by John Robinson
We live on the edge of global catastrophe. We inhabit a finite planet, and the mass of people is such that modern civilisation cannot be sustained. There have been many warnings but these have been denied and ignored, and we are now within the transition period. The strains have become steadily more evident, providing warning signs of the looming crisis forecast for around 2030, just a few short decades away. Meanwhile daily life goes on as if there is no tomorrow, as if economic growth and consumerism have no end.
I live in two worlds. My lifetime of research, and media reports of happenings across the globe, together with the many forceful warnings from professional organisations, make it clear that the sustainable limits to human activity have long been passed. That is one reality. But in the local community all around people follow a lifestyle of unlimited consumerism, following the calls to grow and spend by ubiquitous advertisements as any mention of environmental harm is swamped by pressure to buy and borrow. The mass of gas-guzzling vehicles at the supermarket during the Christmas spending frenzy is a graphic illustration of a society which has turned its back on my reality. Within that second reality, most people continue to work unthinkingly at whatever task is offered with immediate survival the one goal and deny the multiple warnings while businesses strive to expand. That second reality dominates as the global economy follows the dictates of an immensely powerful and incredibly selfish oligarchy while the majority of people are content to keep their collective head in the sand.
Lets consider my reality by taking a birds eye view of this planet from out in space.  There are more people than ever; the world population is booming. The number which has been increasing over tens and hundreds of thousands of years grew from 500 million to 1 billion (1,000,000,000) between 1600 and 1800 when Europeans spread from their overcrowded homelands to colonise the globe. It was 1.6 billion in 1900, 3 billion when I was born in 1940, 6 billion in 2000 and is forecast to go to 9 billion before 2050. That is adding six times the 1800 population in under one century. When is enough? What is the best number of us?
The answer depends on the exact question, whether we are aware of, and concerned with, the ecosphere and other species.
If we want to know the number of people who might live in balance with the natural world, the historical transformation of entire ecosystems indicates that the population would need to be many fewer than the 500 million of 1600. That limit was passed long ago millennia even. If we are prepared to destroy much of nature and exhaust non-renewable resources with everyone living at a USA/European standard of material consumption then maybe 2 billion is possible. Note that there is no way that such a population and lifestyle can claim to be sustainable, nor can everyone alive today achieve that level of material prosperity.
If we want to keep expanding the population and squeeze all the people possible into the ecosystem of this finite planet and damn the consequences, then the forecast 9 billion takes the world to the very edge and threatens a cycle of boom and bust.
A similar arithmetic holds for New Zealand.
The human population for survival of moa was zero by the time that there were 100,000 Maori the species was extinct.
The next million destroyed the majority of the lowland forests. The landscape has been transformed with only pockets of natural ecosystems left. Perhaps 2 million can live in a clean, green, self-sufficient and sustainable nation.
Now at 4 million many more species are under threat and the economy is kept afloat by a national deficit of around 9% of GDP. New Zealand is an integral part of an overcrowded planet, a place of escape for the wealthy.
People are like any organism, expanding mindlessly to fill all available space. Within any natural ecosystem a set of complex interactions or control mechanisms operate to sustain a balance among the various players. When that balance is broken in some way, a dominant species may increase until a new limit is reached. But without any control mechanism the tendency is to go past a sustainable limit and to overshoot. Then the population will collapse. This happens when a plague virus has killed most of its host and when rabbits have multiplied until vegetation is destroyed. Then large numbers die off. The pattern has been followed despite the considerable human intelligence and we live within the final stage of the ecological progression.
There has been a steady progress in the understanding of the global predicament. For example:
Ecologists told of examples of damage.
Models of the world first explored the overall behaviour and then moved on to include the complexity of interacting systems.
Historians described the experiences of past ages, including the terrible 14th century when around one-third of Europe died off in the Black Plague following centuries of growth.
Scientists have explored and tested theories and concluded that there is a huge die-off of other species, that water shortages are looming, that world food stocks per capita are no longer increasing, that the use of fossil fuels has led to global warming, that the peak in oil production is around now.
A comprehensive picture emerges. My forecast, dating from the 1970s, is for widespread famine around 2030, accompanied by social breakdown and struggle for resources. I have suggested that there will be advance signs of that development, which I have called foreshocks, borrowing the terminology of earthquake science. Those signs are clearly evident today and I fear that the forecast may be real.
Any organism passes through stages of development, from juvenile growth and mature stability. It is time indeed it is well past time for human growth-fixation to end. People have come to fill every niche and to threaten their own survival. A confident and mature society would give away the idea of juvenile growth and enjoy its time of maturity.
