October 16, 2019

The best of times or the worst of times?

By Barend ter Haar.

“It is worse, much worse, than you think.” That is how David Wallace-Wells begins The Uninhabitable Earth, A Story of the Future. “Ten reasons we’re wrong about the world – and why things are better than you think” is the subtitle Hans Rosling cs gave to Factfulness.

The two books seem to contradict each other. Who is right? Are things better than we think, or worse, much worse?

The answer is that both can be right, because they speak about different things. Rosling spoke about what we have accomplished so far and Wallace speaks about the unpaid bill for those accomplishments. Both are right, because we tend to underestimate both the global level of wealth we have achieved and the environmental price for what we are doing.

Let us look at three examples of human progress: combustion engines, plastics and industrial chemicals.

Not so long ago, human labour and horsepower were almost the only sources of power. Nowadays, almost all the heavy lifting is done by engines that burn fossil fuels. 

Utensils used to be made by hand of perishable materials, such as wood and clay. Plastic made it possible to replace them by cheap, mass-produced and almost non-perishable utensils. 

The development of chemistry resulted in the production of some very effective chemicals such as pharmaceutics and pesticides.

Spreading these and a few other inventions over most of the world resulted in fabulous progress. Within two generations the number of people living in extreme poverty decreased from a large majority to about 10% of the world population and life expectancy doubled.

However, little attention was given to the unintended consequences of what we were doing. 85% of the fossil fuel humanity used during its history was burned after the Second World War, most of that during the last 30 years. As a result there is “a third more carbon in the atmosphere than at any point in the last 800.000 years”. How much and how quick will temperatures and sea levels rise? We do not know the exact answer, if only because that depends on our own actions, but we know that they are rising. The ice sheet on Greenland, for example, is estimated to lose “almost a billion tons of ice every single day”.

We are also starting to understand what happened with the non-perishable plastics and other chemicals after their use. They return to us in our own food. If present trends continue, in 30 years’ time  there will be more plastic than fish in our oceans. This is only one of many reasons why the rate of extinction of animals is currently about 1000 times as high as it was before we started tinkering with nature. Should we worry about that?

A tale of two citieswas written by Dickens 170 years ago, but the first sentence seems to be written for our current situation: “It was the bestof times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…”

How will our grandchildren look back at our time: as an age of wisdom or as an age of foolishness?

Comments are closed.