This is the third talk in my series on Christianity and Peak Oil, and looks at the wider problems that we face, concentrating in particular on the problems of exponential growth within a finite environment. Power point slides for this talk can be accessed alongside the audio, via the link on my sidebar.
We had two very appropriate lessons in Morning Prayer today for the theme and I just want to quote from the ending of the reading from Acts of the Apostles where St Paul is saying, “The Holy Spirit spoke the truth to your forefathers when he said through Isaiah the prophet, Go to this people and say, you will be ever hearing but never understanding. You will be ever seeing but never perceiving for this people’s heart hath become calloused, they hardly hear with their eyes and they have closed their eyes, otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn and I would heal them.”
As you might expect from such a verse this morning’s session is probably going to be the most depressing one that I do, and to be honest if your blood isn’t running a little colder at the end of it then I will consider myself to have at least partially failed in my intentions. Having said that I am not pessimistic myself, but all the positive signs and signs of hope and reasons for trusting in God etc. will come in later sessions. Today I just really want to emphasise the down side, the dark side. OK, so bear that in mind, expect that today will be worrying, but bear in mind that there will be reasons for hope given in later sessions.
Now the key thing I would like to look at today to begin with is something called exponential growth, hence the graph, which I am sure you all can recognise, and this is a quote from Professor Albert Bartlett, he’s the now retired professor of physics at the University of Colorado, and he has been trying to get people to understand this problem of exponential growth for about thirty plus years and he has given a talk world-wide more than a thousand times. A bit like those of you who saw “An Inconvenient Truth”, Al Gore’s been wondering around giving a slide show, well Albert Barlett has been going round giving a slide show on exponential growth. He says this, “A misunderstanding of exponential arithmetic is one of the most dramatic shortcomings of mankind.”
Now for those of you who are unfamiliar with what it is, a quick run through. Exponential growth is – imagine you are talking about the economy, the economy is growing at 3% a year – that is exponential growth because the growth is applied to a body which is growing itself. So compound interest in your bank account. If you have got £100 in your bank account and it’s 3% interest a year, after one year you get £3.00 added, the next year you get £3.00 and a bit added onto £103, so what you end up with is this growth – it accelerates. And roughly speaking if you divide the percentage growth into 70 you will get a rough approximation of how long it takes for the original quantity to double. So this is really the key thing about exponential growth, the doubling time, how long it takes to double in size. So that £100 in a bank account, if it was growing at 7½% a year, in ten years it would be £200, ten years after that it would be £400, ten years after that it would be £800, you see it’s doubling. If there is a fixed rate of growth there is a doubling.
I’m sure you will all have heard the story about the chess board and the Persian king, sometimes its an Indian king, sometimes it’s a Chinese king, it’s always some exotic foreign potentate. And a peasant who happens to be rather cunning and good at maths, saves the life of the king’s daughter, and the king says what would you like for your reward. And the cunning peasant says “Take a chess board, on the first square place a grain of rice, on the second square place two grains of rice, keep doubling, OK, until you go round all 64 squares.” And the king says, “Oh that’s easy of course you can have that right, I’m sure our granaries will give you what you need, and then they work it out and they realise that there would be many more times than a lifetime’s worth of the grain harvest in the whole kingdom, so I am sure the king chops the guy’s head off.
Another example, think of folding a piece of paper and in practice you know you can’t normally fold more than six or seven times but how far, how thick would that paper be after you had folded it forty times? It gets you as far as the moon, according to the sources I had. If you fold a piece of paper and double it’s thickness forty times it’s the distance between the earth and the moon. Ok there’s your chessboard. Another example getting a bit more concrete now, the lilypad. A lily in a pond is growing exponentially and doubling in size, and we know that it will fill the pond in thirty days, so at what point is the pond half covered? Day 29. Now imagine on day 29 those people who were in charge of the growth of the lily, discover three new ponds. What wonders, amazing new resources available. How much extra time does that give the lily to grow? Two days. Three new ponds gives two days, so instead of dying of at day 30 it dies off at day 32. Because at the end of day 30 you have got one pond covered, at the end of day 31 you have got two ponds covered, at the end of day 32 you have four ponds covered.
