This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.
(TS Eliot The Hollow Men 1925)
Friends are hinting at something bad that’s going on; news programs give disquieting news (as they usually do); even science programs on TV are not hopeful. It might not be Armageddon, but we all seem to be prophesying disaster. TS Eliot was a discerning critic. In The Hollow Men, a poem he published in 1925, he seems to be reflecting on the illusion of World War I, that it would end war (and just like TS Eliot, quite a few other things are being alluded to as well). But we’re not as restrained or as ironic as TS Eliot. We like to feel we are on the eve of destruction, and perhaps find the song of that name more compatible with our sense of growing unease.
And you tell me, over and over and over again, my friend
Ah, you don’t believe, we’re on the eve, of destruction
(PF Sloan/Barry McGuire 1965)
I was intrigued enough to look around, and this is what I found. I have no idea if any of it has any real substance, but it does reveal that a large number of people feel something’s not right with the world. Here are our modern seven plagues, and the only defenses made against them so far are warnings by some, and scepticism by others (the same kind of people maybe who told Noah it wasn’t going to rain).
Plague 1: the tyrant
George Orwell’s Big Brother. You know him. He looks after us. He loves us. And he controls the world, keeping up a semblance of traditional governmental forms, democratic or totalitarian, to keep us quiet. There are quite a few candidates for the position. Americans might want to worry about the CIA, the world’s most powerful terrorist (or anti-terrorist, same thing) organisation, with a classified budget, classified executive responsibilities, and which is not responsible to Congress. For the CIA it is always a state of emergency. Elsewhere, I note that the top six companies in the world, with annual revenues of more than half a trillion US dollars (GNP of the USA is 15 trillion US dollars, just for comparison), are all oil and gas companies, and that there are forecasts that in the not too distant future we will run out of fossil fuels to burn. What will these giants do then? Take the step from lobbying governments to controlling them? (For those who take comfort that there are plenty of fossil fuel reserves left, note that exploitation is expected to cause more and more expensive environmental disasters in all corners of the world, substantially reducing profits). It might be easier for Shell, CNP and Saudi to start a little war or two to gain control of what’s left, before diversifying.
Coming up rapidly to top of the companies list is Apple Inc. They only average a quarter of a trillion a year at the moment, but it will probably double by next year. They want to control the internet. Forget TV. You now spend more time on the internet, and are subject to privacy invasion, tracking, subliminal messages and all kinds of mind control. Also coming up fast for this spot is Google Inc., a company that has a motto “Don’t be evil” that now raises a laugh. One of the world’s most successful advertising companies (yeah, it also runs a search engine), Google makes dollars by keeping track of everywhere internet users go. You’re never alone on the net: Google is always by your side. Coming up fast is also Facebook, with more than a billion users (approx 12% of the world’s population). Facebook kind of takes over your life, and for the people in its customer base life would be unthinkable without this sort of “social networking”. How vulnerable does this make them? Your computer is your window on the world. It is also a surveillance device which monitors you and conditions you, so you should feel unsafe. If you want to worry some more, these electronics companies rely on fossil fuels to run their facilities (hey, it’s all electricity). What will they do if that source runs dry? They’ll still want our money.
My personal irk is DRM. Digital Rights Management is beloved of Apple Inc. and major music companies like Universal and Sony/BMG. DRM supposedly protects the rights of copyright holders. That means the rights of multinational corporations to enhance super profits. It also means an attack on consumers’ rights that is against the laws presently in force. DRM encodes products such as movies, digital books and recorded music, and controls how and where the consumer uses these products. These encoded products if not used with caution subject purchasers to invasion of privacy and in some cases make it difficult to use the purchases (try moving a song bought from iTunes Store to a player that doesn’t have iTunes installed or reading a digital book you bought with your own reader). Freedom of choice, the ability to think and use intellectual property independently and the expression of individuality are all under threat. Musicians’ rights are not protected by DRM by the way. So, readers: do you remember a book by Ray Bradbury called Fahrenheit 451 published in 1953? Books were outlawed in the future because they encouraged people to think. Today they are just restricted. But the future starts today. Big Brother doesn’t want us to think. He wants us to say “cool!”. He doesn’t care about the seven plagues, he’s one of them.
