Monday, August 24, 2020

Marginal Hope


I watched the last two nights of the Democratic National Convention, during which my chronic trepidation was replaced with the alternating concern and hope that I last felt before the disastrous U.S. election of 2016. Now as then, there is a choice between bad and insufficiently good responses to the threat of global extinction that could occur within decades.  The main difference is that bad choices, here and in other influential countries such as Brazil with its critical rainforest, have drastically reduced the range and practicality of good responses that might be taken now. 


One of the foreseen drivers of our own population loss - disease - has ironically bought humanity perhaps a couple of more decades by slowing its destruction of ecosystems needed for survival. That time should be used to stop and then reverse the destruction by reversing the drivers of extinction: habitat loss, invasive species, pollution (especially climate changing carbon), overharvesting, and human population growth that multiplies the others. 


Much of the world's attention has been on fighting climate change while improving people's quality of life. This aim is behind the most conspicuous environmental plan advocated by the Democratic party's presidential nominee, which attempts to eliminate all carbon emissions by 2050 by developing new "green" technologies that a revitalized economy can deploy over the intervening period and maintain afterward. 


I have used my Timelines model of global variables over time to explore implications of this plan, and found that it would require a 97% decrease in total ecological footprint (what I've been calling consumption) from 2021 to 2050. With our present capabilities, the decrease would almost necessarily require a huge drop in population so that those alive in 2050 could at least meet their most basic needs with the resources they can use, and leave nearly two trillion tonnes of already emitted greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. 


What may be the most obvious alternative for those of us who reject mass casualties is to simultaneously reduce per-capita ecological impact, and to fully develop and deploy technology that can quickly convert previous emissions into forms that will not raise global temperatures or cause harm through other modes of extinction such as habitat loss and (different) pollution. Reducing the pollution load on natural carbon sinks such as soils and oceans would be a reasonable priority in this phase of the effort, which must be completed over the next decade (after which we won't all be able to meet needs).


My trepidation over the plan as presented by the only political party willing to admit and address the extinction threat is that it does not demonstrate an appreciation of the urgency, scale, focus and sacrifice that is required. It is, however, a vast improvement over existing alternatives which almost certainly will push us and the world further along our trajectory of doom.