This time it was different


As a child I was a consumer of a fair amount of environmentalist alarmism. Not the standard stuff you see on the news, but books like The Population Bomb.

I also read the science fiction classic Stand on Zanzibar. Stand on Zanzibar is about an overpopulated Malthusian world. It is the world of 2010, and the population is 7 billion. The author, John Brunner, was writing in 1968. This was the beginning of the worries about population growth and sustainability.

Brunner was right about the world population in 2010…but it’s not quite the dystopia that he painted. In some places, like the Congo, it is quite hellish. But in much of the world there is a slow but steady advancement, much of it thanks to China.

Rather than the inevitability of a Malthusian crisis due to overpopulation (note that fertility rates peaked in the 1960s) slowly creeping up on us, I think we need to worry about our society’s ability to withstand shocks. Those shocks might destabilize the social matrix which our high productivity society needs to survive, and without that productivity, we will be a Malthusian crisis.

The macaque’s voyage?

The Monkey’s Voyage was one of the more interesting books I’ve read in the past few years. Basically the author shows that the idea that islands like New Zealand are living mengaries of a lost Gondwanaland is false. Due to extinction islands have high turnover rates, and most species in New Zealand descend from relatively recent arrivals.

And how do they arrive? Larger animals like New World monkeys, probably on rafts made of driftwood.

I thought of that book when reading this fascinating article in The Atlantic, Japanese Animals Are Still Washing Up in America After The 2011 Tsunami:

In the last five years, he and his colleagues have documented 634 pieces of debris that were swept away by the Tōhoku tsunami and eventually washed up on the coasts of North America. And it hasn’t stopped coming yet. Between them, these bits of ocean-hopping junk carried 289 species that are typically found along Japanese coasts—a vast horde of sponges, sea stars, sea anemones, mussels, limpets, barnacles, and fish.

Partly, that might be because the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake was one of the strongest in history. But Carlton thinks that it’s also because humans have changed the world, by just introducing a lot more stuff to it. “A similar tsunami occurred in the same place in 1933,” he says. “We’ve looked at photos of that coast in 1933, and there are small villages with wooden homes. Advance to 2011, and we have a vast infrastructure. In the last 50 years, we’ve poised, on the edge of the world, this massive amount of material that’s ready to be washed into the ocean.”