Plague 2: the rich man
Could it actually be happening to us, and happening now? Is the Great Recession becoming the next Great Depression? Are the rich richer?
There’s nothing surer
The rich get richer and the poor get – laid off
Ain’t we got – fun?
It’s a song by Whiting/Egan/Kahn of 1921 that set the tone of the Great Depression at the end of that decade. It makes me think, what happens when just one person gets all the money in the world? Money will cease to be a medium of exchange; there will have to be something else. The rich then will become poor. But meanwhile, the song reflects a constant in economic systems. In most countries 90% of the wealth is owned by 5% of the population. Is this trend now increasing? The wealthy own the means of investment and stand to gain more by successful investment if wealth grows. If wealth cannot grow, the poor who are more reliant on failing industries for employment get laid off and become poorer. A vulnerable segment of the workforce is the middle class, upwardly mobile consumers who try to better their economic position by joining the rich. In a depression the window for this crossover becomes very narrow indeed. They may be earning large incomes, but increasing costs eat their income up. Global economics suggests that global wealth is largely a constant, and that a healthy economy sees fairly constant movement of wealth to all sections of the market. If that stops you get economic inertia. The wealthy get more wealthy simply by having wealth, as long as banks can afford to pay interest. So they can afford to buy more assets. A good example and often examined is the USA economy, where 1% of the population today own 40% of disposable wealth (assets minus debts minus personal property). The inequality seems to be growing, i.e. fewer people are controlling more disposable wealth (as distinct from income). Wealth means power. So the wealthy may choose to manipulate economic trends to further increase their wealth.
Analysts look at income distribution in the USA over the 20th century, and have noticed an ominous parallel. The following figures are for share of national income of the top 1% of the wealth holding population. The greatest inequality of wealth in the US occurred in 1929, the year the Great Depression started (the top 1% owned 24% of national income); but it is almost equally matched for 2008, when the Great Recession started (the top 1% owned 23.5% of national income). Figures that analyse worldwide trends tell a similar story, according to the Centre for Research on Globalization in California. There are 29.7 million millionaires and up in the world, and they represent 0.4% of the world’s population. According to the latest Forbes list there are 1,210 billionaires in the world. Many of them had a wealth increase during the Recession of as much as 29%. In the same period (2008-2012), 100 million Americans suffered unemployment, underemployment, home foreclosures, hunger, high living costs, no health insurance, loss of savings, and historic financial insecurity. The Centre’s Report notes that 50 percent of Americans make less than $26,000 a year. Even those with a college education or decades of work experience cannot find a job. The situation is exactly the same in Australia according to the Evatt Foundation. And a disquieting factor in most first world countries is the spiralling cost of services, crucially the key services of education and health care provision. More people look as though they will suffer, not just under employment, but lack of education and inadequate health care. Relief systems will not cope with the situation. Weight loss will be mandatory not trendy. Could we be entering an age of primitive barter and guerrilla provisioning in the cities for the very poor, while the rich fly from beauty spot to beauty spot enjoying their many properties, and give each other presents of expensive jewels? There’s a SF book that looks at this recessive scenario, a new Dark Age, called A Canticle for Leibowitz (1960) by Walter M. Miller, though there the cause is post nuclear war. Will the rich save the planet? Most of them don’t even know there is one.
