Other Obstacles to Progress

While it has been argued that the human condition is part of the overall problem space under discussion, it is also possible to describe the human condition in terms of an obstacle to future progress, when seeking political solutions to the more tangible problems of the world, e.g.

population growth, global warming, ecosystem collapse, resource depletion, economic collapse,
social and political anarchy, disease pandemics, cultural, racial and religious strife, war and terrorism

For, in many ways, there are potential solutions to most of the problems cited, if only we had the political means to implement them on a global scale. As previously stated, while population growth may not be the only causal effect of the problems above, it is probably a key factor that exacerbates most of them. If so, then some understanding of the issues surrounding population growth may be a necessary prerequisite to any discussion of the political process required to solve these problems. Today, in 2016, you can go to a website called the Worldometers and see a real-time count of the global population, e.g. 7.4 billion, which is increasing at a rate of +90,000/day or 11.7 million/year. However, some 70,000 years ago, a volcano on Sumatra called Toba erupted and ejected more than 2500 cubic kilometres of magma. The Toba eruption resulted in a global ecological disaster, e.g. destruction of vegetation, severe drought and a 10-year volcanic winter, which caused a severe reduction in the human population. As a direct result of this eruption, it is possible that humanity was reduced to less than a thousand reproductive adults, which is supported by genetic evidence suggesting that all of humanity can trace its ancestry to this very small population around 70,000 years ago. However, while our survival was never guaranteed, the global population did recover to reach one billion by 1804.

By the 1960, this number had trebled to 3 billion and by 2011 it had passed 7 billion and current projections suggest that the global population may approach 10 billion by 2050. Clearly, this exponential growth in the human population, in just over 200 years, cannot continue for much longer. In fact, some have gone as far as to draw parallels between the effects of human population growth on the global ecosystem to that of malignant cancer. While the full details of this arguments can be reviewed in the article by Warren Hern, the following extract might serve as an uncomfortable summary:

Along with decreasing doubling times as a function of increasing rates of population growth over the past several thousand years, the human species has shown striking parallels with a malignant growth. Some cancers also display decreasing doubling times of cell proliferation during the most rapidly growing phase. At 6 billion, the number of doublings reached by the human population as of 1998 is 32.5, with the 33rd doubling (8.59 billion) expected early in the next century. In terms of total animal biomass, including that of domestic animals under human control, the 33rd doubling of human-related biomass has been passed. In terms of energy use, which is a more accurate index of the global ecological impact of humans, the human species has passed its 36th doubling. These calculations are important because, in addition to the number of doublings, the human population is showing several important similarities with a malignant tumour, which results in death of the host organism at between 37 and 40 doublings. At current growth rates, the number of individual humans will reach those levels within 200-400 years from the present, but the ecological impact will be felt much sooner since the number of doublings of energy consumed will pass 37 early in the next century. These observations support the hypothesis that the human species has become a malignant process on the planet that is likely to result in the equivalent, for humans, of ecosystem death, or at least in a radical transformation of the ecosystem, the early phases of which are being observed.

While this argument may be seen as too extreme, it is clear that even the current human population is causing many seemingly insurmountable problems for our political institutions to resolve. This inability to effectively address the problems of the world does not depend on the form of governments or their ideology, while its authority is limited to the boundaries of a nation state. For it is the disparity in political, economic and even religious developments across some 190+ nation states, which is preventing global solutions, even compromised ones, from being effectively implemented. As such, we may only be able to summarise the scope of problems being associated with the current global population rather than necessarily being able to define a political solution at this point:

  • Food: One billion go to bed hungry and approximately 25,000 people die, every day, of malnutrition and hunger-related diseases, where 18,000 of this number are children under 5 years old.

  • Water Shortages: One billion people also lack access to sufficient water for personal consumption, agriculture and sanitation. Aquifers are being depleted faster than they can be replenished, while melting glaciers further threaten the water supply for billions.

  • Air Quality: Pollution is a major problem in many regions of the world and childhood asthma rates have risen dramatically in the past 20 years. Such problems are not limited to the industrialized countries, as children in undeveloped countries also suffer as a result of burning wood and animal dung for warmth and cooking food.

  • Energy Sources: We are all dependent on energy in one form or another. To-date, sources of energy are almost totally dependent on non-renewable resources, such as coal, oil and gas. However, many have now recognised that most of these resources have past or are approaching peak production, such that extraction costs will rise as these resources become ever harder to find.

  • Land Ecosystems: The world's forests are another resource that are increasingly under threat due to the demands and encroachment of growing global populations. In addition, the Earth's topsoil is also under threat due to erosion caused by industrial scaled farming, which causes pollution run-off into streams and rivers and eventually the worlds oceans.

