This article has been written for us by Julian Anderson, founding and present chairman of Quantock Eco. He said “This will be my swan song as I shall be standing down at our April AGM. I have never heard a swan sing, but it is said they sing a particularly beautiful nunc dimittis before leaving the stage. Sadly my song may be nothing but a dreary cacophony in a minor key as I voice my thoughts on Humanity’s future”.
I chose the title of this article because it has a special meaning for me. I was once a student of Economics and we were taught to qualify any plan of action with the phrase ceteris paribus (other things being equal). It always amused me as we knew only too well, before writing the plan, that ceteris were never paribus outside the theoretical world. Nevertheless it had value – it was excellent cover when the plan fell apart – a sort of, I told you it would!
COP26 has given us a plan. A plan of Humanity’s tentative steps towards Net Zero by 2050. A plan of how we are going to mitigate the impact of global warming and adapt to the consequences of tipping points that have already tipped. It is a huge challenge, yet Chairman Sharma said when closing the event, almost as if to convince himself, We can now say with credibility that we have kept 1.5 degrees alive.
I suggest that statement was one of hope rather than fact. COP26 was based solely on promises to reduce emissions and to preserve the natural environment. Both aims are absolutely necessary and laudable; but what about population? We, Humanity, are/is after all the root cause of global warming – we created Climate Change! That is why our epoch is known as the Anthropocene – the geological age during which human activity has been the dominant influence on climate and the environment.
Omitting any consideration of population size/growth/decline and its impact on the climate crisis, means, in my opinion, that the COP26 plan was out of focus from its inception, a fact that does not augur well for its fulfilment.
There are now 8 billion of us on Earth, and we will be between 9 or 11 billion (depending on which forecast you believe) by 2100. We know that Humanity’s insatiable appetite for more cannot be sustained – the Planet’s resources are finite. With more and more of us those resources will be put under greater and greater strain as we fight for shares of it.
That presents us with an anthropoexistential crisis. How could such an important factor as population be ignored by COP26? Ignoring it was, in my opinion, like a symposium on how to win Formula 1 races without considering the drivers, or one on obesity without considering calory intake.
Does that omission not leave Humanity, like Hokusai’s fishermen, in a position where it will be overwhelmed by forces well beyond its control?
I believe the answer is “Yes!”. Unless we move fast to do something about it. Malthus was, after years of being proved wrong, in fact right, when in 1798 (!) he said The power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man.
Our western lifestyle is not only too demanding for the Planet to sustain it; but also too lush for everyone on the Planet to have the same. Humanity is in “ecological overshoot”.
The evidence is there. On average Humanity consumes resources equivalent to 1.7 Earth planets, with huge variations between western nations and the rest of the world.
This stark fact means that at present levels of consumption the world’s population should be only 4.5 billion, not 8! So why did COP26 ignore such a vital statistic?
The questions which I would have liked to see it address, as well as reducing emissions and saving the natural environment, are:
- What can be done to balance population with the finite resources of the Planet?
- Will western nations give up a multi-planet lifestyle for the benefit of all Humanity?
Rather than let these two questions remain unanswered, I thought I would share my views on the sort of discussion that might have taken place with you.
The answer to the first question is pretty clear: if a satisfactory balance is to be achieved it requires a reduction in the Planet’s population, and the rate at which that population consumes its resources. If Humanity achieves the first before the end of the century, it might also be well on the way to achieving the second, as there will be less demand for resources. If it does not achieve the first, equilibrium will remain illusive, if not impossible to achieve.
Sociologists and demographers agree that there are signs that the Planet’s population will decline, which sounds like good news. The decline they say is due to increasing urbanisation and the fact that urban mothers have fewer children, so by mid-century these two conditions will spin every nation’s population into permanent decline, creating a Planet of the elderly.
Despite this all their projections give us increased global population of between 9 to 11 billion at 2100. We know that at our present rate of consumption should be 4.5 billion; but this data shows that we will have a surplus population of between 4.5 and 6.5 billion on the Planet at the end of the century. So what do we do with this surplus? You know there is nowhere else for “them” to go, no matter how we might fantasise about living on the Moon or Mars. The answer is we have to reduce population, and in quick time.
There is incontrovertible sociological evidence to show that when women and girls (urban and rural) are able to choose what happens to their bodies and minds, not only do fertility rates plummet, but the intellectual and economic wellbeing of their communities also rises sharply.
Freedom for women and girls to have education and access to sexual advice and family planning is therefore an absolute must for Planet welfare. They contribute hugely to improving community lives, reducing emissions, and halting the destruction of Nature. Educated mothers understand our existential crisis, know what has to be done to build sustainable lifestyles, and transmit that understanding to their children.
One highly respected international group that ranks climate actions according to their effectiveness, found that the combination of educating girls and providing access to family planning could reduce global CO2 levels by 103 gigatonnes before 2050.
The empowerment of women is therefore a strategic priority. To bring population down in quick time global machos must be made to accept an equal role for women, and recognise that it benefits the development of the communities in which they also live. Machos, there is a trade-off!
I suggest that gender equality be given top priority on the agendas of the Foreign Office’s forthcoming London summit of world religious leaders (July), the UN’s General Assembly (September), and COP27 (November). Each of those meetings should acknowledge the need to enact, fund and enforce this change in cultures across the Planet. These are three opportunities which should not be missed.
There is of course an important caveat! A run away decline in fertility rates will lead to the end of our species. We should try to avoid that! Fertility rates have to be strictly managed. Bar culling by climate-stoked starvation, the eruption of Yellowstone National Park, pandemic, or similar, management will depend solely on governments.