Plague 3: the great hunger
Currently a significant release of greenhouse gases is resulting in warmer climates and conditions unfavourable to many basic food crops. Based on a 2007 UN report on climate change, an Argentine based group, the Universal Ecological Fund, has predicted a worldwide food shortage within the next 10 years. By the year 2020 the world’s population will have reached 7.8 billion, while rises in temperatures will have adversely affected many crop staples. “The result will be more prevalent hunger — one in five people going hungry, up from the current rate of one in seven — and food price spikes of up to 20 per cent”, according to the study. Profiteers will take advantages of crop scarcity to increase prices, and many of the poor, as many as a billion people, will starve to death. And not just in 2020. “World grain reserves are so dangerously low [in 2013] that severe weather in the United States or other food-exporting countries could trigger a major hunger crisis next year, the United Nations has warned. FAO figures released this week suggest that 870 million people are malnourished and the food crisis is growing in the Middle East and Africa. Wheat production this year is expected to be 5.2% below 2011, with yields of most other crops, except rice, also falling”, says the UN. “According to Lester Brown, president of the Earth Policy Research Centre in Washington, we are seeing the start of a food supply breakdown, with a dash by speculators to grab millions of square miles of cheap farmland, the doubling of international food prices in a decade, and the dramatic rundown of countries’ food reserves. ‘Armed aggression is no longer the principal threat to our future. The overriding threats to this century are climate change, population growth, spreading water shortages and rising food prices’,” Brown says. “Oxfam last week said that the price of key staples, including wheat and rice, may double in the next 20 years, threatening disastrous consequences for poor people who spend a large proportion of their income on food”.
In Australia the warnings are the same. “General Hartley, the chief executive of Future Directions International, an organisation that aids strategic decision-making in the public and private sector, said food and water are shaping up to be the ultimate drivers of strategic policy over the next few decades. Globally, the area of arable land is declining at about one per cent a year due to degradation and urbanisation – a seemingly minor loss, General Hartley said, but hugely significant when weighed up over decades”.
There’s nothing inevitable about this. It’s just that we have an economic system that is driven by the individual profit motive. And we have an inarticulate population who don’t know how to lobby and influence government policy. Look at supermarkets. The distribution of food to consumers through supermarkets has become the prevalent system. Local stores where the consumer bought unpackaged staples by weight has become a thing of the past. The cost of supermarket foods has skyrocketed over the last 10 years, almost doubling for some commodities. Yet the most expensive part of a supermarket food product is its advertising and packaging. The bit that influences your decision to buy, and the bit you throw away when you consume the product (and the bit you probably don’t recycle). What an inefficient system is that! And it’s a system not primarily influenced by climate and food production changes. When it does comes to climate changes, who influences food production companies to take a profit cut instead of a price increase to pay for greenhouse gas prevention? Why do the poor have to pay for that? Who decides that crop areas should be converted from one crop to another one with a higher toleration of heat? And who controls the distribution of food from excess production areas to food deficit areas? Currently the cost of the transfer outweighs the benefit to the starving. At the moment, expect supermarket costs to grow to the extent that the week’s grocery money will only afford a packet of Cornflakes. But you better not get sick, because the health system will only be geared to millionaires. There’s a SF book about this scenario too: Make Room! Make Room, 1966, by Harry Harrison (then a Charlton Heston film called Soylent Green, 1973, a film on the theme “you are what you eat”).
Plague 4: the fiery furnace
Food loss is part of a larger problem. “Just two months ago, 110 governments endorsed findings by the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in Stockholm saying that the world had emitted about 515 billion tonnes of carbon since the Industrial Revolution”, says a Reuters report. “The IPCC estimated the total cumulative budget could not exceed a trillion tonnes to allow a good chance of keeping a rise in temperatures to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 Fahrenheit) in order to avoid ever more frequent and intense heatwaves, floods, droughts and rising sea levels. Once in the atmosphere, many greenhouse gases remain there for decades or even centuries, and on current trends of rising emissions, the trillion tonnes will be reached in a few decades”.
