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The Future
Written March 29, 2020
 

I would like to be optimistic

in the face of the immediate
pandemic crisis,

and the long-range crisis of
climate change

and the long-range crisis of 
overpopulation

and the unavoidable crisis of
human selfishness.

But I'm sorry; I can't.

 
Last November, more than 11,000 researchers from around the world issued a grim warning of the “untold suffering” that will be caused by climate change if humanity doesn't change its ways.  The group said that as scientists, they have the “moral obligation to tell it like it is.”

“Despite 40 years of global climate negotiations, with few exceptions, we have generally conducted business as usual,” they said.  They listed several key issues that need to be addressed, including replacing fossil fuels, cutting the emissions of pollutants like methane, eating less meat, restoring ecosystems, and stabilizing population growth by investing in family-planning services and education for girls.

When I entered this world in 1947, I shared the planet with 2,400,000,000 other humans.  Today there are 7,600,000,000.  Yes, in my lifetime the global population has more than tripled!

By the end of the century there are projected to be 10,900,000,000 of us.  The planet can't sustain that many.

Won't the lethal COVID-19 pandemic reduce the world's population?  Not really; it will only temporarily slow the growth rate by a fraction of one percent.  Since January 10, the coronavirus has killed 32,000 people across the globe, but in the same time period those losses have been replaced by the births of 24,000,000 new babies — 750 times as many.

Can't we “terraform” Mars and move billions and billions of people there?  Highly impractical.  And, as the pioneering scientist Alexander von Humboldt wrote in 1801, “One day we might travel to distant planets — and we will take our lethal mixture of greed, arrogance, and ignorance with us.  We will leave those planets as barren and as ravaged as we have already done here on Earth.”

One example:  Last year, the five million people in Chennai, India, all but ran out of water.  Every day, government trucks brought in water to waiting residents lined up in the sun.  In ten years, India's water demand will be twice the available supply.

Meanwhile, we're crowding out other species.  Francisco Sánchez-Bayo of the University of Sydney says, “If insect species losses cannot be halted, this will have catastrophic consequences for both the planet's ecosystems and for the survival of mankind.  It is very rapid.  In 10 years you will have a quarter less, in 50 years only half left, and in 100 years you will have none.”

But American politicians haven't been discussing these problems, because the voters simply aren't interested.  Instead, they care about more immediate issues that affect them personally, such as jobs or getting along with immigrants or how they're going to pay for college or health care.  Seth MacFarlane says this underscores “the essential role that seasoned, capable, intellectually-inclined administrators must play in government, and why populist politics become tragically inadequate during a crisis.”

One local leader, Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto, strongly opposes additional petrochemical facilities like an ethane cracking plant now being constructed nearby.  According Don Hopey of the Post-Gazette, “The anguished reaction from some of the region's political and business leaders made it clear that the old jobs-versus-environment debate has ramped up.  Industry, labor, county economic development organizations, the state Chamber of Commerce, and elected officials lamented that such negative talk could cost jobs in the petrochemical, shale gas, engineering, legal, geology, hotel-motel and restaurant industries.  The Allegheny-Fayette Central Labor Council said [Mr. Peduto's comments] were an ‘insult’ to union workers and their way of life.”

So those workers are selfish.  They don't care about global warming; they just want to save their jobs.  But that's only natural.  Saar Oron wrote last year, “Your selfishness isn't your fault.  It's a given. Like most animals we are wired to put ourselves first.  It's our instinct to protect ourselves, long before we even consider helping others.”

Many young people of college age are selfish.  They refuse to believe medical experts who urge social isolation to fight COVID-19.  No one's going to deprive them of their spring break!  They've been waiting all winter to crowd together and party on the beach.

In Wired, David Karpf mentions an author who was flown to a private island to tell hedge fund billionaires about “the future of technology.”  They weren't interested in his prepared remarks.  What they wanted to discuss was “the Event” — the environmental collapse, social unrest, nuclear explosion, unstoppable virus, or Mr. Robot hack that takes everything down.  They asked, “How do I maintain authority over my security force after the Event?”  They weren't interested in preventing the Event; they were interested in winning it.

I'm sorry to say that as I consider the coming decades, the situation looks hopeless.  Because human nature isn't going to change, planet-saving proposals that require lifestyle changes will continue to meet resistance.  Small steps an individual can take won't help significantly, though they can make us feel less powerless.

Fortunately, I'm 73 years old and won't live to see the worst of it.

 

TBT

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