Some romantics seriously advocate for a simple ‘back to the roots’, meaning to operate in our forefathers’ style. They however leave it unclear to the audience how to feed the exponentially growing number of hungry mouths. Of course it could be possible to step back in time – provided the population size is reduced accordingly. But how? By a new plague, by war by deliberate genocide? There is no pleasant scenario in sight.
A more likely scenario is that we will hit the often predicted 10 billion heads mark by ~ 2050, leaving no room for romanticism. This world will definitely be different from what we know today. But how could it look like? How will we live by then? How will life feel?
Let’s consider some parts of our life, of our environment and discuss them one by one.
Fishing & huntingFishing & hunting for food or leisure surely are surely archaic traits. Our fore-forefathers had very good reasons to give up hunting and gathering as a means to maintain their subsistence. It was a hard life with an unpredictable outcome. And in many cases – if not in all - it was unsustainable.
Now that we take a closer and unbiased look to the ecological impact of the Neolithics and even earlier economies, more and more evidence pops up that many species of the Pleistocene mega fauna not just went extinct but was driven extinct. It took Neolithic hunters in the northern tundra of Europe and Asia about 30.000 years to slaughter huge numbers of mammoths to their final disappearance, the Maori about 500 years to eradicate the giant Moa.
And so did nearly all indigenous peoples all over the continents, be it Australia, South America or Europe. Here we noble savages cleared the almost the entire continent of all larger animals on land, on the sea shore, in open water and even in the air. The US strives to follow us under the new Alt-Right government, headed by Donald Trump. The most devastating effects, of course were unfolded on larger or smaller islands, like Madagascar, Mauritius, New Guinea, New Zeeland and even worse on smaller pacific islands.
Nothing will stop the human race to continue following its preferred game. By 2050 the sixth extinction will not only be in full swing. It will be nearly over by then with Africa too cleared of all major animals, not to speak of Asia or the Americas. Oceans will be emptied, poisoned and littered up to a near “Soylent Green (1973)” scenario. It will be all devoured by the ever growing, ever hungry human masses.
So hunting and fishing will not just be banned. It will be pointless anyway.
AgricultureIs a highly industrialized agriculture to be considered as a solution? Nope, not really. This point however needs some discussion as there is the apparent paradox of statistically provable betterment of the earth’s population’s food provision and the limited and even shrinking available arable land.
Agriculture, as we know it, even today ranges on the lower end of mankind’s cultural development.
The number of humans on this planet is expected to hit 9.7 billion by 2050, and crop demand is predicted to increase by 100 to 110 percent of 2005 levels over the same period. At the same time, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts that changing weather patterns will almost certainly have a negative impact on crop yields.
Traditional plant breeding approaches have managed to achieve impressive increases in crop yield in the past. But the process is laborious and can take decades to develop improved varieties. More recent genetically modified (GM) crops have resulted in further improvements by transplanting genes from one organism to another. A further big step forward will be made possible through the introduction of gene-editing tools. They will make it possible to precisely edit the native DNA of organisms with the potential to dramatically increase crop yields.
Not all will appreciate to be nourished with this kind of ‘Frankenstein food’. More importantly the resistance may target unwanted side effects on zombie plants escaping into the (remaining) wild and unfolding devastating effects there. But will we have a choice, once we are so many?
Anyway agriculture, be it traditional or hyper progressive will not keep up with the exponential population growth. That’s an old Malthusian prediction, which seemingly was falsified since his times. Technical progress and abundant natural resources at hand had provided for some relief - and for some more centuries for the party to go on.
No, food production must be fully industrialized. Biotechnical food production in mega industrial complexes will be based on processing of fast growing algae, bacteria, archaea or yeasts. Alien ecosystems, like found today around “black smokers” in the deep sea may serve as templates to be imitated. Or we make better use of fossil fuels and gases by feeding them to methanotrophic bacteria or some strains of Pseudomonadaceae, which currently account for biodegradation of crude oil and water mixtures. Properly processes, packaged and re-branded it will be no less disgusting that may of the current food fakes. The consumption of “Natural Food” derived from traditional sources will be the privilege of small elites.
Natural resource consumptionCutting trees, which took (in some cases much) more than a human life to grow, to be channeled into the industrial or private consumption, just to be turned into waste in a matter of a few years only, can of course no longer be tolerated. Anyway only a few trees of considerable age will be left in highly protected area. And protection means that they need to have life guards which have to shoot first before asking questions. As wood in general will be expensive, very expensive, and comparable only to African Blackwood, Sandalwood, Ebony or Agar Wood today, it will be immediately looted otherwise.
But there is a broader picture of the non-sustainable consumption of natural resources to be taken into consideration.
In 2013 the TRUECOST initiative made an attempt to estimate in monetary terms the financial risk from natural capital that is currently unpriced, across specific business sectors at a regional level, and through supply chains.
By estimating the true costs to their revenues and expressing it in a single factor they found striking differences like e.g. …
- Cole power generation in eastern Asia (1.0),
- Cole power generation in northern America (1.3),
- Rice farming Southern Asia (3.6),
- Wheat farming in Southern America (8.4),
- Cattle ranching and farming in South America (18.8).
Hence they rightly concluded that in high impact regions sectors don't generate sufficient profit to cover their environmental impacts. Therefore if unpriced natural capital costs are internalized, a large proportion would have to be passed on to consumers. The risk to agricultural commodity prices is particularly striking, where the natural capital cost is universally higher than the revenue of the sectors.
This leaves the impression that the day may come rather sooner than later when will experience a sharp price hike of goods, which are considered cheap now. Unfortunately those are goods covering mankind’s very basic daily necessities.
Living conditionsWith reaching ~ 10 billion people competing for space on this planet by 2050, most people will be living cram mend into ~400 densely populated mega cities. The urbanization rate will be ~ 80%. The 10 biggest of them will inhabit 30 to 50 million citizens. The number of mega cities could however well be smaller, with the world's biggest cities merging into 'mega-regions'. This concentration will be encouraged by government, as being seen as the only way to provide some decent infrastructure to them.
The keeping of domestic animals in the city, and where else will the people live, will be banished as an irresponsible resource-consumption, and, of course, also as a cruelty to animals. Anyway we will be crammed together on much less private space than today.
Of course technology will help. With ubiquitous electronics at hand many of today’s physical things will become virtual and stored on neglectable space – however not all. So we all will have to forcibly declutter our lives, practicing a new physical minimalism. The mess will become virtual.
ProcreationMost importantly the basic human right for uncontrolled procreation will be no more. Such policy should have been in place for about half a century already. Only China applied it so far on large scale through its one child policy.
Some countries may rather collapse or prefer to engage in suicidal wars than executing such policy. Others may find the tight living conditions dictating them some procreational restrain. Nurturing offspring will be seen more of a burden for the planet than a benefit. And of course we may encounter administrative restrictions to discourage reproduction.
So growth will eventually flatten out. To ensure a meaningful and joyful life in a healthy environment it will be by far too late however.