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