“There's a wealth of real possibilities for change to a more sustainable and more human course.” – Bill McKibben, billmckibben.com on Plan B.
Chapter 6. Plan A: Business as Usual: Plan A: Overwhelmed by Problems
One of the biggest risks in this new century is that governments will be overwhelmed by the challenges that are now emerging. Now that we have several decades of unprecedentedly rapid population growth behind us, we can begin to see some of its effects. It comes as no surprise that many governments are showing signs of demographic fatigue. Worn down by the struggle to deal with the consequences of fast-multiplying human numbers, they are unable to respond to new threats, such as the HIV epidemic, aquifer depletion, and land hunger.
One of the first big tests of governments' ability to cope was the HIV epidemic. Many governments moved quickly to contain the virus once it was identified, holding infection rates to less than 1 percent of the adult population. But many others, mainly in Africa, failed to do so. The result is that the countries with the highest infection rates will likely lose close to half of their adult populations over the next decade. Populations in some countries in Africa are declining not because of falling fertility, but because of rising mortality. As noted earlier, this rise in the death rate marks a tragic reversal in world demography as the unthinkable becomes a reality.
Just as scores of countries failed to respond to rising HIV infection rates, scores of others are failing to respond to falling water tables. These countries will be forced to confront overpumping when aquifers are depleted, but by then they may be facing drops in food production.
In countless other countries, continuing population growth is shrinking the cropland per person below the survival level. However hard people work, they will not be able to make it. They will either face hunger and rising death rates or they will join the swelling flow of migrants to cities where they will have at least a slim chance of getting a job or food relief. If we continue with business as usual and let social stresses build, the experience in Rwanda with large-scale social conflict could become all too common. With business as usual, there almost certainly will be other groups who are driven to violence by quiet desperation, by a loss of hope.
Developing countries that were successful in their early efforts to reduce fertility, such as South Korea, Taiwan, and Thailand, are advancing rapidly. Others that are already pressing against the limits of land and water resources and whose populations are projected to double again may face falling living standards that will in turn further reinforce the prevailing high fertility. This reinforcing mechanism, referred to by demographers as the demographic trap, could keep living standards at subsistence level and eventually lead to rising mortality as the land and water resource base deteriorates and food production declines. Among the countries at risk of being trapped if they cannot quickly check their population growth are Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Ghana, Haiti, Honduras, India, Myanmar, Nigeria, Pakistan, Sudan, Tanzania, and Yemen.
Climate change is proving to be an overwhelming challenge for both industrial and developing-country governments. Only one country, Iceland, has a strategy to eliminate fossil fuel use and thus reduce carbon emissions to zero. In contrast to the issues just discussed, climate change is primarily the responsibility of the industrial countries, although its effects will be felt everywhere.47
What happens when people lose confidence in their governments? The risk in times of extreme stress is that states will fail and that demagogues will assume power. There is a tendency to assume that in the modern world, social breakdown cannot occur, but this is a dangerous illusion. We have no idea what the psychological effects might be if it becomes clear that we have triggered the melting of the Greenland ice sheet and that we cannot stop it. Nor can we even guess at the international political fallout if the Gulf Stream abruptly shifted southward, leaving Western Europe with a Siberian climate.
Once particular climate change and aquifer depletion thresholds are crossed, change can come rapidly and unpredictably. Whether it be in ocean currents, rainfall patterns, ice melting, or rising grain prices, it could leave a bewildered and frightened world in its wake. Will our political institutions, which could not prevent these mega-scale changes, be able to deal with them as they occur? The one thing that now seems certain is that it is time for a new approach—Plan B.
47.Seth Dunn, "The Hydrogen Experiment," World Watch, November/December 2000, pp. 14-25.
Copyright © 2003 Earth Policy Institute