Saving mankind from the looming global challenges: What is the solution?
The word solution implies that we obtain a desirable end state that is sustainable long into the future. Of course, what we each count as desirable may vary considerably from person to person. Remember my questions: what kind of world do we want? And, what kind of world can we have? The latter is based on feasible physical reality, not on wishes. The former question should be phrased more like: What kind of world do we want to have subject to the constraints of nature? This may seriously constrain the solution space we search in. We might not be able to get what we think we want simply because it is infeasible or even impossible.
Let's look at a few solution scenarios to get a sense of what we mean by a feasible solution space. The following are in order from "best" case to worst if our idea of a solution is that everything will look pretty much like it does now. They are also ordered in what might be a least likely to most likely (middle case) to least likely again. They can be grouped in the following way:
- Save everything just as it is (pretty much) — save our civilization and the population, business as usual (BAU)
- Save the species — make sure Homo sapiens doesn't go extinct
- Save the genus — make sure that sentient life on the planet gets another shot in the future.
Save the population and civilization - our way of life is non-negotiableBAU-Extreme:
In this scenario we save the business as usual civilization we have now. Population will continue to rise to 9+ billion by mid century after which we believe the so-called demographic effect — raised standard of living causes reduction in birth rates — will stabilize the population size. Average per capita consumption increases as we believe developing nations start rising to the average US consumption rate. We can do this by discovering limitless energy and mineral resources and adopt global policies with respect to fair sharing of resources. Carbon dioxide, we believe, will be captured at the source of emissions and sequestered chemically or physically, but in addition we will have a technology that sucks CO2 out of the air and sequesters it as well. Thus we will reverse the effects of greenhouse warming and maintain a stable climate. Maybe even the ice caps will come back to stay.
In this scenario we don't give an inch. We are the masters of nature and we will damn well get what we want.
Essentially the same as BAU-Extreme, except that we accept some physical realities and modify behaviors and expectations. Population growth is brought down so that the top number is under 7.5 billion by mid century. Per capita consumption in the developed world is held in check to allow people in developing countries to reach a minimum acceptable parity. We will have to live within our means insofar as natural stocks of energy and minerals permit, but will fund any development with subsidies from solar and other renewable energy sources. Recycling will be maximized to conserve raw materials. CO2 emissions will also be controlled as in BAU-Extreme. More effort, however, will be put into conserving biodiversity and into sustainable practices in agriculture (e.g. permaculture). Re-localization will be emphasized so as to further reduce energy demands.
This is essentially the vision of many environmentalists. It is essentially the Plan B (e.g. espoused by Lester Brown). Civilization will go on pretty much as before but at a simpler, slower pace. The great hope is that these somewhat marginal changes in behavior will lead to a more socially centered civilization, a kind of small town feeling of the 1900's but still with modern high-tech conveniences (like fuel efficient personal transports).
This is the scenario that a good many people put in the most probable category.
Save the species even if you can't save modern civilization
Collapse and Regroup
In this scenario the rate of decline of natural stocks is more rapid than anticipated and the developed world simply collapses into primitive tribes/villages. This is an extreme form of re-localization (depicted in James Howard Kunstler's "World Made By Hand"). This is the Jared Diamond-like collapse scenario. All modern technology is lost and the only source of energy is wood and some remaining coal. Many, perhaps most, humans die from starvation (including dehydration), conflict, or epidemic disease. The survivors regroup and adapt to the new conditions. Life settles into a pace commensurate with the resources available. Climate change will play itself out and the world will settle into a new climate regime.
Salvation comes in the form of preparing for the collapse. Survivalists might have the right idea. But to save a larger proportion of the population, we will need to capture and disseminate knowledge of small farming practices with horses and plows. We will need to renew our interest in basic production techniques of cloth weaving, hand sewing, etc. Saving the greatest number of people means establishing centers of learning for those who believe this end is in sight. Perhaps one day, long in the future there will be a regrouping, a re-federation, as envisioned in David Brin's novel, "The Postman". A new form of low-energy civilization may emerge in a new world.
A growing number of people, particularly some scientists who, like me, look at rates of change as carrying more weight than just absolute values and conclude that this scenario is looking more probable as time passes. We look at the increasing rate of degradation in the environment compared to the rate of population growth and see extremely difficult challenges.
Collapse and fragment
It may not be possible to save very many, and those that do survive the collapse will revert to a primitive lifestyle and have no interest in regrouping. One version of this is the extreme form of "Olduvai Theory". The species, Homo sapiens survives but is potentially set on the path to devolution toward pre-sapient humans (e.g. Homo erectus-like). Not a very hopeful scenario.
Fewer see this as actually likely, but they want to consider contingency plans just in case. The few that do believe this is the most likely scenario are the radical survivalists. They are already heading for the hills.
Save the genus and seed a future civilization
This last category suggests that humans evolve into a new species better adapted to deal with the future. It deals in an affirmative, proactive way with a likely evolutionary bottleneck event - total collapse of civilization and the life support for even a moderate population size. Unlike the prior collapse this scenario suggests that humans prepare for survival in the inevitable collapse but with the intent that future generations of humans will be more sapient (wise) than the current species. They can resurrect the notion of civilization and even expansion by making wise choices in terms of population control, technology advances, and sustainable resource uses. To achieve this end, humans now must aggregate a sufficient, survivable accumulation of knowledge and access to adequate resources (e.g. solar energy conversion equipment and means to produce more). They must also understand their own evolution and shortcomings. They must grasp the nature of sapience and its distribution in the population, making preparations to help save those individuals on the high end of the sapience distribution curve.
At first glance this not only seems unlikely from most peoples' perspective — the end of humanity? — but is the least palpable from the standpoint of what it entails. Preparing for the end of our species is like preparing to die for an individual. It isn't easy to contemplate for most people. Yet that is exactly what this scenario suggests. If we are to preserve the human germ line it will need to be through a more adapted species of Homo. It implies conscious activities to pre-select the attributes we want to carry into the future. It raises deep and difficult moral and ethical conundrums.
Each person must consider where they are personally on this spectrum of "solutions". Each of us will choose actions over the next decade that will reflect our beliefs about what is likely to happen. I suspect many will subscribe to the BAU-Extreme solution, which effectively says don't do anything different. There is no problem and humanity is on the right course now. A lesser, but still significant number will choose BAU-Conservative because they firmly believe that progress means more of what we have now, but we just need to find better technology to fix the problems. In effect they won't have to do much. Maybe they will install solar panels on their roofs and think that takes care of it. Some will buy hybrid-drive automobiles and believe they have done their part. Still smaller numbers may find they believe in the collapse scenarios and set off to learn to farm or shoot a gun. But hardly anyone will seriously consider the last scenario. It will be exceedingly hard for any human being to believe our species will go extinct, and especially within the next hundred years or so. It is almost unthinkable. Or is it?