of health effects this is having on humans, we are consuming micro-plastics, but they are often staying inside us. If archaeologists of the future dig us up, they will see all of these pieces of plastic and refer to our time period as the “Plastic Age”. Alternatively we will effectively eradicate all evidence of the harm we have done to the environment, and the future historians will have no physical evidence of our existence at all.
Hopefully we will develop alternatives to plastic before we run out of it, and the same with oil, coal, and natural gas. We need alternatives, not just because of the negative environmental impact of using these resources, not just for our health, but because they are, very soon, going to deplete. Well, there is always a theory…