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Imagine a world…

February 25, 2009

Just suppose, if you will, that the world does not stop emitting carbon in the next 10 years. That, in fact, global emissions continue to rise – the reductions made by rich countries more than written off by increases from China, India and their neighbours. Imagine then that the world does not heat by the 2-3 degrees we have already committed to, but by a further degree or more. If I had the finances to invest in a bet on how global emissions play over the coming decade, this would safely sort out my pension worries.

The likelihood of such a scenario unfolding cannot disguise the ramifications for the planet and its inhabitants of this level of warming, however. It would mean an entirely different planet – one for which humans have not evolved the biological strategies to cope. But we are a clever species: we should not be able to survive the Kalahari desert or the Arctic tundra, but we can. Not in large numbers, mind you, just in small populations which are occasionally wiped out through starvation or hostile temperatures.

We have a growing population of nearly 7 billion people on this Earth. The lottery of survival will of course favour the fittest – in this case, the richest, and those who live in currently temperate zones. But what if we were to try and save our species not as a few entertaining examples of humankind (like Lonesome George) but as our population with as many of us intact as possible?

I started to become preoccupied with solving this conundrum a few months ago. And I have begun discussing the question with climate scientists, engineers, sociologists and philosophers. The most obvious logical solution is to move the people where the resources are, and I explore this idea in a recent article. There are other options. How about enforced sterilization of people that have produced one child – this would immediately shrink the population? Or serious development of alternative habitable zones, for instance those in the ocean or on the Moon?

However crazy these ideas may seem from a sociological, political or engineering stance, they are ideas that we will need to give serious thought to. We are facing a world in which vast swathes of our human population could die. From the consideration of such seemingly wacky ideas, a practical solution may arise. I’d love to hear some of your solutions.

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10 Comments leave one →
  1. Michael Graaf permalink
    February 25, 2009 10:02 pm

    I read your New Scientist piece first, so I am responding to that and your blog post.

    Surely a crucial part of a rational response is widespread reduction of human reproduction; more so in affluent societies where each child’s footprint is more. Worries about not having future taxpayers to cushion the declining years of present ones are largely mere xenophobia, a luxury to be foregone; plenty of immigrants will be available.

    Instead we see affluent countries’ governments recklessly promoting breeding.

  2. fahimah permalink
    February 26, 2009 4:17 am

    hi

    i read your article in newscientist and it has been truly enlightening. thank you very much.

    i agree with the notion of a future massive- scale vegetarianism. we all need to change our mindsets, status quo and policies in order to survive the drastic climate changes of the future so why not start with the simplest thing: changing the way we eat. our lands, oceans and resources cannot sustain the rearing of livestock and marine ecosystem is bearing the heavy burden of our fishing industry with unfortunate corollaries to sea inhabitants that are not captured for food. it makes sense that if we were to stop the consumption of animals: it will stop the demand for fishing and the clearing of land to feed cattle etc hence will make way for regeneration of forests and aquatic life. there has been countless scientific evidence of the health benefits of a vegetarian/ vegan diet as well so to me it really is a win- win situation in todays’ context if we were to become voluntary herbivores. this may no longer be an option in the future if we dont start now and continue eating, as you put it, anything that moves to extinction…including, perish the thought, lonesome george!

    the idea of growing crops on marshlands and floating platforms captivates me. perhaps rice could be genetically modified to grow on salinated water so they could be planted on artificial paddy platforms in the sea. or these platforms could be equipped with a desalination system for the paddy plants.

    living in high rise apartments seem to be inevitable. recently, architects have been thinking about the idea of preventing urban sprawl and building homes on traditionally non- domestic existing structures as alternatives to skyscraper homes and to increase densities in cities to avoid encroaching on green areas. here are some ideas that could be feasible in the future:

    Quarries: Atkin’s architecture group proposed a resort built on the slopes of a water filled quarry in china. Building materials are sourced from the quarry itself and the artificial lake is used for recreation. given the sheer surface area and water retention possibilities of quarries this could provide a potential solution for our impending housing crisis. there are of course several issues to solve such as landslides, safety, toxic surfaces, structure and drainage.

    Dams: they are another option that can be considered. given the size and strength of dams, its not difficult to imagine attaching capsule apartments like kisho kurokawa’s capsule tower in tokyo to them for housing. or, hollow dams could be lived in with windows and ventilation on the downstream face. The top of the dams can be utilised for viewing decks, recreation and community gardens and diversion dams can be used to irrigate a large scale hydrophonic farms. Dams are also built to withstand natural disasters and extremely high structural integrity so they could provide the foundations of a sustainable housing project. Potential problems could be sound abatement, safety, and evacuation logistics in the event of structural failure or enemy attack.

