Bubble Trouble

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I called Western Civilisation the ‘Bubble’ in my first post, meaning that we inhabit a small and very privileged place in time and geography. In fact, a place that’s unique. But there’s an even more obvious characteristic of a bubble – its fragility. A bubble is so delicate and short-lived that you marvel that it can exist at all.  So the question arises; is our Bubble as ephemeral as a real-life soap bubble? Are we drifting, just a moment away from the hard edge of a table or an inquisitive child’s finger?

I suppose we take our Bubble for granted most of the time because it’s all we know. Perhaps it’s arrogant, but it’s easy to feel a sense of inevitability about the arrival of the Western world, as if the whole of history was leading up to it – that our privileged lifestyle was bound to be, is here to stay and will probably improve.

But the emergence of industrialised society, with the wealth, security and freedoms we’ve come to expect, could really only have come about when and where it did. If there hadn’t been a sudden take-off in Europe and then North America over the last few hundred years, it’s hard to imagine it happening anywhere else. And the Bubble hasn’t been around very long – in its present form less than a century, so why shouldn’t it just disappear again, to be remembered wistfully as a hazily understood Golden Age?

Could it really happen? Could we really be dumped unceremoniously back into a place where people die of hunger, cold and untreated diseases? Where children go to work rather than school and women are treated as lesser beings? A place where open disagreement with your government or the true religion is a dangerous path to take? Perhaps also a place where slavery and torture become the natural order of things, just as they always were? If we’ve somehow forgotten, we should remind ourselves as a matter of urgency that this is the norm – not the cosy, cosseted world we love to complain about. For practically the whole of history and in the larger part of the world today, this was and is the shabby reality people live with.

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On September 1st 1859, strange phenomena began to happen around the world. Magnificent displays of the aurora borealis and australis were observed as far south as the Caribbean and as far north as Santiago, Chile. In the north, birds started to sing in the middle of the night and in the North East U.S, people found they could read by the aurora’s light. The nascent telegraph system in Europe and North America began to fail. Operators got electric shocks and “streams of fire” flew from the equipment.  Having disconnected the batteries, telegraph operators in Boston were astonished to find that they could still send messages.

These amazing occurrences, which lasted only a matter of hours, are known as the Carrington Event after the amateur British astronomer who, quite literally, saw it coming. Observing the sun through his telescope (indirectly, children), Carrington saw a bright white light erupting from a group of sun-spots; it was a massive solar flare sending out charged particles which hit our planet some 17 hours later.

Geomagnetic storms of this type are not unusual and are known to be a risk to satellites and to disrupt radio communications, but nothing close to the scale of the Carrington Event has hit the Earth since 1859. What if one did? One thing is certain, what was an interesting and mildly disruptive event to the mid-Victorians could be quite catastrophic today. There would be widespread failures of satellites, which are central to credit card transactions and a great deal else – and it would certainly be a bad idea to be caught using your PC when the storm hit.

But the biggest danger would be to the giant electrical transformers which are essential to electrical grids around the world. There aren’t many of these transformers ‘on the shelf’ and if a few of them were burnt out, people over wide areas could find themselves without electricity for weeks.

We know what happens if there’s a power-cut for more than a few hours. Criminal gangs get themselves together and go out looting. Others often join in. Extend that for a day or two – especially if you concentrate people in a central location like a sports stadium, and the violent robberies and rapes begin.

How long does food last in a supermarket without electricity? How long would you like to stay in your unlit home when there’s no water to flush the toilet. How many helicopters and army trucks would it take to feed a city like New York or London? Where would all that food and clean water come from if half the country was affected? Or half the world? Let’s face it, most of us would probably just be abandoned to our fate.

However, the situation should be perfectly manageable. There would be a warning of around 20 hours before a geomagnetic storm hit, giving electrical companies enough time to take their transformers off-line. The question is, would they all do it? Are the plans in place, I wonder, or would lowly employees have to act on their own initiative to plunge their area into darkness for the duration of the event – or would they, perhaps, wait for instructions from top management which might, or might not, arrive in time?

