Who’d want to live in a world without us? (hint: everything else)

World Population Day earlier this month threw up some portentous figures. Here’s one to conjure with: today, there are 1.8 billion people between the age of 10 and 24 – almost as many humans as were alive at the beginning of the 20th century. The number increases by a million every four days – that’s the entire population of Ireland added in not much more than a fortnight.

Notions that the ‘population crisis’ has somehow or other played out, or was a temporary little demographic glitch have, by now, been well and truly laid to rest. The global population juggernaut blasted through the 7 billion barrier around October 2011. And here we are, less than two years later, with another 200 million humans added to our ever-burgeoning numbers.

Where next? US State Department data suggest we’ll add another billion in the next 12 years (by 2025) and, barring disasters, roll on towards 10 billion humans by 2050. Only the deeply deranged or truly delusional can see this as anything other than a one-way ticket to Hell on Earth.

An elegant insight into the extraordinary times we live in was published in the form of a vast thought experiment by science journalist Alan Weisman in his book, The World Without Us. If you haven’t encountered it, the book’s premise is that humans have, somehow, all simply disappeared. What then? How would nature adjust? What would remain of our great cities, bridges and architecture 10, 50, 100, 1,000 or 10,000 years after humans had disappeared?

How would nature manage with to clean up the quite spectacular mess humanity has carelessly made of almost every square kilometre of the Earth’s surface, from the remotest glaciers to the ocean’s depths?

Weisman sagely sought to maintain journalistic objectivity throughout, but in his concluding chapter he was blunt on the consequences of the exponential increase in human population. “Since we can’t really grasp such numbers, they’ll wax out of control until they crash, as has happened to every other species that got too big for this box.”

Then he made a suggestion that was both bold and simple: “It would be poignant and distressing in ways, but not fatal…to henceforth limit every human female on Earth capable of bearing children to one”. In essence, this is a global expansion of China’s oft-reviled but strikingly effective one-child policy.

Park your indignation at this appalling intrusion on our god-given freedom to over-breed ourselves into extinction for a moment, and let’s do the numbers (and why not, since pretty much every other option that’s actually on the table eradicates our most fundamental freedoms and takes us clean off the ecological cliff in a matter of decades).

By 2075, instead of powering towards 8.5 billion, this one measure would instead see human numbers fall back to 3.4 billion. A quarter century later, as 2100 dawns, it would be greeted by, in total, some 1.6 billion, that’s fewer than there are 10-24 year olds on the planet today.

It gets better. By 2150, the total number of humans on Earth would be just below 500 million – the lowest figure since 1650. “At such far-more-manageable numbers, we would have the benefit of all our progress, plus the wisdom to keep our presence under control”, says Weisman.

“That wisdom would come partly from losses and extinctions too late to reverse, but also from the growing joy of watching the world daily become more wonderful. The evidence wouldn’t hide in statistics. It would be outside every human’s window, where refreshed air would fill each season with more birdsong”.

A quirk of evolution handed homo sapiens one or two critical advantages over our cousin primates – and, in time, over pretty much every living thing that ever walked, flew, grew, swam or crawled over any part of the world. Evolution (a little like peer-reviewed science) has long been understood to be a ruthlessly self-correcting system. It makes mistakes, but is unerringly good at sorting them out – in time.

Homo sapiens is shaping up to be evolution’s most catastrophic misadventure in perhaps half a billion years. Through an unlikely combination of ingenuity and serendipity, we have thus far eluded a dramatic correction of our numbers. But, crucially lacking the self-awareness to sense the trap closing, we have instead plunged ever forward, blindsided by our extreme good fortune and deafened by assorted ideologies to the low but unmistakable rumble of the gathering storm

There are two scenarios looming: either humanity somehow escapes the clutches of medievalist magicians and pyramid salesmen, be they bishops, billionaires, bankers or economists, and squarely addresses the existential corner we have painted ourselves into – or we don’t. If you are fond of a flutter, I’d suggest the odds in favour of the latter scenario run at around 50-1 on.

In Weisman’s ‘voluntary’ scenario outlined above, there are at most 500 million humans living in a bruised but largely functioning biosphere by the middle of the 22nd century.  The growth economy has been jettisoned in favour of ‘steady state’, and conspicuous consumption is strictly taboo. Biodiversity has been battered, but is now rebounding. We humans have figured out our limits, and the safe limits of our planetary home. Fantasy? Perhaps, but a pleasant one, and infinitely less grim than any other prospective scenario you could care to contemplate.

While we need nature, the reverse is absolutely not the case. The greatest favour we can do to any biological system is to simply withdraw from it, and let it find its own equilibrium. Learned humility could yet turn out to be our smartest evolutionary adaptation since leaving the savannah.

But there’s me indulging in unfounded optimism again. Dmitri Orlov’s The Five Stages of Collapse is recommended reading for anyone wondering how the next several decades are likely, in practical terms, to pan out. Don’t expect too many feel-good moments, but then that’s not really Orlov’s style (I aim to post a full review of this book separately).

When humans developed language and symbolic reasoning, the writing may have already been on the wall. “In the final analysis, perhaps we, and all life on Earth, would have been safer if humans had not evolved language. Perhaps the use of knowledge that language enables, taken to an extreme only allows us to achieve a higher overall level of suicidal stupidity”, Orlov wryly suggests.

Having lived through the chaotic disintegration of the USSR, Orlov is better qualified than most to write about collapse, yet oddly, reading Orlov brings to mind the title of Homer Dixon’s best-known book, The Upside of Down.

Seriously tough days are coming down the line. Some of us will be prepared (however inadequately), but most will sleepwalk into disaster, waiting for Someone Else to switch the lights back on, re-stock the supermarket shelves or re-boot the empty ATMs. These scenarios grow less theoretical by the month.

Nobody knows with precision the year, or day, that the globalised systems upon which our collective welfare utterly depend reach the point of degeneration and cascading collapse that what we used to describe simply as ‘civilisation’ simply stops working. Permanently. In all likelihood, we’ll only truly grasp that this has happened in hindsight.

Only then perhaps will that simplest, most painful, of lessons become ineffably clear: you can’t have your planet and eat it.

ThinkOrSwim is a blog by journalist John Gibbons focusing on the inter-related crises involving climate change, sustainability, resource depletion, energy and biodiversity loss
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