Archive for the ‘Population’ Category

We all hope we’re wrong about climate change

This is not something that is made explicit enough, or made explicit often enough. This story brought the point to mind:

Europe’s leaders are being warned to prepare for big new flows of migration by 2020 as climate change puts strains on food and water supplies, provokes natural disasters and undermines political stability in poorer, neighboring countries.

A report prepared for the European Union heads of government, who will meet Thursday in Brussels, said that the rest of the world could not insulate itself from the impact of changes that could overwhelm regions that already suffer from poverty and conflict.

In North Africa and the sub-Sahara, drought and overfarming could lead to a loss of 75 percent of arable land. The Nile Delta could be threatened by both rising sea levels and salinization of agricultural land. Between 12 and 15 percent of arable land could be lost to rising seas in this century with five million people affected by 2050. Meanwhile, both the Horn of Africa and southern Africa are vulnerable to reduced rainfall and higher temperatures.

Sounds shit, frankly – worse only for the people doing the moving (I meant shit for me, living in the Midlands of England). This is just a number of all-too-likely consequences of all-too-likely catastrophic climate change, and is exactly why those of us who believe in the problem would like very much to be wrong. I’m happy to have colleagues (known but not named) to call me up once per week for the remainder of my life, giving me stick about my Henny Penny paranoia – if only it meant that none of this misery will come to pass. Somehow, though, I doubt it.

Meanwhile, some war predictions:

There’s also the water one cannot drink – China and the US over the West Pacific, for example. There also are plenty of instances of good and neighbourly management of the scarce resource, but as the resource becomes more scarce still, who knows? We could see Adelaide go to war with Melbourne, for all I know.

There are also plenty of voices who say that the probabilities just don’t match the rhetoric. Could be. I see, though, water the new land – the fixed and needed natural resource of the future, over which we will be prepared to fight long and hard. Because our lives just might depend upon it. Which, sure, makes me a miserable bastard. Like I said, I do hope we all turn out to be plain wrong.


Move Beijing to … somewhere else

While my wife and her friend watch seriously weird-ass Russian Winnie-the-Pooh clips (their laptop is turned away from me. I read the books. Everything else was a crime against A. A. Milne). China Dialogue has a truly fascinating article up at the moment. Originally from

China really should consider moving the capital away from Beijing. Any nation, particularly a major power, should choose a location for its capital that allows growth and can respond to challenges. The historical advantages that led Beijing to become China’s capital no longer exist, and the location’s disadvantages are becoming ever more apparent.

Yes, the article is an argument that Beijing will not hold as China’s capital (like I said – fascinating). Why move?

First: the location is no longer strategic:

Modern communications and transportation mean there is no need for today’s “emperors” to stay within easy reach of the borders. Ever since the Opium Wars, China’s military threats have come from the east, not the north. The Mongols were pacified, the Soviet Union collapsed and we are on friendly terms with Russia. Keeping the capital in Beijing does not keep us closer to our allies.

Second: the location is not proximate to the clean water that a city of 20m people needs:

Quenching Beijing’s thirst has already meant tapping the Hai River and water from neighbouring provinces. Now the Han River is to be diverted for a huge project transferring water from the south to the north. The impact of this project on the lower reaches of the Han River should not be underestimated. It will not necessarily solve water problems in the north, but it may well destroy the environment in the south. Beijing may have moved the Shougang steel plant for the sake of its air quality, but it continues to develop water-intensive industry. Why not move the industry and resources where there is more water?

Third: Beijing cannot handle the growth:

The centre of power in any country will gather resources towards itself and that will attract people from elsewhere – at home and abroad – to come seek their fortunes. They have every right to do so, and this should not be restricted, but inevitably the pressures on the city are increased … Leaving Beijing as the capital may be the biggest possible mistake.

Their conclusion:

If China were to select a new capital, the ideal location would be a small- or medium-sized city, with undeveloped land for construction, around the lower and middle reaches of the Yangtze River. Such a geographic location would have high environmental capacity and land for government buildings – unlike an already developed city.

