Monday, 5 August 2013

Overpopulation: Ten Billion

Here are the chilling facts on global overpopulation as spelt out by John Gray in a review of Stephen Emmott's book Ten Million,
' is human expansion that lies behind the conquest of our dependency on oil, coal and gas; the industrial-scale use of chemical pesticides, herbicides and fertilisers; battery farming; the transformation of fresh water into a depleting resource and the mass extinction of other life forms that is under way. Food production has become a branch of global industry, increasing our reliance on fossil fuels and accelerating the process of climate change. A mounting risk of famine is the result. In a roundabout process he couldn't have imagined, Malthus has turned out to be essentially right.
 Emmott's short, highly accessible and vividly illustrated book marshals compelling evidence that "entire global ecosystems are not only capable of suffering a catastrophic tipping point, but are already approaching such a transition". He sees only two ways of dealing with what has become a planetary emergency: "The first is technologising our way out of it. The second is radical behaviour change." Emmott is sceptical about the first – particularly geoengineering schemes, which he views as highly risky – and sees no evidence of any readiness for radical behavioural change. "We need to consume less … And yet, every decade, global consumption continues to increase relentlessly." With neither technology nor politics offering any way out, Emmott concludes: "The problem is us … We urgently need to do – and I mean actually do – something radical to avert a global catastrophe. But I don't think we will. I think we're fucked."

Are we fucked, then? Well, it's clear we're in for a pretty rough time. The physical systems of the planet look like becoming more dangerously unstable. As Emmott explains, plumes of methane – a greenhouse gas many times more potent than C02 – have been observed rising from previously frozen areas off the Arctic shelf, and if the cause is melting ice triggered by human activities then the process could go on for centuries. The land grab in which rich countries and corporations are buying up arable land around the world will continue. Resource wars will multiply, and in a geopolitical struggle that has already begun the Arctic will become the site of the next Great Game.

"People are not bad when they have plenty of room," observed the Austro-Hungarian writer Joseph Roth. Emmott tells us that the violent spillover of environmental crisis is attracting the concern of military thinkers, and reports a young scientific colleague telling him that, looking ahead, he plans to teach his son how to use a gun. A course in computer hacking might be more useful, but the point is sound. While the planet is changing at a rate unknown in human experience, there is no prospect of any radical change in human behaviour.

That doesn't mean there is nothing that can be done. Unless climate change escalates to chaotic levels, the human animal will muddle through. A mix of declining fertility and technical fixes (including demonised technologies such as nuclear power) can help deal with the bottleneck in human numbers. The shift in thinking that will be needed if we are to prepare ourselves for living in a different world begins with reading Emmott's indispensable book.'

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