Miscellaneous musings from the perspective of a lefty (both senses) atheist with a warped sense of humor.

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Location: Madison, WI, United States

I am a geek, but I do have some redeeming social skills. I love other people's dogs, cats, and kids. Snow sucks, but I'm willing to put up with it just to live in Madison.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

We're All Doomed!

We’re All Doomed!

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Grim Reaper: Silence!!! I have come for you.
Angela: ... You mean to ...
Grim Reaper: ... Take you away. That is my purpose. I am Death.
Geoffrey: Well, that's cast rather a gloom over the evening, hasn't it?

— Monty Python, The Meaning of Life

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Most Americans are appalled at the forced imposition of the burka and chador — or even the hijab — on women in Islamic countries. Yet if a woman were to walk down State Street without a shirt (or a man without pants), we would soon realize that we have our own body taboos and hang-ups that we’re usually oblivious to.

I think the same situation is true with regard to global warming. Those of us on the left can ridicule the troglodytes like Oklahoma Republican Sen. James Inhofe, who has called the threat of catastrophic global warming the "greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people", thereby firmly aligning himself with the flat Earthers, creationists, and Holocaust deniers. But even people who are fully on board about climate change (damage to the atmosphere) are blissfully oblivious to the rest of the picture.

The American Farmland Preservation Coalition decries the loss of good Iowa topsoil to erosion down the Missouri and Mississippi valleys. Environmental Action bemoans the decapitation of mountaintops in West Virginia. Mining slag pours into rivers in the Rockies. The Fertile Crescent is now desert. The Sahara encroaches on farmland in Sudan, producing the flood of Darfurian refugees. The lithosphere (soil and rocks) is taking it in the neck.

Mayors and governors along the Great Lakes and Saint Lawrence Seaway try to rebrand their part of the world as the Fresh Coast (much more appealing than “Rust Belt”) and make the case that fresh water will be the oil of the 21st Century. It’s almost impossible to swim in many inland lakes, and the seacoasts are awash with sewage and medical waste. New Orleans wonders what happened to its buffer of wetlands. It’s an all-out assault on the hydrosphere.

And perhaps the biggest catastrophe is what’s happening to the biosphere (life forms) of our only planet.

All of nature is engaged in a continual struggle for scarce resources. Big cats (pumas) compete against big dogs (wolves) to eat deer, sheep, and rodents. Every year wolverines and badgers compete for burrow space as well as on the gridiron. It’s trees vs. grasses for access to good soil and sunshine. (And, in that war, both sides have eagerly formed alliances with human beings, the former bribing us with fruits and the latter with grains.)

Who are our fiercest competitors for resources? Not surprisingly, it’s the species that are most nearly like us, the ones that require virtually identical kinds of food, water, shelter, temperature, habitat, etc. (We don’t spend a lot of time duking it out with shrimp over phytoplankton.)

And how have our nearest relatives fared in their competition with us? Let’s have a look:

Family Hominidae
o Genus Pan (chimpanzee)
– Species paniscus (bonobo) Status: endangered
– Species troglodytes (common chimp) Status: endangered
o Genus Pongo (orangutan)
– Species abelii (Sumatran orangutan) Status: critically endangered
– Species pygmaeus (Bornean orangutan) Status: endangered
o Genus Gorilla
– Species gorilla (Western gorilla) Status: critically endangered
– Species beringei (Eastern gorilla) Status: endangered
o Genus Homo
– Species sapiens (human beings) Status: 6,600,000,000 and growing

Short story: We have outcompeted the hell out of everything in our environmental niche. We’ve completely wiped out all other species in our genus (most recently the neanderthals, about 25,000 years ago), and we’re on the verge of being the only remaining species in Family Hominidae. We are truly the meanest sunzabitches in the valley.

Nor does it stop there. We are decimating other species at a prodigious clip as well. In the time you take to read this essay, another couple of species have gone extinct (a rate of 1 every 4 minutes, or about 500 times the pre-human historical pace).

The following is a sig line I sometimes use at the bottom of my e-mails, where it’s easy to ignore. I think it’s time to pull it up into the main body of the message, to make it unavoidable and painfully clear:

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In Earth's history, there have been 5 previous massive die-offs of almost every species on the planet. We call these Mass Extinction Events. We don't know what caused the 1st 4, but we're pretty sure that the 5th — the one that got the dinosaurs — was caused by a huge meteor striking the Earth near the Yucatan Peninsula. And we're absolutely certain what's causing the 6th, the one we're in now, the Holocene Holocaust. It's us.

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It has been said that we do not inherit the world from our parents, we borrow it from our children. Regrettably, in the words of Martin Luther King Jr., “It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note .... Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the ... people a bad check, a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds’.”

So we are witnessing a historically unprecedented degradation of the atmosphere, lithosphere, hydrosphere, and biosphere. All at once. And accelerating. And even people who are aware of part of the problem fail to connect the dots and place it in the context of the big picture. We are ruining the world.

The basic problem is obvious: too many people.

