Dan Brown’s new novel Inferno is, as all of his novels are, a literary mess. It’s a ramble through bits of history, literature, architecture, science and politics with a thriller thrown in. But what this book will do, apart from being the basis for a blockbuster film and a major best seller, is help put into people’s consciousness the challenge of our demography.
Demography at the grand scale tells us that we are reaching towards 9-11 billion people existing together on the planet by 2050 – up from the 7.9 billion living on the planet now. The premise of Dan Brown’s thriller is that this figure is unsustainable – creating unbearable pressures on the environment, global food supplies, and energy resources. Something has to be done and his thriller is based on a strategy for culling the global population based on genetic engineering by means of a vector based virus.
Some facts will help. The population is expanding, as the UN graph below shows. Starting from 1800, the graph shows global population expansion through to 2004 and then the three scenarios which follow are varying estimates of what is likely to happen to the end of the century. Two scenarios show that, as the overall health and wealth of the global population rises then birth rates decline and the species finds some balance with the planet. The red scenario suggests that this doesn’t happen and the human herd simply grows exponentially.
The population is getting both wealthier and healthier, as the powerful video by Hans Rossling shows (see here).
A new study of demography by Danny Dorling (Population 10 Billion – The Coming Demographic Crisis and How to Survive It. London: Constable and Robinson, 2013), which is much better written than Dan Brown’s novel (but will get less attention), makes clear that population will stabilize as individuals realize that sustainability is something that they can act on without the need for global Kyoto like agreements and companies realize that all people on earth seek the same things and to create these sustainable life-styles is a fantastic capitalist opportunity. This is also the theme of the book we published by Alan Knight (Rethinking Corporate Sustainability – If Only We Ran the Planet Like a Shop – available here). Packed full of counter-intuitive ideas and observations, Dorling’s book is a tool kit to prepare for the future and to help us ask the right questions.
But what are the right questions? I would suggest that there are five:
- What actions can we as individuals and as society take to reduce inequity and increase equity?
- What actions can we take to reduce consumption and waste and increase the utilization of currently “in use” resources?
- What actions can we take to better manage our own wellness and health?
- What actions do we need to take to promote and develop happiness, wellbeing and community?
- What actions do we need to take to look after the land, forests and water supplies on which we all depend?
The future depends on innovative approaches to sustainable living. The simple and politically attractive solutions – reduce C02 emissions by 40% by 2030 (50% if everyone agrees to do this together, which is the EU’s policy position) – make no sense since they will make no difference to the climate and will disrupt just some aspects of life (e.g. food supply chains, transport systems) unnecessarily. The real challenge is to develop a sense of personal responsibility for our collective future.
Certainly, some policy positions from governments would help – like making austerity apply to the rich rather than the poor, forcing companies to do more than focusing on profitability and requiring communities to see health as an issue of prevention than one of supply. But these are the outcomes of a shift in attitude – it is this shift that will make the difference.
Alan Knight’s key point is that using fear to shift attitudes isn’t working. If we use opportunity instead, it may work better. For example, if companies stopped selling everything and started renting those things we only use occasionally this would help. Its 10 billion small actions that will make the wellbeing of 10 billion people possible.
So as you snuggle down to read Dan Brown’s badly written but hugely popular book give a thought to the real issue of our collective future. That is what he is really trying to write about.