I am fearful of the future. It comes as a shock to realise that the world now contains more than three times as many people as it did on the day I was born. Currently more than 130 million babies enter the world every year - almost 360,000 each day. These figures are utterly absurd and flatly damning of man's ability to take control of his situation. If the world population growth rate remains as it is, by the time my grandchildren reach my age there will be over 20 billion people squabbling for a place - and a life - on this planet. I am glad I won't be one of them.
But the population spurt is by no means a simple phenomenon. Cultural and economic circumstances and migration (including refugees) affect the comparative growth rate, demographics and stability of different countries. Of particular concern for many nations, including Australia, is the rapidly increasing proportion of elderly people. It is estimated that by 2050 the ratio of retired people to workers in Australia will be double its current value (about 1:5), unless people are encouraged (or forced?) to work until they are much older. The elderly are becomong a burden on the rest of society, and improvements in health systems are the main cause of their increased longevity. Furthermore the cost of health care is continually increasing due to medical and technological advances, so the cost of maintaining this elderly population in 2050 will be much more than twice its present level. Isn't it time we started to ask ourselves why we feel this obligation to prolong life at any cost?
The stand-out continent for population growth is Africa, which will almost certainly double its population by the year 2050 but will lack sufficient resources of its own to sustain this growth. The rest of the world will have to help them out, at tremendous cost. What a pity our past leaders did not think of this and educate the Africans in the art and science of birth control. Accompanying this proliferation will be all the familiar devastation of our planet, in particular deforestation, which is already taking place at double the rate of most other regions.
The fact is, many global issues are becoming morally significant. As well as population growth, these include the related areas of conservation, especially of natural forest, lifestyle, agricultural practices, urban growth and carnivorism. It's no use waiting for our insipid politicians to do anything significant about any of these issues. We need real leaders to get things moving, committed to the cause and able to sway both the public and politicians (here's a young lady that comes to mind, perhaps a little prematurely, for although the potential is undoubtedly there, I fear it will be diverted into an acting career).
Other associated risks include world war, economic meltdown and uncontainable disease epidemics, of which potentially the most dangerous appear to be mosquito-borne diseases and incursion by "superbugs" of Asian origin into populations that have not developed natural immunity to them. The misuse of antibiotics, particularly in farming, is largely responsible for the development of these resistant strains of bacteria. Sooner or later travel restrictions will need to be enforced (at first from certain African and Asian countries) and immigrants will have to be quarantined just as we now do for imported animals.
Discounting the risk of sudden "black swan" events (probably economic or political), within the next half-century Global warming is likely to become the overriding problem. By now, most of us should have an idea of some of the likely consequences if nothing is done to halt it. The evidence, from many different fields, has become overwhelming, and steps must be taken immediately to avert worldwide disaster. Maybe not many people realise that global warming and its associated effects will probably accelerate due to factors such as the release of greenhouse gases trapped in permafrost and changes in heat absorbed and reflected by the Earth’s surface. Once this cycle of events gains momentum it will become virtually impossible to control it.
The consequences of rising sea levels due mainly to the melting polar ice caps have been widely publicised. But it’s possible that an even more serious effect of global warming will be the melt-down of mountain glaciers, particularly those upon which large populations depend for their water supply. Can you imagine the Ganges drying up? Much of northern India, with a population of around half a billion, would then be without its main water supply, for drinking and for growing crops. In places such as the Indus basin and along the coasts of Peru and northern Chile, the effects of disappearing glaciers would be even more dire, because very little rain falls in these regions. Faced with the prospect of zero water, either the people would have to move to regions where water is plentiful, or water would have to be brought to (or created in) their homeland. The second solution would appear to be preferable. (There's very little science in this!)
