Day 30 on the lily pond: the perplexing point of the point of no return

Random thought November 13 2010

David Suzuki, to some a saint, told a Green-organised conference on 12 November that we humans are past the 29th day on the lily pond. That is, we are very near ecological catastrophe.

The 29th day is the name of a book by environmentalist Lester Brown, who posed an old French riddle: “If you place a lily pad in an empty pond and it divides to become two lily pads the second day, four lily pads the third day and eight lily pads the fourth day and you know that the lily pond will be completely filled with lily pads on the 30th day, on which day will the pond be half full?”

The answer, of course, is the 29th day. At the end of that day there is only one day to stop the lily pads engulfing the whole pond, though it seems, with only half the pond covered, there is still plenty of time.

Brown reckoned humans were in their 29th day when in 1980 the population reached 4 billion, which he said made the earth half full of humans.

There are now about 6.8 billion and median projections take us over 9 billion by mid-century.

Suzuki’s past-the-29th-day point is that we have very little time to reduce our environmental footprint before we find we have no choices left.

Put that together with another environmental presumption: that there is a point past which biodiversity is so reduced that human life is not sustainable. Given that the biosphere is a complex organism and complex organisms do not evolve in a linear fashion but go through sudden, unpredicted changes (as the great financial crisis reminded us), the Suzuki warning is that we are close to such a point — in the 30th day, with the remaining half of the pond being rapidly filled as we fiddle.

But if Suzuki is right, we are doomed whatever we do because the 30th day is too late to stop the lilies filling the pond. So why, for the last short period of human existence, deny ourselves the satiation we have craved since the time on the savannah? Why not die out dining out?