Civilization, Extinction Crisis, Sustainability

Facts to Ponder

Over the years, I have occasionally retained some facts that reflect the magnitude of damage to the living world by this modern way of living. The facts below are a little old at this point, but still relevant today.

From The Hydrogen Economy by Jeremy Rifkin:

• Every day, an average city of 1 million people requires over 4 million pounds of food, 625,000 tons of fresh water, and 9,500 tons of fossil fuel, most of which is transported over long distances and powered by polluting fossil fuels.

• The Sears Tower in Chicago consumes more energy in one day than a city of 150,000 people.

• To sustain the annual beef consumption (CAFO style) of the average American household requires the consumption of 260 gallons of fossil fuel that releases 2.5 tons of additional carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, equal to what an average car emits in 6 months.

• It takes one pound of coal to create, package, store and move two megabytes (2MB) of data according to cyberspace analyst Peter W. Huber in Forbes Magazine, May 31, 1999. That is a ton for every 4 gigabytes.

From World Wildlife Fund’s Living Planet Report 2002:

• The exploitation of the Earth’s natural resources is 20% higher than the natural capacity of the planet to replenish itself.
• The Earth has 28.12 billion acres of productive land and sea – about 4.7 acres per human, but the average consumption per person is about 5.7 acres.
• The typical African consumes resources equivalent to 3.5 acres per person per year. Average European consumes 12.4 acres. Average US citizen consumes 23.7 acres – over 5 times the rate of sustainable consumption.

From a backgrounder paper for the July 2002 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development conference in Johannesburg:

• The Earth has lost almost 10% of its forests in the past 10 years.
• Carbon dioxide emissions are expected to rise by 33% in rich countries and 100% in the rest of the world in the next 17 years.
• Extinction of species is now reaching 11% in birds, 18-24% in mammals, 5% of fish and 8% of plants.
• By 2020, transport is expected to account for more than half of all global energy use.

Of all these, I feel drawn to expand on the embodied energy in computer data. A ton of coal for every 4 GB. The computer on which I type this has 1.5 GB of memory in the hard drive. That means it took 750 pounds of coal (or an equivalent of some other energy form) to make and ship this 20 pound device sitting on my desk. Of course, the manufacturers have gotten a lot more efficient in the last 13 years since that data was published, so maybe it is only 300 pounds of coal for a PC. I’m sure a lot of people think that is totally acceptable. But do those people live near a mountain-top removal coal mine? Or down-wind of a coal-burning generation plant? Or downhill of a tailings pond full of toxins?

And here is one more fact, pertinent to our region. This comes from Friends of the River:

The existing reservoir behind Shasta Dam pumps 224 tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere on a daily basis. This is equal to 14,500 automobiles driving 40 miles a day.

To repeat myself, the earth is finite. So infinite economic growth is impossible. No one needs the latest, fastest hardware. But everyone needs clean air, water and soil.