Following on from my last blog post, I am continuing the series of offcuts from my forthcoming book, “Stop Drifting, Start Rowing: One Woman’s Search for Happiness and Meaning Alone on the Pacific”, due to be published on October 15th this year. Please drop me a message if you would like an email reminder when the book becomes available.
The Earth is plenty big enough when you’re moving across its surface in a rowboat at around two miles an hour, but it is still perfectly feasible for one short, forty-something woman to row around most of our world within the space of a year or so. The astronauts of the 1960s sent back photographs of our Earth as a small blue-green marble floating in space, and for the first time we were struck by how small it looked. Being made aware of the Earth’s finite nature brought it home to us that this is all we have.
This has two major implications. One, we have only the resources that the planet can provide. And two, when we throw something “away”, it is still here, somewhere, on Planet Earth. Survival boils down to managing our inputs and outputs.
When I come back from my voyages after having spent a hundred days or more alone on my boat, focused solely on survival, the insanity of our society strikes me anew. On my rowboat I am keenly aware of the need to conserve resources if I am to stay alive. I know roughly how long my voyage is going to take, and I constantly monitor how much food I am consuming, and ration if necessary so I have enough to last until landfall. Some of my on-board resources are renewable – electricity (from solar panels), beansprouts and water (unless the watermaker is broken), but for the rest I have to keep one eye on the future to make sure I don’t guzzle my way through everything too quickly.
Yet in the world as a whole we seem to have lost sight of this principle. We are using non-renewable resources, such as fossil fuels and minerals, like there is no tomorrow. This is enabling us to grow our population to unprecedented levels, but what will happen when we have used them all up and can’t sustain this population any more? This is not rocket science. Anyone can see that it’s not a great idea to keep taking all the good stuff from the Earth, turning it into rubbish, and throwing it into landfill or the oceans. If we stop and think about it for a moment, we all know instinctively that this is an unsustainable course. Nature works in cycles, cradle to cradle – a cycle of life – while our current model of industry goes from cradle to grave – a line of death.
As to outputs, our Earth is not large enough that seven billion of us can continue polluting it without any thought for the consequences of our actions. On a finite Earth, what goes around, comes around. All the plastic, carbon dioxide, pesticides, and heavy metals that we let loose upon the Earth will end up somewhere, and often not where we intended them to be. In fact, the Earth is now so saturated with our various waste products that many undesirable things are ending up back in our bodies.
There are simply too many of us, using up too many resources. It has been calculated that if we all lived like Americans, we would need five Earths to sustain us all. The numbers just don’t stack up. It is mathematically impossible for this planet to sustain seven billion (and rising) human beings, while those seven billion insist on maintaining a lifestyle equivalent to, or better than, what we have now. Something has got to give.
Optimists may argue that by the time we have used up our resources here, we will have found another planet to screw up, oops, sorry, I mean, inhabit. But a very special sequence of circumstances led to the development of a planet that can sustain complex life forms. We take our Earth so much for granted that we sometimes forget just how amazing it is. Meanwhile, in galactic terms, our explorations have barely even ventured around the nearest corner. We could explore countless solar systems or even galaxies before we discover another planet that is the right temperature, has enough air, and exerts enough gravity for us to live there comfortably. The chances of us finding a second human-friendly planet before we run out of space and resources here are virtually nil, and it would be a reckless gamble to count it.
Next blog: nature makes no special allowances for humans.
A final reminder – I will be speaking at the Daily Telegraph Adventure Travel Show at Olympia in London at 12.15pm on Sunday 27th January. More details on the Adventure Travel Show website.