Now, to the issues not addressed. I ran through the urbanisation issues back during the Summer. Specifically, I discussed the wonderful book, Planet of Slums, by Mike Davis. In it, he uses (2003) UN HABITAT data to estimate urban slum populations. Guess who wins? China. With 193.8m people and a proportion (urban population that can be categorised as ‘slum’) of 37%. This isn’t the highest proportion (Ethiopa and Chad rode that in with – no kidding – 99.4%), but it is definitely the greatest number. Using the same data, Beijing had – then – a little over 10m people. So build that sort of population growth into the slums as well, and figure out that magnitude.

So to the issue not addressed. If Beijing packs up and moves, will it take those people with it? Some, sure. And many more will re-migrate – but many, many millions will not. Who will care, then, for the resource-poor, slum-laden, destitute Beijing that is no longer the capital of China?

The second issue is the resource use. This (a) will involve a fucking tonne of bad-for-the-environment trucking, shipping, cement, contstruction, steel – you name it; (b) the relocation itself will (i) be expensive, financially and environmentally, and (ii) subsume a lot of public money that will be lost to human, social and environmental capital investment.

Yes, I realise I sound like a (profane) misery-guts. I can’t help it. I just can’t help it. This argument, while – as I said – fascinating, strikes as the urban planning equivalent of loosening one’s belt a few notches, as the solution to obesity. China should, sustainably, channel the resources required into Beijing, constrain urban sprawl/density, deal with urban migration, etc. etc. Yeah – I’m glad it’s not my problem, don’t get me wrong. It’s a wicked problem and I’d be an old man fast if I had to worry about fixing it. What an interesting debate this could become, though.

Lives unmeasured

How does one measure out their life in coffee spoons that do not exist at all? This sort of thing comes along every few years but, at the moment, this corresponds well with my recent post about New York’s poor and, further back, about the globally-increasing trend in refugees.

Many of these stateless people are among the world’s poorest; all are the most disenfranchised. Without citizenship, they often have no right to schooling, health care or property ownership. Nor may they vote, or travel outside their countries – even, in some cases, the towns – where they live.

They are stateless for many reasons – migration, refugee flight, racial or ethnic exclusion, the quirks of history – but taken together, these noncitizens, according to one report, “are among the most vulnerable segments of humanity.”

Without the rights conferred by citizenship, they have few avenues for redressing abuses, and little access to resources that could help them build better lives. They have few advocates, because human rights groups tend to focus on the types of abuses they suffer – trafficking, exploitation, discrimination – rather than the root of their problems, their statelessness.

“The very fact that democracy makes people count makes citizenship a more important social and political fact, and that has given an incentive to some political leaders to use citizenship as a tool to disenfranchise opponents,” said James Goldston, executive director of the Open Society Justice Initiative.

By the most common count, there are 15 million stateless people in the world, but by its nature, this is a number nobody can know for certain.

The stateless include some 200,000 Urdu-speaking Bihari in scores of refugee settlements in Bangladesh, where they are barred from many government services and subject to harassment and discrimination.

Formerly a prosperous, land-owning community, they were stranded in Bangladesh when it separated from Urdu-speaking Pakistan in 1971. Although Pakistan at first offered refuge to fleeing Bihari, neither nation offers citizenship today to those who stayed behind.

IHT pic

It is not uncommon for Bihari men in Bangladesh to leave their wives to marry local Bengali women in order to obtain Bangladeshi citizenship. This 20-year-old woman, abandoned by her husband, makes paper bags to support herself and her baby. She is paid less than 25 cents for the 500 bags she makes each day. She is losing her sight in both eyes and has no health care.

Bihar has its own terrible legacy of British rule.

This is a lesson, to some extent, on perspective. If you live in an urban environment (and even if you don’t) I recommend to you a book called The Mole People: Life In The Tunnels Beneath New York City, by Jennifer Toth. The lesson is a depressing one. We already feel helpless in the face of what we think we know to the be the problem (who can even think for long about 10 million refugees? We’re busy being miserable in our cubicles, surrounded in more wealth than 99% of the world will ever know). How much worse to know that there are literally countless numbers of human beings out there, whose place and worth is so low that they are not counted at all?

Have I a solution? No. The countries holding these people, like New York City itself, have every incentive not to recognise them. Moreso than New York, the state of Bihar cannot afford more mouths to feed. The solution is for us, the wealthy, to respond in a truly global fashion. We will not. Even if we were moved to try, our attempts would be hijacked by Agribusinesses trying to complete the wreck of a place like Bihar with patented grains and seeds, or something. Maybe one day. My parents and grandparents never managed it, but perhaps the students I teach will.

