Why the Third World poor must continue living in shit

A new book about the world in 2050 says explicitly what other green-leaning tomes hint at: that fixing global poverty will only harm the planet.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Books

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It is fashionable these days to mock the likes of Mystic Meg, Britain’s top tabloid astrologer, and those dumb sections of the public who hang on her every word. Do these people really believe that a woman with a weird haircut and a cat can tell them what will happen next Tuesday simply by reading their star sign? Yet at the same as we laugh at tea-leaf-reading types, a different, pseudo-academic form of crystal ball-gazing is winning widespread respect. An army of new Nostradamuses, proffering prophecies based on their own crazy methods of prediction, has taken over universities and publishing houses. And no one laughs at them. It’s high time we did.

The latest offering from this academic discipline that we might call Future Bullshit 101 is The New North: The World in 2050 by Laurence C Smith, a geographer at the University of California, Los Angeles. Like Nostradamus’s The Prophecies, Smith’s book claims to be able to see into the future. And like Nostradamus, Smith thinks the future won’t be very pretty. In fact, thanks to global warming, urbanisation and population expansion, things could get dire. Parts of America will become uninhabitable, Spain will turn into a desert, and billions of people, refugees from mankind’s hubristic warping of the planet, will move northwards. Hence ‘the New North’, where northern-rim countries such as Canada, Greenland, Norway, Sweden, Iceland, Finland and the northern parts of the US and Russia will become key centres of economic growth and global strategic clout.

Smith’s book follows hot on the heels of Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us, in which we were given a glimpse into a post-human world in which sidewalks get strangled by weeds and maggots feast on the soggy remains of the Mona Lisa, and Mark Lynas’s Six Degrees, a laughably pseudo-scientific version of Dante’s descent through the circles of hell, in which we are treated to increasingly unhinged tales of what will happen to us if the global temperature rises by one, then two, then three, and so on degrees. What happens when there’s a six-degree rise in temperature? Need you ask? ‘Global apocalypse and doom.’

Of course the one thing that distinguishes these modern-day predictive texts from Nostradamus’s prophecies is that they are based on scientific investigation rather than religious fervour, right? Not so fast. We should bear in mind that Nostradamus, a medical scientist and ‘judicial astrologer’, also presented his tomes as the workings of careful study and expert analysis – that is, as the insights of a man of superior knowledge who thus should be heeded by the little people. Likewise, Lynas claims that his Dante-esque jaunt into the depths of middle-class miserabilism was based on ‘the observable laws of physics’, while Smith dolls up The New North as a work of serious geography and futurology. Where Dante was guided into hell by the poet Virgil and Nostradamus was guided into the future by the alignment of the planets, today’s academic Mystic Megs are guided by what they refer to as ‘The Science’ but which is in reality their own prejudiced interpretation of scientific reports.

The science-lite, fatalistic nature of modern-day eco-futurology is clear from ‘The Rules’ for foretelling the future outlined by Smith in The New North. There are four rules, including: ‘No World War III’, where it is forbidden to allow the idea that there might be ‘a nuclear or major, multi-country war’ to cloud one’s predictions; ‘No Hidden Genies’, where Smith refuses to factor in any instant high-impact event such as ‘an unstoppable killer disease pandemic’ or ‘meteorite impact’; and ‘The Models Are Good Enough’, where Smith admits that the ‘computer models of complex phenomena’ that he and other New Nostradamuses use to peer into the future are ‘tools, not oracles’, and ‘all have their flaws and limitations’, and yet, quelle surprise, he says that ‘for the broad-scale purposes of this book, they are excellent’.

But it is the fourth rule that is the most striking: ‘No Silver Bullets’, where Smith refuses to allow the possibility of any industrial or technological revolution to interfere with his predictions. In his flights of fancy, he tells us, there will be ‘no cold nuclear fission or diesel-growing fungus… no God-like genetic engineering to grow wheat without water.’ He says: ‘This is not to say a radical technological breakthrough can’t or won’t happen, only that the possibility will not be entertained here.’

This ‘Rule’ effectively means that the one active agent of history, the one force capable of consciously shaping the future according to his needs and desires – mankind – is disarmed and decommissioned, voted off the island, in Smith’s readings of the future. In common with other crystal ball-gazers disguised as heavyweight thinkers, Smith refuses to entertain the idea that, through exploration and ingenuity and labour, mankind might radically alter the world in which he lives and find a way to get more out of Mother Nature than she is willing to give us.

