- Posts : 10
Join date : 2011-04-01
|RSA Fellow's Journal: Reasons to be cheerful|
Mark Stevenson on why the end of the world might still be a long way off
I’ve spent a large part of the past year considering Armageddon. Not the Hollywood cheese-fest of a movie, you understand, but actual, honest-to-God Armageddon. The end of the world as we know it. Game over. What some academics cheerily call ‘global catastrophic risks’. A year spent meeting some of the world’s smartest brains has shown me at least five versions of a nanotech apocalypse, a host of ‘machines take over’/‘machines stop’ disasters, countless biotech risks that make the 1918 flu pandemic (body count estimate: 50 million) look like a sniffle, and let’s not forget the ominous uncertainties of climate change.
It’s very easy to regurgitate the terrible story of our future that, as far as I can tell, I’ve been hearing since I popped out of my mother’s womb. In fact, it’s so familiar that it rolls off the tongue like well-learned lines, as if I’m reading a script. I’m sure you can do it too. You’ll have your own nuances. You might throw in a disenfranchised feral youth in preference to my water war, or economic collapse in place of my new terrorism. It’s like an End of the World Top Trumps card trading game, won by playing the cards that summarise the strongest case for how everyone loses.
Our media love this game. Whether it’s too much government or too little, too many police or too few, too much concern over climate change or too little, our pundits are united in their belief that a) things are going wrong, b) they’ve been going wrong for as long as they can remember and c) they’re going to get a lot worse. Hardly inspiring, is it?
So it’s odd to find out that things could actually get a lot better. Not just a little bit better, but off-the-scale better. For every water war, there’s a cheap nano-membrane that can revolutionise desalination. For every echo chamber of hate on the internet, there’s a collaboration that’ll make your heart sing. For every engineered pathogen, there’s a new front opened up on the war on cancer through genomics. For every worry about scarcity, you’ll find an example of innovation that’s bypassing the problem. At the same time, organisations with new shapes are struggling to emerge; we’re seeing institutional innovations that will help us grasp the challenges that our current systems can’t tackle.
I know because I’ve spent a year researching those as well. One favourite is a clever system that takes CO2 out of the air and feeds it through photosynthesing bacteria to make fuel. It’s effectively a carbon-neutral petrol station that pulls fuel out of the sky when you put it somewhere sunny. The technology exists today and a whole range of companies funded by greentech investments are racing to commercialise it.
There are hundreds of people who are not only thinking about improving our lot but also doing something about it. They clearly aren’t listening to the doomsayers. Their mantra? Cheer up, it might just happen.
In our public discourse, we need to put a few cards back into that pack of Top Trumps and shift it from a forced game of ‘End of the World’ to a new game of ‘Possible futures’. After all, that’s what it was until the pessimists nicked all the good cards and hid them under the cushion.
I’m not saying the future will be better, but I do know that if you’re not even aware it could be, there’s much less chance of making it happen.
Optimists step up. There is everything to play for.
Mark Stevenson FRSA is a writer and comedian, and director of Flow Associates Ltd and ReAgency Ltd. His new book, An Optimist’s Tour of the Future, will be published by Profile in January 2011.
‘Break the taboo’, says Attenborough
Below is an edited key-note address delivered by renowned British broadcaster and naturalist Sir David Attenborough to the Royal Society of Arts in London on 10 March 2011.
We now realise that the disasters that continue increasingly to afflict the natural world have one element that connects them all - the unprecedented increase in the number of human beings on the planet.
There have been prophets who have warned of this impending disaster, of course. One of the first was Thomas Malthus. His most important book, An Essay on the Principle of Population was published over two hundred years ago in 1798. In it, he argued that the human population would increase inexorably until halted by what he termed „misery and vice‟. Today, for some reason, that prophecy seems to be largely ignored or, at any rate, disregarded. It is true that he did not foresee the so-called Green Revolution which greatly increased the amount of food that could be produced in any given area of arable land. But that great advance only delayed things. And there may be other advances in food producing skills that we ourselves cannot foresee. But the fundamental truth proclaimed by Malthus remains true. There cannot be more people on this earth than can be fed.
The population of the world is now growing by nearly 80 million a year. One and a half million a week. A quarter of a million a day. Ten thousand an hour. All these people worldwide, rich or poor, need and deserve food, water, energy and space. Will they be able to get it? I don‟t know. I hope so. But the Government‟s Chief Scientist and the last President of the Royal Society both referred to the approaching „perfect storm‟ of population growth, climate change and peak oil production, leading inexorably to more and more insecurity in the supply of food, water and energy.
Consider food. Very few of us, I suspect, have ever experienced real hunger. All of us who have travelled in poor countries have met people for whom hunger is a daily background ache in their lives. There are about a billion such people today – four times as many as the entire human population of this planet a mere two thousand years ago at the time of Christ.