So the issue is: to keep the system running the discovery of new ponds has to accelerate. Make sense? Well that is the problem that we face. Now one example. Reindeer introduced onto a island in Alaska in 1945, 29 were introduced, by the summer of 1957 they had grown to 1,350, by the summer of 1963 they had grown to 6,000, summer of 1964 there were less than 50. That’s what you’ve got, exponential growth, zoooph and a crash. Because the resources available ran out suddenly, and you’ve got a crash.
The one interesting bit, there’s evidence of a slow down in population growth in the year or two prior to the crash, in other words, there were some signals coming through to the reindeer population, the resources aren’t so abundant as they used to be. There are actually lots and lots of stastical examples of reindeer in Alaska, this is just for one island, but there are lots and lots of examples where reindeer were introduced in the 1940’s, 1950’s to these remote islands, remote territories and the same thing happened time after time. There is a temporary abundance of resources then the population shoots up and then there’s a crash. And of course once there’s a crash there are different ways in which the crash can happen. Does it return to a stable state of equilibrium, so that population of 40, 50 reindeer carries on at 40 or 50? Do the reindeer get driven to extinction because they have actually used up all the food and there isn’t enough to sustain anyone? Or is there a bounce, is there sort of a crash because there were too many reindeer competing and once the excess of reindeer has been eliminated perhaps they can grow up to 40 to 400 reindeer, some sustainable level? And in terms of what happens at this end of the exponential curve, you have lots of choices, it can bomb down and collapse, it can bomb down and stabilise, or it can bomb down and bounce back up and stabilise. And of course, humans have more options than reindeer. Keep that in mind.
Now the problem, and what causes overshoot (that’s called overshoot in ecological terms, when the population of organisms goes beyond the sustainable capacity of the environment. OK?) Now what causes overshoot, principally it’s an absence of feedback, there are no messages getting to the population saying “Hold on you’re going too fast, if you carry on going too fast you will crash.” So the feedbacks aren’t getting to the population. And so the system goes beyond its limits. You have this shoot up and then the crash. The point is that one limit is enough to cause the crash. OK so with the reindeer on the island, it was the absence of lichen, because all the lichen had been eaten up. But there is only, you only need to have one element missing. It’s not that there’s a complete devastation and the whole island got destroyed, there was the absence of the one critical thing which was the food for the reindeer, which brings me to something called Liebig’s Law.
Liebig was a German chemist living in the nineteenth century, very creative, did a lot of work on fertiliser. His company also established the Oxo cube. That’s Liebig. Now he proposed a law, which is generally accepted, called the law of the minimum. And’s this is Liebig’s barrel. Imagine a barrel of water with the staves in the barrel at different lengths. You can keep pouring water in but as soon as the water reaches the shortest stave, the water starts pouring out. So the shortest stave sets the limit of how much water can be held in the barrel. You can have an abundance if you like, you know great long staves on the other ones, but if there’s one that’s missing, that sets the limit as to how much water in the barrel. And so for plant growth, which is what he was concerned with, the growth of any organism is limited by the scarcest resource. And that can be lots and lots of difference resources might be needed in terms of fertiliser and sunlight and water and so forth for the growth of a plant, but when the growth hits the limit of one of them, then the growth stops. OK? And so that is what sets the capacity limit for a plant, for an eco-system, for a population. The lowest limit.
Now – something which I sure you are familiar with, human population is growing exponentially, growth is beginning to slow down, we’ll come onto that, but I am sure you are familiar with this exponential curve. And oh look, what a coincidence, as it happens when the carbon, when the fossil fuels become available, there is suddenly a resource available which enables the population to rapidly expand. OK? Have you heard of “The Limits to Growth”, published I think in 1972, actually that book was published but the club of Rome did the work in the years leading up to it, and essentially the conclusions were – if we keep on going the way we are, within 100 years the population will crash, for the reasons I have just been outlining. In summary, it was very optimistic, it said there were lots of things that we can do. If we shift actively onto a sustainable model of development, abandon the idea that we can grow materially forever because exponential growth shows that’s nonsense, if we shift then all sorts of things can happen but if things carry on as they are, then the system of human society, of human population will crash in less than 100 years. That was the message of “The Limits to Growth”.
