Population Part 2 – Perverse solutions: Involuntary suicide and driving evolution in reverse gear
In my previous post, I laid out arguments against us finding equitable solutions to the burgeoning global population and its relentless expansion. I say equitable because there are some other solutions which invoke exactly the kind of draconian measures the supporters of climate science are accused of favouring – totalitarianism by any other name, I guess.
It’s a silly argument for the most part, just another cliché in the histrionic vocabulary of denialism. More frustrating is that the kind of measures they fear – the advent of which I too find very worrying – will be brought about by pressure. The failure to address and mitigate anthropogenic climate change will be one of those pressures felt and reacted to with more urgency and ill-consideration than was necessary because of the delay in prudent action advocated by the complacent and self-interested.
One reaction under pressure, for example, might be war. This of course would reduce the population, especially if it were nuclear. I don’t think I’d be overreaching to suggest that a war between a failing US and an increasingly powerful China is a distinct possibility. China is now building its first aircraft carriers, the carrier group being the primary military tool for the projection of power. They recently allowed news to emerge of the first Chinese stealth fighter. Here’s a few snippets from a March 2011 Guardian story (my emphasis):
Chinese military spending will rise by 12.7% this year, a return to double-digit growth after an unusually restrained increase in 2010. The official budget will hit around 601bn yuan (£56bn), to fund “appropriate” hardware spending and wage rises for the People’s Liberation Army – the largest in the world – said Li Zhaoxing, spokesman for the National People’s Congress…
…The rise in spending will fuel concerns among rival powers about China‘s increasing might. They are already concerned about its apparently tougher line on territorial disputes in areas such as the South China Sea, and its investment in new technology such as a stealth fighter jet. In 2010 spending rose at its lowest rate for years, by 7.5%, to 532bn yuan…
…Many analysts believe China spends more than it states publicly…
US military spending has doubled in real terms since 2001 and although the Obama administration has vowed to cut spending over the next five years, it has requested a Pentagon base budget alone of $553bn (£340bn) for 2012.
India also announced a rise in its annual military spending this week by about 11.6%, to 1.64tn rupees (£22.4bn). Experts suggested the jump was intended to counter China’s growing strength.
If conflict on such a large scale can be avoided, we must still acknowledge the probability of great instability and subsequent military intervention anywhere a border exists, because the destabilising effects of climate change and peak oil are projected to cause huge migrations among the same billions we are already having trouble accommodating, along with the additional billions expected by 2050. (By the way, although it’s slightly tangential, I know that the population is predicted to start falling again once it reaches 9 billion, but I have to ask how credible this projection can be considering how difficult it is already to predict next week’s events, what with energy prices climbing rapidly, the M.E. in uproar, and the global economy so fragile a sneeze on Wall Street could bring the whole thing down again. The decreasing birth rate is predicated on consumerism and a concomitant standard of living reaching most of the globe, this despite climate change and the end of cheap energy. This seems terribly unrealistic: the whole point about the threats that climate change and peak oil bring with them is that we can’t really predict what will happen, because the overarching effect is to impose chaos on order, but it is clear that the growth of consumerism (and a global economy driven by it), and a sustainable relationship with the environment, are mutually exclusive aims).
How likely is any of this? Well, confrontation often results when things get chaotic. The cold war – arguably the most dangerous period of human history, particularly during the Cuban Missile Crisis – was a product of the instability brought about by WW2, itself said by historians to be an extension of WW1. Where chaos reigns, violence seems to follow, as if the two were inextricably bound together, a concept that seems to have some kind of perverse logic to it.
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I was terribly disappointed when James Lovelock started spouting off like the bitter old curmudgeon he seems to have turned into. What I want to remember of him is the concept of Gaia, not in the sense of a deity or metaphysical construct, but as a paradigm for balance. If we are to end in the proverbial whimper rather than bang, I suspect it will be through a form of involuntary suicide, where we just carry on doing what we’re doing, even as the lights go out and the supermarket shelves empty. It will be slow degeneration, a gradual decline in fits and starts – here a rapid descent into anarchy, there a glimmer of sunshine. But mostly, it will be one step forward, six back, as society does what nature too is compelled by climate change to do: find a new equilibrium.
It all seems so inevitable. The inertia of oil tankers is such that it takes 15 miles to bring one to a halt after the engines are thrown into reverse. The inertia of the consumerist empire, built and utterly dependant on cheap energy, is the same thing writ across the entire world in block capitals, an unstoppable juggernaut built with an engine of enormous power, but no brakes, and a stupid steering wheel so small everyone is fighting all the time to get their hands on it.
