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Grumpy Old Man

Clear & Present Danger

Tell me gentle readers, what is the biggest threat to western civilisation we are currently facing?

Is it:

The answer, of course, is none of these.

Malthus portrait An Englishman in 1798 knew the answer to this question, even though he had no understanding of the global power that the American colonies were to yield, nor of the stock market or of the nuclear bomb. In "An Essay on the Principle of Population" the social economist Thomas Malthus argued that population growth was the biggest threat to civilisation. The exponential growth of human population was not sustainable in a finite world:

In this state of things there will be no remedy; the wholesome checks of vice and misery[ie war, famine,disease] (which have hitherto kept this principle within bounds) will have been done away; the voice of reason will be unheard; the passions only will bear sway; famine, distress, havoc and dismay will spread around; hatred, violence, war and bloodshed will be the infallible consequence; and from the pinnacle of happiness, peace, refinement and social advantage we shall be hurled once more into a profounder abyss of misery, want, and barbarism than ever by the sole operation of the principle of population!

Look at the problems currently being faced around the world – wars over oil, wars over arable land, global warming, water shortages, climate change, destruction of the rainforests, pollution, melting of the polar ice-caps – they are all directly a consequence of a relentlessly increasing world population.

Population growth
As Malthus predicted, world population growth is exponential:

Population Reference Bureau

Environmental groups, think tanks and government agencies - even the CIA - are warning of ominous effects of rampant population growth. The United Nations Population Fund projects that the world's population will jump another 50 percent, to 9.3 billion, by 2050.

A report released by the Central Intelligence Agency in December 2003 says global population growth will strain limited resources such as water and oil, which in turn will lead to military clashes and other violence.
By 2015, the world probably will have added another billion people, with nearly 95 percent of the increase in developing countries. Poor, struggling "left-behind" nations will be plagued by "deepening economic stagnation, political instability and cultural alienation" that "will foster political, ethnic, ideological and religious extremism, along with the violence that often accompanies it," the report says.

Logging Climate change is a direct consequence of our ever-expanding CO2 producing industry and power-guzzling life-styles. The biggest producer of greenhouse gases in the world, the USA simply refuses to cut emissions as part of the world-wide Kyoto agreement because it would 'cost jobs'. Duh, George, how many jobs dya think there will be when the planet is dying and there's worldwide economic collapse? The Terrorist threat ? That's just something that's been blown out of all proportion to justify expanding USA interests in real-estate, especially land where they can control the dwindling reserves of oil. The real threat is climate change.
In a secret report leaked by the Observer/Guardian, advisors to the Pentagon nailed down the real threat to the American way of life: climate change. It "warns that major European cities will be sunk beneath rising seas as Britain is plunged into a 'Siberian' climate by 2020. Nuclear conflict, mega-droughts, famine and widespread rioting will erupt across the world."

Already, according to the Pentagon advisors, Randall and Schwartz, the planet is carrying a higher population than it can sustain. By 2020 'catastrophic' shortages of water and energy supply will become increasingly harder to overcome, plunging the planet into war. They warn that 8,200 years ago climatic conditions brought widespread crop failure, famine, disease and mass migration of populations that could soon be repeated.

"Climate change is a threat to life on our planet much greater than that posed by terrorism."
Stephen Wall, former senior adviser to PM Tony Blair

Randall told The Observer that the potential ramifications of rapid climate change would create global chaos. 'This is depressing stuff,' he said. 'It is a national security threat that is unique because there is no enemy to point your guns at and we have no control over the threat.'
Randall added that it was already possibly too late to prevent a disaster happening. 'We don't know exactly where we are in the process. It could start tomorrow and we would not know for another five years,' he said.

Of course the dominant political/economic system – Capitalism – is part of the problem of over-population. Capitalism depends on growth. Its nature is to expand else it has "stagnated". Even the language of capitalism encourages us to use up more planetary resources, to cut costs (pollution, waste disposal), to acquire bigger markets, to globalise, to consume more and more. People have more material things but they’re not happier.

Refinery For those countries, like China and India, who are not yet affluent and 'happy', we will see a huge expansion of economies, with all the ecological fall-out that Europe and the USA has seen over the last century. China is embarking on a quick and dirty policy of a rapid build of coal fired plants to feed a breakneck 10% growth rate pa. Already there are water shortages in some areas and the import of the entire USA grain production may be insufficient to meet growing demand. As a source of potential conflict over ‘lebensraum’, the most populous country in the world, and a nuclear power to boot, China is surely going to be the world's most dangerous hotspot in the next 30 years and beyond. These countries and many other are actively encouraged by WTO to outstrip the biggest environmental-resource destroying country, the United States of America.

Paul Ehrlich, Professor of Population Studies at Stanford University points out that the damaging impact of over-population is further exacerbated by the resource hungry western lifestyle: something many third-world countries now seek to emulate:

Few Laotians drive air-conditioned cars, read newspapers that transform large tracts of forest into overflowing landfills, fly in jet aircraft, eat fast-food hamburgers, or own refrigerators, several TV’s, a VCR, or piles of plastic junk. But millions upon millions of Americans do. And in the process they burn roughly a quarter of the world's fossil fuels, contributing carbon dioxide and many other undesirable combustion products to the atmosphere, and are major users of chlorofluorocarbons, chemicals that also add to the greenhouse effect and attack Earth’s vital ozone shield.

