This is Our Tomorrow, Today

World Population
This is a grim post. Those easily depressed might want to give it a pass.

By the end of this century, our planet will have, depending on who you believe, and on the impact of any global catastrophes, between nine and fourteen billion people. North America’s population, barring physical and military blockades blocking access by billions of desperate immigrants, will soar to between one and one and a half billion, with all of the increase from today’s levels attributable to immigration. North America’s metropolitan areas will grow rather more slowly than those in struggling nations, but will on average be five times larger than they are now in population, and thanks to urban sprawl, seven to ten times larger in area.

Your reaction is probably to say “it will never happen, it’s inconceivable”. That’s what the planners said in 1980 when these kind of projections were made for Lagos, Nigeria. It was unimaginable that a city that in 1950 contained merely 300 thousand people would grow, in half a century, to become the world’s third largest and still fastest growing city at 15 million people, increasing by a million people per year.

But, as George Packer reports in a stunning report in this week’s New Yorker (not available online) this is precisely what has happened.
loagos packer by samantha appleton
photo from the New Yorker by Samantha Appleton

Lagos is a city that most of its own residents acknowledge to be hell on Earth, but still struggle and scrape through each day with the grim determination to survive and, just maybe, buck all the odds and climb out of destitution. This is a city of staggering inequality and inequity, with a Gini index nearing a ‘perfect’ 1.0 — almost all the wealth is held by a tiny minority of corrupt officials, criminals and mob leaders, and corruption and crime pervades all economic activity. This is a city of horrific and constant violence and the threat of violence — dead and mutilated human bodies are ignored the way we ignore roadkill. This is a city of absolute hierarchy — everyone is in thrall to those (ogas, — literally ‘masters’) one step higher in the pyramid, from whom they get ‘security’ and a chance at the few pitiful jobs, and to whom they pay 90% of what they earn. This pyramid is entirely unofficial, but ironclad — the cost of disregarding it is often your life. The struggle to survive is a 24/7 ordeal, so that, as one of the people in Packer’s report puts it, in Lagos, “if you sit down, you die”.

This is a city that doesn’t have slums, it is a slum, all fifteen million people in every quarter of the city. It is a city where garbage and sewage and toxic waste is everywhere, where clean running water and flush toilets are virtually non-existent. Where disease is everywhere and ever-threatening. Where pollution is so bad that residents’ faces are grey. Where police, authorities and gangs all extort money from anyone who wants anything or dares to enter their turf. Where fuel dumps and waste fuel spills lit afire constantly light up the night and choke the lungs with toxins. Where the only significant change from year to year are the endless streams of new immigrants and the building husks left behind from rampant arson. Where most of the population sleeps outdoors, often surrounded by mosquitos, garbage and sewage. Where gang wars between Moslems and Christians, often precipitated by trivial events, kill thousands.

Packer says “the human misery of Lagos not only overwhelms one’s senses and sympathy but also seem irreversible”. He quotes a city district senior administrator who describes the city as “an impending disaster…a powder keg…it’s just going to boil over” as it grows to 23 million people by 2015, and by another million a year after that.

When Packer asked the editor of the city’s largest newspaper what keeps the people of Lagos going, when they have no homes, no basic government services, no utilities, no jobs, and no order or security, he replies “They never believe there’s no chance”. Religion is big business in Lagos, and the people not only cling to the hope of salvation in the afterlife, they cling to the promise of capitalism and civilization that if they work hard enough they will succeed in pulling themselves out of their desperate situation. Both promises seem leaps of impossible faith, since there is no evidence anywhere to support either of them. This, it seems, is the nature of humanity — no matter how far we fall from the grace of a joyful, easy, natural life, no matter how grim and brutal and full of pain and suffering our lives are, we plug on, never seeing how far we are from where we once were, never giving up, never becoming so full of grief for what we have lost, and forgotten, as to diminish our faith that, despite the fact that what we have been doing has got us into desperate straits, doing a little bit more of it will somehow get us out, lead us to salvation.

