We’ve written recently about the global population ticking over 7 billion this year. Forecast to reach 9 billion by mid-century, our team at the Global Poverty Project are often asked, “How is the world going to cope with having so many people? Won’t having fewer poor people damage the environment?”
Mark Lynas picks up these questions in his challenging new book, The God Species. Starting with the idea that humans have altered our planet so fundamentally so as to create a new geological era – the Anthropocene – Lynas outlines nine planetary boundaries which we must respect if we’re to ensure that humanity can continue to flourish.
At first glance, this is an environmental book, not one about extreme poverty. But at its core, it’s about how humanity, and in particular the poorest and most vulnerable amongst us, will survive and thrive over the next century.
Taking a couple of the boundaries as an example, it’s clear to see how these issues connect back to extreme poverty:
• Climate Change Boundary. We’ve written before about how climate change is already hitting the world’s poorest first and hardest, even though they did the least to cause it. They live in the most vulnerable locations – arid areas increasingly prone to droughts, low-lying areas prone to floods, and the world’s poor often lack the capital and infrastructure to respond as the climate changes.
• Nitrogen Boundary. Nitrogen has fueled the green revolution and the world’s ability to feed itself, and as the world adds 2 billion people (many of whom will be eating more meat) in the next 40 years, managing its use will become increasing important. Lynas takes a swipe at the organic farming movement, and those opposed to GM-foods, citing increased efficiency in industrial farming methods as perhaps the best way to safely feed the world’s population.
• Freshwater Boundary. Balancing the needs of human populations – for drinking, agriculture, industry - and the environment for fresh water is pondered at length. Lynas argues that technological innovation and effectively managed markets hold the answers to overcoming the challenge that is 850 million people currently lacking access to clean drinking water, and the increasing need for food production in coming years.
• Aerosols Boundary. Lynas outlines how emissions from dirty fuels not only contribute to climate change, but damage the health of millions. And, many of these emissions are caused by the cooking habits of the world’s poorest – “Indoor smoke pollution from old-style stoves or open fires burning wood, dung or coal kills 1.6 million people a year due to respiratory infections worsened by smoke inhalation; India alone suffers as many as half a million premature deaths.”
For a book about complex scientific issues, The God Species is highly readable, and unlike many books of its genre, it eschews the temptation to scream that we’re all going to die. Instead, it offers some sober and optimist ideas on what can be done to ensure that all humans, both present and future, can live safely and happily on our planet.
You can buy The God Species from Amazon.