Look Forward

It’s coming to the end of the year, and most of the press fall prey to look-back disease. There will be men and women of the year, film of the year, the year in review, and other year things to tell you what you already know about the year.

Looking back is useful if you channel it toward looking forward, for the simple reason that history is a great teacher—after all, history is to nations what experience is to humans.

But there’s no point is having a great teacher unless you’re keen to learn.

And it seems to me that young people are far more ready to learn from each other than from older people, and the opposite is also true. Older people entrench—they’re not ready to embrace the knowledge generated by the young.

Nevertheless, youngsters are often more prepared to hear advice from grandparents than from parents, although the cultural pressure in Western society often means that kids in their teens begin to disparage the surviving members of their family—in general, they do that because they see their parents ignoring, patronizing, and even insulting those very people.

I find it interesting, in a really scary way, that in the West we’ve replaced individual, or family altruism, by the notion that society will provide comfort.

So… old people’s home, retirement community, adult day care, nursing home, assisted living, senior home… so many euphemisms, so little love.

Institutions provide the shelter, at a price, and TV provides the social interaction. The knowledge of the elderly, sometimes touching on wisdom, is irrevocably lost.

As the planet moves forward, it generally does so without looking forward—this is rather serious, because we’re sailing into uncharted territory. When King John II sent the Portuguese ships south, there was a careful exploration of the West African coast, and an investigation about the monsoon winds in the Indian ocean.

This combined knowledge allowed Vasco da Gama to sail to India in 1497. At that time, the world had about five hundred million people, a little more than the population of Europe today.

If you’re familiar with Hans Rosling and his Lego boxes, you’ll know he advocates that improved child survival is the key to population growth on the planet—hitting nine billion by twenty-fifty is definitely uncharted territory.

Birth rate as a function of child mortality.

Birth rate as a function of child mortality.

Rosling came highly recommended, but I wasn’t bowled over. I won’t comment on the Lego boxes, but I think the issue of child survival as a population control panacea needs to be thought through.

According to Rosling’s analysis, an improvement of living conditions leads to reduction in child mortality rates. No question. Which leads to reduction of birth rates. Hmm…

And what about the demographic shift? What’s happened in countries with low birth rates? The population structure has shifted hugely, and although these are certainly no countries for old men, because we die first, they have become countries of old women.

In nations where the demographics have been readjusted,  with a re-injection of youths into the system, one word says it all: immigration.

I plucked the good doctor’s graph from the TED talk since I couldn’t find it anywhere else. Child survival is the independent variable (the bottom axis), which suggests fertility depends on child survival. Personally, I would have thought kids have less chance of surviving when the parents have more of them, rather than the other way round.

This is particularly the case if resources (i.e. food, water, health care, etc) are scarce. This may all sound like random pedantry, but actually the suggestion is that if a higher proportion of kids survive the mother will have less kids—but in fact although the graph suggests a trend, the problem is the causality.

I could show you a lovely graph of how piracy depends on global warming (hotter planet, less pirates) but there is no functional relationship.

In a deprived world, a planet that is hungry, thirsty, and sick (how’s that for looking back), even improved birth control wouldn’t necessarily increase child survival.

In fact, if the Gates foundation, or some other entity, finds a cure for malaria, the limiting factor for child survival will shift—and it may simply be food or water.

Population ecology is intimately linked to thermodynamics, and the most practical way of calculating the limits to human population growth are through an analysis of available food—unlike economists and central bankers, ecologists can’t print food.

Me? I’m doing my bit. I’m not teaching people to fish, I’m teaching them to grow fish.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones and tablets.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones and tablets.


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