In the following series of posts, I plan to write, as simply as possible, about the current state of the world as I understand it, the problems we face and what we can do about them. My hope is that they are informative without being difficult and generate discussions, debates (and even actions) from anyone who cares to read them.
These days, it is hard to figure out after reading the news if we are moving forward in the right direction or if we are headed for a big disaster. In fact, it is hard to even know which direction is forward. Some people say that it depends on how you look at it – is the glass half-full or half-empty? But that doesn’t make sense. If tomorrow, country A drops nuclear bombs on country B, all glasses in country B will be broken, weather half full or half empty. The point is that there is a reality that is independent of our perception and trying to understand it is a worthwhile exercise.
Problem 1 – Our Dependence on Fossil Fuels
What are fossil fuels? Fossil fuels are substances found below earth’s surface that are used by us as fuel.
The three main fossil fuels are:
By now, you already know a few of its uses. Cars, scooters, airplanes and almost all vehicles are powered by petrol.
However, they are used a lot more than you might be aware. About 67% of the electricity used in the world is generated using fossil fuels. All large scale agriculture now uses fertilizers and pesticides made from petroleum which means most of our food now depends on it. Cement, which is the basic building material for buildings, roads, dams, airports etc is manufactured from petroleum. Plastic is manufactured from petroleum. So all the plastic you see in electronics, vehicles, cooking utensils, toys, plastic bags etc is made from petroleum and then transported using petroleum. All industrial activities like mining, transportation, manufacturing, packaging and distribution require large quantities of fossil fuels. About 82% of the total energy used in the world comes from fossil fuels.
Here are 2 simple exercises.
Exercise 1: Look around you and name one thing that has not been manufactured and transported using fossil fuels.
Exercise 2: If all fossil fuels were to suddenly disappear tomorrow, how long will you survive?
The answer for most people is 7-10 days. Water stops flowing through the taps, there’s probably no electricity or internet to get any information and you can’t go too far without your vehicles.
Unfortunately, the second exercise is not completely imaginary. Fossil fuels are non-renewable, which means once we use them up, they cannot be created. The rate at which we are using them, they will be finished in about 30 to 70 years.
As you can see, people in the first world countries use much more energy than people in the third world countries. In fact, they use even more than these numbers indicate. Let’s take the example of an iPhone that’s made in China and used in USA. The minerals are mined and transported to the factories in China, the electronic components are made in China and the phone is assembled in China. Huge quantities of fossil fuel is consumed in its production. The iPhone is then used by someone in the US. The graph above would show that fossil fuel being used by China but it was really used by the USA. USA, in this case, has simply exported its fossil fuel consumption using something economics. But more on that later.
Many of you are now already thinking about the various solutions – alternative energy sources like nuclear, solar, wind, hydroelectricity and biofuels. Before we discuss them however, we need to understand a few other related problems. Otherwise, the solutions we try to come up with might fix one problem while making another one worse. In the next post, I’ll discuss climate change, another problem that threatens to take us into a dark age.