So what’s the biggest time-bomb for Obama, America, capitalism, the world? No, not global warming. Not poverty. Not even peak oil. What is the absolute biggest, one like the trigger mechanism on a nuclear bomb, one that’ll throw a wrench in global economic growth, ending capitalism, even destroying modern civilization?
The one that — if not solved soon — renders all efforts to solve all the other problems in the world, irrelevant, futile and virtually impossible?
News flash: the “Billionaires Club” knows: Bill Gates called billionaire philanthropists to a super-secret meeting in Manhattan last May. Included: Buffett, Rockefeller, Soros, Bloomberg, Turner, Oprah and others meeting at the “home of Sir Paul Nurse, a British Nobel prize biochemist and president of the private Rockefeller University, in Manhattan,” reports John Harlow in the London TimesOnline. During an afternoon session each was “given 15 minutes to present their favorite cause. Over dinner they discussed how they might settle on an ‘umbrella cause’ that could harness their interests.”
The world’s biggest time-bomb? Overpopulation, say the billionaires.
And yet, global governments with their $50 trillion GDP, aren’t even trying to solve the world’s overpopulation problem. G-20 leaders ignore it. So by 2050 the Earth’s population will explode by almost 50%, from 6.6 billion today to 9.3 billion says the United Nations.
And what about those billionaires and their billions? Can they stop the trend? Sadly no. Only a major crisis, a global catastrophe, a collapse beyond anything prior in world history will do it. Here’s why:
Civilizations collapse fast, crises trigger, leaders clueless
“One of the disturbing facts of history is that so many civilizations collapse,” warns Jared Diamond, an environmental biologist, Pulitzer prize winner and author of “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.” Many “civilizations share a sharp curve of decline. Indeed, a society’s demise may begin only a decade or two after it reaches its peak population, wealth and power.”
Other voices are darker, shrill: “We’re past the point of no return.” “It’s already too late.” “The end is near.” As with Rome’s collapse, it happens fast. Clueless leaders are caught off-guard, like Greenspan, Bernanke and Paulson a couple years ago.
Call it “WWIII: The Population Wars.” A few years ago Fortune analyzed a classified Pentagon report predicting that “climate could change radically and fast. That would be the mother of all national security issues” Population unrest would then create “massive droughts, turning farmland into dust bowls and forests to ashes.” And “by 2020 there is little doubt that something drastic is happening … an old pattern could emerge; warfare defining human life.” War will be the end-game: For capitalism, civilization, earth?
Diamond’s 12-part equation is very simple, fits perfectly with a global warfare scenario: “More people require more food, space, water, energy, and other resources … There is a long built-in momentum to human population growth called the ‘demographic bulge’ with a disproportionate number of children and young reproductive-age people.” And if the “bulge” stops for any reason, game over. Economic “growth” ends, killing capitalism.
So look closely: Diamond’s equation has 12 time-bombs. But note, the first two are the biggest triggers in the formula. The other 10 are derivative variables.
1. Overpopulation Multiplier
According to TimesOnline: A few months before the billionaires meeting Gates noted: “Official [U.N.] projections say the world’s population will peak at 9.3 billion [up from 6.6 billion today] but with charitable initiatives, such as better reproductive health care, we think we can cap that at 8.3 billion.” Still, that’s 23% more than today’s 6.6 billion.
Can it be stopped? In a recent special issue of Scientific American, population was called “the most overlooked and essential strategy for achieving long-term balance with the environment.” Why? Population’s the new “third-rail” for politicians. So they ignore it.
Yet, if all nations consumed resources at the same rate as America, we’d need six Earths to survive. Unfortunately that scenario is unstoppable. Because by 2050, while America’s population grows from 300 million to a mere 400 million, the rest of the world will explode from 6.3 billion to 8.9 billion, with over 1.4 billion each in China and India.
2. Population Impact Multiplier
Diamond warns: “There are ‘optimists’ who argue that the world could support double its human population.” But he adds, they “consider only the increase in human numbers and not average increase in per-capita impact. But I have not heard anyone who seriously argues that the world could support 12 times it’s current impact.” And yet, that’s exactly what happens with “all third-world inhabitants adopting first-world standards.”
Folks, we oversold the American dream. Now everyone wants it. Not just 300 million Americans, but 6.3 billion people worldwide are demanding more, more, more!
“What really counts,” says Diamond, “is not the number of people alone, but their impact on the environment,” the “per-capita impact.” First-world citizens “consume 32 times more resources such as fossil fuels, and put out 32 times more waste, than do the inhabitants of the Third World.” So the race is on: “Low impact people are becoming high-impact people” aspiring “to first-world living standards.” The American dream is now the global dream.
