For those who live in the pleasant bubble (suffocating though it sometimes is) of America's wealthy society, whether urban, suburban, or rural, it often seems that our way of life will endure for the foreseeable future, and beyond. Perhaps there will be flying cars instead of ground-based cars, maybe we will be able to teleport, but those are just the natural illusions and delusions of how a traditionally strong society and economy such as the United States' will persist and improve forever, into an endless future, limited only by the power of our imaginations. Yes, sure.
I am speaking of the United States' unconscious sense of security, even in the face of more and more worrying information that is hard to ignore. The great majority of Americans do not realize the dangers inherent in our slash-and-burn approach to living, although many have heard that the planet may warm up a bit. A better analogy than slash-and-burn might be sitting on the highest branch of a tree, and slowly sawing through that branch, close to the trunk. That branch does not show any signs of distress, and all is well, until it begins to crack, and falls with us on it.
The title of this article indicates a choice we have. Just a bit earlier news appeared of the fact the Beijing is in a deep water shortage - so bad that the government has now ordered imports of massive amounts of stored emergency water that was originally allocated for their surrounding province, Hebei, which is also in a long-term drought. Meanwhile, the death rates of Chinese from air pollution is a well-known problem, and the desertification (transformation from farmable land into desert) of large areas of northern China has also been widely publicized.
What does that have to do with the USA? Well, aside from the great human and economic turmoil that might occur if China can not solve its own problems, and that might spill over to the rest of the world, it could also be a warning for the direction that we in the United States are heading. It is not so well publicized that US topsoil is at its lowest level ever, having fallen from its original 50 feet in depth in the Midwest to under 1 foot. Water levels in non-replenishing (in human time scale) aquifers such as the Ogallala Aquifer, and in the Great Lakes we share with Canada, continue to drop. As noted elsewhere, "because the rate of extraction exceeds the rate of recharge, [Ogallala] water level elevations are decreasing. At some places the water table was measured to drop more than five feet (1.5 m) per year at the time of maximum extraction. In extreme cases, the deepening of wells was required to reach the steadily falling water table; and it has even been drained (dewatered) in some places such as Northern Texas."
And the population of our country continues to increase, gradually. Even that is not required for a crisis to arise - we are already living well beyond the capacity of our land to create and store new topsoil and water, while fossil fuels are likely at their peak of production, and will only get scarcer from here on, whether that requires 5 years or 15 years to become apparent.
Will the United States be able to produce enough food to eat in 2050 when fertilizer costs rise dramatically due to shortages of natural gas (used to make chemical fertilizers)? Will the persistent water shortages in our Southwest spread to more of the country, including to the breadbasket of the Midwest? Will fish still populate the ocean ecosystems or will the only remaining fish be those too small to catch and eat economically?
Or will we, and the world, resemble Denmark, which is currently benefiting greatly by the insight shown in Denmark in the 1970s, after the oil and gasoline shortage brought on by the first Middle East oil stoppage? Let me share a couple of paragraphs about Denmark (from EMagazine.com in July 2001):
Arriving in Copenhagen by sea, the first thing travelers see of Denmark is a row of 20 enormous wind turbines gently spinning above the waves nearly two miles from shore. Completed last December, the Middelgrunden Wind Farm is the world's largest offshore wind power facility. Its wind machines, each with blades 100 feet long, together generate 40 megawatts of electricity, enough to power 32,000 households in Denmark's bustling capital. It produces no pollution or greenhouse gasses and was designed to have minimal environmental impact on the marine life of the Oresund, the chilly sound connecting the Baltic and North Seas.
Middelgrunden is a fitting symbol for Denmark, a nation of five million that has emerged as a world leader not only in wind power, but also in the effort to create a more sustainable society. Well-maintained bicycle paths complete with road signs and traffic lights connect towns and cities, often running parallel to rural highways.
The full article also reveals that Denmark is now moving in the direction of tearing down massive central power plants and replacing them with distributed, community-focused power generation, having determined that it is more efficient and less prone to failures.
Renewable energy (although they do continue to burn fossil fuel, that is being reduced gradually), strong use of bicycles, recycling and burning of waste rather than landfilling, as well as creating an economic and jobs boom (current unemployment: 1.6%) by selling wind power equipment and expertise to the rest of the world, these are part of a long-term vision that will allow Denmark to be self-sufficient, and in a word, sustainable.
What has the United States done in this regard? Anyone?