28 September, 2006
Author: George Irbe
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Premonition is defined as a feeling of anticipation of, or anxiety over, a future event; a forewarning. That definition fits very well my mind’s unease – my weltschmerz - which has been deepening through the years, particularly during the last two decades.
Let me first describe the circumstances that have prodded me to form my gloomy premonition. I have lived in the same town in the same house for more than thirty years. The town is Richmond Hill, some 20 miles, or so, north of Toronto, depending on how you define the boundaries of the Toronto megalopolis. At some point – and I can’t put an exact year to it - the town and the neighborhood started to deteriorate. Not that many years ago, there were corn and wheat fields less than a mile from our house. Now a huge new housing development sprawls where the fields used to be. The street we live on carried little traffic and most of it was local. During the first years, our street had only drainage ditches and no sidewalks. Now we have storm sewers and sidewalks. Those are the only “improvements” that “progress” (I deliberately put the word in quotation marks) has brought us.
“Progress” has also brought us a general miasma of griminess over everything, including the vegetation; it has brought us traffic congestion, which is so bad in the rush hour that I have difficulty exiting my driveway; it has brought us litter in the street and on the lawn, litter that appears as if by magic. We now live in a neighborhood that is only a commuting route for thousands of outsiders who don’t give a damn for its appearance or the health of its environment. The same, multiplied a thousand-fold, can be said for the town as a whole. We have more shopping malls, but we also have more filth, more air pollution, more wind-blown garbage, and almost constant traffic congestion. Of course, at the root of all this “progress” is population – too many people.
For many years now – and again, I cannot say exactly for how long – as I observed all these insidious gifts of “progress” I searched my mind for the answer, or answers, to why this was happening. I had my suspicions; one of them was eating away at my firmly held, long-established faith in the truism that capitalism is the best system for all people and all things. I also had a mounting concern about the seemingly uncontrollable and unending growth of the human population, here in the Toronto region as well as in the world as a whole.
Eventually, then, I was able to encompass my suspicions and worries into what amounts to a premonition of the approaching “last days” for mankind. However, my vision of the “last days” is quite different from the traditional Armageddon, or Judgment Day believed in by devout religious folk. They imagine the “last days” to be a coming catastrophic event induced by a supernatural force. In contrast, my premonition of the “last days” is based on rational deduction, supported by facts, of the inescapable end result of the unalterable course mankind is pursuing. I have quite simply concluded that the course is unalterable because its direction is set by man’s decidedly unalterable nature.
My “last days” will result from the actions of men, not of God or gods. As I see it, the “last days” will not arrive suddenly, with heavenly trumpets blaring and cymbals clanging; rather, they will do so at a slow and gradual pace, a pace that will be almost imperceptible if measured from year to year.
It is a fact that great man-made disasters are not due to a single particular human error but are the result of several coincidental and compounding human errors or misjudgments. Similarly, onset of the “last days” will have many compounding and mutually reinforcing man-made causes each of which has been identified and discussed for many years already by scientists, environmentalists and statisticians. I will discuss them only briefly because, as I stated above, the multiple causes for the ultimate disaster are themselves the predictable effects of the overarching cause which is human nature itself.
Historical Precedents of Minor “Last Days”
In a manner it can be said that mankind has experienced many minor “last days” starting already in Paleolithic times. Last year I wrote an essay - The Genesis Declaration - in which I drew heavily on a book by Ronald Wright, titled A Short History of Progress. The topic of the current piece is in large measure related to the subject of The Genesis Declaration, and therefore I am going to turn once again to Wright’s book for precedents of mankind’s behavior that reach back into the distant past.
As stated in A Short History of Progress, the institution we define as “civilization” began when agriculture began. After nomadic men had depleted the wild and freely-ranging animal populations they depended on for food (which, in a sense, amounted to the first minor “last days”) they were compelled to find other ways to sustain themselves. Hence, they turned to the domestication of animal species that were useful to them and to growing of crops. Men changed from being hunter-gatherers to herders and farmers. Men became “tied to the land” out of necessity. Family groups and tribes coalesced into ever larger societies; villages grew into towns, towns into walled cities; trade and the arts flourished. In this manner civilizations were born.
