Sunday, September 10, 2017

Surviving the 21st Century

In the old Three Stooges comedies, whenever Curly did something dumb, angry Moe gave him a dope slap (SMACK!).  With regard to humankind’s war on the future, a number of thinkers have been inspired to write passionate dope slap books, including Man and Nature (1864), Conservation of Natural Resources (1910), Checking the Waste (1911), Our Vanishing Wild Life (1913).  Dope slap books are a two-step: (1) describe the terrible growing harms, and (2) provide a motivating pep talk loaded with rational solutions — based on the assumption that the society is rational.

In the last 30 years, a tsunami of dope slap books have flooded the market.  The latest comes from Australian science writer Julian Cribb, Surviving the 21st Century.  He does a great job of providing a competent and sobering introduction to ecological reality in 2017 — vital knowledge that every 16-year old (and their teachers) should know (but don’t).  He’s good at explaining complex challenges in an understandable way.

The book has ten chapters, each discussing a category of serious risks.  (1) Dangerous overconfidence in human brilliance.  (2) Mass extinctions.  (3) Degrading the planet.  (4) Industrial warfare.  (5) Climate change.  (6) Pollution.  (7) Feeding an overgrown herd.  (8) Urban growth and disease.  (9) Moronic beliefs that trump scientific facts.  (10) It’s time for action — think like a species.

Humankind’s current mass hysteria has an oxymoronic name, Sustainable Growth™, and its destination is oblivion.  We are going to be slamming head-on, at high speed, into crucial limits — a magnificently irrational course of action.  Cribb prefers a mindful Plan B, a gradual, managed, and cooperative path to a slower, simpler, far less crowded future.

All humans have a hardcore addiction to food.  In his 2010 book, The Coming Famine (reviewed HERE), Cribb described the enormous degradation caused by feeding an ever growing population, and presented readers with many rational suggestions.  In the following seven years, the naughty world largely disregarded his recommendations.

In this new book, Cribb dreams of miraculously doubling food production, and feeding the growing mob until we hit Peak People, at ten or twelve billion, in 2060.  All nations will heroically cooperate in rapidly making many rational (and extremely radical) changes, we’ll avoid total catastrophe, and proceed with a bumpy but tolerable decline to a sustainable population of somewhere between two and four billion by 2100.  That’s a big dream.

Is it really possible to feed ten billion?  Readers learn that there are no new plant breeding miracles on the horizon.  In the 1960s, the Green Revolution research had noble intentions — temporarily boost food production, so humankind would have an extra ten years to resolve its embarrassing orgy of overbreeding.  It was a beautiful dream.  Food production actually doubled.  Unfortunately, the population problem was swept under the bed, and the human herd more than doubled, intensifying the original problem.

Hopium addicts have no doubt that the wizards of science will save the day.  GMO plants have been a stunning success at boosting the sales of toxic agrochemicals, but they have had minimal impact on harvest volumes.  The current rate at which we are depleting underground aquifers, and other freshwater resources, is going to crash into limits before 2030.  Destruction of the planet’s remaining topsoil continues at an impressive rate.  Food production trends are not encouraging.

“Outside of a nuclear war or asteroid collision, the biggest shock in store for the human population in the 21st Century will be the impact of climate change on the food supply.”  Luckily, readers discover a plan for doubling food production by solving big problems.  We’ll create a new form of agriculture that can survive in an unstable climate, produce lots of excellent food, and do so sustainably — without using a spoonful of fossil fuel!  We’ll make sustainable oil from algae.

The required inputs for algae farms are sunshine, salt water, and urban wastes.  “Algal oil… can be made into anything you can make from fossil petroleum — ‘green’ fuel, plastics, textiles, chemicals, drugs, food additives.  Furthermore, researchers have calculated, algae could supply the world’s entire transport fuel requirement from an area of 57 million hectares — which is a bit smaller than Switzerland — and can mostly be in the ocean in any case.”

Belief is the subject of the fascinating chapter nine, and something I’ve thought a lot about.  Belief may very well be the biggest threat to the survival of our species, worse than all the other threats combined.  Even the most ridiculous, insanely stupid, self-destructive beliefs can be highly contagious, readily passing from one generation to the next, fully resistant to reason, common sense, or factual reality.  Belief trumps reason.

