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Question Your World: Can We Invent Our Way Out of Any Problem?

From fire to the most cutting edge communications systems we have proven to be quite the inventive species. Some of the largest changes in humanity are at the hands of innovation and have propelled our species forward regardless of obstacles that we've encountered. Does that always work? Can we invent our way out of any problem? Listen to this Question Your World radio report produced by the Science Museum of Virginia to find out.

A long time ago the cold and darkness of night provided quite the problem for our long term survival. This issue became a thing of the past once we domesticated fire. That early invention was one of the many primitive adjustments we made to better survive as a species. Since then we've added better housing, mind blowing medicines, travel options, and many other inventions to help us circumnavigate the many challenges that are inherent with our physical selves. However, in a recent study, we can see that our ability to invent and be creative may not be our saving grace in every situation. Perhaps we cannot invent our way out of literally every problem we face. 

From 500AD-1000AD there was a very interesting population living in the south western parts of what is not the United States of America. The reason they are interesting to scientists is because from a recent analysis of human remains it's been concluded that these people had a much higher birth rate than that of modern humans today. This is a story about the balance and relationship between us and the environment we live.

Once agriculture became an established part of life for these people it freed up women's arms, literally. If roaming groups or tribes no longer had to worry about holding newborns and young children then it frees up the arms and the mother no longer needs to focus on just one offspring. Having the freedom to keep food abundantly ready and to have a safe permanent home allowed for an increase in the number of children that a mother would have. This allowed for a significantly higher birth rate than had ever happened in the past. These civilizations grew to vast numbers. So, how is it that such a vast population can grow to such large numbers and then all by disappear? 

Well, there are two answers to that question. First the population's growth hit such a critical level that resources started to become an issue. The land that we live on has a caring capacity, or the amount of use and resources it can provide for a specific population. Once the scales tip on this the land can no longer meet the needs of a larger population. So, the next obvious question is why didn't they just go get more land and resources. Well, that's more difficult to do than one may assume. Just because your territory is out of recourse does not mean you can stretch your property lines, all the other areas were spoken for by other tribes. Going into a neighboring property area to take new resources could result in conflict. Keep in mind if food is limited the people without food will have less energy to fight than those with food. So, fighting your neighbor over food is not a smart idea. Regardless, the land itself does have a caring capacity and once a population outgrows what the land can provide you'll quickly start to see problems such as keeping everyone fed and healthy. This decline in recourses is just one issue though; the second problem had a much larger impact.

Around 1000AD there was a major drought in that area. The climate had changed. A once fertile and lush area for farming and raising animals turned into a dry and barren landscape. This is a major problem for anyone that relies on the land to keep a growing population's needs met. The simplest way of explaining is once it's gone, it's really gone. Once you've consumed the food that was available and you have no means of growing more or getting more land, you're basically stuck.

Now, keep in mind these were impressive people. This was like the Brooklyn of its day. Going through the ruins now we can see the complex art, architecture, and cultural aspects of these people. They studied the motions of the sun and the stars, observed the natural world around them, created a large civilization, and many more byproduct of an intelligent and innovative community. Despite their advanced thinking these were two issues that they simply could not invent themselves out of. This serves as a great example of what could happen to the entire planet someday. Think of it as an analogy to the bigger picture. If the climate changes, if our planet is no longer able to provide us with the vital needs for our life, and if there is no other place to go, what do we do?

There are some issues that are beyond our innovative minds. These are the issues worth considering right now and making decisions that will yield a safer and more comfortable future for us as a united species. Our changing climate and growing population are on a different scale than that of the peoples of south western North America, but they are met with the same question, when we're out of options what's left to do?

Article by: Prabir MehtaScience Museum of Virginia
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