Are we doomed?

food spreadRecently I was able to have dinner with my eldest son. He was born in 1989 and now has some life experience under his belt.

As always we had some good conversation covering the usual topics that’s Dads have with their grown up sons — soccer, cricket, work, cars and the like. We took taking great care to avoid topics that mothers might ask about.

Then out of the blue he asked me what I thought would happen to the world. “Are we doomed?” he said. “Will we run out of food?”

Startled, I blinked and rattled off my usual patter.

“There are 7 billion of us” I said, “and for the 600+ million that live on less than a dollar a day we have already run out of food and for another billion or so who manage on less than $10 a day they would say food is very scarce. Then there are the billion or so fortunate ones who live in the mature economies amidst relative plenty and are copping obesity and its associated diseases.”

I paused and realised, partly from the blank expression opposite, that I had not answered the question.

“Immediate doom is unlikely because we will invent distributed and cheap sources of power, fuels cells probably. Power gets us over the water problem because we can then desalinate and/or pump freshwater to wherever we need it to irrigate the desert or flush the toilet. We will have to recycle nutrient like crazy so as to replenish the soils but again that can be done.”

“Doom is also unlikely because people will not like it. In extremis human beings are incredibly good at making things better. It happens because we hate it when things are bad. The Victorians with their class system and global exploitation managed to get rid of the smog that was killing thousands in London. The Chinese will find a way to do the same for Beijing. Even wars end because the horrors are too much spurring one side on to victory or a compromise agreement.”

Such was my immediate answer and it seemed satisfactory.

Then I got to thinking. Whilst most of my answers on this sort of thing had solid enough logic and a degree of history to back them up, I was not convinced by any of them. If pushed I wouldn’t buy my own arguments.

I genuinely don’t what is going to happen.

Some days I can’t believe the economic and social systems that I live within can possibly persist another day. They appear so fragile. But that is what we said last year, and every year back as far as can be remembered. Instead I marvel at human persistence.

So I have decided that it is time to think seriously about what might happen. I’ll get back to you after a good cogitate.

Meantime if you have any suggestions please post comments.

2 thoughts on “Are we doomed?

  1. Hi Mark

    Nice piece… find myself answering similar questions. Hard to answer because there are so many alternative outcomes. On this cloudy moody Northern Rivers morning, I allow myself to contemplate the future. I am afraid my musings might reflect the weather.

    When it comes to human-controlled future trajectories, I share your optimism with respect to technological fixes. Scientific and engineering progress is astonishing and seems to speed up ever more. This leads me to think that human survival will be secured albeit in ways we might find disturbing at present. For a start, there will always be winners and losers. In a future world that comes to the brink of climate and resource collapse, the winners will always be people in rich countries whereas the bottom 70 per cent or so will suffer – even with smart phones and solar on mud hut roofs. Some will take it on the chin and accept their fate but others will move causing mass population migrations and all the problems that come with it. Target countries will seek to counter these migrations and enforce borders (sounds familiar – doesn’t it?) Conflicts will be on the increase again after a brief period of unprecedented peace on earth. Governments don’t like to call a war a war anymore. Conflict sounds so much more manageable and less deadly.

    We have begun to rapidly speed up our own evolution as a species through technological advances, modern medicine and genetics, and with science fiction technology like brain-machine interfacing, and other cyborg-type technologies in the pipeline. What humans will look like in a few hundred years from now is debatable but we wont be the same.

    I have mentioned already the inequality between human populations and how this might play out in the future. Gazing into the murky crystal ball to see what the future of the environment will look like is altogether more difficult. What appears certain though is that it won’t be good. Change is already happening. Ecosystems will continue to change. Many more species will be lost. More and more land will be utilised for food production and abandoned when it is no longer productive. Truly wild lands will disappear and the world will become a managed agricultural and ornamental garden – and that is true for national parks as well. The primary aim will be to maintain ecosystem functions and not to protect existing species and ecosystems.

    As a ‘rich’ white male with a concern for the environment, I might find this trajectory awfully sad but there are plenty of people who couldn’t care less as long as their living standard is maintained or is getting better. Most people already live in cities and are divorced from the environment and the land that sustains them. How can I be angry at an Indian, African or Chinese who wants to eat a square meal with meat once or twice a weak instead of once or twice a year, wants to keep his groceries cool, have her clothes washed, watch TV, surf the web, and keep her house cool in sweltering heat and warm in winter? I take these privileges for granted.

    I guess the bottom line is that there are just too many people. Unfortunately the carrying capacity of earth is being tested and the experiment is unfolding before us. Biologists know what happens to populations that keep on growing with limited resources at their disposal. Economists, politicians and engineers have difficulties with population biology.

    Actually, I was wrong. Population growth is only another symptom. Bottom line is not how many people we have but what our priorities are and what our philosophical outlook on life is. It is not a scientific or engineering issue, not a matter of conservation or population. It comes down to the moral, social and political compass of societies. What do we want? How do we want to live our lives? What is a life lived well? What is a good life? How much wealth and comfort do I need? How much choice do I need? How much choice is good for me? How many calories do we need? What food is good for us? Is all life equal? How do we want to treat our fellow creatures? Do we value all life, or only human life, or only people in our country, or only friends and family members? What will I give up now and in the future for the benefit of others (including other species)?

    The list of questions is endless. As a biologist and a scientist, it is hard to come to the conclusion that the power of science, insight, knowledge and enlightenment is limited. Very few will change or adjust on the basis of impersonal knowledge alone. Only when an issue is personal and experienced, do people really care and respond. I am afraid this will mean more suffering and more loss for a long time to come.

  2. Thanks Frank for the comment. It does appear to be a question problem rather than answer problem. What is it that we want rather than this is what we have to do.

    Last night I stumbled onto the last half of Avatar on TV and I got quite scared. I had to remind myself that it was just a movie even of the moral was scarily real as we begin to pay coal mines to capture their methane emissions.

    Hope all is well up your way.

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