Listening to screeds about the Carrying Capacity of Earth, reading about predictions of a rapid die-off of the human species, about how this planet can only maintain habitability for 1,200,000,000 or 1,400,000,000 people, it is impossible to miss the rather obvious tone of puritanical Malthusian glee. A great many extreme environmentalists truly envision the human race as some kind of virulent plague that must be stopped, that must be contained, that must be eliminated. I find this mentality not only to be disgustingly self-loathing, but also deeply misguided. This manner of thinking is clearly based on the idea that humankind is somehow separate, distinct, apart from nature, rather than an obvious part of nature.
Extreme environmentalists seem to partake of a cynical, fatalistic sense of self-loathing, a belief that humans are responsible for some abiding, unforgivable and irredeemable sin. Presumably, the virulence of humanity is our historical proclivity for pollution and degradation of the environment, our waste, our contribution to Global Warming. They seem deeply concerned that there are too many of us, living in too much luxury, and the belief that our lifestyles are inevitably unsustainable. Personally, I find this to be nothing more than another symptom of the nostalgia that seems to accompany our relentless technological progress. This nostalgia tends to manifest itself in one of two ways – pining for simpler times, and dire predictions of the impending decimation of some important social virtue if not civilization itself.
Our civilization, raised by backwards looking religions and raised with a deep seated nostalgia for simpler bygone eras seems obsessed with the past, with outdated, useless technology, and afraid of our technological prowess. The reality is that it is technology that has dramatically INCREASED the carrying capacity of this planet. To be sure, we could NEVER have fed and clothed and provided power for nearly 7,000,000,000 people with 16th or 17th or 18th or 19th century technology. Indeed, during much of the 16th, 17th, and 18th, century, the vast majority of the 1,200,000,000 people living on the planet lived on the verge of starvation. Kingdoms and Empires rose and fell because of conflict fed by hunger. We now have nearly 7,000,000,000 people and more than enough food to feed all of them (though many still starve due to failures of political will), how is such a thing possible? Because technology has enabled us to do infinitely more with less.
A similar pattern holds in energy production. The extremist looks at these figures and concludes that they are unsustainable because we will simply run out of resources. This is HIGHLY unlikely because if there is one thing that humankind has proved REMARKABLY adept at, it is adapting and forging new solutions to difficult problems. At some point, probably in the next fifty years, almost certainly in the next century, humans will develop the ability to harness the energy sources that power the heart of stars – nuclear fusion. Critics maintain that scientists have been promising nuclear fusion for fifty years and have failed to produce it economically. That fifty years of scientific development and research would fail to produce cheap, clean and unlimited energy is unfortunate, but in no way surprising. Fusion power is, afterall, an incredibly daunting engineering and scientific undertaking. The simple fact that humanity hasn't achieved it yet doesn't mean that it is impossible.
Humans attempted to fly for over 700 years before the Wright Brothers finally achieved powered flight for 13 seconds in 1913. Most believed that was impossible as well. Now there are over 50,000 commercial flights per day.
Recognize how many centuries passed between the discovery of oil and the use of oil for energy production. We cannot expect to harness the power that drives a star without effort, but make no mistake, humanity WILL harness that power. And in the interim, humanity will make ever greater advances in harnessing the abundant energy that is showered down on us each and every day by the greatest power source humanity has ever known – the Sun. In the coming century, humanity will will rely more and more on solar power. It is highly likely that eventually, our entire system of roads and every rooftop in every city will be a solar cell. If this seems far fetched, recognize that merely thirty years ago, the idea that virtually every item sold in a grocery store would have a computer inside would have seemed ludicrous. Yet we now live in a world where the microchip has become so cheap and so ubiquitous that items which no one would ever have conceived of having or needing any computing power, have become 'smart.' Appliances that shut themselves off, regulate temperature based on contents, track pets, track sales, enable appliances to talk to one another, etc. In the same way that microchips have become integrated into EVERYTHING, solar technology will in the coming centuries, become integrated into everything as well.
The best estimates place the amount of solar energy that strikes the Earth's surface in a given day at something around 8,200,000 QuadBTU (Quadrillion BTUs) per year. As humans currently use about 400 QuadBTUs per year, this is more than 20,000 times the annual energy consumption of the entire human species.
We WILL harness this energy and in doing so, will increase the carrying capacity of this planet once again.
Not God, not Yaweh or Allah, but human society, human ingenuity, human genius.
The streets we drive on will power our homes and the electric cars that we drive. Increases in battery technology will enable us to store ever greater quantities of electricity to meet peak demand. Increased transmission capability and ever more interconnected electric grids will allow those regions with the most energy to transfer it to those with the least, making full use of solar, wind, geothermal, etc. With vision, this will likely result in a global electric grid, that will share power between every region on Earth and supply continuous power to the entire planet and most if not all of that power, will eventually be produced by zero-emission technologies like solar, wind, hydro, geothermal and biomass.
In the interim, humanity has a lot of work to do, because the reality is that our planet is slowly, incrementally heating up. And while technology will once again increase the carrying capacity of this planet, we will also likely have to turn to technology to mitigate the environmental excesses and errors of the past as well. There has recently been a renewed interest in the prospect of geoengineering, of using technology to mitigate the effects of our carbon emissions and to mitigate the effects of global warming. Technologies that have been proposed include the construction of vast forests of artificial trees, which essentially draw in carbon dioxide and sequester it via chemical processes, increasing the albedo (reflectivity) of clouds through the introduction of benign chemical agents and scattering reflective particles like sulfur in the stratosphere to diminish the amount of sunlight that strikes the surface. This of course, will lead to increasing acidification of the oceans, however, this is another problem that can likely be resolved through chemistry and the application of technology.
