Which is First: Chicken Little or the 'Perfect Storm'?

John Beddington is the UK’s Chief Scientific advisor and Professor of Applied Population Biology at Imperial College, London. On Monday, the soothsayer’s foresight was the subject of a BBC feature.

As the world’s population grows, competition for food, water and energy will increase. Food prices will rise, more people will go hungry, and migrants will flee the worst-affected regions.

That’s the simple idea at the heart of the warning from John Beddington, the UK government’s chief scientific adviser, of a possible crisis in 2030.

Specifically, he points to research indicating that by 2030 “a whole series of events come together”:

  • The world’s population will rise from 6bn to 8bn (33%)
  • Demand for food will increase by 50%
  • Demand for water will increase by 30%
  • Demand for energy will increase by 50%

The ‘coming together’ of all these trends, amounts to a ‘perfect storm’, set to arrive in 2031.

On an interview on BBC TV (also featured on the linked page) Beddington warns:

So these are all coming together. Indeed I was at a scientific meeting at the Royal Society only yesterday in which a prediction was that the Arctic might be free of ice in the summer of 2030.

The professor links climate change, resource abundance, agricultural productivity, and water management with a cataclysmic event situated 20 years in the future.

It doesn’t take a scientist to tell you that more people will create more demand for water, energy, food, and planning. It doesn’t take a scientist to tell you that if you fail to make plans for the future, you will likely face some sort of problem. So far, so not rocket science, and not applied population biology.

But what sort of planning is needed to cope with life in 2030? Why, at this point in humanity’s history is the provision of water, energy, and food so difficult and dangerous? We’re better at creating all of these things than at any point in the past. Just a few generations ago, mechanised water, and instant light in homes were an impossibility, never mind an inconceivable luxury. It wasn’t much before that that people were just getting used to the idea of using steam to propel machines, never mind splitting the atom to power computers, satellite links, and heart and lung machines.

In our advanced economies, subsistence is not a day-to-day concern for the vast majority of people, and this is rapidly becoming true for an increasing number of the world’s population living in developing economies. Western standards of living are on the horizon for people in all continents, who had been deprived of it. Just as in the West, there is no reason why, in just a few generations, water, electricity and cheap, good quality food can all be taken for granted.

Except, that is, for the opinion of the scientist John Beddington and his ilk. For them, human progress of this kind is ‘unsustainable’. He is concerned that 8 billion people will be unable to produce the water, energy and food they need. But might it not be possible that 8 billion people are better at meeting their needs than 6 billion? After all, the industrial revolution was not a response to the needs of a growing population, but was made possible by it. Have you ever tried building your own iPod, powered by your own handmade generator, in a house you built yourself, whilst growing your own food, fed with water from a well that you sunk yourself?

There is an attempt being made to ground politics in the ethics not merely of ‘sustainability’, but the harsh reality of mere subsistence. Accordingly, this diminishes the potential of politics, and our expectations of it. We are being asked to be thankful for every moment of heat, light, food, and warmth, rather than demanding of more, better, faster, higher. This is because politicians cannot conceive of any other notion of progress than mere survival. Their horizons are so low, and imaginations so limited, that they cannot conceive of attempting to organise public life around the possibility of a better future.

It is this pessimistic outlook within the political establishment that has misconceived human progress and how it is achieved. Paradoxically, it is scientists such as Beddington who are engaged to give their politics the appearance of legitimacy. But this is because Beddington’s science is expedient to their political aims, not because Beddington’s science can produce a robust analysis of the future, such that he can tell you what the year 2030 will look like if you haven’t listened to him. ‘Applied population biology’ is the science of the day because it is the most convenient to the politics of the day, just as Kennedy’s lunar project made heroes out of rocket scientists. But at least rocket scientists looked upwards, and their project broke boundaries. Beddington’s science is expedient because it allows politicians to set boundaries.

