By David Helvarg
Environmental trends such as declining sources of potable fresh-water and the recognized need to restore and give full economic value to natural water recharging services derived from watersheds, forests, wetlands, etc. pose global security issues.
Fifty years ago top White House Science and technology advisors saw the solution to future water shortages, not in water conservation but rather in building a series of nuclear powered desalination plants along America’s shorelines. This reflected the popular belief that we could compensate for any land=based resource shortfalls in protein, energy, and fresh water by turning to the seas, while also using these same waters as dumping sites for our wastes and toxins.
The world’s largest habitat, the deep seas, are threatened by commercial trawling and deep-drilling for oil and gas, as well as revived interest in deep ocean mineral mining.
The collapse of global fisheries suggests a need for restoration of marine wildlife and limited sustainable wild harvests (from a vastly decapitalized fishing fleet) combined with sustainable forms of aquaculture.
Ocean mineral mining has proven environmental risks, and we have now begun the shift to mineral substitution using various composites and petrochemical derivatives. My old metal bathtub for example, rather than being replaced was recently covered with a plastic liner, extending its life for years to come. This would suggest that petroleum is far too valuable a substance needed for the manufacture of things like sailcloth and hot-tubs, to be frittered away as a (climate altering) fuel.
Deep ocean drilling technology in the Gulf of Mexico and elsewhere is extending projected oil resources even as it creates new and unmanageable risks both to climate and to the marine environment (as does oil industry interest in mining methane hydrates from abyssal depths).
The role of whale oil in the US economy of the 1850s (as the lubricant of the machine age) and “rock oil” (petroleum) in the 1950s suggest we now have the technological capacity for a new energy transition to non-carbon systems including photovoltaics, wind-turbines, biofuels, and hydrogen fuel-cells.
A (largely) hydrogen based economy could also lead to a decentralized power grid less vulnerable to terrorism and the increased natural disasters we can expect in the coming greenhouse century.
Sustainable development of limited resources and the shift to renewable forms of agriculture, water-planning, energy and other technologies will ultimately depend not simply on earth science, but on a highly political process which will (hopefully) combine the best-available science, and society’s values to determine public policy that benefits the long-term interests of our blue planet’s varied residents, recognizing that our economy is a fully owned subsidiary of our environment.