Energy Fixation and the Depletion of Non-renewable Resources
The world has depended on oil to power the explosion of industrial technology across the planet, which has hastened the development of giant cities and urban sprawl which requires massive amounts of transport emissions to get populations to work and to process the food they require to survive and heat their homes in cold countries. This both drives global warming and the greenhouse effect and causes much of the world's air pollution and pollution by a variety of non-biodegradable products of the oil industry from solvents to plastics. Many of these cities, typified by Los Angeles depend on the automobile and massive per capita emissions just to get food to the supermarket shelves and people to work. Even social contact depends on gross emission. Such badly-designed cities may become doomed in the future.
This profligate use of non-renewable resources is accompanied by shocking lack of initiative in researching and utilizing cheap renewable sources of energy which will smoothly dovetail into the changing face of world cultures as the cost of oil begins to rise with scarcity. The illustration below indicates that we are rapidly approaching the crunch point regarding oil reserves, where the price will start to climb as scarcity begins to set in.
We do have viable renewable technologies but these will take massive development and are generally not so well suited to transport uses as they are to providing electrical supplies to homes. Since we cannot continue to use these non-renewable resources indefinitely, by far the best long-term investment strategy is to develop renewable energy technologies constructively now and save as much of the non-renewable resources as possible for the future to avoid a genuine chemical scarcity emerging for later civilizations. To remove in one or two generations fossil chemical reserves that have taken hundreds of millions of years to accumulate is selfish greed without parallel - an act of treason to our own forebears. The fact that an effective transition to renewable energy technologies is not happening to date indicates the tragedy of the commons continues to apply to our non-renewable resources, to our folly. Humans are now utilizing a majority of the photosynthetic energy of the planet for their own purposes. The photosynthetic basis of economics is the accursed share unless we use it wisely.
The actions of Saddam Hussein in setting fire to the entire Kuwaiti oilfields during the Gulf war typifies the problem of casual and reckless pollution and raised global consciousness about just how far single individuals are prepared to go in wasting the world's heritage of hundreds of millions of years to spite others in making a point. Fortunately for the world, a situation which at first appeared to be pollution crisis of irreversible proportions, was after some six months, brought under control, much earlier than expected and with reduced losses. Although only about 2% of the oil resource was squandered, the effects at the time were nevertheless massive regional air pollution and fouling of coasts and beaches. However this act pales into relative insignificance by comparison with the multifaceted pollution on a world-wide basis from a diverse spectrum of agents in the name of human progress.
While the diverse problems of pollution are significantly different from the global fluctuations of the ozone hole and global warming, they are nevertheless frequently devastating to biodiversity and often of long-lasting impact.
Nuclear Fallout and Contamination
Nuclear fallout and radioactive contamination remains perhaps the most apocalyptic of pollutants to capture the human imagination. The devastation wrought on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was however only a foretaste of the much larger amounts of fissile material released into the world environment by atmospheric testing by both the East and West during the military buildup that lead to the Cold War. Nuclear radiation exposure comes in distinct forms: Direct radiation exposure to the blast, and its gamma radiation, attack by particle decay and ingestion of radioactive materials in fallout or other contamination accidents. One should remember that when Kruschev set off a 50 megaton atmospheric test, he was not setting off a clean simple hydrogen bomb but a dirty fission-fusion-fission device of over a thousand times the substance of the Japanese explosions. The same defiled status applies to the atmospheric tests conducted by the West.
There have been many end-of-days scenarios written about direct nuclear confrontation and its effects globally including the nuclear winter scenario. Continuing anxiety has also been expressed about the consequences of embracing nuclear energy. However the anxieties over Three Mile Island proved to be only a minute disruption compared with the events which unfolded in 1986 at Chernobyl. The above maps shows the residual radiation across Europe, largely attributable to the Chernobyl blast. While only 31 people died from burns and radiation sickness in the immediate aftermath of the blast, hundreds of thousands are predicted to die of cancer as a result. There are still many areas which remain uninhabitable. The fallout fell selectively dependent on the first few days of precipitation peppering some confined areas of Scandinavia with radiation so high that fifteen minutes exposure to 'nature' was considered a dangerous dose.
The immense problem with nuclear contamination is the fact that half-lives of radioactive isotopes vary from a few seconds to the age of the earth. Isotopes with a half life of say 1000 years will thus continue to cause unremitting contamination long after the lifetime of the people who caused the accident. It is for this reason that the assurances given by the nuclear power industry that it is 100% safe have to be taken for what they are - bravado to protect an expensive polluting form of energy production.
Nuclear weapons and the contamination caused by plutonium enrichment continue to have a very heavy toll on the environment, with several areas of Russia so heavily contaminated that bats glow in the dark. The indefinable problems of nuclear smuggling and terrorism continue to smoulder. The recent underground tests of India and Pakistan have re-opened the world wound of the nuclear threat of proliferation and the fear of the use of tactical weapons upon urban populations in local regional conflicts and with it enormously increased risks of nuclear pollution worldwide.
