Are we humans our own worst enemy? Could our unconscious addiction to growth and need to increase our population be driving us towards our own demise?
In my last column, focus was on extreme geohazards. A community science paper identified large volcanic eruptions as an underrated threat for our increasingly complex, interconnected and fragile global society. Extreme volcanic eruptions have typical recurrence times from 1,000 to 100,000 years or more, and at these time scales they are the largest geohazards in terms of energy release. The energy associated with these eruptions is on the order of 10 (superscript 20, with 20 tiny and above) and 10 (superscript 21, with 21 being tiny and above). Joules, exceeding the energy associated with large impactors with similar recurrence times. But the eruptions may not be the largest hazards and we may have to rethink disaster risk management and reduction to account for a potentially more important extreme hazard: humanity.
During approximately the last 100 years, humanity has gone through a transition unparalleled in Earth’s history. In fact, this transition deserves to be called an anthropogenic cataclysm. In physical geography, a cataclysm is a sudden and violent physical action producing changes in the earth’s surface. This is what humanity accomplished and is continuing to accomplish. Let me develop this thought in more detail.
Up to the beginning of the 20th century,the Holocene, the last geological epoch that started 11,700 years ago, was characterized by exceptional stability of the environment, including climate and sea level. Humanity was also stable and changes generally took place slowly. If we compare the changes during the Holocene before 1900 to those during the last 100 years, we find extreme differences (Figure 1).
Most remarkably, energy usage increased in the last 100 years about 1,600 times faster than on average during the pre-cataclysm Holocene. This rapid increase in energy usage caused an increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide, 600 times larger in the last 100 years. This energy usage supported a rapid growth of human population. It allowed for industrialized agriculture which based on fossil fuels produced enough food to sustain a population growth 350 times larger in the last 100 years than before.
Stimulated by the question of a 20 year old student, I discussed in a previous column what to tell my 20 year old self.1 Now, the fact that the Holocene was extremely stable and provided a “safe operating space for humanity” must be considered against the fact that during the last century humanity has caused cataclysmic changes in the earth’s life support system making the future extremely uncertain. This might be the most important message to tell our 20 year old selves. In fact, we have started to put these facts as simple messages on T-shirts and cups to make it available to the young people, who need to know where their world is heading.2
“Even if we would have the energy resources to produce the subsistence for a further growth of the population and avoid a control of the numbers “by misery and vice,” these side effects of our cataclysmic lifestyle indicate a trajectory leading to global disasters.”
It surprises me that many argued against the thoughts T.R. Malthus developed more than 200 years ago when he pointed out, “yet in all societies, even those that are most vicious, the tendency to a virtuous attachment is so strong that there is a constant effort towards an increase of population”3 and that this addiction to growth could lead to problems. He wrote, “That the increase of population is necessarily limited by the means of subsistence, That population does invariably increase when the means of subsistence increase, and, That the superior power of population is repressed, and the actual population kept equal to the means of subsistence, by misery and vice.”4
What Malthus may not have anticipated was that humanity would gain easy access to seemingly unlimited energy by basically drilling holes in the Earth to let oil run out. We use a huge amount of this fossil energy to produce the food and subsistence for a seemingly unlimited growth of the population. Malthus also found that “this constant effort as constantly tends to subject the lower classes of the society to distress and to prevent any great permanent amelioration of their condition.”3 Consistent with this, the abundance of energy and subsistence did not lead to more equality across humanity, rather the opposite. The Gini coefficient is a simple measure of equality of income in a community.5 It is zero if all community members have equal income and 1 if basically all are without any income and one person has all the income. During the cataclysm, the Gini coefficient increased 100 times faster than before, and today we are close to a world where most of us have very little income while very few of us collect almost all the global income. All of this was enabled by access to abundant energy.
“Humanity seems to be the most important extreme hazard that needs to be accounted for in any effort of disaster risk reduction.”
In total, we we are now using more primary energy per year than the energy of the volcanic eruption of Tambora in 1815, one of the seven large volcanic eruptions that are known during the Holocene. See Figure 2. Within a decade we use almost as much energy as the Toba eruption 75,000 years ago,a cataclysmic event that eliminated 60% of the global population. Even the kinetic energy of a 2 km impactor, an event with a typical recurrence time of 100,000 years or more, only slightly exceeds the energy that we are using within a decade.
This comparison of humanity energy usage most important extreme hazard that needs to be accounted for in any effort of disaster risk reduction.
Since Malthus developed his thoughts about the negative consequences of our addiction to growth, there has been an argument between what Ross Douthat in his recent opinion piece6 calls dynamists and catastrophists. While dynamists see our modern society as a basically successful civilization that will be able to solve the existing problems through innovations, catastrophists believe that the trajectory we are on will end in crisis and disaster – similar to Malthus’ view that “the actual population kept equal to the means of subsistence, by misery and vice.”
Realizing the magnitude of the anthropogenic cataclysm, it is difficult for me to share the optimism of the dynamists. The cataclysmic “life style” of our modern society is propelled by a wasteful and inefficient usage of fossil fuels not only depleting Earth’s resources rapidly but also producing many severe “side effects.” One of them is the extremely rapid change in climate.
Using 800,000 years of paleo data, we can develop a baseline for the “normal” range of variability in the climate system. See Figure 3. The changes during the last 100 years have already moved a number of key variables in the climate system outside of this normal range. The projected changes in the 21st century will move the system even further away from the normal range, and very far away from the range experienced during the Holocene. Even if we would have the energy resources to produce the subsistence for a further growth of the population and avoid a control of the numbers “by misery and vice,” these side effects of our cataclysmic lifestyle indicate a trajectory leading to global disasters. More innovation along the same lines will not help to bend the trajectory towards more promising futures.
What seems necessary is to overcome the addiction to growth leading to more inequality among humanity for the price of a degraded life support system of our planet. If this addiction is as much a part of our nature as Malthus saw it, we are in dire trouble. We must ask ourselves what this planet will look like in the Post-Holocene when finally “misery and vise” will kick in to control our growth.
1. Plag, H.-P., 2014. Humanity for Economy or Economy for Humanity? What to tell your 20-year- old self. On the Edge, Apogeo Spatial, 29(1), Winter 2013-2014, 8-10.
2. See http://www.your20yroldself.com.
3. Malthus T.R. 1798. An Essay on the Principle of Population, in Oxford World’s Classics reprint, p 18, Chapter II.
4. Malthus T.R. 1798. An Essay on the Principle of Population, in Oxford World’s Classics reprint. p 61, Chapter VII.
5. Gini, C. (1909). Concentration and dependency ratios. English translation from Rivista di Politica Economica, 87 (1997), 769–789. 6. Douthat, R., 2015. Pope Francis’ call to action goes beyond the environment. New York Times, June 20, 2015. See http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/21/ opinion/sunday/ross-douthat-pope-francis- call-to-action-goes-beyond-the-environment. html?ref=todayspaper.