Friday, December 21, 2012

End of Humanity On Hold

A couple of years ago, the San Francisco based, internationally recognized artist Enrique Chagoya (below left) had an art show at the Electric Works gallery called Super-Bato Saves The World. Chagoya was playing with iconography involving the end of the current Mayan calendar during the Winter Solstice of 2012, and the hysterical portents of planetary doom it was supposedly prophesying.

I asked the artist at the party if he was one of the Apocalyptic Believers, and his reply has lingered:
"No, I'm not one of the believers. I have a niece in Mexico, though, who recently went on a journey with a Mayan shaman where she had a Eureka moment in the middle of their jungle trip. She told me the shaman had explained that all the environmental stuff we're doing is helping a little, so that the end is actually going to be a little later. Not a whole lot later, but not 2012 either."
Unfortunately, that sounds about right. There have been plenty of Cassandras warning of Doom for Mankind over the last five decades, but certain voices have resonated with me.

As a teenager in 1969, I heard the Stanford scientist Paul Ehrlich give one of his doomsday population growth speeches at a school board convention at Bill Graham auditorium in San Francisco's Civic Center. Though most of his specific apocalyptic scenarios were as off-base as the Mayan calendar prophecies, his basic point about algorithmic overpopulation and the problems it would cause remain as potent as ever. In a 2011 interview in the LA Times, Ehrlich notes: "When we wrote it, there were about 3.5 billion people on the planet; about half a billion of them were hungry. Today there are 7 billion people on the planet and about a billion of them are hungry. We've lost something on the order of 200 million to 400 million to starvation and diseases related to starvation since the book was written. How "wrong" [were] we?"

Artists have always been the world's most powerful prognosticators, and the apocalyptic visions of novelists John Wyndham, Doris Lessing and Margaret Atwood have for some reason hit me with an almost mystical intensity over the years. It was especially disturbing to read an except from an article by Atwood written seven years ago for the British magazine Granta which was featured in Kit Stolz's environmental reporting site, A Change in the Wind.

The Canadian Atwood notes one of the more disturbing scenarios we are looking at in the near future:
"The Arctic is an unbelievable region of the earth: strikingly beautiful if you like gigantic skies, enormous landforms, tiny flowers, amazing colors, strange light effects. It's also a region that allows scant margins of error. Fall into the ocean and wait a few minutes, and you're dead. Make a mistake with a walrus or a bear, same result. Make the wrong wardrobe choice, same result again. Melt the Arctic ice, and what follows? No second chances for some time.

You could write a science fiction novel about it, except that it wouldn't be science fiction. You could call it Icemelt. Suddenly there are no more small organisms, thus no fish up there, thus no seals. That wouldn't affect the average urban condo dweller much. The rising water levels from--say--the melting of the Greenland and Antarctic ice caps would get attention--no more Long Island or Florida, no more Bangladesh, and quite a few islands would disappear--but people could just migrate, couldn't they? Still no huge cause for alarm unless you own a lot of shore-front real estate."

"But wait: there's ice under the earth, as well as on top of the sea. It's the permafrost, under the tundra. There's a lot of it, and a lot of tundra as well. Once the permafrost starts to melt, the peat on the tundra--thousands of years of stockpiled organic matter-- will start to break down, releasing huge quantities of methane gas. Up goes the air temperature, down goes the oxygen ratio. How long will it take before we all choke and boil to death?

It's hard to write fiction around such scenarios. Fiction is always about people, and to some extent the form determines the outcome of the plot. We always imagine--perhaps we're hard-wired to imagine--a survivor of any possible catastrophe, someone who lives to tell the tale, and also someone to whom the tale can be told. What kind of story would it be with the entire human race gasping to death like beached fish?"

Insistent voices hinting that humanity as we know it is not going to be around much longer was one of the reasons for starting this blog, with its focus on documenting a small corner of the world on a near daily basis. Creating records for a radically altered future feels like a calling.

And with that cheery thought, Happy Winter Solstice 2012, everyone. And thanks to the Asian Art Museum for all the Buddhas.


Nancy Ewart said...

You have phrased it more eloquently that I but I have been thinking along those lines for years. I'm glad to be almost 70. I hope to go before the catastrophe hits - as it now seems bound to do so. I don't care for myself so much but I am very sorry for the younger generation. I pray to all sentient beings that we stop before we destroy everything but I am not optimistic.

Gorgeous photos. That last Buddha is one of my favorites. I did a watercolor of him and I think I will post it in my blog in the next couple of days.

Civic Center said...

