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Fuelling our future

New York

(CNN) -- Every day, on the streets of New York City, Los Angeles, Paris, Tokyo and Mexico City, tens of millions of vehicles choke the streets, each of them powered by fossilized fuel.

Every day, lights burn by the billions around the world; millions of televisions and computers divert, inform and entertain us, all powered by everything from coal to oil to gas to nuclear power.

Every day, small boats and huge trawlers fish the oceans to provide food for the earth's people. And every year, some of those fish literally disappear forever.

Every day, six billion humans dispose of what they no longer need, leaving behind millions of cubic yards of garbage.

  • How will we age?
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  • Will we run out of gas?

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  • Visions of the 21st Century

  • So -- 25 years from now, with so many people consuming all these resources -- will we run out of fuel? The short answer is no -- and that just may be the problem.

    Gerald Taylor of the public policy think tank The CATO Institute takes a skeptical view of environmental doomsayers . He sees such fear as nothing more than a modern-day version of the "sky-is-falling" thinking. He says resources ranging from copper and tin to soyabean and wheat are more abundant today.

    "We've heard dire predictions of the end of the world so many times now that most people, I think, are beginning to wisely discount them," says Taylor.

    But Amory and Hunter Lovins have a different point of view. They have spent their lives warning others about the consequences of what they see as an overuse of the earth's natural resources. Hunter Lovins says she doesn't think the world is going to run out of gasoline fuel anytime soon but extensive dependency on fossil fuels will have repercussions such as the greenhouse effect. The so-called "greenhouse effect" refers to the huge amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that makes the climate warmer and the air contaminated.

    "There are early signs now of actual change with weather and climate, consistent with what you would expect from the greenhouse gases we are putting in the air," says Lovins. "...I think it will soon be beyond doubt that the strong suspicion -- kind of like the link between smoking and lung cancer -- becomes unassailable."

    And that turns the spotlight on the most basic resource on earth -- water. A warmer climate raises the likelihood of drought which in turn would mean food shortages, even starvation on some parts of the planet. In a warmer world, some experts have said, water, not oil, will be the most valuable resource of the 21st century. So how expensive will a glass of water be?


    Expensive enough so that one Canadian tycoon actually wants to treat water like oil, shipping it by the tankerful to the parched regions of the world. That, in turn, has drawn fire from Canadian environmentalists who argue that treating water as a commodity will only widen the gap between rich and poor societies.

    Indeed, there are regions of the world where water is already so valuable that conflicts over who gets how much can increase the danger of outright war. A case in point is the tussle over the Jordan river in the Middle East.

    But humankind is also doing great damage to water. Take the oceans for instance. They cover nearly 80 percent of the Earth's surface and provide a major source of protein to more than a billion people.

    Peter Benchley is the man who, a quarter of a century ago, gave nightmares to millions of beachgoers with his portrayal of an ocean-going menace. Now, he says the real menace to the seas is human beings. He cites the example of the sand tiger shark whose population on the Eastern seaboard has declined by 80 per cent in the last decade.

    Which of the following will be the world's most precious natural resource in the next century?

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    "If we continue to treat the ocean as we always have, as a bottomless well of resources and also a bottomless dump, we will destroy it," says Benchley.

    The massive over-fishing of the oceans has already led to the near-disappearance of some of the world's fish. So one question for the future is: will the seafood special still be on the menu?

    If Benchley is correct, the answer would perhaps be no. "The swordfish and the tuna... the Chilean sea bass. Those are just the ones you hear about all the time. There are a lot more everyday fish that you don't hear about that are in just as bad shape," he says.

    Perhaps the biggest fallout of self-indulgence is what piles up. With people consuming more and more, an inevitable question is: Who will take out the garbage? Who can forget the story of the garbage barge sailing the coastline and waterways of the United States looking in vain for someone to take it, bury it or use it for landfill -- anything that would take it off the hands of a New York City overwhelmed by waste.

    "The average item that you buy is not in service any more six months after you buy it," says Hunter Lovins. "We throw away a heck of a lot of stuff and this costs us."

    The good news is that people are working on answers that turn the problem into the solution. For instance, at George Tech they're trying to turn garbage into lava rock so it can be used for everything from paving roads to construction material for buildings.


    Israel is experimenting with drip hoses as one way to vastly reduce the water wasted in irrigation. And at the famed Wiezmann Institute for Science, researchers are trying to turn dirty water into drinkable water.

    At the University of New Hampshire, Professor Hunt Howell and colleagues are experimenting with a "fish farm" in the Atlantic Ocean, off the coast of Portsmouth. Howell is trying to raise 6,000 flounder in the ocean which could lead to a big increase in the food supply for coming generations.

    And while there are already prototypes of much more efficient cars on the road -- such as those using natural gas, electricity, hydrogen fuel cells -- they may only be a baby step toward the future. For instance, what if the automobile itself could be used as an energy provider instead of an energy consumer? That is exactly what the Lovins are trying to do with their "hypercar." The idea is to use the car as source of power-generation using the engine's fuel cell.

    "Right now, your car is idle, just sitting, parked about 96 percent of the time," explains Amory Lovins. "But if, when it's parked and you plug in a little power plant on wheels and sell power back to the grid from the on-board fuel cell, which is clean, silent, and ultra-reliable, it will earn you enough money to pay a third to half the cost of leasing the car."


    These may seem like radical notions but in a sense, they reflect some distinctly conservative thinking: that the more we put a value on resources, the more likely we are to use those resources wisely.

    "...Doing this makes us more money, improves our quality of life, and is a lot more fun than what we've been doing in the past," says Hunter Lovins.

    For Hunter, the wisdom of the marketplace is that today's environmental concerns may seem like foolish handwringing a generation or two from now. "At the time in which oil becomes scarce, it will be reflected in its price, and then market actions will adjust accordingly."

    Text of Kyoto protocol on climate change
    The Environmental Protection Agency
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