Chemical pollution by Pesticides, PCBs Dioxin, Carcinogens, Estrogens etc.
Second to nuclear pollution comes a vast array of chemical agents which can cause permanent changes to the environment by disrupting fertility of key species, particularly when they become concentrated up the food chain. Chemical pollution is as old as human society, illustrated by the lead poisoning hypothesized to be the downfall of the Roman empire, the sooty dark chimneys of Victorian England and the mercury poisoning of the mad hatter characatured by Lewis Carol.
However the most notorious cases first recognised on a global basis were halogenated hydrocarbons, especially DDT dichloro-diphenyl-trichloro-ethane and its contamination of whole food chains alerted to the world in Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring." Chlorinated hydrocarbons have long been a favourite of organic chemists because of the easy way robust organics can be synthesized using chlorine and hydroxyl groups. These molecules are also often non-biodegradable because the non-biological chlorinated aromatics defy the usual degradative enzymes. DDT which was spread in crops in the US found its way up the food chain in waterways from the Great Lakes all the way to seals in Antarctica. Each stage of the food chain caused an order of magnitude increase in contamination in fatty tissues until birds were producing shell-less eggs and other organisms had a variety of abnormalities interfering with viability.
Similar problems surfaced with the herbicide 2,4,5-T 2,4,5-trichloro-phenoxy-acetic acid and particularly its synthesis contaminant TCDD or 2,3,7,8-tetrachloro-dibenzo-p-dioxin. Particularly pernicious mixtures of high-dioxin 2,4,5-T were sprayed over Vietnam as Agent Orange defoliant, with serious long-lasting effects on exposed humans including increased incidences of cancer. The explosion of a hexachlorophene plant at Seveso in Italy caused a similar serious pollution accident generating a toxic concentration of dioxin, resulting in extreme measures from protective abortions to extensive removal of contaminated surface soil. Nevertheless countries like New Zealand have continued to routinely drop 245-T equivalent of kilos of dioxin over their farming regions.
Since these problems became obvious, attempts have been made to concentrate on more biodegradable pesticides and herbicides, particularly organophosphates (which nevertheless have acute neurotoxic effects) but very significant problems remain. A disproportionate number of industrial chemicals prove either to be carcinogenic or to be estrogens. A variety of carcinogenic contaminants from asbestos particles which cause mesothelioma, a cancer of the lung alveoli, to heavy metal contamination from mining and other industries have caused widespread contamination and illness. A continuing battle rages between human consumers and corporate producers over the safety of a variety of food and industrial chemicals and the ethics of producer and corporate driven government legislation which tends to accomodate only to industry and to consider the effects on the consumer only once a serious problem becomes proven.
Water pollution has been a recurring problem on a world wide basis. Industrial areas tend to seep organics and other contaminants into underground aquifers. Residential developments are built on old industrial landfills, such as the ironic case of Love Canal, near Niagra, heavily contaminated with seeping dioxin contamination by the Hooker Chemical Company - a genuine case of industrial prostitution.
The developing world is beset by severe pollution problems from the methyl-cyanide eruption at Bhopal to heavy contamination of wells across Bangla-desh with arsenic. The contamination of many rivers with foamy detergent has become legend, but more recently the incidence of a variety of seemingly inert chemicals such as phthalates from the paint and plastic industry have proven to have estrogenic activity and could explain why human sperm counts are falling and why frogs across the world are disappearing in alarming numbers and fish in many rivers have developed male reproductive abnormalities.
A favourite marine paint containing tri-butyl tin was so toxic to shellfish even when diluted in the ocean that its use had to be discontinued. Concern is now being expressed that the ultimate fate of whales and dolphins will depend not on hunting alone, but on frank contamination of the world's oceans, which are also heavily contaminated with crude oil globules, plastics which snare wildlife and other contaminants. Reduction of the algal and plankton populations in the ocean of course leads to collapse of the food chain all the way up the ladder.
Some particular rivers are subject to excessive contamination by heavy metals from mines or from chemical industrial pollutants from industries such as pulp paper production. Large areas of the Amazon now suffer from mercury poisoning associated with uncontrolled gold mining and pollution from careless oil drilling operations. The case of the Mississippi is legendary. The water is used over ten times and in the process of re-sterilization polyaromatic hydrocarbons in the effluent become chlorinated to produce a diffuse variety of toxic and carcinogenic substances, leading to increased incidences of cancer and other illness in the down stream communities.
Frank fertilizer overuse has also led to the collapse of many vital ecological systems particularly wetland and lakes, where nitrates and phosphates can accumulate to toxic concentrations just as irrigated land can become salinated and sterile. The process of eutrophication starts with an overabundance of nutrient, leading to the growth of weeds and algae which finally use up the dissolved oxygen and die causing a terminal anoxia, which renders the whole system uninhabitable to life.
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