As I say the models that it was using, computer models, have been shown correct, because as you I am sure are all aware, there was no shift in human society and consciousness away from the unsustainable growth towards something that was more environmentally sound. And so the last 35 years, that’s a third of its projected timeframe, has been simply following the path laid out in that book in that research. And the issue is that once one problem affecting the human population growth is solved, because they did all sorts of tweaks on the models, at one point they said, what happens if we double the resource base, just arbitrarily? What would happen in the models? Instead of the resources being run dry in terms of energy and so forth being the constraining limit, it ended up being pollution being the constraining limit. And this is what I’ll be going through but the issue is there are manifold different problems but they are all common syptoms of one underlying cause, the exponential growth of human population.
Now human population, the actual additions peaked in 1987, growth is starting to slow down. So each year in terms of what’s added to the population there is around 2 million less. So it’s starting to taper off a bit, and so we’ll probably now peak around 2030, 2035 if that trend continues. But the issue is what you might call – that’s the net decline in growth. In other words if there was 100 million people added last year, there will be 98 million people added this year. No. In terms of the expected growth, you can think of it like this, that it’s going from say 3% to 2.9% to 2.8% in terms of the growth each year. So the growth rate is slowing down, which translates into 2 million less than expected, compared to what it would have been if it had been left constant. Does that make sense? It’s not a very helpful little figure, actually, I think I might cut that out.
You probably saw last week or two an issue about the resources used, because there is now a body which calculates at what point in the year has the earth used one earth’s unit of resources, in terms of what’s renewable. And of course, each year it gets earlier and earlier in terms of the year. It was on the front cover of the Independent last week – anyone who reads the Independent? How many earths in terms of the sustainable resources are needed to sustain human population? And a rough calculation is round about late 70’s, early 80’s we started eating into the deposits which can’t be renewed, so our growth is running ahead of what can’t be sustained. http/www.myfootprint.org - if you go to that site, you can tap in all your details it will tell you how many earths are required to sustain the lifestyle you presently lead, and for most of us it’s probably about two. To sustain our present lifestyle in terms of energy resources, water resources, etc. etc., we actually need two earths. But of course there’s only one.
And the real crucial question is – what is in fact the sustainable human population on earth? And this is guesswork, we don’t actually know because there are so many assumptions that go into working it out, that it’s guesswork. But three billion doesn’t seem unreasonable in terms of what we’ve actually developed in terms of technology and farming and so forth. But it could be six billion, it could be eight billion, we don’t actually know for sure but given that we are using more than we’ve got, we’re running down our deposit account if you like, rather rapidly, chances are we can’t sustain what we have got.
So some sober conclusions, just from those abstract bits really – either we change our way of life and abandon growth and the expectation of growth in material terms or we carry on blindly, we hit the wall and the human population collapes. Either way God is bringing our present way of life to a close, that’s why we fall in line with what God’s intentions are or we suffer God’s wrath. One key thing to bear in mind having said that is that growth is not the same as development. If you like the enriching of human society and culture doesn’t necessarily require greater and greater physical growth or physical use of resources. It’s the physical growth, human population and so forth and the use of physical resources that will hit a limit. Not, if you like, the richness of civilisation. They are two distinct things. So development is not the same as growth.
So what might the possible limits be? Energy, which we talked about last week. Which I think will be the first one, I think that’s the lowest stave, I think that is what will trigger the problems. OK, we went into that in some depth last week. How about water? A third of the population of the planet is now in the condition of what’s called water stress. The next step is water scarcity. I don’t know if any of you follow the news from Australia. They are in their sixth year of drought in the Murray-Darling Basin, which is their bread basket and their wheat harvest is collapsing, and because Australia is one of the main exporters of wheat, it means that the world community is drawing down it’s stocks, which are at it’s lowest for twenty five years according to the FT last week. We are drawing down the reserves.
Lima in Peru. This is one of those glaciers which is vanishing, but Lima - a city of 10 million people - gets the majority of its water from this glacier. When this glacier isn’t there any more, where are they going to get their water from? You are going to start getting human migration of millions of people. And Lima is just one example. How about the Ogalalla Aquafar in the United States, on average being used up four times quicker than it’s being replenished. In the southern areas it’s being used up a hundred times quicker than it’s being replenished and it’s responsible for irrigating 6 million hectares in the States, their bread basket.
