Sunday, August 16, 2009


Yesterday my wife and I took a guided tour of White Ranch Open Space Park, west of Golden, Colorado, led by a forest ranger who described the area’s ecosystem with a focus on two of its more famous members: ponderosa pine trees and Abert’s squirrels. Toward the end of the tour, he pointed out how, until humans settled the area, fire naturally kept the population of trees at a sustainable level. Now, with fire control, disease agents such as bark beetles tend to move in and do the job of thinning the trees. Several days earlier, a member of the writers group I run responded to my reading of one of my blog posts (“Twisting Paths: a Perspective on Space Exploration”) with sardonic reassurance that the H1N1 virus may do the same to us in the not-too-distant future.

I’ve heard this theme before. A leader of the peak oil awareness movement once told a group that a pandemic might be the most humane way to deal with peak oil and climate change, reducing world population and consumption to sustainable levels. If we can’t do it ourselves (peaceably or otherwise), the argument goes, then perhaps Nature will have to do it for us. Thinking about this, it’s hard not to flash back to one of my late father’s favorite sayings: “If you crap on the world, it will crap back on you, and it’s a lot bigger than you are.”

As a proactive person who values everyone, I cringe at any suggestion of the population being “thinned,” by Nature or by war; but as a thinking person who finds it critical to at least intellectually explore many possibilities, I can’t help but consider the implications. One is timing: If such an event occurs before we lose our industrial base due to resource exhaustion and pollution, there may be too few people remaining to adequately defuse the time bombs posed by understaffed technological infrastructure such as nuclear plants and oil wells (spelled-out in the book “The World Without Us”). I consider it more likely that we’ll be struck down when we are significantly weakened, after our civilization begins to disintegrate following the peak in consumption and population caused by business-as-usual, meaning that this may be a mechanism that leads to total extinction rather than a minimally recoverable crash.

Another implication is that the people who survive will need to have some advantage over those who perish in order for a thinning event to have a net benefit for our species. What such a benefit might be is anyone’s guess, dependent as it is on the specifics of what happens; but if there is no fossil fuel-based infrastructure to count on, then the survivors will almost inevitably need to be able to live on what’s left -- namely, the rest of the biosphere. The people today who practice radical simplicity may be the precursors of tomorrow’s rich.

An implication for the present, in the spirit of “planning for the worst case and hoping for the best case,” is that we should quickly retool our technology to reduce the risk of it causing an environmental disaster that could kill off any survivors of an otherwise survivable catastrophe. As a minimum, this means reducing or eliminating all sources of pollution, along with cleaning up existing pollution. Accelerated “energy descent” -- creating infrastructure that is not energy intensive and destructive of natural systems (including habitat loss from “development” of land) -- would help limit future sources of such disaster.

Recent history, highlighted by the flu pandemic and economic meltdown, suggests that we may have little time to act toward both enabling the best case and mitigating the worst case. It’s amazing what a walk in the park can teach you.

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