    bridges: Habitable bridges are not a new concept. The Ponte Vecchio and the old London Bridge did sustain domestic life and the Walter Taylor bridge in Brisbane has a few habitable units in its towers. Lightweight, slim and detachable housing units can be attached to the platform, piers , trusses and towers and traffic has to be regulated for increased padestrian activity. Granted, the design of the structures of existing bridges has to be evaluated to add more mass onto the structure…

    Artificial islands: Given that a massive amount of land will be sumberged, living on artificial islands could provide housing for displaced cities. We currently have the palm jumeirah in dubai, exclusive real estates built on reclaimed land. but this is a small scale venture. it doesnt seem feasible at the time being to reclaim land currently used for human habitation to build another mumbai floating in the middle of the sea. furthermore, we cannot demolish tiny surrounding island for building materials like what was done to build kansai international airports’ artificial island.

    what if, the floating islands were to be build from garbage? there are billions of tonnes of discarded metal, rubber and plastic in our landfills and the can be detoxified and put on floating platforms, also built from reused garbage and covered with habitable waterproof surface material. given the size these islands need to be, we would be living in something akin to an iceberg. a garbage iceberg with only a portion of its mass visible on the surface, held in place by giant anchors imbedded deep in the sea bed. we wont be able to build skyscrapers and underground tunnels on them and everyone will have to travel on high speed trevelators, bicycles, roller skates and skateboards.
    some marine parks use sunken ships for fish breeding ground and new york city has sunk their old subway cars to attract fish to revitalise its barren waters so washing machines, construction left overs, car and train skeletons could be sumberged to attract fish and promote the breeding of corals and revitalise marine life of our oceans.

    well thats all ive got…

  3. Daniel Gaman permalink
    February 26, 2009 11:41 am

    Well, it seems obvious that a smaller population would make things easier to cope with. If we would cut the human population in half tomorrow, this would probably have a big impact on emissions no matter how much we drive or eat.

    Still, taking a good look at nature (and it may be time to do that), species try to reproduce more, not less, in stressful conditions, to maximize chances to produce well-adapted offspring. It seems like this is the winning ticket from an evolutionary point of view, even though for us, as humans, having a 20% or 50% survival rate for offspring is very hard to envision.

    However, population reduction (and consequently emission reduction) is futile talk. Even if nobody would have more than one child tomorrow, population would still increase for a while (many teenagers alive today, long life-spans etc.).

    Not to mention that such a prospect is unacceptable from a political point of view, we still encourage births (here in Romania you can actually stay at home and for two years to take care of each of the first three children; while the allocation is not much, is good enough to live on).

    Much more probable in my opinion is a dire scenario of forced population reduction through war, famine or both. May God help us all!

  4. matt permalink
    February 27, 2009 4:11 am

    Hi agree with limiting population growth – people should have to apply to have children, instead of it being everyones god given right. The world is being filled up with the ill-conceived offspring of degenerates and criminals, from families too large to already look after themselves. If the species is going to propagate should it not do so with educated and intellignet people, well raised and loved? We need to stop the de-evolution that is happening at the present.

  5. February 28, 2009 12:12 am

    Hi, I agree with your article in the NewScientist.
    We are in for a seriously diminished planet unless we rapidly decrease our global carbon emissions.

    Those of us in the “rich” world are currently taking far more than our share. We have to work out ways to make our carbon footprint more equitable, so people in the “poor” world can simply live. It is criminal for governments such as the current Australian government, a government that pays a baby bonus to increase Australia’s population thereby increasing Australia’s carbon footprint.

    Most of our political leaders seem to have their heads in the sand. I think you are correct we will all have to become vegetarian.

    I think we should focus on the carbon foot print of an individual and tax those that exceed their allocated carbon footprint.

    Bring it down to the individual and we can all deterimine whether on not we are taking more than our share.

    Keep up the good work.

    John

  6. March 2, 2009 12:23 pm

    Gaia
    I guess my emails are not getting through to you. I created the concept of POLAR CITIES two years ago, and Deng Cheng-hong in Taiwan did the illustrations online. Google it. You forget to talk to ME about this before you did your article. Next time, give me a ring. I am on Taiwan.

    Danny Bloom
    Tufts 1971
    Polar Cities Research Institute

    re: “I started to become preoccupied with solving this conundrum a few months ago. And I have begun discussing the question with climate scientists, engineers, sociologists and philosophers BUT I FORGOT TO ASK DANNY BLOOM ABOUT HIS POLAR CITIES IDEAS AND IMAGES. The most obvious logical solution is to move the people where the resources are, and I explore this idea in a recent article.”

    YES, those polar cities on the west coast on Antartcica will likely be climate retreats for climate refugees, and not only there, Gaiai. Also on Tasminia and on New Zealand, and of course, all over Alaska and Canada and Russia. Do your research, girl!

  7. March 2, 2009 12:24 pm

    Note: Gaia, Dr Lovelock has seen our images of Polar Cities and told me in an email: “Thank you for showing me those images by Mr Deng. It may very well happen and soon.”