Warning: The “Impact Multiplier” will drive the global “WWIII-Population Wars” equation even if there is zero population growth to 2050!
In Diamond’s masterpiece, “Collapse,” the two key variables are what we call the “Over-Population Multiplier” and “Population Impact Multiplier.” Now let’s closely examine Diamond’s other 10 variables that are driving our “WWIII-Population Wars” equation:
Two billion people, mostly poor, depend on fish and other wild foods for protein. They “have collapsed or are in steep decline” forcing use of more costly animal proteins. The U.N. calls the global food crisis a “silent tsunami.” Food prices rise making it worse for the 2.7 billion living below poverty levels on two dollars a day.
In “The End of Plenty,” National Geographic warns that even a new “green revolution” of “synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and irrigation, supercharged by genetically engineered seeds” may fail. Why? A joint World Bank/U.N. study “concluded that the immense production increases brought about by science and technology the past 30 years have failed to improve food access for many of the world’s poor.”
Meanwhile, a Time cover story warns that America’s “addiction to meat” has led to farming that’s “destructive of the soil, the environment and us.”
Diamond warns: “Most of the world’s fresh water in rivers and lakes is already being used for irrigation, domestic and industrial water,” transportation, fisheries and recreation. Water problems destroyed many earlier civilizations: “Today over a million people lack access to reliable safe drinking water.” British International Development Minister recently warned that two-thirds of the world will live in water-stressed countries by 2015.
Water will trade like oil futures as wars are fought over water and other basic essentials noted earlier in Fortune’s analysis of the Pentagon report predicting that warfare will define human life in this scenario of the near future.
Crop soils are “being carried away by water and wind erosion at rates between 10 to 40 times the rates of soil formation,” much higher in forests where the soil-erosion rate is “between 500 and 10,000 times” replacement rate. And this is increasing in today’s new age of the 100,000-acre megafires.
We are destroying natural habitats and rain forests at an accelerating rate. Half the world’s original forests have been converted to urban developments. A quarter of what remains will be converted in the next 50 years.
7. Toxic chemicals
Often our solutions create more problems than they solve. For example, industries “manufacture or release into the air, soil, oceans, lakes, and rivers many toxic chemicals” that break down slowly or not at all. Consider the deadly impact of insecticides, pesticides, herbicides, detergents, plastics … the list is endless.
8. Energy resources: oil, natural gas and coal
Pimco manages $747 billion: equity, bonds and commodity funds. Manager Bill Gross recently described a “significant break” in the world’s “growth pattern.” He’s betting we’re past the “peak oil” tipping point. Consumer shopping will continue declining as economies grow very slowly in the future and “corporate profits will be static.”
A recent issue of Foreign Policy Journal warns of the “7 Myths About Alternative Energy.” Are biofuels, solar and nuclear the “major ticket?” No, they’re not, never will be.
9. Solar energy
Sunlight is not unlimited. Diamond: We’re already using “half of the Earth’s photosynthetic capacity” and we will reach the max by mid-century. In “Plundering the Amazon,” Bloomberg Markets magazine warned that Alcoa, Cargill and other companies “have bypassed laws designed to prevent destruction of the world’s largest rain forest … robbing the earth of its best shield against global warming.”
Free market capitalism may be the enemy of survival.
10. Ozone layer
“Human activities produce gases that escape into the atmosphere” where they can destroy the protective ozone or absorb and reduce solar energy.
“A significant fraction of wild species, populations and genetic diversity has been lost, and at present rates, a large percent of the rest will disappear in half century.”
12. Alien species
Transferring species to lands where they’re not native can have unintended and catastrophic effects, “preying on, parasitizing, infecting or outcompeting” native animals and plants that lack evolutionary resistance.
In spite of the clear message in Diamond’s 12 time-bombs, he still says he’s a “cautious optimist.” What fuels his hope? Our leaders need “the courage to practice long-term thinking, and to make bold, courageous, anticipatory decisions at a time when problems have become perceptible but before they reach crisis proportions.”
Unfortunately, history tells us that cautious leaders are myopic, driven more by self-interest and nationalism than courage and long-term thinking. Eventually they’re caught off guard and their worlds collapse, fast. They only respond to crises.
And, yes, out of crisis may come opportunity. As Nobel economist Milton Friedman put it in his classic, “Capitalism and Freedom:” “Only a crisis — actual or perceived — produces real change” because in the aftermath of crisis “the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable.” Too many, however, delay and respond to crises with too little, too late.
Bottom line: The betting odds are 100% that global leaders will wait for a Pentagon-style “black swan” crisis before acting. Unfortunately, that delay positions the “WWIII: The Population Wars” dead ahead.