Standing on the shoulders of toddlers- why we have never grown up and what this means for our future
Once upon a time, you were a toddler. By the simple act of covering your eyes with your hands the people around you would cease to exist. By lowering your hands they would, miraculously and to great amusement, reappear. More terrifyingly, your mother’s disappearance from the room could result in howls of anguish: had she disappeared forever?
As we grow older, we learn that just because you cannot temporarily see something it does not mean that that something has permanently disappeared. Of course the person is still there – your fingers have just hidden them. Of course your mother is going to come back – she has just stepped out of the room.
And yet despite what we have learned, our minds are still hardwired to ignore what is not directly in front of us. We have not really grown up and our adult minds are standing on the shoulders of toddlers. Like our other hard wired instinct, fight or flight, this causes us problems in managing some of the great issues of today.
Wherever you are on the religious or political spectrum, there are a number of things that, on reflection, appear to be true.
The world’s population has grown from 2 billion people in 1930 to over 7 billion today. By 2050 population momentum should take us to 10 billion people. Some people think that this is not only a good thing, but we should grow our populations even more and restrict access to birth control.
The toddler brain may ignore this or say, more is good and I will have a lot of friends, but at some point a question needs to be asked: “Is there a limit to how many people can live on Earth?” At some point in time, if we take this growth to its absurd conclusion, there will be more people than there is surface area on the planet. Eventually, the mass of people will exceed that of the planet. Clearly, population growth has to stop at some point. Right?
We need fresh water to drink, for our animals to drink and for our crops to grow. And yet 30% of our fresh water today comes from underground aquifers, which are over exploited and are expected to run out in 25 years.
Our toddler brain may ignore this or say that we will be able to develop crops that need less water, or cheap energy to enable widespread desalinisation.
But then the question needs to be asked: “Over the next 25 years will we really be able to simultaneously add the equivalent of 2-3 more Chinas to the world’s population who all have higher expected consumption levels and develop and deploy sufficient water sipping crops and cheap to desalinate water to provide for 50% of the world’s food?”
Our best farm land is either under cultivation, or under concrete as cities and roads have expanded. Of this good land, much of it is under stress, with significant levels of soil erosion. Much of the remaining land is either poor or encompasses the last remaining wilderness on the planet. Despite ever increasing usage of fertilisers, productivity increases for land is declining and is now at 1.25% per year, down from 3.5% in 1970. Key fertiliser ingredients, such as potash and potassium, are mined and the best resources are also running out. Even if you don’t think that climate change is caused by mankind and is just a natural cycle (“they grew grapes for wine in England in the Middle Ages”) there is no denying that average world temperatures are increasing, which increases water evaporation, plant transpiration and salt build up in the soil, exasperated by fertiliser use.
In the seas, 80% of global fish stocks are under threat, with hundreds of thousands of tonnes of fish not eaten by humans being caught to feed fish in fish farms. Enormous fishing vessels sail out to thousands of miles beyond their port towns scooping up fish that were once caught by local fishermen, and denying protein to millions as a result.
Our toddler brain may ignore this or say that Malthus and the Club of Rome were wrong and that despite all of the anticipated problems human ingenuity has managed to overcome all problems in the past.
But then the question needs to be asked: are we really going to have enough food for 10 billion people? Given the fact that fish stocks are in terminal decline today, will we really have enough fish for an additional 3 billion people in 25 years? On a sustainable basis? Given the drop in effectiveness of fertilisers, compounded by the additional cost of fertilisers, will we really see food production increase enough for everybody to get by? With 30% less water?
Adults, when faced with real hunger that threatens the health and the lives of their loved ones, have typically taken one of three decisions: first, move somewhere where there is food; second; take someone else’ food; third, stick around and hope that things get better. Given the fact that national borders are harder to cross, peaceful migration is more difficult. This typically pushes people into forceably moving into another area (see article on barbarian hordes) and taking someone else’ food.
Our toddler brain may ignore this or say that people will probably just stick around and hope that things will not get any worse. We wont get millions of starving people pushing against our borders. And in Britain, we are on an island. Apart from the Romans, Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Vikings and Normans in their wooden boats we have successfully withstood mass immigration. We will be fine.
But then the question needs to be asked: are we really sure that people would prefer to stay and starve to death, in the dis-comfort of their own country, or might they want to move to save themselves? And if they move, will we be able to stop them? And if we stop them will we be able to stop them without killing them?
What about climate change? History, Future. Now. has one foot firmly in the camp of climate change denialists. The planet has been through very hot and very cold phases. The planet has been completely covered by ice all the way to the equator. Oxygen levels have ranged from almost non existent to over 50% higher than they are today – enabling the giant insects of the Carboniferous period. Antarctica was once a temperate zone covered by forests and plate tectonics have moved it south to its current location. If you look at the planet with enough perspective you realise that everything is in flux and that life goes on.
But not the life of all species at all times.
Climate change has the potential to be an accelerant, liquid fuel to a fire, to the problems surrounding population, fresh water, food and migration. A toddler will ignore climate change or will say that it is silly to think that humans can be affecting the Earth’s climate. We are so small and the Earth is so big. The changes in carbon dioxide are so small. How can we be having an impact?
But then the question needs to be asked: are we really that small? And even if we were small why couldn’t we still be making the Earth warmer? If you look at the flattened mountain tops of Kentucky that have been lopped off for access to coal and other minerals, or the clear cut forests of Brazil, or the rusting hulks of ships in the now gone Aral Sea you might agree that we have a profound impact on the Earth’s land and water. If you look at pictures of the Earth from the International Space Station (see below) you will see from our lights at night that we cover most of the land area of the planet. You will also see that the atmosphere looks like a thin wispy ring just above the Earth’s surface. If you can see with your eyes the impact we are having on the Earth’s land and water, why is it so hard to imagine that we might be having an impact on a thin layer of atmosphere? What is so special about the atmosphere that it is immune to human impact?
All that climate change is going to do is make the basic problems of population, fresh water, food and migration much harder to manage and will bring the worst elements closer to home, faster. Positive feedback loops caused by methane being released from Siberian and Canadian Tundras and undersea methane clathrates could rapidly increase the amount of green house gases in the atmosphere, dwarfing all human released green house gases from the usage of fossil fuel. Nobody really knows what will happen at that point.
Life will survive. It is amazingly robust. Will civilisation as we know it survive too?
Time to grow up
As a toddler, it is possible to either ignore these problems or pretend that they can easily be resolved. If things get too frightening, you can always howl and your mother will pick you up in her arms and comfort you.
As adults, we need to make a conscious effort not to slip back into our childish ways of pretending that a problem does not exist simply by closing our eyes and ignoring it.
The problems that we face as a planet, a nation, a village, a family and as individuals due to population growth, fresh water and food shortages and migration are real.
What are you going to do about it?
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