Tuesday, March 25, 2014

10 Billion

Yesterday at work I read an almost laughably bleak little book called "10 Billion," by Stephen Emmott. It's about the growing urgency of overpopulation, pollution and resource scarcity on Earth.

"Our cleverness, our inventiveness and our activities are now the drivers of every global problem we face," Emmott writes. "And every one of these problems is accelerating as we continue to grow toward a global population of ten billion. In fact, I believe we can rightly call the situation we're in right now an emergency -- an unprecedented planetary emergency."

He goes on to lay out our problems in detail, from an anticipated lack of food and fresh water to the pollution created by our growing hunger for automobiles and plane travel, and the lack of any viable clean energy source. In the future, he said, more "fortunate" countries will heavily fortify themselves to protect against "climate migrants," hungry hordes of people from less lucky regions of the globe who have been driven out by climate change and starvation.

It's a very fast read, including lots of scary charts and photographs, and I kept waiting for the part where he'd tell us how to get out of this mess. He concludes that we could radically alter our behavior, having fewer children and consuming less, or we could engineer our way out of the problem -- but he doesn't think either is likely to happen. His conclusion?

"I think we're fucked."

I'd have been miffed, having invested my time in such a dolorous account with no prescription for cure, if I didn't basically agree. What saddens me is that long before we're fucked, so many other inhabitants of the planet will be fucked too: the polar bears, the gorillas, the rhinos.

On a related note, I came across a web site the other day called "Larger Family Life," founded by Tania Sullivan, who has 13 children. It includes a page in which Sullivan tries to debunk many aspects of the overpopulation debate, arguing that there's really plenty of room for all of us. Why, the entire population of the world could fit into Wales, if we were all willing to inhabit a 5x5-foot space! Such ridiculous statistics aside (and I didn't even try to check her math) she basically says restrictions on family size would be counterproductive because they would require some people who don't want children to have them. (Also ridiculous -- I cannot envision a circumstance in which there would be too few children. We may have to change our standards for pension systems and caring for the aged, but we are in absolutely no danger of underproducing.)

Where Emmott is the Eeyore of humanity's condition, Sullivan is the Piglet, almost blindly optimistic: "Forests regrow, the water will always be there unless the water cycle comes to an end, there are renewable energy sources available to us and there is plenty of room to grow as much food as we could ever possibly need for the entire world."

Oh, so that's why forests are being flattened in Brazil and Madagascar -- because we already have plenty of arable land? What about conservation and biodiversity? Is the entire planet ours to plow?

Sullivan makes one point with which I agree: Greed and unequal distribution of resources contribute to much of our human misery. But people being people, I don't see that changing anytime soon.

I do struggle with these subjects. I tend to side with Emmott -- I think we're fucked, unless we institute some immediate controls on population. In the unlikely event that we could coordinate such controls internationally, many people (like Sullivan, probably) would revolt on an unprecedented scale. Particularly many religious folks, for whom having lots of children is a divine requirement. So I expect that first, we'll have to endure some kind of calamitous social collapse.

I just hope I'm not around to see it. And I am sick with sorrow for all the creatures -- aside from humans -- who will be swept along with us, whose fates we have probably already sealed.

(Photo: Notting Hill, last weekend. Incongruously cheerful, I know.)


  1. Well, I agree with you and I, too, think we're fucked. And that anyone who thinks that having thirteen kids is a fine idea is fucked in the head. But that's just me. It is all incredibly depressing, isn't it?

  2. I totally agree Steve. I've said for decades that humans will be a short lived experiment, evolutionally speaking. We are hurtling towards extinction and taking lots of other creatures with us. While we have the ability to change what we are doing to the planet and ourselves, we don't have the strength of character.

  3. Steve, I think next time you should check out a lighter book! :)

    Speaking of which, after reading how much you enjoyed "The Goldfinch" a while back I put it on hold at my library. It's been a quite a while ago. Today when I walked into the library I looked at the books they had for sale and guess what? There was "The Goldfinch" -- a perfect copy for twenty-five cents! I took it up to the desk just to make sure. She couldn't believe it either. Then she looked up my hold and there were 20 people in front of me waiting to read their one copy. I scored! Even if I don't like the book I only invested a quarter. :)

  4. I also agree with your perspective. I don't believe the future is all that bright for this small planet.

  5. the earth will abide, this little planet in this tiny galaxy will still be a speck of space dust just going around a star that may quasar , shifting everything aside at that point. Species will die out, millions of years down the line others will crawl their way out of the muck and begin again. And so it goes. Yes, "we are fucked" humans are the worst things to happen to this little planet- it will shake us off, till then, live your life to it's fullest, as you do so well, we are given fifty years max at the rate of change we are experiencing- it is not a bad or good thing, it just is a thing...the universe takes no notice. It may be over for us and the future of humans on earth, after all we have been a failed experiment,extinction happens, the difference being is that we are aware, we are responsible, and we can see it coming. The dinosaurs were the lucky ones! so, have the best life possible, as you are doing- as you are SO good at- never mind the big stuff. Dogs are our teachers.