Loosening the bolts

The Limits To Growth makes it pretty clear that resource shortages are going to be the driving force behind this century’s economic collapse and massive reduction in human population.  In today’s world of abundance, however, that’s a hard concept to get our minds around.  I struggle to grasp it myself and struggle further with how to convey it to other people.  Think of human civilization as a bridge, with every bolt holding it together as one of the resources we depend on.  If we start removing bolts, the first few will have almost no impact.  Remove a few more and the bridge remains intact, but we may see some shifting or evidence of stress.  Remove enough bolts though, and eventually we’re going to find the one that causes the whole thing to come crashing down.  Recently, articles have surfaced heralding the loosening of two important “bolts” in our bridge:  phosphorus and helium.

First, from the sad-but-true files:  kids parties of the future are going to be a lot less fun.  The world has a finite supply of helium, and we’re currently burning through it so quickly that a leading academic is warning us to ban balloons this holiday season.   As a chemist at the University of Cambridge, Dr. Peter Wothers isn’t making this call because he’s a Grinch, but because he knows helium has several very important uses other than brightening up a child’s day.  Helium is a critical element in high tech manufacturing of semiconductors and fiber optic cables, industrial welding, and medical devices such as MRIs.

I led with helium because the loss of balloons is easily relateable, and the effects are tangible in our everyday lives.  It’s easy to feel the loss of balloons, as they’re objects we associate with children’s happiness.  Yet even if all balloons are to become relics of the past, the world will survive.  Our planet might become a little less fun or happy, but I’ll go out on a limb and predict that we won’t see nations going to war to protect their supplies of inflatable unicorns.

Above: The difference between fertilized and unfertilized corn. 
The spectacular growth of phosphorus-based fertilizer.
(click to enlarge)

You know what countries might be willing to go to war over though?  Food.  Specifically, the ability to grow it, because fertilizer will become very scarce in the next couple of decades due to a global shortage of phosphorus.  The world today is addicted to fertilizer, and it’s not hard to see why — yields from fertilized crops are much higher than those from unfertilized crops.  A shortage of fertilizer will mean lower yields, and lower yields mean production will drop below demand and people start starving.  Jeremy Grantham, the author of the report linked above, thinks that without fertilizer the world can only support around 1.5 billion people.  Now I’m not a mathematician, but that seems like a bit less than the 7 billion we currently have.  This might sound a bit crazy, and I wish the herald of this collapse were some crazy person, but Mr. Grantham is actually a very well known and well respected investor.  He is a founder of GMO, an investment firm that commands over $97 billion in assets, and he is particularly known for his success in predicting economic bubbles (most notably the crash of 2008).

I’m obviously not saying people are going to die from this right now.  Looking at Grantham’s chart, it’s clear we haven’t even hit peak levels yet.  What I’m saying is that we’re headed for a cliff…it’s right there in front of us and we can see it coming.  Lest you shrug and assume we’ll invent our way out of it before it’s too late, I beg you to think that through.  What technology is waiting in the wings that will multiply crop yields several times over?  What magical process are we going to be able to develop and implement worldwide in a mere 20 years to avoid disruption?  It takes time to invent, it takes time to implement, and it’s pretty hard to do either when no one is even talking about the problem.  Compare such an effort against the United States’ floundering attempts to address problems with Medicare (shortfalls projected by 2024) or Social Security (bankrupt by 2036).  If we care enough to address these medium-term financial problems, how can there be no movement to address the fact that the world won’t be able to feed itself by 2040?


One thought on “Loosening the bolts”

  1. “Urine reuse is gaining attention at the global level as scientists, agronomists, backyard gardeners, and development professionals look to this universally available substance for solutions to a variety of water and sanitation problems. Urine collection reduces toilet water use by as much as 80% by decreasing flushes (Larsen, et. al., 2001). This reduction in water use is not hard to imagine. Just think about the amount of water used flushing the urinals at any major sporting or entertainment event in the men’s bathroom on any given weekend. Just think of the water used flushing the urinals in all the bars across the country. It boggles the mind!

    Urine collection would also reduce energy needed by sewer treatment plants to remove nitrogen (Wilsenach and van Loosdrecht, 2006). “Plant nutrients, mainly nitrogen and phosphorus, can be captured from urine and used as agricultural fertilizer, reducing demand for chemical fertilizers. Each adult produces an estimated 1.5 liters per day, (WHO, 2006) which contains about 4 kg of nitrogen, 0.36 kg phosphorus, and 1 kg potassium per year. This amount is enough to fertilize about 300‐400 square meters of crop for each person (Jonsson et. al. 2004). The range of low‐cost options for collection makes backyard urine reuse accessible for all income levels and for both renters and homeowners.

    For backyard gardeners, urine reuse would provide a free source of fertilizer while at the same time reducing household water consumption due to fewer toilet flushes . (Allen, L., and Conant, J. 2010)

    Recent research also shows that urine may be an efficient source of hydrogen for energy (Boggs et al. 2009).”

    As a first step on the road to changing our sanitation system to a sustainable green system the USA could and should encourage urine reuse by making appropriate legal changes to make the practice clearly legal, take steps to educate the public to increase public acceptance of the practice and provide incentives for its implementation into urban areas.

    We need to bring back the piss pot!

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