What this says to us is that politics is prior to the science. Beddington’s appointment is political. Beddington’s science has developed in an era which demands it. It is predicated on an understanding of humanity’s relationship with the natural world as being ultimately limited by what nature provides, rather than what humanity develops (or is capable of developing) in order to overcome such limits. That makes an ethic out of limiting progress and development to that which nature provides. But this ethic is, again, prior to the science.

The Chicken Little comes well before the perfect storm.

And here’s another flapping misanthrope

11 thoughts on “Which is First: Chicken Little or the 'Perfect Storm'?”

  1. But wait! In 2029 the World population will have risen by 31%, demand for food will have increased by 48%, demand for water by 28% and demand for energy by 48%! The end is Nearer Than You Think.

    But wait! In 2028 the World popul…

    No. You can ignore me. These numbers are entirely benign until 2031. The nice scientist said so. Still, give him some funding just in case 7.6 billion people is dangerous after all.

    I’d say, “You couldn’t make it up” except that I suspect somebody has.

  2. “The End of the World is Nigh”. All human history is littered with abandoned wayposts that told us we are all doomed unless we revert to the simple life. Its all about money isn’t it? Pay the priests for salvation then, pay the “researchers” for salvation now. Whats the difference. Tell you what, start offering juicy research grants for lookiing into climate stability and see how the picture changes. I’m a scientist by the way.

  3. Partly it’s due to people absorbing generalised “zero-sum thinking” from their economic beliefs. For one person to have more, another person must have less.

    Wealth, food, energy, clean water, …, it’s all the same. If you want those who have least to have more, then you inevitably have to bring down those who have the most. You can’t create more of it, you can only redistribute it.

    It is the idea of new wealth and resources appearing from nowhere that they can’t get their heads around. It sounds too much like a free lunch.

  4. “The End of the World is Nigh”. All human history is littered with abandoned wayposts that told us we are all doomed unless we revert to the simple life.

    From where does this insane idea originate? Actually, technological progress means more people can be supported from a given area of land.

    Once stone-age peoples developed agriculture, there was no way back to hunting and gathering (unless you consider a 90+% dieoff acceptable). Similarly coal saved the forests (which in Europe had been almost entirely cut down for firewood) and petroleum and later electricity saved the whales (by eliminating the use of whale oil for lighting).

    Today, at least two-thirds of humanity wouldn’t be here were it not for the Haber-Bosch process (which is used in fertilizer production). Perhaps this may change in the future though, if GMO technology allows future crops to fix nitrogen from the atmosphere.

    We should treat technological reactionaries as a genocidal enemy of humanity (as the Nazis were to the Soviet people).

    As Stalin would have said, “Not a step back!”

  5. One truly undesirable byproduct of affluence is the explosion of useless pseudo-scientists leeching off the public purse. There really are a lot of weird and wonderful prefessorships out there and they become more and more bizarrely narrow. “Professor of Applied Population Biology” indeed. Gawdelpus! And his entire reason for existence is belittled by that one line of overly simplistic thinking. In common with most of this new breed of irrelevant academics, both of these sociopaths are incapable of putting facts above theory; in this case that affluent societies have very obviously been naturally self-limiting their population for some time now – to the point of worrying about aging populations. The way to population control is via poverty reduction. My main sorrow with the world today is that so many apparently well-educated people are so blindly and blatantly dim.

  6. I don’t think it is that politicians CANNOT conceive of anything but zero-sum situations, it is that their very jobs depend on our acceptance of same. Quoting George Orwell (who discussed all of this better than I ever will):

    “In the early twentieth century, the vision of a future society unbelievably rich, leisured, orderly, and efficient — a glittering antiseptic world of glass and steel and snow-white concrete — was part of the consciousness of nearly every literate person. Science and technology were developing at a prodigious speed, and it seemed natural to assume that they would go on developing. This failed to happen, partly because of the impoverishment caused by a long series of wars and revolutions, partly because scientific and technical progress depended on the empirical habit of thought, which could not survive in a strictly regimented society. As a whole the world is more primitive today than it was fifty years ago. Certain backward areas have advanced, and various devices, always in some way connected with warfare and police espionage, have been developed, but experiment and invention have largely stopped…