This, by the by, is just one of the reasons why you should vote. It won’t help these people, but imagine how such people would feel to know you have citizenship in the greatest societies ever known, and give it not enough value to wield it in your own democracy.

There is an element of Satrean existentialism, here (sorry). One of the amazing things about humans is that our existence carries a level most things do not: our ability to re-purpose our own lives. Everything exists within itself, and with the meaning(s) with which it is imbued; you, though, have the ability to imbue your life with your own meaning – there is no meaning of life, after all, only the meaning in your life, which is for you to decide. This is why it is such a shame when Fox News, MTV and the electoral college convince so many of us that the meaning in our lives is for them to decide. Or when the vagaries of government and the political economy mean that some people’s lives have an entire identity, which the rest of us enjoy (citizenship), stripped away. My recommendation is for you to engage with anything besides a television, as you go along.

This is also selfish. Informed and engaged individuals, acting in their self-interest, also make Economics work better. So, do me a favour?

When we run out of oil New York will be first against the wall

I believe this fairly strongly. Los Angeles, too (but I don’t live there). Taking the bus back and forth from Pennsylvania, I see, just over the other side of New Jersey, how out of touch this city is with its immediate, actually productive areas. Nor can it be sustained by any upstate farming once the lights go out. I’ve subscribed mostly to the position taken by James Kunstler that, while big cities will be excellent sources of scap material and Calvin Klein suits (for anybody reading Hiroki Endo’s Eden), smaller cities match more accurately cities of old, pre-industrially speaking.

Now, via The Oil Drum, and the Energy Bulletin, comes this piece (essay? I can never tell what gets called an essay, in America) on the Archdruid Report, the blog of John Michael Greer, the Grand Archdruid of the Ancient Order of Druids in America). His thesis is similar, though spectacularly well-written:

Whether the apocalypse du jour is nuclear war, pandemic disease, racial conflict, Communist takeover, fascist police state takeover, the imminent arrival of Antichrist, or what have you, the accepted way to deal with it is to flee to some isolated location in the mountains and wait for the rubble to stop bouncing.

He started off talking about The Pilgrim Progress.

Too often the lifeboat communities imagined by today’s peak oil writers are simply suburban bedroom communities on steroids, postapocalyptic Levittowns that, like their 1950s equivalents, are meant to allow their residents to maintain a privileged way of life while the rest of society goes to hell in a handbasket at a comfortable distance.

Imagine, by contrast, a city of between 20,000 and 200,000 people in a mostly agricultural region … In the far more plausible scenario of uneven decline and slow depopulation spread out over many decades, such a city would have immense advantages over a rural lifeboat community. Located within easy reach of surrounding farmland, stocked with raw materials in the form of surplus buildings, cars, and the like, and a large enough work force to allow division of labor and the production of specialty goods, the city could easily import food and other necessities by supplying trade goods to the nearby countryside, the way cities in preindustrial times have always done.

The difference is that big cities like New York and Los Angeles do not really produce anything. When the lights go out – or begin to dim – what is it that these cities have to offer? Culture? What good are actors when there isn’t enough resources to make or watch films? We can’t eat the stuff, or burn it to keep warm in winter. It won’t turn into fresh water.

The smaller cities are, as Greer outlines in this article (and as James Kunstler has detailed several times, though with angrier prose) simply much better-placed to provide trades and manufactured goods required/demanded by rural communities, while being able to live sustainably on the goods their rural neighbours can offer in return. Mega cities, as we are wont to call them, just have too many people, many of whom provide services we will not need.

These same factors make the maintenance of public order much less challenging – the sort of rural brigandage that springs up in the last years of civilizations could make life very difficult for a rural lifeboat community, but a city with a large organized militia centered on its police force and pre-decline National Guard units would be a much tougher nut to crack.

Finally, most small to midsized cities have the cultural and social resources – libraries and colleges, community groups of many kinds, and a lively tradition of local politics, among other things – to maintain some approximation of civilized life even in hard times. In a deindustrializing world, all these things are potent sources of strength. While there will undoubtedly be failures from a variety of causes, all these things make cities among the most viable options for personal and cultural survival as the deindustrial age opens around us.