And when I say enormous power, it is none the less a tiny, silly toy compared to the forces that nature can summon to rid herself of pests. Our practices and attitudes towards our environment are so cruel and selfish, so mean and greedy, it isn’t difficult to imagine us as parasites (although most parasites have the sense not to maim the host).
Anyway, that’s enough of the metaphoric stuff. Fact is, population growth is going to be constrained one way or another. If we live beyond our means, that too will end. Nature will impose its order and rigour on us all, and with grim irony the tool that appears most likely to be employed will be one of our own devising: a planet over-heated by our hubris. Perhaps climate change is, in fact, the solution rather than the problem?
Problems and solutions bring us to the last part of this discourse, and it’s a very strange and dark place we end up in. Consider if you will the problem of antibiotics. Across the world, millions of people are treated, cured and their lives sustained by medical treatments that depend on antibiotics (among other things). What was less evident than the benefits of antibiotics was that they would interfere with evolutionary processes.
The emergent strains of ‘superbugs’ like MRSA (super because they are more resistant to antibiotics than other organisms) came about because we interfered with the balance of forces that kept more dangerous organisms at bay. By indiscriminately prescribing antibiotics, which killed weak bacteria, we upset the balance of our body chemistry. The weak bacteria no longer competed for nutrients; those that were left – necessarily stronger and fitter – could then multiply to fill the niche vacated by the bacteria we killed off. To counter the resistance of stronger bacteria, we developed stronger antibiotics, which in turn created an environment that favoured bacteria with even more resistance – and of course it isn’t just resistance to antibiotics that we selected for by accident, it is resistance to the body’s own defences. In the end, one has to ask just how beneficial antibiotics really are.
What brought about that problem was that we interfered with an evolutionary process: it is commonly referred to as natural selection. Nature is cruelly indifferent in a way humans at their best are not; the weak, the ill, the disabled and disadvantaged – nature discriminates against any creatures whose genome may carry the codes for these disadvantages. It is this selectivity that gives us a sense of progress ‘up’ an evolutionary chain, because evolution is biased towards complexity where that complexity confers adaptive advantage. The same selectivity gives mankind the notion that we are the pinnacle of that process, that nature has over millions of years selected us to be at the top of the food chain. This notion also provided the basis for mankind’s most spurious notion of dominion over nature, which leads us exactly to the indifference and arrogance that underlies our frequently rapacious and exploitative relationship with the natural world.
All well and good – or not; I’m refraining from the disparaging and cynical comments one could insert at this point about our alleged superiority…except to say that being at the top doesn’t imply a right to stay there.
That right is earned, a statement that implies we can determine our position in the evolutionary hierarchy, which no other creatures can do, and that does seem to be the case. At no time in the history of this planet has a creature had the choices we do, or the opportunities born of our intelligence, ingenuity, adaptive skills and determination. It is no wonder that geologists are calling for the declaration of a new epoch – the Anthropocene – since our reach is now so great we are leaving signs of our occupation and obsessions on the Earth itself, signs that will be detectable in millions of years to come; something that, until now, no creature on this planet has been capable of.
Rather God-like, really. Perhaps we invented God so we could strive to beat him at his own game? Thing is, the rules of the game are sometimes less clear than one might think. Consider again the matter of evolution and selection. Nature selects for survival and fitness, and the result is stronger and fitter creatures. But what would happen if evolution started to select for weakness?
I ask this question because for quite a while I’ve been entertaining an idea I find quite distasteful, because it always invokes dead babies at some point. Medicine has, over several centuries, developed skills that can, for example, keep alive children who nature would have disposed of. Of those children, some will carry genes for ill-health that will, in turn, be passed on. In other words, the very evolutionary process that got us here is now being nullified by our intervention. No longer can we be entirely certain our genome is gradually strengthening; now it may be true that mankind is getting weaker, the blueprint reproduced badly with blurred lines and indecipherable legends.
Can we do anything about it? I don’t think we can – and this is the dead baby bit. There is no way at all that any of us could contemplate not saving a child were it in our power to do so. For all of us I would hope, the very definition of being civilised must include the unconditional valuing of life, protection and saving of it at nearly any cost – the sacrifice of an individual’s life to save another is one of the most heroic acts we acknowledge. The implications of any idea that abrogates those values would touch on the most profoundly shaming and disgusting things we know about – crimes against humanity itself, and experiments based on perverse interpretations of genetic science.
So there it is, a paradox if ever there was one. We are interventionists, and we have taken the fate of our genome into our own hands, usurping nature itself. I would like to hope we know what we’re doing, but the signs aren’t good. If we bugger up the stuff we are made of as a race, chances are the results will be unfortunate. Unless it’s just another parcel of hubris that will reduce the population back to something manageable. We may be short on perspicacity but we seem to create an infinite supply of irony.