Sunday, June 11, 2006

Posing the 100 Year Question: The "Muddle Through" Answer

When I was a lad Isaac Asimov was my favourite science fiction writer - he wrote great novels such as "The Gods Themselves" and "The Naked Sun". I used to read his non-fiction books as well, borrowing them from Rayleigh library. Asimov was so famous that he could sell his articles to the top-paying magazines, such as Penthouse!

Now, he had an article published in the January 1971 edition of Penthouse entitled "The End". It wasn't a very sexy piece, simply a warning that civilisation could not survive the coming overpopulation crisis. (I hasten to add I only read it when it was published in book form in 1973!) He wrote a follow-up article, entitled "Can Man Survive the Year 2000?" Well, we've got past the year 2000 and we are still doing pretty well. Did my boyhood hero get it all wrong?

Similarly, I remember reading the Population Bomb by John Ehrlich. In particular I remember the scenario of nuclear war in 1984 caused by a lack of resources where ultimately the most advanced species surviving is the cockroach. It didn't happen.

Now, it's easy to mock people when you have the benefit of hindsight, but there have been scientifically trained forecasters of doom for quite a while and they haven't been correct yet. There's no doubt that overpopulation and a lack of resources are going to continue to be a problem, but maybe technological ingenuity will find the answers. For example, a recent edition of New Scientist discussed the possibility of global warming increasing the number of earthquakes. But the same edition also reported on the possibility of greatly improved solar power. Maybe mankind can just muddle through, with new technological advances keeping pace with our environmental problems. I know where I would rather be - facing global warming in 2006 rather than Hitler in 1939 or the Cold War in 1962.

And just to show how easy it is to forecast climatic change, here's an extract from a 1973 speech by my hero (and he still is my hero):

Well, here we are. We have just come through a thirty year period of mankind's maximum prosperity, on the whole. We've done very well since World War Two. We have...the world as a whole has eaten better, has lived better, has had a higher standard of living than it has ever had before. Now, you might tell me that through this entire thirty years there have been millions...hundreds of millions of people always hungry, always starving, with very little, and I'll say yes; it's been rotten. My point is that before now, it's always been rotten-ER. And we haven't really appreciated how temporary this is.

For one thing, we've had ample supplies of food, and part of the reason for that was that we've had an extremely good spell of weather for the last thirty years. In fact, there are some people who say that this last thirty years was the best thirty year spell of weather that we have had in the last thousand years. Now you may remember cold spells, and floods, and droughts, and all the rest of this stuff. But there has been less of it the world over than usual. In addition, just as we've had this good weather, we've also been applying energy at a far greater rate than ever before to farm machinery, to irrigation machinery. In addition, we've been using insecticides and pesticides of various sorts, to sort of clobber those little beasties and those weeds who think they're going to get some of our food. And in addition to that we've also developed new strains of grain, so-called "green revolution", that grow a lot of protein very fast. And what with all these things put together, our food supply has been going up.

But now, look what happens.

The very thing that makes it possible for us to use more and more energy is our industrial technologized world. And another thing that our industry produces is dust. And the air is dustier now than its ever been before in human history. Except perhaps very temporarily after a large volcanic eruption.

This means that the Earth's albedo, the percentage of light from the sun that it reflects back into space before it hits the ground, has been going up slightly because dusty air reflects more light than clear air does. And...well, not very much more, but enough. It has been making the temperature of the Earth drop since 1940. It's been going down steadily. Again, not very much. You're probably not aware that the summers are cold, or that the winters are extraordinarily icy, they're not. The drop in temperature may be one degree. But it's enough to cut down on the growing season in the northern climates. It makes the weather a little bit worse. It sends the storm tracts further south, so that the Sahara Desert creeps southward, so that the monsoon rains in India fail a little bit. Just enough so that the harvests aren't as good as they used to be, and the Earth's reserve supply of food sinks to it's lowest in recent history.

And just as this is happening...and it's going to continue happening because the air isn't going to get un-dusty unless we stop our industrial activity. And if we stop our industrial activity, that's going to be because we've suffered some complete disaster.

So, the weather isn't going to turn better. The air is going to stay dusty, and it's going to continue getting a little colder. And at the same time, it's getting hard to get energy. Energy is much more expensive than it used to be; oil prices are up. And that means that fertilizer is more expensive than it used to be. And it turns out that the green revolution depends on strains of grain that require...yes, they do what they're supposed to do...but they require a lot of irrigation; a lot of water, and a lot of fertilizer. And the fertilizer isn't there. And the irrigation machinery is hard to run now with expensive oil. And, of course, the pesticides are produced in high-energy chemical factories; their price goes up. Everything is combining to cut down on the food supply. And to arrange it so that in years to come, we may have trouble keeping our present level of food, let alone increasing it.

There are always people who think that all we have to do, after all is abandoned, all this foolish technology that we've made ourselves slave to, and go back like our ancestors and live close to the soil with the good things of nature. That would be great if we could do it. If we could go back to the way it was before World War II, technologically, we could support all the people that lived on Earth before World War II. The catch is that in these last thirty years one billion and a half people have been added to the population of the Earth. And we have been feeding them largely because of all these things that we have done in these last thirty years, the good weather, the fertilizers, and the pesticides, and the irrigation, and the green revolution, and all the rest of it. If we abandon that, we also have to abandon a billion and a half people; and there are going to be very few volunteers for the job.


Joe Otten said...

I give up, who was it?

It is worth remembering the benefits that industrialisation has brought. In a worst case scenario, I suppose, we could give them up. But even there we are being, like your quote, horribly unspecific. Is dust or CO2 generated by industry in general, or by specific processes?

If we focus on specific problems rather than generalized "doom" and specific processes rather than "industry", not only will solutions be easier to think of, but sacrifices, if they have to be made, will be smaller.

Chris Black said...

Sorry, I should have made it clear, that was Asimov speaking.

My point here is that , to the best of his knowledge 33 years ago, we were facing a problem of global cooling .

Now it's clear that the problem is global warming. But in another 33 years time we might have identified another phenomenon that might moderate the warming effect - or alternatively make it worse .

Trevor said...

It was Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein for me in my youth (and beyond!). Of course most of their speculations were so far in the future we will never know if they are accurate but they both assumed we would have left this planet in some numbers by now.

As you point out science has been no better than fiction at predicting the future. It does not alter the fact that we have to act on the best information available to avoid catastrophies. Muddling along is one thing, ignoring the problem is another altogether

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