Until recently it seemed to me that the most effective single step that could be taken immediately to slow down global warming would be to drastically reduce fossil fuel production, replacing it with solar, subterranean thermal sources, and possibly nuclear power, and introducing cleaner technologies for using natural gas, e.g. to make hydrogen for powering motor vehicles. One possible way of utilising solar energy is to grow algae to produce oils suitable for powering vehicles and other devices, at the same time yielding by-products for feeding animals or even humans directly. (But, for goodness sake, let's forget about biofuels from cereals or cane grown on good arable land, and lets also give wind farms a miss, unless well away from human habitation.) I now tend to think this is an unrealistic approach, as the economic and human costs would probably outweigh the benefits. It might be better to first put resources into intensive research and development aiming to drastically reduce the cost of alternative energy sources down the track. Only economists can deal with this question, but inevitably each one will give a different answer. The trouble is, we've left it too late, and the longer we hang back the less attractive the second approach becomes (Australians should travel to India or China during their winter to get a better understanding of atmospheric pollution!)
Other factors contributing to the problem include lifestyle improvement (if not pure greed), forest destruction, agricultural practices, industrial pollution, unchecked development and possibly, in the near future, the shift in economic and political power towards Asia. But the root of the problem - and a major cause of many other problems - is population growth, which astonishingly has received little attention either from politicians or from scientists. This, along with forest destruction, needs to be vigorously controlled on a global scale. In particular, people should be educated to understand they no longer have a (so-called) "natural right" to breed willy-nilly. It's simply unethical. Above all, it's grossly unfair to their children. Recent models of sustainability suggest that the world is already overcrowded by as much as 50% (which means, putting it less politely, that the world would be better off if a third of us were not here). The goal of every country should be, not just reduced or zero population growth, but negative growth. The kindest way of achieving this is by increasing access to education, especially of girls, and birth control measures (the most important technology ever devised!) - see "Population and human development - the key connections". Realistically, however, I cannot see progress along these lines happening quickly enough, so it will end up being done the Chinese way (or worse) - by enforcement. In my opinion, drastic action of this kind needs to be taken now. Why the Australian government actually hands out large sums of money for having babies is beyond comprehension. This sets a terrible example to countries like India, Pakistan and a fistful of African nations - already bursting at the seams - whose populations continue to soar because no viable control measures are in place. (In contrast to this view, Kevin Kelly argues that the world - in particular developed countries - will be seriously underpopulated soon after world population reaches its peak.)
Don't imagine that "western" nations, with their relatively low birth rates, are less responsible than developing and third world countries for the dire state of our planet. It is said that per capita consumption of the world's primary resources is on average about six times higher in rich than in poor countries, while the difference in private spending is much higher still. This suggests that in terms of consumption the rich countries should aim to reduce their birth rates to much lower levels than those of the poor countries' target (though I have a feeling this would do little to reduce their exploitation of available resources). But at the same time, as their standards of living improve, the developing countries will expand their consumption of resources faster than their birth rates. In terms of pollution by greenhouse gases, the differences between countries are more variable and tend to be wider. For example, per capita greenhouse gas emissions in Australia are about 20 times the level in India. (November 2013 - yet the Australian government is about to remove the carbon tax and appears to have nothing to replace it.) When you add to this the enormous amount of coal mined and exported to countries like China, Australians are by far the most polluting people in the world (see this report.).
In matters of conservation I more or less concur with my father's opinions. He was convinced that there could be absolutely no compromise between human "progress" and conservation. The widely held view, according to him, was that conservation should not interfere with the preservation and improvement of man's means of livelihood, such as building homes, roads and reservoirs, controlling pests and weeds, and destroying trees and hedgerows to make way for mechanised, broadscale agriculture. In his view (which seemed to be confined to the UK environment) there won't be anything left worth conserving in the not too distant future, because nobody has any intention of enforcing conservation at the expense of progress - least of all the government and councils. I think this is true, not only of "England's green and pleasant land", but of the entire ecosphere. The often-heard avowal of local authorities everywhere that they seek to maintain a "balance" between conservation and development is meaningless and deceptive. It is perfectly obvious that the conservationists are losing the battle against human advancement everywhere, and I believe the consequences will be more dire than my father had in mind.
