A Very Modest Proposal
Posted on 1-November-2009
With the Copenhagen Conference on Climate Change barely five and a half weeks away, the noise level worldwide on the dangers posed by increasing levels of carbon dioxide--methane gets glancing references too--in the atmosphere has increased. So has the stridency in discussions about which groups of countries ought to do what and what targets of reduction in the emission of green house gases the international community as a whole should agree upon. Official international concern, at the level at least of opinion, with the effect of human action on the environment of planet earth is now close to four decades old. In time there came focused action on the the damage to the ozone layer, universally acclaimed as successful. And over the last two decades there has been more discussion of global warming than any other aspect of environmental degradation. While there has been much talk among governments for urgent action towards cutting down the emission of greenhouse gases, the doomsday clocks of environmentalists the world over have been running ever faster. Amid this crescendo of noise, the Copenhagen Conference will start and end and as participants in conferences of this kind are loath to appear to have failed, the final document--the outcome of the labours of that assemblage--will either be a half or one third way compromise between contending viewpoints or may even be a pallid statement of objectives. After the euphoria about the achievements of the Conference has died, increasing numbers of people will start asking questions about the adequacy of the promises made at Copenhagen.
Emphasis on global warming and the need to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases during the past decade has tended to obscure discussion of other causes of environmental degradation: deforestation, especially of rain forests, destruction of biodiversity, decrease in the capacity for photosynthesis, release of toxic wastes from factories, mines and people into the earth, atmosphere, rivers and oceans, depletion and toxification of aquifers, impoverishment of soils by pesticides and excessive use of chemical fertilisers and overpopulation and the increasing per capita impact of people on the environment. A little careful thinking will show that of all these various causes the most important, and even the fundamental ones are the last two. Everything else follows from them. The population of the world has increased from around two billion at the beginning of the twentieth century to around 6.5 billion at present. By most counts it is expected to stabilise at around 9 billion by around 2050. If the recently observed trends in the decline of fertility strengthen, that putative stability level will be reached by 2075. But if at its present level the population of the world is already causing problems for the environment which are proving difficult to master, a population of 9 billion will be even more difficult for the planet to support. With the drive of the governments and the people in the affluent world towards ever higher standards of living and towards continuous economic growth, and the drive of the poorer countries towards the standards of living of the affluent world, an increase in the per capita impact of population on the environment cannot be stopped. In fact capitalist economics--capitalism is the worst form of economic management except for all the others?--makes it most undesirable that any one should entertain any thought of restricting people's consumption of goods and services. That leaves the current and future size of the world's population as the one and the most important cause of all our environmental ailments to deal with.
Deciding what should be a sustainable size of world population is very difficult. From many points of view a population of around three billion--roughly what it was in the middle of the twentieth century-- should be about right. In the last sixty years, the economy of the world having expanded, its capacity to sustain a larger population has also increased. But in this period, advances in manufacturing technology and robotisation have also eliminated many kinds of work. A world population larger than three billion will mean that large numbers of people, particularly in the underdeveloped regions of the world, will go unemployed or under-employed, as they do now, causing serious socio-economic disruptions. A population of less than three billion will mean too few consumers and a demand level too low for the good health of world economy, continuing prosperity and for wealth creation. Besides in spite of all the progress that can be made in manufacturing technologies and robotisation a certain number of manual tasks will just not be done away with and people will still be needed to perform those tasks.
Too many people as the principal cause of environmental degradation, and three billion as the optimum size of world population having thus been determined, it is obvious that the international community should, in order to make the planet secure for human life, agree before everything else to work for reducing world population to the optimum level by the end of the present century at the latest. Of the possible means to be used for achieving that target, one, that is culling of a kind used by that certified psychopath, Adolf Hitler, is completely ruled out in this the most humane of epochs. But there is a more painless, gentler and inexpensive solution to the problem of over population. It also has the advantage of being firmly rooted in the history of mankind. It could perhaps be called return to nature.
