While America sleeps

December 06, 2018 by Denis Pombriant

Part 1 of 2

Civilization faces four major existential threats in this century. They have overlapping and sometimes contrary requirements. They need to be tackled together for they will not resolve separately.

  1. Population overshoot or too many people sharing the planet and its dwindling resources.
  2. Energy and infrastructure including dwindling petroleum reserves and a need to develop a renewable energy paradigm. Inadequate infrastructure including water systems, roads and electric grids vulnerable to hacking.
  3. Carbon pollution and a need to remove some carbon from the environment.
  4. Water and resource allocation, we’ll need to make things like fresh water that we’re accustomed to getting for free from the ecosystem.

Not having the US performing its usual locomotive function to change the world exposes all of us to a very unsettled life as we go deeper into the 21st century.


Global population will reach 10 billion around mid-century, if we’re lucky. It could go higher. That’s like adding another China and another India to today’s world. As we do today, governments and economies will struggle to provision resources that will make existence worthwhile for billions who do not share the benefits of modern life. It’s likely there will be more poor people even if we eliminate profound poverty in which people live on less than $1.0 per day. If they want the kind of life that we have, will they fight? Will they acquire nukes?

Much has been made of the possibility that extreme poverty could be eliminated by the 2035. Indeed, governments and NGOs like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have done well to help bring extreme poverty down from 1.8 billion people in 1990 to 767 million in 2013.

But we should keep in mind that this progress is only relative. Extreme poverty defines a category of people who live on less than $1.90 per day. Raising our sights over the two-dollar bar is very important but it won’t be the end of the story because there are other measures to consider. For example, according to a World Health Organization and UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme report, in 2010, one in 10 people lacked access to safe water and 2.4 billion people (or 1 in 3) lacked access to a toilet. Those numbers are likely better today but not to the point that the problems  are gone.

Rising population is exposing the shortcomings of capitalism in the modern world. In a system with winners and losers, there are too many losers. Population growth has made things like water and energy increasingly scarce commodities and has impoverished millions and this is eating away at the global middle class. Cape Town, South Africa ran out of water in April and the city is getting by with bottled water and it is rushing to build desalination plants.

As recently as 2007 Cape Town received awards for its visionary approach to managing its water but nothing could prepare the region and its people for the capacity of global warming to cause drought.

Cape Town isn’t alone. The Syrian civil war has roots in a 2006 to 2009 drought that caused farmers to leave the land and move to Syria’s cities where there were inadequate resources and jobs. When Arab Spring erupted the Assad regime, with the help of its Russian sponsors, opened fire on the population causing millions to flee to Europe via the Mediterranean. The diaspora upset local politics throughout Europe and contributed to a rise in nationalism and Brexit. Those effects are still being felt around the world.

The UNHCR estimates that there are 68.5 million forcibly displaced people worldwide including 25.4 million refugees. The difference in these designations is that displaced people might remain in their countries, refugees have left their countries. Also, 57 percent of refugees worldwide came from three countries, South Sudan (2.4 million), Afghanistan (2.6 million), and Syria (6.3 million). What’s particularly fearsome about all this is that today’s refugees are often middle class. Many are educated and held skilled jobs in their home countries but life in many countries is becoming intolerable in part because of climate effects or their associated consequences.

Energy and Infrastructure

Yes, roads and bridges are in bad shape in the US, but so are dams and let’s not discuss airports right now. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers keeps an inventory of 90,000 dams across the country and 70 percent of dams in the US will be more than 50 years old by 2020. Almost 2,000 state-regulated, high-hazard dams in the US were listed as being in need of repair in 2015.

Not all dams are used for hydro-electric power generation; some just hold water for irrigation and other human needs. Dams on major rivers like the Columbia and Colorado rivers make it possible for so many Americans to live in the arid west by providing electricity and water for living and irrigation. But drier conditions caused by climate change put less water into western rivers reducing the amount of water behind the dams for irrigation and electricity for daily living.

We also have to deal with growing petroleum scarcity. You can’t tell from the headlines because fracking has helped the US to more than double its petroleum output to about 10 million barrels daily. But the back story is that this isn’t new or recently discovered oil. It might surprise you to know that just because we know there’s oil in the ground doesn’t mean we have the ability to get it out. Today’s output is coming from known reserves and fracking is simply a more sophisticated way to get more oil out of the ground.

