Waking this morning to the sound of a storm that seems to have been raging for a fortnight, my duvet is too warm to want to get up to see what time it is. Instead, I tentatively extend an arm into the cold morning air and reach for the radio on the bedside table. With the flick of a switch, the radio bursts into life. But instead of the morning news, I am treated to something that I later discover is called Sunday Morning Worship – one of the state broadcaster’s final sops to what is nominally still the state religion.
Ordinarily I would have turned this drivel off. I find it as depressing as economics; and for much the same reason. But just before my finger reached the off switch, the priest started wittering about climate change. “This is bound to be good,” I thought to myself. And sure enough, I wasn’t disappointed. After urging the congregation – and the audience out there in radio land – to do their bit through such things as recycling, the priest moved on to a reading from the Bible. And, apparently without irony, the passage that he choose to insert into his green sermon was Genesis 1.28:
“And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.”
In the dim and distant past, when the sons and daughters of Abraham were wandering around in the searing heat of the deserts of the Middle East, desperately trying to eke out a living, being fruitful and multiplying probable made sense. Lots of fruitful young women bringing lots of expendable young men into the world no doubt meant:
- More labourers to till the fields
- More shepherds to tend livestock
- More artisans to make the comparatively small suite of technologies in use in the bronze age
- And, of course, more troops to go off and die in the many wars that afflicted the region.
That was then. For almost all of the time that humans have been wandering this planet, our population has been relatively stable at just a few million worldwide:
Nevertheless, even before they had learned to read and write, our ancestors had managed to decimate all of the large animals on every continent except Africa (where co-evolution had allowed large animals to learn to give humans a wide birth). As Ronald Wright notes, the archaeological record of the first humans to cross the land bridge from Asia into America includes lots of large flint axes, knives, spearheads and arrowheads. Within a few thousand years, all that can be found is much smaller versions of these, as – having exterminated the large prey – the people were reduced to hunting animals the size of rats and rabbits.
Agricultural settlement allowed the population to grow. And by the Middle Ages, civilisations across Asia and the Middle East were supporting populations vastly larger than anything seen in the Stone Age. But even this population was just a fraction of what would develop as the Kingdoms of Northwest Europe began colonising the planet. But the real game changer came from the mid-eighteenth century when an industrial revolution, based on fossil fuel energy and its associated suites of technology, began to spread. Prior to industrialisation, Earth had never supported more than half a billion humans; after industrialisation, it has never supported less:
As the population grew, demand for fossil fuels grew with it. And the more fossil fuels were made available, the more our ancestors became fruitful and multiplied. To this day, our demand for fossil fuels – or at least the advanced technologies, goods and services made possible by them (and only by them) – remains insatiable. Despite the growing evidence of pollution, destruction and environmental collapse, we continue to hope that the Abrahamic god, the economist priesthood’s hidden hand or the techno-fantasists’ “green new deal” will come rescue us from the folly of continuing to multiply – or in the economists version of Genesis, to continue to grow our GDP – as instructed.
Multiplying at this stage, though, is the one thing that guarantees us some version of the book at the other end of the Bible; in which famine, pestilence, war and death arrive in short order to put an end to this growing horror show. As Seth Wynes and Kimberly A Nicholas explain in a paper at IOP Science:
“[We considered] a broad range of individual lifestyle choices and [calculated] their potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in developed countries, based on 148 scenarios from 39 sources. We recommend four widely applicable high-impact (i.e. low emissions) actions with the potential to contribute to systemic change and substantially reduce annual personal emissions: having one fewer child (an average for developed countries of 58.6 tonnes CO2-equivalent (tCO2e) emission reductions per year), living car-free (2.4 tCO2e saved per year), avoiding airplane travel (1.6 tCO2e saved per roundtrip transatlantic flight) and eating a plant-based diet (0.8 tCO2e saved per year). These actions have much greater potential to reduce emissions than commonly promoted strategies like comprehensive recycling (four times less effective than a plant-based diet) or changing household lightbulbs (eight times less).
Having additional children is – by orders of magnitude – more damaging than anything else we are currently doing. The very last thing we need at this point is for the representatives of a global religion with some 2.3 billion adherents preaching the desirability of expanding the flock while pretending that recycling and low-energy lightbulbs are going to save the day. Not that this is going to happen any time soon. The Christian priesthood is no more going to re-write the Bible to make it relevant to modern conditions than economists are to re-write the nonsensical tomes which inform their equally ungrounded teachings.
Finally climbing out from beneath the covers and dragging my weary bones to the kitchen to make a cup of tea, it strikes me that I will only take our efforts to reverse the negative effects of industrial civilisation seriously on the day when the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury announce that Genesis 1.28 was wrong, and that we urgently need to limit childbirth to bring the population back to a sustainable level; and when the world’s leading professors of economics co-sign a letter to world leaders in favour of urgently de-growing the economy.
But most of all, I will take the human response to climate change seriously when leading scientists admit that without a more energy-dense substitute for coal, gas and oil (so not non-renewable renewable energy-harvesting technologies) there is no technological means of growing our way out of a predicament that is caused by GROWTH!