  • Ocean Ecosystems: The worlds oceans' are facing major problems as fish stock collapse in the face of over-consumption and the effects of pollution and global climate change, which is resulting in higher sea temperature.

Of course, the effects being outlined above do not just affect the human population, but all wildlife and wildlife habitats around the planet, e.g.

  • Species Extinction: We are witnessing possible one of the largest extinctions of other species in the history of the planet since the dinosaurs were wiped out over 60 million years ago. The full knock-on impact of these extinctions on the global ecosystem is not understood.

  • Habitat Destruction: Is occurring at an accelerating rate around the planets as rural land and natural habitats are converted into monoculture farming and urban sprawl. In this process, wildlife habitats are not only being reduced but fragmented, which further reduces diversity and the balance of these ecosystems.

While the impact on wildlife and their habitats is becoming increasingly obvious to many, a solution that does not exacerbate the resource shortages now facing much of the human population is far from obvious. In addition, many human populations are now suffering from social problems that can be linked to overcrowding resulting from population increases in urban sprawls in many of the worlds major cities.

What specific problems are associated with urban sprawl?

In practice, the process of global urbanisation is more complex than simple population growth as it encompasses changes to the economic fortunes of individuals and nation states, which then affect the viability of social and political structures necessary to maintained large-scale urbanisation. Initially, many perceived the benefits associated with a shift away from rural to urban life in terms of employment and the belief that money could buy a better life, although history might suggest that only a small minority were ever the beneficiary of this process. History also suggests that, over time, the growth of cities all around the world has left many struggling to maintain even basic services, e.g. energy, education, health care, transportation, sanitation. This situation has then often been exacerbated by economic downturns, especially in poorer nation states, already struggling to maintain, let alone extend, their city infrastructures in terms of housing, roads, shops, schools and hospitals, such that expanding unemployment simply adds to the growing list of social problems linked to poverty within the urban sprawl.

Note: Mexico City is some 950 square miles in size and, as in many other megacities, urban sprawl now encompasses 40% of the people who lived in poverty and environmental degradation. These high density settlements are often highly polluted owing to the lack of urban services, including running water, waste disposal and electricity. As a consequence, social problems multiply in environments dominated by crime and despair. Nevertheless, many still believe that cities provide poor people with more opportunities and greater access to resources than rural areas. Whether this is the case might be debated on the grounds that the size of most urban population simply prevents the possibility of any wholesale return to rural life.

Of course, it would be incorrect to say that process of urbanization over the last few centuries has not provided many benefits, although it is not necessarily clear as to whether these benefits have been universal when viewed in terms of the global wealth distribution per capita:

Putting the diagram above into some better perspective, the richest 2% of adults in the world own more than half of global household wealth. Alternatively, the richest 10% of adults accounted for 85% of the worlds total wealth, which is in contrast to the bottom 10% of the worlds population that owns only 1% of the global wealth. In 2000, global household wealth was estimated to be approximately $125 trillion, which would equate to $21,000 per capita, if distributed evenly across some 6 billion people. However, as the map above suggests, this distribution is far from equal, when we consider that the average wealth in the US was estimated to be $144,000 per capita, which in-turn might be compared to India, where the wealth per capita was as low as $1,100. Of course, the per capita figures are only averages that do not reflect the actual huge disparity of wealth distribution within each country. For example, 1% of Americans own 43% of the wealth, while next 4% own 29%, next 15% own 21% and finally 80% of American own just 7% of the wealth within the country.

While the previous discussions have only attempted to provide a general outline of the problems and obstacles facing any process of political evolution, we may begin to see the scope and complexity of problems humanity now faces. As such, we might realise that we do not now need another Toba eruption to threaten humanity with extinction as we appear quite capable of inflicting this fate on ourselves.

Isn't this just more doom & gloom scare-mongering?

It is true that this discussion might be accused of 'deliberately trying to make people feel worried', but hopefully for genuine and necessary reasons. However, there is an inference that a scare-monger will simply exaggerate some of the facts to best fit the conclusions of the argument being forwarded, which possibly needs some further consideration. For it is true that this discussion is heading in the direction of some fairly alarming conclusions.

But, isn't pessimism itself an obstacle to progress?

