Posted by: Adam Kay | November 6, 2011

Humanity’s future is bright, or maybe it’s not

Humanity’s future is bright, or maybe it’s not

The United Nations last week reported that the earth’s population has now reached 7 billion. The 7 billionth person doesn’t change our social or ecological conditions in any fundamental way, but the milestone provides an opportunity for reflection on broad trends. What is in store for this mass of humanity? Will more creative minds give us a better opportunity to develop technologies that enhance our quality of life? Or is the impact on the global ecosystem of so many humans moving us toward a catastrophic collapse?

I’ve been struck recently by how variable the answers to these questions are, even among experts in global development and human demography. In particular, two recent books on humanity’s future that have received a lot of attention, “The Great Disruption” by Paul Gilding and “Getting Better” by Charles Kenney, paint such distinct pictures of our current conditions and challenges that I thought it would be worthwhile to contrast their assumptions and interpretations.

Gilding’s title refers to the massive societal reorganization that he argues will inevitably occur as a result of climate change and other human impacts on global ecosystems. He points to evidence that humans long ago passed the planet’s limits to supply our resource needs and to absorb our waste. One area of emphasis is work by the Global Footprint Network, which estimates the amount of natural resources needed to maintain our economy and lifestyle. The estimates are frightening: humans overshot the earth’s carrying capacity in 1985; in 2009, we needed 1.4 planets’ worth of ecological services to support our activities (the short-term overshoot is possible because of reliance on fossil fuels and other non-renewable resources). He also describes the evidence for the connection between climate change and human activities, identifies the likely scale of the near-term problems associated with climate change, and states that there is essentially no disagreement among scientists about these general conclusions.

The main thrust of Gilding’s presentation is that because we are already significantly past the earth’s carrying capacity and the pressure of humans on the global ecosystem is only going to increase, the die has already been cast and we are headed for calamity. “This means that assumptions we make about global society – that we will bring the poor out of poverty, that we will carry on creating jobs, food, and basic needs for the more than two billion new global citizens and the existing seven billion or so, that we in the West will continue to increase our financial and material standard of living, that the world, despite conflicts here and there, will carry on in relative stability – are a grand delusion.” Instead, he predicts massive turmoil leading to a major reorganization of society focused on sustainability and a more equitable distribution of resources across the global population. What’s inspiring about Gilding’s argument is that he argues convincingly that the knowledge and the resources are available to guide a societal transformation to sustainability. We know what to do – implement cap-and-trade systems for dealing with emissions of carbon and other pollutants, massively invest in renewable energies, start government programs to reduce consumer consumption in developed countries, etc. – and he argues that when people feel the full force of the Great Disruption, they will support these measures with the same passion and verve that populations in the past have shown when facing existential threats in war.

Charles Kenny’s book, Getting Better, provides a much more optimistic view about the state of the world. He argues convincingly that the collective well being of the human population has never been better. Almost every per capita indicator of human welfare – income, child survival rates, longevity, infectious disease prevention, reductions in violence, gender equality, adult literacy rates, democratization – have all increased substantially across the globe over the last 50 years or more. Moreover, the overall pattern in these measures has been toward convergence among countries – quality-of-life measures in poorer countries are increasing faster than in richer countries. He shows that even in areas of the world in which per capita income and gross domestic product (GDP) have stagnated over the last 50 years (as in much of sub-Saharan Africa), other quality of life measures have significantly improved. For example, in 12 countries that had a decrease in GDP from 1960 to 2005, life expectancy increased by an average of 10 years, and adult literacy rates closed to doubled on average. His main conclusion is that much of the improvements that we refer to as “development” can be brought about through the creation, spread, and application of ideas and technologies for improving the quality of life that do not require an increase in income and its associated ecological costs.

I found the core message in Kenney’s book noteworthy and inspiring. It’s too easy to lose sight of the tremendous improvements in the general quality of human life over the last century given the current inequities, calamities, and environmental challenges. Things are generally better, and general improvements can lead to further improvements as people begin to expect health, education, and equal opportunities. However, he largely sidesteps the issues of resource depletion and climate change. These issues are viewed as another challenge that the global development community can take on, rather than as the inevitable cause of catastrophe that will radically transform society.

These very different perspectives on the future of the global society made me think of an ecology talk I recently attended by Mike Pace from the University of Virginia. He and his colleagues provided evidence that an increase in the variability of key features of an ecosystem (in this case, the amount of chlorophyll a (a measure of productivity) in a lake ecosystem) was an indicator of an upcoming “regime shift”, a substantial and largely irreversible change in the state of an ecosystem. So are highly divergent views on the global condition the sign of a pending global “regime shift”? Let’s hope not, but it’s certainly time to get to work.

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