All civilizations – ancient and modern – have relied on agriculture for their very existence. The smaller civilizations of the past relied on a locally produced food supply; the larger ones depended increasingly on imported food in order to feed a burgeoning population. Today, of course, in our global civilization, food is produced and distributed on a world-wide scale. The importance of agriculture to civilization cannot be over-stated. As Wright says on p. 45, ‘The Farming Revolution produced an entirely new mode of subsistence, which remains the basis of the world economy to this day. The food technology of the late Stone Age is the one technology we can’t live without. The crops of about a dozen ancient peoples feed the 6 billion on earth today.’
But, here’s the rub: Wright makes the case that every civilization has carried within it the seeds of its own destruction, which he calls “progress traps.” On p. 8 he writes pithily, ‘Many of the great ruins that grace the deserts and jungles of the earth are monuments to progress traps, the headstones of civilizations which fell victim to their own success.’ I call these progress traps the minor “last days” which were the death throes of particular civilizations. Their dying was slow and painful, of many years’ duration. In practically every civilization, the “progress trap” could be described as a vicious circle: an abundant food supply derived from agriculture meant a constantly increasing population, which meant a constantly increasing demand for more food, which meant having constantly to increase the acreage under cultivation, which meant razing more and more of the forest cover, which meant increased soil erosion by wind and water, desertification, and loss of arable land. The trap was sprung when food production started to decrease and the less well-off segment of the population was reduced to starvation.
Such was, notably, the fate of the Sumerian civilization in Mesopotamia and the Mayan in Central America, but similar denudation of the land and resulting decline of living standards occurred in the Greek city states and the Roman empire, which led, eventually, to their loss of a civilizing reputation and cultural influence. For example, concerning Rome Wright comments on p. 93, ‘Archeological work in Italy and Spain has revealed severe erosion corresponding to high levels of agricultural activity during imperial times, followed by population collapse and abandonment until the late Middle Ages. As the Empire impoverished the soils of southern Europe, Rome exported its environmental load to colonies, becoming dependent on grain from North Africa and the Middle East. The consequences can be seen in those regions today. Antioch, capital of Roman Syria, lies under some thirty feet of silt washed down from deforested hills, and the great Libyan ruins of Leptis Magna now stand in a desert. Rome’s ancient breadbaskets are filled with sand and dust.’
Mankind as a whole could, and did, endure and prosper in spite of these collapses of the ancient civilizations – these minor “last days.” As Wright puts it on p. 101, ‘Ancient civilizations were local, feeding on particular ecologies. As one fell, another would be rising elsewhere. Large tracts of the planet were still very lightly settled. A fast film of the earth from space would show civilizations breaking out like forest fires in one region after another.’ However, such is no longer the case today. We now live in what amounts to a global civilization; we exploit and abuse the biosphere (I use the term here and subsequently as the inclusive term for the atmosphere, the hydrosphere and the biosphere) everywhere on this planet. There is no other place on earth to run to when this civilization collapses. Therefore, the coming “last days” will be truly the last and final ones.
The “Last Days” of the Global Civilization
The twin menaces: population and capitalism
In my view, the descent into the “last days” of our global civilization is inevitable because it is driven by two very powerful interacting forces: (a) the rapidly increasing global population, and (b) the unregulated world-wide capitalist free-market economic system.
My suspicions that a forever-increasing number of humans on earth and a never ending growth of the economy was, in fact, a bad thing began already some years ago. Along with these suspicions came the recognition that the vast majority of people thought the contrary.
