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A disaster waiting to happen

For at least 40 years experts have warned that if we don’t urgently change our ways the Earth will be irreparably ruined. Other experts have replied that global temperature and sea levels have been fluctuating for millions of years and that we can depend on human ingenuity and continued economic progress to save us.

The Economist recently described this nicely: ‘Some environmentalists … are so convinced of the righteousness of their cause that they will cry “wolf” at any event that might plausibly be thought to support their view of the world.’ This, The Economist continued, makes it hard for responsible scientists to know when they should begin shouting.

It’s a lot harder for non-scientists. A couple of centuries ago most reasonably educated people could understand science. The whiskery members of the Royal Society to whom Charles Darwin presented his ideas knew more about the classics than biology, but they were perfectly able to understand the theory of evolution.

However, over the next hundred or so years, science grew more complicated, and by the time Einstein was making his big announcements, the classicists had been left far behind. While I was writing this review I asked several people, all well educated (though not in science) and intellectually curious, to explain the theory of relativity, quantum mechanics and quarks. Few could do so. People like me don’t understand scientists’ language. How can we hope to understand their theories?

Indeed, it seems to me that our opinions are probably informed mainly by our political and ethical predispositions.

Ronald Wright’s A Short History of Progress is yet another warning. In just 122 pages (plus extensive notes) it covers much the same ground that others (notably Jared Diamond) have explored. But it does so in such an engaging and uncomplicated way that the lay reader has little difficulty keeping up.

Wright’s message is simple enough. Time and again civilisations have accomplished their decline and destruction by squandering their natural resources. Sometimes they acted thoughtlessly, but in some instances it is hard not to conclude that the folly was wilful.

Easter Island is a desolate landscape, but once it was fertile and well-wooded. It supported a large population (10,000 people in just 166 square km) with a rich social structure. At some point the islanders developed an obsession with Malcolm Fraser statues. Disaster followed. Trees were chopped down to make rollers to transport the statues and rats ate the seeds and saplings. Eventually there were no trees left and, in consequence, no canoes, no houses and no fires. When the first Europeans arrived in 1722 the Easter Islanders were thought to be the most miserable people in the Pacific.

Their downfall was entirely their own work. No one knows why they did it:

The people who felled the last tree could see that it was the last, could know with complete certainty that there would never be another. And they felled it anyway.

Bill Bryson, whose A Short History of Nearly Everything covers similar territory to this book, tells a similarly poignant story of the poor dopey dodos of Madagascar:

Indeed, dodos were so spectacularly short on insight, it is reported, that if you wished to find all the dodos in a vicinity you had only to catch one and set it to squawking, and all the others would waddle along to see what was up.

The rise of human civilisation over the last 10,000 years has coincided with an unusually temperate period in the earth’s climate. Wright quotes Richard Alley:

 (H)umans have built a civilisation adapted to the climate we have. Increasingly humanity is using everything this climate provides … (and) the climate of the last few thousand years is about as good as it gets.

Climate change, he concludes, is clearly not in our interest and yet there is plenty of evidence that that is what is now happening. In January 2006 the Bureau of Meteorology reported that 2005 was easily Australia’s hottest year since records were kept. Meanwhile the world’s population is increasing by about 10 million a year. Those who assure us that we have nothing to worry about have an increasingly difficult task.

I reckon we ought to be alarmed. Nature will be as indifferent to our extinction as it was to the dodo’s. Even a partial cull of Homo sapiens would probably be good for the planet and in the long run would have little effect on our global civilisation.

During my adult life we have been visited by a number of phenomena that might have achieved such an outcome: the atomic cold war; the Ebola virus; rogue asteroids; the Y2K scare; SARS; bird flu and, of course, HIV-AIDS. So far none of these has lived up to its potential, but I don’t think we can attribute this to human ingenuity. Sooner or later, one of them will deliver. 

A Short History of Progress, Ronald Wright. Text, 2005, ISBN 1 920 88579 X, RRP $24

Denis Tracey teaches philanthropy and social investment at Swinburne University. He would prefer that the world didn’t end until Melbourne wins another AFL Premiership.



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