Life on earth has evolved by adapting to the nature of its atmosphere. A thin cloud of gases high in nitrogen and oxygen is held in place by gravity generated by the earth’s metallic core as it rotates around the sun. This layer of gases is threatened by the sun’s solar wind, which could strip it away into space as it has on smaller planets. The earth’s magnetic field however forms a deflective shield which protects it from this solar wind. The atmosphere forms a barrier to ultraviolet radiation which would destroy life on the surface, and retains a degree of heat that forms the temperature extremes life has adapted to. Life and atmosphere and sun all exist in a delicate balance. The earth experiences some extreme variations in temperature, in particular it has gone through several ice ages. It can survive changes of this nature. But human life has evolved in an interval between ice ages, and has a narrow range of habitable temperatures in which it can exist, 37.0° C ± 6° C. Too cold, or too hot, and life will die out. Two degrees of temperature increase will be all that present life will tolerate. Higher levels of temperature than this would result, not at first in extinction of life, but radical changes in terrain which would affect the way we live, and probably lead to collapse of infrastructures, industrial collapse, crop mutation, pandemics, frequent destructive storms (remember Katrina?) and other unwelcome stuff. Try putting a plastic bag over your head and breathing in carbon dioxide and see how far you get. Somehow we need to break a cycle. The more people, the more industry. The more industry, the more greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide and chlorofluorocarbons). Unless we can adapt to this new atmosphere, which would take millions of years, we will cease to exist, choked to death by our waste products.
That’s the real problem. Whether you believe in disaster scenarios or dismiss them as alarmism, the fact is humans have been transforming the planet for thousands of years, and using it to dump their waste products. Since the early nineteenth century the human population has skyrocketed, largely due to Louis Pasteur, whose discoveries seriously disturbed the relationship between microbes and humans. We are nearing seven billion, and by the middle of the century may reach nine billion, by the end, ten billion. We still dump our sewage in the ocean, and our industrial waste into the stratosphere. We need an alternative, or we die. So they say.
Plague 5: the pandemics
We know about pandemics. We are experiencing one now, HIV, which will have killed, it is estimated by WHO, about 200 million people by 2025. In the 19th century Europeans wiped out much of the native American population, inhabitants of islands in the Pacific Ocean, and natives of many African states, simply by carrying diseases such as smallpox and measles to which these people had no antibodies. That’s why colonialism takeovers were so easy. In the 14th century it was the Black Death, in the 1840s and 1850s starvation caused by the potato blight in Ireland, followed by cholera. A pandemic is a disease that can spread world wide, and kills numbers in excess of a million.
At the moment the world is experiencing a new threat, caused by antibiotics. The overuse and self prescription of these drugs has been a factor in the emergence of bacteria which are resistant to their effect, so-called multi drug resistant (MDR) pandemics. WHO reports that at the moment there are 50 million people suffering from MDR-TB, for example. Everybody seems to know about flu pandemics: there was one as recently as 2009, and perhaps four each century. But scientists are also concerned that diseases eliminated by regular inoculation, such as smallpox, diphtheria, polio, scarlet fever and many others, have mutated through contact with antibiotics. They are easily spread by carriers. A man travelling by plane from the UK to America could infect thousands. And nobody has the antibodies in their immune system to resist the new strain of the diseases. We are in the same position the colonised nations were in the 19th century.
The Irish Hunger is a good example of what might happen. People died in such numbers from starvation that they could not be buried. Bodies decomposed on the side of roads. And cholera added to the number of the dead. In modern times many countries have a hospital system that is stretched to the limit. Many countries wouldn’t have the chance of a glass of water in hell of dealing with a pandemic. It would rage unchecked, and give rise to other diseases of pandemic size. The first casualty would be the public health system. In a domino effect, health care, medical supplies, food supplies and essential services could all fail, leading to large scale rioting. No government in the world is prepared, or has the resources to deal with, continued or multiple pandemics.
And some pandemics are spread deliberately. Over 165 nations have used viral infection as a weapon against humans, animals and crops, despite the fact it can be as fatal to one side as to the other. Diseases such as anthrax, ebola, plague, cholera, typhus, brucellosis, Q fever, machupo, Coccidioides mycosis, Glanders, Melioidosis, Shigella, Psittacosis, Japanese B encephalitis, Rift Valley fever, yellow fever, and smallpox have been so used. It’s one way to deal with the other problem unsettling the world: overpopulation.
In a sense the problem has always been there. There are billions and billions of different microbes in the world, trillions more than there are people and other animals. They are the dominant life form in terms of numbers. And they constantly combine and mutate. Many of them are viral, infectious to humans. We were once vulnerable to some of these, eliminated these viruses through inoculation, but are now vulnerable to their mutated forms. But the pandemic is actually caused by the rising number of humans and their extreme mobility, not by the microbes themselves. An infected person can carry a disease to thousands before showing symptoms. How do we deal with that?