Once the target population of some 4 billion has been reached, equilibrium should be maintained by ensuring that the replacement fertility rate of 2.1 children per woman is strictly observed. This should be supported by free birth control and incentives not to exceed replacement. All this has been done before in various formats and in various countries. They can be repeated with the wisdom of hindsight.
The other factor in balancing resources and population is, of course, how we use those resources.
Today our consumption culture is linear: we manufacture products, we use them, we discard them, we manufacture more, we buy new ones, and we create waste as we go. I suggest there are at least two methods which might help change that: be war-time frugal; and change the current wasteful production model.
War-time frugality will be almost impossible to achieve in times of plenty, especially as we are more often than not the victims of marketing men who lure us on to buy more through tantalising advertisements and perceived obsolescence.
Perceived obsolescence is perhaps the most pernicious. It draws one into a vortex of buy, buy and buy again on the tenuous basis that new but only slightly improved is better, or because it is past its sell-by date. That may be good for continued demand, profit margins and jobs; but it is resource wasteful.
To halt being sucked into that vortex will be a huge challenge for Humanity. Perhaps all it can do is to keep practicing what it has been asked to do for many years (reduce, reuse and recycle) until it becomes accustomed to feeling good in a second hand garment, having an “out-of-date” mobile, and driving 1999 reg car. But will it?
Another route, which needs the three Rs to be a success, is to change the production model and adopt the so-called “circular economy”. A model it is said which will transform our throwaway society into one that keeps resources in use for as long as possible, extracts maximum value from them, and minimises waste.
I confess I have grave doubts as to the long-term viability of both ideas.
My second question was Will western nations give up a multi-planet lifestyle for the benefit of all Humanity? We know that there are huge inequalities between nations which, ideally, should be ironed out for the benefit of all Humanity. Sadly I believe they will always exist. There will always be bigger rewards for some than for others. Humanity’s innate drive for more will mean that some will always be more successful than others at getting more.
It was respected cosmologist Stephen Hawking who said – Humanity is greedy, stupid, and the world’s greatest threat. He may well be right.
But then who decides when greed has been committed? Who decides how much is needed, or how much is deserved, or when enough is enough, and the rest is pure greed?
I tested myself to see whether I was greedy, and calculated my Ecological Footprint. Horror of horrors, I am guilty of consuming at the rate of two and a half Earth planets!
The only comfort is that my score is a bit better than the UK average (2.7), and a lot, lot better than the average American, who needs five planets! I suggest you test yourself – see how many you need, and hopefully share my guilt! Ecological Footprint Calculator.
I do not wish to be greedy, and I am sure neither do you; but the concept of lowering my current multi-planet life for someone else begs the question as to whether I should give up my hard earned lifestyle for someone I do not know. Anyway, where do I begin? What do I give up? How do I become un-greedy? How do I share what I have?
There must be others like me. Perhaps not. Perhaps others are more noble, more altruistic than I. I’ll leave it to them. The really magnanimous will level their resources down for us all.
As morally abhorrent as that cop-out is, it highlights the dilemma which Humanity faces in the heyday of its Anthropocene.
Population growth is controllable, and an equilibrium with the use of the Planet’s resources might be struck just by reducing population; but, I am sure you will agree that greed is the hallmark of the epoch, and Hokusai’s wave hangs menacingly over us for that reason.
There is little doubt that by mid-century sophisticated processes and algorithms will force such global societal change that will make the 20th century look like the dark ages. Quantum computing, AI, blockchain, face recognition, virtual reality, avatars, 10+G broadband, wearable or embedded sensors, genetic engineering, robotics and cryptocurrencies will be ubiquitous, and part of our everyday lives, whether we understand them or not.
Platforms will be everywhere. Everything will be connected, interconnected, and automated. It will be the end of privacy.
I believe these high-tech “platforms” will be the springboard from which Humanity will assume a very different persona from the one it has today. They will present it with a binary choice: use them to dominate in a non-participative society; or use them for enlightened, participative ends.
The very sound of the first option is unsettling. It could be used in ways reprehensible by today’s standards of liberty. It could be the ideal culture for wealthy, despotic, tech corporates and their leaders to consciously, or subliminally determine what we do and when. A privileged crypto-technocracy out for its own good could be our government.
If this breed of greed triumphs it will, as the night follows the day, lead to further exploitation of the Planet. Greed will be praised as a necessary force for everyone’s wellbeing. The mantra will be – it drives invention and renewal and is therefore essential for progress.
Curiously a good example of greed arose on the second day of COP26 when a well known personality in our government said, “The retreat of the ice towards the North Pole could open up new sea routes that would benefit Scottish ports”. Were hands were rubbed with glee? Did I hear someone shout “Roll on climate change!”?
Thank goodness there is a second option, and one that gives us hope. We should grasp it and use every platform for enlightened, participative ends.
Imagine how that high-tech could be used as the basis for all-inclusive societies and networked communities who collectively decide their future and share resources and opportunities.
Imagine how they might be used to iron out inequalities and differences in communities and nations across the globe.
Imagine how they might be used as benign tools that help bridge the gap between alternative spirituality and Humanity’s place in the Cosmos.
Imagine, how they might be the answer to my second question, and be used to equalise standards of living and the distribution of resources worldwide.
Yes, there are multiple routes which Humanity might take. Its choice will determine the destiny it deserves.
I am sure you will agree that we must do all we can to channel greed so that Earth does not become the Empty Planet, and that every effort should be made to ensure that ceteris are paribus as we do so.