Editor’s Note: This post originally ran on The Nature Conservancy’s Cool Green Science blog.
Suppose I were an accurate reader of the future–I got things right, but never got the whole picture.
Then suppose I were the age I am now, but 100 years ago. I wouldn’t have the benefit of hindsight, but I would have a very frightening vision of the future world.
Here’s a summary of my visions:
• A world war would involve 40 countries, spanning 4 years and lead to the deaths of millions. But in our stupidity, we’d start another, even more horrific war just 20 years later. That whole nations would become swept up in frenzies of killings — 6-9 million Jews, Poles, Catholics, Romanies; and more besides. Armenians, Tutsis, Hutus, Sudanese, Albanians.
• World population would quintuple, while abortion would become a popular form of birth control (keep that one in, editor, I’m not trying to be controversial, just pointing out a fact: 100 years ago, that would have seemed impossible and, to many people, horrific).
• A flu virus would kill more people than the war did in southern Europe, then AIDS would come and affect 100s of millions of people, destroying entire communities, knocking out generations in Africa.
• A drought on the edges of the Sahara lasting 10 years would cause unimaginable famine.
• Even the last vestiges of natural land in Europe would be razed, and the vast rainforests of West Africa and Southeast Asia would be decimated. We would destroy some of the world’s best fishing grounds across the North Atlantic — but, knowing that, we’d continue to catch the smallest remaining fishes to feed to mass-produced pigs and chickens. We would so denude our soils that crops would not grow without fertilizers made either from oil, or from those same last remaining tiny ground-up fish. There would be no large rivers left in Europe safe to swim in.
Would yours or my great-great-grandparents have believed me? I doubt it.
Now here’s the trick. Let’s transport you the reader back in time to meet me.
I think you might say: “You’re right Mark, but you know it wasn’t all that bad. There were good things too.” That’s what most of us honestly believe. There was also medicine, and technology, and conservation, and wealth, and leisure, and improved equality…
This is how we need to think when we get too depressed about climate change. The prognosis is TERRIBLE:
• The sea will rise sufficient to destroy entire countries, and even the wealthy won’t escape as large parts of London, New York, the Netherlands become uninhabitable and some of our greatest culture icons and our best loved landscapes fall prey to the sea.
• The last patches of nature will dry out or give way to floods, leaving us with an entirely human-built landscape in many areas.
• Extinction, which for the last 100 years has been something of a sporadic and newsworthy thing, will rage across the planet, just as new diseases and invasive species rise up and throttle the old world we once loved.
We can make a much better attempt at fortune-telling now thanks to modern science, and while we can’t yet predict wars, more of these seem likely, too. Perhaps through disputes of diminishing water resources. Perhaps from the wealthy countries who can no longer access the resources they want, but can afford armies and weapons. Perhaps from the growing numbers of fanatics who use doctrines of faith or of atheism to justify survival and dominance (come on, Richard Dawkins, the “survival of the fittest” is a pretty clear injunction to fight — you don’t need religion for that).
So here’s my point. The future does look bleak in some regards. But we humans are a very resourceful and resilient species. We will adapt. The threats of climate change will sometimes be cataclysmic — a famine here, an exodus there. But more typically, they will be creeping.
Venice may be kept “afloat” for 50, even 100 years through clever engineering, and by then we might even decide to move it, as we did the fantastic World Heritage mortuary of Abu Simbel in Egypt almost 50 years ago. We may conduct a “managed realignment” of our coastline. Britain will get smaller, but Cambridge-on-Sea could be quite a beautiful place. Our crops will change, but British wine, olive oil and the like will be okay, while date palms and sago fill the landscapes of Tuscany.
And with a bit of luck, the underfunded, under-appreciated armies of conservationists will support the change, helping nature to move with the changing climate, replanting, restoring and allowing change while minimising loss.
Climate change is upon us. There’s a risk that the populace will jump from disbelief to despondency, with no space for the critical emotion of outrage and the determination to do what we can to prevent runaway climate change and to start planning for how we will adapt to the slower changes.
The headlines are not the whole story. Let’s not give up before we start.
Photo by: Flickr user janesdead. Used under a Creative Commons license.
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