Nov 302010
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Many are aware that climate disruption may cause horrendous problems, but few seem to realize that this peril is not the only potentially catastrophic one and may not even be the most serious threat we face. Humanity finds itself in a desperate situation, but you’d never know it from listening to the media and the politicians. Loss of the biodiversity that runs human life-support systems, toxification of the planet, the risk of pandemics that increase in lockstep with population growth, and the possibility of nuclear resource wars all could be more lethal. We are finally, however, starting to understand the patterns of culture change and the role of natural selection in shaping them. And since everything from weapons of mass destruction to global heating is the result of changes in human culture over time, acquiring a fundamental understanding of cultural evolution just might be the key to saving civilization from itself.

The change will begin with clearing up the misapprehensions; even climate disruption, for instance, is widely misunderstood. Sea-level rise, displacing tens of millions of people, may be the least of it. Changing patterns of precipitation, which likely will be continuous over the next millennium, will make vast problems for agriculture. So will the melting of mountain snows and glaciers that are so critical to the flows of water upon which food production depends. Furthermore, the temperature sensitivity of crops and impairment of natural pest controls will make maintaining crop yields in many areas ever more difficult. Melting of the Himalayan “water tower” (the ice and snow on those mountains and on the Tibetan plateau), combined with reduced productivity of wheat and rice, now imperils the nutrition of some 1.6 billion nuclear-armed people in south Asia. Worldwide, we face the possibility of today’s billion hungry people becoming several billion starving to death.

To help avert such an outcome, humanity must revise civilization’s water-handling infrastructure for maximum flexibility. And that could be a minor chore compared with the necessary restructuring of the world’s energy economy in the next few decades, or addressing the racism, sexism, and economic inequity that make environmental problems so difficult to solve in the first place.

Educated people generally realize that humanity’s negative impacts on our life-support systems are tightly tied to population size; for instance, the more people, the more greenhouse gases are added to the atmosphere. But few realize that the 2.5 billion people projected to be added to the human population by midcentury will have a much greater destructive impact than the last 2.5 billion. People are smart and therefore naturally use the most concentrated, highest-grade resources first. So each additional person must be fed from more marginal land, equipped with objects made of metal won from poorer ores, supplied with water from more distant sources or expensively purified, and so on. Similarly, while politicians and many economists believe that increasing consumption is the cure for all economic ailments, it is only because they do not understand that the human economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of nature’s economy. They have not yet learned that it is the aggregate consumption of Homo sapiens that is destroying our natural capital. They are unwitting victims of the culture gap.

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