There is a growing consensus among people who pay attention to reality (e.g. biologists, climate scientists, geologists, agriculture and energy experts, etc.) that the human species is facing an epic population bottleneck some time in this century, perhaps even in the next few decades. This bottleneck -- or "die-off", as we doomers like to call it -- may begin in some parts of the world within the next few years as global food and capital supplies tighten, but the really apocalyptic scenarios probably won't play out for some time yet. Nevertheless, for those of you who expect to be around for at least another two or three decades, it's never too early to start preparing for what is shaping up to be the mother of all peaks -- the Peak of Human Population.
Historically, die-offs have been caused by the big three of human mortality: pestilence, war and famine. If we add a fourth, “death”, to encompass natural disasters and the combined effects of the other three, we have the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” prophecied in the Book of Revelation. As we follow the increasingly dire news coming out of every corner of the globe, these Four provide useful metrics for gauging our approach to the looming Malthusian tribulations. Let’s see where they stand as of the Spring ‘09:
Has the First Horseman already left the stable?
White Horse (Pestilence):
The First Horseman may already be on the move, galloping out of Mexico City and vectoring in on mega-cities worldwide. If the current swine flu outbreak accelerates, look for borders to close and air travel to shut down, potentially taking several trillion dollars out of a global economy already on life support. Even if we dodge the bullet this time, public health experts agree that it’s just a matter of time before another super plague like the Spanish Flu visits mass death upon our dangerously globalized world.
Red Horse (War):
This sword-wielding rider heralds war, and oh boy is he getting restless in his stable. In addition to the obvious conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the apocalyptic threats of an Israel-Iran conflagration and nuclear-armed Pakistan falling to the Taliban, we have the new Great Game for resource supremacy in Central Asia, Africa and the Arctic, the always dangerous North Koreans rattling atomic sabers, while the Japanese discuss developing a nuclear arsenal and even the Australians quietly plan for a massive military buildup.
Together these developments look quite ominous, and provide one more disturbing parallel with the 1930’s. It doesn’t take a great deal of imagination to see where these military tensions may be leading: global resource wars, apocalyptic religious conflicts and World War III. The primary difference this time, of course, is that at least nine nations have nuclear weapons, with several more seeking to join the club. Armed for Armageddon, will human civilization even survive another World War? Many leading doomers are understandably pessimistic, including Jay Hanson, who recently predicted global nuclear war within 14 years.
Is this how we will knock down the statues of our global Easter Island?
Black Horse (Famine):
The Third Horseman is now stirring from his slumber after several decades of agricultural growth and historically low levels of world hunger kept him in his stall. Signs of looming food shortages have been appearing worldwide in the past few years in the form of food riots, bans on food exports and rising prices. Global grain stocks are at all-time lows, and have been falling steadily for a decade. Barring several techno-miracles, there is little doubt that this rider will be much busier in the decades ahead as petroleum production winds down and the world’s climate destabilizes. Optimists pin their hopes on genetically modified food crops, which they hope can duplicate the miracle of the Green Revolution that allowed the population to more than double in the past fifty years by eating fossil fuels. But one has to question the sanity of such people, given the rate at which soils are eroding, fresh water is being depleted, oceans are dying and deserts are expanding. Scientists may find a way to stave off the black horse for a little while longer, but it's difficult to see how they can continue to refute Malthus past mid-century in the face of these converging environmental crises.
Pale Horse (Death):
The Fourth Horseman is an all-purpose Reaper, the harbinger of a general die-off that will accompany the three previous afflictions. If we include in his arsenal "beasts of the earth" such as earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanoes and floods, all of which are expected to increase in frequency in a world thrown out of balance by climate change, we have the last piece of the apocalyptic puzzle. The combined effect is described in the Bible this way:
"And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him. And power was given unto them over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword, and with hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the earth." -- Revelation 6:8
So if you believe Biblical prophecy, the Four Horsemen will kill one quarter of mankind during the coming Tribulations. That may sound unpleasant, but it's a fairly rosy forecast compared to the 90%+ figures that are being thrown around by scientists like James Lovelock and Erik Pianka. Other prophetic traditions speak of earthly horrors on a similar scale, slated to begin any day now. The disturbing fact is that the spiritual and scientific outlooks for the near future appear to be converging, and both point to a time of apocalyptic change for which we have few reference points.
Of course a great many people, even within the doomer camp, dismiss these predictions of apocalypse as science fictional fantasies or religious fairy tales. John Michael Greer calls it the “Myth of Apocalypse”, the mirror image of the "Myth of Progress", and offers the alternative model of a Long Descent. But this doesn’t change the fact that apocalypses do happen, and have occurred numerous times in the historical and geological past. When the human population was reduced to perhaps fifteen thousand around 73000 B.C.E. as a result of the Lake Toba super-volcano, surely this near-extinction event would qualify as an apocalypse by any standard. The Black Plague of Medieval Europe killed a third of that continent’s population, and the coming of Europeans to the New World was certainly apocalyptic for the native peoples they encountered there. And today, with the human population nearing 7 billion and most of the complex systems that support it approaching breaking points, how can anyone dismiss the possibility of an apocalypse in our time? A quick glance at a population graph shows that humans have multiplied like yeast in a wine vat since the dawn of the industrial age, and like yeast we can expect to die off catastrophically if we aren’t able to stop consuming our planetary ecosphere at an exponential rate.
The human population explosion: are we nearing the Peak?
All is not hopeless, however. In the wealthiest, most industrialized nations, birth rates have now dropped to sub-replacement levels, perhaps a sign that on some primordial level our problems are self-correcting. This means that the ongoing population explosion is now almost entirely a problem of Third World cultures that are unwilling or unable to control their breeding. Since the First World is massively subsidizing this overpopulation in the form of food, medical and financial aid and liberal immigration policies, one obvious way to curb the problem would be to end these subsidies and let nature take its course. Unfortunately, we are stuck in a humanitarian/religious paradigm that makes such Malthusian prescriptions politically difficult, and will only exacerbate the problems until more drastic measures become necessary. Examples of such measures include genetically modified food that causes sterilization, biological warfare, genocidal conventional wars or even culling by nuclear weapons. These ideas might seem beyond the pale now, but as the Four Horsemen ride out across the land and start claiming the fat citizens of the First World, we can expect every option to be put on the table.
The stresses of Third World population overshoot are already being felt in the form of immigration crises, failed-state terrorism, surging crime and military police actions in places like Somalia, Afghanistan and Mexico. But this is just the tip of the iceberg. As we move closer to the Peak of Human Population in this century, and as the number of failed states and "useless eaters" multiplies, we may find ourselves siding with the Four Horsemen out of sheer self-preservation. For when the citizens of more affluent nations face millions of starving refugees flooding across their borders and an eroding quality of life at home, they may decide that controlled die-off is the best outcome they can hope for on a planet that has come to resemble a giant, yeast-infected wine vat.
There is one more hopeful thought to consider amidst all this talk of imminent death and destruction. Biologists tell us that evolutionary leaps are most likely to occur during population bottlenecks, when genetic drift among a reduced population can produce new species in just a few generations in response to environmental stresses. In the cultural sphere, innovations such as the emergence of agriculture are thought to have occured in response to the cataclysmic climate changes that followed the last Ice Age. Given the environmental stresses that humanity will soon be facing, perhaps this new Apocalypse will bring the revolutionary changes our species appears to need if it is to continue to live and prosper in a world for which our rapacious primate brains and cultures no longer seem particularly well adapted.
Will the coming bottleneck enable the next evolutionary leap?