Dear Nancy: Thanks. There's a reason for all those photos of Buddhas, though. Just because we might get out of here during this lifetime, doesn't mean we're not going to be reincarnated and have to come right back.

And yes, that last is my favorite Buddha in the museum.

mw said...

"Though most of his specific apocalyptic scenarios were as off-base as the Mayan calendar prophecies, his basic point about algorithmic overpopulation and the problems it would cause remain as potent as ever..."

Yeah... um... No.

"let's take a look at some of his predictions, made in 1968:

1) “The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate,” he said. He predicted four billion deaths, including 65 million Americans.
What actually happened: Since Ehrlich wrote, the population has more than doubled to seven billion – but the amount of food per head has gone up by more than 25 per cent. Of course there are famines, but the death rate has gone down. I don't think a significant number of Americans have starved.
2) "The train of events leading to the dissolution of India as a viable nation is already in motion.” India was doomed, and should be left to die in a "triage" system that would concentrate resources on those places that can be saved.
What actually happened: The Green Revolution, a series of technological and agrarian advances led by a man called Norman Borlaug, transformed our ability to produce food. These techniques were introduced to India by one Prof Monkombu Swaminathan. “They [Ehrlich, and Paul and William Paddock, authors of Famine: 1975!] said Indians, and others, were like sheep going to the slaughterhouse. They’ll all die,” Swaminathan told Gardner in an interview. But thanks to Borlaug, Swaminathan, and human ingenuity, India is now one of the few countries with a booming economy, and is a net exporter, rather than recipient, of food aid. But if Ehrlich's and the Paddocks' advice had been followed, there could have been tens of millions of deaths, says Swaminathan.
3) "By the year 2000 the United Kingdom will be simply a small group of impoverished islands, inhabited by some 70 million hungry people … If I were a gambler, I would take even money that England will not exist in the year 2000."
What actually happened: I'm not hungry. I just ate. Are you hungry? Were you hungry in 2000, especially? Does England exist?
As recently as 2009 Ehrlich was saying The Population Bomb was "too optimistic". But he's wrong. He's not lying, he entirely believes what he is saying, but he is wrong. For the reasons why he is wrong, and why smart people make such dreadful predictions and then stick to them so rigidly even after they have obviously not come true, please read Gardner's brilliant book Future Babble...

Look. I'm not suggesting that the population can increase geometrically without serious problems. But... as technology innovates and global wealth grows, birth rate decrease. It appears to be a self governing process that inevitably confounds the Malthusians like Ehrlich. These failed predictions are not near misses. His founding premises are wrong, so his predictions fail and his newer predictions are most likely as wrong now as they were in 1969.

"Beware of false prophets..."You will know them by their fruits."

Civic Center said...

Dear MW: Okay, I'll put Paul Ehrlich in the same False Prophets Bin as L. Ron Hubbard and Werner Erhard (nee Jack Rosenberg). However, hearing him as a 15-year-old back in 1969 was seriously disturbing, and my point was that his essential message about human overpopulation was valid, no matter what kind of global wealth/technological innovation spin you want to put on it.

I remember working audio-visual for a Silicon Valley convention a decade ago for some Dot-Com visionary company where the requisite Visionary Speaker gave a wonderful speech about the future and Global Wealth and Technological Innovation was going to make everything peachy-keen for everyone, unless humanity spent all their precious resources fighting each other and burning carbon molecules for energy. Guess which world we're living in?

mw said...

Yeah - I think I remember that meme. The authors of this optimistic scenario from a 1997 issue Wired Magazine might be the same guys:

The Long Boom

I remember being pretty impressed with the article. Of course, that was before the Dot Com crash, 9-11, Afghan and Iraq Wars, Collateralized Sub-Prime mortgages, Financial Crisis, Credit Default Swaps, Wall Street Bailouts, Euro debt defaults, and annual trillion dollar budget deficits. None of which were predicted in the article.

Just goes to show Utopians are no better at crystal ball gazing than the Dystopians. It's probably about time to tally a scorecard on all those "Long Boom" forecasts. I'll put it on my todo list.

Civic Center said...

Dear mw: Good memory. It was Peter Schwartz of "The Long Boom" who was a guest speaker, followed at one point by Jerry Springer, who turned out to be an unexpectedly interesting, intelligent character.

Pura Vida said...

I'm inspired by the combination of generosity and fearlessness of the next to the last Buddha. Maybe this is the Buddha-to-Be. Thanks!

Civic Center said...

Dear pura vida: If you look closely, the Buddha-to-Be also has three extra heads on his crown.