Imagine a not-too-distant future where humans have become a wholly urban species. Eleven billion of us crammed into mega-cities, divorced from a rewilded rural environment.
Science fiction? Perhaps it’s not that far-fetched given the pace of change — our insatiable appetite for growth, our reliance on technology and our need to find solutions to ever-decreasing natural resources.
Indeed, I think this scenario could be only a few short decades away. Think back 30 years to the early 1990s… pre-internet, pre-globalisation, pre-pandemic. And during that time, urbanisation in China witnessed the largest migration in human history.
And now imagine 30 years forward, but with an exponential pace of change. The growth of the global population between now and 2050 will necessitate the construction of cities the size of New York every month*. Yes, every month — that’s a lot of concrete and steel.
Perhaps in this scenario we have solved the climate crisis and, in order to feed eleven billion urban dwellers, all our food is synthetic. Our carbohydrates, proteins, fats, micro-nutrients and minerals are produced in factories — perhaps with some fresh fruit and veg from urban indoor farms. No more farmland, no more farmers. No need to fish the oceans. We will only venture out into the new non-urban “wilderness” to mine raw materials and for our own enjoyment.
Many believe that technology will provide the solutions to planetary limits to growth. Bill Gates and others argue persuasively that technical fixes to our social and environmental challenges are within our grasp.
But unless and until we achieve this utopian sustainable future, we have to work out how to feed that growing population while our stocks of natural resources are running dry. As a species, we are living beyond our means in spectacular style — and this trend is accelerating. The excellent and terrifying Seaspiracy — essential viewing on Netflix — quotes academic study that the oceans will be totally fished-out by 2048. Other scientists, quoted in the also excellent Kiss The Ground, forecast that soils in several parts of the world have fewer than 60 harvests left, many a lot less. Destruction of habitat is also destroying pollinators. And of course, we are polluting the air with greenhouse gasses. We are stoking the fires of our own extinction.
Will tech will save us? Which side are you on? Take a test — an elephant is charging you… do you; a) run like hell and put as much distance as possible between you and it to ensure your safety, or b) get out your laptop to calculate how fast and far you will have to run?
a) is what science and economics calls the precautionary principle, and it seems pretty sensible to me. Of course, we must also invest hard on the technical fixes — but let’s also make some “no regrets” changes, and quickly.
The changes I’m thinking of include those specifically related to agriculture and food: enforceable international agreements to protect and recover rainforests and fish stocks, and implement taxes to reduce global demand for high-emissions and ecosystem-damaging foodstuffs such as beef. Courageous leadership by politicians is needed to reduce our consumption of poorly farmed products. The corporate supply chain needs to inject massive investment in regenerative agriculture and fisheries — it’s in their business interests to manage these risks. In fact all of the above is good business, being far more cost effective and profitable than acting later — or too late.
And let’s look at ourselves too — change only happens if people demand it. People only demand it if they believe it, and they only believe it if they see it. So change starts at home, with you and me.
Resources referenced in the text:
Bill Gates: “How to Avoid a Climate Disaster” (2021)