Friday, August 1, 2008

The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight


Like many people who write for blogs, I sometimes have a lot to say and, at times, have very little to say. There are days when I can bang out 3 or 4 posts a day and days when I have no time, energy or wits to get going on a topic. Generally speaking, this translates to a buffer of posts which I can schedule to be posted one at a time. At any given time, I tend to have 4 or more posts in the buffer so I don't have to give a second thought to days when I'm not up to writing.

Keeping what I've just said in mind, I have a simple math question for my readers. If I have a buffer of 5 posts and I use them up without creating any new ones, what will happen? The answer is, of course, I can't continue to post. More have to be created.

"The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight" is a book I'm reading which endeavors to make this point clear. The only difference is that it's talking about planetary resources instead of blog posts. The basic idea is that a great deal of what we have been consuming for the duration of humanity's time on this planet has been the result of interactions with the sun. At one point in time, the earth was covered with miles of vegetation which eventually became the oil we have been using up. As we consume the oil far faster than it is replenished by the earth's natural processes, we're using up the buffer built up over hundreds of thousands of years in record time. We like to ignore the fact that we're emptying that buffer or pretend that there are hidden caches somewhere that will allow us to consume indefinitely, but we're just fooling ourselves.

The book also covers issues such as deforestation and desertification and it discusses all these issues in a very clear and easy to understand way. In fact, I daresay few books speak so clearly to the reader about these topics. It's actually a very hard book to read from an emotional standpoint. Reading about all the things that are happening to the planet which I have no control over makes me feel helpless and desperate.

The point of "The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight" isn't to depress you or scare you, but rather to raise awareness and (supposedly at the end...I haven't got there yet) to inspire you to change your lifestyle to one which can be supported by sustainable resources rather than continuing to empty out the earth's coffers, which took eons to fill, in just a dozen or so decades. If you can't control your frivolous consumption after reading this book, then you probably have a shopping-related disorder or no social conscience whatsoever. The cost of the little trinkets we buy for temporary amusement and later toss away is far greater than the money we spend on them.

As I read this book, there is one inescapable idea which keeps running through my mind. It's not a comfortable one, but it's impossible not to think it. There needs to be population control. The fact that the planet can't support the number of people living on it is so glaringly obvious that I can't believe more people don't take this into consideration. I'm not talking about Chinese-style policies for dramatic cuts in growth, but rather about people slowly putting the brakes on it such that the population worldwide gradually shrinks.

Unfortunately, a lot of people will use denial or weak rationalizations when it comes to considering environmental problems. While discussing this in an on-line forum, I was told that the idea that deforestation harms the planet was bullshit. The poster knew this because that's what he learned from Penn and Teller's Bullshit television show. He advised me to watch it so I'd learn "the truth". Strangely, I find a non-fiction book on the topic which gives details about how leaf canopy size and how deep roots of older trees affect oxygen replenishment and carbon dioxide (and carbon) more compelling than a T.V. show by a couple of sarcastic and profane magicians. I'm irrational like that. However, if listening to Penn and Teller helps some people with their internal denial dialog and a book negates it, then listen to Penn and Teller they shall.

I also once read a comment by a woman on the idea of trying to control population to take the burden off the earth who said that she had 6 kids because she believed that, if the population is reduced, those who remain will simply consume more. Her attitude was that she'd do whatever she wanted and everyone else could just get by with less. The thing that troubles me is not that I'll have to get by with less. In fact, I'm old enough now that it's unlikely that I will suffer the very worst of what might come to pass and I already am getting by with much less than the average American (much, much less). The thing that troubles me is that in the future the choice will not be one of more or less, but one of nothing at all. If you love children and care about their future and quality of life, wouldn't it be better to have only one or two and keep in mind that if everyone did the same, all future generations would have an improved quality of life?

5 comments:

Liz Stone Abraham said...

Until my sister had twins last September, I didn't truly understand why anyone wanted kids at all. I get it now. But I still think that people should seriously consider limiting the number of children they have.

On another note, Orchid, have you always been so prolific? I want to write, but I often find myself staring at an empty screen. And do you edit much? Or do your sentences just flow out fully formed?

Orchid64 said...

Hi, Liz, and many thanks for your comment!

I can understand why people want kids, and why some (including me) don't want them. I don't understand why 5 or 6 is better than 1 or 2 though. My aunt had 6 kids and it overwhelmed her. I think if she'd had fewer, she'd have paid more attention to them rather than let them run wild. Four of them turned out pretty badly (all of the girls had children out of wedlock before the age of 17 - one got pregnant at 14 for the first time - and this was 25-30 years ago before it was so common). Two of the three boys were criminals and spent time in jail. The first two turned out the best, which I think meant she mothered them a bit better when she only had 2.

In regards to how prolific I am, yes, I have always been this way. I'm not sure if that's a good thing or a bad thing. ;-)

In regards to editing, I do very little. Sometimes, I do none at all on blog posts, but I do try to read back through them once and fix the "brain fart" typing mistakes and errors. Since the words just sort of spill from brain to fingertips,
I actually make strange errors at times. Sometimes it's one of those typical errors like hear/here (which I know the difference between, of course, but my brain sends "sound" signals to my hands, not spelling ones),but at other times, it's a much stranger situation where I've typing a sound-alike word which makes no sense in the context I've used it. I may be thinking a word like "boring" but type "bone" instead, for instance.

Since I touch type, I don't think about the keys I'm hitting. I need to go back and find these disconnects between my brain and fingertips, though sometimes I miss the odd one.

The sentence structure almost always comes out full formed, though I do tweak phrases on occasion. It depends on my time and inclination and free time.

I think it's a bit easier to do this because I'm a fast typist. The posts likely don't take as long as most people think they might. :-)

Orchid64 said...

P.S. You can see I'm even worse with comments than posts. I just read my last two paragraphs over and I can see where I rushed and messed up. :-p

mapelba said...

I have one child and am going to keep it that way. I'm all for people having fewer children. People who believe that they should be able to do what they want and tough to rest are baffling to me. Nothing I do is all about me and that's not a lesson I want to teach my son.

The other side of that though is how do you have any kind of population control that doesn't become the China policy? I don't know. But it is something that needs thinking about.

Orchid64 said...

Hi mapelba, and many thanks for reading and commenting. I hope to have some time to read your blog as well very soon! I think it speaks well of you that you want to instill the idea in your son that our actions affect others and not just ourselves.

Regarding population control without resorting to the lengths China has gone to, I think there can be subtle, but appreciable societal nudges to compel people to think hard about having more children. For instance, tax deductions for a third child and each subsequent child could be eliminated and property taxes could be incrementally increased (to cover higher schooling costs) on those who have more than two children. To encourage poor people from having more children, the government could offer financial incentives (in the way of college grants or scholarships for only the first and/or second child) to people of low income with only one or two children. This would serve a dual purpose of elevating the child's chances of improving his lot as well as discouraging larger families among those who can least afford them.

Ultimately, education about the impact on the environment would be good so that people could act in accord with their own conscience, but I think that most people will just do what they want anyway.