This month, the United Nations announced that the earth is now home to 7 billion people. That’s 7 billion mouths that need nutritious food and clean water, 7 billion sets of lungs that need unpolluted air to breath, 7 billion bodies that need adequate clothing and shelter.
In other words, the need to find sustainable means of meeting the basic needs of our fellow human beings just got a little more urgent.
When one looks to the United States as a potential model for the rest of the world to follow, it becomes immediately clear that replicating the current American model on a global scale is simply impossible.
Composing about 5 percent of the global population, American consumers already account for 22 percent of the world’s fossil fuel production, 33 percent of the world’s paper and plastics, and emit a staggering 24 percent of the world’s carbon emissions. In other words, the American consumer-polluter “diet” is five times what it should be, at least using the system that’s currently in place.
Interestingly enough, overcoming such binge consumption and pollution is actually not as insurmountable a challenge as it might initially seem. The reason: The majority of American overconsumption and over-pollution hinges on the country’s overuse of one thing—fossil fuels.
You see, not only are fossil fuels a finite source of fuel for our cars and heat for our homes, but they’ve become needlessly interwoven with some of the most basic components of American life. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, coal, petroleum and natural gas accounted for 70 percent of all American electricity production. Meanwhile, renewable energy sources make up a meager 10 percent.
To put it another way, all but a sliver of the power that we rely upon actually comes from sources that, by the governments own implication, will eventually run out.
On top of that, fossil fuel-derived petrochemicals go into the creation of countless consumer goods. These include chemicals such as propylene—which are found in pharmaceutical products, rubbing alcohol, personal care products, and children’s toys—xylene—found in dyes, home furnishings and furniture, and auto parts—ethylene—found in plastic bags, milk bottles, mouthwash, and cosmetics—and several others.
Next time you go to the store, try to count how many products you normally buy contain one of those three petrochemicals.
Finally, over 90 percent of American greenhouse gas emissions—the primary trigger of global climate change—come from the combustion of fossil fuels. Taken in light of the fact that the U.S. comes second only to China in terms of global carbon emissions and these two countries account for more than 40 percent of all annual emissions, this statistic becomes quite telling.
It all comes back to fossil fuels.
Unfortunately, discussion of decreasing dependence on these prehistoric substances has become increasingly controversial in recent years, so much in fact that it has become a key part of a candidate’s political platform. Those who deplore talk of increasing investment in alternative energy argue that it’s too much too soon or that the “free market” will ultimately resolve the problem. Some of the more ambitious critics even go so far as to suggest that there is no persuasive connection between fossil fuel use and global climate change—not to mention respiratory problems, reproductive harm, and cancer—making the argument that changing course so “prematurely” would be a waste of resources at our disposal.
Granted, when one puts it that way, it does seem silly to waste something that powers our vehicles, homes and businesses and composes popular consumer items. However, it only seems ridiculous when one operates under the far-reaching assumption that fossil fuels exist solely for us to violently extract from below the earth’s surface in order to chemically alter and burn them.
Nevermind the trouble the planet initially went through to bury the substances that we now dig up so haphazardly.
For those who have reached the point of acknowledging that our model is neither sustainable nor healthy, the absence of a perfect consensus in the scientific community—apparently 98 percent of working climate scientists isn’t enough of a consensus for some—is not enough reason not to take swift action.
To them, making the switch as soon as possible is a win-win situation.
If we change to alternative energy and find out that global climate change wasn’t as big of a threat as we once thought, they argue, we are still better off than we were. With the exception of those whose massive fortunes depend on the scarce, finite nature of our current energy resources, who wouldn’t want the assurance that their energy comes from a source that is just as vibrant and viable as it will be in 100 years? Much more, even if climate change were not an issue, who wouldn’t prefer to depend on energy resources that don’t emit waste products that threaten their health and general safety?
In other words, what’s the risk—other than multibillion-dollar profits that are ultimately pulled out of the suffering American economy—that makes increased investment in alternative energy such a scary decision?
Moreover, putting the unemployed back to work installing solar panels, building wind farms, and making the grid more sustainable is an economic stimulus plan with abundant long-term benefits. And it couldn’t come at a better time. Not only would it reinvigorate the demand upon which the American economy relies; it would help make the United States into a model that’s worthwhile, not to mention possible, to emulate.
By decreasing our dependence on these age old substances, substances wrought in turmoil and given to widespread harm that far outlives the brief pleasure gained by such small fraction of the human race, only good can come.
Better sooner than later.