We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope!

Martin Luther King Jr. said  “We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope!”

Geologists have a habit of thinking that a million years is a short time – and in a sense it is. After all, the earth has existed for about 4,500 million years. For four-fifths of that time, single-celled organisms ruled the planet. Multi-celled plants and animals are believed to have developed only during the last 20% of that time. Humanity appeared only during the last sliver of earth’s existence.

One problem in trying to explain the oil crisis to young people is that few students are studying geology. Instead, they are majoring in economics, chemistry and engineering. Indeed, the very idea that there is a debate about the fact of global warming illustrates the problems that ensue when the populace is ignorant about science and geology.

Global warming is real. However, some of those who deny it compare temperatures now to those in the 1720s. On the face of it, this seems logical. After all, widespread coal burning began in 1720, heralding the advent of the Industrial Revolution. However, the comparison actually is spurious. Temperatures were different in the 1720s because the Little Ice Age extended to 1850. No one would want to go back to the cold temperatures of the eighteenth century. Weather patterns have fluctuated over the centuries, and human memory is short. Not so long ago, a glacier thousands of feet thick extended from Hudson Bay to New York City. Study the rocks in Central Park and you will see glacial scratches that are a mere 15,000 years old – a wink in the vast gaze of time.

The question posed is how to develop a sustainable approach to the environment, and how to learn the lessons taught by other important natural resources that already have been exhausted. For example, the last mine for excavating cryolite, a material in aluminium, ran out in 1987. Luckily, making synthetic cryolite is relatively easy. The future may bring other shortages of raw materials. For instance, the phosphate supply will only last about 300 years. Of course, an oil shortage would be quite different. Mankind has no readily available oil substitute.

Human societies and their governments must face real resource constraints and adopt forward looking policies, such as nurturing innovation, fostering conservation (“a euphemism for doing without”), setting better energy efficiency standards and making better use of existing technology (diesel-powered cars, nuclear power, wind turbines). Sometimes, it is even feasible to combine two “symbiotic” processes, such as growing crops that also can be fuel sources, for example bagasse, the “burnable waste” left when the sugar is removed from sugar cane.

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