Plague 6: nuclear sickness
Radioactive waste is a hazard to humans. It can kill as surely as a fission or fusion bomb. And it is on the increase, as scientists seek nuclear powered sources of energy to replace fossil fuels, develop nuclear based medicines, or conduct research. The waste is the material left after the nuclear reaction. We do not know how to neutralise its radioactivity. And this sometimes lasts for millions of years.
The US Department of Energy reports that in the United States alone there are “millions of gallons of radioactive waste” as well as “thousands of tons of spent nuclear fuel and material” and also “huge quantities of contaminated soil and water…The United States has at least 108 sites designated as areas that are contaminated and unusable, sometimes many thousands of acres”. A report from Marathon Resources Ltd states “The amount of high level radioactive waste (HLW) worldwide is currently increasing by about 12,000 metric tons every year, which is the equivalent to about 100 double-decker buses or a two-story structure with a footprint the size of a basketball court”. The current policy of most governments is to leave this as a problem for future generations to sort out. When I was living in Australia’s Blue Mountains region a report published by the local Council stated that the incidence of bone cancer in children in the Leura district was then (1980s) ten times the national average, and the report linked this to the amount of nuclear waste buried in the area in 1967 by the Australian Government after British tests at Maralinga in South Australia had led to decimation of the Aboriginal population there from radiation connected disease. It’s a worldwide problem that’s going to be around for millions of years, which doesn’t mean we don’t have to deal with it now. Solutions like dumping waste in the ocean or underground, or outer space, are not going to work.
Probably the chief source of nuclear waste is from the arms race between America and the former USSR. By the end of the Cold War in 1982 both the USSR and the USA had stockpiled over 10,000 nuclear warheads, produced at massive loss to other areas of government spending, resulting in undisclosed amounts of radiation disease and ineffectual disposal methods. Of the countries known to be stockpiling nuclear weapons at the present time, the USA and Russia have an estimated 8,000 nuclear warheads, while the other countries, the UK, France, China, India, Pakistan, North Korea and Israel, have an estimated 300 each, except Israel, which has not disclosed its numbers. The United States has also provided nuclear weapons for Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Turkey to deploy and store. Japan and South Korea have the resources to produce nuclear weapons if they desire to. Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Myanmar and Syria have nuclear development facilities. Aside from the dangerous proliferation of nuclear arms, and the possibility they may be deployed not by the states that develop them but by their allies, the main problem, as more states look to nuclear energy and nuclear medicine, is nuclear safety. Nuclear testing is taking place all over the world, from 1945 in Nevada to 2013 in North Korea. In Moruroa near Tahiti between 1966 and 1996 the French tested nuclear weapons, and thousands of Polynesians were shipped back to France for treatment for radiation sickness (and burial). The geophysical stability of the atoll is still considered at risk.
One effect of nuclear radiation is cell mutation. Humans, and plant and animal life too, can develop mutated cells which may make them unable to survive easily. If foods are contaminated, then damaged cells can be ingested with food supplies. Atmospheric disturbances can spread radiation around the world. The main problem in this area is that humans are attempting to solve their mistakes by first making them. This might not be a good idea with nuclear power.
Plague 7: collision of worlds
All the phenomena in the universe which we can comprehend are transitory. Suns, planets, solar systems, and life, are all here just for a time. But some disasters can make the end a very sudden event. One of these is collision with the earth of a large asteroid. It sounds a SF scenario. But it has already happened, probably many times. Astronomers say it’s not unusual. Most asteroids that impact on earth are slowed down and fragmented by the earth’s atmosphere, but that, while avoiding events such as the changing of tilt or orbit of the planet itself, could create volcanic eruptions and weather disruptions which could destroy most civilised areas on earth if the asteroid was more than a kilometre in diameter. It all depends on the angle of impact. A direct hit by even a small asteroid would be the equivalent of a million nuclear bombs detonated at the same time. The earth and the other planets in the solar system were formed originally by the collision of smaller objects at the time the sun began its nuclear fusion, and there have been several major impact events since then. One is thought to have formed the moon then, four and a half billion years ago, another to have occurred 66 million years ago and resulted in the sudden extinction of the thousand species of dinosaur and the as sudden emergence of mammals.
