*be sceptical - take nothing for granted!
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David Attenborough hit the headlines yet again in 15 May 2009 with an opinion piece in New Scientist. This is a quotation:

 

‘He has become a patron of the Optimum Population Trust, a think tank on population growth and environment with a scary website showing the global population as it grows. "For the past 20 years I've never had any doubt that the source of the Earth's ills is overpopulation. I can't go on saying this sort of thing and then fail to put my head above the parapet."

 

There are nearly three times as many people on the planet as when Attenborough started making television programmes in the 1950s - a fact that has convinced him that if we don't find a solution to our population problems, nature will:
"Other horrible factors will come along and fix it, like mass starvation."

 

Bob Hawke said something similar on the program Elders with Andrew Denton:

 

ANDREW DENTON: You looked genuinely sad before when you were talking about the world that our children are coming into, are you optimistic for the future of the planet?

BOB HAWKE: I am by nature and I have all my life by nature been an optimist, Andrew, but I’ve got to say that when I look at the facts now in this world there are not many grounds for optimism. We’re you know, take the elements and just take population for a start. Population is exploding. We’ve got to do something about you know getting a sustainable population level and of course this gets back to poverty, it gets back to the education of women and so on. We’vegotthe problems of food supply, of global warming, massive increases in the population. Now these are not the figments of Bob Hawke’s imagination. These are facts. Ah you’ve got you know over a billion people in the world of over six million now living in absolute poverty and half the world’s population living in very meagre situations.

ANDREW DENTON: It seems to be an insurmountable problem the question of over-population and over-consumption and that we have finite resources and that we’re finding more and more ways of using them. What is the hope?

BOB HAWKE: The answer to that question is how are developed nations going to be persuaded of the need for action? I mean it’s, how does the message get through? I mean you look in terms of political leadership. There are no great political leaders around.

 

Those who are familiar with my various essays, dating back to the seventies, will find these words familiar.

 

Yet there are some who feel that humanity has a special place in the universe and that somehow this special place gives us a right and a duty to fill the universe with as many human beings as possible.

This is patently wrong. Humans have no central place in the universe, or on this planet. The universe is around 13,700 million years old; our planet is around a quarter of this age and that there are in all probability, thousands of billions of similar planets in the universe. Human beings, in our most recent form, have been on this planet for micro instant; no more than 70,000 years; or .0000005 of the life of the universe.

Like the earth's path around the sun, the sun rotates around our galaxy, one of billions, once every 250 million years; or one galactic year. The dinosaurs dominated this planet less than six galactic months ago and we have been here for less than one thousandth of a galactic year. Given the rate of evolution and extinctions on earth, it is certain that neither humans, nor the other plants and animals we are familiar with, will be here by the end of the remaining half of this galactic year. But we will not be missed. There is no reason to believe that the universe will not continue into the future for thousands of galactic years after we are gone.

In this context humans are an insignificant animal, on an insignificant planet, circling an insignificant sun, in an insignificant galaxy for an infinitesimal time. In this context it matters little what we do. But to me and you it is as important as anything can be.

All animals and plants on earth are driven by basic biology to grow exponentially for as long as conditions are favorable. All successful complex organisms have means of reproducing in an unconstrained manner for as long as they are unconstrained by resources and space and lack competition. In this respect humans are no different to other animals and plants.

For many millennia human numbers were relatively small, fluctuating with climate conditions, food availability, disease prevalence, animal predation and territory; the latter often by wars between ourselves. But humans are unique among animals. We have developed technology and accumulated knowledge that extends our natural capabilities. At different times in the past we have been able to gain additional advantages as a species that allowed our numbers to expand.

Initially this expansion was geographic, across all the continents on the planet from around 70 to 10 thousand years ago. Globally our numbers grew from a relative handful to perhaps one million. The latest anthropology, based in part on DNA analysis, shows that there was a cultural, and possibly evolutionary, revolution in human development 50,000 years ago; leading to ritualistic burials, clothes making and the invention of complex hunting techniques and probably the advent of religion. Recent developments may be more social and technological than genetic. Agriculture began 10,000 years ago; the manufacture of metals about 6,000 years ago; systematic writing about 5,000 years ago (possibly earlier).