A 2013 article in The Guardian states, “Official data from the International Energy Agency (IEA), US Energy Information Administration (EIA), International Monetary Fund (IMF), among other sources, showed that conventional oil [production] had most likely peaked around 2008.” The article quotes Dr. Richard G. Miller, who worked for BP from 1985 until retiring in 2008, saying, “We need new production equal to a new Saudi Arabia every 3 to 4 years to maintain and grow supply. . . .New discoveries have not matched consumption since 1986. We are drawing down on our reserves, even though reserves are apparently climbing every year. Reserves are growing due to better technology in old fields, raising the amount we can recover—but production is still falling at 4.1% p.a. [per annum].”

Like anything you can name on earth, petroleum is available in limited quantity. That might be a lot, it might be an inconceivably large amount, but it isn’t infinite and some day it will run out. Given the reality that carbon pollution is poisoning the planet and that it’s running out, it would be prudent to make a concerted push to get to another energy platform. There’s enough renewable energy to do the job but changing the energy paradigm is a frightful exercise in economics. There are trillions of dollars invested in fossil fuel infrastructure and a solution to climate change goes right through that knot.

Carbon pollution

Climate change should not be exclusively a story about emissions. We can’t get out of our predicament simply by lowering or even eliminating emissions. It’s too late for that. According to an article in the New York Times, “The World Needs to Quit Coal. Why Is It So Hard?” 1,200 coal fired power plants are being planned or are under construction and 75 percent of them are in Asia where emerging nations must satisfy basic energy needs for swelling populations and where there is a lot of coal.

Those plants are under construction because there are few low-cost solutions for electricity generation on the market. Renewables can carry the load, but small countries especially, may not have the square miles to dedicate to solar and they might not be able to afford non-polluting options. But the leap in the standard of living that coal fired electricity brings makes it an imperative.

It doesn’t have to be like this. Geothermal systems offer a non-polluting option and there’s plenty of heat energy under the continents to make renewable baseload power sufficient to meet our needs and to replace fossil fuels. In part two of this piece we’ll look at geothermal and other options.


Of all the resources civilization needs, water might be the one we all overlook because it seems abundant, a need we’ve taken care of. But even if all the dams were in good shape there would be issues of future supply. Call it water stress. We know about Syria and Cape Town, South Africa but other countries like Nigeria, Somalia and Iran all face stress from not having enough water to supply their populations. Last year the World Resources Institute warned that 33 countries face extremely high water stress in 2040.

To be succinct, water is not taken care of. The global water infrastructure needs shoring up and continued population rise escalates demand. There’s a lot of water on the planet but only a small portion of it is potable at any time and humanity is reaching a point when we will need to provide what rains have traditionally given for free.

Producing water and other resources represent a new and fast growing source of energy demand. Desalinating sea water or cleaning grey water so that it is useful and disease free will cost a lot in energy and there aren’t many options for where to get the energy. That’s why, when we consider a new energy paradigm we have to think about providing much more than current transportation and power generation needs demonstrate. Renewable energy has to become abundant and cheap so that it can take care of needs we may not have considered yet.

Part one conclusions

Incredibly, despite the dire nature many of these issues present, they are relatively solvable given enough time and resources. But time is running out and resources have to be earmarked for specific tasks; that requires leadership.

While there are numerous available solutions for every need exposed by climate change, the global community still has to come together to take actions that will change the arc of the challenge.

But leadership is actally a secondary consideration. The primary concern today is how we frame the issue of climate change so that we garner the attention of the citizenry. By far reporting in the media has been narrowly focused on proving the problem of climate or disproving the deniers.

What’s missing right now is a robust discussion of solutions. Climate change is a cluster of problems that humanity has to solve together, like Rubik’s Cube, but we remain too narrowly focused on emissions. Like solving a Rubik’s Cube. Solutions to this puzzle start by acknowledging that you don’t simply try to get all the tiles on one side to line up, you have to solve all sides at once. That’s what makes the puzzle fun.

Climate change is no different. We’ll need to attend to multiple overlapping problems outlined here to arrive at a solution that controls climate and weather with an approach that provides a decent life for the 10 or so billion people scheduled to be present in 2050. There’s time and there are solutions which we will examine in part 2 of this series.


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