Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Thursday, April 07, 2005

The Desperate Character Writhes Again*

* R. Crumb

Some readers of Kunstler (see previous post) will actually find his imagined future rather appealing. All that bucolic, local self reliance, sustainable, back to the earth, small scale stuff is making me downright nostalgic for the 19th Century. Of course he does know that there will be some unpleasantness getting from here to there. On my darker days -- and let's pretend this is one of them -- I think he's a cockeyed optimist.

He's adopted a largely provincial perspective, centered in the United States. He is thinking only about the scarcity of oil and natural gas, not about any of the other profound structural challenges we face living on this planet. Curiously, he dismisses coal with a throwaway line about there not being as much of it as "some people" think. I don't know who some people are, but I happen to know there is a helluva lot of coal, most of it underneath China and Siberia. That is not, in fact, good news.

Friend Philalethes raises the possibility of a massive epidemic in the midst of the oil shortage. I would say, that's not just likely, it's inevitable. More than one, actually. Something like a highly virulent influenza would be bad news, but would probably not cause massive social disruption or make a significant dent in the long-term trajectory of the human population. At least the 1918 epidemic didn't. It caused a spike in the death rate but it was no Black Death -- it left society intact, even in the midst of the War to End All Wars. HIV in southern Africa, however, is already rending the fabric of society. NEJM today reports on staph resistant to pencillin-like drugs having escaped from the hospitals where it used to be confined. Then there are so-called emerging infectious diseases, some of which we've heard of and some we haven't. The density and mobility of the human population makes infectious disease epidemics a continuous problem -- only immunization and antibiotics have made our present population and way of life possible. It's a constant struggle for a massive, well financed medical research establishment to stay ahead of them. It's a struggle we're losing already.

Then there are water shortages, desertification, deforestation, soil depletion, degradation of wetlands -- all the things we're reading about from the UN Millennium Development Project. Resource shortages, as we have seen, have not tended to lead to international cooperation to find solutions, or a political commitment to conservation and technological substitution -- they have led to war. Why do you think our army is in Iraq?

Getting to the post fossil-fuel, post industrial age world of honest country living and genteel poverty, or whatever my dotage looks like, is going to be a slog over billions of corpses, unless we start getting very serious about the problem very fast. Remember, today, petroleum is not just about doing 80 on the interstate -- petroleum is food.

As a youth, I remember reading Robert Heilbroner's Inquiry Into the Human Prospect and being profoundly impressed. So far, we've managed to kick his apocalyptic future down the road, but being off by 40 or 50 years in predicting the grand sweep of history is no disgrace.

It is very difficult for people to encompass the prospect of a radical shift in circumstances. We just extrapolate from current trends and that makes us worry, but also think, hey, a little nudge on the tiller and we'll be okay. But we are confronting the possibility of a sharp, historic discontinuity. All of our current obsessions could turn out to be beside the point.

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