The Conundrum Humanity Faces: But Nobody Admits

In this essay I distil down to a common sense level the interplay of Global population growth and climate change to explain the reality of what has been the impact of delaying both our progress towards global equality and innovative responses to climate change.

Just imagine for one moment that at the completion of World War II we truly heeded President Roosevelt’s lessons about the need for a united and compassionate humanity. 

Sure, regulation and architecture to improve the security of financial institutions – which remained robust until the lead up to speculative euphoria which caused the Great Recession (or Global Financial Crisis) – as well as other vital global institutions such as the United Nations, International Monetary Fund and World Bank – were created in the immediate aftermath of WWII.

However, the opportunity to genuinely make the world a fairer place by allowing (and supporting) all countries an opportunity to develop was squandered. 

In “As He Saw It” published in 1946, Elliot Roosevelt (a US military WWII officer who attended many important meetings with his father FDR who died soon after he delivered that 4th Presidential Inaugural speech and before the surrender of the Japanese) expressed his extreme disappointment with what occurred as the war came to an end and in that year immediately after his father’s passing.

In the second paragraph of the introduction to his book “As He Saw It”, after a long list of reasons for why he wrote and published his account of proceedings, Elliot Roosevelt says “all of the signs of growing disunity among the leading nations of the world, all of the broken promises, all the renascent power politics of the greedy and desperate imperialism were my spurs in this undertaking”. 

(His introduction is so powerful – I have posted it here and recommend all readers to at the least read this passage if not track down the whole work.)

Given what has occurred in the world since the 1970s, and especially now the attitude of President Trump, that is an interesting contrast, but that is the subject of a separate post which I have entitled “The Magic Sauce of American Economic Dynamism Was Not Greed“.

We know that when people are presented with opportunity for a better quality of life, unsurprisingly, they take that opportunity. This in itself leads to lower birthrates as people are occupied by career and professional development, as well as enjoying the trappings of having a disposable income. 

Equally important, the security of knowing that babies born into a more developed world have a far, far greater chance of surviving to continue family lines means that biologically people feel less urge to have larger families.

So it is a virtual certainty that if for the last 80 years all efforts were made to make the world a genuinely fair place, so that the degree of opportunity for a standard of life equal to anywhere on Earth was not determined by the geography in which you live, then the global population would be significantly less now than it is.

No doubt many will counter that a higher proportion of the global human population enjoying a higher standard of living would mean that average per person impacts on the environment would be greater such that environmental impacts and degradation might be even greater than where we are at right now. 

Of course that would depend both on what was that average global standard of living and the actual population level, as well as how much of the additional human capital unleashed would have been devoted to innovation to counteract those environmental impacts.

Now I realise that the climate deniers and hard-hearted right wingers will use this space to attack this analysis as unrealistic pipe dreams (as if a better world for all is never achievable). And I readily accept that the issues surrounding geopolitics and developmental sociology are extremely complicated and difficult to solve. 

However, as is clear in my essay “Let’s Wage War on Climate Change“, humanity has devoted significant resources – including human capital and human lives – to man-made crises throughout our shared history. Human ingenuity and toil can achieve amazing results when directed to a common and crucial cause. Nobody would suggest, I believe, that those sacrifices to save the world from oppression and tyranny were in vain.

So let us imagine for a moment what would have happened if humanity had worked together so that we lived in a (near) perfect meritocratic global community. Perhaps the global population, which really took off after WWII, might be half of its current level and be tapering off if not already in gentle decline.

Figure from Wikipedia World Population page adapted with the addition of a scenario where post-WWII development occurred in a more compassionate and humane, rather than greedy, fashion.

As that figure shows, the reality of our actual population growth is quite different to this theoretical scenario, and several scenarios for future population growth developed by the United Nations are shown.

We still have a very unfair world with gross inequality in the standard of living and opportunity for a “decent life for all” (in Sir David Attenborough’s parlance from a speech he delivered in 2011 which is essentially identical  to this essay he published at around that time).

If everybody were to enjoy an equitable high standard of living now with the population that we have, without an astronomical surge in innovative technologies to reduce our impact, then most would agree that we would all be imperilled due to the extreme impacts on environment and climate change (again that is the thinking contained in Attenborough’s speech).

The truth is that global elites are already building into their thinking that what will be considered a “decent life” for those in Africa, throughout much of Asia, or South America, or on Pacific Islands, will remain to be VERY different to what is considered a “decent life” for those in the already developed countries.

That is the rub, those same elites are surreptitiously attempting to reduce population growth within those poor regions, all the while the biological impulse (from billions of years of evolution) of those very vulnerable people in those regions will increasingly be to boost their birthrates to increase the chances of survival of their family line.

