What is wrong, and why we can’t seem to fix it

Throughout most of my life I have been living under conservative governments, and the nicest way I can find to describe political conservatism is to say that it embodies the popular phrase ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’. However, as we all know there are many things wrong at present, and they need fixing. No amount of ignoring them will make them go away. This blog is about those awkward facts of world that won’t go away and which political conservatism won’t make go away either.

What I’m going to aim to do is post a blog once a week, on a Friday, so you can digest it over the weekend. The next week’s blog will either be the next in my series, or a discussion of issues that have arisen from the comments.

I’m going to have a very strict comments policy, comment will only be accepted if they are intelligent and polite contributions to discussion around the topic of the post. Everything else will be moderated.

If you find a blog here sympathetic, you might consider reading the blogs from the beginning, as they are supposed to be a more or less continuous argument.

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

A Best-Case Scenario

Last week I gave a gloomy worst-case scenario, where humanity spiralled towards extinction from massive global famines caused by the collapse of eco-systems in world of global warming, and where the coup de grace was delivered by nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.

In this week’s post I aim to paint a happier picture of a future for humanity which allows for long-term human survival amidst the ’10,000 things’ (the biota of the planet). Last week’s scenario was caused by current trends continuing unmodified, this week’s happens when we begin to do the right things. Or, to put it another way, last week’s scenario was caused by us relying too much on certain aspects of our evolutionary heritage: self-interest, the ability to subjugate what we know of the world in favour of group-think, the propensity to use extreme violence to secure short-term goals. This week’s scenario sets out on the assumption that people can use other aspects of our evolutionary heritage: the ability to discern cause and effect, the ability to plan for the future, self-sacrifice &c.

The first thing that needs to happen is a step away from fossil fuels. Almost immediately we need to switch to renewables. In fact this would not be hard, because despite the constant propaganda put out by elements within fossil-fuel industries and the nuclear industry, current renewable technology can provide all the energy needs of the world for not very much more than current on-going costs. And if renewables had the same level of investment and support that fossil fuels currently have we could anticipate that the costs would drop rapidly.

In such a scenario it would rapidly become commonplace, for example, that new buildings would be clad in solar panels so that they generated all the power required to power them during day-light hours, with other technologies supplying the smaller amount of power required during the night.

At the same time, every technology promising efficiencies in power and resource use needs to be pursued so that in every way we can cut down on the amount of power used and the amount of materials consumed.

I won’t detail all the changes that would flow on from the above transformation, such as the transition to a transport system based on electric trains and electric cars, but it can be imagined that there would be few areas of society and its operations that would not be affected.

However at the same time as this transformation is happening, another, more difficult one, needs to be happening. Humanity needs to begin having fewer children right across the board. This is because even if we committed to a renewables-based global economy, the resources required for this, and environmental impact of a large human population, would still be too much for the biosphere to continue to support. We might avoid catastrophic climate-change, but this would merely be to postpone problem for another generation when the impacts of a renewably-powered and highly ‘green’, but none-the-less still too large a population, would be felt.

In earlier posts I said I didn’t know this could be achieved all across the world, although I opined that it would be quite easy in Australia. All that would be required would be for Australia to cut immigration to a low level (leaving refugee and humanitarian immigration) and remove most financial incentives for people to have children. This, coupled with a public information campaign and better access to contraception, I think would easily bring Australia’s birth-rate so that a healthy population for the Australian land-mass of around 8-10 million people was achieved by the end of the C21.

I also think that this solution would also work in most developed countries, though I imagine that home of irrationality, the United States, would not see the same changes. Elsewhere it would be more difficult to sell the idea of limiting family-size to people who have not yet seen prosperity, and I’m not sure how this could be achieved, though it would be worth point out that a smaller population in poorer areas would lead to greater prosperity for all. I would hope that people everywhere can see the logic of a smaller population equalling a smaller impact on the environment, leading to the chance of a longer existence for humanity.

Above all I think we need to stop censoring ourselves from telling it like it is simply because we fear people won’t like to hear it. People probably won’t like starving to death either, which is what will happen if we keep silent.

This hopeful scenario is difficult to imagine happen because a lot has to happen quickly, we have to move quickly to decarbonise the economy, and we have to move almost as quickly to lower our population. If we can do both of these then we can probably scrape through—just. If we do neither, or do only the first, then I can’t see where hope for any of us lies.

I anticipate that in a future world the knowledge that the population is declining and the resources of the biosphere are building up again will make people more relaxed, less selfish and more rational. My reading of human history is that early human history was characterised by conflict over scarce resources, but when the economic developments in modernity made resources less scarce a rapidly rising population meant that resources were, in real terms, no less scarce. I hope that the happy ending to this story is a future world of abundant resources where people no longer have to compete for them because there aren’t many people all told.

I know it’s the ultimate in bad taste to quote oneself, but in an earlier blog in this series I outlined a vision for a human future:

I would see the future of humanity as a continuation of human history up until around 1800, where the land areas of the planet were basically a sea of natural vegetation managed at low levels of intensity by humans, with islands of habitat more intensively managed dotted here and there (in contrast to the post C18 world of an intensively (mis)managed land surface of the world with a few island of natural vegetation dotted here and there).

And so long as the lives of the people in this world incorporate the most useful technologies that have been developed, then I don’t see how anyone could find this vision unattractive.

Next week: Why isn’t knowledge of ecological overreach commonplace?

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