We have no choice in this. This is who we are.

I read this report right after re-reading Tom Robbins delightful article In Defiance of Gravity, in which he describes how he overcame near-suicidal depression and weltschmerz and rediscovered crazy wisdom, “the wisdom that evolves when one, while refusing to avert one’s gaze from the sorrows and injustices of the world, insists on joy in spite of everything”. I have tried to embrace this wisdom, but it provides no protection against the bleak vision of the future that Packer presents to us.

If we are be joyful in spite of everything we must do it the way John Gray suggests: do nothing more than becoming more our animal selves — reconnecting with the rest of life on Earth and with our primeval senses and instincts, getting outside our heads, coping with contingencies, relearning to play, living in the moment, turning back to real, mortal things, and simply seeing what is. That means giving up trying to save the world, and just working to make things better within our own communities, and creating working models that might be useful for those of our species that survive the fall. To some extent that means we have to “avert our gaze” from the truth of what we have done and what is likely to come. If we are not insane already, staring too long or too closely at that horrific truth will surely plunge us over the edge. And then we won’t be of any use to anyone.

So here’s to seeing the truth and then turning away. We have so much work to do. And so much of life’s joys to experience, while we can.

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11 Responses to This is Our Tomorrow, Today

  1. daniel says:

    please try to not use italics they are terrible hard to read, for me, anyone else?thanks

  2. yogin says:

    I doubt anything will change unless the twins ie. population and ‘economic development’ are not just curbed, but are deliberately set to go on a downward trend. Your description of Lagos reminded me of where I am currently based. Believe it or not – Bombay, India. Its not quite as brutal as Lagos, but yes it will get quite close in another decade or so. I am sure you are aware Bombay houses the largest slum in asia. And 70% of people in Bombay live in slums.Oh yes, and your words reminded me of an apt definition for the human race – we are a weed species thriving wherever there is the slimmest chance – destroying everything around us or in front of us. But I think we have company in the form of rats, cockroaches, etc – except they are not as injurious to others, like us.

  3. Totga says:

    Your population projections are completely unrealistic. The UN estimates the global population will wire to about 7.5 billion over the next 20-30 years, then hold for a decade, then go into a slow decline through until the end of the century where the population will be around 7 billion.The big question nobody wants to answer is “why will the population stop growing?” and the answer is grim.At around 7 billion people, we will being to realise that there isn’t enough food to go around for most people in the World. There already is a shortage in some places, but the problem will start to hit Western populations, and that of course is when the rich will start to make sense.By around 7.25 billion, we will have concluded that the production of meat is an inefficient means to producing food for human consumption – the majority of rain forest clearance in South America is already driven by the need for growing soy beans to feed cattle, and meat is a very inefficient source of energy compared to the energy required to produce it. A vegan diet will become part of an environmentally sustainable lifestyle as much as buying a Prius and a solar panel is today.Shortly after that, experts will tell us that the ground is depleted of nutrients, and that we need to find a new source to feed back into the soil. The experts considering this now, have realised that there is only one viable source, which is laughably grim when you first hear it: no more cremations of the dead. We will be composted when we die. With time, this will of course gain a sense of dignity – we will be returning ourselves to the Earth, providing it with the things it needs to feed our children.At 7.5 billion, we will hit an absolute top. We will sustain ourselves if, and only if, the population is committed to it. However, it is likely that some will consider all this nonsense and will fight to overturn the policies. There will be War. War like none that has gone before, because by this point there will be nobody alive able to atest to the atrocities of the last great wars.This is where the next 50 years of population decline come from: in the latter half of this century, it is likely tens, if not hundreds, of millions of people will die fighting over food and water. It will become fashionable to not have children in some quarters, so the birth rate will decline. In some parts of the World, abortion and abstinence will be seen as a righteous act of protecting the Earth from our own greed.It’s going to be a tough few decades ahead. It will be grim, but there is hope on the other side: as a species we will survive to a point whereby we become more mature as a society, more equitable, balanced, fair, considerate, loving. That said, getting there looks like it’s going to be tough. I’m a couple of years off my 30th birthday, and already I’m expecting the last half of my life to be a bumpy ride. I would encourage you to think likewise.Either way, a global population in the tens of billions just isn’t possible: we would run out of food and water and people would starve long before we got to that point.