Everything considered, I believe the Chinese are the leading ruffians in the global ecology crisis. Away from their cities they are developing massive coal-fired power stations - far bigger than the world has so far seen - and with their weird ideas on health and food they continue to be responsible for the decimation of wildlife everywhere (elephant, rhino, sharks and bears immediately come to mind). To their credit they have managed to curb their population growth, though by methods that in some cases may be considered inhumane. However, in most other areas their behaviour is overtly unethical and thoughtless. We let them get way with it because we need their trade, but mainly because we are scared of them.
The increasing rate of deforestation - particularly in the rain forests of South America and South-East Asia - is extremely alarming. I doubt whether most people are aware how bad the destruction has been: entire forests have simply disappeared. It's a complete myth that revegetation with fast-growing species is the solution. This may or may not help the global warming problem, but it cannot replace the complicated, absolutely vital role played by rain forests in maintaining a life-friendly global environment. And forests consist of much, much more than trees! Most importantly, they harbour numerous beautiful, often quite intelligent, animal species that face extinction as their habitat dwindles.
The apparent moral dilemma here is that the livelihoods of a significant number of people depend on bulldozing trees. But since the lives of a much greater number of people, as well as animals, in the future depend on halting the destruction of our forests immediately, the dilemma has an easy answer. In practice politicians everywhere are just too stupid to include it high on their agenda, and everything weighs against them doing so. Similar arguments apply to current agricultural and fishing practices, and the disregard by global corporations for both people and the environment. Though I think of myself as an optimist, the chance of finding a way out of these predicaments, among many others, is rapidly receding. Presumably conservationists of the same ilk as my father would not even take into consideration the possible adverse effects on human lives: for them there simply is no dilemma. If necessary, mankind must suffer so that the rest of the ecosphere can survive. As I see it, a more likely scenario is that man will bring his own downfall and drag the rest of the ecosphere down with him.(See The Wilderness Society of Australia for further information and ways of helping to save our natural heritage.)
Anyway, it isn't at all certain that we will ever have to face up to these challenges. Excessive population growth and global warming would, of course, have a serious effect on the global economy. But the chances seem quite high that, long before these physical changes become life-threatening, the economy will collapse into utter chaos, effectively putting a brake on those factors that are causing them. The reason for the anticipated collapse is simply that the financial system on which we have become entirely dependent is a complete illusion, consisting of little more than figures - often invented by punters - and stored as digital records in computers. Those figures could reduce to zero at any time, and the value of "real" money would quickly follow suit. What then? (The recent invention of bitcoins and other tradable virtual currencies only sharpens the fantasy.)
The frightening concentration of all this notional wealth in very few places - huge computers in supposedly safe shelters - is also extremely concerning. But this may not be the most dangerous way in which the world's wealth is centralized. According to a recent (Jan 2014) Oxfam report, the 85 richest people in the world possess the same wealth as the 3.5 billion poorest (i.e. half the world's population). This is a staggering revelation, with potentially devastating political and economic implications. At about the same time, a statement released by the World Economic Forum declared that "the chronic gap between the incomes of the richest and poorest citizens is seen as the risk that is most likely to cause serious damage globally in the coming decade." I am in no position to digest all the relevant information (who is?), but if there are any "Black Swan" events on the horizon my (untrustworthy) fifth sense tells me that the rich/poor divide will not be the primary trigger. On the contrary, the inept attempts of governments to modify this status quo (repugnant though it be) might well lead to greater economic instability.
Throughout childhood most of us were featherbedded in the protective, reassuring arms of our families. In our early manhood our trust in the family was transferred to the wider circle of humanity that confronted us, instilling us with a complacent reliance on the social system of the time. The world was our oyster, we knew nothing about anything whilst believing we knew everything - we were invincible, and those of us living in the "free" world retained our belief in the intrinsic goodness of humanity and democracy. Those of us with no capacity for further development remained in that mold unless bludgened into wakefulness by some life-changing event.
