There is a cycle of life on this planet. A simple cycle might be the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide between plants an animals. Animals breathe in oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide. Planets take in carbon dioxide and give back oxygen. If you put a bunch of animals and planets in a sealed room everything will be ok as long as these to sides of the equation stay in balance. If there are too many plants the ratio of oxygen to carbon dioxide would get out of whack and the plants would suffer until equilibrium is restored. If in this sealed room something else upset the cycle and leaked out one or two of our necessary gasses. Eventually both the plants and animals would suffer because there is a limit to the amount of resources available to sustain the cycle of life. If both plants and animals continue to multiply eventually they will hit a limit where they can no longer sustainably grow.
The whole earth ecosystem is much like this room, except that it is much more complicated and much larger but the same rules apply. Humanity takes a lot of things out of the lifecycle, or at the very least we misallocate it. In the wilderness animals eat plants, animals take some of those nutrients and grow and leave the rest behind as waste. The waste goes in to the soil replenishing it. Other plants can grow. In some cases insects eat the plants and animals eat the insects and some animals eat other animals but all the essential resources keep cycling through the whole system. If the conditions change so that one type of animal becomes too dominate eventually the life cycle will curb its growth and things return to a natural equilibrium.
Humanity takes resources and builds a lot of things don’t break down well and thus aren’t returned in this life cycle. Sometimes we poison it, sometimes we just stick in big pile where it doesn’t do any good, sometimes it just finds its way to a great big floating garbage dump in the middle of the pacific ocean. The more we misallocate these resources the less efficient the system works and the less able the system is to support life.
Everything is recycled and nothing comes without a cost except for the energy from the sun. While it too is a finite source of energy, there is so much energy in the sun that it in our limited life span it is essentially free. Up until the industrial revolution humanity lived off the energy the sun gave us each year. The energy of the sun would spur the growth of food, and animals, some which provided us concentrated sources of energy like oils and wood. We used this oil and wood to create heat and light.
Then we discovered massive repositories of solar energy in the form of coal, oil and natural gas. We harnessed this energy to create complicated energy intensive systems. They made our lives so much easier that most of us could shift from chopping wood and growing food to things as specialized as fixing computers and brokering mortgages. As we used this stored energy our population exploded. We became worried in the 60’s and 70’s that we would quickly get out of equilibrium with the ecosystem. However we found ways to use that massive storehouse of energy in the production of food. We took these finite storehouses of natural gas and other fertilizers to increase the yield of our farms.
Eventually there will come a time when we hit the maximum amount of energy we can extract from these fine stores of energy at a given time. After this point the amount of energy we can extract from our resources of oil, natural gas and coal will begin an unyielding decline. It appears we are getting very close to this point. Currently we have a few viable options we should have one main goal. We must restructure our lives and our systems so they we can live within the allotment of energy we receive each year from the sun. It would be best if we used our “bonus energy” to help us transition to that state. What happens if we wait until our “bonus energy” has so completely run down to begin the transition? Things will be very very tough.
The hard reality is, our way of life is too energy intensive to sustain if all we had was the energy the sun gave us each year. We are out of equilibrium in terms of our relationship with the environment, the economy and energy. The only way we can get back to equilibrium, to live within our means, is downsize, simplify and localize.
I believe the biblical imperatives of working towards justice and following the principles of stewardship compel us to change, and to lead change in our communities. The voracious consumerism that marks our generation is sin, and a sin that impacts more than just ourselves. For every resource that we waste it needlessly decreases the supply and makes it that much less accessible to the poor.
These issues have weighed on me heavily. They have compelled me to insulate my house, recycle what we can, move closer to potential work, plant a garden, and operate small vehicles. While I feel like I’ve made a lot of progress it still have a long way to go. This spring we expanded our garden and added a greenhouse. We are looking at more home upgrades including solar air heating and a wood stove. Moving steadily towards a sustainable life is hard but rewarding.