Well, what about the Middle East. Out of the fourteen Middle Eastern countries, eleven are actually in water scarcity, not water stress, water scarcity, and Saudi Arabia obtains threequarters of it’s water needs from it’s own ground water stocks. It’s mining the water and that physical resource will run dry, literally. And of course that feeds into all sorts of issues about conflict.
How about another one? Food. Per capita food production peaked in 1985, food per person worldwide. One in eight world wide are considered mal-nourished, in other words they don’t get enough food to grow properly, which is 30% of the sub-Sahara and African population. These are UN figures. And 40 million a year die of absolute starvation. Now the last bit is from “The Limits to Growth” which was predicting an absolute peak of food production before 2020. So there’s getting more food at the moment but the rate of population increase is going faster. So food per person is going down. Of course the Western world is massively over-consuming of food, so remember what Gandhi said, “There’s enough for people’s need, but not for everyone’s greed.” Bear in mind there are political aspects to this.
Other possible limits, soil, lots of top soil. There’s a little figure there, 1900 the amount of top-soil per person in 1900 was four thousand and now it’s less than one thousand. It’s exponential growth in reverse. The amount of top soil being driven off by erosion and pollution and so forth. And again land, cultivatable land per person world wide is now less than half what it was in 1950. It was starting to encroach upon physical limits.
Pollution, as I mentioned earlier, “The Limits to Growth” model doubled the amount of energy available to be exploited by the human system and they then found well the next thing, if they had raised that stave on the barrel, the next lowest one was pollution, the world simply became too toxic to support the right number of people. But I think we see that in terms of disease, which is one of the things that we do need to be very aware of. Asian flu, those are not the most likely to transplant, it’s just particularly horrific, you can fill in all these as you wish, what’s the superbug in the hospitals, MRSA and so forth. That’s an index from that.
And of course, global warming, which is also on this exponential line. Those of you who saw the Al Gore film, remember him getting onto the platform so that he could extend how far the carbon missions were expected to go. So this is why we can talk about the accumulating crises of our time, or even perhaps the accelerating crises of our time. That wherever we look we can see problems developing. Now there is an Institute which devotes it’s life to exploring and monitoring all these trends. It’s called the World Watch Institute, they release a book each year, “The World in 1990”, “The World in 2000” and so forth. Lester Brown is one of the main people there and you can describe the book as a litany. A litany of where everything is going wrong and there are some predictions embedded in it. Unfortunately the litany is often wrong, especially the predictions, the predictions keep saying it will be collapse, in ten years time it will be collapse, but we keep ticking on and ticking on.
But the issue is not really about the time scale of those specific predictions so much as the broad picture that exponential growth can’t continue, because the World Watch Institute tends to focus in on each specific issue. Oh, this water is an issue, or grain is an issue, or pollution is an issue, global warming is an issue, and it doesn’t actually step back and say these are all different staves on the water barrel. And the issue is the rising water, OK? So bear in mind that a lot of this material, a lot of this evidence needs to be placed in this broader context here. If global warming doesn’t get us then deforestation and the collapse of the top soil will. It’s that sort of point which we need to absorb. Not “hey we can do all this and this will solve global warming”. You know, those things may be necessary but there is a systemic problem.
Bjorn Lomborg, who you may have heard of, wrote a book called “The Sceptical Environmentalist”, which is very good. It’s a very good book, very thorough, very well researched, lots of very important and useful information in it, it’s also unfortunately missing the big point. Remember what I said about peak oil. That at the moment our system has more energy available in cheaper and useable form that ever before, and what The Sceptical Environmentalist does is look at the last fifty to hundred years and say on the whole things have been getting better. Yes, for most people, most of the time, in most of the world, things through the twentieth century have become solidly better. But that’s because we are still on the upswing of available energy, and when he starts talking about oil, he’s really very wrong indeed. His forecast, the edition I’ve got is 2002, his forecast from then is that oil would remain because of this continued abundance, oil would remain in a price of ten to twenty dollars a barrel until 2020. And in the next four years after that was printed it went up to seventy eight. It’s now dropped back to just under sixty, but the trend is fairly clear.