While geoengineering sounds like science fiction, it is simply the logical and intelligent response to the reality that life is a messy process, that living things produce a lot of waste, a lot of gasses, and a lot of byproducts. Humanity has long been engineering the planet through any number of processes, irrigation, dams, agriculture, city construction, management and mitigation of the atmosphere is simply the most logical means of mitigating our impact to maintain the Biosphere we know for as long as possible.
The stark and unforgiving reality is that eventually, the Biosphere we know and love, the distribution of plants and animals with which human civilization is familiar are destined to change no matter what we do. Extinction, even MASS extinction is a natural process in the life cycle of this planet. Even a cursory examination of the geological record indicates that ice ages come and go, over the course of thousands of years. Our Biosphere would certainly be dramatically altered if, for example, the northern and central United States were under a mile of ice as they were approximately 10,000 years ago. Historically speaking, we should be entering a phase of cooling, a period of re-glaciation, it is difficult to imagine the havoc THAT particular environmental terror would wreak not only on human civilization, but on the global Biosphere we know so well.
Nature does not play favorites, and whether we like it or not, if wish to maintain the Bisophere human civilization developed in, WE will have to actively work to maintain it. Fortunately, the natural cycles of this planet are incredibly long. Equally fortunate, in comparison to those cycles, human technological development is INCREDIBLY rapid.
And if humankind seeks to maintain a balance in the atmosphere through the introduction of gases and particulate matter? So what? Humankind has been THOUGHTLESSLY and MINDLESSLY pouring gases and particulate matter into the atmosphere for CENTURIES, manipulating the atmosphere without any rhyme or reason whatsoever. We are already engaged in geoengineering, we are simply doing it stupidly. If we do so intelligently for a particular purpose, to resolve a problem and maintain the world we know and love, that is not only profoundly wise, it is quintessentially human, it is transcendent. For in working intelligently and collectively to associate with and maintain the entire planet, that represents a heretofore unknown ability to meaningfully associate with an entire planet in a way humans have never known before. In this way, we give something back to the planet that has given us so much.
I simply do not understand the extreme environmentalist's revulsion at the idea of utilizing technology to solve the problems created by technology. As I understand the argument, it is offensive when humans interfere because they disrupt the natural balance of life on Earth. This, however, is a ridiculous argument, because life on Earth is NOT balanced. It never has been. Nature is NOT in balance. The life cycles of Earth are NOT in balance. The life cycles of this planet almost invariably end with the mass extinction and utter annihilation of entire Biospheres, the decimation of entire ecosystems. Our own Biosphere is ultimately destined to be destroyed, 5,000 to 10,000 years from now. Why should we allow such a thing to occur? Why WOULD we allow such a thing to occur if we can prevent it? If humanity can evolve into a greater symbiosis with the planet, using our minds and our hands, our bodies, and our technology to maintain a balance that the Earth itself DOES NOT maintain, why is that bad?
I believe the extreme environmentalist suffers most from an extreme lack of long range historical perspective. They have a visceral and deeply emotional attachment to the way things APPEAR to have been forever. And to be sure, our world HAS been remarkably ecologically stable since the last ice age ended, however, when one steps back, it is hard to ignore the rather obvious fact that both before and after that time, ecosystems come and go. Nearly 99.8 percent of every species that has ever lived on this planet is extinct. Our brief period of ascendancy is less than a yawn in Geological time. Countless ecosystems have been utterly annihilated by the natural rhythms of Earth and every single time, life adapts, evolves, rebounds and thrives in renewed splendor. We ourselves and everything around us are the results of the last great extinction event. Given that our ecosystem is ultimately destined for destruction, why would we not take every possible step to maintain the present Biosphere? To be sure, humanity has NOT taken great care of the planet, but up until the last century, humanity was not even conscious of the fact that there was a problem. Now that humanity IS aware that there is a problem, why would we not turn every technological tool at our disposal towards mitigating the damage, towards diminishing its effects, towards establishing the long term viability of our Biosphere? Why would we NOT utilize technology to do what the Planet cannot do for itself?
As a simple analogy, I offer the following: Catastrophic meteor impacts are a recurring natural phenomenon that have occurred throughout Earth's history and throughout the history of every planet in the Solar System. They are a natural phenomenon in a Universe in which massive objects travel at hundreds of thousands of miles per hour on divergent orbits over billions of years. Such collisions are, indeed inevitable. Our planet has suffered at least two such impacts since the advent of life, both of which extinguished nearly all living things on the planet. These quintessential natural phenomenon resulted in the total destruction of their respective Biospheres. If NASA or the European Space Agency were to announce tomorrow, that a massive asteroid was going to strike the Earth in 30 years, would we not turn every technological effort into avoiding it? Would we not utilize every technological tool at our disposal to shift its course? Such technology is within our capability even today. We can do something for this planet that it could not, in all of its 4.5 billion year history, do for itself. We can protect this planet from an external threat it would never have been able to see, let alone stop. We have such capability. And if we would employ our vast technological capability to protect the planet from an external threat, why would we or SHOULD we not use our technological capability to engineer the planet to ensure its ongoing habitability? Such an act would enable humanity to achieve a level of symbiosis with our planet heretofore unimaginable. Earth itself will become a bio-technological hybrid and achieve a level of integration far beyond anything the ancients could have imagined.