The article makes two critical assumptions: first, that we do in fact return to a pre-industrial world, i.e. that something new does not come along, or does not come along in a sufficient energy-density; second that cities act, prepare and re-structure themselves in order to meet the new paradigm. Absent either or both of those, and this will never come to bear. Be warned also, it is written somewhat creatively. Broad-brush-wise, there’s no reason why this eventuality should be any less likely than any other though – plus it’s a blog-entry. It is short and worth reading.

With regard to incentives, however: assuming the post-peak decline is steady-ish, rather than abrupt (at which point one can imagine all hell breaking loose), there is a problem. Mega-city inhabitants of sufficient wealth will probably move to the smaller, manageable cities of their choice, as will the ex-urban crowd – but what if this sort of mass migration is too unevenly-spaced? There is the risk that several/many smaller cities will face not being so small, after all – i.e. all their best-laid plans coming undone because of the bloody Middle-Class invasion from elsewhere. I suppose that’s where that locally-autocratic National Guard element will come in handy…

Save the planet: stop having children

Save the planet: plant more trees stop banging your wife! From today’s Guardian, and finally (it’s time to make dinner and upload photos to Flickr):

Science chief: cut birthrate to save Earth

The new head of the Science Museum [of London, it should be said] has an uncompromising view about how global warming should be dealt with: get rid of a few billion people. Chris Rapley, who takes up his post on September 1, is not afraid of offending. ‘I am not advocating genocide,’ said Rapley. ‘What I am saying is that if we invest in ways to reduce the birthrate – by improving contraception, education and healthcare – we will stop the world’s population reaching its current estimated limit of between eight and 10 billion.

‘That in turn will mean less carbon dioxide is being pumped into the atmosphere because there will be fewer people to drive cars and use electricity. The crucial point is that to achieve this goal you would only have to spend a fraction of the money that will be needed to bring about technological fixes, new nuclear power plants or renewable energy plants. However, everyone has decided, quietly, to ignore the issue.’

I have a colleague who will, I suspect, rather enjoy that story. Rapley is basically a rocket scientist, and is currently head of the British Antarctic Survey (give me a job?). Clearly the way forward for the Science Musuem has been declared. I can’t wait.

It isn’t all lofty brainy Philosophical Society talk, either:

Rapley is passionate about making displays and instruments far more accessible. ‘If you look at the Science Museum’s great engine hall, there are wonderful machines on display but the accompanying explanations are quite often above most people’s heads. Most children today probably don’t realise these machines run on heat and water, but that is never mentioned. We need different explanations for different levels of understanding: the six-year-old, the 60-year-old, the PhD student. At the same time, there is no point having a few touch-screens about the place. People can only use them one at a time. One idea would be to send free texts to visitors’ mobile phones, according to their needs, as they stand in front of displays. Just about everyone has a mobile phone, after all.’

For which I’m also quite excited.

Nestlé chief fears food price inflation

No – I’m not much of a mind for feeling sympathy of the likes of Nestlé. However this was new.

Food prices are set for a period of “significant and long-lasting” inflation because of demand from China and India and the use of crops for biofuels, according to the head of Nestlé .

Peter Brabeck, chairman of the world’s largest food company, said rises in food prices reflected not only temporary factors but also long-term and structural changes in supply and demand.

Corn prices have risen about 60 per cent and wheat about 50 per cent over the last 12 months. Sugar, milk and cocoa prices have also surged, prompting the biggest increase in retail food prices in three decades in some countries.

The Nestlé chairman cited population growth, rising demand from “the phenomena of India and China” and the use of food products by biofuel producers as causes of pressure in international food markets.

Reports from two international organisations this week forecast food price rises of between 20 and 50 per cent over the next decade.

Contra-indications come from the same article:

…some analysts believe the long-term risk of higher food prices is exaggerated. Julian Jessop, chief international economist at Capital Economics in London, said biofuels producers would develop technologies that required less raw material or used non-edible parts of food.

Sadly, I’m inclined to trust Nestlé – whose bottom line is affected by this – over some consultants in The City. I’m also disinclined to trust to promises that technological change is going to ameliorate in the future problems that we can recognise today. Ask poor Mexicans whether they can hold out and wait for technology to give them back affordable corn.

