2002 Denver Annual Meeting (October 27-30, 2002)

Paper No. 1
Presentation Time: 1:30 PM


ERNST, W. Gary, Geological and Environmental Sciences, Building 320, Room 118, Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305-2115, ernst@geo.stanford.edu

Demographers estimate our numbers at 9-10 billion by 2050. By then, 90 percent of humanity will reside in the Developing Nations. Due to the worldwide information network, this is the first global generation to become acutely aware of the high standard of living confined to the Industrialized Nations. The grossly inequitable distribution of wealth, due largely to resource exploitation, is politically destabilizing and must be ameliorated.But can ten billion people be afforded comfortable lives without destroying planetary habitability through exhaustion of the Earth’s natural capital? We now control a third of the terrestrial net primary biological production, and our share is increasing. Modern societies are sustained by extraction of fossil energy, water, and other Earth materials far exceeding planetary renewal rates. Island communities provide sobering examples of the extinction of cultures that have overexploited their environments. Accordingly, humanity must reach a steady state involving universal mineral resource recovery and conservation. Utilization of renewable resources at or below replenishment rates and near-total recycling of nonrenewable Earth materials can only be accomplished employing widely available, inexpensive energy. But the Second Law of Thermodynamics dictates that a portion of the mineral resources and most of the spent energy are irretrievably lost. Scientific research-generated technological advances providing production and ubiquitous availability of low environmental impact, cheap energy will be essential to preserving steady-state resource utilization. Assuming technical, economic, and political success in achieving universal prosperity, the World ecosystem will be severely compromised through increased human consumption of terrestrial mineral resources. Heightened air and water pollution, loss of biodiversity, fisheries, topsoil, tropical rain forests, and global warming are already well underway. Habitability, biospheric equilibrium, and ecosystem sustainability—the very carrying capacity of the planet—will be at serious risk. Thus, the greatest long-term challenge facing humanity is how to preserve a functioning, viable biosphere.