Humpty Dumpty reportedly gave “Living on the Edge” as his last known address to the King’s men who came to rescue him as he lay dying.
It may well be a metaphor for the times — Living on the Edge!
As this column has argued over the past two weeks, our astounding progress of the past two and an half centuries has been accomplished at a terrible cost. Not only have we irreversibly changed our climate and the Earth’s ecosystem, we have become addicted to a non-renewable resource, oil and coal, for our very existence.
So are we facing a very real “Return of the Middle Ages”? Are we really left with no option but to fall from our high perch like Humpty Dumpty? Is our mighty civilisation really fragile like an eggshell?
The first thing necessary for even attempting an answer to these questions is to list the facts as we know them and only then move on to probabilities and future possibilities.
So what are the facts of human existence today.
A simple, back-of-the-envelope calculation dividing the total population of the world with the total land mass shows that there are 5.6 acres of landmass for each living human being today. This 5.6 acres includes a portion of the world’s deserts, frozen areas like Antarctic and high mountains, swamps, dense forests, rivers and lakes, etc which means that the productive acres are much less. This per capita land area also includes each human’s share of arable land and fresh water and has to provide that person’s requirements of steel, coal, oil, minerals, wood, cloth, etc.
Now, if we take a look at our own lives it is quite obvious that even in developing countries like Pakistan, India and Bangladesh, the normal middle class and above person consumes resources gathered from more than this 5.6 acres. Our houses, cars, electricity consumption, clothes, food is incapable of being provided from a mere 5.6 acres specially when one remembers that much of this mythical area is under sand and snow. And it is clearly obvious that our middle class life-styles are not a patch on the Europeans, North Americans and Japanese.
So how does this extravagant lifestyle manage to sustain itself over decades, if not centuries? There is the time honoured method of taking resources more than is allocated per capita. A fancy word for that is Imperialism, when this robbery of resources is in the context of countries and nations. The drain of resources from the third world to the first world is too well documented to be repeated here.
But appropriation of resources meant for others for one’s own use has various other labels we will surely recognise — Capitalism, Racism – Apartheid, Patriarchy, Caste (in my country). What these labels imply is that one person, or group of people, take from another person, or group of people, what should rightfully be the latter’s . History is really the story of how, in different places at different times, a small group of people have managed to take for themselves the common resources of all. But that is another issue altogether and we will stray from facts to interpretation if we pursue it longer.
If the world and its 6.5 billion people have managed to survive on their 5.6 acres per capita, howsoever unfairly it has been divided, why should we despair for the future? After all human existence has managed to overcome every challenge till now. While there is no answer to success, there are two reasons for being skeptical about the future.
Firstly, the only way we have managed to sustain this large population is by intense energy use. Hydrocarbons which were collected by plant and animal life over a few million years and trapped inside the earth for anything from 90 to 150 million years is being used at a rate where we have spent half of our petroleum reserves already. Furthermore, thousands of calories worth of energy is used to provide one human being with one calorie of energy as our food is grown, transported and preserved using massive amounts of hydrocarbons. Just imagine the energy used to grow, preserve, transport and retail one watermelon from Indonesia to a supermarket in the United Kingdom! This is unsustainable, specially when easy availability of hydrocarbons ceases.
Secondly, this large-scale use of hydrocarbon energy has caused and is causing massive changes to the climate, so much so that experts like the scientists of the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change have warned of a real reduction in arable land, food production and water availability. With the lessening of the productive area within the 5.6 acres available to each human being, the probability of conflict with surely increase (remember Iraq is about the oil!) as we scamper around trying to take resources from others to sustain our life-styles. As we face the increasingly smaller allocation of planet Earth for each of us, we will willy nilly use even greater amounts of energy to draw even more out of our 5.6 acres, contributing even more to climate change and thus hastening our spiral downwards.
The real danger is the inability of human beings today, both individually and as a collective, to come to terms with this reality. I had started this column with a few questions. These questions impact on the very existence of human life on Earth. But they cannot be answered without first acknowledging that reality which we seem to deny everyday as we jet around our busy lives.
It is almost as if Humpty Dumpty is waiting to fall.
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This was published in The Post on 21 February, 2007.