Knowing what we know now, what can we do, what should we do?
It’s time for me to change my focus, and target a simple and direct approach.
The starting point is that our universe–as we experience it as animals–has its own coherence. In other words, our biosphere, our planet, our star, our universe exists on no uncertain terms–and these terms are its own. We can, and do, know something of those terms, and we can strive to live by them, coherently; or we can fail to know what we know, and live in hubris, looking in the mirror (or monitor) and enjoying our fantasy.
We are animals who flow out of the universe, from the supernovae whose gravity formed the elements of our bodies to the energy gradients and chemical signals that we comprise, as living creatures. Our neuroanatomy–our words, emotions, perceptions–are an adaptation by one particular mammalian, hominid species that brought us advantages in a moment in time–currently expressed by you and me.
We are a young species, compared to most of the life around us. We are, like all of life’s adaptations, an experiment, a trial. Our hominid ancestors spoke, and played with fire, perhaps a half-million to a million years ago. The experiment developed gradually. Our close relatives controlled fire and expanded language 50,000 to 100,000 years ago. It was an ongoing experiment in talking and burning.
Our relatives lived in a broad–initially shallow–but expanding ecological niche. From this broad base of global hunters, gatherers and forest farmers we began a take-off about 10,000 years ago with the development of increasingly intensive agriculture. By 1800 or so, relying on agriculture, our species attained a level of approximately one billion individuals. At that point, our ability to burn started to grow exponentially. We began to burn past sunlight–the concentrated, unimaginable energy of fossil fuels.
As a result, our population of one billion in 1800 or so grew to two billion by the late 1920s, when many of the parents of American baby boomers were born. Our population reached three billion by around 1960, toward the tail end of the U.S. baby boom, and a bit over thirty years after the second billion appeared. As with all things exponential, the next billion in total human population was reached more quickly, fourteen years later, by 1974 or so; followed by an additional billion people added over the following thirteen years, by about 1987. After that, our population grew by an additional billion individuals over the next twelve years, by about 1999; and then added another billion over the next thirteen years, reaching the current approximate level of seven billion in 2012. As currently projected, the next fifteen years will see another billion people added, as we reach eight billion in the late 2020s. Heading into the middle of this century, estimates are that we may slow down a bit, and add the ninth billion people over a little less than twenty years. Phew! Only twenty years for that ninth billion.
Looking ahead, from these past thirteen years during which we added the seventh billion, what do you think the odds are that we will methodically keep adding a billion human individuals to our world’s population each fifteen or twenty years ahead? Look around–that’s where we are today.
As of today, July 29, 2012, we are drawing down the planet’s reserves as fast as we are able, and raking in as much of its annual biomass as we can lay hands on. Do you think this is a good experiment?
As best I can observe, our species is at a turning point. American baby boomers will live to see the curtain begin to rise. Their children will be hit hard. Their grandchildren will face the full fury. One way or another, we will live within the coherent balancing–the rules, so to speak–set by our biosphere. Exponential growth–endless burning–is unlikely to continue much longer. Positive feedback loops (in population and resource use) are beginning to yield to negative feedback loops.
Rather than focus on the negative feedback loops, I am going to live and speak coherently in the context of our predicament. This will be a series of heuristics–rules, shorthand, context–for living and seeing coherently within the biosphere.