I just finished this; it’s by Clive Ponting, and it was published in 2007. Immediate reaction: Human beings suck. I really wish there was a better species to belong to.

ponting

You may get an idea of its depressiveness from the fact that just one chapter is devoted to global warming. Yeah, that might destroy our civilization, but we were already headed that way. Also, if you think the culprit is manufacturing, or oil, or capitalism, think again. The problem goes way back, at least to the beginnings of agriculture.

And that may be letting the hunter-gatherers off the hook too easily. Humans are not only frighteningly efficient hunters, they’re death for other large animals. When humans reached the Americas, they quickly eliminated 75% of all large animal species.

As for agriculture, the main problems are these:

  • Soil erosion. Exposing the soil means that much of it is blown or washed away. This in turn silts up the rivers and causes flooding. The process is particularly deadly in the tropics, because rain forests have very poor soil— after a few crops are grown the land turned into baked clay, good for almost nothing.
  • Salinization. Irrigation in poor soils creates waterlogging and brings up salt, which impedes crops. Sumerian culture basically destroyed itself this way: by 1700 BCE crop yields were 1/3 of what they were when civilization began. (Sumer itself never fully recovered— political power moved north to Babylonia.)
  • The extension of agriculture to more and more marginal terrain.
  • Deforestation. Forests are cut down for building and for fuel. Over six thousand years, almost all of China and all of northern India have been converted into cropland. The current appearance of Mediterranean countries— semi-desert with occasional stands of olive trees— is man-made; forests once covered most of the land.
  • Poor diet. Most peasants survive almost entirely on grain and beans. Hunter-gatherers are far healthier. Plus, living with animals we get all their diseases.
  • These days, the unsustainable and polluting high usage of fertilizers and antibiotics.

Basically, Malthus was right: any increase in productivity is soon eaten up (literally) by increased population. 90% of human beings lived in starvation-level misery well into the 1800s. And that’s before you consider epidemics, war, or slavery.

There’s just one civilization that had a sustainable model, due to its geography: Egypt. The flood of the Nile brought a new coating of soil every year, so salinization wasn’t a problem. The valley is surrounded by desert, so there was no forest to cut down and no temptation to use marginal land. Egypt basically farmed the same way from 4000 BCE till the 19th century. It’s in trouble today, largely because of the Aswan Dam. The dam stops the silting process, so the Nile delta is shrinking, salinization is now a problem, and soil fertility must be supplemented by chemicals. Irrigation has spread schistosomiasis and fresh water is scarce.

Then there’s overhunting and overfishing. The chapter on fishing is particularly depressing. Humans just cannot seem to figure out that fish stocks are finite, even as they exhaust one after another. The fishing industry naturally resists any form of regulation, but again: we don’t just use fish species, we use them up. Once the fish are gone, you don’t have a fishing industry any more.

If you have an early-industrial conworld (as I do), some observations from Bernardino Ramazzini, an Italian doctor. He noted a number of industry-specific diseases in 1700:

  • potters got trembling and paralysis from lead poisoning
  • glass-makers got ulcerated lungs from antimony and borax
  • gilders and hatters got mercury poisoning (thus the Mad Hatter)
  • coal miners got lung diseases
  • cotton mills also produced lung problems, due to lint in the air; people who worked with wood had similar problems due to wood dust
  • coal and oil products caused cancer

Next— colonialism. Here at last the Europeans get to be the clear villains. I’ll just tell one story, which was new to me. In Kenya, whites stole all the good land. But they needed cheap labor for their plantations, so they couldn’t just let the natives continue to use traditional methods on what land remained to them. They instituted a poll tax and a hut tax, paid in cash, to force the Africans to work for them. When this didn’t produce enough labor, they raised the taxes, appropriated more land, and put import duties to raise the cost of living. This “worked” in the sense that the plantations got their labor. It also killed off nearly half the population.

The kicker: this happened, not in the 1720s, but in the 1920s. This is part of why stupid articles about how the American revolution preserved slavery drive me up the wall. The British were evil to the people they ruled… and not much better to their own descendants. (Not to get into too much of a digression: the British were able to outlaw slavery in their own colonies only because they’d lost the biggest slave-owning population, in British North America. And they supported the Confederacy in our civil war. They sold warships and blockade-running ships to the CSA— for which they had to pay the US reparations afterwards. No, they weren’t more benign than any other unelected overlords. And no, monarchy is not cuddly.)

The USSR did its fair share of devastation. They purposely drained the Aral Sea, which was supposed to provide good cropland but instead created a salty desert. Attempts to use Kazakh steppe as cropland was a disaster, resulting in losing 50% of the cropland in Kazakhstan. Collectivization killed millions of peasants and reduced food consumption even in the cities. Most industrial sludge was dumped untreated into rivers… several times rivers caught on fire. A nuclear accident in  Siberia released radiation equivalent to 3000 Hiroshima-sized bombs, and made Lake Karachai the most radioactive place on earth: you’ll get a lethal dose if you just stand on the shore for 30 minutes.

Another big mistake? Cars. Cars use 20% of world steel production, 35% of zinc, 50% of lead, 60% of rubber, 1/3 of oil. Car accidents kill a million people a year worldwide. In car-based Los Angeles, 2/3 of the center city is devoted to roads, garages, freeways, and parking areas. Yet street traffic is actually slower in modern cities than it was in 1900.

As for global warming… not much of this is news by now, but prospects are bad. Temperatures are up 0.85° C on average, and rising 0.2° C per decade. But it’s not uniform: the change in temperate areas is about 150% of that, and even higher at the poles. The goal of limiting warming to 2° C is optimistic. Worrying signs:

  • Polar ice is already starting to melt. That could raise the sea level significantly and, by removing all that reflective white ice, accelerate warming.
  • As the tundra melts, huge amounts of methane are released. And methane is a far more powerful warming agent than carbon dioxide.
  • Ironically, reducing industrial pollution could accelerate warming, by removing dust from the air.
  • The oceans absorb CO2… but there’s a strong possibility (based on examining climate change from millions of years ago) that this doesn’t continue indefinitely.

Predictions are tricky, but if these processes take off, warming by 2100 may be more in the range of 10° C. (That’s 18° F in case you’re rusty on Celsius. And recall, it’s higher in temperate latitudes. So Chicago’s average summer day of 85° F might be 112° instead.) And note, if we haven’t done anything, temperatures continue rising.

I’m naturally an optimist, but it’s hard to maintain that reading this book. At least let me emphasize that all this is a crisis of humanity’s own making. If we keep going as we’re going— well, we get ecological collapse with massive population die-off. But like Scrooge’s ghosts, the message is that we could pick another path. But it will require a hell of a lot of painful change, rethinking our civilization from the ground up. And at precisely the moment we need to make changes, we’re ruled by reactionaries who want to accelerate the collapse.

So, any other species need recruits? Gnolls? Half-orcs maybe?