Published in the April 12 – April 25, 2017 issue of Morgan Hill Life

By Marty Cheek

Marty Cheek

The other week at Trader Joe’s, I purchased a 2-pound package of basmati rice grown in India. It got me thinking about the possible collapse of civilization as well as maybe the end of humanity. Sorry for the depressing thought, but with Earth Day celebrated April 22, it’s a good time to think seriously about how our human cleverness might now being risking our species’ survival.

Imagine each grain of rice represents one human being. One cup equals about 9,600 grains. With six cups of uncooked rice in two pounds, you’ve got 57,600 human souls. The population of Gilroy is contained in that bag.

Now let’s go global. On occasion I peek at the website to see how much the human population has grown. It’s steadily heading toward 7.5 billion and will hit that number on or shortly after April 22. It’s a major milestone. When I was born 50 years ago, the world’s population was about 3.4 billion. Since the mid-1960s, we’ve more than doubled the number of humans on Earth.

About 153,600 rice grains fill a gallon. If 7.5 billion people is converted into rice grains, it would measure 48,828 gallons. Visualize a square-based rice silo with a dimension of 10 feet by 10 feet at the base. The silo containing today’s level of human-rice grains would reach 65.25 feet high.

If we continue with today’s breeding rate, we will reach 10 billion people by about the year 2050, according to United Nations population data. That number equals 65,104 gallons of rice grains. Our theoretical silo would reach 87 feet high to hold all that rice.

Now here’s the most important thought. It’s not so much the number of people who will be coming on board spaceship Earth in the next generation and a half. It’s the rapid speed of that population growth. By the mid-century point, 2.5 billion people will be added to our world-wide population in a dramatically short period of time. Most of this population growth will take place in India and Africa.

More people being born on Earth will compete for food, water, land, energy and other resources needed to sustain life. And it’s highly unlikely we can adjust to this number in such a short time frame to support these people at a decent quality of life. It’s an uncomfortable thought: our booming population is unsustainable. We face the threat of civilization’s collapse in the next 20 to 40 years. No doubt the complexity and the discomfort of facing this threat is why the news media and politicians have avoided honestly dealing with it.

Our human survival is really a carbon question — and I’m not just talking about the carbs contained in the basmati rice. The element carbon — the basis of life on our planet — might, ironically, bring about our species’ demise by the end of the 21st century. Let’s call this dire scenario the coming of the Four Carbon Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

The first horseman is the carbon stored millions of years ago in fossil fuels — oil, methane gas and coal. For 250 years of the Industrial Age, we’ve been burning petrochemicals to release their energy and build a global industrial civilization that allows us to enjoy an abundance of food, temperature control, manufacturing, transportation and other benefits. Unfortunately, this energy source is limited in supply. We are now just starting to reach peak production of these fossil fuels.

The second horseman is environmental. The carbon the human race has released during two and a half centuries is now chemically transforming our planet’s biosphere. The rise of atmospheric carbon levels is causing the climate change that is heating our planet. The “Great Thaw” now occurring in our polar regions is causing the oceans to rise, causing challenges for millions of people living along coasts. The carbon we’ve released also gets absorbed into our oceans, causing the acidification of the waters, damaging the food chain and reducing fish and seafood supply. Extreme weather — droughts, deluges and blizzards — will also impact quality of life for people on the planet.

The third horseman is the carbon required to energize our global digital economy. In a short span of time, our entire global civilization was connected by a high-tech system enabling advanced communication and information distribution. Smart phones, computers, bank ATM machines and credit card readers all require burning fossil fuel energy to supply the electricity to run the servers and other digital devices. This global-connected system is susceptible to quick collapse if a cyber-attack or other terrorist activities severely hits America’s badly neglected electricity infrastructure. The resulting massive breakdown of our planet-wide digital economy would produce social and political discord far beyond what the world knew in the 1930s.

The fourth carbon horseman is what I’ve discussed already — the dramatically increasing human population. Carbon-based energy in oil, coal and methane gas has provided the industrial agriculture, medicine, transportation and other life-enhancing benefits to make this growth possible. What happens when we have 10 billion people needing fossil fuels for the necessities of life and those energy supplies start to run out? We’ll see a collapse of social order. When masses of people fear for their survival, they turn against each other and turn toward tyrants.

Next time you’re at the market and buy a bag of rice, consider those grains represent a tiny fraction of the 7.5 billion human now alive. On Earth Day, also consider that 2.5 billion more people might be added by the mid-century — and they’ll be competing with you for our planet’s limited resources.