Through the whole of human history growth of population beyond sustainable levels has been checked by natural calamities, epidemics and war. Until very recently each of these was allowed to run its course, with those unaffected by them being happily unaware or unconcerned. There were not even proper records until at most about two hundred years ago of floods, droughts, earthquakes and storms or of the devastation caused by them. The Black Death killed about one third and more of the population of Europe in the fourteenth century. The influenza epidemic of 1918 killed about 50 million worldwide. Each of these was more or less allowed to run its course. And until, after the hecatomb of the Second World War, the United Nations was created, no one even thought of intervening in other peoples' wars except as belligerents. Intervention under the aegis of the United Nations, or in more recent times, of NATO, to stop wars is a novel, mid-twentieth century idea and not always either for morally unimpeachable reasons or successful. Altruistically mobilising the international community to help people affected by natural calamities or epidemics is also new, not always purely altruistic, not preventive and most of the time of little more than marginal importance.
What precedes immediately above is to argue against any moral scandal that may be caused by my proposal that henceforth the international community cease all interventions in the case of hurricanes, earthquakes, floods, droughts, famines and epidemics. As a first step, the United Nations should close down the FAO, the WHO, the UNICEF, the UNRWA and even UNEP (for reasons which will become clear in a while). If the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, OXFAM, CARE and numerous other charities do not voluntarily wind up, the governments of the countries where they are incorporated should force them to. The 15 billion dollars allocated by the Bush administration for combating AIDS in Africa should be reallocated elsewhere; so should similar amounts allocated by other governments. The best will be to ignore AIDS, as Thabo Mbeki of South Africa or different governments of India till about ten years ago did. At a later stage, at a politically convenient juncture, the fight against malaria, dengue, ebola, filariasis, gastro-enteritis and other similar afflictions can be quietly given up as unwinnable. These steps and similar others will be meant to allow free play to the principle of creative destruction, to borrow an expression from the language of contemporary economics.
Wars of conquest are now passť. So are wars of total mobilisation like the World Wars of the twentieth century resulting in the death of millions of people. But wars by themselves are not obsolete. Messrs. Bush, Cheney and Blair nearly succeeded in legitimising one war for spreading democracy and other values of the civilised world. Wars, we are told, for stopping genocide, in Bosnia-Herzegovina for example, are legitimate. Others would have the USA and its allies make an armed intervention in Darfur. Wars for the promotion of human rights may also be morally defendable. For this reason organisations like the United Nations Human Rights Council, Amnesty International and Human Right Watch should be strengthened--some of the money saved from shutting down humanitarian and disease fighting operations can be used for this--for they are the best qualified for arguing the moral case for some of the wars of the future. Another war, that between the Muslim world under the leadership of the militants of Al Qaeda and other similar outfits and the Christian world (in alliance with Jews and Hindus according to some Pakistani militants) under the leadership of the USA offers great promise of unending conflict. Wars are useful for running the industrial machinery of many an industrialised country and as sources of political funds (sleaze? no!) for politicians. As an essential part of the triad responsible for the creative destruction of human populations they are important for the successful implementation of my proposal too. Because of the importance, in this context, of the new Christian-Muslim crusade it is necessary that all obstacles to the arming and funding of Al Qaeda and its allies be removed immediately (taking care to keep them off weapons of mass destruction for they kill indiscriminately while our purpose will be better served if only the foot soldiers on the two sides die).
