Paul P. Mealing

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Saturday, 15 September 2007

Living in the 21st Century

This is in response to a one page essay by William Laurance, a biologist at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Balboa, Panama, published in New Scientist (1 September 2007), entitled: Cursing Condoms. This is a very good article that discusses the most important issue of the 21st Century: human population growth. Laurance attacks both the Catholic Church and the current American Administration for their backward and morally irresponsible attitudes towards birth control, and towards condoms in particular. He remarks, ‘With a different leadership, the US could become part of the solution, not the problem.’ What I find strange about this whole issue, is that I was aware of this ‘problem’ when I was a teenager, over 40 years ago. I find it extraordinary that, not only do people not recognise it as ‘The Problem’ facing us, but that we still have to deal with anachronistic policies and criteria at the highest level of global politics in order to confront it.

I will not repeat Laurance’s arguments here, but I recommend this article to all and sundry. He contends that, being a Panamanian, he sees the consequences of this negative policy-making first hand. He rightly spells out all the problems arising from human encroachment: fewer resources, greater conflict, greater division between the rich and the poor on a national and global scale, and the diminution of other species world wide. He also points out the most obvious and effective solution. Greater educational opportunities to women, world wide, is the only truly effective means of achieving a zero population growth. But there are other factors. Our current economic paradigm is based on infinite economic growth which is geared to infinite population growth, and is the reason that America is becoming the 3rd most populated country in the world. America believes, that to achieve parity economic growth, it must maintain population growth. Obviously, this is not sustainable and eventually we will need a new economic paradigm that has sustainability at its core. Will this do away with economic growth? I don’t know. If we can have economic growth with sustainability of the earth’s resources and zero population growth then the answer is no. If we can’t then the answer is yes: economic growth will stop.

What is obvious is that we can’t continue with the status quo. Six years ago I read an article by E. O. Wilson in Scientific American where he said: for everyone in the world to have the same standard of living as America, we would need 4 planet earths. I heard this statement reiterated more recently, but I can’t remember where.

There have been a number of mass extinctions in the course of the earth’s history, the dinosaur extinction is the most well known but there have been at least 2 others that were equally catastrophic. But what is most worrying is that at no time in the earth’s history has the rate of species extinction been as great as it is now.

In 2000, I was lucky enough to be part of a small audience at Oxford University to hear the scientific advisor to the British government (I’ve forgotten his name, but I think his first name was Ron) give an address on this issue. He showed graph after graph in a Power Point presentation demonstrating how water, energy and land was being eaten up by human consumption, as if there was no tomorrow, literally. Why wasn’t his voice heard beyond that small lecture hall? I’ve no idea. Afterwards, friends of mine made the observation that he had told them nothing new, and were disappointed that he had no solutions. I will admit a small secret: I don’t have any either.

The 21st Century faces a number of problems, of which global warming is only one, and they are all caused by us, so we must find the solution or the earth will find its own. We have the technology for global education, as well as for achieving greater efficiencies in all areas of human activity: energy, food and water; but do we have the will? Whilst economic growth based on human growth, and infinite resources, remains the global paradigm for progress and success, we can be certain of failure. The 21st Century will see more change than any other century preceding it, including the 20th, but it is up to us whether this change will be an improvement or a catastrophe.

For a more detailed analysis on this topic read the following article by E.O.Wilson:
Commentary by responsible scientists like Wilson are unpalatable to most politicians, and this is a major concern for our collective future.

1 comment:

freespirit said...

Quote: "...for everyone in the world to have the same standard of living as America, we would need 4 planet earths. I heard this statement reiterated more recently, but I can’t remember where."

Jared Diamond said something similar in Collapse: Jared Diamond on the consequences of overpopulation.

In the comments at the end of E.O. Wilson's article in Cosmos a visitor wrote:

"Edward O. Wilson has been making the same claim about extinctions for twenty years now. By his figures, we should have seen over 300 bird and animal extinctions already.
How many have we seen?

False. This person didn't so much as bother to check. In the past 20 years the number of bird and animal extinctions for which there is strong evidence is actually quite close to 300. The sources of evidence can be found here: Evidence of animal extinctions.

You wrote: " solutions. I will admit a small secret: I don’t have any either."

Spreading the word and refuting false claims is a necessary first step.