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Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Another Perspective on Overpopulation, Climate Change. Pandemics and Depletion of the Earth's Resources

As a species, we have always faced perils and threats to our continued existence. We also tend to view things from our own perspectives and fail to realize how limited our perspectives are. We don't compare what happens to us today and look back to history for examples of events or circumstances which were worse or just as bad. Nor do we look at how we learned from the past and made improvements that protect us in the future.

We hear a lot of predictions of the end of us as a species, with some extremists always predicting the end during the current year (2012 ring a bell for anyone?), but still, other less extreme people believing that we only have 20 years left before overpopulation, pandemics, wars, pollution etc. wipe us out.

I believe that we will endure as a species and that we will continue to thrive. I am not going to quote a whole bunch of scientific facts in this post because frankly, I do not have time to do the rigorous research that would back up what I am saying. This post is merely meant to represent my perspective, and my believe that I have formed, based on my limited knowledge of history and my general observations about humanity that I have gleaned from 44 years on this planet. You can take what I say with a grain of salt.

In this post, I will address:

1. Overpopulation
2. Pandemics
3. Environmental degradation

I will explain that while each of these things is indeed serious and does pose continued challenges for us as a species, I will argue that we have always faced challenges on these fronts, and we have always handled them with great ingenuity. I have no reason to believe that we will not continue to do so. I will show that the scientists are indeed right in their predictions, but most of us misunderstand the significance of what they are saying, and we catastrophize  information that really should just inform and caution us.


The term only makes sense when viewed in the context of scarce resources. The earth isn't overpopulated until there isn't enough food, water, shelter and other resources to sustain people. The classic argument that has been disseminated is this idea of "carrying capacity" - that if you grow an organism in a petri dish, it will multiply until it reaches carrying capacity of the dish and as the food supply is depleted, the organism dies off and then we are told that this is what is happening to us. The problem that I see with this lies in how overly simplistic it is. The food supply in the petri dish is finite. While many resources on earth are indeed finite in the short term (short term being millions of years), most of them are not totally consumed in the strictest sense, and are constantly being recycled. This means that it is entirely possible that for all practical purposes, the earth's resources, as required by us to survive, may not be all that finite, or at least their finite nature will not become an issue for a very long time.

Air and water are the most fundamental resources that we require, next to food to survive. Both are always being recycled in nature. When we exhale carbon dioxide, the plants convert it back to oxygen. Water evaporates from us or is eliminated, and comes back to us in the form of rain. Sure it can be contaminated, but we have found ways to clean it for re-consumption. We don't think about it, but you can be pretty certain that any given glass of water you take from the kitchen faucet has been through a treatment facility of some kind several times, and it's just fine. I suppose that it is possible for us to run out of air and water, but it is not very likely when we stop to consider the fact that in terms of biomass, we are vastly outnumbered by all other creatures on earth, all of whom need air and water as well, and we haven't run out yet.

So it is really only when resources are consumed at a faster rate than we can recycle them successfully that we have a real problem, and so far, I don't see any evidence of this. Most people under 40 today have grown up and lived their entire lives with the concept of recycling, not understanding that recycling is a very new concept. When I was a child, there were no limits on garbage collection - you threw away absolutely everything. There were no refunds on any bottles other than pop bottles. Today, almost all bottles are recycled. There are strict limits on what the garbage man will take away and we are asked to put recyclable materials out separately. We have recognized that the way we lived in the 1960's and 1970's is not infinitely sustainable, and we as a society put measures in place to address it. Now, there are still lots of places on earth that don't recycle, but I believe they will when it becomes apparent to those societies that it is in their own best interests to do so.

What about food? Well again, many people alive today don't remember that we faced a huge crisis in the early 1960's with hunger. In 1963 there was a worldwide "Freedom From Hunger Campaign" which sparked what is known as the "Green Revolution", or the birth of modern agribusiness. Modern agriculture has received a lot of negative press and it has become fashionable to favour "organic" produce, without understanding that organic farming simply did not produce enough crop yield to sustain the world's population. The Green Revolution resulted in the production of disease resistant strains of wheat and rice that exponentially improved crop yields to the point that worldwide hunger is no longer a threat. Technological innovation is improving yields all the time, so that even if the earth's population continues to grow at the same rate that it has, it is entirely possible that we may have improved the efficiency of food production to the point where we still have the same relative amount of food per person as we did before. Sure, the mass produced fruits and vegetables might not taste as good as the organic stuff, and yes the long term exposure to pesticides may have long term health effects, but there is no direct evidence that eating non-organic produce that has been carefully washed has long-term health risks.