    “Nevertheless the dangers inherent in the machine are still there. From the moment when the machine first made its appearance it was clear to all thinking people that the need for human drudgery, and therefore to a great extent for human inequality, had disappeared. If the machine were used deliberately for that end, hunger, overwork, dirt, illiteracy, and disease could be eliminated within a few generations. And in fact, without being used for any such purpose, but by a sort of automatic process — by producing wealth which it was sometimes impossible not to distribute — the machine did raise the living standards of the average human being very greatly over period of about fifty years at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries.

    “But it was also clear that an all-round increase in wealth threatened the destruction — indeed, in some sense was the destruction — of a hierarchical society. In a world in which everyone worked short hours, had enough to eat, lived in a house with a bathroom and a refrigerator, and possessed a motor-car or even an aeroplane, the most obvious and perhaps the most important form of inequality would already have disappeared. If it once became general, wealth would confer no distinction. It was possible, no doubt, to imagine a society in which wealth, in the sense of personal possessions and luxuries, should be evenly distributed, while power remained in the hands of a small privileged caste. But in practice such a society could not long remain stable. For if leisure and security were enjoyed by all alike, the great mass of human beings who are normally stupefied by poverty would become literate and would learn to think for themselves; and when once they had done this, they would sooner or later realize that the privileged minority had no function, and they would sweep it away. In the long run, a hierarchical society was only possible on a basis of poverty and ignorance. To return to the agricultural past, as some thinkers about the beginning of the twentieth century dreamed of doing, was not a practicable solution. It conflicted with the tendency towards mechanization which had become quasi-instinctive throughout almost the whole world, and moreover, any country which remained industrially backward was helpless in
    a military sense and was bound to be dominated, directly or indirectly, by its more advanced rivals.

    “Nor was it a satisfactory solution to keep the masses in poverty by restricting the output of goods. This happened to a great extent during the final phase of capitalism, roughly between 1920 and 1940. The economy of many countries was allowed to stagnate, land went out of cultivation, capital equipment was not added to, great blocks of the population were prevented from working and kept half alive by State charity. But this, too, entailed military weakness, and since the privations it inflicted were obviously unnecessary, it made opposition inevitable. The problem was how to keep the wheels of industry turning without increasing the real wealth of the world. Goods must be produced, but they must not be distributed. And in practice the only way of achieving this was by continuous warfare.

    “The essential act of war is destruction, not necessarily of human lives, but of the products of human labour. War is a way of shattering to pieces, or pouring into the stratosphere, or sinking in the depths of the sea, materials which might otherwise be used to make the masses too comfortable, and hence, in the long run, too intelligent. Even when weapons of war are not actually destroyed, their manufacture is still a convenient way of expending labour power without producing anything that can be consumed. … In practice the needs of the population are always underestimated, with the result that there is a chronic shortage of half the necessities of life; but this is looked on as an advantage. It is deliberate policy to keep even the favoured groups somewhere near the brink of hardship, because a general state of scarcity increases the importance of small privileges and thus magnifies the distinction between one group and another. By the standards of the early twentieth century, even a member of the Inner Party lives an austere, laborious kind of life. Nevertheless, the few luxuries that he does enjoy — his large, well-appointed flat, the better texture of his clothes, the better quality of his food and drink and tobacco, his two or three servants, his private motor-car or helicopter -— set him in a different world from a member of the Outer Party, and the members of the Outer Party have a similar advantage in comparison with the submerged masses whom we call ’the proles’. The social atmosphere is that of a besieged city, where the possession of a lump of horseflesh makes the difference between wealth and poverty. And at the same time the consciousness of being at war, and therefore in danger, makes the handing-over of all power to a small caste seem the natural, unavoidable condition of survival.”

