The news media report many problems and disasters, but they can miss much. Dr. Jeff Masters Wunderblog for October 13, 2015, brought to my attention a disaster worse than any others I’ve seen this year, in which smoke from forest clearing fires in Indonesia has covered an area thousands of miles across and is causing the premature deaths of thousands of people. This is made worse by a developing El Nino weather pattern that is increasingly keeping parts of the tropics much hotter and drier than usual. This is clearly a huge problem, but what interests me most is what it suggests about the next century as the population explosion “detonates”. The climate changes we’ve seen so far have been worrisome, but I’m more worried about what will happen as the planet warms, the population grows, and the weather changes still more.
Changing weather combines with human activity to create big problems. In this case what appears to be an el Nino weather pattern of record strength is changing human behavior and worsening the impact of that behavior. For decades the burning of tropical forests in Brazil and Indonesia to make farmland has been a concern since, for one thing, those tropical forests remove more carbon dioxide and put more oxygen into the air every year than anything else. Another impact is the effect of the smoke produced, which is estimated to have caused more than 10,000 deaths the last time these conditions arose, and is expected to cause at least that many again this year. The root of the deforestation problem seems to have changed in recent years, too, or perhaps the media has started reporting something they have mostly ignored in the past. So who is responsible for the deforestation, and what does it mean to our long-term future?
Increasingly, agribusiness is driving the destruction of forests. Decades ago the burning of rain forest was typically attributed to individual farmers, though there were sometimes commercial interests involved. Now the majority of the burning is attributed to landowners and corporations who grow commercial crops such as palm oil for overseas consumption. In this process the land is taken out of the business of providing food locally and regionally and dedicated to farming a crop that has minimal local use and which will be consumed on other continents. There are many problems with this. It impacts the health of people over an area thousands of miles across and increasingly rings the planet with smoke and pollution as the forests are burned. Biodiversity and related opportunities for better understanding biology and developing new crops and medical drugs are reduced, with extinction taking away some opportunities forever. For more than a century food and resource-extraction corporations have conspired with local and national officials in third world countries to keep the people too poor to resist, allowing them to strip and export the country’s resources as quickly as possible to be sold in much wealthier countries for a large profit. Often small countries have been drained of their only capital, their natural resources, and then in some cases factories have been set up to exploit their impoverished people for the cheap labor they can provide. This is bad for all of us.
The pollution keeps getting worse as the population booms. Meanwhile the choking smoke clouds from forest clearing fires spreads across land inhabited by millions of people. We wouldn’t need the products from all that land except that we have SO many people on the planet. Meeting the demands of the ever-expanding population will inevitably become harder and harder until we begin to run out of things, running low on energy and food until it disrupts the global economy, dealing with bigger and bigger pollution-related health crises until great numbers of people can no longer receive care, and once-routine medical conditions become (again) killers.
After the population peak, when will things start to improve again? At some point conditions will be bad enough that the death rate will exceed the birth rate and the global population will begin to decline, but by then the planet may be a much more difficult place to survive. Climate change may be whip-sawing agriculture with wide swings between drought and floods, productivity of commercial operations will be declining steeply due to worker, material, and energy shortages as well as falling revenues, energy sources may be unreliable and far more costly than today, and global shipping systems may be disrupted by fuel shortages and general confusion. When grocery store shelves become empty of all but locally produced food it will be too late, unfortunately, and our dependency on global shipping will be revealed as a huge risk. We will also probably see huge emigrations, millions upon millions of people picking up what they can carry and walking across continents in search of food, water, and safety, traveling by any available means and making current refugee movements look trivial.
After the turnaround from population growth to shrinkage, the mishmash of commercial and government organizations currently making a mess of the planet may have partially or entirely crumbled, and new organizations will be springing up to rebuild the global economy from the inevitable chaos. Large amounts of the infrastructure we spent so much of our resources on in the 20th century will, of necessity, crumble and decay, and deciding what to keep up will be a challenge. Hopefully the internet will be maintained through it all, since it is our greatest store of knowledge and the most advanced communication medium in history.
Achieving a sustainable situation won’t be easy and will take time. Our descendants may have to struggle for decades before the population and its demands drop sufficiently to allow the global climate to stabilize, the pollution to clear up, and something approaching a normal global economy to redevelop. Fortunately we can expect human innovation to continue, and the post-population explosion world will take advantage of the most cost-effective and sustainable applications of technology. Without that storehouse of information we would have a much more difficult recovery. It seems like, as a species, humanity got off to a slow start but is now in the “terrible two’s”, not yet evolved enough to create a mature global society but quite capable of getting ourselves into heaps of trouble. Hopefully, with a better understanding of our instinctive nature to procreate and the need to regulate our numbers, humanity can continue to evolve and achieve new “golden ages”, much better than the one we are at the peak of today, with a long and successful history ahead.
Thanks for reading — Tim