An Argument for Sustainable Material Progress

Peter Brennan

            The process of industrialization and continuing technological development in humanity over the last 200 years has certainly changed our position with respect to the environment.  There is no doubt that industrialization has helped us to more extraordinarily manipulate the environment, sometimes to devastating effect.  However, it is also true that through that process of evolving manipulation, which began with industrialization and continues today with new technological advances, we have gained a new appreciation and understanding for our effect on the environment.  Never before have humans recognized the effects of their action to such a degree as we do today.  The silver-lead mining operations carried out under the Roman Empire amounted to 15% of the lead pollution of all leaded gas emissions in the 20th century.  Modern societies may pollute more, but the Romans could never have recognized the environmental effects of their mining as we do.  Therefore, with no doubt over the presence of the effect, the argument is over the degree of that effect, over whether it is sustainable.  Some argue that we are using the Earth above its carrying capacity, and it cannot sustain the effects of our industrialized and overpopulated societies.  Perhaps, however, with our growing understanding and appreciation for our environment, combined with continuing technological development, we can mitigate those effects and fully master the environment. 

            Perhaps the most immediate environmental threat in favor of the unsustainable growth argument is that posed by global warming, melting ice caps, and rising sea levels.  While it can be shown that large annual fluctuations in the carbon dioxide growth rate are due to natural effects such as ocean transport or dying leaves, the average increasing trend matches the increasing trend of fossil fuel emissions.  Another greenhouse gas, methane is ten times more powerful the carbon dioxide, and is most widely produced by the farting of cows, an animal for which humans are distinctly responsible.  More disastrous than mere cow farts, however, Methane lies frozen in much of Earth’s icebergs, and can escape if they melt.  Evidence of global warming is readily available, with 2001 being the 2nd hottest year in a century.  This is particularly meaningful because the hottest year, 1998, was boosted by El Nino, which elevated surface temperatures around the world by .2 degrees Celsius, while in 2001 fell during the Southern Oscillation, when the tropical pacific is much cooler.  Global surface temperatures have risen .75 degrees Celsius in the last century, but .5 degrees of those in the last 25 years alone.  The situation of global warming melting the ice caps presents the danger of a threshold, or tipping point, where our emissions will be irrelevant once a certain temperature is reached and melting begins.  Once the melting has begun, the temperature will continue to increase because the melted ice will absorb the sunlight it would otherwise have reflected.   Dr. Jonathan Overpeck from the University of Arizona, Tucson, claims that rapid ice sheet melting is already underway, and is inevitable and irreversible.  His research team, using computer models to simulate the earth 130,000 years ago when it was more tilted on its axis providing more solar radiation on the polar regions, predicted a rise of 1 meter per century. 

            The sustainability argument relies on the assumption that we will never run out of some supply of resources, mineral or energy.  Of course we may run out of certain sources of energy, oil being perhaps the most immediate, but with some new development, or “tech fix,” we will adapt.  Mineral resources are not in any danger, since they are never actually consumed or destroyed.  While it is true that ore reserves are losing concentration, it is also true that newer mining plants are refining lower and lower grades of ore.  If all the mines were exhausted, the scrap piles would become the new sources of ore.  That being said, the arguments for global warming are well supported, and the danger of rising sea levels is more real than that of empty mineshafts.  A switch in mainstream energy generation would accomplish the needed reduction in emissions, switching perhaps from coal to nuclear power for electricity.  Oil would be harder to substitute with nuclear power, but the electricity generated could be used to split hydrogen, which could then be used as a fuel.  The resources for nuclear power are more abundant in the world than one might think.  Approximately 4.6 *10^9  tons of uranium are present in the 1.4 *10^8 tons of seawater on Earth, enough to power the Earth’s consumption of 650 GW for 7 million years, according to Bernard Cohen, a Professor Emeritus of Physics at Pittsburgh University.  Uranium can be extracted from the seawater by drying it and using amidoxime to absorb the correct salts.  Cohen estimated in a 1983 paper that Uranium could be extracted from seawater for about $400/lb, or an equivalent of 1.1 cent/million BTUs.  In comparison, Coal is 1.25 cents/million, oil 5.7, and natural gas is 3-4 cents/million. Perhaps these changes in energy usage will occur naturally, as a result of declining oil stocks, the market, and new sources of energy.  In fact, the market system may be a pseudo-tech fix to deal with the problem of declining energy sources, if not greenhouse emissions. 

            Material progress, the continued manipulation of our environment may seem folly in the face of so many prudent warning signs.  However material progress, uncertain though it may be, ahs been our path throughout humanity, and is certainly better than stagnation.  With rising greenhouse trends and tipping point dangers, all the stagnation one could hope for could be useless.  At least with continued development we might hope to overcome the technological challenges facing us from the environment.  The process of industrialization and further technological development has led us to abstract ourselves even more from the environment we live in, and occasionally to destroy it.  With our new and growing understanding and knowledge of the environment maybe we will take the final step in our abstraction, and move from manipulators to symbiotic caretakers.  As an engineer, I hope that this will be the case, and believe that material progress is sustainable.



Stanford Professor Emeritus John McCarthy’s pages on progress and its sustainability:

BBC: “Sea rise could be ‘catastrophic’”:



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last updated 5/12/06