Saturday, January 23, 2016

Down to the future

This is an old chart that my father drew up over 30 years ago, around the time I was starting in college, and the global population was 4.7 billion.  The brown line at the top represents available natural resources.  The red line represents population, and the green line, available food.  It makes a simple, straightforward and true point - that natural resources don't increase in the way population and food production have, and at some point in the future declining resources meet ascending demands and so population stops increasing.  Depending on the choices we make it could stabilize or crash catastrophically.

This was true then and true today - as global economic growth starts shuddering to a halt; as soil and water resources degrade; as the anthropocene extinction event continues inexorably; and as climate change inserts itself as a destabilizing wild card.

Nevertheless, after drawing up this chart, my father went on to complete his career and settle into retirement without ever seeing the elbow in this graph.  He didn't join a commune or build a bunker.  He worked and paid his taxes - sent his kids off to colleges and graduate schools, watched them get jobs and found families of their own.  He worked as an educator, activist and community leader to create smarter and more resilient communities around himself, but he didn't or couldn't extricate himself from our doomed and destructive way of living.

I study this yellowed and dog-eared piece of posterboard, as I prepare to usher my own son off to college.  I wonder whether I will retire into a society that continues to tread water despite it's unsustainability - or whether I'll come to regret not joining a commune or building a bunker.  I wonder whether I've given my sons enough resilience to deal with what is coming - the elbow in that chart that we still refuse to prepare for.

In the end, I do much as my father did - work to create more resilient people, environments and communities, keep alive a handful of useful skills including gardening, storytelling, and ecology, and engage with the world we have as best I can.  It's even possible my sons will do the same.  The human ability to muddle along is not to be underestimated . . .

For a complementary rumination upon this dilemma I recommend Brian Kaller's eloquent blog.