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Friday, July 14, 2006
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WHY WORRY? There’s an interesting debate going on about the world’s future. On the one side are those who say that the world, or at least civilization as we know it, is in big trouble and may not survive the next 100 years. In 1972, a think tank called “The Club Of Rome” published a book called “Limits To Growth” which predicted that the world would be in really bad shape by the mid-1990s. Obviously, it didn’t happen. The pessimists say that we got some lucky breaks, but the trends are still in place for a big collapse, akin to what happened to the western Roman Empire in the 5th and 6th Centuries.

On the other hand are the optimists, the intellectuals who say that the Club of Rome / Collapse of Rome scenario ain’t gonna happen at all, period. They say that technology and other corrective forces are in place and are working appropriately. So, they argue, instead of getting upset about global warming and peak oil, we should use whatever extra money and resources are available so as to deal with immediate needs in the undeveloped world, e.g. health care, nutrition, water and sanitation, and education.

One of the pretty-boys of the optimistic crowd is Bjorn Lomborg. (Check out his web site to see why I call him a “pretty boy”; arg, looks like he could have toured with Abba!) There have been various articles about Dr. Lomborg in The Economist, almost all positive. The latest article is about how UN Ambassador John Bolton became a Lomborg acolyte, and is now using his theories to deflect world-wide attention from global warming to things like AIDS, starvation and underdevelopment in Africa. I.e., now that global warming is an undeniable fact, the Bush administration has found a new tactic to divert attention from it, thanks to Dr. Lomborg.

I’ve read some articles explaining Lomborg’s position. When you read his logic, it sounds pretty good. He takes the issues apart piece-by-piece. Natural resources running out? Most commodities (nickel, iron, copper, concrete, foods) are cheaper now than they were 25 years ago. Even oil and gas are mostly a problem of politics; there’s still plenty of oil and gas, they’re just in unstable places (e.g. Venezuela, Iran, Niger, etc.). But once those places settle down, things should be just fine.

Next problem — population growth. Yes, the world’s population is growing. But the UN seems to decrease its estimate of the population growth rate every five years. If things go OK, we shouldn’t go over 9 billion in this century, and at worst will top out at 10 billion in the 22nd century. Next — species becoming extinct, fisheries collapsing, forests disappearing. Yes, some of this is happening, but much more slowly than previously thought; furthermore, these resources often snap right back after a while. Next — pollution and climate change. Well, the facts show that air and water quality overall have improved quite a bit in the past 100 years. And global warming, although undeniable, is still mostly a future problem, and it may not be as bad as some people predict. And anyway, the ways to deal with it are incredibly expensive.

Before I take this on, let me agree with Dr. Lomborg on one important concept. Our world only has so much money and so many resources available to make things better. We can’t assume that there’s enough economic power to fix all problems (unless all the nations of the world would give up their military forces; oh, right, this is planet Earth, not Utopia). So we do have to make careful decisions on how to use what is available in foreign aid and such. If we put everything on global warming, then we won’t be able to do much about the AIDS crisis in Africa, or setting up tsunami warning systems, or building schools in Latin America. But if we totally disregard the long-term problems . . .

Here’s why I think that we actually do need to spend more on the macro problems like global warming, population control and alternate energy. Lomborg looks at the big problems one-by-one, and finds enough to belittle each one. But he doesn’t look at the overall picture. He doesn’t ask whether these trends interact with each other in ways that might make the overall situation much more dangerous. I think that they do. Here is what I’m wary of:

1.) Population Growth: Even if the number of people on the planet isn’t growing as fast as previously thought, it is still growing — and almost all of that growth is happening in the least developed, most impoverished places. UN stats show that population in the “high standard of living” zones (America, Western Europe, Japan) has and will remain fixed at around 1.2 billion. The world has the capacity to support more people, but not to give them relatively secure and prosperous lives, as I enjoy. Most people remain on the edge of starvation, disease and disaster, and their numbers are growing.

2.) Technology Side-Effects: One side-effect of cheap technology is that even in the poorest slums or the most remote farming villages, someone has a radio or TV or video player. And since America and Europe dominate the entertainment media throughout the world, that means that the poor are very aware these days that some people are living much better than they are. Years ago, families in the Andes Mountains or along the lower Nile had no idea of what life in America was like. Now they do. So the possibility for resentment is there and may well be growing.

3.) Peak Oil and Gas: A lot of reasonable analysts are saying that worldwide oil and gas production will peak around 2030. Alternative sources of energy, such as hydrogen and biomass, may take several more decades to become economically viable and available in sufficient quantities; engineering and infrastructure doesn’t happen overnight. So, the price of oil and gas will continue to march upward, creating increased pressure to burn coal. (In China, they’re already burning more and more of it with little regard for environmental effects).

4.) Global Warming: As energy prices increase, there will be enormous political pressure from the business sector to allow coal to be burned, as to avoid a major economic depression. Unfortunately, that’s the worst thing that could happen with regard to global warming. We now know that global warming is real, and that it is going to eventually flood coastlands (where almost 50% of the world’s population reside) and change where crops can be grown. But with the help of people like Lomborg, and with some vague promises about how technology will soon solve the coal-emissions problem, the energy interests will probably get away with burning cheaper, dirtier fuels as oil and gas become increasingly scarce (hydrogen probably won’t be ready yet, and nuclear power will remain expensive and problematic).

5.) Back to Population Growth: The population is growing in the areas that are going to be hit first and eventually be hit hardest by global warming. There’s going to be a lot of angst in poor nations as arable land turns to desert, and waters rise in coastal cities. There will be huge flows of refugees crossing borders, searching for dry land and food. That’s going to create a lot of political tension in a lot of different places (French President Chirac just made a speech about how Africa will “flood the world” with refugees if it continues to collapse economically; he wasn’t even considering the potential effects of global warming).

6.) Back to Technology: Another side-effect of technology is that nuclear weapons are becoming widely available. Despite the commendable efforts of the USA and Western Europe to avoid nuclear proliferation, we can’t put the genie back in the bottle, as A. Q. Khan from Pakistan has proven. By 2030, just about every nation, and many “pan-national” interest groups (patterned after al Qaeda), will have access to crude nuclear weapons at reasonable prices.

7.) So What? Well, if these trends collide, we
could have a whole lot of disgruntled and desperate nations with huge masses of people facing very major changes regarding issues such as where to find food and shelter, forget about jobs and commerce. A confluence of bad luck could push things to a “tipping point”; there may not be enough time to set up new farmlands and new cities with all the new infrastructure needed to support them. People are known to do desperate things under such circumstances. And these people may well have nukes. They’re going to be mad at each other as they struggle for what resources remain available, and they’re going to be mad at the USA and Europe for being rich enough to ride out all the changes. We could see a decade or two of low-intensity / slow-motion nuclear war, with a few bursts from a local war here, a few bursts set off by terrorists in major Western cities there . . .

I can’t help but wonder if 9-11 and the present crisis along the US-Mexican border are just the opening songs in a great tragic opera that will unfold throughout the world over the next 50 to 100 years. Humankind would certainly not come to an end. But as to whether civilization will continue to advance, or will it take a nuclear setback that will require four or five centuries to make up for (akin to the Dark Ages), that is an awfully good question. One that Mr. Lomborg and Mr. Bolton would do well to ponder.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 11:08 pm      

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