Friday, June 21, 2019

Historical Context

This morning, Maura tried out a lecture to a group of other professors (and me). It was a summary of the imminent extinction threat and the first public presentation of her preliminary framework for putting it in historical context. Following are some of the highlights.

“The last quarter of the thirteenth century is known for at least two technological innovations: eyeglasses and firearms. One allowed people to see better, and the other allowed them to kill more efficiently. Unknown until recently, it also marked the beginning of an era when the world’s human population would be dependent on the populations of the world’s other species. 

“Technological innovation progressed in tandem with scientific discovery, enabling advances in transportation, mining, agriculture, and construction that accelerated the conversion of everything into ‘resources’ that could be traded between people to increase how long they lived, how satisfied they were with their lives, and how many children they had.

“A second milestone was achieved in the 1930s. If we measure the amount of resources as the impact of actions on ecosystems, the resources consumed by the entire population was double what people needed to survive. After that, there would be more resources in stuff than in people. That new reality accompanied and was enabled by the creation of a global civilization marked by revolutions in science and technology, development of cheap fossil fuel, and conflict between groups of people who were trying to dominate or survive the merging of cultures into an interdependent whole.

“Rapidly accelerating per-capita consumption in the 1940s stopped growing in the 1970s, just as total consumption exceeded the amount of resources provided on a renewable basis by other species. This third milestone corresponded to a peak in life satisfaction that was achieved by four out of five people while the rest kept trying to reach that peak. Meanwhile, there was growing concern that fossil fuel production had itself reached a peak, and the status quo might not be able to be maintained.

“For more than two decades, population growth drove growth in how much of the world’s ecological resources humanity used, both in needs and wants. Science and technology contributed to more efficient use of resources that helped reduce per-capita consumption. At the end of that period, a fourth milestone was reached: the population consisted of people still pushing toward that happiness peak and people between that peak and a higher one that also corresponded to a peak in life expectancy.

“Per-capita consumption began to grow again in the mid-2000s, and most of what was added made parts of the world uninhabitable by other species and us. By 2015, more than one-seventh of the original resources were not consumable. Also, that year, a few percent of the population was not having children, reflected by a life expectancy of zero, and self-sustained impacts began cutting into the remaining resources.

“WICO projects that, if the global strategy isn’t implemented on schedule, a fifth milestone will be reached in 2023 as the world’s population reaches its peak. That will be followed by rapid population loss until 2030. Hopefully, we will settle into something between the third and fourth milestones, maintaining a smaller population by living mostly off of renewable resources produced by a healthier biosphere.” 

Reality Check

Historical events are correlated with the historical record until 1940. After 1940, projected global values for the simulation “Hikeayay” are used to identify the boundaries of the phases, which correlate to the “milestones” recited by Maura.

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