Concerning the world’s population, I sense that one is considered to be the lowest of the low if one argues against the conventionally-held belief that it is our moral obligation to save the life of every human being on earth (born and unborn), and to feed and shelter all of them so that they can procreate at will; and one is to shut out thoughts about the consequences of the exponential growth of the human population from one’s mind. Most people think this way because just about every religion in the world and most secular ethics command them to think this way. It is considered bad form to raise the topic of population control. I suspect that is why, in a comparative sense, there is little to be found of serious published material that tackles the population problem, either in the print or electronic (internet) media. I have acquired one useful smallish book, titled “Too Many People,” by Lindsey Grant, published in 2000 by Seven Locks Press, on which I have drawn for information. Grant is a retired US Foreign Service officer with impressive credentials and experience in this field. He has written several books on the subject. There are also some sites on the internet that deal with population problems; http://www.npg.org/, hosted by the Negative Population Growth organization, is a particularly useful site for information on the subject.
Capitalism – more particularly the freebooting global market variety – is the other menace threatening our global civilization. Only some fifteen years ago, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, much of the world believed that capitalism was the most perfect and most beneficent economic system devised by man. It had just triumphed over communism and appeared poised to spread its goodness over the entire globe. I was among the majority who believed fervently in the capitalist free-market system. But then, about a decade ago, capitalism started to behave like a beast let out of the cage to roam the world freely, which in a manner of speaking it was. The Soviet obstacle to capitalism was gone and even communist Red China was adopting the capitalist economic model, if not the free-market political ideology to go along with it.
In going global, capitalism mutated from the rather tame classical Adam Smith variety of old into an aggressive and seductive exploiter of men’s inclination towards a profligate and wasteful lifestyle. Goods became more affordable and there were more of them but they were also of poorer quality. We became a resources-wasting throw-away society. At some point in the process, I and a few other people began to view free-wheeling global market capitalism and all its “free trade areas” with suspicion and a jaundiced eye. I, for one, began to appreciate more than ever Aristotle’s dictum that the extremes of anything we practice are bad and only the mean is golden. That is certainly true of our economic models. Unbridled capitalism is as harmful to society as is hard-core communism.
In order to have more than just suspicions about modern-day global capitalism, I decided to search for literature that would explain its nature in relatively simple language. Publications critical of global capitalism are as scarce, comparatively speaking, as those advocating population control. There is a good reason for that: the public has hardly any interest to read negative things about capitalism. Whereas communism captured and enslaved people in a command economy, capitalism appeals to each and every individual’s desire to acquire personal wealth. Capitalism allows one the freedom to be as greedy as one wishes to be.
I found and purchased one useful book: “Economic Insanity,” by Roger Terry (1995), Berrett-Koehler Publishers. Roger Terry has been associated for many years with the Mariott School of Management at Brigham Young University. I will refer to it in this essay. On the internet, http://www.preservenet.com/, hosted by the Preservation Institute, is also a useful site to visit.
It becomes clear, after reading the books by Grant and by Terry, that the increasing world population is bad for the biosphere and will ultimately destroy our civilization. However, the increasing population does serve the interests of global free-market capitalism. Therefore one can assume that nothing meaningful will be done to curb population growth while capitalism controls the world’s economy. And it appears at this time that capitalism will prevail into the foreseeable future.
Grant uses UN and United States population statistics and projections which show that the United States’ population ‘. . was 75 million in 1900. It is now about 275 million. It may well grow to 404 million by 2050 and 571 million in 2100. (Census 1999 middle projection). Post-2000 immigrants and their descendants will contribute two-thirds of that growth. For the world, the UN estimates are 1.6 billion in 1900, 6 billion now, with 8.9 billion projected for 2050 and about 10 billion in 2100 (medium projections, 1998).’ While population in the industrialized countries, except in the United States, is static or slowly declining, the population of the less developed countries ‘is rising by 75 million people per year. It is expected to rise some 73 percent in the next half-century and comprise 87 percent of world population by 2050.’ Grant concludes that the disparate population trends between the developed and under-developed world give rise to an Age of Migrations from the poorer to the better-off countries that will continue for at least two generations to come.