Climate change tops the environmental agenda at present. We all know that every additional person will need to use some carbon energy, if only firewood for cooking, and will therefore create more carbon dioxide, though of course a rich person will produce vastly more than a poor one. Yet not a word of it appeared in the voluminous documents emerging from the Copenhagen and Cancun Climate Summits.
Why this strange silence? I meet no one who privately disagrees that population growth is a problem. No one – except flat-earthers – can deny that the planet is finite. We can all see it in that beautiful picture of our earth taken from the Apollo mission. So why does hardly anyone say so publicly? There seems to be some bizarre taboo around the subject. “It‟s not quite nice, not PC, possibly even racist to mention it.” And this taboo doesn‟t just inhibit politicians and civil servants who attend big conferences. It even affects the people who claim to care most passionately about a sustainable and prosperous future for our children: the environmental and developmental non- government organisations. Yet their silence implies that their admirable goals can be achieved regardless of how many people there are in the world, even though they all know that this is not realistic or possible.
I simply don‟t understand it. It is all getting too serious for such fastidious niceties. It remains an obvious and brutal fact that on a finite planet human population will quite definitely stop at some point. And that can only happen in one of two ways. It can happen sooner, by fewer human births - in a word, by contraception. This is the humane way, the powerful option which allows all of us to deal with the problem, but only if we collectively choose to do so. The alternative is an increased death rate – the way all other creatures must suffer, through famine or disease or predation.
The sooner we stabilise our numbers, the sooner we stop running up the „down‟ escalator. Stop population increase - stop the escalator - and we have some chance of reaching the top. That is to say, of reaching a decent life for all.
To do that requires several things. First and foremost it needs a much wider understanding of the problem, and that will not happen while the absurd taboo on discussing it retains such a powerful grip on the minds of so many worthy and intelligent people. Then it needs a cultural change so that while everyone retains the right to have as many children as they like, they understand that having large families means compounding the problems their children and everyone else‟s children will face in the future.
It needs action by Governments. In my view all countries should develop a population policy and give it priority. The essential common factor is to make family planning and other reproductive health services freely available to everyone and empower and encourage them to use it, though of course without any kind of coercion.
According to the Global Footprint Network, there are now over a hundred countries whose combination of numbers and affluence have already pushed them past the sustainable level. They include almost all developed countries. The UK is one of the worst. There the aim should be to reduce over time both the consumption of natural resources per person and the number of people while, needless to say, using the best technology to help maintain living standards. It is tragic that the only current population policies in developed countries are, perversely, attempting to increase their birth-rate in order to look after the growing number of old people. The notion of ever more old people needing ever more young people, who will in turn grow old and need ever more young people and so on ad infinitum, is an obvious ecological Ponzi scheme.
I am not an economist, nor a sociologist nor a politician, and it is these disciplines that should provide the solutions. I am a naturalist. Being one means that I do know something of the factors that keep populations of different species of animals within bounds. I have seen how increasing populations of elephants can devastate their environment until, one year when the rains fail on the already over-grazed land, they die in the hundreds.
But we are human beings. We have ways of escaping such brutalities. We have medicines that prevent our children from dying of disease. We have developed ways of growing increasing amounts of food. That has been a huge and continuing advance that started several thousand years ago, a consequence of our intelligence, our increasing skills and our ability to look ahead. But none of these great achievements will be of any avail if we do not control our numbers.
And we can do so. Wherever women have the vote, wherever they are literate, and have the medical facilities to control the number of children they bear, the birth rate falls. All those civilised conditions exist in the southern Indian state of Kerala. The total fertility rate there in 2007 was 1.7 births per woman. In India as a whole it is 2.8 per woman. In Thailand in 2010, it was 1.8 per woman, similar to that in Kerala. But compare that with the Catholic Philippines where it is 3.3.
But what can each of us do – you and I? Well, there is just one thing that I would ask. Break the taboo, in private and in public – as best you can. Until broken there is no hope of the action we need. Wherever and whenever we speak of the environment, add a few words to ensure that the population element is not ignored.
Make a list of all the environmental and social problems that today afflict us and our poor, battered planet, not just the extinction of species and animals and plants, that fifty years ago was the first signs of impending global disaster, but traffic congestion, oil prices, pressure on the health service, the growth of megacities, migration patterns, immigration policies, unemployment, the loss of arable land, desertification, famine, increasingly violent weather, the acidification of the oceans, the collapse of fish stocks, rising sea temperatures, the loss of rain forest. The list goes on and on. But they all share an underlying cause.
Every one of these global problems - environmental as well as social - becomes more difficult, and ultimately impossible, to solve with ever more people.
See the whole speech on http://www.thersa.org/events/vision/vision-videos/sirdavid-Attenborough
- Posts : 10
Join date : 2011-04-01