The future isn’t what it used to be
With the exception of the 15 years of the Great Depression and World War II (1930-1945), most of the last century was a time of great optimism and faith in the future. Technological advances and a rising standard of living in the Western World gave promise that each new generation would enjoy a better life than its predecessor. Those were definitely the “good old days.” But during the 1980s and ‘90s, some doubts began to be expressed. What happened to those rosy predictions, and what does our future seem to hold for us today? Sadly, mostly conditions we won’t want to face.
We are now confronted with the specter of global warming and all of its consequences (melting polar ice caps and glaciers and the resulting rise in sea level, increasing storm intensities, and droughts), a steady increase in the world’s population to 9 billion or more and a rising standard of living in developing counties, accelerating the consumption of finite resources. The predicted droughts will reduce the amount of both arable land and water needed for irrigation, on which the world depends to feed that growing population.
Paul Ehrlich, in his 1968 book “The Population Bomb,” was one of the first to sound the alarm of the threat of an ever-growing human population to Earth’s environment and even to the survival of humanity. (Thomas Malthus, an English economist, had predicted in 1798 that human population would grow faster than the food supply, but he was soon ignored because that hadn’t happened.) History may yet bear both of them out.
We are also facing many other disturbing trends: the rising costs of health care and education, decreasing career opportunities for our children and grandchildren, overcrowded and failing highways and bridges and aging water and sewer systems that we don’t seem to be able to find the funds to maintain, the evolution of antibiotic-resistant pathogens, mass extinction of wildlife by destruction of habitats, poaching and pesticides, disrupting natural balances with unknown consequences, unrest throughout much of the world due to high unemployment and hunger, and the rise of Islamic terrorism and its possible acquisition of nuclear weapons. But it is overpopulation that is the root cause of most of the threats to our future. Ehrlich warned us that, “Whatever your cause, it is a lost cause without population control.”
Global warming, caused by a growing population, whose effect is compounded by rising standards of living, especially in China and India, sending ever more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, has a positive feedback effect. A warming climate is shrinking Arctic sea ice, decreasing the amount of solar energy reflected back into space, promoting further warming. That warming is thawing circumpolar permafrost, releasing huge amounts of methane gas, which is 20 times as potent a greenhouse gas as CO2.
Ironically, humanity seems to be doing its best to make the situation even worse by massive deforestation converting CO2-absorbing forests into cropland. And as temperatures rise, increasing demand for air conditioning will require more energy, producing still more CO2 from burning fossil fuels to produce that energy. In addition, droughts and rising air temperatures are threatening the survival of forests worldwide. Predictions are that the Rockies and Sierras may lose most of their forests by the end of this century, weakened by a warmer and drier climate and unable to resist the attack of bark beetles, whose numbers will be increased by a warming climate.
But rising sea levels are potentially the most serious threat to mankind’s future, inundating all of the world’s major ocean-port cities — Shanghai and a half-dozen more in China, Singapore and Los Angeles, to name but a few — and major cities like London, Tokyo, Mumbai and New York, plus major portions of entire countries throughout the world, especially Netherlands and Bangladesh, displacing hundreds of millions of people onto a shrinking amount of habitable land. The economic and human cost could be so great that the entire world economy might collapse, most likely taking our civilization with it.
The timetable for when these phenomena are likely to overtake us is uncertain, but unless we take corrective actions in time, they are inevitable. For some of them, it may already be too late.
Paul Ehrlich is also remembered for his wry comment, “If you’ve booked passage on the Titanic, you might as well go first class.” But that will be of little consolation to future generations.
Hal Sundin’s “As I See It” column appears on the first Thursday of the month.
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