People have predicted the end of the world since the beginning of the world, they say. What I don’t think people realize is how many times the world has indeed ended.
Thomas Robert Malthus was a British scholar who wrote about economics, politics, and demography best known for his observation that the problems of population growth would make the then-popular idea of an endlessly-improvable Utopian society impossible. Population grows exponentially because each new organism capable of increasing the overall rate of growth, while increasing arable land is a linear function. Eventually, Malthus said, we will run out of land. The “Malthusian Catastrophe” is a scenario in which human population has vastly overshot the carrying capacity of the Earth, causing massive worldwide famine and die off.
Despite his broader influence, today Malthus is often thought of as a doomsayer and a hack. Thanks to industrialized agriculture and cheap worldwide transportation we have enough food production capacity to feed today’s large and growing human population. The fact that so many are still starving is a political issue. But, as I’m sure you know, these processes require cheap petroleum in the form of pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, and of course fuel. All but the best-managed agriculture deteriorates the land it uses, causing topsoil loss and nitrogen pollution in runoff and requiring even more inputs to maintain production. Human food production has left its mark all over the planet, notably the barren wastes of the “Fertile” Crescent. Furthermore, when you apply Malthusian logic to other resources that are absolutely vital to our way of life, particularly nonrenewable ones that we have no choice but to use at ever-increasing rates, it becomes clear that we have only managed to stave off catastrophe, all the while populating every inhabitable crevasse on the planet with more and more human beings.
Anyway, I was talking about the end of the world. Maybe people don’t understand what I mean by this. The world is always ending. Peter Ward has recently challenged the paradigm of life-as-nurturing-mother in his book, “The Medea Hypothesis,” suggesting instead that life contains the seeds of its destruction. There have been a thousand times in the Earth’s rich history where one form of life has flourished to such an extent as to jeopardize its own existence, or that of other species. The first forms of life on the planet metabolized anaerobically and produced oxygen as a waste byproduct, eventually filling the atmosphere with it and choking themselves on the stuff. Four of the five great extinctions since the rise of animals have been caused, not by volcanoes or meteorites, but by life itself.
Jared Diamond, famous for his book Guns, Germs, and Steel, wrote another fascinating text called Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. In it, he examines the causes of societal collapse using numerous historical case studies. He cites habitat destruction, water management, soil erosion, over-hunting of animals and fish, invasive species, and overpopulation as factors contributing to past societal collapse in cases like the Norse in Greenland, Easter Island, and the Maya. The interesting thing is that in most of his examples, it should have been clear that the chosen course of action would eventually lead to collapse. What could the Easter Islanders have been thinking as they cut down the last tree on their once lush island?
Finally, it should be obvious to everyone that the time we live in is really exceptional. Human population has exploded along with the rate at which we are using up the world’s resources. If you look at functions of human population, economic growth, energy use, new home construction, and nearly every other indicator there is, you’ll see a low boring line for almost all of the last hundred thousand years, with a little bump marking the argrarianization of humanity, and finally a near-vertical spike starting about a hundred years ago. While it may seem normal, natural, expected for us to live this way, I don’t think many people appreciate how extremely new this all is.
When I say the world is ending, I mean that the future will not look like the present or recent past. We’re not going to invent a way to continue using as much energy as we currently do, and we’re not going to be able to do more with less. We’ll be doing less with less. James Howard Kunstler sets the mood well in his post-apocalyptic novel, “World Made By Hand.” Life will still be fulfilling and maybe more full of wonder than it is today, for those of us who don’t feel too bitter about what we’ve lost.