Good Reading : November 2005
purely literary level – but it’s very wor rying.’ I asked him what he hoped the book would achieve. ‘I don’t know,’ he replied. ‘I think it’s presumptu- ous to think that books can ever change the world …’ I cut in quickly to demur. ‘But they do!’ He agreed that: ‘Occasionally, yes, you get a Rachel Carson with Silent Spring, or perhaps Orwell’s 1984 proofed us to some extent against dictatorships – although you listen to George Bush and you think, “War is peace, ignorance is strength”! … But I don’t feel I have any answers. I just felt that having stud- ied the situation, particularly in an archaeological way, which hadn’t I don’t think been done before, I felt that I should let people know the building was on fire. I don’t necessarily know how to put the fire out, but I’m the man who shouts ‘Fire!’ But so many people think of the boy who cried wolf, or maybe Hilaire Belloc’s ‘Matilda’. ‘Well, people can say that,’ Wright responded after ponder- ing. ‘And sometimes of course I question myself. I say, Is it really as bad as I think it is? Well, there was a big report issued this year called the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment Report. It came out in March 2005, after my book was published. It’s the work of 1300 scientists from 95 countries and it includes the UN, the US and the World Bank. This was a five-year study, designed not from a green perspective but from a perspective of seeing what level of human development and prosperity could the world’s ecosystems be expected to provide in the immedi- ate future. ‘And the report came out with some very worrying find- ings: that two-thirds of the world’s ecosystems already are degraded; that 90 % of the ocean fish has gone in the last 50 years; that half the chemical fertiliser ever used has been spread since 1985, causing all sorts of blooms and dead zones in seas and estuaries; and of course climate change – it just goes on and on. And that report by these middle-of-the-road scientists, who are looking at nature from the point of view of what could human beings screw out of it, was every bit as pessimistic as my own worst fears. So I decided I’m not an alarmist; it’s at least as bad as I think it is. I don’t know what we can do about it because we have to do something very quickly, and the prob- lem we face in doing it is political and economic inertia.’ Which brought me to the statistics that I found the most terrifying, and gave me the most profound sense of helplessness, in Wright’s book. They were about the human population of the world, insofar as it can be estimated accurately. At the height of the Roman Empire, in the second century AD, the world’s population was about 200 million. It was about 400 million in AD 1500, when Europe reached the Americas. In other words, it had taken thirteen centuries to add 200 million to the population of the world. Adding the last 200 million? That took just three years. When I expressed my hor ror at these statistics, Wright agreed that, yes, ‘Aid to the developing world should be cou- pled with birth control. Unfortunately, the present adminis- tration in the US is not keen on giving aid, but for religious reasons it’s certainly less keen on birth control. We cannot have real human development without controlling the population – but also it has to be pointed out that a poor person in the third world is not putting such a demand on the ecosystem as a rich person in the first world. But when people are lifted out of dire poverty and have some optimism, some feeling of secu- rity for the future, they tend to have smaller families.’ I agreed that the most effective way to control population was to educate women. But, alas, we are up against such enor- mous problems there. I couldn’t help ejaculating: ‘Oh, we’re a stupid species!’ Wright looked thoughtful. ‘In my darkest moments,’ he admitted, ‘I think that we’ve evolved to the point where we’re clever enough to get into trouble but we’re not really clever enough to avoid it or get out of it once we’re in it. That’s my pessimistic assessment: that we may be hitting our evolutionary ceiling with the world we’ve made for ourselves. I sure hope that we squeak through, but if we do squeak through it’s going to be a very close thing.’ And if we do, what do we do to the rest of the world’s population – the animals? author profile Next month all our readers will have the chance to WIN A TRIP FOR TWO TO CANADA in November 2006, staying at the Fairmont Resort at Jasper in the Canadian Rockies! Experience the famous annual ‘Christmas in November’ in November 2006 and create Christmas memories you’ll treasure for years to come! CHECK OUT THE DECEMBER ISSUE OF gr FOR DETAILS OF THIS GREAT COMPETITION!
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