Limits

This week kicks off a new series of “Small Bites.”  I will use it from time to time to offer a series of brief observations, or perhaps I should say propositions or even just questions, that are foundational to my thinking about public policy issues ranging from climate change to generational equity to state sovereignty and federalism.

Like most first principles, these are by no means incontrovertible, and certain people will doubtless disagree with some, or perhaps all, of them.  Those who do will also very likely arrive at different conclusions on the derivative policy issues.  I present these not so much to argue any particular point as to make my premises transparent and to inform future commentary and debate.

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As a species, we have unprecedented liberty (especially in liberal democracies), wealth (although inequitably divided), leisure (including the freedom to waste it on trivial pursuits), scientific knowledge (despite know-nothing deniers), and other intellectual, cultural and financial resources that previous generations could scarcely have imagined.  The world is our oyster – although, as Paul Greenberg makes clear in American Catch:  The Fight for Our Local Seafood, our oyster stocks are a pale shadow of their historical bounty.

Nowhere is this more evident than with technology.  Think about the laptop or tablet computer on which you are reading this, the car or airplane by which you will travel today, the wired or wireless telephone you will use to communicate with colleagues, friends and loved ones.  All of these are recent innovations, inconceivable to humans who lived a relatively short time ago, a blink of an eye in historical terms.

All that technology uses prodigious amounts of energy and a host of raw materials, many of which are exotic and rare.  We have reached this point of civilization through exploitation of natural resources:  oil and gas wells and mining activities.  We started tens of thousands of years ago with the transformation of copper and bronze into tools and weapons, and we now use rare earth minerals in cell phones.  Power consumption is everywhere and permeates everything we do, every day, even in the most remote corners of the earth.

Most of these resources, notably oil and gas, are nonrenewable in any practical sense.  We can debate how long they will last, when “peak oil” will or has been reached, but not the basic point that they are finite.  There is so much coal that it has the potential for lasting longer than other fossil fuel sources, but even coal is a limited resource.   It also contributes disproportionately to carbon emissions.

Global CO2 and other greenhouse gases have risen to levels that are impacting the environment.  This has coincided with the Industrial Revolution and other human activity in a way that is hard to ignore, but regardless of the possible causation we are now faced with the serious possibility of disruption to Holocene climate patterns that have provided stability throughout the civilized history of our species.  We have never experienced anything else.

As with the finitude of fossil fuels, we can debate when the tipping point to a real climate crisis will be reached (if it hasn’t been already), but we cannot responsibly doubt that there are limits to the earth’s carrying capacity for greenhouse gases without severe implications for the future quality of human life on the planet.

In view of the risks, if I were in charge -- which of course I am not -- I would be looking for some type of hedge.  Aren't we all in charge, collectively?