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Our Ocean Backyard: The Limits of the Earth


History tells us that a drought is never very far away from us here in California. After a total of 0.06 inches of rain in December, February was nearly as dry with just 0.30 inches by the end of February.

Water covers about 71 percent of our planet’s surface, and we only have to look offshore to see it.

But freshwater, the stuff we drink, wash in, and irrigate our crops with, is often in short supply. Only 3 percent of the world’s water is fresh, and about two-thirds of that is tucked away in Antarctica, Greenland and in continental glaciers in places such as Alaska, the Himalayas and the Andes. This leaves 1 percent of all the planet’s water for the 7.6 billion people on Earth as well as all of the plants and animals.

Many people around the planet, and California is no exception, live in places where there isn’t enough water to provide for their basic needs. In California we have built a massive system of dams, reservoirs, pipes and pumps to just move it around. But much of the world population doesn’t have this luxury.

As a result, a little more than 1 billion people worldwide lack access to clean water, and about 66 percent — or 4 billion people — experience water scarcity for at least one month every year.

Many of the watersheds and river systems that provide the water to feed an expanding human population and keep ecosystems alive are overstressed. Around the world lakes are drying up, groundwater tables are dropping, and river flows are declining and often polluted. A changing climate is altering patterns of weather and water around the world, causing shortages and droughts in some areas and floods in others.

We are very fortunate in Santa Cruz to have a reliable water supply and we can count on safe clean water coming out of the tap when we turn it on. And most places in the U.S.have a similar luxury, although I don’t think many us always appreciate this privilege or the luxuries we take for granted here in the U.S.

We have about 4.3 percent of the global population, but we use 20 percent of global energy. On average, one American consumes as much energy as two people in Japan, six in Mexico, 13 in China, 31 in India, 128 in Bangladesh, or 370 in Ethiopia.

Americans also eat 15 percent of the world’s meat, and consume 815 billion calories of food every day — roughly 200 billion more than we need — enough to feed 80 million people. And we throw out 200,000 tons of edible food daily.

Americans also produce 40 percent of the world’s trash, and by age 75 the average American has generated 52 tons of garbage.

While there are many around the world that would like to enjoy our lifestyle, it has become clear that it is physically impossible for the 7.6 billion people on the Earth to live as the average American does. There simply aren’t enough natural resources to go around. And I wouldn’t begin to assume that anyone living in Santa Cruz is average and lives like all the other people in the U.S.

It is generally believed that humanity uses the equivalent of about 1.7 planet Earths to provide the renewable resources and absorb the wastes we create today. In other words, we are seriously overdrafting our bank account. Using similar methods to determine our ecological footprints, if the entire population of the Earth lived and consumed as Americans do, it would take about four Earths to provide for their needs.

One of the very few things that we can all agree on, regardless of our political affiliation, is that we don’t have three more Earths. Whether its energy, water or food, we are deficit spending, and its going to take a very serious effort to bring the human population back into balance with the planet before we are bankrupt. We all have a role to play.

Our planet is finite, but human potential is not. Living within the means of one planet is technologically possible, environmentally beneficial, and our only chance for a sustainable future.

Gary Griggs is a Distinguished Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences at UC Santa Cruz. He can be reached at For past Ocean Backyard columns, visit


10 Comments on "Our Ocean Backyard: The Limits of the Earth"

  1. Shortend on Sun, 4th Mar 2018 8:48 am 

    Simple like Clog head wrote… Get tankers to bring river water where it’s needed….
    Some folks lack critical thinking….never mind intelligence!

  2. Cloggie on Sun, 4th Mar 2018 9:36 am 

    Some folks lack critical thinking….never mind intelligence!

    Why don’t you give us an impression of your alleged superior intelligence by refuting my idea with arguments (based on cost, energy, infrastructure, etc) rather than with sarcasm.


  3. Jef on Sun, 4th Mar 2018 10:26 am 

    Clogged – The problem with your “idea” is that it only addresses 1 out of a hundred predicaments that humanity is facing and your idea creates almost as much problems as it portends to solve, as does 99.9% of all so called solutions.

