November 2019. Some Thoughts on Population Angst

Some Thoughts on Population Angst.

In England it appears that Parliament has become the proverbial 'basket case' shortly to be engulfed in election fever, and the splurging of promises unlikely to be kept. In Tuscany more serious concerns are afoot, and the promise of a bumper olive harvest, like Brexit, has not been kept. Veterans locally shake their heads and nod melancholically, blaming the tragedy on a fearsomely cold Libeccio that sprang up for one day and withered the lot. Not so the wiseacres, considering their ayatollah more progressive on such matters, and ventured it was the effect of Global warming. Yes. Right on. The fact that the failure of harvests are as old as recorded history, strikes them not.

Of course, modern 'Global Warming' unlike 'Global Freezing' is not exactly a new phenomenon, but no one has suggested before that it’s 'man made'. Such neoteric blah is a lot to contend with. In my long (ish) life I’ve known it hotter, colder, wetter, smuttier, windier, and down right more miserable than it is now. Don’t say it. I too can see round corners, and the future looks much the same. I’m more worried about the big rocks without brakes that seem to be careering about in our universe! Of course I’m sceptical, when scientists have revealed climatic oscillations of such extreme character that our ancient departed have been discovered all in one place in strata yielding alternate tropical, temperate and artic flora and fauna. Which in a way brings me to the point I want to make. At the end of the Neanderthal period the population of what was to become the British Isles was estimated to be about 250 souls and no one was complaining about their smoky old wood fires. Now it’s a shade over sixty seven million, and most chimneys are redundant appendages only useful for crows and the occasional stork, while pollution is all down to combustion engines to be gone by 2040. Where does all this toxic miasma go? I only ask because I can’t reconcile myself with the enigma of fresh invigorating air enveloping the old drove roads straddling the heights of Salisbury Plain, or the even stranger phenomena of exiting London on the fume ridden M3 at 1700 hours as a contrast to a fresh invigorating 0300 hours in the morning. Something must be hoovering it all up. I suspect at the back of many people’s minds is the suspicion that there’s a lot of money to be made out of turning a pimple into a pumpkin.

Which is not to say that there isn’t a real problem threatening human life on earth. Yes, we all know that at some terminal point when the sun splutters out the earth will cease to exist. Yet in the meantime if man ceases to exist because of his own capacity to fail, be it through ignorance or design, the earth will not necessarily follow suit and come to a shuddering halt. Life is not the prerogative of man alone. That, I hear you say, is what Global Warming is all about. Saving our souls. We must agree to differ. Climate change has periodically come and gone and man has adapted by quietly packing his bags and moving somewhere cooler or warmer as needs demanded. The problem is such matters happened in a world composed of people numbered in comparison to the crowds at a live Hyde Park, concert. Semi Global Annihilation is what it’s all about now, forced upon an un-expectant world by a population explosion that will lead to a ferment of violence and social turbulence. It is happening for all sorts of reasons, quietly behind your back or in some far-flung place you’ve hardly heard of. The cynical will say that nature is in control when in fact it’s out of control. It always has been. I sometimes wonder if it can actually stand the burden of humanity. After the First World War, when the bullets and bombs had hardly stopped flying, nature demonstrated how it really should be done with an Influenza Pandemic that effected 500 million people world wide, and killed an estimated 50 million of them. If it was supposed to be a wake-up call, people shrugged and carried on making a mess of things, not realizing that Nature is for now, not some time in the future. It hasn’t gone away, and it’s proven to be awfully sneaky. A massive submarine movement occurred in the Aegean during the beginning of the last millennium that tilted the island of Crete as if on a pivot. As a result the west end was raised as much as 26 feet out of the water while a corresponding subsidence in the east swallowed up sections of low lying coastal towns. Crete is 156 miles long. Some seesaw! Mentioned elsewhere in another blog the Temple of Serapide in the market place of Pozzuoli that has an inconvenient habit of submerging itself every 700 years or so, along with the locals. Living in Italy you soon get to know nothing is secure beneath your feet. You can make up your own list of horror stories from volcanoes to earthquakes to typhoons, demonstrating what man is up against when it comes to natural forces. Man has learnt to live with those as well, yet he’s never found a way to outwit them. So, given the old adage 'if you can’t beat them join them', Mother Nature created her own natural disaster, and sadly much of it could be all the right reasons. People live longer due to the wonders of medical science, and no one’s going to criticize that, but it comes with a cost that has to be accommodated somewhere. It’s not just a question of more mouths to feed, but for longer. Women, thank God, rarely die in childbirth, a fifty-fifty chance in mediaeval times, nor children in droves of respiratory illnesses only a century or so ago, and the potential average age of western humans has increased by a decade in the last half century. Despite the ravages of wars, and mostly incompetent leadership, the poorer nations of today will almost certainly have their moment in the sunshine as well. All this comes with a cost to nature. It has its own means of survival, and not many seem to be concerned that it is intricately entwined with our own. How many acres of land must be bulldozed to create motorways, industrial sites, sprawling housing estates, or shopping malls; how many forests must be felled, marshes drained to provide for the greater volume of food needed for an ever expanding population. Has nobody noticed that land only covers 25% of the planet’s surface? That’s plenty enough for the moment, until you consider how much of that 25% is actually habitable. Russia, the largest land mass on earth, has vast zones where the temperature can hit 60°C below zero, while Death Valley in the United States, as a contrast, climbs to almost 60°C above. Great chunks of the earth, the deserts and high mountain ranges are virtually uninhabitable, and in the future we’re going to need every inch of those that are habitable. Food is like money in the bank. Whatever is taken out has to be put back in again if we’re to remain solvent and avoid bankruptcy. Certainly man has become more efficient at producing food, but the demand is not static. It is growing exponentially, and no one can know the ultimate level of need. All we can say is that it’s expanding remorsefully. In 1900 the world population was 1.6 billion. One hundred years later it is 6.0 billion, and the most populous countries are also the most poverty stricken. You don’t have to be very imaginative to foresee a problem coming such as the disastrous African swine fever that has at the last count seen 1.5 million pigs die and numbers rising worldwide. People will turn to beef and chicken along with other alternatives that will raise in price leading those at the bottom of the food chain finding it difficult to afford any meat at all. Starving people turn into desperate people. The American journalist Vance Packard referred to water as one of the vanishing resources we will have to address, and that was fifty years ago. We go on demanding water even when we’re not wasting it: showers, flush toilets, dishwashers, lawn sprinklers – and even when we are: swimming pools, drive in car washes and leaky taps. As 75% of the earths surface is water you’d think that shouldn’t be too much of a problem. Awkwardly, Desalination Plants are effective but produce high levels of brine along with chemical pollutants that are toxic to marine life. It may be possible to recycle some of them, but as a rule every plus has a minus. For an example of how difficult quite straightforward circumstances can be, it has been possible to reduce the level of childbirth in the west but economic and social factors have seen necessary immigration distort and reverse the progress towards smaller families given the legitimate industrial requirements for an expanding work force and a healthy economy. It is an example where the balance between resources and population reflect a constant concern.

Climate Change is a cause for anxiety, and man may play a very small part in its historical flux, but unless someone can come up with an answer to the population explosion and the depletion of resources then the Final Frontier may have nothing to do with a change in the weather.

For an excellent documentary film on YouTube concerning how humanity is threatening the ecological balance of the planet see 'Home' by Yann Arthus-Bertrand. (Distributed absolutely free in several languages.)