So, in terms of retrospective, be aware that the story is not all doom and gloom, there are all sorts of good and positive things, things like the green revolution, OK, which significantly enhanced our ability to provide food. That was the equivalent of finding another pond, we found another pond in the green revolution. Hey we have got so many more resources!
OK, some consequences. The signs of the crises are all around us if only we have eyes to see and interpret it correctly. You know, it’s not that global warming is the issue, it’s not that peak oil is the issue, it’s not that migration is the issue, these are all of them symptoms. And its developing a way of seeing the world that sees all these as symptoms of stress in the system. As the system starts to bump up against tight limits, that’s the real issue. But, we are blinded by idolatry. And I’m going into this, this is what next week’s session is all about to focus in on this particular point, what is idolatry?
And idolatry we can understand as the inability to receive feedback from the system. We are wearing blinkers. You know, that fact that a third of sub-Saharan Africa is suffering from malnutrition is not something which impinges on the way the western world structures it’s civilisation. I’m going into that in more detail when I talk about poverty.
But this is ultimately a spiritual problem, which is why I am going to be doing idolatry and what it is next week and then in the middle chunk of four, going through specific examples of where that idolatry, that refusal to listen to the word of God, actually has a practical application, in terms of how we farm, in terms of how we have our social and economic relations, how we have our foreign affairs and so forth.
But some consequences that I think are reasonable to expect. As I mentioned last week, resource wars, oil wars are certainly not out of the question. US Army report last year. If they attack Iran be worried. Something else, a phrase which one or two of you might have heard of – fourth generation warfare. Israel, a military successful and powerful state, invades Lebanon this year, and was effectively defeated by a guerilla army. This is the way the world is moving, that the state, despite it’s monopoly, or near monopoly of the most powerful uses of violence, is not actually able to defeat a motivated guerilla force. And perhaps some of the military experts here can comment on that later.
Something else which is worth reading if you get a chance although it’s a big, heavy, technical book, but it’s very good, The Shield of Achilles by Philip Bobbitt, and he basically advances an argument that states developed in contract with the citizens. And he goes through the legal framework through which states have developed over the last three or four hundred years. And his argument is that the very powerful states that we have at the moment are only able to continue through the consent of those being governed because they are meeting their side of an implicit bargain. In other words, the state is providing lots of services in terms of the safety and welfare of the population. And his argument appears that the world is developing in such a way that states will not be able to continue meeting that side of the bargain and therefore what we are going to have is the development of what he calls the market state. But you know, much, much slimmer, smaller because they can’t do all the things that so far they have been able to do.
But what that also means is that many more states will collapse, the centralised authority, I mean this is the whole issue with Afghanistan, where the Taliban and Al Qaeda had formed this sort of symbiotic relationship. That sort of thing is going to become more and more prevalent. But one of the practical consequences from that is that organised crime will become more entrenched, because they will be going from the bottom up, they will have the equivalent of the local mafia, who are able to provide local services in terms of security, protection, if you like, and even some welfare services. Look at what Hezb’allah is doing in Lebanon, they are provided all sorts of social services where the main state isn’t able to do it. Funded by drugs, one of the main arguments it seems to me for legalizing drugs, because you suddenly take a black economy funding source for criminals and shift it into the main economy and you can monitor it.
There are issues of human trafficking and slavery which people are aware of. And therefore terrorism. The point is that the states, this is an argument, the states are becoming top heavy, they have been built up over time through the access to lots of easy energy, in particular, and they have been over-mighty at the top with feet of clay. This is the argument.
Right, now let’s get really worrying. What’s going to happen in the third world when their environments degrade and they can’t feed themselves and their states collapse? You are looking at extensive human migration on a vastly greater scale than has yet been seen. All the improverished people in Central Africa, in Asia and so forth will head north and west. Did you see, I think it was last week, two weeks ago, George Bush signing into law, funding for building a wall along the Southern United States. See this? The rich want to put walls up, because it’s only unconscious part of the time, they can see what’s coming.
But of course, you are going to have hordes of starving millions outside and hordes of frightened westerners inside and the wall won’t last, and I sometimes think that the unconscious, the collective unconscious works through cinema. Think of the film “Titantic”. This wonderfully plush luxury liner, filled with people and they think it’s unsinkable, we’ll carry on as we are because it’s fine, and of course, it hits the iceberg and catastrophe follows. But another example is I think, George Romero’s zombie films, which are all centred on there being a group of frightened westerners, people like us, and outside the wall there are hordes and hordes of people who want what they’ve got. And eventually the wall fails, I just think there’s something in the unconscious emerging there.