One doesn’t have to be a wild-eyed Marxist to see that, as Terry says on p. 39, ‘Consumer-based, progress-driven capitalism is completely amoral. It must be. . . The sole purpose of capitalism is to provide goods for consumption, at ever-increasing levels.’, and on p.40, ‘The engine of capitalism is specifically designed to create profits and turn those profits into new capital – forever. The engine may burn out, or we may turn it off, but it will never create something other than what it was designed to create. And what capitalism is designed to create is an increasingly capitalized world, a world filed to overflowing with both products and production capacity. More factories, more equipment, more products, for ever and ever. And we must consume everything that is produced. That is the other side of the coin.’
At this point I must thank Terry for enlightening me on the philosophical aspect of the meaning of “progress,” which helps to explain the antipathy I have for the term; that is evident from my treatment of it in the introduction to this essay. Terry says on p. 31 that '. . . progress, the philosophical doctrine that under-girds our growth imperative . . is a journey without a destination.’ He adds, on p. 32, ‘Progress has no destination, no culmination in something perfect or even desirable. Progress is never satisfied. It assumes that what we have is never enough. We must continue to accumulate and consume . .’
Yes indeed, most people believe in “progress” even though they are not able to give an exact reason why they believe in it. I am afraid that just as we have a mindless faith in “progress,” we also lack the will to turn the capitalist engine off; and saying, as Terry does, that it may burn out amounts to the same end point as the “last days”. The fuel that drives the engine of global capitalism is the growing world population. Grant explains, very lucidly, on p. 83, how this engine works:
‘For business, growth is an opportunity for profit. The developer profits from growth, but . . . the existing residents near the development bear much of its cost: roads, schools, hospitals, police, the whole infrastructure of growth. Perhaps worse, they must live with the crowding that the development introduces.’
‘. . . the largest businesses (the “multinational corporations” or MNCs) can go to where the labor is cheapest, or alternatively import cheap labor to displace expensive local labor and drive the price down . . . In effect, the MNCs have been able to internationalize the labor market, to operate where it is cheapest, and thus to hold all wages down. Business and its followers herald the movement toward free trade embodied in NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Area) and WTO (the World Trade Organization). The purpose is to permit the free movement of capital, goods, technology and marketing techniques. Thus armed, the MNCs can produce in the cheapest market and sell anywhere. They can drive out local competition – businesses and farmers – by their combination of scale, operating efficiencies and deep pockets. They are not interested in population growth, one way or the other, but only in cheap and docile labor, but they profit from a world with too much labor because it keeps the labor cheap and docile. When local labor prices rise, or the docility erodes, they can move on. They leave a trail of wreckage as jobs blossom and then suddenly disappear in one country or another, but that is not their affair. They can evade environmental laws by lobbying against them or, when they lose, move to more lenient countries. With the WTO they have even established a judicial process to override national environmental laws that the WTO finds in conflict with international trade obligations. This is a world in which all sense of moral obligation is overruled by greed and the pursuit of profit. Growth is immediately profitable . .’
The most important statement in the above passage is that multinational corporations profit from a world with too much cheap labor. Here, then, is the linkage between an ever-growing population and global free-market capitalism. It is a necessary linkage because the capitalist economic system can survive only in a forever-growing economy. Terry says on, p. 43, that every economic plan he has seen ‘begins with the assumption that growth is necessary for a healthy society,’ and this view is shared by practically all economists. Terry derives the title for his book from this “insane” economic idea. He states on p. 58, ‘Capitalism, no matter whose model you like, requires a constantly expanding market, requires that luxuries become necessities, that we constantly improve and replace products in an endless upward spiral, that we extract an increasing amount of profit, and that we infuse new money regularly into the economic flow. Everyone agrees on this. These are the assumptions behind everyone’s solutions. No one questions the insanity of the system at its most fundamental levels.’
Terry concludes on p. 159, ‘The only reason why endless growth is necessary in the capitalist system is simply that it is the mechanism by which the system works. Without growth, capitalism deteriorates.’ Indeed, the system survives only by growing, and in order to grow it requires an expanding pool of cheap labor which in turn consumes the growing production of (mostly low quality) goods that the system produces. The system is parasitic, or as Terry puts it on p. 45, ‘The unlimited-growth assumption makes capitalism similar in many respects to cancer. It creates economic growth at the expense of health in other areas of social concern. And as it becomes entrenched, it converts the surrounding society into a support structure for its continued growth. Everything becomes economic, and self-perpetuation becomes the guiding rule of the economic system.’
