on 10 March 1998
The issues raised and developed in GeoDestinies should be required reading for all college or university students - no matter what their majors - and discussed in high-school, college, university, media, and business seminars throughout the country. The global economic system is absolutely dependent on geologic resources for its health and survival. Serious economic and social problems will face us by the middle of the 21st century, primarily because the petroleum window for the planet, which has driven the tremendous economic growth of the past 140 years, will begin to close. Alternatives for petroleum, in all of its myriad uses, will have to be found. And, this problem is only the most obvious and immediate of our challenges.
Sustainability is the current buzzword for the future of humanity. Under what conditions, and at what quality level, can humans persist on Earth indefinitely? The question arises because of two specters that are lurking too far behind the scenes for many of us, but that need to be faced: population growth and unfettered consumption of Earth's resources.
Population growth cannot be sustained in a closed container such as "Spaceship Earth" without ultimately overwhelming the container. This mathematical truth is finally becoming recognized internationally. Current projections by international population prognosticators, based on evidence of declining birth rates, suggest that planning for a world population stabilized at about 10 billion people by 2050 may be reasonable.
If we stabilize near that number, we have only won half the battle. We then need to consider how to feed, clothe, house, entertain, and employ a population of that size. Central to this question is the source of the energy that runs our factories; lights and heats our houses, municipal buildings, and business structures; and propels our cars, trains, and airplanes. For most of the developed world, the great bulk of this energy comes from fossil fuels, particularly from petroleum.
Calculations by several independent investigators agree that in the first few decades of the 21st century, world petroleum production will peak. By the end of the century, or shortly thereafter, petroleum will be effectively lost as a major source of the world's energy. The United States is already depended on imports for more than half of its petroleum needs. What will be our energy options when the oil runs out? Can we wean ourselves from this oil dependency? What are the realistic alternatives? Also, we need to recognize that petrochemicals, from pharmaceuticals to plastics to tires, are derived from nonrenewable oil and gas and have no reasonable alternative source.
Consumer demands from an ever-growing human population threaten to deplete many other nonrenewable geologic resources; already, renewables such as water and topsoil that are essential to our agricultural well-being in many areas of the world are being stressed.
GeoDestinies is written for the intelligent layperson. The presentation of issues and alternatives is well balanced, and both illustrations and tables are clear and relevant. The writing plods a little, and information occasionally turns up in more than one chapter, but these slight imperfections shouldn't detract from the importance of the massage. Key chapters focus on the "Petroleum Interval," alternative energy sources, water and topsoil use and abuse, myths and realities of mineral resources, and sustainable utilization of Earth's resources. GeoDestinies also contains useful background chapters on how mineral resources have been used and where they are located; mineral economics; and the central importance of mineral resources to the history, growth, and development of the human enterprise. One useful chapter summarizes myths and realities, which are also dealt with in more detail elsewhere in the book. Some of the key myths are:
- alternative energy resources can readily replace oil,
- alternative energy sources are environmentally benign, and
- biomass can be a major source of liquid fuels.
This is a very important book for everybody because it lays out quite nicely the real problems we face in the next century as population and consumption catch up with the supply of key natural resources. Buy it, read it, and discuss it with your friends.
A. R. (Pete) Palmer
Institute for Cambrian Studies