Synopsis: For over thirty years, thinking about the human relationship to the environment has been driven in large part by The Limits to Growth, a report presented to the Club of Rome in 1972. Yet that report turns out to have been spectacularly wrong. Dire predictions of a population explosion, widespread famine, natural resource depletion, and ecological catastrophe have been proved illusory by worldwide experience. Indeed, the facts support conclusions that are almost diametrically opposed those of the Club of Rome. In this fictional essay, we listen in on the annual meeting of the "Club of Greece" (i.e., the Olympian gods) as they debate whether to destroy the human race. The alleged crime is humanity's seemingly unnatural success in molding the environment to meet its needs. The verdict hangs in the balance as evidence about human stewardship slowly soothes godly anger at the hubris of humanity's progress and aspirations.
"These humans have got to go!"
"Quit thundering, Zeus. You've been saying that ever since Prometheus gave them fire."
"Fire was just the beginning, Apollo. You heard the technology report from Hephaistos. Soon their powers will rival those of the gods themselves! I say: Genus humanus delendus est!"
"Not so fast! Before you hit the smite button on your laptop, let's finish hearing from the rest of the Olympians. Poseidon?"
"Well, Apollo, most developed countries have cleaned up their waterways, but subsidies often lead to misuse -- there are rice paddies in California! Developing nations are more of a concern. We might even see wars break out over water, right Ares?
"It's possible, Poseidon. And it's not as if humans need another cause for war. If it weren't my raison d'etre, I'd find it pretty depressing. But I suppose we can't expect much more, given human nature."
"Speaking of nature, what about agriculture, Demeter?"
"Harvests are good in most of the world. It seems that Malthus was wrong; famine is now a political problem, not an agricultural problem. Unfortunately, farm subsidies distort natural markets, and trade restrictions prevent poorer nations from selling their produce abroad."
"But don't pesticides and genetically modified crops harm the environment?"
"Humans have been modifying plants and animals since I taught them agriculture 12,000 years ago. Some practices hurt the environment, but the worst offenses are tied to perverse incentives (such as damage to the Everglades because of sugar farming subsidies) or a lack of enforceable property rights (such as slash-and-burn agriculture in the developing world)."
"Perhaps. But how can humans keep it up? Aren't they running out of underground resources, Hades?"
"Actually, no. Raw materials prices keep going down. The only real exception is oil, but the causes of that are geopolitical. And if oil ever gets to be prohibitively expensive, they'll just find cheaper energy sources. Those humans are clever."
"They sure are, thanks to Prometheus. They're always thinking ahead, just like he did."
"OK, Zeus, do you have any second thoughts based on these reports? It seems that the sky isn't exactly falling."
"Funny you should mention the sky, Apollo, since that is my domain. Global warming has me worried."
"By Jupiter, you'd think this is the Club of Rome, not a meeting of Greek gods!"
"Don't call me Jupiter! And do you see any reason for me not to worry?"
"Well, as Helios wrote in his weblog the other day, the jury is still out on global warming. The earth has warmed and cooled throughout history, so I doubt that humans are responsible."
"Apollo is right, Zeus darling. It's sheer hubris for humans to think that their puny efforts could warm the atmosphere -- only you have that power!"
"No one asked you, Hera, so stay out of it. Hmm, given the conflicting evidence, there's only one way to get to the bottom of this."
"No, Dionysus, scenario planning!"
"Boring! I'm off to the Bacchic revels..."
"Boring but necessary. So, what are some key forces driving the human impact on the near-term planetary future? I'd nominate the population explosion, economic inequality, global Balkanization, and destruction of natural habitats."
"Wow, you're going Roman again! Why the pessimism? Our latest projections indicate that population will start to decline around 2040, incomes have been rising just about everywhere, global cooperation is improving, and environments are increasingly well-protected."
"Come on, it's not all sweetness and light, Apollo. Just ask Ares. I think we could use some words of wisdom from Athena -- she always provides a balanced perspective."
"Why thank you, Zeus. I see several driving forces at work right now. Demographically, we've seen a tremendous decline in 'total fertility' -- the average number of children per woman is down from 6 as late as the 1960s to only 2.8 today. The results are an aging population and slower growth. As Apollo noted, the human population will probably start to decline in about 35 years, which is simply unprecedented. Frankly I'm not sure how they'll react to that."
"OK, that's demographics. What other important trends have you observed?"
"Rising incomes. While economic inequality has worsened in some societies, those differences are dwarfed by steady improvement in per-capita incomes. From the environmental perspective this is critically important, because pollution appears to peak at a national per-capita income of around $3,500 a year. Above that, people will pay more for protecting the environment, and technologies simply become cleaner (after all, polluting is inefficient). As more nations become more wealthy, the world will inevitably become cleaner, as it already has in developed countries."
