Humanity lives in a Petri jar. The vessel is called Earth. It has a diameter of just under 8,000 miles, pole to pole; just under 25,000 miles in circumference at the equator. That's remained fairly constant over the past couple of billion years or more.
Stable as the Earth is, its human occupants are not. After the odd near-miss where our species was almost wiped out, over the course of the Holocene, the abbreviated geological epoch that lasted around 11,000 years, we gradually grew in numbers until we hit the one billion mark around 1814, give or take.
Then we discovered cheap, abundant fossil fuel energy that could be harnessed to generate first steam power and, as coal gave way to oil, internal combustion power. It might have taken 11,000 years to grow to the billion mark but, thanks to cheap and abundant fossil fuel, it only took one century, about a hundred years, to double that billion. Another half century, roughly, took it to three billion. Another half century of utterly rapacious fossil fuel consumption swelled three to more than seven billion hurtling to nine and, before this century is out, possibly twelve billion. Do you get the idea this might have become a problem?
Now the seven plus billion people today don't have a lot in common with the billion folks of 1814. They didn't have fossil energy so they didn't have stuff. They had to make do with wind energy or animals for transport. Factories were pretty much reserved for making muskets and pistols. People didn't have big screen TVs or toasters. There were no showrooms selling the latest SUVs. All that had to await the fossil energy's greatest creation, the Industrial Revolution that, in turn, ushered in the Age of Science. And, with that, we were away to the races.
Compared to our ancestors of 200-years ago, we've grown - we're taller, often far fatter, and, thanks to science, we live about twice as long. We eat more foods, a lot of stuff our ancestors would have found exotic transported hundreds, sometimes thousands of miles to our local stores. They raised and grew their food and that was pretty much their lot. When I lived in London, foodstuffs such as butter and lamb arrived in the holds of ships that had traveled from New Zealand and Australia. In Canada we still don't grow citrus but we sure use loads of it.
My mother told me that, in her childhood on the farm, a holiday was either a day trip to the lake or a visit to relatives. My dad's family took a trip once, by car, to Chesapeake Bay and that was an odyssey in their time. My father didn't have anything we would consider travel until he boarded a troop ship in Halifax. In later years, entirely thanks to cheap and abundant fossil fuels, they toured Australia, Asia, and Europe (north, south, and west). As they grew older they wintered in Florida.
It hasn't been easy to keep this going. After all there's only so much stuff on our very finite planet. We burn fossil fuels with abandon but we're not making any fossil fuels, just consuming them. It'll take the cataclysms of hundreds of millions of years to make new fossil fuels but there's a snowball's chance in hell our species will be around to mine them once again.
Fossil fuels are ultimately a form of solar energy. They represent the power of the sun over the span of a billion years to grow organic material that ultimately, through a variety of processes, became coal, oil and natural gas. Hydrocarbons. And, over a span of just a couple of centuries, we have taken it upon ourselves to dig and pump out that residue of hundreds of millions of years of solar energy and burn it, releasing its products of combustion as greenhouse gases into our atmosphere. What could possibly go wrong?
Then there's what fuels us. Abundant, cheap fossil fuels led to mechanized agriculture (when my dad was young his father actually used a horse to draw their plough) that allowed one farmer with a tractor to plant a hundred acres where once he could handle only ten or, if he was lucky, twenty. And, as those machines of industrial agriculture improved, that farmer might be able to plant several hundred acres.
It wasn't enough. Never enough. We developed work-arounds for that too. Mechanical irrigation was introduced. Not enough. Chemicals - fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides - became de rigeur for modern farming. As we began sterilizing the soil with increasing applications of chemicals, the ground subsided beneath our feet as we drained our aquifers some of which contained water thousands of years old. Easy come, easy go. The operative word was "ease." So long as it was easy enough, if we could, we would.
And so, today, we produce plenty of food for our seven plus billion mouths although we waste too much and distribute it inefficiently. We're assured that we'll be able to feed nine billion, no problem, even twelve billion maybe. So long as you don't factor in climate change and the heatwaves, droughts and floods it now visits upon us or the collapse of our groundwater resources or the exhaustion of our overworked farmland, that's believable. A believable fantasy. But, when hundreds of millions, perhaps billions, of lives hang on a fantasy, it probably isn't going to end well.
Who says? Who says we're heading for an agricultural apocalypse? Who? Well, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization says - and they're not alone. The UN FAO released a widely overlooked report in March that warned at the rate we're degrading farmland worldwide, most of it will be exhausted within just sixty years. This isn't some revelation that struck the UN FAO like lighting out of the blue. There's been plenty of research, both before and since, that upholds the same conclusion (I know, I've read it). This is sort of like the captain of the Titanic who took the iceberg warning and tucked it in his pocket, unread, only on a global, civilizational scale.
On a related note, let's hear it for the Pacific Decadal Oscillation. Think of it as El Nino on steroids. It has a hot tap and a cold tap. The bad news is that it oscillates very slowly, in cycles that last twenty to thirty years. For the past 15-years the PDO or, more specifically, the powerful trade winds it has generated, have been burying heat in our oceans.
