It was over two centuries ago — at the threshold of the First Industrial Revolution — that demographer Thomas Malthus augured the dire consequences of unchecked population growth. His initial worry was that the number of people in developed countries would eventually exceed the countries’ agricultural means and force a regression to subsistence living.
This tipping point, dubbed a “Malthusian catastrophe” by modern demographers, would supplant our cars with horses and our supermarkets with backyard farms. Though new technologies have allowed food production to keep up with population growth, Malthus’s old model has been adapted to fit new scenarios, most notably the rate of oil production. Even some of the more optimistic estimates warn that global oil production will peak within the next 10 years. Couple this startling timeframe with the fact that the world’s population growth rate won’t stabilize until 2050 and will later peak at 9 billion people, and it’s hard not to wonder whether our beloved tech-craze may be on its last leg.
Of course, there are those who claim that technology always trumps the threat of disaster, just as it did with Malthus’s agricultural model. Some point to the popularity of hybrid cars as an indication of change for the better. But most of the electricity that’s used to manufacture and (in the case of plug-in electric models) power these cars is made by coal power plants. What’s the sense of trading one limited, dirty resource for another?
Others insist that the efficiency of nuclear power plants will save us, but the upturn of natural disasters predicted by global warming experts has called the whole process into question. The near meltdown of Japan’s Fukushima reactor shows us that no amount of micromanagement can guarantee safe nuclear fission. In fact, Germany has already committed to dismantling its 17 nuclear reactors by 2022 in light of overwhelming public concern.
What are we to do in light of these circumstances? It hardly seems fair to refuse India and China pieces of the prosperity pie that the United States has buried its face in for the last century. But if the growing middle classes of these and other developing countries repeat our mistakes and demand their own cars, trucks and SUVs, the amount of oil consumed by their immense populations will make past complaints of American excess look like myopic temper tantrums. Even the threat of oil depletion would pale next to the consequences of the increase in carbon dioxide emissions these countries could emit.
Solar, wind and biomass energies are among the safest, most sustainable alternatives to our current system. Critics dismiss these sources as expensive, undeveloped and inefficient. But when you consider that the highest-paying major over the course of a career for today’s college student is in petroleum engineering, it’s clear that the problem is one of bad priorities rather than feasibility. In a society that worships the god of the bottom line, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the best and brightest are turning down the opportunity to develop alternative energies when the best money is dirty money.
My hope is that we abandon nuclear power and foreign oil and follow the precedent set by Germany. As the world’s first renewable energy economy, Germany derives 17 percent of its electrical power from solar panel technology. The program welcomes open participation with a “feed-in tariff” plan that gives landowners the right to house subsidized electric generators (wind turbines, solar panels, etc.) on their property. The landowner is paid for any energy produced on his or her property, including the energy landowners use for their own purposes. Plus, there’s an added bonus if the landowner produces enough electricity to feed extra power into the public grid.
Germany’s multi-party system allowed politicians with a measure of reason to win office and shape public opinion to ensure the program’s success. It’s easy to shun our own agency by blaming our federal government for lax energy policies. But let’s face it: We can’t expect a two-party system to champion our best interests when politicians on both sides of the coin have burgeoning investments in big oil. I’m not suggesting we overhaul a system that’s seen Americans through generations of struggle. I’d instead urge everyone who’s not completely shortsighted to rise up and demand the system address the problems of the present day, with a collective voice too loud to ignore — louder than corporate lobbyists, diesel engines and the hammering of pump jacks.
Tim Rabb is an assistant editorial page editor.