Tuesday, June 3, 2008

My Crystal Ball

Today is a beautiful blue and white day fringed with green. It is much the same as it was yesterday and much the same as it will likely be tomorrow. I cannot imagine it any different. So why am I spending my time writing doomsday predictions when I could be engaging in life as we know it?

Because I know that change is guaranteed. No two days are exactly the same, no two moments in time. And I know how quickly life can be irrevocably altered. Pick up the newspaper and you see examples of it everyday. Two boys are sitting on their bed watching TV and a car comes crashing through the wall, killing one. A teenager is playing basketball with his friends and falls over dead. A senator from Massachusetts has a seizure and finds out that it is brain cancer. A famous actor goes for a horseback ride and spends the rest of his life as a paraplegic. No one sees it coming. The moment before, all is well. The moment after, all is changed. There may have been warning signs, but they were unheeded.

Despite life's uncertainty, I keep gazing into my crystal ball, trying to see where we are headed, trying to understand so that I can make sane choices in my own life. I've taken the two best case scenarios currently being bandied about and attempted to follow them a mere fifty to a hundred years in the future. A hundred years in the history of the world is a very short time after all.

First best case scenario -- we continue with business as usual but it's okay because global warming turned out to be a false alarm. We continue our oil addiction, finding new sources to meet the growing need, and we go another fifty years before we run out (I'm being generous here!) In the meantime, the world's population has continued to grow. We are even more reliant upon petro-chemical fertilizers to feed all the mouths (well, not all -- starvation is a way of life in third world countries, but that is nothing new. We in the US can still buy oranges from Brazil at our local Wal-Mart.) We've continued to scrape the deep oceans for fish while destroying their habitat, burn the Amazon for farmland, dig ever deeper to extract essential metals from the earth, and suck our aquifers dry. Cities are even more crowded, life is more tense, and we continue to rob from the poor to give to the rich. What happens then? What happens fifty years from now?

I'll be gone by then. But my children and grandchildren may not be. Their lives would become unrelenting nightmares. There just wouldn't be enough food and clean water in the world to go around. We would see mass emigrations to those countries where food was still available. Resources in the well-to-do countries would be stretched beyond the limit and violence would become the norm. We would either see anarchy with the strong preying on the weak, or we would see martial law and soldiers enforcing a strained peace. Food would become more and more scarce for any but the very rich, and the very rich would be targets of the starving masses. With people weakened by malnutrition and lack of clean water, there would be epidemics that could decimate entire populations as the Black Plague once did. There would be uprisings. There would be wars.

Second best case scenario. We start now to wean ourselves off oil. We build wind farms and solar arrays and nuclear power plants and near-zero emission coal plants. We have to find places to stash all the radioactive waste and the sequestered CO2, but we pull it off somehow. We have energy efficient homes and businesses, electric cars, and rooftop gardens. But if the world's population continues to grow, we continue to consume metals, water, forests and fish at an ever increasing rate, we still end up where we would have been had we continued our reliance upon oil. Maybe we will have gained a few more years, but we will have burdened our grandchildren with the price of our unbridled greed and blind devotion to growth.

Okay, so what if the world's population doesn't grow? What if we manage zero population growth? We would still continue to consume the world's resources at the current rate, and the current rate is unsustainable. In order to ensure that our children and grandchildren will have the same quality of life we have enjoyed, we will have to do even better, we will have to achieve a negative population growth. China has managed to do just that. It is not impossible. With diminished numbers, it might be possible to feed the world without chemical fertilizers, to fish the oceans without depleting them, to live in the world without destroying it.

So our challenges are many. We must reduce our impact on the earth by reducing our numbers and by changing our patterns of consumption. If we don't, I can see nothing but hardship ahead. But maybe my crystal ball is just a bit cracked. Maybe what I'm seeing is horribly distorted. On the other hand, maybe global warming is the wake-up call to change, not just how we procure energy, but how we live in the world.

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