The signs of distress
Returning to the idea of “progress traps” postulated by Ronald Wright, we can say that this global civilization has created a concatenated set of them. Of course we have noted, for some years now, signs of various forms of distress in the biosphere that are due to the rapid growth of mankind’s population and the accompanying rapid consumption and pollution of the world’s life-sustaining resources. In a vain hope to make our civilization last forever while sustaining an unlimited, and growing, number of human beings and a forever-growing economy, we have turned to our science and technology to ameliorate the problems. Science and technology is constantly coming up with new solutions. In agriculture efforts are concentrated on ways to meet the increasing demand for food by the constantly growing population. However, the new technologies always produce new - and mostly unforeseen - negative consequences for the biosphere. Thus, we often find that by trying to fix one progress trap we create several new ones.
In Too Many People Lindsey Grant devotes several short chapters to specific problem-areas in the biosphere where we have detected signs of dangerous trends. He looks at agriculture, water resources, energy, and pollution, and finds that in every case the increasing human population is ultimately responsible for the problems. Grant recommends that the population should be reduced (by birth-control) back to about two billion, or, at the very least, that it be stabilized at its present number of about six billion. To which I want to respond: “Pigs will fly before that recommendation is implemented.”
Of course, all of the various ways mankind is abusing the biosphere that are noted by Wright, Grant, and Terry are hardly news; we hear and see them discussed in the media on a daily basis. Therefore, it is quite unnecessary to go into them in detail here. However, I would like to touch on some particulars concerning agriculture.
Not surprisingly, the most serious threat to our civilization, as it was for previous civilizations, results from our exploitation of the available land and water resources in the production of food and shelter for the growing population. All readily available arable land in the world has been under cultivation since the 1970s. Additional acreage is gained only by clearing forested areas and by farming on hillsides. Yet, because of population growth, there is now about half as much arable land per capita as in the early 1960s. We are again confronted by the nemesis of bygone civilizations: soil erosion caused by deforestation, over-grazing, and hillside farming. Despite this, good farmland is still being sacrificed to urban development.
We think that we can sidestep the truth that there is a limit to the size of the population that can be fed with what this planet produces. We employ ever-smarter technologies to squeeze more food out of the available farmland. These technologies include experiments with different new pesticides and herbicides, genetic engineering of the plants and animals we grow, and resorting to aquaculture and hydroponics. But, as Grant says on p. 12, ‘We live in an exquisitely balanced ecosystem. We are tampering with that balance in the pursuit of more food production, and we do not know what we are doing.’ To that I want to add that global free-market capitalism is an eager participant in this tampering.
One of the things we know hardly anything about is how our activities affect the microbes with which we co-habit on this planet. Of particular concern are the beneficial ones which work for us rather than attack us. To quote from Grant, p. 63, ‘We are interdependent with the entire web of nature and (to our astonishment) particularly with the microorganisms we cannot see and that we did not even imagine existed until the invention of the microscope.’
The use of fertilizer in the world has increased from 25 million nutrient tons in 1960 to 150 million tons in 1990, to keep up with the increasing demand for food. It is foreseen that fertilizer use will increase to 225 million tons by 2020. However, food production per unit of fertilizer diminishes with increased application to the point where the value of the additional fertilizer used is greater than the value of the additional food produced. This saturation point has already been reached with the major grain crops in the industrialized world.
By using so much artificial fertilizer we are creating an additional problem. We extract nitrogen from the atmosphere to make the fertilizer. At present, we are putting nearly twice as much nitrogen into the soil and water as is deposited there by natural processes, and the input will increase because our use of fertilizer is still increasing.
