HUMAN DEMAND ON NATURAL RESOURCES, GLOBALIZATION, AND CLIMATE CHANGE WILLDRAMATICALLY TRANSFORM THE PLANET IN COMING DECADES
—MOSTLY FOR THE WORSE. BUT GLOBAL CHANGE WILL HAVE ITS UPSIDES TOO. A REMARKABLE NEW BOOK FORECASTS AN EMERGENT ECONOMIC POWERHOUSE ON THE POLAR FRONTIER.
The World in 2050 is the best new geography book of the year. If that sounds underwhelming, it shouldn’t. Geography is the new hot discipline. A new generation of geographers is integrating the myriad concerns of the world, whether economic or political, social or environmental.
They are making sense of the globalisation of economics and environmental concerns in a way potentially as important as the cartographers of the middle ages. They are charting our limits and firing our imaginations. In this “thought experiment” into what kind of a world we may face just 40 years hence, Larry Smith shows the power of geography superbly with some literary ability.
To set the scene, he offers four global forces that will shape the coming decades. The first is escalating human demand on diminishing global resources, from water to oil to food. Smith skilfully sums up the global revolution created by the widespread use of fossil fuels in a sentence. “Packed inside a single barrel of oil is about the same amount of energy as would be produced from eight years of labour by an average-sized man.”
And he poses a central ethical dilemma with similar pithiness, asking: “What if you could play God and do the noble, ethically fair thing by converting the entire developing world’s level of material consumption to that now carried out by North Americans. By merely snapping your fingers you could eliminate this misery. Would you?” He adds: “I sure hope not.”
Then there is demography. He looks forward to the completion of the “demographic transition” and the end of population growth, but wonders how close a stable population may be. I think he is too pessimistic here. Fast falling fertility is now a near-global phenomenon that is, to a remarkable extent, independent of social, cultural, economic and even religious factors. It is extremely likely that we will see peak population by 2050, and thereafter maybe decline. But we can certainly agree that demography is no longer humanity’s main demon. Lifestyle, he says, “is an even more potent multiplier of human pressure on the world resource base than is total population itself.”
Smith’s third global force is globalization itself. Here he shows himself a skilful analyst of economic history, seeing the origins of this “megatrend” in the aftermath of the second world war, while noting that its antecedents go back to the late 19th century, when for a while trade was almost as today.
Add in his fourth force, climate change, and the outlook seems bleak. But Smith is no knee-jerk doom-monger. He points out that there is always a fifth force at work – innovation and advancing technology. From medical advances to smart grids, nanotech to geo-engineering, technology may have got us into this hole. But maybe it can get us out, too.
While this book is partly about such global forces, it has a more specifically geographical remit: the Arctic and the far north. These regions have been the focus of much of Smith’s academic research. He has important work to his name on how Arctic ecosystems will be transformed by climate change and how this may feed back to impact the rest of the world – for instance through methane bubbling out of the melting permafrost and adding to global warming. Now he posits that the far north will become the cockpit of wider global change.
This is important. We have for decades focused our global angst around the teeming tropics. We fear that economic development there is wrecking the rainforests and releasing their carbon into the air. And we worry that the poor billions in the hottest region of the planet will suffer most from global warming. But Smith’s “thought experiment” switches to events in the high latitudes of the north.
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