Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Better ration carbon than babies

Copenhagen is a great excuse to indulge in Armageddon fantasies. From Hollywood's trashy "2012" to the Maldivian underwater cabinet meeting, the end-of-the-world has never seemed as nigh. 
One particular doomsday scenario that Copenhagen raises is the possibility of a huge reduction of farmable land surface leaving the earth too small to support its human population. Sci-fi or not, the implications are far more alarming than boring old carbon reduction.

Let’s suppose G20 leaders one day agree, after some weather-related catastrophe, that population reduction is necessary for a stable and well fed world. Imagine a serious US president delivering the bad news to world leaders (perhaps while “Against all Odds” plays in the background):  Gentlemen, a spell of bad weather has brought crop failures and food shortages, floods have brought mass migrations. It is time for another bail-out but this time it's your food we're collecting...
It doesn’t take much to imagine. When wheat prices doubled in 2007 to more than USD 400/mt after poor harvests around the world, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization warned of “a very serious risk that fewer people will be able to get food”.
Meanwhile, the sight of millions fleeing from floods is only a storm away. According to World Bank data, a doubling of just one year’s flow of emigration from Bangladesh would see nearly 10m mouths displaced and little coping infrastructure if it happened suddenly.
What happens then? In Armageddon-land, it might play out like this. There is a food bail-out and a debate on the ‘correct’ level of the earth’s human population. This brings serious arguments for limiting human population growth by keeping birth rates below replacement levels, such as global one-child policies and Orwellian public education films. National baby quotas are agreed (US negotiators obtain a waiver for Washington state due to historic low birth rates, provided Mexico keeps to 1990 production levels).
Organic farming is declared illegal, meat is rationed and GM and intensive farming are subsidised. New settlements and construction are put on hold everywhere. A backlash against contraception leads to UN sanctions against Catholic countries. Civil liberties and family freedoms come under legal attack.
Aid and development priorities are reversed as aid budgets are linked to population controls, and higher fertility and child survival rates become a “development problem”.  In the developed world, companies hoard resources instead of encouraging consumption. Shopping malls and landfill sites fall strangely empty and unemployment rises. Meanwhile, political leaders turn inwards and forget about trade and collaboration. Foreign and defence policies merge, border disputes are settled mainly by force.
In another scenario, Copenhagen is a brilliant success and none of this happens. Babies are not rationed and shopping malls are full. The global economy staggers from carbon rationing, but investment banks soon fix the problem. Within a decade, former coal miners from Wisconsin have retired millionaires, after investing their redundancy money in successful solar technology. Africa pulls ahead of the Middle East as the world’s principal energy exporter. OPEC is renamed The Sun, Wind and Wave Organisation and relocates to Goretown, Hawaii.  Rolls Royce sells mainly ship engines and wind turbines. Calcutta and the Maldives jointly host the 2032 Olympics. England wins the Ashes and the World Cup...

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