  4. Niran Sabanathan says:

    I do not think we will see any self imposed limit to human consumption and growth. We will continue to breed and consume until the resources that sustain are no longer viable in spite of having the foresight and the knowledge to change – this is human nature. Something bigger,better “Out there ” will save us — God, technology, science etc… Like all species wich outstrip their environments we will dwindle and die. The only way out is to stare at the truth completely and acknowledge it. Not to rely on governments, companies and pantheons of experts. Once we give up the ghost of an outside saviour wether it be a deity or technology we may stand a chance of correcting our plunge. The growth of human popluations reminds me of a bilogy experiment — grow of bacteria in a limited environment. There is exponential growth and then a sudden crash once the limits have been reached. For all our vaunted knowledg and supeirior intellect, we seem to have no more capacity for regulation than a tube full of bacteria.

  5. Zane says:

    David–As always, I appreciate your unflinching look at our world…the story about Lagos is frightening, and not so far from home. At the same time, I appreciate your injunction to live fully in the face of these realities, in spite of them, perhaps. We all need to be at our best and in our fullest capability to avoid the worst of our current trajectory.

  6. FishEpid says:

    Consider the consequences of self-selection with regard to population genetics. If those who forsee impending catastrophe better don’t reproduce or choose to reproduce at a lower rate but those who don’t forsee such a problem as well do not self-impose such restraint, then what happens population-wise and which group comprises more of future populations? And what happens if propensity for religious belief and unquestioned faith or hope has a significant genetic component? Might this already be happening in Lagos?

  7. FishEpid says:

    BTW, the above comment is not based on an original thought on my part (and it took awhile to find the original source):Selective Pressure Grows For Belief In God

  8. Ben Tremblay says:

    Heads up: I managed to subscribe to your blog with BlogLines (a very peculiar URL showed up) but did not succeed with GoogleReader.cheersBTW I found your blog googling for “wicked problems”.

  9. steve black says:

    Am I missing something? We are a cognisant species, unlike the cells in a peried dish we are currently having this debate, and at an icreasingly high and broad level (finally). How then can we not make the connection between education and population. The annual global golf budget would educate all children in poverty for years, and they might need some water, could the first world give up tennis for a year too?We have all heard these equatons and comparisons felt badly about it and srugged our shoulders. But let’s think seriously for a moment. Could a movement be formed to actually give up golf and tennis for one year. The people employed in these industries could be employed instead to help educate and irragate these people for the year. Next year it could be football or rugby.With good leadership this could be achived – just meditate on it for a moment. Come on, what say we give it a good ol’ try.Keep up the good work David.

  10. Jon Husband says:

    The book The Dispossessed is, I think, a look at a future in which a group of people did things differently, on Anarres – splittubg off from the main planet to try operating differently. Interesting book, gets at a couple of the core issues.I agree, based on the relative little I know, that things will get pretty darned grim by the time we collectively getto 7.5 billion. Heck, things for a large majority of people on the planet are already pretty grim when you look at all the different ways human dysfunction occurs. If you’re poor, one form of physical and psychic survival, as is described literally and graphically in Dave’s post … if you’re affluent, another form .. physical issues from anxiety-driven stress or overeating or lack of physical activity, etc. and psychically you may well be either over or under-worked, anti-depressant fueled, or caffeine-fueled, or over-consuming because you don’t know how else yto keep yourself busy enough to keep avoiding an encounter with your anxieties.There’s so much to do and relatively so much deep human habit and so little time …

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