Population Growth, Climate Change, and An Uncertain Future

With the planet's population growth expected to reach 10 billion by the end of the century, our children and grandchildren must find innovative approaches to climate change and food security.

Population Growth and Climate Change

Interviewee Mike Davis raises an optimistic point: our salvation may come from the brainpower of the 3 billion new lives we can expect by the end of the century.

Photo By Fotolia/Philip Sobral

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22 Ideas to Fix the World (Social Science Research Council and New York University Press, 2013) is a forward-facing collection of interviews with today's foremost thinkers. Editors Piotr Dutkiewicz and Richard Sakwa survey issues relevant to the U.S., Eurasia, Africa, and the Middle East as the world still reals from the 2008 financial crisis. In this excerpt from Chapter 7, interviewee Mike Davis, editor of New Left Review, looks the challenges we face in the next seventy years, as the population crisis and concerns over food security come to our attention.

Population Growth, Climate Change, and an Uncertain Future

Mike Davis is a distinguished professor in the Department of Creative Writing at the University of California, Riverside, and an editor of the New Left Review. He received a MacArthur Fellowship Award in 1998.

A stalwart of the American left, Mike Davis is not known for pulling punches, and he does not hold back in a wide-ranging discussion that covers population growth, urban decay, the end of U.S. hegemony, and the need for utopian thinking. In connecting the proverbial dots between many of the existential problems facing the world, he argues that they create synergies among themselves. Throughout, Davis’s contention is that many of the ideas, models, and even technologies needed to address our various crises already exist but have often been forgotten, marginalized, or co-opted in the interests of profit and power. Davis suggests that the world’s potential population crisis, for instance, is not about population numbers in and of themselves but rather about the spatial, political, and economic constraints placed on people and the means of feeding and employing them. An expert on cities and urban spaces, Davis discusses issues as diverse as transnational migrant communities, the failures and opportunities of city renewal, and the (often racial) dynamics of crisis and American suburbia. Finally, he turns his attention to the role of the United States in the world and paints a picture of an aging empire, one increasingly illiberal domestically and decreasingly influential globally, and clinging to global dominance more due to the inertia of globalization than to sound policymaking. This interview aims to call the reader to think of and work toward a better tomorrow.

Q: How would you rank the major threats facing humanity at present?
Threats obviously cannot be weighed in isolation; rather we must focus on their convergence. The future, to say the least, will be overdetermined by some very vicious circles. Let me start with probable synergies between population growth, climate change, and food security, then briefly explore their connection to cities and unemployment.

Our children, it is almost certain, will participate in the biological climacteric of our species, sometime between 2060 and 2090, when global population peaks around 10 billion. To feed this future humanity, food production must almost double. But for the first time in history it is doubtful whether global arable area can be significantly increased in the face of rampant urbanization and conversion of high-quality agricultural land. The technological and scientific intensification of agriculture, meanwhile, must contend with chaotic changes in crop geography and soil productivity as a result both of global warming and groundwater depletion.

Climate models consistently predict that a vast belt of the northern subtropics from Mexico to the Indus Valley will face epic drought as a new weather normal, while the great megadelta regions of Asia simultaneously fight life-and-death battles against rising sea levels and super-cyclones. In addition, the continued mining of groundwater in South and East Asia (made possible by the millions of tube wells drilled since the 1960s) portends agricultural decline or even collapse in some of the most productive irrigated food belts. In several recent white papers, Columbia University water researchers have pointed to the cases of the Punjab and Gujarat, where the abandonment of farmland due to groundwater depletion is already happening on an alarming scale.

Present-day water storage, irrigation, and flood-control infrastructures are therefore unlikely to sustain current levels of agriculture output to midcentury, much less support a dramatic expansion of production. Hydrological chaos and desertification, moreover, will require that people or water (or both) be moved hundreds, even thousands of miles. It’s difficult to imagine how these transfers can be accomplished without catastrophe as long as national frontiers and rivalries prevent the planning of water resources and population resettlement on semicontinental scales.

Q: Are there factors that might stem this tide?
MD: Some pundits, of course, will argue that such bleak predictions underestimate the revolution in plant genomics (the creation of superdrought-resistant crop varieties, for instance) as well as allied advances in precision irrigation. But the successful application of the new sciences presupposes an unprecedented global agricultural adjustment program, prioritizing grains over meat and carried out in the interests of smallholders and farm laborers as well as the urban poor. Otherwise a genomic revolution in the countryside implemented by Big Ag and oriented to the production of animal proteins or biofuel will simply lead to the displacement of hundreds of millions of rural people, who will be dumped into cities and their squalid fringes without any guarantee of subsistence. An example close at hand has been the exodus of rural people from northern Mexico to the U.S. Southwest over the past fifteen years. The longest modern drought has interacted with NAFTA policies (especially the import of “industrial” corn from the United States) and neoliberal water policies to destroy an entire class of subsistence farmers and small ranchers.

Meanwhile the machinery of urban job creation has broken down almost everywhere except for East Asia. Currently an estimated 40 percent of the global labor force is unemployed or scratches for survival in the so-called informal sector. In a deep structural sense they have become redundant to a world economy controlled by one thousand or so colossal corporations and banks. The earth’s three billion inhabitants under the age of twenty-five face especially grim employment futures. And the banks, as many of us now know firsthand, manage the creation and destruction of wealth with one goal in mind: to allow the 1 percent to consume all the good things of the world in this lifetime. Too much of the economic surplus desperately needed for agricultural modernization and urban sanitation has been siphoned off into insane, Versailles-like fantasies. Kilometer-high skyscrapers may tower above deserts, but a majority of humanity still lives in shacks and dreams about potable water and a minimum wage.

Indeed, as we stand on the precipice of a synchronized global recession that may yet dwarf the 1930s, can anyone—including the good ole boys in Chicago—convincingly argue that capitalism (in whatever flavor, including red) will actually guarantee food security, adapt our habitat to a more extreme environment, and provide meaningful vocations to 10 billion people?

The last item, jobs, is the most important, since the solutions to all the other global threats and negative synergies—climate change, species extinction, food shortages, possible rollback of the antibiotic revolution, nuclear proliferation—depend directly or indirectly upon exploiting the windfall wealth of peak human population. What the grim theologians of Malthusian persuasion dread as three billion more mouths might be better celebrated as three billion more minds coming to our rescue. The “threat of threats” is leaving that human potential undeveloped rather than mobilized in a vast public works program to repair our damaged civilization. No environmental demand should be raised without making some quotient of youth employment part of the proposed remedy. It is clear that we need to become a planet of gardeners, in Patrick Geddes’s sense of constant communal tinkering to make our cities function as integral parts of nature. But we need to build this new Ark quickly. And since robber barons aren’t likely to put the future to work or transform peak demography into a planet-saving productive force, we need alternative carpentry skills. That’s why I’m still a socialist.

Reprinted with permission from 22 Ideas to Fix the World: Conversations with the World’s Foremost Thinkers edited by Piotr Dutkiewicz and Richard Sakwa and published by the Social Science Research Council and New York University Press, 2013.