Final biblical example: the four horsemen of the Apocalypse. These are the ways in which chastisement comes. The white horseman: conquered from without, the red horseman: death in battle, the black horseman: famine and the pale horseman, with hell following with him: pestilence and disease. They were given power over a fourth of the earth to kill by sword, famine and plague.
A final quote from Thomas Hardy – “If a path to the better there be, it begins with a full look at the worst.” Which was my aim today. Comments, questions?
[Q: is it not more appropriate to say that we are bringing our way of life to an end?]
In part yes, and in fact that’s the theme of my talk when I do the Wrath of God, because I think the language of the Old Testament talking about the wrath of God descending on a population, it is possible to understand that language as describing a natural process. So yes I would agree with you, but I will go into that in quite a bit of depth, because I think it is one of the most important things, but yes, our behaviour is unsustainable and therefore our behaviour will bring as a necessary consequence, the end of that behaviour.
[Q: a military comment on states and guerrilla war – a hugely complex subject – and quite a few states have taken on guerrillas and defeated them, so it’s not quite as simple as you think [Sam: Agreed!] so in Malaya in 1950s against communist insurgents, they were completely successful, and in fact they eradicated communism from Malaya, when all around them, states were falling. The example with Israel and Lebanon is a very peculiar one in many ways because Israeli expectation was that they were going to push back Hezbollah very hard indeed, they thought they would get away with it by a massive use of force on the border, as they’ve done before, and I think they got a very nasty shock, but I don’t think we can actually call that a straight guerrilla war. It wasn’t that they took on Hezbollah, it was a straight conventional war, what they did was hit the Lebanese in Lebanon, the Lebanese government, which of course had three Hezbollah ministers serving in it, very hard indeed, because they thought this was going to completely pull the rug from under Hezbollah’s feet. And to a certain extent they have done that. I wouldn’t agree with you that the Israelis lost the war – it’s an uncomfortable stalemate and nobody quite knows what is going to happen next. The interesting thing is where Iran is going to jump, who underpin Hezbollah, which is why all these ‘guerrilla’ things can’t be just taken simply.]
The argument that Bobbitt makes is that it a trend that we are seeing the first signs of it, and we talked about Afghanistan as being the lead example but I agree with what you said, I think it is very complex and the situation is blurred.
[But Afghanistan has itself been severely skewed by the action in Iraq which has seriously damaged it; or damaged what we thought we were going to achieve in Afghanistan against the Taliban. Here we are with the Taliban seriously cosying up with Al-Qaeda….]
But what about what happened in the nineties before all that took place? Would you say then that Al Queda’s relationship with the Taliban was as a result of the state failing because of what communism had done, because of what the Soviet Union had done? Right, that make’s sense. But I think the thing about hearts and minds is the most important bit, because actually a lot of this is about changing expectations and cultural behaviour, and it’s this issue about hearts and minds which underlies the whole spectrum of problems. I’m doing one session on foreign affairs where I’ll pursue that in more depth then, but I agree.
[Q: impact of high cost energy – there won’t be suburbs… population is going to crash?]
I’m outlining today what’s called a doomer perspective. Doom and gloom, which I don’t hold with one hundred per cent. I do think we need to be aware of the risk of the doomer point of view coming true, because I think it is a real possibility. The Limits to Growth book is updated every so often, and they say even though thirty years of inaction has closed down our options, we still have options available to us which will minimise the bad consequences. So, how far there definitely will be a population crash, especially in England, our population hasn’t increased through the twentieth century anything like the rate which the developing world has. I see the real areas of stress being Central Africa and Asia, India, China and so forth. We will get the knock-on, the secondary consequences from them, because those stresses what impact in those areas first. And for example, the Middle East about water, and we mentioned this the other day. The amount of water stress in that area is feeding in, look at what Turkey is doing with its damming of the head waters of the Euphrates and Tigris and so forth, which is not making them popular, but again all these things feed into each other.
