We are inundated these days with constant predictions of doom and gloom about the demise of the world as we know it due to a perceived Global Warming crisis that will destroy animal life and damage the earth to such an extent that Man will be threatened with extinction. You have certainly seen and heard the predictions about Global Warming making the oceans rise and flood great stretches of coastal areas around the world. I would prefer hard science being reported in the news outlets rather than conclusions regarding this issue. Far too often the issue is being treated as a crusade rather than a serious intellectual discourse. Maybe the earth will warm, maybe the oceans will rise and maybe the Sun will have a huge solar flare in the next year and radiate half the world’s population into oblivion. Before we worry so much about fossil fuel use we should concentrate our concerns on another problem for our future that is more threatening and not subject to much objective disagreement. We are running out of useable water.
From time immemorial Man has been dependent upon water and energy for his survival and for all progress toward a more civilized and abundant society. Even the earliest hunter-gatherers needed water to survive and they needed energy of one sort or another to manage and thrive. We die without water and we can’t produce crops without water. Eygpt became one of the earliest viable civilizations because of the Nile river and its ability to irrigate the land for crops; likewise ancient Babylon rose to prominence due to the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers and their life giving waters. The early energy came from the muscles of Man and the animals he could tame and fire and wind for sails. That energy was enhanced by the early engineering skill of man and the use of levers, pulley, ramps, wheels and other mechanical devices. All advances in man’s civilization and productivity were tied to energy and water. All the ancient empires and Kingdoms were where the water was. You don’t hear of empires in the middle of the Sahara desert for good reason–no water and no source of energy.
A few facts would be useful. You have heard many times that the earth is about 70% water. That is a reference to the surface area of the earth. Of all the water on earth 97% is salt water in the oceans. That only leaves 3% that is potable or fresh water. Of that 3%, 2% of it is locked up in the ice on Greenland and the Antartic continent. Of the remaining 1% only a small portion is in our lakes and rivers. Most of that 1% is underground in the water tables. A goodly portion is also in the water vapor in our atmosphere. It is a thin margin we have available to water our crops and for consumption in drinking, cooking, cleaning and sewage treatment. Don’t forget the huge quantities of water used in our industrial processes. That is an enormous requirement for virtually all manufactoring. The history of Man is replete with wars and struggles over the use of water and access to water. Modern society does not draw its water from a well, pail by pail and we do not treat our water by boiling it in a pot on the stove and we don’t discard our waste in latrines dug in the back yard. We need energy to move that water and to treat it. Great portions of our industries need vast amounts of water to function. Why do you think all the great manufactoring centers are located on the waterways? Look at a map of the modern industrial cities from the Ruhr River valley to the Thames to the Ohio or the Yangtze.
No one knows the exact world population but most estimates put it at well over 6 billion now and growing exponentially. All those new folks will want and need energy and water–lots of both. Advanced and civilized societies depend on great amounts of relative cheap energy. Everything you use requires energy. Your car, your computer, the lawn mower, the alarm clock and that big plasma screen TV. Your job or profession wouldn’t exist or would function in a completely different manner if it had reduced energy available. We use so much we take it for granted. Everytime there is a major weather event what is the number one thing that everyone complains about and causes the most distress and even injury–the lack of power. That is usually the first thing people complain about–no electricity.
The fights over water rights and use of water are legendary in the US now and only getting worse. Up and down the Ohio river there are disputes about water use. Oklahoma and Texas have serious disagreements over the Red River and the building of new reservoirs. Out west the list of serious arguments are too many to mention but California, Arizona, Utah, Nevada, Colorado and virtually every state in the west are in battles over water use and availability. Our science may find news sources of enegy and I hope they do. Someday we might have hydrogen engines or even nuclear power packages as small as a refridgerator. Solar and wind would be great but I doubt they will ever be productive on a large scale. We can cope for energy needs for the next few generations without an energy breakthrough. We do have options–the fossil fuels and nuclear. The growing population in the rest of the world will demand it and use it regardless of what we think or do. They will not pay exhorbitant prices for energy when they can use coal. They want their TV’s and A/C units too and they want them as cheaply as they can get them.
What we can’t wait on is water. If the population increase continues then the horror of world famine and war will be real based on the lack of water for what?—9, 10 billion people before the turn of this century. I don’t think they will die for lack of breathable air. It will be for lack of potable water. That resource is much more finite than our capacity to create energy. We will find a way to make energy other than with fossil fuels some day. I am confident of that. Unless we focus on the real science and envoironmental issue of water though we will face an Armageddon. Maybe the lack of water is what will ultimately reduce the population growth. Mother Nature can be a very cruel dictator. She disposes and we have to adapt to whatever the conditions may be or become extinct. Enjoy that next Perrier, it may be your last.
Men may believe what they cannot prove. William Douglas.