    This info is all online, if you just google. SMILE

  8. March 2, 2009 12:32 pm

    RE

    “These precious lands with access to water would be valuable food-growing areas, as well as the last oases for many species, so people would be need to be housed in compact, high-rise cities AKA ”POLAR CITIES”, as designed by futurist Deng Cheng-hong in Taiwan.

    Gaia, they prob won’t ne high rise and they prob won’t be cities. And they won’t only be at the poles. They will be settlements, maybe 3000 people max. It won’t be a pretty picture either. It will be hell on Earth. Year 2500 or so. Maybe sooner. Lovelock says sooner. I say 2500. What say you, Gaiai?

    We also call these polar cities “climate retreats.” For climate refugees. The world pop will be reduced from 25 billion at that time, 2500 AD, to just 200,000 people. Face facts.

    The very continued existence of the human species is at stake. Lovelock’s “breeding pairs” in the Arctic (and elsewhere) will be the ones who carry us through…. They won’t be living in well-appointed high-rise cities. Get over it. It will be hell on Earth, dear sister, Mad Max meets Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Not a pretty picture at all.

    Let’s chat. I am online 24.7 at danbloom in the gmail department. I don’t bite. SMILE

  9. March 2, 2009 12:40 pm

    And Gaia, since i got you here, pls read this oped in newspaper today in Taiwan

    Graduation speech for the “Class of 2099” worldwide

    by Danny Bloom

    Good morning, Class of 2099, I can’t be here in person to address you, since I passed into oblivion long ago.

    But as a member of the graduating class of 1971 at my own beloved alma mater in Boston, I wanted to leave you with a brief message — from the past to the future — about global warming and climate change as it impacts Taiwan and the rest of the world as well. As the class of 2099, you are about to enter the 22nd century in a few more months, and you will bring with you not only your university experience here at NTU, but also your career expectations and personal anxieties as citizens living on a planet in the midst of a climate crisis. I’m sure you’ve heard this term a lot in the past four years — “climate crisis” — but you should know that in my days as a student in America, we never used the phrase. Back then, we had not even heard of the term yet!

    Instead, we were focused on terms such as Cold War, nuclear winter, war on poverty, racism, the oil shock, the Middle East situation, and later on, towards of our “three score and ten” on Earth, newer terms such as 9-11, terrorism and global warming.

    I’m not around now, but I hope you can read my message online somewhere or perhaps view it on a digital recording in your college library. May all your dreams come true, and then some!

    Members of the Class of 2099, you are living in a very crucial time in the history of humankind. Your world stands at the threshold of a period of human history when very important decisions will have to be made about the use of fossil fuels and the “consume!-slash!-burn!” lifestyle that you have come to expect here in Taiwan.

    I wonder: Do the names James Lovelock or Al Gore still ring a bell in your generation now, or have new faces and names replaced them? Is the DVD of that documentary from 2006, “An Inconvenient Truth,” still in circulation at NTU? And what about Leonardo DiCaprio’s documentary entitled “The 11th Hour”? Have you ever heard of the DVD, or has it been all but forgotten in your day and age?

    Class of 2099, I want to leave you with seven words: “We must tighten the noose around coal.”

    Dr. Jesse Ausubel of Rockefeller University in the U.S. wrote those words in 1989, more than 100 years ago, and they were prophetic. Has your world tightened the noose around coal and other fossil fuels? Has your world started to tackle the vexing problems of overpopulation, climate change and the creation of a sustainable economy? Is global warming something that will shape your future, or are the denialists out there still complaining that it is a hoax?

    Whatever your own personal views are about global warming, pro or con, you should know this: There is not much time left. I hope your generation here in Taiwan finds a way to stop the burning of fossil fuels and also finds ways to mitigate the impact of climate change on your future world. I just said that “there is not much time left.” Maybe I should have said “time is running out.” Or maybe I should have said: “Time has run out.”

    Class of 2099, go out and help create your world. Good luck and God bless!

  10. March 3, 2009 2:52 pm

    The January 25, 1959 Chicago Tribune ran this picture of the “Polar City of the Future” as a part of the Closer Than We Think! series. CLICK ON WEBISTE LINK TO SEE ARTOWRK! FUNNY!

    As Alaska joins the union, more rapid development of the vast open spaces of that new state can be expected. Experts are already studying the problems involved in creating the population centers that will be necessary for tapping the hidden-wealth of the area and building the defense outposts that may be required.

    One possibility would be to construct arctic cities under great domes of transparent plastic or glass, where springlike temperatures could be maintained. Such domes are already in use at the Glasgow Central Station in Scotland and at a big downtown plaza in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

    How would isolated polar cities, ringed by icebergs and mountains, be supplied? Our armed forces have a solution – the dirigible. Recently, the Navy told how its blimp ZPG-2 successfully flew food and other supplies to an ice island team of scientists only 500 miles from the North Pole.

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