Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Apocalypse Gal Considers Malthus

Today is the birthday of Thomas Malthus. As I recall from a long ago high school class, Malthus determined that population growth couldn't continue indefinitely, one of the first of modern times (modern even though he was born in 1766; my students would not call that modern, but in terms of the history of thought, he might be one of the first moderns, depending on your definitions) to do so. He seemed to see disease and famine as positive events, in that they put a check on the expansion that would threaten all humanity.

As a teenager, I found his ideas cold and hard. In grad school, as I learned more about the England of his time, I began to understand his mindset.

It's interesting to think about Malthus in this time period of climate change. I've been reading Mark Harstgaard's Hot: Living through the Next Fifty Years on Earth. He reports on the scientists who are realizing that climate change is happening faster than we thought. Not too long ago (like within the last 5 years), scientists assured us that we wouldn't pass the point of no return until the end of the 21st century. Now, many scientists are fairly sure we already passed it. We still need to make changes for the long-term good of humanity many centuries out, but those of us alive right now and those who will be born in the next several generations are going to be living through some interesting times.

What will it be like? We can't be sure. Weather, and larger life, will be unpredictable--that's all we can be sure of.

I live on a part of the continent that was once under water and will likely be under water again by the end of the century. This tip of the state has a coral bed foundation, which means that we can't even build retaining walls to keep the water out. It will seep up through the ground.

But I'm not worried. I'm sure that our area's leaders are fully aware of the situation and are taking steps to prepare.

Now we shall all stop reading while we laugh hysterically.

No, the one thing that Hurricane Katrina showed me is that we're all on our own. Maybe we'll get help from our government, but we simply cannot count on that.

So, you're likely asking what I'm doing to prepare. I'm as befuddled as anyone, since we can't exactly predict sea level rise accurately. I make my home repairs and my mortgage payments knowing that I may lose this investment completely, should a part of an Arctic ice shelf slide into the sea and melt quickly. As with most of my investments, I'm hoping for the best, while fully aware that I may lose all of my money.

My spouse thinks we should buy a sailboat. I think we should buy some property on higher ground in the upper 48 in case we need to flee. We could both be right.

Or we could both be wrong. The sea might not rise as quickly as we fear. Maybe in two centuries, my little house will still be here, and people will puzzle over some of our design choices as they remodel and add to the structure.

I think of these things as I'm hearing the news about Borders. When we first moved down here, I was ecstatic: a town with both a Borders AND a Barnes and Noble--with lots of them throughout the tri-county area, in fact. And now, Borders may be going under for the last time.

Or maybe it will emerge from bankruptcy whole and stronger. I remember the first Borders I ever saw, in Chicago. I was blown away. All those literary books, including scholarly works. Amazing.

Some day, maybe we'll say the same thing about Amazon. All those books, right there, ready to be ordered and shipped to you. We'll marvel that gasoline was so cheap that it was cheaper to ship books across the planet than to maintain local bookstores.

Change comes in ways we can't anticipate. We're seeing food scarcity which would have been unthinkable a decade or two ago, when we had more food than we could use, when we paid farmers not to plant. Now, because of our use of corn in fuel, we're seeing some shortages. We're seeing shortages for other reasons too, and during our time of climate change, we'll be seeing more shortages.

We live in an area that makes it hard to plan for the future, but realistically, it's always been hard to plan for the future. Changes have always come hurtling at humanity, many of those changes startling and unforeseen.

Maybe I'll write a poem--feel free to play along: the ghost of Malthus considers climate change.

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