How the World was Supposed to Look in 2000

March 19th, 2011 | 1 Comment
Climate Change

Mark Bittman recently wrote in his NYTimes blog about predictions from the 1960s that did and did not come true. He invited people to add their own take. This blog was originally posted as a response to Mark Bittman blog entry

People in the 1960s and early ‘70s were a fun bunch, but not about predicting the future. Wars, famine, droughts, shortages—what a gloomy group.

I think it’s brilliant that you actually thought to compare the predictions of our past with the outcome in our present. The problem is, we can never be sure “where we’re headed” and we can never really foresee curve balls and surprises.

Nonetheless, I think the gloomy predictions largely came true; at least the predicted trends were in the right direction. We have really big issues that simply did not exist in the 1960s but were predicted by some.

Population growth adds about 70 million people to the world each year, twice as many as live in California. Meanwhile, populations of fishes, amphibians, mammals, reptiles, and birds have declined about 30 percent worldwide since 1970. Species are going extinct about 1,000 times faster than the geologically “recent” average; the last extinction-wave this severe snuffed the dinosaurs. We’re pumping freshwater faster than rain falls, catching fish faster than they spawn. In the 1960s almost no ocean fish were depleted, and about two-thirds of ocean fish stocks where considered underexploited. Now, about two-thirds of ocean fish stocks are depleted and none are considered underexploited.

Coral “bleaching” due to heat stress did not exist until the mid 1970s and is now common. Forty percent of tropical coral reefs are rapidly deteriorating. Forests are shrinking by about an acre per second. The planet’s atmosphere is quite different. Ozone: thinner. Carbon dioxide: denser by a third and concentrating further. Synthetic fertilizers washing down rivers and creating hundreds of oxygen-starved seafloor “dead zones”—starting in the 1970s. In the 1970s no one was pumping petroleum in seawater a mile deep, now were they “fracking” miles-deep rock to loosen up natural gas. The easy sources are largely depleted.

The United Nations Convention on Biodiversity aims—aimed—to protect the diversity of living things, but its own assessment says, “biodiversity is in decline at all levels and geographical scales,” a situation, “likely to continue for the foreseeable future.” Droughts that appear linked to global warming are reducing grain harvests, and rising food prices (due also to rising oil prices) are helping push civil unrest and shortages.

Now, population growth is poised to add two billion more people by mid-century. That’s two more Chinas. By then it would take about two Planet Earths to provide enough to meet projected demand (add another half-Earth if everyone wants to live like Americans). In accounting terms, we’re running a deficit, eating into our principal, running down and liquidating our natural capital assets.

How this will turn out is anyone’s guess. But if you draw a straight line from 1965 to 2011 and continue those trends to 2050, you get less of a guess and more of a prediction.

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One Response to “How the World was Supposed to Look in 2000”

  1. Darren says:

    I just listened to your interview on Democracy Now. It was bewildering to hear you mention sources of energy as key to a more sustainable society, and yet never mention the energy levels — the quanta of energy — as a very real reason in furthering environmental degradation, not to mention inequities in various forms. Are you familiar with Ivan Illich’s essay “Energy and Equity”? And do you feel that levels of energy inputs in energy policy is significant to the discussion?

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