War, Tragedy, migration – and that runway

The Heathrow runway is short term sense, but long term eco-lunacy. Correction: not to build it is short term idiocy.

Which brings me to Professor Macmillan’s war hypothesis. The Tragedy of the Commons logic leads inescapably to wars, but also to the disadvantages of not immediately exploiting a commercial opportunity, however stupid in the long run.

Professor Macmillan provides a wealth of extremely useful detail, but as I suspected, in her first 2018 Reith Lecture she does not mention the Tragedy, and apparently misses the significance of growth meeting limits exponentially. I must repeat:

The optimum strategies whilst growth, of population or the economy are possible, become the worst possible strategies as limits are reached.

Latterly it is economic growth which has become received but erroneous wisdom, hence the Heathrow decision, but for most of human history, the problem has been population growth. As long as neighbouring tribes were increasing, every tribe had to make sure they were not at a disadvantage numerically.

Quite recently, quite suddenly even, migration has become a major issue. A major factor in impoverished countries is larger than replacement families, but conflict with neighbours has been replaced by the fact that there are parts of the world which are not only better off, but there is an expectation that they are likely to continue to improve materially. Even where populations are not expanding, there remains the gulf which growth is supposed to remedy, but unaccountably is not yet doing so. However I digress. Back to last Tuesday’s Reith Lecture.

Professor Macmillan suggests, no doubt correctly, that organized conflict only became the norm when farmers – settled communities – had more to defend than what they could carry with them. [Note: the transcript says ‘firms’ instead of ‘farms’.] It is almost 2 million years since hominids evolved who would not be noticed as different sitting in suits in a modern restaurant, yet they only invented agriculture 10,000 years ago. In A Green History of the World (1991) Sinclair Stevenson Ltd, Clive Ponting points out:

Agriculture is most definitely not an easier option than gathering and hunting. It requires far more effort in clearing land, sowing, tending and harvesting crops, and in looking after domesticated animals. It does not necessarily provide more nutritious food, not does it offer greater security because it depends on a smaller range of land and animals.

The one advantage agriculture has over other forms of subsistence is that in return for a greater degree of e ffort it can provide more food from a smaller area of land.

The explanation which best fits modern knowledge is increasing population pressure.

The relevance of population expansion becomes even more obvious when Professor Macmillan discusses conflicts between indigenous americans and newcomers from Europe.

Nature is certainly not conflict-free. The normal pattern of evolution among animals is predators and prey, though there are large, stable insect communities.  Professor Macmillan does not explain why it should be normal for the most self-aware and potentially co-operative species ever to spend so much of its time attacking and killing a much higher proportion of its own kind than any other.

It ought to be a temporary phase. All we have to do (but globally) is switch from behaviour which suited our ancestors well, but which is now on course to ruin everything, to aiming for sustainability. As Prof Macmillan says, that behaviour (not war per se) has produced many wonderful things, including this laptop. But she joins David Attenborough, Kate Raworth and George Monbiot in being so near and yet so far. We do not even have to descend into the full horror of the Tragedy of the Commons as for example, Easter Island did. But this time a recovery from the Tragedy is not a foregone conclusion.

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