Finally, it is not a certainty that the world population will continue to increase at the same rate that it has historically. We can see evidence of this all around us. 50 years ago, you were practically considered a cipher if you went through life without raising children. Today it is perfectly acceptable socially to decide not to have children, because we instinctively understand as a society that our survival does not depend on everyone having children. Consequently birth rates in many western nations are the lowest they have ever been. As mortality rates in the Third World fall with the availability of cleaner drinking water and medical supplies, people there will have fewer children because they don't need to have so many if they all survive. Also, as those countries become less agrarian and more industrial, the need for large families will diminish, and along with it the birth rate. Finally, attitudes towards sex and birth control play a pivotal role as well. So that while the earth's population did indeed double this past century, there is no compelling evidence to suggest that that it will double again.


Most people who are frightened of pandemics today have never lived through one. Read about the great influenza pandemic of 1918-1919 which killed millions upon millions, or the Black Death (plague) that spread throughout Europe in the 14th century and killed a quarter of the world's population. In both instances, while great numbers of people died, neither one wiped us all out, and we have since learned techniques for screening, quarantine, detection, containment and finally treatment that did not exist in those days. Look at Ebola. There are at least two instances I know of where there was the potential for this to become a pandemic. In all cases, it was successfully stopped and contained. There are other examples too such as SARS and Asian Bird Flu, which were also successfully contained after humans became infected with them.

Of course, it is entirely possible that we may indeed face a disease that thwarts our attempts to detect, treat and contain it. However, based on our track record in dealing with all the diseases we have faced so far, I believe that what we would face at worst, is a temporary state in which we do suffer a limited loss of life before we learn how to combat it, and then we do - successfully.

Environmental Degradation

The great London Fog of 1952 killed over 10,000 people. It was a 6 day period when the pollution in London was so bad that most people couldn't see more than a foot in front of them. What caused it? The pollution from all the coal fires that each household in London had been burning at that time. What was the result? Government regulations put in place to control industrial emissions from factories and the beginnings of attempts to control pollution. There hasn't been anything like it in London since, and it has been 63 years.

At the turn of the 20th century there was a summit in one of the European countries (I can't remember which now) where the world leaders gathered to discuss what to do about the growing problem of horse poop in the streets. You see before cars, the standard mode of transport was a horse and buggy. This had not been a problem until the mid 19th century when people began migrating from the countryside to the cities. By 1898 it was a huge problem - the gutters in the streets were literally filthy and there was a real risk of disease and also large quantities of methane, which trapped pollutants in the lower atmosphere above the cities. Within 10 years of that conference, automobiles had become widespread and replaced most horses and buggies. Then the problem became pollution. I can well remember my parent's 1969 Ford LTD Station Wagon and the thick, grey clouds of exhaust that would billow out of it as it idled in the driveway of our house. Then in the late 70's catalytic converters were invented. They weren't very effective at first, but by the mid 1980's they had been perfected to the point that, except for vehicles that run on diesel, you never see visible exhaust fumes any more. Why? Because the catalytic converters convert the emissions into carbon dioxide and water, both of which are non-toxic and used by plants in photosynthesis.

Now the problem is that we are supposedly running out of oil and global warming. I believe that the earth's climate is definitely changing, although I'm not convinced that this is a catastrophic thing for humanity as a whole. It certainly will be catastrophic for anyone living on the coast because of floods and hurricanes, but that isn't any different from the perils we have always faced from the elements, and our ability to track, study, measure and prepare for these phenomena are getting better all the time. I also believe that it is true that we are running out of oil. But so what? I remember as child hearing Jimmy Carter, then president of the US saying that we would run out of oil in a few years. It seemed to be true at a time when cars got 1 mile per litre of gas. Today they are 10 times more fuel efficient than they were when he said that. Also, we have been exploring solar power wind power and fuel cells. We have yet to find a way to make these three energy sources efficient, but give it time and necessity. I believe part of the reason we haven't figured it out yet is because we haven't had to: there has been plenty of cheap oil to meet our needs. But as this oil runs out and it gets too messy and expensive to mine the tar sands, we will see research and innovation in alternative fuels expand. I have no doubt that as a species, we will figure out how to effectively harness these sources, so that by the time we run out of oil in the next 50-75 years, it won't matter that much. It is not much of a stretch, when you consider the fact that the entire petrol engine technology is little more than 100 years old to think that we can't come up with something better in the next 50 years.

So these are some of my thoughts. We make mistakes and chase blind alleys as a species, but we are always exploring and looking for ways to be better, and as long as we are like that, I don't believe that we will die out.

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