Strong tropical Pacific trade winds serve as an air conditioner for the world, scientists are concluding. They mix warm equatorial surface water into greater depths, and help bring cooler waters to the surface. But, like the window-mounted AC unit that cools your living room during summer, all the while heating the air outside, the strong winds aren’t cooling the planet. They’re just moving heat-wielding energy to where it will bother us less.
Diane Thompson of NCAR, the National Center for Atmospheric Research, who led the PDO study described what happens when the switch flips.
Here's the thing. We have no control over climate phenomena such as the PDO. All we can do is understand it and try to find means of adapting to it, absorbing the blow when it comes and that could be sooner than anyone would like.
There are no "magic wand" solutions but there are policies we can implement that will make absorbing the blows that are coming survivable for as many people as possible.
A good start is to reduce our global population. Half of today's numbers, well under four billion would help immensely. There are only two options within our power - a) killing off billions of people or b) arresting reproduction. I'd sooner skip the killing off billions of people option.
Bear this in mind. If we do nothing and, like lemmings, multiply to impossible numbers, nature will kill off billions of people, just not enough to make life enjoyable for the survivors. Droughts, floods and heatwaves will do in a lot of us. War, yeah that'll take plenty more, maybe even all of us. Then there's famine from the terminal degradation of our farmland. These prospects are not trending as we might hope.
We could look into what it would mean if we trimmed current reproduction rates by, say, fifty percent or even eighty percent. Start reproducing to a level geared to sustaining a viable population. We'll still need scores of millions of babies every year to continue our species, just not hundreds of millions of babies. Once we fix a target for an ideal global population, the rest is math.
Of course you can't get population under control without doing something remarkably dramatic to the economy. It, too, has to be stabilized, rationalized. We've embraced this model of perpetual, exponential growth far too long. Even Adam Smith when he wrote The Wealth of Nations, first published in 1776, foresaw a limit to exponential growth of about two centuries and he had no idea of the rise of cheap, abundant fossil fuel energy and the onset of the Industrial Revolution that would explode in the not too distant future. After those two centuries of growth, Smith believed we would move into what would today be called a "steady state" economy.
So, what's this steady state economy? An easy way to think of it is switching from the constant pursuit of more to a focus on better. Quality rather than quantity. Instead of having to replace your kitchen stove every five or seven years, how about one that will last fifty years and is upgradable and will offer a plentiful supply of spare parts?
Growth does exist in a steady state economy but it's growth geared not to production and consumption. It's growth in knowledge through which we find ways to make life more enjoyable and less demanding on both us and our environment. Buy less stuff but stuff that works and lasts and does things we need and like and can grow as our knowledge base grows. Build stuff that lets more people have the stuff they really need. That's the approach you would have to have for deep space exploration requiring multi-generational crews only applied to Spaceship Earth where our own, multi-generational crew now tops seven billion.
A steady state economy is a state of equilibrium that extends to population, where reproduction is regulated so that births match deaths. It extends to resources where consumption is not allowed to exceed regeneration. That may sound Orwellian unless you reach the conclusion that we live on a finite planet that can support a finite number of us.
What would a steady state economy look like? It would be a world in important ways much smaller than what we have today. It would be a world in which humanity, our economy and our lives, existed as a subset of the environment.
We're already far bigger than our environment. When Earth Overshoot Day arrived on the 14th of this month, we had reached the point where we had exceeded the planet's resource carrying capacity by a factor of 1.6. It would take 1.6 planet Earths to meet our resource consumption (which, remarkably, is still growing). We consume an entire year's supply of renewables in under 8-months.
We don't have 1.6 planet Earths any more than in another ten years we'll have 1.7 planet Earths. The evidence of our excess is all there. It's tangible, measurable and some of it is visible to the naked eye from space. It's manifest in spreading deforestation and desertification. Satellites measure surface subsidence from rapidly draining aquifers. We're fishing down the food chain. Oceanic dead zones and algae blooms that now beset our lakes, rivers and even our coastlines. The staggering loss of species and life over the past forty years.
How do we get back within the planet's safety limits? One answer is sustainable retreat, growing smaller, using less, choosing stuff that lasts longer, making do. That sounds awful, especially to those of us accustomed to a life of comfort and plenty, but what is the alternative? What awaits us with virtual certainty if we don't?
This sounds socialist and I suppose it is but what alternative is there that permits a transition from an exponential growth based economy to what of necessity is an allocation based economy? Free market fundamentalism has brought us to this abyss and, if unchecked, it will carry us over the edge.
This is not about reverting to mud huts and scavenging for berries. It is about growing and advancing our society in a way that isn't self-extinguishing. And it's also about improving quality of life through accelerating the pursuit of knowledge and sustainable technological advancement.
What are the chances that, even at this stage, these solutions would still work? I don't know but I know they're probably slim. Some would say they're already foreclosed. That's the wrong way of thinking about this. The healthy way to think of it is what have we got to lose? Nothing. We have nothing to lose by shedding our lethal addictions and much to gain even if those gains fall short of the goal. Failure is a possibility right up until it turns into a certainty. Until then you still have something to fight for. That fight starts with making a choice.