The widespread use of iron began about 3,000 years ago and its use to make machines to capture and convert energy, 300 years ago; just four lifetimes. This allowed the replacement of human effort by harnessing fire, combustion, more effectively. In a brief ten thousand years there have been huge advances in human capability and consequently our viability as a species.

At each point of increasing viability, human population numbers leapt upwards.

There were about a billion of us in 1800 and over the next 120 years this number doubled as colonial powers introduced systematic agriculture and rail transportation; together with sewerage and clean drinking water; across the planet. In the twentieth century, building on the successes of the European and Scottish enlightenment in the previous century, we adopted a more rigorous scientific approach to knowledge and truth. We soon acquired vastly increased capabilities including: powered flight; the mass-produced motor car and tractor; nuclear power; telecommunications; electronics; biotechnology; science based medicine; space flight; labour saving domestic appliances; and many other developments.

Human population numbers exploded.

With the progressive introduction of the tractor and broad acre agriculture from the 1920s ; there was a dramatic acceleration in population growth. In just 40 years our numbers grew by another billion; to three billion by 1960. Then came the green revolution, when new crops were engineered; initially using conventional breeding. These together with mass produced, chemically engineered, fertilisers and insecticides; new methods of irrigation; electricity for pumps, processes and refrigeration; a huge scale increase in agricultural machinery; new food transportation, storage and processing infrastructure and methods; as well as widespread use of antibiotics and new science based medicines; facilitated even faster growth. In just 50 years we 'bred up' by a further four billion people.

These new capabilities and understandings have brought generally higher living standards and longer life expectancy across the globe. Corresponding changes in mores, education and practices have already lowered fertility in culturally advanced populations. But throughout this time the poorest people have been the main engine of growth; the most numerous and youngest; living on the margins; subsisting in abject poverty on the verge of starvation. Many still do starve periodically when conditions fluctuate. The difference between now and 50 years ago is that today over twice as many, 2.7 billion, are subjected to this inhumanity.

We are patently in the midst of a human population crisis; driven on by the same circumstantial lack of constraint that drives mouse plagues; and, it seems, just as helpless in preventing the catastrophe that is to come. A quick review of the comments at the end of the New Scientist article, by presumably well educated and informed people, is ample demonstration of the overweening confidence of some that we can go on in this way, and even when we perceive the danger, our inability to do anything about it.

We have the knowledge and skills to make things better for humankind without allowing our numbers to increase to consume the benefit. World poverty is on the decline in many areas, particularly in China and South East Asia and other places where fertility has been successfully lowered. We do not have to be like the mice that periodically multiply in plague proportions in rural Australia and just as quickly die away when they have destroyed the conditions that allowed them to multiply.

But we have to get things right for ourselves. And we have to act quickly. If we do choose to do nothing nature will. Ever-growing human numbers will destroy our favourable environment; our numbers will then, inevitably, collapse back to a sustainable level, occasioning huge loss of life; and perhaps the demise of modern civilisation itself. Should civilisation collapse we would be back to a maximum population of a few hundred million.

Of course life on earth won't be threatened, it will continue for many millions (and perhaps billions) of years after we are gone. Most of the ever evolving animals plants and bacteria will continue as they do now; day to day; hour to hour; or second to second; carelessly; not able to perceive or appreciate the grandness of their coming and going. It is our gift and burden as ‘modern’ humans that we are able to do both.

C’est la vie.


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Travel

Berlin

 

 

 

I'm a bit daunted writing about Berlin.  

Somehow I'm happy to put down a couple of paragraphs about many other cities and towns I've visited but there are some that seem too complicated for a quick 'off the cuff' summary.  Sydney of course, my present home town, and past home towns like New York and London.  I know just too much about them for a glib first impression.

Although I've never lived there I've visited Berlin on several occasions for periods of up to a couple of weeks.  I also have family there and have been introduced to their circle of friends.

So I decided that I can't really sum Berlin up, any more that I can sum up London or New York, so instead I should pick some aspects of uniqueness to highlight. 

Read more ...

Fiction, Recollections & News

The Greatest Aviation Mystery of All Time

 

 

The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 was finally called off in the first week of June 2018.

