The end of an era

Corn showing the effect of drought. Texas, USA.

With the Winter Solstice approaching, it’s that time of year when we look to the past and the future, review our successes and failures during the old year and try to predict what the New Year might bring.

I’d like to start off with an announcement: this will be my last post on this blog as I am planning to shut down this blog and the accompanying Post Peak Medicine website early in the New Year. To explain why I am doing this and to put it into context, I would like to take you on a super-fast tour through the 300,000 year history of our species, compressed into about 10 minutes.

Our species – Homo sapiens – evolved about 300,000 years ago, and until about 10,000 years ago we lived a roaming, hunter-gatherer life. We occupied a place at or near the top of the food chain and coexisted with a great many other species without threatening their existence or the integrity of our shared habitat.

About 10,000 years ago the first human civilisations emerged, based on sedentary agriculture and the domestication of plants and animals, initially in the Middle East between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in an area which corresponds to parts of modern day Iraq, Kuwait, Syria and Turkey. The first settlements were founded on the fertile lands bordering the rivers and were sustainable, but as the population grew and the area of cultivated land increased, it became necessary to develop irrigation channels to bring water to the drier land further away from the rivers. This proved to be unsustainable as the soil became increasingly saline and the settlements in those areas declined – probably the earliest example of the diminishing returns of technology.

Over the next 10,000 years, as numerous civilisations and empires rose and fell, the human population of the planet gradually increased and our effect on local ecosystems became increasingly noticeable. For example, large areas and sometimes whole countries were deforested in order to create more arable and grazing land to feed the growing human population – the United Kingdom being a case in point. Some civilisations collapsed through over-population and severe environmental degradation, for example, those of the Mayans and Easter Islanders. Nevertheless, these failures were the exception rather than the rule. Most human civilizations continued to exist sustainably, to coexist with other species and not permanently damage the carrying capacity of the environment.

The next major turning point for human civilisation came in the mid-18th century with the exploitation of fossil fuels, starting with coal in Britain, to power new inventions such as the steam engine, spinning and weaving machinery and new iron and steel manufacturing processes. The Industrial Revolution improved the quality of life for most people who participated in it, and made a few industrialists fabulously wealthy, but it was unsustainable from the start. The earth only has a finite amount of fossil fuel, and once it has been burnt and released its energy, it can never be re-burnt.

The world’s human population at the start of the Industrial Revolution was about 1 billion. With increasing quality of life, better sanitation and more efficient food production, the population increased to around 2 billion in 1930, 4 billion in 1974, 6 billion in 1999 and 7.8 billion today. It has more than doubled during my lifetime. Not only is this rate of increase unsustainable, but it is unsustainable for the numbers to continue at the current level even without any further increase. Most of today’s population is fed by the burning of fossil fuels and depletion of topsoil, minerals, fresh water and fish in the ocean, all of which are non-replaceable within any realistic timeframe. When these finally go away we will find out what the carrying capacity of the planet really is, and my guess is that it’s probably less than the one billion people who lived at the start of the Industrial Revolution when fossil fuels, topsoil, fresh water and fish were abundant.

The people who were around at the start of the Industrial Revolution couldn’t possibly have known that they were setting human civilisation on an unsustainable course. They had no way of knowing that burning coal in Britain would eventually lead to global warming, the melting of the polar ice caps, sea level rise, 10,000 mile long fossil fuel powered food supply chains and the death of the Great Barrier Reef – how could they? However, increasing numbers of warning lights have been flickering on our civilisation’s dashboard since the 1950s. These include M King Hubbert’s warning about peak oil (1956), Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962), the Limits to Growth report (1972), the 1970s oil crises (1973 and 1979), the beginning of the bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef (1980), the collapse of the Newfoundland cod fishery due to over-fishing (1992), the Great Financial Crisis (2008) and increasingly strident warnings about climate change and species extinction – including possibly our own. Most of these warnings have been ignored, or at least, not acted upon effectively.

