THE UNSOLVED DILEMMA OF DEVELOPMENT
A new apartment building rises high above a line of tanker trucks carrying diesel
to fuel a thermal electric plant in Rio Branco, the capital of Brazil's western-most
Amazonian state of Acre.
[Note - November 10, 2010: Andrew Revkin has featured this post at his Dot Earth blog at the NY Times.]
Recently, the 20th Anniversary United Nations Human Development Report (issued last week) was full of good news, summing up the trends in a simple headline: "People are healthier, wealthier and better educated" and that is certainly true in Acre where the economy is thriving and the population is expanding rapidly (a 27% increase in the last 10 years and probably much more in the coming decade).
Andrew Revkin has an intriguing post about the contradictions of such human progress at his Dot Earth blog. It carries a far more ambiguous headline: "Growth on a Finite Planet – So Far, So Good".
"So far, so good" because the real crunch is yet to come. As humans progress, the health indicators for natural systems are clearly trending in the opposite direction. Last May on World Environment Day the UN Millennium Ecosystem Assessment reported:
* Though the exact number is impossible to determine, an unprecedented mass extinction of life on Earth is occurring. Scientists estimate that between 150 and 200 species of life become extinct every 24 hours.
* There have always been periods of extinction in the planet's history, but this episode of species extinction is greater than anything the world has experienced for the past 65 million years – the greatest rate of extinction since the vanishing of the dinosaurs.
* This mass extinction is due, in large measure, to humankind's unsustainable methods of production and consumption, including the destruction of habitats, expanding cities, pollution, deforestation, global warming and the introduction of "invasive species".
Nevertheless, Indur Goklany, assistant program director on technology and science policy at the U.S. Department of Interior observed:
Until the start of the Industrial Revolution, mankind was poor, hungry, illiterate, constantly at the mercy of disease and the elements, and short-lived; child labor was the norm; and one's life opportunities were predetermined by sex and parentage. Today, despite an octupling of the world’s population, mankind has never been wealthier, better fed, less hungry, better educated, longer-lived and healthier; less constrained by caste, class, and sex; and 75 percent of global population is no longer mired in absolute poverty. This progress was enabled by economic development and technological change driven by cheap energy... (Dot Earth)
And "cheap energy" still means emissions-belching fossil fuels. Cheap energy means gigantic hydroelectric projects that destroy biodiversity and traditional people. Cheap energy drives human development. Cheap energy drives global warming. And cheap energy drives the destruction of nature.
Yes, fossil fuels are still cheap (meaning available). That word "cheap" sounds strange in Rio Branco where the cost of automobile grade gasoline is nearly the US dollar-equivalent of $7 per gallon in a national economy where the starting salary for a university professor is $12,000 and for a physician is $24,000 (2010 income statistics at Wikipedia.) But, as long as it fuels economic development or comfort, it is considered as a necessity among middle-class car owners and air-conditioned apartment dwellers.
And where does the diesel come from? Normally, it is barged from Manaus to Porto Velho and then trucked 600 km to Rio Branco. But this year's record-breaking Amazon drought (thought to be a harbinger of global warming-induced climate change) has made the water level on the Madeira River too low for barge traffic. The trucks lined up at the thermal electric plant (below) have traveled over 3,000 km (about 2,000 miles) from São Paulo to feed development's insatiable appetite for energy.
Where are the new sources of energy being sought? There's oil exploration in western Acre and across all of eastern Peru. Brazil and Peru have signed an energy pact whereby Brazil's development bank will finance five new hydroelectric dams in Peru that will send 80% of their "cheap" energy production to Brazil. And all of this is taking place in a region of intact forests, isolated tribes (some uncontacted) and one of the great centers of Amazonian biodiversity.
Yes, cheap energy drives development of a better life for humans and it also cheapens life by running roughshod over the web of life in which humans are embedded. "So far, so good?" Time will tell.