Last year was certainly full of bad news, and some of the worst came right at the end, when The Independent reported “dramatic and unprecedented plumes of methane ... seen bubbling to the surface of the Arctic Ocean”. This apparent fulfilment of earlier climate-doom prophecies seems to suggest, as I tweeted at the time, that the gig is up. All aboard the non-stop diesel train to underwater London.

Over at Metafilter, I chipped into the pessimistic thread that resulted. A few people tried to look on the bright side of environmental and population collapse, arguing that a world with fewer than seven billion people wouldn’t exactly be hell-on-earth. But it’s how you get there, I replied in not-so-many words—some of which I want to preserve here, in all their December 2011 gloom. Hey, this reinvigorated blog can’t all be cheery posts about roof damage and congressional attacks on the integrity of the Web.

I’m as disturbed that people still expect limitless growth as many of us are here, and mourn plenty of things we might not have lost if the world population was still what it was when I was born (exactly half of today’s). But when I contemplate what we could lose on the way back down to it, “not exactly hell-on-earth” isn’t what springs to mind.

Our population spike, which is what it ultimately has to be one way or another, has brought us amazing riches in science, technology, medicine, communications and the arts—it hasn’t all been fat cats swanning around in gold-plated Hummers. The riches that all that coal and oil bought us were ultimately cultural: we know so much more about the world than we did two hundred years ago. And we know more and more each year because there are more and more of us each year. We’re tapping into knowledge economies of scale we didn’t even know existed before. That’s true even of countries whose populations are currently declining, but won’t be if all countries start to decline.

Somewhere out there, people who couldn’t possibly have met and worked with each other a century ago are working together now, on science or technology or international agreements or resistance movements that might conceivably get us out of this mess—and the most terrifying prospect is that we’ll hit the wall before they reach their potential. The brownouts will start, flights will be cancelled, global trade routes will shrivel up, crops will fail, Moore’s Law will stall, today’s high tech will become tomorrow’s scarce antiques, and all while countries everywhere deal with waves of refugees with all the tact and sensitivity we’ve come to expect.

The rational response to that sort of global existential crisis should be to go on the R&D equivalent of a war footing until we’ve addressed it or gone down fighting. But nobody wants to do that until there’s an actual war. When that happens, it will indeed be hell-on-earth for far too many people, and the survivors won’t be a Platonic elite of geeks and boffins living in an evergreen glade with access to free WiFi.

20 January 2012 · Events

Hi Rory

I saw the Independent article, which didn't seem to be repeated in the mainstream media. I wondered if it had sunk without a trace. Thankfully not. Not sure quite what to do other than continue in local Transition Group. Any other ideas?


Added by Jon on 21 January 2012.

Coming up short here too, I’m afraid. This post is more a scream in frustration to mark the occasion, rather than a plan of action. It staggers me that there are still climate change deniers out there when we’re seeing stuff like this.

Added by Rory on 21 January 2012.