The flight's disappearance on the morning of 8 March 2014 has been described as the greatest aviation mystery of all time, surpassing the disappearance of Amelia Earhart in 1937.  Whether or no it now holds that record, the fruitless four year search for the missing plane is certainly the most costly in aviation history and MH370 has already spawned more conspiracy theories than the assassination of JFK; the disappearance of Australian PM Harold Holt; and the death of the former Princess Diana of Wales; combined.

Read more ...

Opinions and Philosophy

Climate Emergency

 

 

 

emergency
/uh'merrjuhnsee, ee-/.
noun, plural emergencies.
1. an unforeseen occurrence; a sudden and urgent occasion for action.

 

 

Recent calls for action on climate change have taken to declaring that we are facing a 'Climate Emergency'.

This concerns me on a couple of levels.

The first seems obvious. There's nothing unforseen or sudden about our present predicament. 

My second concern is that 'emergency' implies something short lived.  It gives the impression that by 'fire fighting against carbon dioxide' or revolutionary action against governments, or commuters, activists can resolve the climate crisis and go back to 'normal' - whatever that is. Would it not be better to press for considered, incremental changes that might avoid the catastrophic collapse of civilisation and our collective 'human project' or at least give it a few more years sometime in the future?

Back in 1990, concluding my paper: Issues Arising from the Greenhouse Hypothesis I wrote:

We need to focus on the possible.

An appropriate response is to ensure that resource and transport efficiency is optimised and energy waste is reduced. Another is to explore less polluting energy sources. This needs to be explored more critically. Each so-called green power option should be carefully analysed for whole of life energy and greenhouse gas production, against the benchmark of present technology, before going beyond the demonstration or experimental stage.

Much more important are the cultural and technological changes needed to minimise World overpopulation. We desperately need to remove the socio-economic drivers to larger families, young motherhood and excessive personal consumption (from resource inefficiencies to long journeys to work).

Climate change may be inevitable. We should be working to climate “harden” the production of food, ensure that public infrastructure (roads, bridges, dams, hospitals, utilities and so) on are designed to accommodate change and that the places people live are not excessively vulnerable to drought, flood or storm. [I didn't mention fire]

Only by solving these problems will we have any hope of finding solutions to the other pressures human expansion is imposing on the planet. It is time to start looking for creative answers for NSW and Australia  now.

 

 

Since my retirement Wendy and I have done quite a bit of travel, often these days to less 'touristy' places, although that's just a matter of degree. After all we're tourists and we were there.  On occasion we've revisited old haunts after a decade or so absence. 

Everywhere we go there is one thing in common with our home in Australia:  there are a lot more people than there were a decade or so back. Everywhere we go there is evidence of resource depletion, particularly water resources, and environmental degradation. Everywhere we go new dwellings have spread like a cancer across once green fields.and forests. Concrete forests now stand where humble dwellings or open fields once were.

It's no good blaming our parents, the underlying causes of the many environmental challenges we face go back the start of the 19th century and the Industrial Revolution when no longer were the great masses of humanity the children of farm labourers, serfs, slaves or servants serving a small cultured elite.

With industry came systematic applied science, engineering, and improved medical understanding. Now workers needed new skills and had to be educated. With education came many benefits, including independent volition, and improved living conditions.  Death rates declined; fertility improved.  By the end of the 19th century world population had more than doubled its pre-industrial record, reaching 1.6 billion.  But then it really took off.

By the mid 20th century many informed commentators were getting alarmed and calling for population restraint.

In 1968 the world human population had topped 3.5 billion, over a billion since the end of World War 2.

That year Professor Paul Ehrlich, of Stanford University in the US, published The Population Bomb correctly warning that: 'hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.'   Critics claimed that he was alarmist, yet very soon 260 of every thousand babies born in Zambia were dying due to malnutrition before their first birthday. In Pakistan the number was 140 per thousand (source: The Limits to Growth). 