When those poor people in those other regions become more and more aware of how they have been “hung out to dry” as climate change impacts grow more and more stark, and as they start to get more desperate as their growing populations are increasingly squeezed by diminishing resources due to climate change impacts, then the global tensions will grow to such an extent that containment will require heavier and heavier-handed military actions.

Essentially, it really will be a world where those nations powerful enough to guard their borders to preserve their natural endowments and what they have accumulated from the rest of the globe, as well as guard movements of resources between other “islands of prosperity”, will enjoy a “decent life” while those outside will enter some sort of Mad Max ultra-Darwinian state.

If that sounds like a world that you would enjoy living in, then go for it – live it up now and do not give a second thought to what lies ahead.

I cannot. We cannot go back and change what was and was not done 80 years ago.
But be in no doubt that we do have a choice of how we progress from here. 

Instead of continuing on this path we can recognise our folly immediately, admit to it, and move forward collectively. 

As Attenborough rightly said, climate change cannot be effectively and enduringly addressed while the global population continues to grow. But the only humane way to address this – not by trickery or coercion – is to allow all people the opportunity to have access to the same standard of living so that humans make the natural decision to have fewer children. As not all people that currently exist on the Earth can enjoy the highest standard of living enjoyed by some nations at present, there will need to be a play off between population and standard of living, meaning that those presently enjoying very high standards of living will need to accept that their standard of living will fall.

To facilitate a more inclusive humanity with equal opportunity for an equivalent standard of living will require a great degree of social cohesion which will require genuine political Leadership to harness the political capital that now exists to confront the climate change crisis and which is prepared for mutual sacrifice, and which stands up against xenophobia and it’s foot soldiers, the naïve, uninformed or precarious.

To give all people an equal opportunity to have an equal standard of living will require an enormous rethink of how globalisation has occurred since WWII. It will also need to occur in the context of the now clear understanding of our impacts on the Earth. 

Essentially we need “quality globalisation” rather than the unsustainable, geopolitically-oriented market-based globalisation that has predominated since WWII. Many of the ideas that I discuss at will be important, but the implications will be far, far greater than anyone can currently imagine.

Greater mobility between countries will be important, as will very open trading and commercial links between all countries.

Ironically, while many ethno-nationalist Australians are attempting to subvert the climate change debate to use it as a reason to reduce immigration, one of the most effective contributions to climate change that Australia can make is in continuing its recent high level of immigration or even increasing it.

This is the case for all developed countries that have what we might describe as  “developmental space” – analogous with the economic term du jour “fiscal space” – to grow their population in a well planned and generous manner to move toward equalising the mean standard of living of humanity.

This will, of course, require significant infrastructure and innovation to minimise local and global environmental impacts. However, again, this is supported by the comments of Attenborough in his 2011 speech where he described Australia as being “big and empty”, thus indicating his position that we do indeed have significant “developmental space”.

Australia has a proud history of success at taking in people from all over the world when responding to humanitarian crises. This history has, however, been tarnished in the last 2 decades commencing under the Howard Government’s response to “boat people”, but this does not diminish the immigration successes.

The fruits of our very successful post-WWII migration policy are visible all throughout our society – in our school yards, in our restaurant strips, and all of the places where we come together as a community. The Asia migration period, now with African and South American migrants, too, is every bit as successful from my standpoint, but I realise that there are elements within our community that seek to portray it is as troubling.

No doubt there are challenges, such as infrastructure provision and housing, but these must be the attention of our endeavours for solutions, not the migrants themselves who just want the same things from life that we all do.

It should be obvious to everyone that there is an enormous opportunity here for a climate and environment-sensitive nation building narrative – the type that Politicians of all descriptions are normally so keen to jump on – the only problem being that the divisive xenophobic element must be addressed for once and for all.

This is demonstrated by the 2019 Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Australia Talks Survey where 54% of Australians considered immigration a “problem” – unless, of course, many thought the problem was that we did not have enough immigration (I think it a fair assumption that that is not what they meant).

To those who reject the notions within this essay I say this. Each and every citizen of a wealthy country needs to stop and think right now. If you choose to remain indifferent to this conundrum, then you are actually choosing a world where you continue to enjoy the proceeds of living on an island of prosperity at the expense of others in poor countries who will increasingly suffer as climate change impacts worsen. And your high standard of living will be increasingly protected at the point of a gun with increasingly aggressive and callous military actions to keep those increasingly desperate people suppressed.

It is time we stopped pussy footing around this reality – as Attenborough said, it is much too late for fastidious niceties.

Let us stop not spelling out the truth as some form of political correctness so that people in wealthy countries can continue on with their commerce-producing mindless consumption in a guilt-free manner.

To achieve this transformation the political class will most likely put the globe and their specific nations on a war footing to deepen the non-partisan buy-in from their citizens and to ward off the populists.

This time, however, it will be a war for all of humanity – a united humanity – instead of against or within humanity.

Let’s wage war on climate change!

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© Copyright Brett Edgerton 2020

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