I came onto this scene rather late. Born in 1959, I didn’t take much notice of most of the above, assuming, as most people did, that governments had it all in hand and knew what they were doing. In 2008 I became aware of the existence of peak oil and the impossibility of perpetual growth on a finite planet, and I decided to try to do something about it. I thought that perhaps if I wrote a book about how one might create a workable healthcare system in a post peak oil society, it might wake up and persuade some people. Hence, “Post Peak Medicine” (the book and website) were born in 2010 and have been online ever since. In the last ten years, to the best of my knowledge, they have woken up and persuaded precisely nobody, although a lot of people have read them who were probably thinking along those lines already.

Food, fresh water, energy, minerals, manufactured goods and humans are all going to decrease in quantity from now on until they reach a new equilibrium at a fraction of their current levels, which will probably be a few hundred years in the future. This is going to happen whether we like it or not, and whether we plan for it or not. Reality requires it, and is going to do it for us if we don’t do it for ourselves. Despite this, governments, economists, the mainstream media and the general public are still calling for more material, economic, energy and population growth, although there has been a shift towards the rhetoric of “green energy”, “green growth” and “sustainable growth” and much talk (although considerably less action) about the need to limit climate change.

Ten years is enough. If the world has ignored 60 years of warnings including 10 years from me, it is unlikely to start listening any time soon, I’m not planning to spend any more time or energy trying to persuade it, and I’m closing down the Post Peak Medicine book, website and blog. Instead, I’m directing my energy into learning how to grow food for myself and my family and developing my knowledge about toxic plants (see my previous post) in the hope of developing safe and effective plant-based anaesthetics which may be of some practical use to people in the future. I’ve set up a new website and blog at toxicplants.co.uk and toxicplantscouk.blogspot.com respectively, and I’ll continue to publish a blog quarterly, with the emphasis (as the name suggests) on toxic plants, and maybe a few edible plants as well. Please feel free to visit and comment!

Have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. Or a good Winter Solstice if that’s your preference.

Slaynt vie, bea veayn, beeal fliugh as baase ayns Mannin

3 thoughts on “The end of an era

  1. You are wrong if you think you haven’t had a positive affect on anyone. You have on me. I count. I am more than 0. Please do not close this blog immediately. Let it remain for at least a week so I can reread all of it and print off the sections I want. You write well. You think clearly. You teach. I cherish each post. I understand the problem about time and work. The time you spend writing is time you could spend on providing resources for your family.

    Providing food, just the most simple of basics, will become very difficult. Most people do not know this will happen, and even more do not know how to grow food for themselves or properly care for animals. It will be disaster compounding disaster, and anger fueling violence.

    This is why I wish you would reconsider this blog if only to write four times a year so those who do care about you and our families can keep in touch. If nothing more than to write that we are still here, we are still struggling, we can still go on, and we can survive. We can teach. We can share. We can reach out to each other and still be there. Sometimes we need that more than anything else.

    I understand if this is truly your last post and I will miss you dearly.

    • Well, thank you for those kind words Rob and Jolaine. I’m not planning to give up writing and blogging any time soon – call it more of a refocusing. I felt that the name “Post Peak Medicine” was too evocative of “peak oil” which has become unfashionable in recent years (but is still lurking in the background, waiting to strike) and also perhaps that writing about about economics and post peak healthcare systems was too theoretical. So I decided to refocus on the practical, combine my training in medicine with my interest in gardening, and rediscover plant-based anaesthetics. Did you know that the Romans used plant based anaesthetics (mainly based on opium and mandrake), this knowledge persisted into medieval times, but was largely lost due to persecution of practitioners as witches, and consequently, by the time of the Napoleonic wars, “anaesthetic” consisted in most cases of a leather strap to bite on? “The history of anaesthesia” will probably be the subject of my next blog (on the new site).

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