Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Ten Billion

Stephen Emmott is a chief techno-wizard at Microsoft Research in Cambridge, England.  His brilliant young scientists are doing research in complex natural systems.  Their objective is to invent miracles.  They want to program ordinary cells to perform photosynthesis, so we can produce food from sunlight, without plows and seeds.  Agriculture can’t feed ten billion.  The goal is to delay the onrushing planetary emergency, and push aside annoying obstacles to perpetual growth.

Much of the public seems to be paying little attention to the emergency, if they are aware of it at all.  Biking around the university town where I live, I don’t sense a crisis of overpopulation.  I don’t sense that global carbon emissions have increased 400 percent in my lifetime.  The squirrels, opossums, ducks, and blue jays have not gone extinct.  Life seems normal.  Everything is OK.  Right?

A wealth of information can be found online, but many internet factoids are generated by slippery gangsters who accumulate riches by accelerating the planetary emergency.  You see their work hundreds of times every day.  Among their favorite tools are magical rubber stamps that imprint [SUSTAINABLE] with subliminal green ink — [SUSTAINABLE] soil mining, [SUSTAINABLE] forest mining, [SUSTAINABLE] fish mining, [SUSTAINABLE] growth, [SUSTAINABLE] development, and on and on.

Emmott’s clan of brilliant scientists is an oddity.  They do not have the rubber stamp.  They are not wearing choke chains that will be jerked if they express ideas that offend the mighty.  They will not lose their jobs if they conclude that we are in the midst of a planetary emergency.  When thinkers are free to learn without blinders and hobbles, they come to perceive reality as an intense whirlwind of out-of-control juju.  This can be a head-snapping experience.

Emmott realized that it would be good to share his disturbing discoveries with the world, to help others see.  Being present in reality, with eyes wide open, breaks the spell.  It provides vision, coherence, and empowerment unavailable to those who stumble in a fog of illusions.  So, in a burst of creative energy, he sat down and wrote Ten Billion, a most unusual book.

It’s 216 pages long, but it can be read in less than an hour.  There is more white space than text.  Some pages are home to five words.  In a normal book, the text might fill 25 pages.  Ten Billion resembles a PowerPoint presentation — an orderly stream of brief statements, decorated with attention-grabbing photos and charts.  He smelted down a mountain of raw data, reducing it to vital conclusions, the pure essence of his vision, and nothing else.

According to one review, readers have a love/hate relationship with the book.  Techies and scientists tend to be annoyed by bold statements unsupported by exhaustive explanations and scholarly citations.  Commoners are more likely to appreciate the simplicity.  It’s encouraging that the book is keeping the cash registers busy at Amazon — it’s attracting hungry minds.  For oddballs like myself, who have read several hundred books on the planetary emergency, Ten Billion is just basic information that every well-educated high school student should know by now.

For example, “We currently have no known means of being able to feed ten billion of us at our current rate of consumption and with our current agricultural system.”  Indeed, experts expect food productivity to decline in the coming decades, “possibly very sharply.”  Why?  Reserves of phosphate, a mineral nutrient essential for agriculture, are no longer plentiful.  Desertification and urban sprawl are reducing cropland area.  Soils are being depleted, or eroding away.  Weeds, diseases, and insects continue to develop resistance to our latest chemicals.  Farmers are draining rivers and emptying underground aquifers.

To feed ten billion people, many of whom want more meat, food production must double.  Keeping a growing mob on life support will require far more water, energy, and cropland.  Kiss the tropical forests goodbye.  Kiss countless wild species goodbye.  Adding more people will also increase carbon emissions and accelerate climate change.

Don’t worry about Peak Energy.  Instead, worry that we’ll continue extracting and burning what we’ve already discovered.  Worry that we’ll discover even more, and burn that, too.  Worry about climate change.  A 2°C rise in the global climate would be catastrophic.  New research suggests that a rise of 4 degrees is likely, and 6 degrees is possible.  As the Arctic heats up, large amounts of methane are being released in thousands of plumes.  “This could be very big trouble on a very big scale.”

Even if miracles provided us with abundant clean energy, eliminated climate change, and inspired us to consume far, far less, we’re still doomed if population growth continues.  It is helpful to educate more women, and provide family planning services, but it is still very common for women have more than two children, often many more.  “The worst thing we can continue to do — globally — is have children at the current rate.”

Anyway, after a quick tour of our primary challenges, Emmott finally reveals two options for addressing them, (1) technological innovation, and (2) radical behavior change.  He warns that expecting techno-miracles requires “a staggering leap into fantasy.”  Science is unlikely to rescue us.  But radical behavior change requires a radical reduction in consumption, radically different governments, and a radically different economy.  The bottom line is on the last page.  “We urgently need to do — and I mean actually do — something radical to avert global catastrophe.  But I don’t think we will.  I think we’re fucked.”

For years, publishers have required eco-books to offer some light at the end of the tunnel.  “We only have 30 years to prevent disaster.”  Then, it was 20 years.  Then, it was 10 years.  Write letters to your legislators!  Change your light bulbs!  Let’s mobilize the nation, as we did during World War II, to sharply reduce consumption!  Those books failed to make enough people care.  The house was not on fire, yet.

If you spent months studying 500 channels of TV, you would not be blown off your couch by a fire hose of messages describing the planetary emergency.  “We’re not getting the information we need.  The scale and nature of the problem is simply not being communicated to us.”  A healthy dose of truth might encourage us to reflect upon how we live, and what we value, but that would slow economic growth.

A primary objective of our education system is to prepare the next generation for careers in [SUSTAINABLE] development, so they can live like there’s no tomorrow.  To expose innocent youth to full strength reality would plunge them into deep despair, reducing them to walking dead zombies, we claim.  Actually, despair is a normal, healthy, and rational response to today’s reality.  It’s not a terminal illness, it’s an opening of the heart that revives us as we recover from soul loss.  How can we interact intelligently with reality if we don’t comprehend reality?

There is no silver bullet cure for the planetary emergency.  There is no undo button.  But living mindfully, present in reality, is healing and empowering.  Our species did not evolve to be recreational shoppers.  We weren’t meant to spend our lives mindlessly hoarding frivolous status trinkets.  There’s no future in that.  It’s not even fun.  There are other paths.

Emmott, Stephen, Ten Billion, Vintage Books, New York, 2013.

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