If progress is to be made, then too much optimism or pessimism can be equally dangerous, as we have to assess the scope of the problems and probable solutions, which are realistically open to us. However, it is possible that many of climate change predictions may simply be mitigated, if technology can provide alternative, and non-polluting, renewable sources of energy, which are globally scalable. Equally, it is possible that humanity may be able to survive without the scale of biodiversity originally provided by natural selection as humanity may simply adapt, as it always has, to new man-made environments and social pressures. Likewise, it has to be recognised that the current growth of the human population is predicted to peak by the end of this century as global fertility rates fall back towards more sustainable levels - see chart below. In fact, many developed countries in Northern Europe, e.g. Germany, already have declining populations, which may then accommodate migration from poorer areas of the world.

While the description above may hold out the hope for a more optimistic future, we still need to scrutinise the details. Given the number of factors involved in climate change, it is seems that there are a wide range of predictions to choose from, although it may be fair to say that by 2050, most predictions suggest weather patterns that are generally warmer, wetter and more extreme. However, the impacts may vary widely based on geography, such that there may be both winners and losers. Estimates for the impact on the global economy range between 1-5% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), based on the degrees of global warming and shifts in weather patterns that may adversely affect production, especially those associated with agriculture. In this respect, the impact of any decline in non-renewable energy sources may be a far larger issue. Today, in 2016, global power consumption is estimated to be in the range of 15-20 terawatts, which may have to grow by up to 40% by 2050, if increases in population and industrial demands are to be met. However, it is entirely possible that energy sources may struggle to met even todays demands, let alone any future increases, if declining non-renewable sources of coal, gas and oil still effectively dominate energy production. The following diagrams showing the energy mix at 3 points in time and have been taken from an article entitled World Energy to 2050 by Paul Chefurka, which has also been reproduced as a PDF file subject to educational copyright restrictions.

All are urged to read the article cited above in full and while some aspects of the analysis, written in 2007, may be subject to some revision in-line with developments in renewable energy and more advanced nuclear reactor designs, the final conclusions are still more than worrying:

How many ways are there to say the world is heading for hard times? Losing most of our oil is bad enough, and losing most of our gas as well borders on the catastrophic. Combining these losses with the exponential growth of those nations that can least afford it is nothing short of cataclysmic. The ramifications spread out like ripples on a pond. There will be 7 billion people who will need fertilizer and irrigation water to survive, but would be too poor to buy it even at today's prices. Given the probable escalation in the costs of fertilizer and the diesel fuel or electricity for their water pumps, it isn't hard to understand why the spread of famine in energy-poor regions of the world seems virtually inevitable. In normal times the poor would appeal to the rest of the world for food aid. However, these times may be anything but normal. Even the shrinking population of the rich world will see its wealth eroded by the drop in energy supplies and the increasing cost of producing the energy they do have. This decline in their wealth will in turn erode any surpluses they might otherwise have donated to international aid. In any event, there will be over twice as many hungry mouths crying for that aid, with less and less of it available. This assessment doesn't even consider the converging and amplifying impacts of the other problems I mentioned above: the loss of soil fertility and fresh water, the death of the oceans, rising pollution, spreading extinctions and accelerating climate change. The solution to this dilemma, if solution there may be, does not seem to lie in some Deus ex Machina or in a technological revision of the parable of the loaves and fishes. If the dark visions outlined in this article come true, we will be faced with a world in which the only way forward is to accept that Mother Nature does not negotiate. We must use our considerable intelligence to figure out ways to live within the ecological budget we have been allotted. More than that, we must change our values away from our current paradigm of growth, competition and exploitation to one of sustainability, cooperation and nurturing. The longer and tighter we cling to our present ways, the more damage we will ultimately inflict on ourselves and the world we live in. For many, the time for such a change has already passed. For a fortunate few there may yet be enough time to move toward the new ways of living and being that will be required in this brave new world.

While there are more optimistic views of our energy future, see Amory Lovins, along with the possibility of a new generation of Thorium nuclear reactors, see Robert Hargraves, it is unclear that these possibilities can be developed and rolled out on a global scale in the timeframe required to prevent the conclusions of Paul Chefurka being a more probable outcome. If so, we may have to accept the ongoing contraction of biodiversity and the extinction of many species of wildlife around the world, while human habitats in the form of urban sprawl continue to aggravate the human condition for the global majority, who may simply 'exist' without any effective political say in future developments. So, in many ways, the discussion up to this point has simply set a backdrop of issues that the current state of global politics is being asked to solved. If this is our starting point for any form of political evolution, then we must also come to some understanding of distribution of power in todays world, which we might characterise in terms of just 4 military-economic powers, the United State of America (US), the European Union (EU), China and Russia. However, this is the scope of the next set of discussions under the heading: 'The State of Global Politics'