Threats to the world are not new, but somehow, they seem more serious to me now than they appeared to be earlier in my life. Part of this skepticism was that the dire predictions never really came true, but there seems to be a gradual confluence of events that appears to be inexorably leading to serious environmental consequences if not global collapse. The existential threats to the planet include a dwindling food supply, lack of enough potable water, an energy crisis and global climate change. Each of these portents of doom are described in detail in a delightful book, The Wizard and the Prophet. In a sense each of these crises represents a separate challenge while in another sense they are all interlocked and interrelated. As if that isn’t enough to worry about, we face the prospect of more plastic than we can manage. Are these crises merely manufactured to advance special interests or are we doomed? I have reviewed the book elsewhere, but I wish to expand on the challenges we face in a two-part series this week and next.
Alarmists? We are being warned by many activists who currently are being inspired by the efforts of teenager Greta Thunberg and octogenarian Jane Fonda. Ms. Thunberg is currently at the UN climate change congress, COP25, in Madrid, while Ms. Fonda is leading Friday protests on the threat each week in Washington DC. The message is that the science is clear and leaders around the world are being urged to “DO SOMETHING!” Not just anything, however, as traditional strategies such as carbon markets are being rejected to chants of “The sky is not for sale.”
Even more reasoned voices such as those of David Attenborough and Christine Legard are sounding the alarm. Evidence of damage to global health include increases in mean temperatures, atmospheric pollution, rising sea levels, disappearing islands, and increasing numbers of intense tropical storms. These warnings are not gentle ones. Time is running out we are told. If we don’t do something very soon, civilization as we know it will be over! Dramatic reductions in emissions are needed by 2030 suggest some activists while others say that we have until 2050. To meet these targets, we can’t wait until things get much worse. Even if we start making a concerted effort today, it might not be enough soon enough to head off the environmental apocalypse.
Are these climate activists merely alarmists or do we ignore their warnings at our peril? If they are right, we could be in deep trouble as most of us are either skeptical or not listening. Numerous books such as We Are the Weather, reviewed last week on this site, are adding to a call for action. This book suggests that even if we are concerned, if we don’t take concerted action now, we are just as culpable as those who deny climate change.
Deniers. The most prevalent attitude today is still denial, at least in the need for immediate action if not in attitude. Our current government is firmly in the hands of skeptics of climate global change and its potential consequences. Although many hopefuls in the crop of 2020 Presidential candidates have issued warnings, the most prominent climate activist among them, Jay Inslee, has been forced out of the race. Many governments around the world are taking action to mitigate potential effects of environmental degradation. The United States, on the other hand, appears to willing to wait until disaster strikes, if it really happens, and then adapt accordingly. Changes to the environment are happening too slowly to raise the general alarm, but once they happen, it becomes too difficult reverse trends to prevent even further consequences.
But haven’t we been hearing these warnings for years? I have read many books on related threats in the past including Silent Spring, The Population Bomb, The Limits to Growth, The Twenty-Ninth Day, Global Food Futures, 2052, and The United States of Excess. All of these books point to the threat and to possible solutions. I have not seen this much concern about the environment since the 1970s. Somehow these protests feel different, however, as a counter-culture movement appears to be going mainstream. Actually, smaller percentages of the world population are going hungry today than several decades ago. Sure, things are changing for the worse, but we have a good economy, and many of the measures proposed cost lots of money. What if we spend too much, wreck our economy, and everything goes along as it has for so many years?
Fatalists. In The Wizard and the Prophet, Lynn Margulis, a neighbor of the author, holds the view that there is no point worrying over the planet. Mankind is doomed according to this perspective, just like any population of organisms that outgrows its nutrient supply. It is not the planet that is in danger, it’s only the people. Many other species may go down with us, but nature will make a comeback with or without us humans. All this talk of saving ourselves contradicts biological dogma and the sigmoid curve associated with population dynamics. In the end it is unlikely that mankind will be smart enough or unified enough to avoid the impending catasrophe. World population is projected to level off somewhere between 9 and 9.5 billion about 2050 when deaths will balance births as we transition from our current log phase to a stationary one prior to a death phase. How long we will be able to maintain a steady state before a general die-off will depend on many factors.
Is there a solution? But wait! Maybe we are not doomed after all. Two distinct tribes of people point to solutions. The Wizard and the Prophet introduces us to wizards who look to solutions through technology and prophets who proclaim conservation as the answer. There are problems with each approach, and the large gap in the way that each tribe views the world precludes simple compromise. More on this topic next week.
BTW, I urge anyone interested in the big picture with respect to our current food system and the culinary environment we live in to read Rachel Laudan’s piece “Toward a Culinary Ethos for the Twenty-first Century.”
Next week: Can we save the planet through conservation or technology?