Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Exactly how screwed are we?

Back when I was in college -- not so long ago really -- the deep thinkers had us deep in the doo doo. Robert Heilbroner's Inquiry into the Human Prospect was required reading. Hint: He didn't think it was exactly fabulous. Some very convincing dismal futures were being painted by science fiction writers like John Brunner - The Sheep Look Up and Stand on Zanzibar made an impression on me, for sure. The Club of Rome, a group of high powered movers and shakers, foresaw catastrophic resource scarcities, the WorldWatch Institute was busy meticulously documenting the fall of civilization. There was Moment in the Sun and The Population Bomb and you name it.

The common theme was that the world was running out of resources to sustain its growing human population and the whole edifice of industrial civilization was heading for the crapper. Then two or three decades went by and the spring wasn't silent and the oceans weren't corrosive and whole nations didn't die of thirst. Our motor vehicles just got bigger and heavier and more and more of them and the so-called Green Revolution managed to feed a population that exceeded the maximum level of doom by a billion or more.

So was the whole thing a bunch of hooey, or were they just off by 30 years or so and now the hammer is coming down after all? This is a fair question. While we've been distracted by some important stuff, like Iraq, and some even more important stuff like bowling scores, there have been food riots in more than 30 countries. The UN has proclaimed that the era of cheap food is over and for people who spend 70% or more of their income on food already, that's very bad news.

Americans aren't going to starve, but they're definitely feeling it. The problem for us, assuming we think that massive famine from the Caribbean to Southeast Asia isn't our problem, is that people don't compare their situation to some abstract standard of need, or to people in distant lands. Americans' expectations have been for endlessly rising prosperity for about 60 years now and we're clearly headed into reverse. I'm not just talking about a typical 9 month recession, squeeze out the excess, have a little creative destruction and we're back on the highway to the Big Rock Candy Mountain, I'm talking a long period of declining living standards. Everybody who is willing to look at the situation honestly now sees this as likely.

Worldwide, we face absolute depletion of seafood, cropland, and water resources. While people disagree over whether worldwide petroleum extraction is headed for immediate decline (and those who don't think so are wrong, sez me), everybody agrees that it can't keep up with expanding demand right now, and only a few fringe characters think it won't go into absolute decline within a few years at the most. The problems associated with global climate change are already becoming evident in increasingly violent weather, and the really big problems -- elimination of water supplies from mountain glaciers, rising sea levels, and severe ecological stress -- are coming soon. The problems of an aging stock of fixed capital, short term financial disruptions, the bankruptcy of the United States, and looming recession are less fundamental, but they are going to expose these long-term structural problems and severely compromise our ability to address them in the coming years.

Then there's that little issue of war.

So how about it folks? How deep is the doo doo? Will we muddle through, or is the current presidential campaign an exercise in denial and avoidance?

(And for those of you who came here looking for public health, believe me, you're getting it.)

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