We have destroyed most of America’s forest cover (replacing a small fraction of it with biologically impoverished tree farms) and are busily struggling to log the last of the old growth forests in the Northwest, threatening the long-term prosperity of the timber industry, in part to service the junk bonds of rich easterners. The western United States is one of the largest desertified areas on the planet from overgrazing by cattle and sheep – not because we need the meat (only a small portion of our beef comes from the arid West), but because of the political power of ranchers in the western states and a nostalgic view of western history. And Americans have contributed mightily to the destruction of tropical forests by purchasing products ranging from beef to tropical hardwoods derived from forests.

Furthermore, each additional American adds disproportionately to the nation’s environmental impact. The metals used to support his or her life must be smelted from poorer ores at higher energy cost, or transported from further away. The petroleum and water he or she consumes, on average, must come from more distant sources or from wells driven deeper. The wastes he or she produces must be carried further away, and so on. Activities that created little or no environmental burden when the United States had a small population – such as putting CO2 into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels – increase that burden with every additional individual when the population is large.

Basically, like most of the rest of the world, the United States has been consuming environmental capital – especially its deep, fertile soils, ice-age ground water, and biodiversity– and calling it "growth." Furthermore, directly and by example, it has been helping other nations to do the same. It would not be remotely possible for Earth to support today’s 5.4 billion people on humanity’s "income" (which consists largely of solar energy) with present technologies and lifestyles – even though for billions their life-style is living in misery, lacking adequate diets, shelter, health care, education, and so on. And in the last decade, America has retarded the worldwide movement towards population control because of the brain dead policies of the Reagan and Bush administration.

Previously there have been arguments that somehow technology, and agri-science will get us out of this hole. The promised technological "deus-ex-machina" is now looking stupidly myopic. Certainly in the past,enormous gains in crop yield have been possible with selective breeding and chemicals. But now we know that that is largely unsustainable as the soil ecology becomes permanently destroyed, the fertiliser run-off pollutes our drinking water, and biodiversity is ravaged as even more species are made extinct. The idiot Tony Blair, who like most of the cabinet knows nothing about science, backs GM as a way of feeding the world. He does this because he thinks the UK has an economic advantage in this field. But the truth is that, at the moment, food shortages occur world-wide because of distribution problems, not global food shortage. This will change very soon and the lack of water for crops will be the issue – something that GM will have little effect on. Of course, even if food GM technology does help in the short term to feed the world, this won't last because the effect will be cancelled out by even more medical advances, in particular the increases in longevity and fertility offered by genetic stem-cell research and genetically modified medicines. We are already seeing measures in Europe to promote child-bearing to provide sufficient numbers of "worker bees" to pay for the social and medical costs of the growing elderly population.

Of course all these "yes but... what about fusion power, what about aquaponics, etc.. counter arguments don’t ever get away from the fundamental issue: we live in a finite world with finite resources.

As Malthus observed, each human life has a requirement for certain essentials in life for survival. The supply of these essentials cannot continue to grow with an increase in population, therefore a point will come where demand for food, water, power, arable land, minerals cannot be met by the planet. oil pollution Similarly, the by-products of our species sprawling across the planet – the CO2, methane, chemical pollutants, insecticides, soil erosion, sewage etc will reach a point where the natural ability of the eco-system will be overwhelmed. There has been a seven-fold increase expansion of the global economy since 1950. Already it is putting excessive pressure on natural systems and resources. The unfortunate reality is that the population continues to expand, but the ecosystem on which it depends does not. Two-Thirds Worlds Resources Are Used Up according to the Millenium Ecosystems Assessment.

People are starting to research hydrogen power as a possible alternative to CO2 producing engines. (H2O is it’s only product). But burning hydrogen, like a battery, only releases power it has derived from some other energy source – and still the biggest source of power is from burning coal, oil and gas. Ironically the environmentalists are now suggesting nuclear power stations are preferable, which seems to me the biggest act of selfish political volte-face in modern history. They are willing to poison the seas, the land and the air and our great great grandchildren with leaking radioactive waste, and risk a few more Chenobyls or worse, just so this mindless consumerist western lifestyle and a 'right' to breed can continue?

The global system of overpopulation, over production and consumption is like a house of cards teetering on a very shaky over-stretched foundation. Finding more ways to prop up, shore up and re-jig this elaborate unnatural state of affairs is not the answer. We need a radical change in the way that we exist on the planet, starting with a 0% population growth, and a per-capita reduction in energy use. Anything else is just rearranging the deck-chairs on the Titanic.

Agent Smith (MATRIX):

I'd like to share a revelation that I've had during my time here. It came to me when I tried to classify your species. I've realized that you are not actually mammals.
Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with the surrounding environment. But you humans do not. You move to an area and you multiply and multiply until every natural resource is consumed and the only way you can survive is to spread to another area.
There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern. Do you know what it is? A virus.
Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet. You are a plague. And we are... the cure.