There was a ‘Carrington class’ event in 2012. Fortunately, this particular solar storm wasn’t pointed at the Earth. But the point isn’t really about geomagnetic storms, it’s about the vulnerability of our infrastructure. It really doesn’t take very much disruption for very long to send the whole system crashing down. And in some ways it’s getting more and more fragile. Twenty years ago an office would cease to operate if there was a power-cut, today it ceases to operate if the internet goes down.

I suppose we would ride out a new Carrington Event, but what about the explosion of the super-volcano under Yellowstone National Park? Some are predicting a 20% chance of that happening in the next 80 years; if you think the effect would be local, think again.

One day a large piece of rock will smash into the Earth; I’m not thinking about a dinosaur- extinction type impact, which is quite unlikely in the near future, I’m thinking about the Tunguska meteorite which flattened 2,000 square kilometres of Siberian forest in 1908. I’m thinking of it over an urban area and perhaps just a bit bigger. How often does that happen? We have no real idea.

In 1918 an incredibly virulent form of influenza caused more deaths worldwide than the recently ended First World War. Is another epidemic waiting, somewhere in the world’s jungles perhaps, to jump out on us – one that spreads through the air and has no ready cure? It seems perfectly possible.

One thing is certain; sooner or later something very unpleasant and more or less unexpected is going to hit the world. When that happens let’s hope our species’ fabled resilience and flexibility is in full working order. In most scenarios humanity won’t be faced with outright extinction, but could our Bubble possibly survive such a trauma?

It depends on the disaster, of course, but economically speaking things might creep back to more or less where they were. Inventions won’t be uninvented and the urge to rebuild will be strong. But what about our hard-won freedoms and civil rights? A catastrophic event would very likely lead to a temporary curtailing of these, as in any wartime state of emergency.  To those in power, individual rights are usually a grudgingly accepted nuisance; the temptation would be there to make a temporary position permanent, as many a dictator has done in the past. Once relinquished, it will be a hard job to lever our freedoms back.

Not all catastrophes are sudden. We live on a planet with finite resources which have to be used as wisely as possible. Unfortunately our track record in this respect is far from wise. Everywhere we see pollution, degradation of soil, introduced alien species running riot, destruction of habitat and the ensuing danger of species extinction.

It would be a mistake to think that this just a modern failure; as humankind expanded out of Africa and over the world we indulged in an orgy of ecological devastation wherever we arrived. Where are the woolly mammoth and the cave bear? Where are the original horses of North America, the giant sloth of South America, the giant kangaroos that once hopped around Australia and the giant moa bird of New Zealand? Where are a host of other mega-fauna that used to roam different corners of the Earth? Where, for that matter, is our nearest relative, Neanderthal man? ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’ we might well ask. Apparently, we are not. All these species survived the usual climate cycle of ice and warming many times over, before disappearing, suddenly, the moment Homo Sapiens appeared on the scene.

So the finger of suspicion points very firmly in our direction. Much like a fox in the hen-house, when we arrived somewhere pristine and bountiful, it seems we couldn’t resist the temptation to slaughter animals way beyond what we needed to eat. Smaller, faster-breeding animals could survive and regenerate; larger ones were routinely hunted to extinction.

It isn’t a flattering picture of ‘primitive’ peoples so often portrayed as the careful custodians of their environment, but they were, and are, just as much people as we are, with all the same failings as well as the same potential.

The difference today, of course, is the fact that we can destroy things much more efficiently and completely, and that we are far, far more numerous. Population continues to grow at an alarming rate; in the early 19th century there were around one billion people on the planet, there are now something over 7 billion and counting. You could say that over-population is the root of every ecological problem there is.

I’ve heard it argued that the Earth, properly managed, could cope with a population of 12 billion or more. But 20 billion? 50 billion? 100 billion? You can just keep going until, sooner or later, you hit the ceiling very hard. Unchecked, populations rise exponentially; in the animal kingdom, such population explosions inevitably end in a massive crash.

