By John Seager | 29 July 2016
While history may be a boring topic to some, I’ve always been fascinated by its ability to dictate the present. What we know, how we function, and where we live have all been shaped by historic moments—from an advancement in science, to the invention of a tool, or a pattern in human migration.
But history impacts more than present-day humanity. If you take a closer look back in time, you’ll realize that the current climate is also a manifestation of past events—namely, the Industrial Revolution and population explosion that followed soon thereafter.
As demonstrated on Population Connection’s new interactive website, www.WorldPopulationHistory.org, today’s climate crisis can actually be linked to the invention of the magnetic compass during China’s Song Dynasty (960-1279). This revolutionary apparatus enabled mariners to navigate the globe, thereby launching the Age of Discovery and poising Europe to become a super power that would later fuel industrialization around the world.
After the start of the Industrial Revolution in 1760, advances in agriculture, medicine, and technology soared. It was an exciting and progressive time for civilization—there’s no doubt about that. But it also marked the beginning of the large-scale use of coal and an unprecedented increase in world population, from 700 million people in the mid-1700s to two billion people by 1927.
Prior to the Industrial Revolution, life expectancies were low, with hordes of people dying needlessly every day from poor nutrition and infectious diseases like typhoid and cholera. But with new and more efficient technology, such as the flush toilet, came radical improvements in health, which have prolonged the lives of people across much of the globe for the past 250 years. It was, and continues to be, an incredible feat.
As with most things in life, you can’t take the good without the bad. The rise in life expectancy—while a great development for humanity—has created a colossal surge in world population growth and, in turn, an enormous uptick in greenhouse gas emissions. For tens of millions of years before the start of the Industrial Revolution, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was relatively stable. Since the late 1700s, however, carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere have increased by a shocking 39 percent.
Now, scientists around the world are ringing the alarm bell, as the world population is projected to reach 10 billion by the end of this century and Antarctic ice continues to melt at an increasing rate. Just last week the top climate experts concluded that a two-degrees Celsius boost in temperature is, in fact, “highly dangerous,” and suggested that a major rise in sea level could take place in a mere 50 to 200 years.
That is why we must act now to ensure that the present becomes a past that helps, not harms, the future. Unlike their early beginnings, science and technology—if developed and used with the environment in mind—can help to stabilize the population, reduce humanity’s carbon footprint, and, eventually, turn the tide on climate change. Let’s not waste another year, another day … another second. Together we can make history.
John Seager: World Population, the Environment and Social Equity (AHA Conference 2015)
How the world went from 170 million people to 7.3 billion, in one map
Paul Gilding: The Earth is full
Professor Paul Ehrlich: Can a collapse of global civilization be avoided?
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