Gathering clouds: threats[47]

Now back to forces for change. Figure 11.7 is the road map for this section and the next. The central spine represents the design or redesign process, moving from market need through the steps of development (including choice of material and process) to the specification and ultimate production of products. The radial boxes summarize, on the left, some of the threats; those on the right, some of the opportunities.

Population. For most of the history of man the population has been small and rising only very slowly (Figure 1.3), but in the last 70 years of the 20th

century and the first decade of the 21st the population has exploded, grow­ing from 2 billion to over 6 billion in 80 years. It is expected to rise above 8 billion before stabilizing, and there are already too many to live comfortably on the productive surface area of the planet (Chapter 1).

Energy. Fossil fuels provide almost all the energy we now use (Chapter 2). The consumption has increased by a factor of 14 in the past 100 years and is still rising. Large reserves of easily accessible crude oil and gas are in the hands of a small group of nations; the energy-hungry OECD countries are almost wholly dependent on OPEC for supply. Such a one-sided market carries risk of supply shortages and volatile prices, with threat to economic disruption for the oil-importing nations (see Figure 11.1b).

Water. A second resource, water, is likely to exert an even greater con­straint. Of the water on the Earth’s surface, only 2.5% is fresh water and much of this is inaccessible, locked up in ice and ground water. The grow­ing population has created water shortages in many parts of the world; one third of the global population lacked adequate supplies at the end of the 20th century. Global warming is expected to make this worse. And without water it is not possible to grow crops or rear livestock.

Land. I ndustrialized countries need, on average, 6 hectares of productive land per person to support the way they live. The global average is only

1.8 hectares per person, and it is falling further as population continues to grow. The developing nations aspire to a standard of living comparable with those of the developed nations, but at least one resource—land—is insuffi­cient to provide it unless there is a fundamental change in the way we live.

Climate change. We are dumping more than 6 million tons of carbon into the atmosphere each year, pushing the atmospheric concentration from 270 ppm before the Industrial Revolution to above 400 ppm today (Figure 3.8). Global average temperature has risen by 0.75°C since the 19th cen­tury. If no further carbon entered the atmosphere (a completely impossible scenario), the inertia of the ecosystem would still result in a further rise of 0.6°C before stabilizing. Increases above 2°C are inevitable. Increasingly precise meteorological modeling gives an idea of the consequences. They include melting of the Arctic ice cap (already evident), rising sea levels, decreasing availability of fresh water, population migration, and loss of spe­cies. A total rise of 4°C starts the melting of the Antarctic and Greenland icecaps, with more extreme rise of sea level and flooding of low-lying coun­tries. A total rise of 6°C has predicted consequences that one would rather not think about. All this, of course, is based on modeling, and there are those who dismiss its predictions.[48] The evidence that this progression has already started cannot be ignored. It is worth listening to the modelers; they are an early warning system that did not exist in Malthus’s day, giving time to think out the best way to manage these changes.

National security. And finally there is a threat of a different nature. The increased availability and killing power of modern weapons, together with the open nature of Western society, makes it vulnerable to terrorism: the ability of small groups, even individuals, to inflict massive harm. This is a difficult devil to confront when inspired, at least in part, by the large differ­ences in wealth between rich and poor nations and by religious convictions.

Updated: October 5, 2015 — 9:00 am