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Just Staying Alive

By John Scales Avery

12 March, 2013

It is clear that the 21st century will be a period of crisis for civilization. With the world's human population growing at the rate of 200,000 people each day, or 80,000,000 people each year, our environment is under great stress.

Global warming is proceeding at a much faster rate than was predicted by the International Panel on Climate Change. For example, polar ice is disappearing at a rate which is far faster than was predicted by IPCC models. There is a threat that increasing temperatures will release vast quantities of the potent greenhouse gas methane into the atmosphere from melting permafrost and from enormous deposits of methane clatherates on the ocean floors. Other feedback loops may be introduced as drying of the Amazon basin and Australia's interior makes these and other regions vulnerable to forest fires ignited by lightning flashes.

Before many decades have passed, climate change will produce aridity in many regions that today are the breadbaskets of the world. The drought experienced in the US Southwest last summer is likely to be followed by other droughts of increasing severity. Meanwhile, aquifers in many parts of the world are being overdrawn, and water tables are falling. Furthermore, melting of glaciers in the Himalayas and the Andes threatens to deprive China, India and parts of South America of river water during the summer months. In addition, rising sea levels produced by melting polar ice will drown many fertile rice-producing regions of Southeast Asia.

Besides being hit by water shortages, global agriculture will suffer a heavy blow as petroleum and natural gas become prohibitively expensive. Modern high-yield agriculture is heavily dependent on fossil fuels. In fact, Giampietro and Pimental have shown that the US food system presently uses 10 fossil fuel calories for each food calorie produced. Thus, there is a danger that just as the global population reaches an the unprecedented level of 9 billion people, the agricultural base for supporting it will collapse.

We can expect the present economic crisis to deepen. Further industrial growth will soon become impossible, both because of the exhaustion of the world's natural resources, and because the carrying capacity of the environment has been exceeded. Meanwhile, our financial system is organized in such a way that it depends on growth for its health. This can be seen especially in our fractional reserve banking system, which works reasonably well when the economy is growing, but fails dramatically when the economy stops growing or contracts.

Finally, a dark cloud hangs over the future of life on earth because of the threat of nuclear war, which would be the ultimate ecological catastrophe.

No one living today asked to be born at a time of crisis. But here we are together, living against our will at a time when the world is hanging by a thread, looking at a future that is frighteningly uncertain. What are we to do? Public action is needed, but the establishment-controlled mass media seem to do everything within their power to prevent us from acting (not to mention advertising agencies, which urge us to forget about the larger world and to concentrate on our own appetites). Anesthetized by sports events, soap operas, programs on cooking and heavily censored news, we slump in our TV chairs, passive, isolated, disempowered and stupefied. The future of the world hangs in the balance, the fates of children and grandchildren hang in the balance, but the television viewer feels no impulse to change the world or to save it.

Also, as economic problems deepen, people tend to concentrate on their own concerns. They excuse their neglect of the larger world's fate by saying, “I use all my energy just staying alive”. But what if the individual fate is lost in the general fate? What will happen to our own small private utopias if society as a whole collapses?

Although the mass media have failed entirely in their responsibility to educate us and to mobilize us to action, we have a duty to do all that we can to prevent the multiple but interlinked catastrophes that are threatening our beautiful world. We owe it to future generations to give an all-out effort to saving the planet. Even failure must not discourage us. The stakes are so high that we must keep trying to do whatever we can, in spite of one failure or a dozen, in spite of repeated failures that make us feel as though we are swimming in sand.

Of course we have our ordinary work, that we need to do to stay alive. But staying alive in the long run, and giving our children and grandchildren a world in which they will have a reasonable chance of staying alive, means that we have two jobs: our ordinary work, and the job of actively confronting the multiple challenges that we face in the 21st century. No single person can achieve the needed reforms, but together we can do it. In the last analysis, who has power if not the people?

John Avery received a B.Sc. in theoretical physics from MIT and an M.Sc. from the University of Chicago. He later studied theoretical chemistry at the University of London, and was awarded a Ph.D. there in 1965. He is now Lektor Emeritus, Associate Professor, at the Department of Chemistry, University of Copenhagen. Fellowships, memberships in societies: Since 1990 he has been the Contact Person in Denmark for Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs. In 1995, this group received the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts. He was the Member of the Danish Peace Commission of 1998. Technical Advisor, World Health Organization, Regional Office for Europe (1988- 1997). Chairman of the Danish Peace Academy, April 2004. http://www.fredsakademiet.dk/ordbog/aord/a220.htm




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