Meanwhile only part of this problem is being pinned to biofuels, the remainder to the expansion of wealth within the extraordinarily large populations of China and India. I don’t really have a problem sounding Malthusian about such things. Unless we (the ‘West’, the OECD, whatever you like to call ‘us’) decide to take sides in the matter, if India and China can afford to pay higher prices, those Mexicans will just go more and more hungry. Our markets will respond to this sort of thing first when the profits of manufacturers look like they’re in trouble, and next when the problem gets big enough, and to enough of our supermarket shelves – which will long after Bono and Bob Geldoff will have organised concerts for it.

Maybe our governments will respond to the aid problem, but I think we have more chance of being saved by technology. Look at how long Gordon Brown has been on about this. Even now that he’s Prime Minister his odds of succeeding are still only a little less long. I’m not saying that it’s ‘fair’, but it is what it is.

Urban dwellers to outstrip rural population next year

This isn’t a new story, though. The World Urbanisation Prospects, put out by the UN’s Population Division, has had projections for several years (this update the 2005 revision):

UN urban/rural chart

Which is probably true of most of our experiences – certainly Australia’s. Even as populations grow, rural populations decline. The Guardian has an excellent graphic:

Urban population map

That’s meant to be a world map. You can see it, if you try. Australia is actually among the highest – but then if you saw the satellite image that I put up the other day, you’d not be surprised.

The trick with this is not to assume people are going to live like us. Through urbanisation and urban aggregation, megacities will fit better the definition of megaslums; read the incomparable book by Mike Davis, Planet of Slums, if you’re interested. His statistics and figures, drawn out of UN reports, are more than a little sobering.

Consider this. If you divide the planet’s productive space by its people, we’ve something like 1.7 hectares apiece, on which to live. I’ve commented previously that Australia, with an ecological footprint of 3ha per person, is third-worst, after the US and Canada. The United States’ ecological footprint is 24ha per person. If we all did that, we’d need 5 planets to sustain us, not just this one.

So it’s easy to put together in your mind. We don’t have 4 other planets on hand (or 5, really – just to grow stuff, and this one we keep for living on. With a little left over for the mansions). Our standards of living have got to go down, we have got to share our resources. Or rather, start sharing other countries’ resources with them. New Yorkers can no longer wake up each morning in their fairy tale of cheap food, clean streets and stocked shelves every morning (we had a blackout here yesterday, actually. No sooner was power back on than so were the air conditioners).

It won’t work quite like that. Urbanisation is not growing nearly as rapidly for ‘us’ (Australia was probably very near that percentage all along). Rapid urbanisation is occurring in the developing world, particularly what Davis refers to as ‘Pirate Urbanisation’ – illegal (I won’t say illegitimate), and most importantly without infrastructure. The world already has hundreds of slums, with multi-million-people populations, even megaslums – and all without proper sewerage systems, potable water provision, electricity. Hospitals, schools, sealed roads, streetlights, you name it. By and large they are either astronomically violent, or wonders of decentralised human co-operation, but not for long. People will settle, become wealthy, want stability, want amenities (want cars, large houses, flat-screen TVs, you name it. Freedom and Democracy are on the march, baby!).

This also relates to what I saying yesterday about Venezuela and oil exports falling more rapidly than production. Think of the cheap crap we buy in America: the cheap food that comes from South America, the cheap plastics made in China, etc. More and more, those resources (a) won’t be used to make such things for us, and (b) won’t be used to make such things at all More agriculture, assuming it won’t be used for bloody cars, will be needed to feed more people in one’s own country. More minerals, construction and electronics will be needed for the people and projects of one’s own country.

And that will necessitate the rest of us becoming somewhat more self-reliant. Let’s hope we don’t forget altogether how to manufacture things. For us, the direct effect will be higher strains placed on the infrastructure that delivers water, removes (and recycles) waste, provides electricity. I will salute whomever responds to urban aggregation and megalopolii (?) by constructing commuter rail from Washington DC to Boston (just don’t hire any of the Big Dig people, for God’s sake).

And we should probably keep that last 6 inches of topsoil away from the bio-fuels hippies, just in case we need it for food.