    The real problem is all of the “ideas” that have been implemented in the past that are biting our ass so we try and address them with new “ideas”.

    Rinse and repeat until death do us part.

  4. Cloggie on Sun, 4th Mar 2018 11:44 am 

    The problem with your “idea” is that it only addresses 1 out of a hundred predicaments that humanity is facing and your idea creates almost as much problems as it portends to solve, as does 99.9% of all so called solutions.

    I have only time to address one problem, let others address your “hundred predicaments”.

    We’ll see where we strand. Sooner or later we are all going to die anyway. The interesting thing is what happens in between.

    Doomerism is an easy excuse for laziness and fondness of low standards and closet nihilism.

  5. Norman Pagett on Sun, 4th Mar 2018 12:09 pm 

    one cannot but agree with everything in this article

    but summing up—it seems to me that planet earth has recognised humankind as a plague species, and is using global warming, allied to our own stupidity, to get rid of us

  6. Go Speed Racer on Sun, 4th Mar 2018 7:26 pm 

    OK all those of lesser intellect,
    I’m here to educate all of you with
    my brilliance.

    Actually there definitely could be
    ‘Water Tankers’ which only carry fresh water.

    They could be built from thinner metal plate,
    because their cargo is always the same, and
    the cargo isn’t hazardous.

    Basically it would look more like a giant submarine, with a small permanent
    ‘conning tower bridge’ that is always
    present for crew and navigation.

    The result would be outstanding fuel savings,
    not possible with the standard hull design
    such as oil tanker.

    However. This is now the stupidest society
    in the history of the known galaxy.
    Check out the mirror fell on the little
    girl. Because they too stupid to know
    what a nut & bolt is.
    Duhh! Duhh! Duhh!
    Spit dribbling down their chin.
    The proud Americans. Put a man on the moon?
    I dont think so! Not these fat ugly rude
    gun toting loser from Georgia who put
    up mirrors in shoe stores. Duhh!


    As such, if a superior hull design with
    excellent fuel economy, could be built for
    hauling water, nobody will do it!

    Because they all tooooo stoooopid to even
    hang a mirror on a wall.

    Innovative technologies no longer allowed.
    Only stupid people dropping mirrors onto
    each other.

    IDIOCRACY !!! America, land of the stupidest
    fattest people in the known Galaxy:

    Fat Ugly, Gun Toting, Insane, and RUDE:

    DONT look for these people to show the
    necessary intellect to haul river water
    in properly designed equipment.

    Instead, look for resource wars, and they
    will all shoot each other in a battle.
    Yay! bang bang bang! Fatso’s shooting
    at each other, easy to hit their target
    because its so big.

    Nope! River Hauling Water Tanker Project?
    Not funded! Cancelled! Trump needs a
    new golf course instead.

  7. Anonymouse1 on Sun, 4th Mar 2018 7:50 pm 

    What about building giant tankers to haul sofas around the planet to all the new state-of-the-art S2E plants all the fake greentards like cloggen-cohen would like to see built GSR?

    If you had all that practically free too-cheap-to meter S2E electricity, what would you need water for?

    The tankers could be built from particle board, recycled 2×2’s, staples, and vinyl. It would be win-win-win.

  8. MASTERMIND on Sun, 4th Mar 2018 8:27 pm 

    Immigration boosts a countries economy (GDP) substantially and creates jobs.

    Source: Wharton School of Business

    What Mass Immigration Wave?

    Behold the Master Race!

    This is how you treat a White Nationalist!

    When class consciousness occurs!

  9. Go Speed Racer on Mon, 5th Mar 2018 7:30 am 

    Hi Anonymouse,
    R ya saying to build the river-water
    super tanker, out of old sofa’s ?

    Hmmm it might not stand up to the stresses
    of an ocean storm.

    BUT what we could do Anonymouse,
    is load up the river water tanker with sofa’s for fuel. And use those to
    feed the boilers for the steam propulsion.

  10. Dredd on Mon, 5th Mar 2018 8:57 am 

    We are a hundred years behind what we need to know concerning oceans and ice sheets (On The More Robust Sea Level Computation Techniques – 9).

    Because of Oil-Qaeda.

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