Sunday, January 19, 2014

What HAVE I been reading lately?

Abundance and Countdown.

These books are about the future. Countdown goes into gory detail (Really. It makes you ill to read most of the book) about the mistakes of the past, especially when we didn’t think they were mistakes.

Abundance acknowledges these challenges, and places all hope in “techno-philanthropists:” the new titans of industry and their Foundations. Countdown screams “if you aren’t outraged, you haven’t been paying attention,” while Abundance wallows in our own hubris: “look how magnificent our capabilities are.”

Countdown is, essentially, a call to reduce human population. 400 pages describe all the myriad ways overpopulation and over consumption by a single species has wrought destruction on the earth. He makes the point, and quotes many other folks who agree, that nearly every problem we face would be ameliorated with fewer humans. My take is that density requires regulation. The greater the density, the greater the regulation. I don’t like being told what to do, you don’t like being told what to do, neither does anyone else. The days of the Wild West in America were fun, exciting times (excepting poverty, hunger, animal attacks, etc.) when a man could do as he pleased. Those days are gone. Weisman quotes several of the most prominent scientists in this field as saying roughly 2 billion people is a good human population for the world. Presumably he means those people would have a great standard of life, with high quality food, air, water, dirt, employment, leisure.

Abundance doesn’t argue anything in Countdown. Abundance is a theory that there is plenty for all, the opposite of scarcity. Diamandis hopes that our exponential population growth can be countered (or at least managed) by our exponential computing growth. We have abilities now that were pipe dreams a mere 5 years ago. In Abundance, Diamandis envisions a world where perhaps we can sustainably provide food and water for 7 billion people, maybe even 9!

Both authors make the obvious point that long lifespans lead to increasing population unless birthrates go way down. Both say that low birth and death rates are an indicator of a healthy, prosperous society. A leading indicator and a trailing indicator. Cause and effect, if you will. Both say reducing births is essential for our continued existence as a species.

Diamandis points to the history of wealthy societies that have made the transition from high birth- and death-rates to low birth- and death-rates. He reminds us that many of the world’s poor societies have leapfrogged the wired generation, and went straight from agriculture to wireless. A dirt-poor farmer in Africa or Asia can do their banking faster on a flip-phone than we can in the US. Education, so crucial for health, wealth, women’s rights, etc, can now be had for free or nearly so, wirelessly, anywhere in the world through a variety of sources that didn’t exist 5 years ago. As solar panels plummet in price, an electric pump for water in every village becomes feasible. When girls don’t have to walk 90 minutes each way for water to feed themselves each day, they have time for education. Educated, well fed people are more likely to specialize into doctors, engineers, entrepreneurs, etc. than be stuck on a sandy farm, barefoot and pregnant. When those solar panels can power a small electric stove, forests don’t get harvested for firewood. When you reduce indoor air pollution by eliminating indoor fires, less time and money is spent on healthcare. When health care can be provided by a sensor the size of a cell phone, and connects to your phone, you get access to very highly educated people, with great facilities. When IBM’s Watson (which easily beat all the humans at Jeopardy) can answer your health care questions, the costs can approach zero. When a human genome can be sequenced in seconds, minutes, or hours, you get personalized medical care from Watson, anywhere in the world, in the same day, for practically free. When people aren’t scared of their children dying, they don’t need to have as many.

Weisman suggests that won’t be fast enough to save us. He brings up the specter of Malthusian
population collapse (see how you knee-jerk when I combine the words “specter” and “Malthusian?” Aren’t humans fun?) if we continue on business-as-usual. Fish populations around the world have
crashed, to the tune of 90% losses. The vast majority of dry land is already used for food production, and it is falling in productivity due to chemical overdose by fertilizers and pesticides. Water tables by many major population centers are falling, some dramatically, as sea level rises. And we’re genocidal, causing extinctions at 100-1000 times the rate observed throughout all of fossil history. The only comparable time was when an asteroid killed some big lizards a while back. He mentions ecologists (the people who study the natural world, who probably know something about this) showing that we have already passed several thresholds of the planet’s ability to support human life, and is unsure if ANYTHING we do can pull us back up over the edge.

Weisman also mentions another reason people have many children: religion. Extremist religions want to
increase their numbers to expand their religious influence. Examples include: fundamentalist Mormons,
hardline Catholics, extremist Muslims, and ultra-orthodox Jews. Those are the only populations not
facing abject poverty that are growing.

Weisman didn’t examine the techno-philanthropists. He ends marveling at the beauty of the world, hoping future generations of humans can enjoy it. Diamandis spends his whole treatise describing ways people are actually acting to achieve that. Both are important books, but should not be read in isolation.

Both point out the challenges facing us now are unlike anything we have ever experienced, and that we
need to think differently about many things to make it through this. We need to not be simple animals any more, but think critically about the path our species is taking, and how each individual impacts that. If we can voluntarily change our destiny, we won’t have nature do it for us. Because that would be unpleasant.

So Jenn and I won’t have 5 kids, and are cutting our consumption, from decadent western level, down past Mustachian levels, to beach bum level! I expect it will be a lot more fun. Care to join us somewhere?

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