Cherniak: Understanding the environmental impacts of the ‘over’ life
February 25, 2019
On an average day, the planet's 7.7 billion humans consume vast amounts of fossil fuels. According to the International Energy Agency we process or burn the following: 100 million barrels of oil, 350 billion cubic feet of natural gas and 20 million tons of coal.
That's enough oil to fill a 2,200-acre lake, 6 feet deep; enough natural gas to fill 3.5 million hot air balloons, and enough coal to fill 180,000 railroad cars stretching over 2,000 miles. Again, that's just one day.
It's no surprise that the U.S. consumption of these hydrocarbons is outsized relative to the rest of the globe. We make up only 5 percent of the Earth's population but on an average day, the U.S. consumes 20 percent of the oil, 23 percent of the natural gas, and 10 percent of the coal.
As a result, we generate and introduce incredible amounts of solid, liquid and gaseous waste to our air, land and waters. This includes everything from the soot and hydrocarbons produced by the burning of oil, the methane released during the extraction and transport of natural gas, the particulates, heavy metals and ash generated from the burning of coal and the carbon dioxide produced by the combustion of all three.
There is no doubting the importance of these fossil fuels — as well as natural resources like arable land, water, wood and other plants. Our infrastructure, our economy and the technologies that support and drive both are primarily carbon-based. Our education and health care systems rely on carbon in many different forms. You could say that even our dreams and aspirations — to pursue a career, own a home, drive a nicer car, and lead an experience-filled life — are all carbon-based or at least carbon-reliant.
But do we go too far? Have we un-coupled ourselves from our consumerist behavior and the impacts that this behavior has on our resources and environment? I believe we have. We pursue the "over" life. We over-shop, over-eat, over-build and then over-decorate. We over-fertilize and over-water our lawns. We over-medicate ourselves and over-litigate each other. We over-analyze, over-accessorize and, for God's sake, over-whiten our teeth.
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We over-want and we want it over-night. We accumulate stuff at such volumes and rates that we no longer have room for them in our homes. According to the Self Storage Association, there are approximately 52,000 self storage facilities in the U.S. That's as many facilities as there are Subways, McDonalds and Starbucks in the U.S. combined (per the restaurant industry journal QSR).
The result is that the planet's ability to provide finite and sustainable resources to increasing populations and growing demands has reached a limit. We are cleaning out nature's pantry at a rate that she cannot possibly re-supply. At the same time, Earth's ability to absorb and process the pollution generated by our wasteful habits has reached a breaking point.
In this column in the coming months, I hope to focus on three themes: 1) Our over-consumption of natural resources — from fossil fuels to forests to water, minerals and meat; 2) The impacts this consumption is having on the health and welfare of not just the planet but ourselves; 3) The integrated responses we as individuals, businesses and institutions will need to develop and employ to reduce our ecological overshoot and mitigate environmental impacts, all while building resilience, adaptation and acclimation to a warming world.
The Earth's physical, chemical and biological balance and flux is being re-set in ways, and at rates, never before measured or observed. The impacts this re-set is having on our environment — and, in turn ourselves — will vary in type, time, frequency, location and magnitude. But two things are clear: The nature of the planet is changing, and we are the nature of that change.
Chris Cherniak is a professional civil/environmental engineer who has worked as an environmental consultant since 1985.
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