    — George Orwell (in voice of character Goldstein), “1984”

    Whether through war or a similarly all-encompassing crisis (e.g., “climate change”), the necessary thing to maintain a hierarchical society with a privileged elite at the top is to divert production to economically useless goods and services, and keep everyone in a sense of being on the brink of economic failure. Orwell got it right in the 1940s, but great numbers of people continue to be taken in by the con, only to fall into the trap. Amazing.

  7. James,

    There is something to that; certainly to the extent that a state of continual crisis is very useful to a certain sort of government. I’m not so sure that poverty and hardship are necessary, though. Orwell wrote at a time when the crisis was poverty, but things have moved on since then, and they can maintain the state of crisis, ignorance, impotence and apathy even while achieving relative prosperity.

    But my point was that whatever the leaders might think, a lot of people truly believe. There would, after all, be no point in producing the propaganda if everyone knew it was a con.

    I don’t know if it’s a hangover from an earlier strategy, or a takeover attempt from an independent player, but I don’t think the zero-sum story necessarily suits a ruler’s interests, either. Surely the idea that inequality is good, and the natural order of things, would better suit them? I’m not sure that many of our politicians don’t see it as an outside influence, but one they can take advantage of and use, or even that they haven’t been fooled into truly believing it themselves. I don’t know. It would be interesting to know where it comes from and what it intends, anyway.

  8. What I find curious is that Malthus was wrong. Every Malthusian prediction (that I know of) made since has been wrong. But somehow the idea and the mindset stay with us, immune to repeated falsification. What keeps it alive?

  9. I can’t be bothered to read all this claptrap, but if you suffer from climate trolls here, someone will soon disabuse me with abuse.

    I bet a pound to my dear old dad’s watch (you couldn’t give it away) that Prof John’s predictions can only be staved off with a small contribution from the taxpayer in some shape or form.

    Not content with that lunatic Milliband imposing huge taxes on the energy companies by making them grossly inefficient as a way to save energy (!), the government is aiming to tax us personally for our own climate crimes.

    So Prof John – presumably earning a big fat fee for framing this 2012 GCSE “science” question – justifies his existence by placing yet another straw on the poor old camel’s back.

  10. Many thanks to James Anderson Merritt #6 for the quote from 1984, (which I was forced to read many decades ago by an enlightened though authoritarian schoolteacher, and have mostly forgotten)
    And to Mark Weston #8. What keeps Malthusianism alive is maybe the idea that if there are too many of THEM, maybe there won’t be enough for ME.
    Back to John Beddington, the UK’s Chief Scientific advisor, who if the Climate Resistance thesis is correct, is the most powerful man in the country.
    CR quotes him as saying: “Food prices will rise, more people will go hungry, and migrants will flee the worst-affected regions”.
    I went to the BBC source, hoping for more detailed reasoning, and of course there was none. So let’s parse his statement:
    “Food prices will rise” (they always do, whoever’s in power)
    “More people will go hungry” (But that’s abroad, interpret it how you like, according to your political preference)
    “And migrants will flee the worst-affected regions” (What, more Albanians / Somalians in our overcrowded island? Over my dead body ! )
    When Enoch Powell expressed (more overtly) similar opinions in the 60s, he was attacked by his political opponents, disowned by his political allies, and racism became a politically unacceptable option in Britain for several decades.
    But Beddington is not an elected politician. 99% of voters can continue to be unaware of his existence, while his ideas continue to be propagated in authoritative media like the BBC as objective truth.
    Take that last bland seven-word quote. Fleeing migrants from “climate change” are essentially poor Africans. They arrive by boat in Italy, where they help Berlusconi to stay in power, since he is allied with authentically fascist / racist parties whose policies are based on opposition to immigration.
    It’s no longer politically possible to be an anti-black politician in Britain. But thanks to Climate Science, and the delegation of political reponsibility to “objective” scientists like Beddington, it’s possible to promote racist immigration policies on “objective” scientific grounds.
    I look forward to the moment when you editors of Climate Resistance have finished your studies as “objective” political scientists and can express freely your opinions on current British and European politics.

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