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Optimism or pessimism?

I have deliberately tried to focus on issues raised by Rachel Carson back in the 1960s, as at that time, her writing and understanding of the downside of farming practices were groundbreaking. She raised awareness of key issues of how we are destroying our environment, both consciously and unconsciously. The problems are compounded by ignorance, by being blinded by scientific advances we do not properly understand, and by short-term profits and higher crop yields. Her message was clearly delivered, and in that sense she was successful. However, over the same half-century, the world population has doubled, and our expectations of better lifestyles, more food, and more exotic input to our diets have soared. So the problems of producing more food are actually increasing, and despite far better understanding and knowledge, they have not gone away.

The only way that there can be genuine improvements is to encourage, or perhaps ensure, that population growth is slowed and reduced globally. Any imposed mechanisms to do this will be highly contentious. Perversely, we might benefit from a major global disaster such as the plagues and diseases that have periodically hit us. There is no doubt they will occur, and they may even be variants of earlier ones such as the Black Death or the 1918 influenza epidemic, both of which brought major loss of life to Europe. In those examples, the localized populations were reduced by up to a third in some areas. In a more widely connected world, such epidemics will not be localized in a single continent, so population and economic impacts will be even greater.

Recognition that we are also wasting a vast quantity of the food we produce, and many nations are overeating by excessive amounts, could additionally buy us some breathing space in terms of food production. Cutting overeating would have the additional benefit that it would generate a far healthier population.

If—and it is an incredibly big if—we can reduce and stabilize the world population, then the planet could support us and simultaneously preserve the environment and other creatures that have an equal right to survive. I find it distressing to admit to myself that I do not believe we will manage this. In part, this is because our numbers are soaring; less obviously, it is because so many people exist in cities, and consequently have no concept of, or interest in, the wider world of agriculture or the natural environment. For them, these are just interesting items to amuse them on the TV. Their real connection to food production, farming, and other areas of the world are rarely much different from watching science fiction, historic fiction, or crime series and soaps.

Whilst most aspects of this book are about the dark side of technological innovations, I suspect that the truly catastrophic potential of global exploitation and destruction is primarily unrelated to technology, and related instead to the expansion of population, as well as to self-interest and human nature. Technologies are just the enabling routes to self-destruction, not the cause.

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