In the same year concerned scientists in Europe formed The Club of Rome.  Three years later the Club published 'The Limits to Growth', the results of a state-of-the-art, yet primitive, multi-factorial computer model that projected the impacts on food consumption/production; pollution and the cost of reduction; energy resources; and non-renewable industrial minerals, of unrestrained exponential population growth. The model forecast multiple disastrous consequences early in the 21st century. The authors feared no less than anarchy, driven by food and resource riots, and the total collapse of civilisation.  The final sentence reads: 'The crux of the matter is not only whether the human species will survive, but even more whether the human species can survive without falling into a state of worthless existence.'

 

 

My copy of The Limits to Growth
 

 

Only a few paid any heed. Several of these were later described as the 'Asian Tigers'.

 

Singapore's Stop at Two policy
From 1972 Singaporeans were encouraged to have two child families
- incentives included payment for sterilisation and public housing for married couples without children
- disincentives included precluding couples with more than two children from applying for public benefits
The result was a decline in fertility from 4.7 in 1960 to 1.7 in 1980
Although the campaign stressed the need for girls, as in China, cultural factors resulted in a preponderance of boys
- an ongoing social and economic problem
Nevertheless, Singapore has gone from a struggling third-world country to become the fourth richest country in the world (
1)
On the other hand, since independence in 1947 India's population has grown sixfold
- India will soon overtake China as the world's most populous country - visit and compare 

 

Critics of The Club of Rome, like Herman Kahn, of the Hudson Institute, cried: 'garbage in gospel out', a popular objection to computer modelling at the time, and lo, the Club's projections were soon proven to be overly pessimistic. In the 1970's science came to the aid of mankind. New crops were developed and there was a 'green revolution'; new processes and products improved efficiency and new mining technologies, like remote sensing from aircraft and satellites, together with new extractive methods, like deep-sea oilwells and 'fracking', redefined resource availability. In first world countries rivers and air was cleaned up and pollution ceased to be our number one concern.

 

 

The Hudson Institute's Herman Kahn's riposte - one of many
The Hudson Institute was later employed by the NSW Government to help plan the State's future
- no mention of global warning

 

Everyone breathed a sigh of relief - we didn't have to do anything.  The religious among us were right: God, or the Gods, had it all in hand - it was all part of 'The Plan'. It was business as usual.

Yet today, the Club of Rome's foremost prediction: that unless we did something, by 2020 world population would reach eight billion has proven alarmingly prescient. And Paul Ehrlich's predictions are also vindicated.

In 2013 a Global Hunger Summit in London(2) was told that: 'Malnutrition is the underlying cause of death for at least 3.1 million children [per year], accounting for 45% of all deaths among children under the age of five and stunting growth among a further 165 million [children].'

Although they factored in 'pollution' as a general concern, the research team behind The Limits to Growth said, or knew, nothing about the specific threat of carbon dioxide. Was this an oversight?

With our new skills scientists now have ice-cores, containing entrapped air bubbles, that go back half a million years.  These show a close correlation between global temperature and the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.  The highest level ever was around 300 thousand years ago, when it was much warmer and carbon dioxide reached 300 parts per million.

Because of man's multifarious activities, including agriculture, the atmosphere broke that half million year record in the 1950's and we have been in uncharted territory ever since. While correlation does not necessarily denote causation, and it's still not as warm as it was back then, I find it rather alarming. Read my paper: Climate Change - a Myth?

It seems highly probable that climate change is at least in part due to the current mouse-plague that we call humanity: clearing forests; digging up the ground; building things; making stuff soon to go to garbage tips; consuming resources without concern for the future and, of course, burning things.

How long can this go on?  I hope there will be a deus ex machina, that some, as yet unknown, aspect of quantum science, genetic engineering and/or nuclear energy will save us.  Failing that, I hope that current civilisation will outlast my grandchildren and perhaps theirs?  One glimmer of hope is the declining fertility in first-world countries as more women have careers beyond motherhood and living standards improve. Yet as I pointed out in 1990 this would consume far more energy than the third world has to hand. Is it now a case of too little too late?

I won't be around to know.

As the The Club of Rome pointed out, and should be obvious to 'Blind Freddy', the indefinite exponential growth, that our economies are addicted to, is unsustainable. 'Soon or later,' as Alice remarked about drinking from a bottle marked 'poison': 'it's bound to disagree with you'.

 

 


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