All my life I’ve been an optimist—a character flaw in the eyes of many of my friends. But a confluence of a number of things has turned me into a major pessimist when it comes to the fate of the human race. I’ve been reading the bestselling book “Sapiens” by Yuval Noah Harari in which he traces the history of our species from its beginning to now, with an emphasis on how—as we’ve developed—we’ve shaped our planet, with results that are not encouraging. At the same time Free Inquiry Magazine published an issue (June/July 2015,issue 35, number 4) devoted largely to article after article (written by experts) about the population boom, with the depressing message that unless something is done immediately to stop it civilization will collapse, and collapse soon. Add to that the PBS show “Humanity as Seen From Space,” [YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jcShYFoajz0] which gives us videos taken from the space station and satellites demonstrating our saturation of the planet with people, machines, commerce, and growth that cannot continue without drastic changes.
As a species we are very, very good at solving problems as they arise on a day to day basis, but wretched at preventing the long-term consequences of our routine actions. Since no one thing is ruining our planet—a brew of many ill-considered behaviors is to blame—we largely ignore the very foreseeable horrors that will destroy our grandchildren.
It is commonly said that civilization itself is the cause of the destruction of our world, and that primitive man lived in harmony with his environment. That’s simply untrue. From the very beginning homo sapiens have been a destructive lot. First we wiped out the other member of the genus “homo” (the Neanderthals, for example), and then as we spread across the planet we destroyed whole ecosystems one by one. Large mammals continue to exist in Africa because we evolved together with them and they learned to fear us, but as we spread out of Africa we wiped out all the other large mammals elsewhere: the giants mammoths that roamed Europe, Asia, and North and South America were slaughtered faster than they could reproduce, as were sabertooth tigers, giant sloths, and hundreds of other species that didn’t understand how dangerous these pesky little apes could be. We used fire to clear large areas of vegetation and the animals that lived there, making the Earth into our private playground. We’re still doing this. Every hour another species of either plants or animals disappears from our world.
Population: human beings are infesting their planet with billions more people than it can sustain, unable to stop themselves from reproducing until they reach a stage where collapse will come fast, ugly, and soon. Even worse, no one is doing anything about this even though it is certain to occur. Every day more than 210,000 new people join us on this globe; 1.5 million more each week. Even the poorest countries are increasing their populations by huge amounts every year, leading to more poverty, disease, crime, anarchy, and worse. If we cannot control our birthrate, overpopulation will lead to a deathrate that will do the job for us in a brutal but effective way.
And why are most scientists and experts and enlightened countries not making a big push to lessen world population rates and avoid their deadly consequences? The answer is that changing birth control practices is a very touchy and difficult subject. Much could be done if women all over the globe, and particularly in developing countries, were given choices they don’t currently have: access to birth control devices and methods, information about family planning, freedom to choose how many children to have, abortion rights, plus education and the ability to be something other than mothers. But much of the world (and numerous major religions) are very opposed to this, and many countries would be outraged at such interference with the status quo. It is, alas, politically impossible to mandate the sort of changes that are so desperately needed.
What is going on is a major international effort by scientists and businesses to extend the human lifespan dramatically. Yikes! If this succeeds—as it very well might—then in addition to a population explosion we can’t handle, the too many people already here will live longer, continuing to consume resources and take up needed space.
We think of growth as a good thing. When we had room to grow and resources to support growth that was true. But today the carbon footprint of someone in Bangladesh is 1 compared to 147 for a person in the United States. If all people on the planet lived like those in the United States we’d need a planet twelve times the size of this one to support them. We are running out of fuel for this engine, and there’s no gas station large enough to sell us more. So, to hell with worrying about silly things like zombies: human beings are a plague infesting their own planet. Any more growth is at the expense of what remains of earth’s resources, creating more pollution in the sky and the oceans, destroying other species, spoiling everything. But—damn it—there’s no way to stop growing even if we had the will to do so. We will just keep doing it until the collapse of civilization pulls the plug.
Could it really all just go away? In his book “Sapiens” mentioned above Yuval Noah Harari draws a distinction between “facts” and “myths.” A tree is a fact, but when I say I live in Columbus, Ohio, in the United States of America, that is, in his words, a myth. Columbus is just a story the people who live around here tell ourselves and which we believe, but if we quit believing in the City of Columbus, it would disappear. This is equally true of the State of Ohio and the country called the United States of America. I think Harari’s choice of “myth” is unfortunate because the word has the connotation of “false.” The United States certainly does exist as long as we all believe it, but the myth of Santa Claus is not in the same category. However his concept is correct, so let’s rephrase it.
