Monday, June 5, 2017

What Nature Provides

Suppose we lived on this tiny island with palm trees and beaches, fruit and fishing, and suppose we depended on a rain barrel for fresh water.  
Rainfall Accumulation greater than or equal to our Water Needs means we'll have enough.    RA ≥ WN = OK
Rainfall Accumulation less than Water Needs means some will not have enough, inequality intrudes.   RA < WN = NOT OK

That's an obviously simplistic introduction to the question of sustainable existence. Nature replenishes what resources it can, but there are limits.  We store what surplus we can, but there are limits there as well.

The natural cause-vs-effect is mathematically predictable. In a finite system such as an island or a planet, resources and consumption can be mapped over time. The system will progress toward equilibrium or toward exhaustion.

We suspect that current trends in population and resource-use are unsustainable, but how it might play out remains unknown. Might modern civilization collapse? We commonly portray human civilization as a relentless flow toward greater social and political complexity, economic specialization, and the development of more complex and capable technologies, all sustained by the mobilization of ever-increasing quantities of material, energy, and information. Yet this is not inevitable. In fact, cases where this seemingly near-universal, long-term trend has been severely disrupted by a precipitous collapse – often lasting centuries – have been quite common. A brief review of some examples of collapses suggests that the process of rise-and-collapse is actually a recurrent cycle found throughout history.

Safa Motesharrei -- School of Public Policy and Department of Mathematics, University
of Maryland; National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC)
Jorge Rivas -- Department of Political Science, University of Minnesota; Institute of
Global Environment and Society (IGES)
Eugenia Kalnay -- Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Science; Institute of 
Physical Science and Technology, University of Maryland,
and a family friend.  Interesting lady.  :)

For today, such modeling can be reasonably applied to arable land use, water, forestry, fishing, pollution, toxic waste, population density, and inequality between elite and commoners.

The Colorado River, for example ...

Texas Senator Troy Fraser says, “The health and safety of the public overrides both industrial and environmental issues.”  

The senator is speaking about the Colorado River that flows through Austin, the state capital that is almost entirely reliant on the river for water. There is a competition among farmers, tourism, residents, and fishermen for the river's water. Rainfall has become sporadic in recent years, and the river's threshold for sustainability has been passed. For central Texas, now comes the choice of who gets the water.  Much is at stake.  What might the outcome be?

There are limits in every finite system.  Beyond the basics of consumption, the first critical variable is population size. Efficiencies of use will determine how much is wasted. Inequality will amplify risk for the majority.  Environmental changes introduces an additional variable.

Fortunately, there are solutions to each problem,
but you can't fix what you don't acknowledge.  

We'll perhaps need a more comprehensive discussion than we've managed so far.
The debate continues among scientists and interested observers, of course.  This isn't the first time doomsday criers have filled the air with dire predictions.  It continues to be difficult to extract objectivity from it all.  Meanwhile, things continue to change, and several thresholds are now behind us.

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