long-term survival strategies
July 23, 2007 (as amended)

The recent flooding of middle England, two months in a row, has pressed, at least in this country, a very large alarm button. Media images of submerged villages are shocking, not only in their sense of powerlessness, but also in their unspoken reminder that this can happen seemingly to anybody, and finally, in their statistical improbability. If, in May, you'd tried to bet someone that there'd be two "105-year flood events" in the next two months, you'd have been laughed out of the bookmakers. By definition, that kind of event happens once in every 105 years, on average. The fact that it happened twice in two months means either that there's something very wrong with the statistics, or that something else has changed: and that else is the weather.

So, what can we do? We need to become as sustainable as we can be; we need to reduce our environmental footprint to as close as zero as we can, as soon as possible. This can be achieved by making a large number of technical changes to our processes. These changes are process-specific and are not covered here, however, they bring into relevance the concept of change management; the generic strategies discussed there are as applicable to the mitigation of climate change as they are to any other kind of change process.

Looking into the longer term, this planet is slowly filling up, and we're slowly consuming it at the same time. The climate is not our only problem. We have a whole host of issues, listed here for reference:

  1. climate change (aka global warming, greenhouse effect)
  2. overpopulation
  3. loss of biodiversity - in turn driven by anthropogenic habitat destruction (we're turning forests into farms)
  4. resource depletion

These problems are all interlinked, by the success of the human species, yet to some extent they are separate; in particular, despite being interlinked, a solution to one of these issues may not be a solution for another.

While it may be possible to avert drastic climate change by substituting fossil fuels for carbon-neutral energy sources, this does not fix the longer-term problem of resource depletion, a separate and altogether more intractable problem. Climate change is in fact a smallish, managable, medium-term challenge by comparison.

We cannot stop breeding, and stop eating, as we seem to be born to do exactly that, to self-replicate, and we are extremely successful at it, and we should not feel bad about that; all creatures consume and produce, that's what life is about. In addition, even if we were to stabilise our population at a certain level, this will not fix the longer-term problem of resource depletion. Overpopulation is making many of our problems worse - but stabilising (or even reducing) our population merely defers the problem of resource depletion, it does not solve it.

To address resource depletion, although attempting to live sustainably might be considered as a possibility, in reality, it's unlikely to work. The Earth is not a closed system - it is constantly replenished by energy from the sun, some of which eventually ends up in the human food chain. This makes it possible, in theory at least, to live on it permanently. However, this may necessitate a more animalistic form of living than we're willing to accept. Human civilisation needs more than food, we also need water, metals, chemicals and many other resources. If we are to live sustainably, forever, in a civilised fashion, we need to find ways to build all our things from renewable resources. This seems unlikely; there is no such thing as a "steel tree", for example - so how can steel be replaced with a sustainable alternative? Or copper? How is electricity to be conducted, using renewable materials? Can we feed, clothe, house, power, connect, transport, heat, cool, teach, employ and entertain 10 billion humans using only sustainable materials? Perhaps it's possible, given enough time and enough science. Certainly, this approach will buy time - but sooner or later, we are going to run out of something we really need, and cannot replace. Eventually, we will completely consume all of the non-renewable resources available.

Thus there seems to be just one approach to our long-term survival. The solution to the resource depletion problem is to find new supplies of resources, and these are now located in space - on asteroids, moons and other planets. A fungus, growing in a sealed jar, will eventually consume all its food and die. Unless we can find a viable natural alternative to every one of our resource needs, like it or not, humans are just the same as that fungus, sealed in a jar called Earth, with a limited number of resources. If we are to live, we must ultimately escape this jar.

Resources from uninhabitable rocks could probably be shipped back to Earth - but if we found at least one additional planet we could live on, this would be a much more sustainable solution.

Some people wince and say, yes, and spread the human disease to a new planet, which we can screw up as well! To which I reply, that is the way life works, it consumes and produces, and we can do nothing about it. All life seeks to explore and colonise new niches, it is a form of self-replication, and again, we should not apologise for wanting, indeed needing to continue this pattern. It is not "human disease" but rather, terrestrial life, and it has been produced quite naturally by the Earth itself, and now seeks, again quite naturally to reproduce itself, to continue to self-replicate, and this is totally normal and within bounds. All life will seek to overcome its jar, to grow around obstacles, whether it be a fungus, a tree, a single human or indeed an entire planet of species. Terrestrial life has, over the aeons, overcome many obstacles and it currently finds itself corralled by the space between planets. Life, by definition will try constantly and in many different ways to overcome that obstacle, all the while, as it tries, growing increasingly more sophisticated. Sooner or later, the static barrier that is the obstacle will be overcome by the dynamism, by the constant attempts and reattempts, by the growth and by the feedback and by the learning which becomes, via survival of the fittest, embedded in the DNA of the member organisms. There is every reason to believe that one day, space will prove no more of an obstacle than the oceans on Earth are to life on Earth today, that is, no obstacle at all.

It's thus a race against time. Terrestrial life needs to get off this planet before it consumes the resources it needs to do so. We must not suffocate or starve before we learn how to escape, yet the longer we take to learn, the less resources we have left. Climate change, overpopulation, loss of biodiversity, resource depletion and all the rest are just parts of this bigger pattern - life's perennial instinct to multiply - and the perennial demands for new resources that stem from this.