I’m a teacher of contracts, and that’s what he’s really getting at. All of civilization is a contract at heart. We “agree” to certain understandings with our neighbors: we will watch out for each other, report suspicious persons, alert each other to fires and other disasters. We have an implied contract to call our surroundings “Columbus, Ohio” and “United States of America.” Harari makes much of the idea that a corporation only exists in the collective imagination of those who believe in it. Certainly the idea of a corporation is not obvious, and is even counterintuitive. When corporations were first proposed—the idea that a group of investors would enter into contracts with others but not be personally liable if things went south—there was skepticism. In Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic opera “Utopia, Ltd” the ruler of a South Sea kingdom, on hearing an English corporation described, reacts by saying, “Well, at first sight it strikes us as dishonest.” But now no one thinks there’s anything odd about non-physical entities running the commerce of the entire world. Our “contractual” understanding allows for this fiction to exist.
But (long sigh) contracts can be broken. If my neighbor suddenly attacks me one day, all deals are off and we must renegotiate, avoid each other, or battle. All of civilization suffers from that difficulty.
In David Mitchell’s novel “The Bone Clocks” we follow characters from 1984 until the mid-21st century. In 2043 our heroine is caring for two children in a world that is falling apart. The kids ask her if it’s true that when she was a girl electricity was on all the time and not just at set periods during the day, and are amazed when she tells them yes, and no one thought it extraordinary—“we all took electricity for granted.” Then come the bad days when she and her little family must deal with the disappearance of the internet, the end of government protection, and a gang of thugs who show up in her village to systematically loot homes and kill protesting inhabitants. That chilling scenario is coming to venues all over the globe by 2050; some estimates are that a “perfect storm” combining too many people with too few resources (food, water, fuel, space, employment, government services, air) will begin gathering gale force by 2030.
We’re not likely to go the way of the dinosaurs (who ruled the planet for millions of years) to complete extinction, but chaos will undoubtedly rumble for a long time (a hundred years?) before electricity reappears. Will the next human civilization be smarter? More solicitous of long-term interests?
We are now facing what playwright Tony Kushner [“Angels in America”] in his latest play calls “every horror that was anticipated when money becomes truth.” In a world in which the rich can buy governments and then dictate what “facts” we believe, climate change will be merely debatable, population catastrophes ignored, poverty blamed on the impoverished, women and minorities pooh-poohed, and we’ll stroll off the cliff together to the sound of cash registers ringing.
Optimism? Bill Gates is pouring major money into alternative fuel plans, but he himself admits that what we need is to find a miraculous new source of clean energy: current technology simply isn’t up to solving our environmental problems in time to prevent catastrophe. President Obama unveiled his Clean Power Plan this month, but even if it worked (and it won’t because political opposition and lawsuits will kill it) it still wouldn’t be enough to bring the United States into a control of its own carbon footprint, and the rest of the world (particularly India and China) is not on board. There is a major U.N. summit on the climate control planned for later this year, but talk and talk alone won’t help, and many scientists think it’s simply too late no matter what we do. This is the stuff of nightmares. As Obama commented, “We only have one Planet Earth. There is no Plan B.” Most of us just shrug and think of other things. Surely someone will do something.
And maybe that’s the case, but unless we pull our heads from the sand and do drastic things immediately this doomsday scenario will follow. There are people trying to find solutions and we need more of them. One step is to sound the alarm, and this blog post is my small attempt at doing that. If you think I’m in error, do some reading. That Free Inquiry Magazine issue (volume 35, issue 4) is eye-opening, and is available online at https://www.secularhumanism.org/index.php/articles/category/freeinquiry.
“Homo sapiens,” is the title we’ve given to our own species. “Homo” means “man,” but what about “sapiens”? It’s a word meaning “wise.” That’s what we’ve named ourselves; if only it were true.
“On Being Lucky: The Second Anniversary of My Heart Transplant,” November 23, 2011; http://douglaswhaley.blogspot.com/2011/11/on-being-lucky-second-anniversary-of-my.html
“Is Evolution True?” July 13, 2011; http://douglaswhaley.blogspot.com/2011/07/is-evolution-true.html
“If Humans Are Descended From Apes Why Are There Still Apes?” January 27, 2014; http://douglaswhaley.blogspot.com/2014/01/if-humans-are-descended-from-apes-why.html
“A Guide to the Best of My Blog,” April 29, 2013; http://douglaswhaley.blogspot.com/2013/04/a-guide-to-best-of-my-blog.html