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Fossil fuels: definitions

The original problem statement said this: "Scientists know that our supply of fossil fuels is limited, and that burning fossil fuels is a factor is changing the Earth's climate. But many people do not believe that dangerous. Nor do we have a solution that satisfies enough people to make it politically feasible." And stated the problem like this:

The global problem: how can we define and describe the fossil fuel situation so that people can understand it?

So far I've come up with a very general systems model that is shown via two diagrams. The Public Attitudes diagram shows that what people think about the situation influences and is influenced by media coverage and that it also influences global economics and politics. Embedded in that diagram is a second diagram showing the events involved in the Global Use of Fossil Fuels.

public viewglobal use

In effect, this model simply shows us the three original assumptions:

1. If the amount of fossil fuel in the ground is fixed, it will eventually be depleted,

2. Use of fossil fuels has an impact of some kind on the environment,

3. The global economy is connected to the use the fossil fuels.

And adds one more observation:

4. Information media and public opinion have an effect on the use of fossil fuels.

If the model is to help us better understand the situation, then we need to add more detail to the model. So the next step is to gather more data. We might, for example, ask questions such as: What are fossil fuels? Where do they come from? Who produces them? How are they used? What benefits do we get from them? What problems do they cause? Are there fuels that are not fossil fuels? Why are they not more used?


Since this problem is very large, for the purposes of this example I am going to give myself a boss. So assume that I have been hired by a large non-profit organization dedicated to promoting the use of renewable energy sources.

This organization wants to conduct a public information campaign in the United States to explain to people why they should switch from fossil fuels to renewable fuels. (Renewables include solar power, hydroelectric power, biofuels and the like.) Unlike fossil fuels, renewables can be produced continually for many centuries. However, at the moment renewables are not widely produced ... and this makes them relatively expensive.

Working for a company that has given me a specific objective ... in this case "promote the use of renewable energy" ... helps narrow my focus as I design the systems model. I am now looking for topics ... something that the company can talk about in advertising and publications ... that will help convince people that everyone needs to use less fossil fuel.

WAIT! Time out. Aren't I about to support one side of an argument? Isn't that biased? Isn't bias evil? What's going on here?!

Yes, I am going to support one side of an argument. And, no, I'm going to do my best not to be "biased" ... if by "biased" you mean lying, cheating, ignoring facts or otherwise pretending that reality is other than how I believe it to be.

(Those things can work, by the way. Some people are just so lazy or ignorant that they will believe almost anything. But most of the time, if you are speaking in public, your comments will be checked by other people and challenged for completeness and accuracy. There's really little practical long term advantage in lying and cheating, although you can get ahead that way occasionally in the short run.)

If by "biased", you mean supporting one side of an argument, then I don't see your problem. Arguments happen when ideas come into conflict ... and to resolve an argument the facts on all sides must be presented. So ... on this issue there are "sides", and one side has hired me to help them present their arguments.



So back to the problem. An hour or two of searching on the Internet provides quite a bit of basic information. fossil fuelsThe Arabian Penninsula, Russia, China and the United States produce the bulk of the world's fossil fuels. Interestingly, the various fuels seem to have different general uses:

There is nearly unanimous agreement that fossil fuel deposits were formed from the remains of plants and animals that lived many thousands of years ago. There is no agreement as to the exact amounts of coal, gas and oil that remain in the earth. However, there is nearly unanimous agreement that the supply is limited.

The diagram to the right summarizes this data. The minus sign (-) on the source and the plus sign on the sink (+) are meant to show that the supply is being used up over time.

("Fracking" of natural gas refers to a new process called "hydraulic fracturing" in which hot liquids are pumped into rock formations to fracture the rock and release the gas. This process is currently in use in the United States.)

Benefits and Costs

Coal, gas and oil are the source of most of the world's electrical power, heating and transportation. Because they are so widely used, their negative environmental byproducts have a large effect. The result of this is that the cost/benefit analysis is very complicated.

benefits     costs

These data came from many sources. Search the web for the name of the fuel and "benefits" or "costs".

For example, coal is a very dirty fuel, but it is also the cheapest to obtain. We can develop technologies that "scrub" the pollutants from the coal, but these add to the cost.

If environmental impact was the only problem, we could probably develop a chart of trade-offs of economic costs versus environmental benefits. However, we have the additional problem that fossil fuels are diminishing in supply.

Since we are going to run out of these fuels fairly soon, and since they have an adverse envrionmental impact, it seems obvious that we should be looking for alternatives. This leads us back to the problem, which relates more to communication than to geology:

The global problem: how can we define and describe the fossil fuel situation so that people can understand it?

Isolate One Aspect

On the one hand, this is a large, complicated situation that is difficult to describe in its entirety. On the other hand, changes in the situation have a direct impact on the daily lives of many, many people.

Since the problem is one of communication, it may be possible to pick one aspect of the larger situation and use it as an example to illustrate how the coming changes might impact on people's lives.

As an example, consider food production and distribution. Food is something that everybody uses every day. As the supply of fossil fuels decline, and the price rises, the cost and availability of food will change. Similarly, the adverse environmental effects of air pollution impact on the quality and availability of food supplies. Since people tend to take the food supply for granted, maybe talking about these changes will grab their interest.

If I can locate the relevent facts and then create a clear description of the relationship between fossil fuels and food production and distribution, I might be able to demonstrate the situation in a way that people will relate to and understand.


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