Certain earth microbes reconvert the nitrogen in nitrates back into its inert molecular form and send it back into the atmosphere. These microbes maintain the normal balance of nitrogen in the atmosphere. All life, including ours, depends on the proper balance of nitrogen being maintained in the atmosphere and therefore, by extension, on these microbes. We do not know how they will behave as we keep on increasing the load of nitrates in the soil and water. Grant poses a general question regarding the microbes on p. 67, ‘What do we know about the levels at which the microbe, like the human, is measurably poisoned by the rising presence of different chemicals? What is the synergistic effect on beneficial microbes of the mighty cocktail of chemicals and minerals humans are injecting into the microbes’ world? What level of soil acidity can the microbes tolerate?’ In short, here is another looming progress trap for our global civilization.
Grant sums up the prospects regarding the future of agriculture on p. 19, ‘Even without further population growth, we are putting chemicals into the biosphere with unknown and perhaps vast results. We are engaged in an unpredictable battle with pests and weeds, and our choice of weapons may harm us without reducing crop losses. If we look toward a time when the poor eat better, we must anticipate an even more intense pressure on land and water; and “sustainability” is not even theoretically possible unless demand growth stops.’ This statement by Grant encapsulates several progress traps which we blissfully ignore. I can only add that, as certain as the sun rising in the east, the demand for food in the future will increase rather than diminish; the “last days” beckon.
I will now return to my own neighborhood. After digesting the facts presented by Wright, Grant, and Terry, I have become much more sensitive and reactive to what I hear and see on the media outlets.
Recently I heard on the radio a reporter of economic news warn us that the economy in North America is slowing down, but in Canada we need not worry much because here the economy is still growing by an acceptable 2 to 3 percent per year. Such news no longer comfort me. I would be happier to hear that the economy has stopped growing or is shrinking by a few percentage points.
Consider this perfect example of the negative effect of “economy of scale” treasured by our capitalists: Currently there is an outbreak of e-coli bacterial poisoning all across North America from eating fresh spinach. The contamination has been traced to one locality in California where a huge amount of spinach is grown and packaged and then distributed across the entire continent. We owe this wide-spread poisoning to the efficiency of our capitalist system in production and marketing.
Every day we hear about, and see scenes of, people starving and dying in the messed-up, so-called “less developed” regions of the world. Scenes of starving and dying children are particularly useful to play on the strings of our humane sentiments when appealing for our help to save them. Of course, no one dares to suggest publicly the futility of such help while the people in these blighted regions continue to copulate and procreate as usual. The same applies to the much-ballyhooed world-wide campaign against AIDS.
I, too, have succumbed to the philosophy of the throw-away society nourished by global free-market capitalism. Recently I bought a DVD player. The salesman offered a warranty on the machine for a few dollars more. I declined, because the price of the product (and most likely also its quality) is so cheap, it is not worth repairing. When the machine breaks down, I will throw it away and buy a new one. The new one will also have the latest technology which the outdated old one will lack. Our capitalists love this kind of thinking. Never mind the resources and energy used in making the player, nor the pollution generated in the manufacturing of it and then in the disposing of it.
I know that my neighborhood and my town will continue to deteriorate. I know that I will not live to see the worst which is yet to come. In my imagination I picture that within the next decade this neighborhood will be rezoned for high-rise buildings; the detached bungalows will gradually vanish from the scene. Many more people will live here. Traffic congestion will be great and air pollution much worse than now. People will become used to the loose garbage, the grimy asphalt and the whiff of sewer smell that characterize big city living. Gradually the economic situation of the inhabitants of the high-rises will also change for the worse. By then, society will consist of a few very rich people and a multitude of very poor people. The better off will have moved to cleaner and less congested districts. As the world enters the “last days” the high-rise complex will be turned into subsidized housing for the very poor. When the inevitable food shortages become commonplace, the poor will be issued ration cards. In my imagination I picture a poor family living in a seedy high-rise on this very spot where my house now stands.
Like I said in the beginning of this essay, the “last days” of this civilization will be long and miserable. I am certain that they will come because I can count on human nature to remain what it has been since the dawn of mankind. Even when looking a looming environmental disaster in the face, men have never had the collective willpower to do what must be done to avert it. That is definitely true when the remedy calls for a limit on the human population.
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