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How Long Can We Hang On to our Impossible Lifestyle?

Shook-up enough to Wake-up?
Most folks these days easily brush aside any message suggesting that all of humanity faces an epic crisis. However, the story suddenly becomes so disturbing no one can longer ignore the consequences of inaction. I speak as a college professor with 32 years of dedication to studying and promoting global sustainability. I admit freely to the frustration I have experienced getting the message very far beyond a small choir of folks willing to listen. Sometimes I feel as if all I can do is pray for the dead and fight like hell for what is left alive.

This morning, I read an article entitled "Eating Fossil Fuels" by Dale Allen Pfieffer.

In all of my years, I have never been hit anywhere near as hard as I have been by the power and implications of these words. My conscience as a teacher and letter writer obligates me to condense these words for, perhaps, a broader exposure. The most astounding reality remains that in this year of a presidential election, only one minor candidate has addressed the problem in any significant way.

We know that sunshine provides the energy needed to grow our food, but what most of us do not know is that we now use three times as much energy from fossil fuels than is provided by the sun to put food upon our plates. Today's agro-industrial farming methods use as much as 100 times the amount of energy than was utilized by traditional agricultural methods. Yes, the green revolution, with its higher-yield crop varieties, produced four times as much as traditional varieties. But it also now requires millions of tons of synthetic fertilizer input, millions of tons of pesticides and millions of tons of herbicides in order to do this magic. Add to this, the massive energy inputs required to manufacture and operate today's farm machinery, irrigate crops and transport produce--an average of 1300 miles for each item on you plate in the United States--we have before us an utterly unsustainable process. For every calorie you consume, ten calories of fossil fuel go up in smoke.

Pesticide use on corn has increased 1000-fold; losses of corn to pests are four times greater. It should not come as a surprise that about one person in three will contract some form of environmentally-induced cancer in his or her lifetime.

Soil erosion and mineral depletion equate to 20 billion tons per year in this country; in many areas, water is drawn from underground aquifers twice as fast as it can be replaced. It is more than ironic that the 33-fold increase in pesticide use over the past twenty years results in an increased loss to pests. To the great benefit of manufacturers, pesticide use on corn has increased 1000-fold; losses of corn to pests are four times greater. It should not come as a surprise that about one person in three will contract some form of environmentally-induced cancer in his or her lifetime.

The population of the United States is projected to double by 2050. Today, there are 1.8 acres of farmland available per person in this country. The consequence of soil loss, urban sprawl and more people will leave 0.6 acres of farmland per person in 2050. To maintain our current standard of food consumption, 1.2 acres per person is required. This year, for the first time, grain production in China fell short of consumption. Chinese delegations of grain buyers negotiate with suppliers in the US and Canada as I write. The price of grain will rise just as the price of gasoline rises.

The party is over; the petroleum bubble is about to burst. We can, of course, hang on to our impossible lifestyle for a few more years if we succeed in maintaining military control of world oil resources. Unfortunately, the consequences of our current $500-billion-per-year empire expansion to control world oil supplies fast becomes untenable in today's world.

To achieve a sustainable food supply four conditions must be met: implement sustainable agricultural practices, institute renewable energy technologies, sharply increase the per-capita efficiency of energy use and match the total size of the population to an environmentally sustainable number. A sustainable population in the united States would be half of what it is today; if world population is to be sustainable, it must drop from its current 6.3 billion to 2 billion. We have before us only three choices: reduce population voluntarily, accept mandatory population controls or be faced with a die-off through starvation and resource wars from which civilization might never recover.

In the words of Dale Pfeiffer, "The questions we must ask ourselves now are: How can we allow this to happen? And what can we do to prevent it? Does our present lifestyle mean so much to us that we would subject ourselves and our children to this fast-approaching tragedy simply for a few more years of conspicuous consumption?"

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