My childhood fears of nuclear war have come to pass, but not the way I expected. When I was a kid I had a great fear of nuclear war. At school we drilled, hiding under our desks, in case Russian missiles with nuclear warheads should wreak terrible, radioactive firestorms on us. One winter night around the age of 6 I woke up from a dream and looked out the window to see the sky glowing yellow – I was immediately convinced that either a nuclear attack was creating the incredible light in the sky, or that the nearby Fermi nuclear power plant had blown up, and in either case the radiation would soon get us. As it turned out, it was just a full moon illuminating a light snowfall, but I will never forget the terror of those moments. These days, with nuclear war seeming to be a much more remote possibility, I don’t even think about it. The other night, however, I noticed the sky glowing orange most of the way around the horizon, and realized that, if I didn’t know it was street lights illuminating the falling snow, I would have thought a nuclear war had broken out. The lights were like those of an explosion frozen in time. Then I realized that this IS an explosion – a population explosion. This extremely long, slow-motion explosion started over a century ago and the echoes won’t die out for decades, or maybe centuries, to come. Unfortunately this explosion has consequences potentially more devastating than even a global nuclear war. So what are we doing about it? How can we mitigate the effects of this very-slow, long term explosion on ourselves and our descendants?
Population growth can be slowed and eventually halted through a few relatively inexpensive measures. It seems obvious to me now that the more people we have on the planet, the harder and more expensive it is to take care of them all. Other species have population boom-and-bust cycles, as it is the natural way life responds when times and natural conditions get easier and harder, as they will. Through our ability to communicate, organize ourselves, and use tools, we can have much greater impact on the earth than other species. Population growth doesn’t occur evenly around the globe, though, as situations and conditions vary. In fact, population growth has tapered off in many parts of the globe, but is still very high in the poorest parts of the world. The factors that make the most difference in population growth are standard of living, level of education, knowledge of family planning, and, perhaps most importantly, understanding of what is happening. Educational, economic, and family planning assistance are inexpensive measures the developed countries can provide to those whose populations are still exploding, and this needs to be made a high priority for all governments if we are to control and secure our futures.
Energy supplies and usage are a second, extremely important set of keys to a good future. As part of our huge success as a technologically developed species we have found and developed cheap energy sources through the extraction of fossil fuels from the earth. We are using them in incredible volumes to provide amazingly comfortable lifestyles to a great many people compared with only a century ago. Unfortunately, such resources are finite, and will become harder (and more expensive) to supply as the most accessible and highest quality deposits are used up and more difficult deposits must be opened. Many people have been concerned about conservation for a long time, but only small headway has been made, in large part because our economy is based on corporate profits which are measured and rewarded in very short cycles. Corporations have little or no incentive, as entities, to do anything which doesn’t increase their profits in very short time spans: the next quarter, the next year, or perhaps the next five years. The short term economic incentive to the billions of individuals on the planet, too, is to feed and shelter themselves and their families, and it is hard to think years or decades ahead if you are worried about going hungry tonight. The recent spike in oil prices in 2008 was a wake-up call to many people, who now realize that, more than ever, we need to conserve our precious energy sources and develop new and more ecologically responsible sources as fast as we can. The growing number of humans on the planet, combined with the already-huge and increasing amounts of energy we use per person, suggests we could face a stream of ever-worsening humanitarian disasters in the coming decades if we don’t take action now and consistently into the future. It all seems simple and overwhelming at the same time. What can we do?
The policies of governments will be critical to ensuring a good future. While the largest corporations are far more economically powerful than most governments, they are also mostly insensitive to long term forecasts. If they can show a good profit in the next year or five, the hired managers can claim success and retire to extremely comfortable retreats. Without savvy boards of directors and stockholders there is little incentive for managers to provide the company with a decades-long plan for success, which might translate into doing what is best for humanity and life on the planet. That leaves governments as the best source of the authority that can impose the needed changes. While there is some amount of similar moral hazard in government as in corporations – that leadership can create temporary success and then exit their posts, often with great personal rewards – government officials are at least elected, and therefore have a constituency to answer to and protect. If we, that constituency, speak up consistently, frequently, and loudly we have a chance to influence government decisions that will improve prospects for us and our descendants.
Corporations will respond to our buying patterns more than our demands, or even government regulations. Corporations respond to what sells, and we as consumers have the power to choose what we buy. In that lies a power to influence corporate behavior that goes beyond just asking. I now use the term “ecologically responsible” to describe purchases and product use patterns that promote the long term view or mitigate our current and future problems. Fair trade products, for example, can reduce population growth and emigration from areas where they improve standards of living. Few people understand the potential impact of such programs, however, and we see far too little evidence of their success to convince most people to take advantage of them. Some corporate behavior has been changed, however, as evidenced in packaging that advertises elements of ecological responsibility such as “organic” and “free-range” foods. Essentially, we do have influence as consumers, and we should use it for a better future.
People need not only to understand our situation, but to know they can make a difference. Few people will put effort towards fixing a situation they feel helpless to change. Yet we do have influence, and it comes from many of the things we do and say, and who we speak with. There is evidence all around us that the things we do, such as learning about our situation and the impact of our actions, sharing knowledge with each other, and letting our wishes be known to those whom we elect, do business with, or otherwise can affect, can all make a difference. What is needed is a critical mass, enough people to make a loud enough statement, enough people to vote for the representation that shares our understanding of our current and future problems and will legislate on our behalf, and enough people who will change their ideas and act for a better future at every level of their lives. The more people who actively work to conserve energy and influence our culture, our government, and our business community in positive directions, the better world we will leave for our children, grandchildren, and descendants. The bottom line is: we can reduce the impact of this extremely long, slow-motion explosion, and we need to actively do that.
As always, I welcome your comments. – Tim