Belief insists that human-caused climate change is impossible.  Humans do not share common ancestors with chimps and baboons.  Technology can solve any problem.  Perpetual growth is possible on a finite planet.  Good consumers must gain respect and honor by devoting their lives to working hard (at soul killing jobs), recklessly borrowing, impulsively spending, proudly hoarding trendy status trinkets, and promptly discarding trinkets the moment they cease being trendy.

Cribb believes that foresight is our ultimate skill, enabling us to perceive potential dangers, avoid them, and survive.  Wild humans, intimately attuned to the complex patterns of their ecosystem, excelled at foresight.  We don’t.  We are cursed to inhabit an industrial culture that mutates at a furious rate.  New technologies are often obsolete in five or ten years.  We can never become intimately attuned to something similar to a high-speed runaway train.

We’re trapped in a cycle of repeated mistakes, perpetually erecting new empires, watching them self-destruct, and never learning.  We’ve installed at least 440 nuclear power plants before we’ve built a single facility for safely storing the radioactive wastes that can remain highly toxic for a million years.  Nobody had the foresight to predict the staggering consequences of the Ford Model T, or the microchip, or metal smelting.  Hey, let’s colonize other planets!

Crusty old farts like myself, who have been reading dope slap books for 30 years, and observing how little they inspire society, no longer shout and cheer when the latest vision rolls by.  Cribb does an excellent job describing the challenges.  His grand vision requires humankind to undergo an amazing transformation, from the pathetic dullard Homo delusus (self-deceiving human) into the new, wise, and beautiful Homo sapiens (wise human).

Cribb has no doubt that “solutions to all of these challenges exist or can be developed.”  Today, essential information can be instantly shared with people everywhere in the world.  Scientific knowledge grows exponentially every decade.  Intelligent change is entirely possible!  Around the world, young women are having fewer children — voluntarily!  We are not obligated to commit mass suicide.

Understand that this is a textbook for college students.  Universities are monasteries that instruct the next generation in the management of Sustainable Growth™.  They require textbooks that reinforce the loony beliefs of the hopeless Homo delusus.  Cribb makes a heroic effort to tap-dance across a ballroom where the entire floor is covered with greased marbles.  It’s obvious that he is acutely aware of the growing challenges of reality (which are heretical nonsense at the monastery).  He knows that the young novices are likely to learn little or nothing about these challenges — unless he cleverly sneaks them into a gospel that appears to be orthodox.

Today’s novices are 100 times smarter than slobbering geezers over 30.  They are acutely aware that they have inherited a catastrophe.  They don’t need a dope slap.  They know that transforming all of nature into toxic landfill dreck is insane.  Hopefully, Cribb’s book will help the novices bombard the abbots with high-powered questions, and encourage our species to shift toward becoming Homo sapiens.  Good luck!

Cribb, Julian, Surviving the 21st Century: Humanity’s Ten Great Challenges and How We Can Overcome Them, Springer International Publishing, Switzerland, 2017.


Thom Hawkins said...


Surely you are being sarcastic in your last paragraph. Ninety-nine percent of the high school and college students that I know are locked into the culture of "...the looney beliefs of Homo delusus" that you so clearly outline. I see no reason to expect them to wake up, even in the face of overwhelming environmental destruction. When the destruction impacts them personally, they just double down on their delusion.

A Recovering Hope Addict, Thom

What Is Sustainable said...

Hi Thom! Indeed, the last paragraph was a bit tongue in cheek. How are they supposed to learn what few are talking about? It's rough.

Anonymous said...

Have you read "The life and Adventures of William Buckley"? I think you would find it interesting if you haven't. It is about William Buckley and his time with the aborigines west of Melbourne in the early 1800s.

Anonymous said...

Another book you may find interesting is "The last odd the nomads" about an old aboriginal couple who were"rescued " from the western desserts in the 1970's during a severe drought. They weren't technically the last of the nomads. A Pintupi family unit came out of Australia's western deserts in 1983 but it was an ended an age never the less.

What Is Sustainable said...

Hi Anonymous! The University of Oregon has booth books, and both look interesting. Once today's monsoon passes, I'll bike over there and take a look at them.