Not all events like these have been disastrous. Some theorise that the complex elements from which life is formed, primarily carbon, have been bought to earth from star explosions elsewhere in the galaxy through asteroid impact. This action could continue and have the same positive effect, leading to even further sudden evolution of life on earth. It would likely also lead, however, to the extinction of humanity.
Exploration of space by astronomers has identified likely impact objects. At least one known asteroid with a diameter of over 1 km (0.62 mi), (29075) 1950 DA, has a possibility of colliding with Earth on March 16, 2880. There is an uncertainty factor in such exploration of asteroid bodies however. The gravitational fields of large planets such as Saturn and Neptune can pull very large asteroids from their orbits outside the orbits of the planets and deflect them towards the earth. Impact events such as this cannot yet be predicted. Continued impact by very large asteroids has been thought by some to possibly interfere with the earth’s magnetic field. Should this field cease to function, the solar wind would disperse earth’s atmosphere into space and leave earth another arid ball of rock. In our solar system the orbit of Mercury is thought to be elongating. In a billion years’ time this could render it liable to disturbance from the sun or the earth, resulting in a collision with either body. We wouldn’t want to be here then.
Unlike all the other plagues mentioned, this one is something we can do nothing about. It’s a planet sized problem, much bigger than humans can realise or cope with. But it exists. Perhaps it should give us a more vivid appreciation of the beautiful world we live in.
What do we do?
Seven scenarios which worry us. Some of them are inter-related, aspects of one another. All but one of them are evidence of mankind’s inability to react to changing circumstances, a classic definition of stupidity. Could these be real problems, or exaggerations? We’ve always survived up to now haven’t we? There was the Black Death in the 14th century, which wiped out nearly a fifth of the world’s population (it was only about 450 million then though). That was pretty severe. It took 200 years to get over that disaster. The Second World War wiped out 100 million, victims of armament wounds, prison camps, delays in supplying food and medical help, infections and diseases, and left almost as many ill for the rest of their lives, victims of both physical and mental illness. That changed the world into a grimmer place. The 1918 influenza epidemic claimed 40 million. The 1850s potato blight claimed over a fifth of Ireland’s population.
The Black Death came along the Silk Road together with super profits for merchants (there were a lot of rich dead people then). That was god’s punishment for sin. WWII was fought to protect ‘democracy’ (looks like it failed there: was it really the only way to stop Hitler?). No adequate protective measures were taken in 1918 or 1850, even though the problems were forecast. It was always somebody else’s job.
Are those who are worried just alarmists, anxious people who haven’t got enough going on in their lives to keep them occupied? Or do the mockers exhibit the ostrich syndrome, lodging their heads firmly in the sand and refusing to see any problem? (Ostriches don’t do this really but it’s become a phrase). One of our problems is that we can’t tell the difference any more between a real and an imaginary threat. Watched too many action movies probably or did too many RPGs. On the one hand we believed in the Millennium Bug that was going to stop all the computers and cause planes to fall out of the sky. On the other hand we don’t believe the planet’s getting warmer, or if it is, say that it won’t make any difference. Which one is the real threat? Which one is a picturesque disaster from a movie script? Not much use saying it’s because of our sins we’re being punished. Even if some of the plagues turn out to be illusory, dealing with them will make us better citizens. Perhaps we could vote at elections, then write to our politician with some suggestions. Got to start somewhere.
Remember the Weiss/Douglas/Thiele song? That might help too.
I see trees of green, red roses, too,
I see them bloom, for me and you
And I think to myself
What a wonderful world.
I see skies of blue, and clouds of white,
The bright blessed day, the dark sacred night
And I think to myself
What a wonderful world.
©2013 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.