It’s not only commodities we need to find substitutes for if we are to survive. Some of our most passionately held beliefs need overhauling, too.
We can all agree, can’t we, that we need to find substitutes for many of the things we have taken for granted over the past half century and more. In some cases it is not so much finding substitutes as ending the use of commodities that are themselves substitutes for earlier materials.
Plastic is probably the most ubiquitous of these. In its many different forms it can replace metals, natural fibers, leather and glass. Unlike the materials it replaces it is not easy to recycle or reuse; it does not degrade biologically, returning to its “natural” state. That is why it has become one of the most serious causes of damage to the environment and a threat to sea born and air born life.
Fossil fuels constitute another commodity that we have come to take for granted over the last century. From global warming to the increasing difficulty of accessing what remains now that we have taken the most easily gathered coal and oil, we need to increase our use of alternatives — or learn to do without.
Meat and dairy make up the third example of these problematic products. Vegetarians and vegans insist that using only plant products for human food consumption dramatically increases the productivity of land used in that pursuit.
Which takes me to the underlying issue, often referred to as “the elephant in the room”, which I have previously written about — population growth.
But first let’s examine the possible implications of the ways in which we might replace each of the three groups of commodities listed above.
Some plastics can be manufactured from natural materials, others, those that are replacements for materials like wool, cotton, silk and leather, can be eliminated by increasing our use of those natural products. This will require the diversion of land from food production to the growing of plants for their fiber.
In the case of some such products, wool and leather for example, food is a natural by-product. In other cases fibers are a natural by-product of food production, being usually the inedible portion of the plant which can be separated from the digestible element. The coconut is an example of this. I am sure you can think of others.
Alternative sources of energy are available via wind, solar, tidal and wave power. Development of he first two of these is already well advanced and set to continue at an increasing pace. Whilst wind and solar “farms” occupy large land areas, the most suitable locations for them are in areas that are generally unsuitable for the most productive agriculture — high places, deserts and coastal waters.
The generation of bio-energy, unless confined to the combustion or digestion of waste products, necessitates the growing of crops for the purpose, on land that might otherwise be used for food production.
And so we come to the third substitution suggestion — eliminating animal products from our diet. I am concerned here only with the land use issue. Ethical considerations, and the question of whether it is possible to imbibe sufficient nutrients by consuming only vegetable derived foods, are separate matters. Given that the replacement of plastic, if it is to be achieved on a meaningful scale, requires the diversion of significant areas of land from food production, as do some forms of bio-energy, the idea of reducing our dependence on animals offers an attractive trade off.
But for how long? The last two centuries have seen food production increase by amounts unimaginable by men like Thomas Malthus. This has been achieved by various means, most of them controversial, from the destruction of rain forest and wilderness, to chemical fertilizers, herbicides and insecticides, to laboratory genetic modification. And all the time population has continued its relentless increase.
It is impossible not to conclude that further increases in agricultural productivity, however achieved and despite competition for other demands on land use, will simply push the crunch moment further down the road. We can, some assert, feed 10 billion, if the political will is there. Then what? And what about the other resources that those 10 billion will need to sustain them? Housing, health care, care of the elderly and infirm. All are at a premium now. How will we cope with a potential 40% increase in demand over the next 80 years?
However hard we push at the boundaries, however innovative we are, we cannot escape the fact that the planet is finite. We can increase the habitable land mass by constructing artificial islands, creating underground cities or climate controlled enclosures near the poles. One day we will reach breaking point. It will not surprise you to learn that I am one of those who believe that point is well within the lifetime of people alive today.
We avoid the question of population because it involves too many difficult ethical issues. Subjects like eugenics, euthanasia, abortion. Like deciding who “deserves” to live or die and on what criteria. It involves potentially massive changes in most of our cultures.
Questions like who can claim to be the “Chosen People”, the ones whose right to access the planet’s resources over rides that of the rest?
Does it mean that our aversion to sexual practices that avoid the procreation of children, already disappearing in secular societies, should be inverted, with heterosexual practices condemned except among those whose genetic make up is deemed to be beneficial to humanity as a whole?
One thing is certain: we have not seen the last of the resource wars or the religious wars. Many people say modern wars are about greed. Maybe they are. I suspect that even in the darkest days of history wars were more about need than greed. That is certainly what they will be about in the future.