One day, too, there will be another Ice Age – we’re overdue for one. The effects won’t happen all at once, of course, but they might tighten their grip over years and decades rather than centuries. It’s hard to exaggerate the effects of a new Ice Age, it will make a large percentage of the planet’s surface uninhabitable, it will make agriculture impossible over an even larger area and it will be unstoppable.

All in all there is a lot of cause for concern, but let’s end on an up-beat note. The rise in population doesn’t necessarily end in a crash; as people get richer children stop becoming an economic necessity, they become a time-consuming financial burden.  People still want children, they just have far fewer. The trend is obvious in Europe and Japan, where populations no longer replace themselves. The more alarmist global population projections have failed to come about; most of the world is, indeed, getting wealthier and the population rise is flattening accordingly.

And what of our terrible destructive nature? Our view of native peoples living in harmony with the natural world isn’t just romantic twaddle. Native populations have to live closely with their environment and to respect its limits – either that or they die out. Long ago they learnt to do just that, which is the situation Europeans explorers and settlers found, before setting off on their own spectacularly short-sighted round of ecological vandalism.

To be fair, the great majority of ecological destruction stems from ignorance and necessity rather than pure greed and stupidity. Nature seems endless and each year the herds come back, so why not just take and take?  – then suddenly the herds don’t come back and  there isn’t any more to take. Our distant ancestors could then move on to fresh areas, or learn to live more sensibly. We no longer have the first option.

But we do learn; just like the indigenous populations did. People and governments in the West are more or less aware that we have to respect and protect the natural world. In Western nations the environment is cleaner, better protected and in many respects healthier than 50 years ago. A lot of damage has been done globally, and damage is still being done, but nowadays most of that results from the short-term greed and corruption of governments and companies in the ‘developing’ world and the pressure of increasing population.

There is much talk, for example, of the monstrous island of plastic gathered by ocean currents in the Pacific. What is usually not mentioned is that that plastic is from the dumping of third world countries; in the West, nobody could get away with that sort of filthy behaviour.

Consider also Easter Island, where the inhabitants cut down every tree on their island to built pointless statues. This is routinely presented as a terrible warning to the world. But it is notable mainly because it’s a special case – a very restricted and isolated habitat, where there was no escape and no way back from ecological destruction. We do not live on Easter Island and we are not close to cutting down every tree. We tend to forget how big the Earth is and how empty; it’s more resilient than it’s often given credit for.

I’m reminded of Bill Bryson’s book, Notes from a Big Country, in which he returns with his family to live in New England. The area is covered in dense forest, where a light plane once crashed and wasn’t discovered for months. Looking at old photographs in the town hall, Bryson is amazed to see that the region was once totally covered in neat farmland. What had happened was that more fertile land was discovered further west and the farms were abandoned. Within a century, what appeared to be virgin forest had re-established itself, leaving no trace of human activity or settlement.

We have the ability to do immense damage to the Earth’s eco-systems, many of which are finely-balanced and delicate – and several, like the Amazon, may be essential for the well-being of the entire planet. But neither should we listen uncritically to stories designed to wrack us with guilt and despair.  It seems to me that the key to avoiding – and reversing – environmental destruction lies in a stable population and increasing wealth and security for all the people on the planet. The two things go together and feed off each other in a virtuous spiral, but it also supposes that wealth ceases to mean the sort of over-consumption we’re prone to.

So I think there are grounds to be guardedly optimistic. We also have a ‘get out of jail free’ card which is tantalisingly close to our grasp and will ensure the survival of our species and our bubble (though not all its inhabitants) from even the most catastrophic dinosaur-busting type event. All we need is a century or so of relative peace and quiet, and we’re home and dry. But much more on that subject later.

Natural catastrophes and ecological damage are things we can all agree are bad, but at least we can identify and try to deal with the problems. There is, however, a more insidious and perhaps more dangerous threat facing us. In brief, not all of the planet’s population are fans of the Bubble; quite a few of them would put a sharp pin to it if they possibly could. And that’s what I’m going to think about next.

Prospero, 2016

 

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