Does that Malthusian Belt come in taupe?

Is Earth full? That’s debatable. The planet has more than 6.8 billion people crawling across its face, which sounds crowded but is difficult – in upper North America – to put into any meaningful perspective. Put another way, if you spread the whole population evenly over all of Earth’s land masses, there would be about forty-five people per square kilometre.

There are (relatively) few people with very rural, or wilderness, lifestyles for whom being in such close proximity to forty-four other people would be frightening, but for someone living in almost any urban area, it sounds pretty spacious. I recently saw a site that suggested that if the entire world’s population lived in a single city with a density equal to that of New York City, that city would be about the size of the state of Texas. Now, Texas (as Texans like to tell us), is BIG. In global terms, though, it’s a pretty small chunk of real estate.

Of course, some of Earth’s land mass is largely uninhabitable (Antarctica, deserts, high mountain areas, Fort McMurray). That would raise the person-per-square-kilometre figure considerably, but still far less crowded than Bangladesh’s 964 people/km2 (and they’re not living in Concord Pacific high-rise condominiums).

That’s today. By 2030 (if nothing dramatic happens to correct the current exponential rate of growth) it is estimated there will be 9 billion people (60/km2), and by 2100 over 14 billion (93/km2).

Clearly, we could easily fit 14 billion in, if it comes to that. But the problem is not space. The problem is resource use and the economic system we use to allocate those resources. Collectively, we’re burning through the planet’s natural wealth like a lottery winner on vacation in Las Vegas.

I once heard someone (I can’t recall who and I’m sure I’m paraphrasing wildly) analogically describe humankind as “a car full of people speeding directly toward a brick wall, but instead of looking through the windshield we’re arguing over what station to tune on the radio.” In the 1990s, when I think I first heard this, it seemed inevitable that the passengers would eventually acknowledge their predicament and attempt some sort of corrective action that might save them from a fiery doom.

Alas, another scenario has emerged. Each passenger now has an iPod and they sit with little plugs in their ears while they stare down at their smartphones, “Like”-ing the Glee page on Facebook, deaf to the wide-eyed infant in the car seat with the terrified look on its face who can see destruction approach.

Occasionally, someone along the side of the road tries to flag them down and warn them of the danger (I’m really beating the logical shit out of this analogy, of course, but bear with me). Occasionally, someone jumps from the car, but mostly they look away and turn the volume up. Rarely are any of those roadside sirens paid any heed.

Our corporately-owned media seem largely inclined to perpetuate this sort of denial. The front page of the Globe and Mail typically contains – at a higher point on its home page than the “Commentary” section – such important stories as “Take your baby snowshoeing” and “Beauty Basics: How to get spring’s flushed cheeks.” (One might think that the snowshoeing would be enough to flush the cheeks of anyone, diapered or not). It’s like all of traditional media merged to become a consumption-promoting organ for Aldous Huxley’s ‘World Controller’.

Speaking of Huxley, is it only me or does modern life seem to be the acting out of a prequel to Brave New World? I’m not necessarily aghast at that prospect, it occurs to me. In a Literature and Culture class I took at SFU a few years ago, I was the only student who thought that Brave New World was a Utopian novel, much to the shock of my fellow students. I suspect that my opinion had more to do with the fact that we’d read Orwell’s 1984 right before that, but really, despite some of the other problems, the attitudes toward sexuality in the novel – which seemed far more enlightened than those in 2005 – had me yearning for a Mathusian Belt of my own.

Okay, perverted digression complete. Back to the point.

Fortunately, among the people on the roadside trying to get our attention, there are people like Paul Gilding. His recently published TED Talk is pretty much doom-and-gloom all the way through. And yet, despite the fact that he’s telling us that a calamity is all but inevitable and that what’s important is how we react, the viewer is left with a sense of uneasy hope at the end (and if an embittered pessimist says that, imagine how empowered you’ll feel!).

Gilding’s is not the kind of hope promoted by ‘green capitalists’ who seem to want us to shop our way to salvation, as though faith in technology is all we need. (“The electric car is the answer to our prayers, hallelujah!”). Technology may well be what humanity uses to save itself from total extinction, but treating technology as a faith replacement for Jesus is just as totally bonkers as waiting for Jesus to give you a blackout at Bingo down at Our Lady of Sorrows.

Here’s Gilding’s talk. It’s only about 17 minutes. Give it a watch and let me know what you think. I’ll be out back, planting my garden.


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1 Comment

  1. Tim Cooley on March 1, 2012 at 20:03


    Well done. And Paul Gilding is beyond brilliant. Thanks for sharing. Keep up that garden. John and I watched this together and we both say bravo big time.