The numbers game
As a child of the 1960s I was always led to believe that one of the biggest threats to the world after nuclear war was the looming problem of overpopulation. It’s not a new idea — it was first vaunted by the eighteenth century cleric Thomas Malthus who suggested, the resource abundance which enables population growth eventually brings the per capita supply of resources back to its original level — a long way of saying ‘enjoy it while you can’.
Certainly, the world has undergone some pretty powerful population levelers in just the last century including wars, famine and pestilence. But humans have been doing a great job making a mess of things, including their own ability to reproduce exponentially. In the absence of a nuclear war, and despite our best efforts, we will purportedly reach about 10.9 billion souls on the planet by the end of this century. But after that, (if we get there), it’s all downhill population wise apparently, even if you take out the compound interest of climate change.
This summer I had the chance to acquaint myself with the jolly spokesman of the next apocalypse, geopolitical analyst, Peter Zeihan whose latest book, ‘The end of the world is just the beginning’ outlines in some detail, the pain points we are about to experience in greater frequency and magnitude in this decade — deglobalization and depopulation being particularly salient.
The interesting thing about geopolitics is its irreducible logic — politics can be discussed endlessly but demographics have a cold hard quality that broaches little interpretation or discussion. When nations like China and Russia implode because of a combination of low birth rates and rapidly aging populations, there is only one conclusion: a wider civilizational collapse and ensuing chaos.
Apart from a cynical landgrab for oil and gas resources, it seems the Russians are also tapping Ukraine for vital human resources they lack. To date, Russians have forcibly deported between 900,000 and 1.6 million Ukrainian citizens, including 260,000 children, from their homes to Russia — often to repopulate isolated regions in the Far East. This fact alone should be a clear enough case for the West to support Ukraine and exert maximum economic and military pressure on the Russian regime. It’s a question of logistics, but it seems that the Russian regime has signed its own death warrant with such activities and the war only serves to advance matters.
As the world order dissembles, populations collapse and climate change advances, there will be a time quite close by where it seems at least, that there are more of us than ever and that is the acceleration of the refugee crisis.
According to the UN International Organization for Migration, there could be as many as 1.5 billion environmental migrants in the next 30 years. After 2050, that figure is expected to soar as the world inexorably heats up. The organization posits that with every degree of temperature increase, roughly 1 billion people will be displaced (bearing in mind that we are already exceeding 1.3 degrees above pre-industrial times now).
We experienced one of the hottest summers on record in Europe in 2022 — a first taste of the chaos in the years ahead. But once whole nations, highly populous ones like Bangladesh, the Philippines, Niger, Pakistan, and Afghanistan start to move, as they must, the nations in the habitable zones will themselves collapse under the weight of humanity massing at the borders or resort to the kind of inhumanity we cannot presently contemplate.
The Ukraine crisis in all its cruelty will look like a speed bump on the road by comparison.
I always end my posts with a window of hope but given the facts, I must acknowledge that hope is itself a dwindling resource. Will humanity survive the multiple crises ahead? Of course, but what form that takes is a matter for future geopolitical analysts to ponder.
We are exiting one of the best times to be alive on the planet, a time window in which we enjoyed a stable climate, a post war industrial boom made sure by globalization, advancing technology and a green revolution that fed millions. But the earth is tired and depleted — run ragged by the aberrational species called Homo Sapiens.
Since we place ourselves at the top of the food chain, we tend to miss the point that there is only so much room at the top of the pyramid for its apex predators. Like demographic pyramids, the ones with the bulges at the top collapse catastrophically. As a species, we really have taken the ball and run far with it, but speed comes at a cost.
I think it’s suitably ironic that the eminent British scientist, futurist and environmentalist, James Lovelock, who hypothesized the concept of Gaia drew his last breath just days after the UK exceeded 40 degrees Celsius — a meteorological record.
I leave you with a quote from one who saw further than most:
“I don’t think we’re yet evolved to the point where we’re clever enough to handle a complex a situation as climate change. The inertia of humans is so huge that you can’t really do anything meaningful.”