This is hardheaded and realistic professional science. I have degrees in physics and mathematics, have worked as research scientist, have visited many research groups across Europe where I joined in meetings and debates, have studied many extensive global computer models and have worked with a number of national and international organisations. I have learned that it is possible to forecast the broad brush-strokes of world events, as forecasts of 1980 proved accurate past 2000 to the present. Just as it is possible to build millions of reliable vehicles and to send man to the moon, so too we can understand our society and where we are collectively heading. What is required is to gain the self-confidence to refuse to believe in the impossibility of such a venture, to stop reliance on the free market which provides such wealth to a few and to move from denial, no longer scared of the real world. The suggestion is that we together face the situation and take on the task.
In my years of contact with UNESCO, OECD and other international organisations I became familiar with passing fads, issues which dominated for a year or so before dropping back into the background and being replaced by a new priority youth unemployment one year, interdisciplinarity the next, and so on with none treated truly seriously. The current issue is global warming. The reaction is, as usual, more spin than substance with New Zealand signing Kyoto but not satisfying its minimal requirements. It is important to realise that this issue, global warming, is just one of a grouping which must be considered together if solutions are to be found. The current focus does however allow a way forward.
A realistic reaction to global warming demands a recognition of the holistic global reality, the whole picture. It cannot be treated in isolation.
A consideration of the full global reality includes global warming.
Similar considerations apply to the current oil peak. A suitable reaction is to move in both directions to include a comprehensive overview in every particular study, and to include all particulars in building a total picture.
The problem is the fate of humanity, affecting all life on earth. The response must be proportionate, a set of interdisciplinary thinktanks both within topic areas and spanning the whole picture, stimulating and becoming part of a wide public debate. This is NOT a complicated enterprise. While my own subject of futures research has a lot to offer, some of the dogma considered basic to the subject must be set aside.
There are many complicated methodologies, many unproven. Dont get caught up in the time-wasting displacement activity of studying how to carry out an interdisciplinary study get the basics right and get on with the job.
It is often said that you cannot predict the future. Yes, one cannot predict exactly but it is entirely possible to forecast future developments. That is the aim of the enterprise.
Most studies insist on multiple scenarios, a set of pictures of all possibilities. That process may seem professional but in practice is lazy and useless. How should a decision-maker react when told that there may be high unemployment or no unemployment in a decade, that the world may feed many more or that starvation is looming, that oil may run out this year or in 50 years? These are real examples. An analysis must progress to the point of judgement and present a most-probable picture of where we are going. This is science, with each probable forecast tested by experience. I have followed that approach myself and found it works, even learning a great deal when events develop otherwise than expected.
It is clear that a big change is called for, with growth replaced by stability and then a period of downsizing towards a sustainable society spanning several centuries, dealing with new challenges as they occur. The majority reaction of the past 40 years has been to shrink from the challenge and to deny the existence of any problem. That is gutless and has left the situation to fester and worsen. Yet we can do it if we try.
Most people are scared, afraid to face reality. Yet a world in which the full community works together would be a great place to live in. Just as in wartime, anomie is replaced by a common purpose. Growth of population and consumption implies a considerable effort more homes, schools, hospitals, construction, roads, business and employment. Stability removes those pressures and a world without growth can be one of leisure and opportunity. The environment would then be safe from the pressures of human demands. Many problems of stability turn out, on further reflection, to be opportunities.
One challenge is to debate a suitable economic system, perhaps with a greater degree of control and self-sufficiency. It is evident that pure free-market capitalism does not suit, for the philosophy and the driving force is towards expansion and increasing profit. But there are many alternatives. I prefer the mixed economy that dominated in New Zealand from 1945 to 1984. That involves a distribution of power among many groups, with different sets of goals. Public corporations exist to serve the public. It is flexible and not dogma-driven. The future of private enterprise might in future be to run a good business and satisfy a reasonable demand, but no longer to create artificial demand or to hope to grow without limit. For most small tradesmen and businessmen this involves very little change, for many a better life with more family time.
In short, although the world is in a period of crisis, we have nothing to fear except fear itself. This nation needs to wake up and do something. We can do it, and the effort will pull us together, replacing a selfish ethic with a collective enterprise.
|||Consider, for example, this description of the earth as seen from lunar orbit. The astronauts next pointed their lightweight TV camera back at the home planet to show the awesome and delicate beauty of a waxing Earth rising gloriously above the lunar surface. Only when seen in such stark contrast to the Moon's dead surface and amid the infinite blackness of space could people the world over fully appreciate the extraordinarily fragile oasis of life that was Spaceship Earth. American poet Archibald MacLeish wrote: «To see the Earth as it truly is, small and blue and beautiful in that eternal silence where it floats, is to see ourselves as riders on the Earth together, brothers on that bright loveliness in the eternal cold brothers who know they are truly brothers.» (Hansen JR, First man, the life of Neil A Armstrong, Simon & Schuster, 2005, page 340)|