Being conservative

There is debate between scientists and politicians over if or when the world will run out of oil. Some scientists project that the peak of the world’s oil production is already over. Others predict that with rising prices, harder to reach oil reserves will be tapped as the profitability of doing so also rises. Logic tells us, however, that if we are using up 90 million barrels of oil each day, someday in the future we will have used up all the earth’s accessible oil. Before we get to that point, oil will be so expensive that it will be used only for those things that are essential and available only for a prohibitively high price.

Some pundits, like the “Grand Forks Herald” editor, Tom Dennis, according to a recent editorial, believe that we will never run out of oil. He believes the laws of supply and demand will reduce oil use as the price of oil reaches highs. He stated that high prices will make alternative fuels competitive and consumers will be forced to become conservative by the rising cost of petroleum and therefore the last drop will be too expensive to use up.

Placing our trust in human cleverness and the market’s infallibility to produce reasonable, reliable alternatives to all the things which depend on petroleum in our world seems to me to be folly. We have the ability and the creativity to find alternatives now to drive further into the future that inevitable day when the last drop is put in a vault somewhere, too expensive to use. We do not have the political will to adopt policies which would require oil prices to reflect the real costs of its use. We seem determined to burn it all as fast as we can without regard for the cost to the environment or to future generations.

Perhaps even more crucial to life on earth is our lack of conservative thought when it comes to water. A study by Tom Gleeson, a hydrogeologist at McGill University published in a recent edition of the magazine “Nature” suggests we are already past the point of peak water in many of the world’s aquifers.

The Ogallala Aquifer, which lies under much of the middle of the United States, is the source for most of the water used for irrigation in Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas. Ninety-five percent of the water pumped from the Ogallala is used for irrigation and the water table is dropping. Some scientists estimate that it is possible for this giant, ancient underground lake could be pumped dry within the next 25 years. Water is being pumped out many times faster than it is trickling back. The same thing is happening around the world as farmers pump water to irrigate crops and water livestock and neighboring cities attempt to provide clean water to growing populations.

While irrigation systems have become much more efficient in water use, the spreading drought across the country and around the world is placing unsustainable demands on ground water.

Add to the equation a growing population with growing food and water demands and disruptions of rain patterns due to global climate change. The projected end of cheap oil looks like a small problem compared to the potential world water shortages.

Of course, water problems could conceivably also be solved with human creativity, ingenuity. The free market might take care of this shortage as well.

What happens, however, when water is too expensive? One only has to look at parts of the world today. Women, specifically poor women, in water short areas spend 200 million hours a day collecting water for their families. A child dies from water-born illnesses every 20 seconds. Even though the statistics have improved slightly in the last ten years, the number of people in the world without access to clean water is more than three times the population of the United States.

Can we simply allow the theoretically free, but frequently manipulated, market to balance out supply and demand for water? Who will die of thirst because they can’t afford a drink?  How will declining water resources be allocated between thirsty cities and farmers crops? A free market would allocate resources to those who can pay. If agribusiness can pay a higher price for water for irrigation of crops, are poor children just out of luck?

Do we have to wait until we have reached the limits of the earth’s abundance of fuels and water before we find ways to use our resources conservatively and responsibly? It seems to me that placing our faith in the free market to save us from our wastefulness is ignoring the sins of greed and shortsightedness and leads to abuse of the gifts we have been given. Creating a sustainable future for the world’s children will require us to adopt truly conservative policies to preserve the earth’s abundance.

Copyright © 2012 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains