Sunday, October 30, 2011

How am I gonna feed all these people?

Last Monday, we’re told, the earth’s population passed the 7 billion mark. We were also told that population was being added at the rate of 4.4 per second, so by today, the number would be 2,661,120 more than that, or 7,002,661,120 and counting—that is, if we weren’t also dying at the rate of . . . X per second. (For an interesting read on the meaning of 7 billion people, see
               It was Thomas Robert Malthus (1776-1834) who pioneered world-wide demographic studies that predicted almost 200 years ago that population would rapidly outstrip the earth’s ability to feed everyone. The starvation he predicted didn’t appear as early as prognosticated, but when we hear about African famine, we’re reminded that parts of the earth are periodically in just such a dilemma.
               On the other hand, we’re assured that there is food enough for all; that it’s merely a problem of difficulty in transporting it from place to place to meet emerging need. But if you or I were faced with an Ethiopia-like famine, this information would bring little consolation.
               An obvious conclusion is that the world is not overpopulated, but that parts of it certainly are. Where I live, in a small town in Saskatchewan in 2011, rising population is still linked to progress, the store shelves are always brimming with cheap food and the nagging problem is not starvation, but obesity.
               Rosthern, Saskatchewan is not overpopulated. Parts of Africa may be.
               Many animal species are territorial; they stake out areas large enough to sustain themselves and defend those areas pugnaciously. Inuit would traditionally limit their households to sustainable numbers by birth control or, if necessary, infanticide. Apparently the instinct to balance population to local environment exists but has been largely extinguished in the course of human development. The ability to reach and sustain such a balance is as important a human skill as is agricultural knowhow. The relevant point—surely—is to grow enough food, not to grow as much food as is possible. Enough may in future mean: as much as is necessary to feed an area’s population without importation. As fossil fuel energy dwindles over time, its price will inevitably rise and the growing and transportation costs of food will rise proportionally. Poor areas of the world may increasingly be out of luck when droughts, for instance, curtail local supplies.
               Population control is one of a number of measures that is needed. Birth control devices are far lighter, easier and cheaper to transport than grain, meat, fruits and vegetables.
               The other measure will, of course, be the wresting of food production and marketing from corporate hands. But that’s a whole other story.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

What time is it?

 West Brook, Gros Morne National Park
 On the set of Random Passage
What struck me most forcefully in reading paleoecologist Curt Stager’s Deep Future: The Next 100,000 Years of Life on Earth was his emphasis on our skewed perceptions of time. My example of what he’s talking about is this: if continental drift occurs at an average speed of one centimetre per year, then the final separation of Newfoundland from Labrador took place approximately three million years ago, assuming that the ferry crossing over the Strait of Belle Isle is 30 kilometres at present . . . and increasing by one centimetre per year. (For those of you who don’t think metric very often, a centimetre is the approximate width of a fingernail.)
               It’s little wonder that we can’t feel the earth move beneath us as it does in our imaginations, except when the continental plates grind against each other and earthquakes result.
               Stager's examples relate to the effect of human-activity-driven global warming on, for instance, the inundation of low-lying areas of earth. Florida will gradually disappear, but it will be so slow that people will not have to rush to higher ground. There will be plenty of time—possibly a few centuries—for the population to adapt to the slowly rising waters. The burning question becomes: “If it’s that far away, does it really matter?”
               And, as Hamlet says, “there’s the rub.” Our lives are such a short blip in the story of human life on earth and so fragile that we seldom sense our kinship with people who lived through the last ice age and the people thousands of years from now who will live on an earth shaped—in part—by our activities. “Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof (Matthew 6:34).” Stager would likely wish that Jesus would take this almost-epicurean aphorism back. When we talk about conservation these days, we hope for a good life for us, our children and grandchildren, and that’s about as far as we seem able or willing to think.
               Three things I can think of this morning prevent us from being responsible parents to future humanity:
1)      Our Politics: those who govern us have trouble thinking beyond the next election. There is little personal reward for a politician who advocates conservation now in the interest of the deep future.
2)      Our religions: a consciousness that assumes the end of everything is near is not likely to concern itself very much with a deep future.
3)      Our ignorance: we need to understand our lives in a bigger context than at present—both in time and space. Reading Stager’s Deep Future: The Next 100,000 Years of Life on Earth, Jeff Rubin’s Why Your World is about to get a Whole Lot Smaller or The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow have helped me gain new perspectives recently.
There may be an even bigger impediment to the awakening of a new vision for the human race, something to do with an overarching awareness of our kinship and an end to racial, ethnic and class differences that hamstring the chances for joint endeavour.
               Therein lies another “rub.” And it's a big one.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

A Reflection Concerning a New Found Land

It was, for us, a New Found Land although we knew the maps, had seen the pictures and heard regularly of this island that is not-quite-Canada in the news. The rugged beauty of the out ports, the magnificence of Gros Morne National Park, the charming architecture of St. John’s are not exaggerated in the travel brochures.
But like the majority of the planet, you can hardly find a place where the majesty of the created and evolved planet isn’t mitigated by the presence of humans and the things humans make: highways, railroads, cities and towns, docks and ships and salt-box houses clinging to the rocks. For the filming of the CBC mini-series—Random Passage—a cove was found from which no sign of human activity can be seen; such a place is a rarity. What’s unique in Canada about Newfoundland as a province is that every human endeavour there has faced daunting obstacles in the steep, rugged landscape. Quite literally, it means that every structure must cling to the side of a rocky hill, every fish or chunk of coal must be carried uphill and down to reach its market.  
And then, there’s the sea from which Newfoundlanders have traditionally earned their daily bread. A map of the shipwrecks around Cape Bonavista is so cluttered with Xs that they overlap each other. Still, the map doesn’t include the dories smashed against the rocks in storms, their planks scattered on the shore, husbands and fathers and brothers drowned.

For men must work and women must weep

 For there’s little to earn and many to keep

 And the harbour bar be moanin’.

Although written for fishermen off the coasts of Great Britain, the song popularized in Canada by Stan, Nathan and Garnet Rogers summarizes well the agony of out port life on the sea.
               All this complicated further, of course, by the hurricanes that roar up from the Caribbean, blow kisses to Boston and Halifax and vent their nearly-spent fury on the Avalon Peninsula. The remnants of Hurricane Marie blew us off Signal Hill but barely raised an eyebrow among native islanders. The winds that powered the ships were, indeed, fickle and truculent friends.
               So Newfoundlanders are a hardy, friendly, honest lot like everybody says? I’m not going to add to this generalization: I’m sure that kind folk, happy folk, thieves and liars appear in the same proportion in Newfoundland as in Saskatchewan. Furthermore, visitors (tourists) are catered for and pampered because they have—in fact—replaced cod as the staple in much of Newfoundland and should therefore hesitate to judge the smiles and courtesies of their hosts as indicative. I do know that you can pile your firewood along the roadways in Northern Newfoundland without fear of its being stolen, and front doors are seldom locked except in downtown St. John’s. I also know that the off-the-record chats with hosts at the historical sites were highlights of our trip; most seemed relieved to branch off the official discourse into the friendly, dignified stories of the real Newfoundland, its beauty and its warts. Their Newfoundland.
               I took hundreds of photographs, as we tourists tend to do. My favourite is of the young woman who passed by me in St. John’s, walked decisively to the end of a deserted wharf and sat for fifteen minutes gazing pensively out to the harbour mouth. I could say that this photo summarizes the personality of Newfoundland, but for all I know, she was a student from Saskatchewan studying archaeology at Memorial University, as some have done.

               Give me a break; I’m just a tourist!