Quite why Smith is so insistent on not entertaining the possibility of a ‘radical technological breakthrough’ in his mapping of the future is a mystery. After all, mankind has on many occasions in the past invented technologies that have allowed him to unlock nature’s secrets and consequently to sustain increasingly vast numbers of human beings. From our invention of agriculture to our creation of ocean-crossing vessels, from our use of coal to power entire nations to our transformation of pointless uranium into a technology that can energise (or destroy) cities at the push of a button, we have shown again and again that through mental and physical application we can massively change the world in which we live, that we can tear up and rewrite the futures predicted for us by priests and doomsters. For what is technology if not the means through which mankind turns nature to his advantage, deriving more and more stuff, with less and less labour, from that stubborn, secretive creature, Mother Earth?

In elbowing aside the possibility of manmade ‘silver bullets’, Smith is continuing the age-old Malthusian trend of arguing that everything is variable and changeable, except mankind’s ingenuity, which is apparently fixed. The original population scaremonger Thomas Malthus (1766-1834) fantasised that population levels would rise exponentially while mankind’s ability to create and transport food would stay the same. The end result? Disaster, obviously. Only Malthus was wrong, because he could not foresee the ‘radical technological breakthrough’ that was the Industrial Revolution. From the 1950s onwards, environmental alarmists have predicted widespread famine and natural devastation. But they were wrong, too, because they couldn’t conceive that there would be ‘silver bullets’ such as the green revolution of the 1960s, when high-yielding crop varieties were introduced into Mexico, India, Pakistan and elsewhere. In claiming that there will be massive natural and economic fissures in the coming decades, while simultaneously silencing the one force of nature capable of overcoming these fissures, Smith continues with the Malthusian/miserabilist/fatalistic habit of assuming that everything is in flux except mankind’s vision, which is stuck in a rut.

Given he refuses to ‘entertain’ any ‘radical technological breakthrough’ in his future, it is not surprising that Smith’s futurescape is a less than fantastic place – especially if you’re poor. Please excuse my French, but if you had to sum up in a single sentence Smith’s message to those who do not yet share in the benefits of mankind’s technological breakthroughs, the sentence would be: If you live in shit, then you’ll have to carry on living in shit, because it’s too risky for Mother Earth to lift you out of poverty. Indeed, the one good thing about Smith’s book is that he spells out explicitly what is often only implicit in the arguments of climate-change alarmists: that we have to shelve our plans for massive progress, in the name of ‘saving the planet’.

So he asks his readers, ‘What if you could play God and do that noble, ethically fair thing by converting the entire developing world’s level of material consumption to that now carried out by North Americans, West Europeans, Japanese and Australians today? By merely snapping your fingers you could eliminate this misery. Would you?’ Anyone thinking ‘Yes, of course I would’ is instantly chastised. ‘The world you just created would be frightening’, Smith says. ‘Global consumption would rise elevenfold. It would be as if the world’s population suddenly went from under seven billion today to 72 billion. Where would all that meat, fish, water, energy, plastic, metal and wood come from?’ Okay, some readers will think, maybe we should liberate people from poverty in a more gradual fashion, bit by bit, over the next 40 years. Oh no, says Smith, the impact of doing that would be even worse for Mother Earth than doing it instantaneously, since ‘the natural world [would have to] step up to provide enough stuff to support the equivalent of 105 billion people’.

In a nutshell, if you’re poor and destitute, don’t expect your life to improve much now or even in 40 years’ time – it’s too risky. Here, Smith states openly the underlying ethos of the environmentalist outlook: that mankind must learn to live within nature’s tight-arsed means. The dream of creating a world of plenty, which enthused everyone from those toiling Israelites who dreamt of ‘a land of milk and honey’, to twentieth-century Socialists such as Sylvia Pankhurst who called for ‘a great production that will supply more than all the people can consume’, will have to be laid to rest. So Mark Lynas once argued that, ‘The struggle for equity within the human species must take second place to the struggle for the survival of an intact and functioning biosphere’. And now Smith says that because ‘lifestyle is an even more potent multiplier of human pressure on the world resource base than is total population’, the world’s poor cannot expect to have similar lifestyles to us in the West anytime soon. The politics of environmentalism represents a serious, and seriously misanthropic, challenge to the progressive goal of using our human ingenuity to exploit nature in order that all of us – literally all of us – can be liberated from economic need.

In Smith’s claim that there simply aren’t enough resources to give everyone a decent standard of living – ‘where would all the meat, fish, water, energy, plastic, metal and wood come from?’ – we can see what happens when mankind’s creativity and gumption are played down. It is only because he refuses to entertain the idea of any radical technological breakthrough that Smith ends up fretting about resources running out, because he seems incapable of seeing that there are in fact numerous ways in which we might create enough fish and meat to feed billions and enough metal and wood to give them houses and mod cons. Trying to read the future can be a potentially noble and fruitful academic pursuit, but it helps if you treat seriously the historic force which has demonstrated its capacity to forge the future. Sideline human ingenuity and you can only see a future of danger and sorrow; put human ingenuity centre stage and you might see something very different indeed.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Books


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