Thursday, May 26, 2011

What's the big deal?

For a change I'm not being sarcastic - I mean this in the literal sense. The world has a lot of problems - what is the "biggest"? If you wanted to choose one thing to focus your efforts on, what would it be?

Population / Consumption

These two go hand in hand. Our 7 billion people very likely exceed the carrying capacity of our planet. But it's not just the number of people, it's how much each of them consumes. 100 primitive jungle tribesman consume a tiny fraction of what 100 affluent Americans consume - in terms of food, oil, energy, land, etc. Americans consume a lot more than Europeans for much the same standard of living. Although our population growth has slowed down*, consumption is set to go through the roof as countries like China and India try to match American standards of living. Unfortunately, we did too good a job of marketing our consumptive lifestyle. China is following up its one child law with a one dog law. Makes sense to me. We need to both reduce our consumption and reduce our population. Of course, neither is a popular suggestion, or very likely.

Side story: An older gentleman was asking if I had kids. I said no and of course, he asked why. I gave my standard answer - Shelley and I are too busy with work and travel. Usually people are satisfied with that, but he pushed for more of an explanation so I admitted the other big reason is that there are already too many people. He was quite taken aback. All he could say was "Too many people?!" Yeah, too many people - 7 billion of us on this bus and we're running out of gas.

* Making a big deal out of the fact that population growth has slowed is like making a big deal out of the fact that your debt isn't growing as fast as it used to. The bottom line is that it's still growing.

Climate Change

I think it's horrendous that we (humans) have managed to pollute the earth so badly that it is changing the whole climate. But I suspect this is more of a human problem. In geological time, the earth has seen hot spells and cold spells (ice ages). Even if we managed to flip the earth into one of it's hot spells, Gaia* will likely be fine. It'll just cause a whole lot of havoc for human beings. Of course, in the short term, a lot of plants and animals will go extinct and the ecosystem will shift drastically, but that's old hat for Gaia. Out climate has been altered in the past by giant meteorite impacts or huge volcanic eruptions. Although I'm not sure I find it reassuring that human effects are "no worse" than global disasters like meteors.

* When I say "Gaia" I'm not talking about anything magical or mystical, I'm just using it as a convenient way to refer to the gestalt of the earth's systems - biological, chemical, and geological.

Loss of Biodiversity / Habitat

In many ways this bothers me the most. If we just left a good chunk of the planet alone, the ecosystem and biodiversity would be ok, despite almost anything else we did. But as human population and consumption (e.g. land for McMansion acreages) rises, our human infestation spreads to every corner of the planet. We plowed up all the prairie grasslands. We're doing our best to cut down all the forests. We are trashing the oceans. Once these habitats are destroyed, and the species that live in them die out, it will take a long time to come back. The damage of the last hundred years will take thousands or even millions of years to repair itself.

Peak Oil

Peak Oil is not a sudden disaster, it's more like crossing the halfway point in a holiday. Likely we've already passed it and our oil production will slowly decrease from now on. Of course, we all still act as if consumption will continue to increase indefinitely. It doesn't take a Ph.D. to see that decreasing production and increasing consumption don't fit together very well. Something's got to give. We live on a finite planet folks.

The problem is, our whole civilization is based on oil. We humans hit the jackpot when we found oil, and like most lottery winners, we've been on a spending spree ever since, with no thought to what will happen when it runs out. Without oil we can't produce the food we need. Without oil we can't meet our ever increasing energy needs. Without oil we can't have all the consumer goods we've become attached to.

I used to think that science and technology would save us. There's a small chance we'll get fusion and nanotechnology etc. before the oil runs out. But I no longer hope for that. It would simply prolong our delusion of infinite resources, without changing the fact that we live on a finite planet. We'd simply expand to fill the earth entirely, wiping out even more of the ecosystem.

My current fantasy of technology saving us is if we can make a smart enough artificial intelligence that it sees how bad a job we're doing and takes over for our own good. It wouldn't be ruled by greed and corruption and delusional short term thinking like we are. Alternately, the AI might see how much damage people are doing and simply get rid of us. Another possibility is the singularity, which by definition we can't see beyond. But I don't think these scenarios are too likely.

In the long run, running out of oil will probably be a good thing for the planet. Unless we hit another jackpot like fusion, we will be forced to reduce our population and consumption. The bad part is that the transition won't be pretty. The death throes of our oil empire are liable to be ugly. And it's likely to be a long slow painful death.

Time Frame

Many of our problems our caused (or at least exacerbated) by our short term thinking. Corporations focus on the next quarter, politicians on the next election. Most of us, both personally, and as a culture, seem more than happy to borrow from the future to have what we want today. Who cares if oil is going to run out in the future, I want a big gas guzzling vehicle today. Who cares if I can't afford the mortgage, I want a big McMansion today. Our whole civilization is on a "buy now, no payments till …" binge.

But most of the big problems are on the timescale of tens or hundreds of years and are impossible to solve with short term thinking.

On the other hand, if you take a long enough view, any problem disappears. Don't like our civilization? Wait a few thousand years and it'll change. Worried about species going extinct? In a few million years, almost all the current species will be extinct regardless. The sun will burn out some day, the universe itself will probably end. So maybe none of these current problems are worth worrying about.

Or to be totally selfish, most of these problems won't really cause big trouble till after I'm dead, so why should I care? The standard answer is that we should care what we're leaving for our children. But I don't have any children, and from what I see of people with children, they don't seem to care any more about the future than anyone else.

If your house starts falling down, do you say "no problem, I'm moving next week" (short term thinking) or "no problem, eventually it would be replaced anyway" (overly long term thinking). Or do you say "this is a good house, we might as well maintain it"?

And so the question becomes, what is the right timeframe to think in terms of?


Honestly, I don't have one, I wish I did. I can imagine an earth with a much smaller population, consuming much less, powered by sustainable energy, with an undamaged ecosystem. But I can't see how to get from here to there.

So my question remains, if you had to pick one big problem to focus your efforts on, what would it be?

PS. Wondering about the conspicuous absence of "human" problems in this list? It's not that I don't care about starving kids in Africa, income inequality, human justice issues, worker conditions, cruel dictators, etc.. I do, I'm human, I empathize. It's just that, to me, the destruction of the earth's ecosystem is a bigger issue. Of course, I'm all for people working on solving human problems as well.

PPS. Yes, being on the train gives me too much time to think! (Especially if I'm also reading books like The Long Descent)

1 comment:

  1. Some time ago I gave up believing that we would make any progress on these problems. I just don't see much progress in the right direction and what little we are doing isn't nearly enough. Not even close. And then we have so many working so hard to deny climate change, encourage consumption and maintain the status quo. There's no hope, IMHO. I just do what I can on my own, but I don't really believe it will make any real difference, other than to me.