A lot of the pro-growth crowd (economists loosely aligned with the political neo-conservatives) have contended that Paul R. Ehrlich’s 1968 book The Population Bomb has been discredited, because the disasters he predicted didn’t come to pass on the timeline he had laid out. It’s true that human ingenuity and massive infusions of capital and science managed to stave off the worst of his predictions, but “postponed” is not the same as “avoided”. Today we are starting to see the death tolls mounting from the famines, droughts, and forced migrations Ehrlich predicted 4 decades ago. The chickens are coming home to roost.

But, adding to the problem, there is the simple fact that we ignored the warnings of Ehrlich (and Thomas Malthus before him), thinking we were somehow immune to the disasters they had predicted, and therefore just kept adding more and more people to the overburden we were already placing on the planet. So now, when a typhoon sweeps ashore in Bangladesh, say, it doesn’t just take out a few thousand people, the way it would have in Ehrlich’s day; it now claims victims by the hundreds of thousands.

But now let us introduce some nuance. Not every person has an equal effect on the environment. For example, we could add 99 Zimbabweans with less total impact than 1 incremental American. The clear-cut implication of considering consumption and waste instead of merely counting bodies is that migration becomes at least as significant a consideration as birth rate.

Now you might think, from a standing start, that it would be the richest countries — the ones that could most easily afford to support large families — where the population growth would be greatest. Not true. It turns out that it is these very countries that are most able to provide women with liberty, money, education, and access to birth control, and those factors combine to produce the lowest birth rates among the community of nations.

Indeed, most of the nations of Europe have long since achieved the goal of zero population growth and embarked on the even more enlightened and civilized path of negative population growth. The USA would be in the same boat if we counted only net natural growth (births minus deaths) and legal immigration, but illegal immigration continues to drive our population (the most ravenously consumptive in the history of the world) steadily higher.

No discussion of overpopulation can go for long without placing great gobs of blame at the feet of the world’s 2 largest religions, Catholicism and Islam, both of which hold to a grossly unrealistic “every sperm is sacred” view of the world. They are unapologetically conservative forces with a vested interest in denigrating their chief intellectual competitor, science. They deserve to be reviled and opposed at every turn. They are the chief architects of our coming ruin.

Yet, in keeping with my introductory theme about blindness to that which is familiar around us, it’s also true that forces at the opposite end of the political spectrum (my end, the liberals and progressives) are guilty of exacerbating the problem by denying that there’s anything wrong with large-scale migration, legal or illegal.

I myself am all too happy to glorify, in the abstract, diversity, compassion, and liberty (including the freedom to travel). But, in doing so, we on the left need to pay attention to the opposite pan on the balance scales. It’s not a pretty picture over there, my friends. To see where unfettered optimism and willingness to share will lead, read up on The Tragedy of the Commons.

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A young couple was out in the country, not far from a grove of trees, when it started to rain. The guy said, “Quick, let’s run under that tree for shelter.”

“But what will we do when the leaves get all wet and start to drip thru on us?”, wondered the young woman.

“Simple,” said the guy, “we’ll just run under a different tree.”

= = = = = =

And, in fact, this tactic will work for a little while, if you can find a taller tree where the rain is still working its way down. However, if the rain keeps on coming, eventually it’ll saturate even the tallest tree, and you’ll end up sopping wet, with the additional fringe benefit of having cleverly positioned yourself in the place most likely to be hit by lightning.

All the immigrants in the world can’t run under the sheltering umbrella of the tree called the United States and expect to stay dry indefinitely. For one thing, there isn’t enuf room for all of them. For another, simply running from tree to tree does nothing whatsoever to stop the rain.

Migration is not the answer to the world’s population problems. All it does is relocate the problem temporarily, consuming irreplaceable resources in the process. And, make no mistake, it’s the population problem that’s driving most of the others, including the horrific Holocene Holocaust I mentioned above.

Try this as a mental exercise. When you hear a problem description, try reversing it.

Instead of “peak oil”, think of it as “too many people for the available petroleum”.

Instead of “famine”, think of it as “too many people for the available food”.

Instead of “drought”, think of it as “too many people for the available water”.

Instead of “slums”, think of it as “too many people for the available housing”.

Instead of “war”, think of it as “too many people for the available land”.

Instead of “poverty”, think of it as “too many people for the available money”.

Instead of “plague”, think of it as “too many people for the available health care”.

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So …

Sorry to have cast rather a gloom over your evening.

It’s traditional to try to end these depressing essays with some upbeat ray of hope, and I will comply with tradition:

= = = = = =

The dangers that face the world can, every one of them, be traced back to science. The salvations that may save the world will, every one of them, be traced back to science.

— Isaac Asimov

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We know what the problems are. We’ve got a handle on how to fix them. If we can hold off the religious fanatics long enuf to get a good start, we’ve still got a fighting chance.

But — and you may go right ahead and consider this chauvinistic of me — there’s gotta be a spot of dry land to stand on before it does you any good throwing out a lifebouy to the drowning victims. If we can’t maintain a high level of thriving, technological society here in the United States, there really isn’t any hope for the rest of the world. We’re all doomed.

Yup, upbeat to the end, that’s me.


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