But for the rest of us, as we grew older and wiser, we surely would have discovered that most people are intrinsically stupid and selfish, that nobody is equal to anybody and that most politicians are unscrupulous, irresponsible, double-dealing, power-seeking, ostentatious, bribe-dispensing, money grabbing, short-sighted charlatans. As a result of this and the inability of people to elect representatives who show any evidence of honour or appropriate credentials, the democratic system of government has become impotent and rotten to the core. It seems totally powerless to bring about the drastic changes in local and global management needed to avert any of the major tragedies that could in the near future bring us to our knees. And a new form of government cannot be established except by external forces. For we have seen over and over again that in the modern world a people's revolution, with or without civil war, can only replace one weak government with another which the revolutionaries believe will promote their own selfish causes, but in fact will suffocate them with bribes once more, squash what little sense of freedom they once possessed, imprison them between walls of abject poverty and discontent and fail completely to address any of the pressing issues that confront our world.
Perhaps, then, Government, with a capital G, is the very first thing that must change - but how?
The following notes are mostly from Central Humanism Hub - Conclusions and might be better read in that context
The welfare problem in gravely overpopulated regions (e.g. parts of Africa) is not being tackled wisely. Almost certainly, the instant remedies prescribed by the richer nations, such as providing food, water and health care, don't have the remotest chance of keeping pace with the increases in mortality and disease generated by the continuing high population growth. The plain fact is that, in the long run, curbing birth rates in these regions is going to save many more lives than stop-gap measures such as providing famine relief. It could also save the world from disaster. But will the citizens of western nations ever come to think of population control as being more humane than reducing the suffering of human beings here and now? No, their compassion will be spent in vain and birth control may never get the priority attention it deserves. (We've already left it far too late and have put ourselves in a position of being forced to deal with the effects of overpopulation rather than the cause. Good grief, Malthus saw the principle behind this more than 200 years ago!)
A world based on oil - for how long?
The peoples of industrialised societies have long since lost contact with Nature. In days gone by, ordinary people knew when water was scarce because they had to fetch it for themselves. They appreciated the value of energy because they had to chop their own firewood. They did not waste any bread because every grain of wheat was planted by hand. This is a form of education most of us no longer get. Now everything comes off a supermarket shelf or through a cable or a pipe, and god only knows where it came from. Our relationship to Mother Earth has become distant and complicated. We cannot understand our dependence on her - or how we are ravishing her - unless we make a real effort to find out. And, for all the science accompanying the menu, we understand our needs less well than ever before, because the corporate giants of industry inundate us with a huge variety of mysterious packages that probably contain few, if any, of the essentials of life.
The preservation of our society in its present state of detachment from the Earth is hugely dependent on the supply of a single commodity - oil. It is chiefly because of oil that we have managed to become so remote from Nature. (Another contributer to our condition is money, a near-fictional entity which we tend to substitute for real goods.) However, world oil production is forecast to begin declining quite dramatically within 20 years from now (2006) - not so much because the Earth's oil reserves are running out, but because of the complexity and prohibitive cost of the technology needed to extract it from ever more inaccessible places. Viable alternative energy sources still seem to be in the notebook stages of development. Furthermore the technologies which sustain our current isolation from Nature are geared to the use of oil and will require extensive modification to make them compatible with other forms of energy. In view of our unpreparedness for the decline in oil production, one can only envisage economic chaos. The means by which all the nameless bounties of the Earth are transported from source to factory, converted into modern consumer goods and again transported to the cities, will be swept from under our feet, along with the make-believe wealth tied up in shares and superannuation. The only consolation is that the decline in oil use may help to reduce the severity of global warming. Or will it just add one crisis to another?