Because modern technology has to some extent helped to mitigate their effect, natural disasters, diseases and wars will not by themselves unfortunately be enough for reducing the population of the world to the desired level. Further help from nature will be necessary. Mankind has violated nature for so long and so indiscriminately that nature, it seems, is now ready to take its revenge. 'Returning to nature' that I have suggested above will mean that nature should be allowed its full revenge. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on climate change, hundreds of millions, especially in the poorer parts of the world, will die due to droughts, famines and water shortages( and probably water and food wars too) towards the middle of the century if not enough is done to stop and possibly reverse global warming. As a bonus, large tracts of the most densely populated country of the world, Bangladesh, along with a good proportion of its population will vanish under the sea. On past record it is almost certain that at each stage the international community will agree to do only a part of what the experts advise and thus not do anything effective to stave off what they wish to prevent. It will be better if governments of the world resolve do none of what the environmentalists are asking them to do. They will thus make a really important contribution to removing the main cause of damage to the environment by simply allowing nature to unleash its fury.
There is every chance that if governments of the world accept a policy of inaction in three of these four areas and of active connivance if not also engagement in the area of warfare, the population of the world will actually start declining before the middle of the present century. Since infectious and parasitical diseases and natural calamities strike the poor more than the rich, and since some of the most serious consequences of global warming are likely to befall the poor it is the numbers of the poor that will start declining first. Likewise in wars it is mostly foot soldiers--who come mainly from the less advantaged sections of society--who die. The foot soldiers of the various armies of Allah also come from among the poorest. Since the poor, being insignificant consumers of goods and services, contribute little to the turning of the wheels of the economy and since many of them depend for their survival on support from the community a reduction in their numbers by whatever means will be beneficial for everyone. Lacking the means for maintaining proper hygiene they become vectors of the bacteria, viruses and parasites of most of the remaining killer diseases of the world; the disappearance of the carriers of these diseases will be no mean step towards the end of the diseases themselves. For reasons entirely different from those that will thus through the inaction of governments prevail in the poorer parts of the world, Russia has been in demographic decline for many years now and Germany and France have been below replacement level. Japan's population has been aging fast and China may not be far behind. All this augurs well for the achievement of the target of three billion before the end of the century. Declining human population will also bring with it the additional advantage of declining cattle population which will mean a reduction in the emission of methane.
A government like that of the USA released from the pressure of having to do something about reducing the country's carbon emissions will also be freed from the vice grip between environmental activists on the one side and its businesses on the other. Governments like those of China and India will no longer have to worry about having to accept targets for carbon emission so low that their developmental programmes might be jeopardised. Other governments will likewise be able to breathe easy. Thus liberated, they can devote their energies to ensuring that their economies continue growing at a healthy clip and their entrepreneurs continue creating wealth.
The respite gained from the release from pressure on global warming and from declining populations will be a help towards patient and systematic research in new forms of non-carbon energy so as to be able to conserve oil and natural gas for use exclusively for shipping, aviation and warfare. Other areas of research necessary for ensuring a healthy environmental future beyond the present century must be genetic engineering for food production so that the area needed for food production as well as the use of fertilisers and pesticides can be reduced, and molecular biology, stem cell and genetics so that cancer, Alzheimer's and Parkinson's can be eliminated and the aging process delayed. Resources saved from the closure of humanitarian assistance, of research for curing tropical infectious and parasitic diseases and of research and related activities connected with global warming--a necessary consequence of the policy of inaction on global warming--can be diverted to research in the sciences and technologies of the future. Once the world is firmly set on this new path of a reduced population other problems of the environment can in time take care of themselves. The rate of regeneration of the earth's resources will in time also become higher than that of depletion. And once the population of the world has come down to three billion, the task of regulating it according to the demands of the market can be left to professional managers who will no doubt supplement their dependence on natural processes with the use of in vitro fertilisation, human cloning and other techniques yet to be invented.
It follows from this proposal about inaction that the best recommendation for the Copenhagen Conference will be that it decide to do nothing about global warming. It can in addition decide to halt all further research into the causes of global warming in particular and of environmental degradation in general. It can very usefully decide to wind up UNEP and finally declare that the Copenhagen Conference will be the last of its kind. For environmental activists, including the heir apparent to the British throne, who will be invited to give up their campaigns, there will never be a shortage of other causes to champion.