Tuesday, 30 November 2010

The end is nigh; don't do anything....

Run, Run Run for your lives 
Swiftly take cover
We're paying the price 
The Sun, The Sun 
The Sun is falling down 
Out on The Sky 
I can hear the people cry
Prophet of Doomby Yngwie Malmsteen

Below, sent to a Canberra Coffee Club group, in response to the clip of the obit of Sir Frank Fenner, famous Australian medical researcher.

Your comments on Frank Fenner’s being “alarmed by runaway population numbers” caught my attention.  Also xxx’s email which quotes Sir Frank predicting that “as a result of the population explosion….”
A couple of points from the perspective of Hong Kong.
First, the world’s population growth rate is now slowing, not growing, let alone “exploding”.  (Google “world population growth”).  We may reach a maximum population of around 9+ billion in the middle of this century.  Some of us may still be around when we hit the peak and start declining.  And certainly our kids and kids’ kids will be.

And most  -- nearly all – of the growth will be in developing countries not the higher consuming developed countries. Even in poorer countries, fertility rates are dropping much more quickly than forecast just a few decades ago.[postscript *]  Japan, most of Europe, Australia even, are all below replacement level in natural population growth.  In short, the world’s population is only “exploding” if by exploding you mean “declining”. 
I guess the concerns about this “[non]-explosion” might be: (1) carrying capacity of the earth (2) climate change and (3) population density.
Commenting just on the third concern, population density, for the moment.  Hong Kong is one of the most densely populated places in the world, and our Kwun Tong district is the highest, at 53,000 people per sq. km.  (I was in Kwung Tong just yesterday; it’s great, doesn’t feel at all crowded!).
If Canberra had the same population density of Kwung Tong, its whole population would fit in the Parliamentary Triangle, or within Reid and a bit of Campbell.  If Canberra’s 840 sq. km. had the same density as Kwung Tong, it would have a population of over 40 million. 
And what does having such a high population density mean for Hong Kong?
Hong Kong is one of the safest cities in the world, robberies and violent crime rates low and murder rate nearly the bottom of the chart with only 0.5 per 100,000 population, around the same as Japan and Singapore.  Our residents are happy, too: just yesterday a headline in South China Morning Post was: “93% happy with their family lives” (here). Local phone and fax are free, the public transport system the best in the world (my judgment) and taxes are low – all because of, or allowed for by, high population density.
It turns out that living cheek-by-jowl is good for the environment too: domestic carbon dioxide production/year in Hong Kong is 5T/head, about a quarter of Australia’s, and below the world average (it could be a lot lower if we were better at energy conservation).  Part of the reason for that is the high use of public transport.  Over 90% of the daily 11 million journeys are on public transport, the highest proportion in the world. 
Fenner went on to say — according to the clip — that as a result of the [non-existent] “population explosion” Homo Sapienswill become extinct, perhaps within a hundred years” [my emphasis]. 
But how?  What is the mechanism by which today’s nearly 7 billion humans will go to zero — that’s “zero” as in 0, as in none, not one in a cave, or a mountain hideout, or in a basement or in Ushuaia, none, zero --  in the space of four generations?  What is it that will mean none of us receiving this email will have any surviving great-great-grandkids? 
It won’t be just because we’re peas in a pod (as I suggest above, squeezy ain’t bad — gosh durn, it’s good!). It can’t be from global warming “disruptive climate change” even at its projected worst in the next century: rises of metres in sea levels — even 70 metres -- temperature increases of 4 degrees – how would that make us extinct?  Uncomfortable, sure, but not extinct.  And extinction won’t be by running out of resources.  Not in a hundred years, when we have iron ore for 800 years, uranium for 850 years, non-ferrous metals for thousands of years, food enough for all (delivery’s the issue), and so on.  Even fisheries degradation – a huge issue – is fixable.  Hunger, famine, pestilence?  Sure.  But not extinction.
Not even a cataclysmic comet strike would do it.  None that we know of – and are tracking -- will come close enough to hit us let alone cause an extinction.  Even if there’s a rogue comet we don’t know about, and if it hits us before we can deflect it, it’s unlikely to make humans extinct.  After all,  it was the mammals that survived the comet that did for the dinosaurs. (But surely Fenner’s not thinking of a rogue comet in the next hundred years as his deus ex machina for the death of mankind?).
So, what is the mechanism of our "extinction"?
I think this extinction prediction is a nonsensical and crazy statement from a respected scientist.   A mate mine used to talk of “intelligent idiots”.  I nominate Fenner for post-mortem II status. [Postscript: that's very ungenerous of me; Sir Frank was clearly a great Australian and a great scientist.  It's just on this one issue -- a crazy and irresponsible prediction that I nominate him an an II]
BTW (1):  I wonder if Fenner was fearing Man’s extinction or hoping for it?  There are many in the environmental community who would be quite happy if the Plague of Humanity were wiped off the Earth.  A BBC radio doco on Jacques Cousteau — he wished for the death of humans.  But we Humans, we’re part of Nature too.  And we’re happy to co-exist in cosy, safe, efficient, environmentally-friendly closeness.
BTW (2): xxx concludes his mail: “the ignorance of our politicians is terrifying….”.  But what if they are simply listening to Fenner (he’s not ignorant, right?), and have taken on board his conclusion: “whatever we do now is too late”?  In that case why do anything? 
* "It is now accepted that fertility has been falling rapidly in poor countries – much more rapidly than was the case in Europe during its own fertility transitions in the 19th and early 20th centuries – and that this is occurring largely irrespective of income level.
"At first, this took many demographers by surprise, such as the rapid fertility reductions in China in the 1970s or in Egypt and Iran in the 1980s and 1990s. Even now, fertility is already falling rapidly in many African countries – much faster than many had anticipated – to almost replacement levels in a number of urban centres." 
       "The demographic imperative", Andrew M. Fischer, The Broker, October 08, 2010