Tuesday, November 6, 2007

The good the bad and the ugly

In my last post I drew attention to international statistics at gapminder which demonstrate how the distinction beween third world and first world has blurred in terms of indicators such as life expectancy and family size.

On the face of it this is all good news. Unfortunately there is a "but". And the "but" is the cost of all of this growth on the natural environment. According to the UNEP's Geo-4 report every environmental indicator is going the wrong way. Humanity may be growing happier but humanity is a plague on the landscape of the earth.

The problem with being part of a plague (say of locusts) is that while it is easy to decry the unsustainable nature of locusts in general it is very difficult, as a locust, to not be open to rather obvious accusations of rank hypocrisy. One cannot say the problem is all those other locusts. The problem is me, locust #3,213,343,675.

The unfortunate fact is that we cannot change. Its the tragedy of the commons. I am not prepared to make my children go hungry for the greater good. When it comes to my children, to hell with the greater good! And every other locust on the planet thinks the same.

The basic problem is that we have largely solved two major afflictions that have curbed locust numbers in the past. One is disease. The other is war. And of course both together produce that greatest killer of them all - famine. Never in history have we ever lived when there wasn't a serious risk of our nation being enslaved and destroyed by war. Never in history have we known as much as we do today about the nature of disease. And so, not surprisingly, our numbers have grown and grown and grown.

In theory, of course, once we have enough they will fall again. Already in many nations (although not New Zealand) we are seeing birthrates of less than two per woman. That is below replacement level. However while large nations like India are curbing their birthrates they are still above replacement level. And in poorer and muslim nations birthrates are up over three per woman. But a decline in population back to 2-3 billion is going to take a very long time and there is almost certainly going to be some disruption along the way.

And that disruption will almost certainly involve wars - although there may not be so many battles. For the existence of weapons of mass destruction and massively destructive and expensive battlefield weapons (like the Daisy Cutter bomb) makes the very idea of battles a losing proposition. For the next millennia or so the probability is conflict will essentially be a contest between police and underground movements. Thus wars will involve relatively few casualties unless they erupt into all out nuclear exchanges (eg Iran v Israel v USA v Pakistan v India v Russia v China) and then billions will be toast.

Another source of disruption will be disease. China and New Zealand have both doubled their population per square kilometre in the past 45 years (my lifetime). In New Zealand's case its gone from 7 people to 14 per square kilometre. But in China's case its gone from 70 people per square kilometre to 140. While in Hong Kong and Macau its 6,600 people per square kilometre. You can't pack that many people in so close together and not get disease outbreaks. To date they haven't been particularly significant but the risk grows with every passing year.

What is the solution? Abandon capitalism? Frankly Ayn Rand had it right. Capitalism is just the natural pursuit of self-interest. Abandon self-interest ? I will if you (planet earth) will - so that isn't going to happen. Frankly, I don't think there is a greater solution other than the ingenuity, savagery and humanity that is humankind.

site of interest: James Martin 21st Century School, Oxford University

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1 comment:

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