Intensive animal production and vegetarianism
There are four unassailable objections to intensive animal production (“factory farming”), namely:
A note on obesity: There’s a strong link between eating meat and obesity, a condition that causes much harm both to afflicted individuals and to society as a whole. The treatment of the effects of obesity might well be seen as an unwarranted burden on society, and this alone to some extent justifies the "prejudice" against overweight people that occurs in most societies. Indeed in some circumstances tolerance of obesity is stretched too far, for example in the calculation of air fares. In my opinion air fares should consist essentially of two parts: (1) a basic charge for a seat, which includes taxes, cabin services, baggage handling and administration costs, and (2) a charge for the total weight of the passenger and his/her baggage. This would obviously penalize overweight passengers and benefit children and passengers from certain ethnic groups, whose smaller stature tends to be linked to lower wealth. Maybe grossly overweight people should also be paying higher health insurance premiums.
Notes on nutrition and health: Much remains unknown about the links between nutritional factors and health, but people are beginning to get the message on sugar, salt and hard fats in "western" diets (reduce them all). The dangers of over-consuming meat protein (notably its contribution to the obesity problem) are also beginning to filter through. Fresh veges are touted as the way to get vitamins and fibre but I'm a little sceptical about that, as I am about the significance of genetically modified plants. Three aspects that I believe to be important and still largely overlooked are omega-3 fatty acids, the protein GFI-1 and contamination (deliberate and incidental) of food with chemicals. The critical objective with omega-3 fatty acids is to increase its ratio to omega-6 fatty acids. In typical western diets this ratio is probably around 1:20 on average, while the currently recommended ratio is at least 1:4 and (some experts say) preferably 1:1. This implies dramatic changes in eating habits: cutting out the kinds of fat found in most processed foods and in meat, eggs, poultry and most dairy products (a possible exception being products from cows ranged on fresh grass), and increasing your intake of seafood notably squid, sardines, pilchards, anchovies and mackerel (or dosing yourself with krill oil). Not ideal from a vegetarian's point of view, but there are some plant foods that contain high levels of omega-3, notably chia seeds, hemp seeds and certain seaweeds. Also for cooking, use high omega-3 oils such as olive and canola oil (and be aware that sunflower oil, for example, has no omega-3 content at all). Some nuts contain reasonable levels of omega-3 and have other nutritiona benefits - in particular, walnuts appear to improve memory and other brain functions.
A fifth reason, of relevance to humanists who find themselves having to eat frequently among muslims (or jews), is to avoid consuming halal (or kosher) meat. As pointed out elsewhere, religious slaughter is obnoxious and absurd. An advantage of eating with muslims is that you can't eat pork! Of course, the "reasons" muslims don't eat pork are diametrically opposed to the reasons stated above. Also see this facebook site and these videos.
On the other hand it's becoming clear that large scale fruit and vegetable operations (the whole process from field to consumer) on average use almost as much energy as the production of meat and animal products. In this respect the outright winners (under good management systems) appear to be cereals, legumes and oilseeds, and smaller scale mixed farming practices which complement one another. Ideally people should be on similar diets to monogastric farm animals such as pigs and poultry. (Poultry do have gizzards, used essentially for grinding, but human beings obviously consume foods which have undergone further processing and cooking.) The reduction in fresh fruit and vegetables in the diet would have to be offset by vitamin and mineral supplementation.
As for the main reason why people are not vegetarian - and why both popular and legal thinking about animal welfare is in a disgraceful mess - please see "The origin of the carnivorous obsession?" in the Central Humanism pages.
These objections (and others that apply to animal farming across the board) provide strong support for vegetarianism or, at least, for greatly reducing our consumption of meat. In my view, children (say, under the age of 15) and certain medical patients may benefit from eating meat in limited quantities, but normal adults don't need to, and probably should not, eat meat. In some other countries, however, there are communities whose existence depends on animals.
........Dabs of Grue..........2002-2013.....................