[q: looking at India and China and the way the population is changing its nature, whereas it was a triangle of population, with lots of young supporting a few old, now the triangle is becoming inverted, now many more elderly….]
In our country in western worlds, I think the population of Saudi Arabia under 18 is something like a third [interjection: Indonesia is 75% under 20] and I think this is one of the real problems, you’ve suddenly have – I mean look at China, there is a real imbalance of the sexes there - you’ve got, coming into adulthood, millions and millions of young men, and young men are not really all that cheerful if they’re not given food, resources, if the expectations they were raised with aren’t met. You know, look at the people in Saudi Arabia, raised in a comparatively affluent society, looked after by the central state, if all those entitlements get taken away, what are the knock-on consequences? I think this, this is actually one of the reasons why I am more hopeful, because I think the social impact will hit before the physical impacts, so paradoxically, if there is lots of war that might be better for us in the long run. That might sound a really strange thing for me to say…
The key figure on poverty and starvation is 30% of sub-Saharan Africa; as a proportion of the population, malnutrition is prevalent, so the acute area for suffering is sub-Saharan Africa even if, in pure quantity of numbers, there are more people starving in Asia.
Q: How much is politically driven? How much could be put right by political change?
I think most starvation at present is politically driven rather than resource driven. At the moment there is enough food to go round – the quote from Gandhi, there is enough for people’s need, but not for the greed. The present situations can be dealt with, by and large, in principle. But it doesn’t affect the accumulating, accelerating problem – we come back to the thing about per capita food production peaking in 1985. That is a leading indicator – the trend has been in place for twenty years – per capita food production declining. At some point that needs to stabilise, either because the number of people stabilises, or we continue discovering new ponds and making more food and so forth, or there is going to be a drop.
[Q: there wasn’t enough food 100 years ago – what I worry about is that the fact that we are now able (technically) to feed everyone… this suggests it is not the overuse of resources that is the problem, but the underuse of resources by those who need them.]
Partly, yes… I think that’s true. One way of thinking about population and its relationship with food is that if you don’t have enough food there won’t be people; so therefore, simply because there are many, many more people, there must by definition be vastly more food available. But the issue is this exponential growth – because there are now that many more people growing exponentially, there must by definition be enough food for those people to live on, and the food is growing exponentially - but the point is that exponential growth hits limits. The limits that we are seeing, the signs of stress, that are politically derived; what I was saying about Bjorn Lomborg and the World Watch people – looking backwards, the twentieth century is a story of unalloyed progress; most people, in most parts of the world are materially vastly better off, vastly better fed, better educated, better covered in terms of health and welfare and so forth. The story of the 20th Century is a story of progress, things getting much, much better, which is Bjorn Lomborg’s point. But it doesn’t address the arguments of the Limits to Growth, and the Limits to Growth model and analysis still holds true. That’s my argument. I wouldn’t dispute that, so far, things have been getting better and better, but the issue about exponential growth is that we hit a limit, and when we hit the limit what happens after exponential growth can be – and without adjustments almost certainly will be – catastrophic decline. But there are options available to us. But I don’t think we can embrace those options without a spiritual revival. Because it is a spiritual problem – and that’s what the next coming weeks are going to be exploring.
The relationships between states and sub-state organisations and especially the ‘hearts and minds’ perspective – in other words, the question about which community has the strongest will to live – is going to have a very big impact upon things, and just to give you a foretaste, one of the main things I’m going to talk about is the way in which the Islamic community has a much stronger will than the Western society, and therefore the Islamic community, despite being materially weaker, and in terms of state governments, weaker, is actually in the long run much stronger. And I’m going to be talking about the way in which Islamic theology draws upon the same sorts of analysis that I’m going to be making with you, in terms of a prophetic critique of Western society, to give itself that strength. And I think unless Western society can recover some sense of spiritual strength, and re-embrace the prophetic critique of our Western way of life, Western society will be conquered from without – the first horseman of the apocalypse, being conquered from without. It’s what General Dannatt was talking about the other day – the Army Chief of Staff, interviewed in the Daily Mail? It’s what he’s talking about, it’s real! But we’ve hit half past ten, so with one bound I shall escape from this conversation. Next week we shall be talking about idolatry, because it is the key concept to understand which will then be applied in different areas, so I look forward to seeing you next week.