Demographic, Social and Economic Changes May Pose an Even Greater Threat to Humanity Than Climate Change

It’s not just California that is suffering from devastating wildfires. Fueled by prolonged drought, unseasonably high temperatures and strong winds from Hurricane Ophelia, more than 100 blazes erupted in Portugal this weekend, and according to Monday morning press reports, at least 27 people died in the fires. Wildfires are becoming increasingly common in Portugal, where 64 people died from a conflagration this past June.

Despite these tragedies, the world is not burning in any literal sense. Fires have been and always will be a threat to human habitation, and while changing climatic conditions may increase the size, frequency and intensity of wildfires, the threat, certainly for the foreseeable future, is relatively contained.

But in a larger metaphorical sense, the world is burning. The world is changing in ways that are likely to increase the size, frequency and intensity of natural and manmade disasters. Some of the changes, or threats, are climatic in nature, and we ignore them at our peril. Extreme weather, including record temperatures, record droughts, and torrential rains will increase the risks of fires, hurricanes, and floods and, perhaps more importantly, massive crop failures.

But other forces are also at work at work in the world, and they include demographic, economic and social changes that pose, perhaps, an even greater threat than climate change. As Thomas Friedman cautioned in his most recent book, Thank You for Being Late, in a time of accelerating change it’s important to step back and gain some perspective on what’s happening around us.

The demographic changes are profound. World population this year reached the 7.5 billion mark and we are now adding another 1 billion people to the planet every dozen or so years. The vast majority of that increase, over 95 percent, will occur in the developing world and much of it in countries that rank among the very highest in terms of hunger, severe poverty, environmental degradation and political instability.

Because of rising population and the growing popularity of meat consumption, the world over the next 50 years may need to double grain production, but we are already using a land mass about the size of South America to grow the crops we consume and a land mass the size of Africa to feed and graze the animals we eat. There is not a whole lot of arable land left in the world, and much of what’s left is tropical rainforest. Doubling grain production in a world afflicted by climate change will be a daunting challenge, and doing so without seriously exacerbating greenhouse gas emissions is nigh on to impossible.

The economic challenges are also enormous. While the number of people living in severe poverty has been reduced in recent decades, very little progress, if any, has been made in countries with rapidly growing populations. Demographers project that Africa’s population, currently 1.2 billion will nearly quadruple by the end of the century. Education in Africa, particularly the education of girls, lags well behind the rest of the world. Unless more is done to educate girls, empower women, and improve access to contraception, Africa will continue to underperform. If so, chances of eradicating global hunger and severe poverty are slim, and the economic disparity between North and South could expand, rather than contract.

The emerging and advanced economies also face challenges, as their labor forces are increasingly threatened by automation. Self-driving cars and trucks could increase unemployment in the transportation sector, and advances in artificial intelligence could make many white-collar professions functionally obsolete. Just as automation once replaced human ‘brawn’ it is now replacing human ‘brainpower. Unless labor forces shrink faster than currently anticipated, we could see widespread unemployment as early as mid-century, and rising unemployment would exacerbate economic inequality.

These demographic and economic challenges could, in turn, strain the political and social cohesion that holds countries together and magnify the international tensions that contribute to conflict between nations. It’s no wonder that political dysfunction and instability are on the rise or that terrorism has reached epic proportions in many parts of the world. The world, quite simply, is under enormous strain. 

Political and social wildfires, like their natural cousins, arise from a combination of factors, and it is often easier and less costly, in the long run, to prevent fires than fight them. That certainly applies to the threats posed by climate change, but it also applies to many of the demographic, economic and social challenges we confront. 

In the long run, the peace and prosperity of the world will hinge on our ability to prevent fires, not fight them.

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