Should Humans Have the Right to Control Nature?

Like many people I watched Michael Moore’s Planet of the Humans film, but I was also sent it by a friend along with the question:

“As the self proclaimed kings of the planet , do / should , humans have the right to create the tools to override nature?”

First off, that video is a con, I watched the whole thing and Michael Moore definitely did NOT present it! 🙂  

I completely agree that we don’t have an energy problem, we don’t have a food problem, we don’t have a resources problem… we have a population problem.

Fortunately population is going to sort itself out. I used to be worried about “infinite growth on a finite planet” but the population won’t grow infinitely, so there won’t be infinite growth. We are pretty certain that the 12 billionth living human will never be born, and we’ll peak at 11.x billion around the year 2100, after which the population will decline. (Check out the many YouTube videos by the late great Hans Rosling from Gap Minder if you don’t believe that.)

In fact, I’d say it’s very likely that in 200 years the predominant worry will be global population collapse. It’s already happening in Japan who’s population was 127 million in 2014, but is expected to be only 97 million by 2040! That’s a quarter of their population gone in just 35 years!! Incidentally, nearly 40% of that 97 million is expected to be over 65.

That’s not because of consumption of resources, but because a well-educated population who have security of housing, food, power and healthcare, have fewer kids. That’s been shown in country after country.  Bangladesh went from families having 7 kids on average, to 3 kids, in just 30 years and is now down to 2 kids per family.

Getting back to this film, the solution is obvious but people don’t like it: nuclear energy. Nuclear is sustainable, doesn’t pollute the atmosphere (other than the mining required for construction and at the moment for digging up nuclear fuel), and can sustain us for 100-200 years with mined uranium.

Nuclear is getting better all the time. Current reactors are 10x as efficient as those 50 years ago, and will be a completely renewable form of energy when we inevitably stop mining uranium and start extracting it from sea water instead.

People worry about nuclear for 2 reasons: safety, and waste. First safety, even with the couple of well publicised accidents, nuclear power has directly killed only a few hundred people in its entire history. Early cancer deaths is likely to be thousands, maybe 10’s of thousands, though such reports are often disputed. Compare that to just coal power deaths which is about 100,000 EVERY YEAR! There’s no question that nuclear is far safer.

Secondly waste, in the UK we’ve been running nuclear power for around two thirds of a century, and so far the amount of nuclear waste we have to store is only as much as 4 football stadiums. Further only 0.1% of that nuclear waste is considered high level. Or put that the other way round: 99.9% of all nuclear waste is not high level. The vast majority (94%) of it is things like lab coats and gloves that people were quite happily wearing before being put in the “nuclear waste bin”!

And if nuclear fusion ever comes along (it’s been 20-30 years away since the 60’s!) that will be the abundant “energy too cheap to meter” that was the original promise of nuclear fission. It will be effectively an inexhaustible supply of completely clean and utterly safe energy, because there’s no chance of a runaway reaction.

Here’s my 100 year prediction.  In 2120 we will:

– Have no coal or natural gas power plants, all will be nuclear. Wind and solar will continue to be fringe technologies, mostly for remote communities. 

– Nuclear power stations will ring Africa, powering desalination plants that will provide an abundance of clean water, turning Africa into the world’s garden, providing the jobs to raise Africa out of its current poverty trap. 

– Population will be 11.x billion, having passed peak human, and be on the decline.

– Old world nations will be desperate for immigration to shore up their shrinking and ageing populations.* 

Battery powered vehicles will no longer exist, all will be hydrogen fuel cells, with the hydrogen being generated on site at the garages from just electrolysis of water.

In summary of the film, I’m not worried. It’ll all work out fine. We live in an amazing time of discovery and advancement. I can’t imagine wanting to be alive at any other time. History will record the 21st century as the greatest leap forward in human development. 😀

*On the subject of immigration, I believe it will dominate world politics for the next 200 years: firstly “western” countries will be afraid of it, and then they will be desperate for it. The challenge is how a country maintains its cultural identity when faced with the need for large scale immigration, because it’s indigenous population aren’t having enough kids to replace itself.

Coming back to the question of our right to override nature. If you look in nature many animals change their environment to suit their needs, whether that be birds collecting twigs to make nests or ants digging up the soil to make huge colonies, and often nature has evolved to adapt and coexist with living things in a symbiotic way, e.g. bees and pollen.

We will override nature, it’s in our nature! We have to in order to survive and flourish, which is nature’s way. It doesn’t matter what we do, the planet will survive just fine with or without us, or whether we live in mud huts or skyscrapers.

Nature is in a constant state of change, and life has radically changed this planet many times. Without life, we wouldn’t have oxygen in the atmosphere to breath. The planet’s atmosphere used to be mostly CO2, and life evolved to harness that and then change it over the last billion years to extract the CO2 and convert it to O2 through photosynthesis. But even that’s not been constant, checkout this graph:

Oxygen levels are all over the place, increasing initially up to 10x their previous levels. This is why fossils show massive insects that we don’t have now, they were around at a time when oxygen levels were much higher, which supported their large size. Note we’ve been around for roughly only the last red dash!

The original question implies nature is something static, that should be left alone, as we’re changing it. But by definition our impact IS nature, we are part of that nature and nature has never been static. It’s just a matter of timescales; we’re doing things faster than ever, because that’s our nature too.

Besides a “right” is a human construct.  There are no rights in nature.  If we collapse the human race down to a single individual, “human rights” becomes a meaningless concept.

In summary, “Do / should , humans have the right to create the tools to override nature? ” is a non-question. We will, it’s in our nature, which is part of nature. The question of our “right” to do so is as fallacious as it is irrelevant.

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