"Perhaps, but I'm still worried about runaway innovation. Isn't the increasing sophistication of human technology a threat to ecological stability?"
"I don't think so. After all, old-fashioned slash-and-burn farming is much more destructive than modern agriculture -- and the Green Revolution has enabled humans to produce 25% more food per capita on nearly the same amount of land over the last 30 years, even with increasing populations."
"Yes, Demeter has reported similar results. But what about untried methods like nanotechnology?"
"Well, nanotech is just the latest development in miniaturization. Most human products have gotten much smaller and lighter over time -- the sheer bulk of everything from cars to computers to Coke bottles has decreased, leading to more efficient use of raw materials and a lighter ecological footprint. Another example is the Internet, which contains more information than your dear Alexandrians could have dreamed of in the days of papyri scrolls, all without using a scrap of paper."
"So you're saying that decreasing fertility, rising incomes, and improving technology are driving forces. Anything else?"
"The last one is harder to quantify. But for the first time in history, humans have built something close to a global civilization, in which people all over the world are becoming ever more deeply connected. And their societies are becoming more alike with regard to institutions such as democratic elections, the market economy, and the rule of law. There is resistance to that in some quarters, but global integration is a spontaneous phenomenon that hasn't been centrally planned -- it's almost biological, so barring something catastrophic I think that web will continue to grow stronger."
"Aren't we seeing just such a catastrophe today in the clash of civilizations between Islam and the West?"
"Not quite. As with most parts of the world, we see conflicting attitudes and a range of responses to integration. For example, Moslem countries such as Malaysia and Turkey are more connected than the Arab core. But over time I think people in all Islamic countries will want to enjoy the fruits of global progress while retaining their unique cultural outlook. The economic and personal benefits are just too significant to ignore."
"You're sounding almost as optimistic as Apollo. Do you see any scenario other than Global Utopia?"
"Hey, Zeus, you know as well as I do that utopia not an option -- after all, it literally means 'no place'."
"Well, Apollo, you sure come off sounding like a utopian with your unbridled optimism in the powers of technology. That's why we turn to Athena for a more nuanced analysis."
"I am humbled by your confidence in my wisdom, Father Zeus. As to other scenarios, naturally the gloomsters think that a Global Meltdown is possible, involving a population explosion, widespread famine, natural resource depletion, runaway global warming, and an irrevocable poisoning of the earth."
"I must admit I have tended that way in the past. But the evidence you've presented makes me think it's not all that likely."
"No, it doesn't seem to be. On the other hand, there are the optimists who hope for an Age of Abundance, in which technological advancements and rising incomes lift all boats. On the wild-eyed fringes there are even people who believe that medical advances will lead to human immortality, but we know that is reserved for the gods alone."
"Yes it is -- they shall pay for their hubris!"
"Take your finger off the smite button, Zeus. Athena said some humans believe they could achieve immortality, not that it's likely."
"That's right, Apollo. Even Plato knew that all men are mortal. Anyway, I call the third scenario Muddling Along, since that's what humans normally do. Catastrophism is ever-popular, but humans usually figure out a way to struggle through. However, given that more improvements in practical knowledge have occurred in the last 100 years than in all of recorded history, I'd say that humans will achieve something closer to the Age of Abundance than merely Muddling Along."
"What could slow them down?"
"The real wildcard is political. Developed countries need to open their markets to producers from poorer nations. Ruling elites need to end their kleptocratic ways, and multilateral institutions need to stop abetting them. An end to corporate welfare and needlessly instrusive regulation would spur entrepreneurial energies in Europe and North America. The spread of market mechanisms, stable currencies, clear property rights, and the rule of law will help more nations break through to relative affluence, which as we've seen leads to environmental improvements. But all these things require honest dealing and political will."
"So the human future is in the hands of politicians and bureaucrats? That doesn't inspire confidence!"
"Absent open political systems it wouldn't. But the spread of democratic institutions means that people can swap out bad leaders for good, so there's more cause for hope than you might think."
"After that trick with Pandora's box, they weren't supposed to have hope, but it seems they've manufactured it on their own. They're a crafty bunch."
"They sure are. But despite their godlike aspirations, they're just smart, successful animals. And there's nothing unnatural about that."
"Hmm, I've never looked at it that way. Besides, they're a lot more entertaining than the rest of creation. The humans stay! But I want a yearly report on this immortality thing. The gods shall not tolerate immortal humans!"
"You got it, boss."
"OK, meeting adjourned. Bring on the nectar!"
Peter Saint-Andre > Writings > Essays