2.2 The Strange Paradox

Here's what's amazing: the greatest story to ever unfold on the planet, our imminent march over a cliff following an invisible Pied Piper, is playing out in slow motion while the mainstream media seems to be strangely apathetic, especially in the United States. As if it has also been drugged into a state of stupor.

The strange paradox is that even as we are marching in lock-step following the Pied Piper, we're living better and better in most places on Earth, at least among the affluent community. In general, the material well being at the top has never been this good. Weddings in Mumbai, India, are being celebrated with lavish buffets spanning two city blocks with cuisine from all over the world served in separate stations. But a billion people are also going hungry over the same world, including a few million people within a few miles from these weddings. Just as Charles Dickens famously wrote[5], "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times," referring to the late 18th century, it is tempting to think that it has always been this way and therefore, there is not much that we need to do to correct the situation. That it will continue just the same for ever and ever. After all, even as problems arose in the past, we have always overcome them through the sheer power of our technological ideas and thereby defied past Malthusian predictions of a civilizational collapse.

The Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus[6], an English philosopher who lived in the late 18th and early 19th century, calculated that as population increases exponentially while food production increases arithmetically, a civilizational collapse was inevitable in the future. But as a Malthusian deadline loomed in the early 20th century, the German scientists, Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch devised a process[7] for converting atmospheric nitrogen into fertilizer, thus ushering in a rapid improvement in the productivity of agricultural land, thereby buying humanity an additional few decades of business as usual existence. Later, when another Malthusian deadline approached in the 1970s and 1980s, Norman Borlaug unleashed his Green Revolution[8], the improvement of agricultural productivity through improved seeds, irrigation and modern production methods, and averted that imminent disaster.

Perhaps technology is the drug that has numbed the media pundits. They are probably expecting another just-in-time technological miracle that will avert catastrophe and which they can report upon breathlessly. However those past technological solutions have all turned out to be narrow-sighted fixes in retrospect, each with its own adverse, unintended consequences. The continued destruction of the environment is testament to the temporary nature of those past fixes. The Haber-Bosch process has resulted in a tremendous imbalance in the planet’s nitrogen cycle, leading to vast oceanic dead zones at the mouths of rivers[9]. And the Green Revolution has depleted underground aquifers and the vitality of soils world wide[10]. In other words, we grew more food for humans by depleting the capital wealth of the planet and by killing other species over the past century, by favoring a few select and even genetically modified species over the biodiversity of the Earth. And Nature is now grinding out her consequences.

In his book, "The Bridge at the Edge of the World[11]," Gus Speth, the Dean of Environmental Studies at Yale University, puts it succinctly, "All we have to do to destroy the planet's climate and biota and leave a ruined world to our children and grandchildren is to keep doing exactly what we are doing today, with no growth in human population or the world economy. Just continue to generate greenhouse gases at current rates; just continue to impoverish ecosystems and release toxic chemicals at current rates; and the world in the latter part of this century won't be fit to live in. But human activities are not holding at current levels - they are accelerating dramatically. The size of the world economy has more than quadrupled since 1960 and is projected to quadruple again by mid-century. It took all of human history to grow the $7-trillion world economy of 1950. We now grow that amount in a decade."

In his recent book, "The Great Disruption[12]," Paul Gilding flatly asserts that this projected four fold growth in the economy by mid-century, isn't going to happen. He makes a compelling case that a Great Disruption of modern industrial civilization already began with the financial collapse of 2008 and that within the next decade or so, humans are going to be engaged in an all out, World War II style, effort to merely survive as the planet reacts furiously to our past depredations.

Only time will tell. But it is important to note that in the past, those civilizational crises were averted not because the Malthusian projections were wrong, but because people cared enough to take action.


[5] Charles Dickens wrote this line in "A Tale of Two Cities," Signet Classics, 1997. http://www.amazon.com/Tale-Two-Cities-Signet-Classics/dp/0451526562

[6] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Robert_Malthus

[7] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Haber_process

[8] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Norman_Borlaug

[9] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dead_zone_(ecology)


[11] James Gustave Speth, "The Bridge at the Edge of the World: Capitalism, the Environment and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability," Yale University Press, March 2008. http://www.amazon.com/qBridge-Edge-World-Environment-Sustainability/dp/0300136110

[12] Paul Gilding, "The Great Disruption: Why the Climate Crisis Will Bring On the End of Shopping and the Birth of a New World," Bloomsbury Press, March 2011. http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1608192237