This article aims to make a comprehensive case for two likely future scenarios that would cause immense human suffering on a mostly unprecedented absolute scale, and why we need to undertake extensive measures now to have a chance of averting them.
One of these has the distinct possibility of culmination into an X-Risk (Human Extinction) or at least an immense global crisis, hence hindering human advancement considerably.
Up two this point, neither have been discussed inside Effective Altruism, but I´m deeply convinced that these are highly relevant to us and our endeavour. This very circumstance is not only true "here", but moreover with public discourse in general, making it clear that we as humans continue to have grave epistemic issues, not only in terms of recognizing that an issue exists but in treating it with the appropriate attention and re-allocating the various necessary resources to collectively address it, often due to the nature of statehood and neoliberal economic order.
Why I decided to write this article
In October last year, I participated in Effective Altruism Berlin for the second time now. It is one of those rare gatherings in which you meet genuine, intelligent people who are either searching for a meaningful purpose in their life or are already indeed living it, making this not just an intellectual but also a social highlight among the conferences I attend and, by extension, the people I meet.
Or quote Konrad Seifert, who I met at last year´s EAGxBerlin:
"Humans are the top highlight of any EA event. Everyone is warm (±37°C, ideally), open-minded, reasonable and curious. Conversations range from casual chatting to serious truth-seeking and everyone is super knowledgeable in the most different matters. Even better, you can ask anyone anything and they’ll be happy to help you out."
However (like with virtually everything) there was a caveat. As I conversed with the folks from the Foundational Research Institute, the Centre for Effective Altruism and Future of Humanity Institute (from whom I had read a few papers before), my suspicion once again turned out to be correct: Despite all horizon scanning that has happened inside Effective Altruism up to this point
1. Almost no one has heard the term "peak oil" nor concerned themselves with the research of the Club of Rome
2. Systemic trends and a looming Malthusian Disaster are not things I´ve been seeing discussed inside EA anywhere nor being worked on by any of EA research bodies
That frankly shocked me and a few others I met there who are working on this or concerned themselves with it, so I decided to write this Article (which took a while to get behind since I´m rather busy with my studies right now), explaining why this is a considerable issue that demands to be discussed and handled on a wider basis inside EA and makes such a title indeed appropriate.
Scenario 1: Malthusian Disaster (=large-scale famine) in Sub-Saharan Africa
Sub-Saharan Africa. 1 Billion People. The economic size of Belguim (if we except South Africa). Around 70 Percent of people living in rural areas, of whom predominantly "work" in agriculture, i.e. subsistence. And yes, the continent is immensely big and culturally diverse. In some areas, a middle class is rising and public health has improved considerably. Most people own a mobile phone. With the systemic perspective I provide here to illustrate the problematique, it is important to not socially construct and thereby reinforce prejudice about the region that the Anglo Saxon/ Anglo-American Realm often came to perceive as a homogeneous continent who is to be patronized.
That being said, the most recent famines in the region have not necessarily occurred due to insufficient food production directly, but more due to external factors such as civil wars, rebellions or bad governance disrupting the fragile stability of agricultural “systems”; South-Sudan, Uganda, Somalia, and North-Eastern Nigeria for instance. (Humanitarian response is also a potential cause area that would need to be explored.) However, other pressures or “systemic trends” mount up at an alarming rate, threatening to permanently destabilize the underlying processes to ensure food security and water supply. The following part explores the most important of those trends that, in the middle term, are going to cause this large-scale famine.
Factor 1: Land Grabbing
At a steadily increasing rate, soil used by local farmers are being sold off to foreign investors, mostly large agricultural conglomerates or is being overtaken by local elites. As less than 10 percent of land in Africa is formally documented (and thereby theoretically protected by law), corrupt governments essentially exploit this loophole to sell off land to enrich themselves as an elite and oust previous owners who used it for subsistence. The crops that are then being cultivated there (with an impressive array of equipment I might add) are “luxuries” like coffee or flowers for export (“cash crops”) as opposed to staple food for the local population. Furthermore, those cash crops are predominately cultivated as monocultures which threaten the respective region's biodiversity and hence may endanger other livelihoods depending on the local ecosystem.
The dimensions of this problem are rapidly rising, millions of people are now internally displaced.
Factor 2: The effects of climate change
This is a vast topic, and a considerable amount of research has been done on this. In this analysis, quite a few effects of climate change interact with the potential Malthusian disaster. First of all, precipitation/rainfall is in steady decline.
These figures show that this trend very clearly. In order to be able to conduct any meaningful agriculture, next to suitable soil, a sufficient amount of water is required – simple enough. If annual precipitation falls under about 400mm, doing agriculture becomes basically impossible and failed harvests are the direct consequence (“agronomic dry limit”). Over the course of the next decades, a rapidly increasing amount of regions will inevitably fall under this threshold like it´s the case in Namibia right now as evident on the graph above.
Also, if you look a little more closely, some years show only a fraction of usual precipitation, which has to do with droughts happening every few years due to the El Nina / El Nino climate dynamic that is also intensified by climate change. These ever-harder droughts create increasingly grave food shortages and hence regional famines.
The 2011 drought in the Horn of Africa, for example, affected 13 million people and led to extremely high rates of malnutrition, particiluarly among children.
-World Bank Report: Turn down the Heat (2013) [Edit]
Edit: Furthermore, the likeliness of regional heat spikes will increase even if the Paris Agreement is met and hence threaten crop yields even more. As certain crops for staple food have a high sensitivity to temperature changes like maize or wheat, this in and of itself has the potential to cause failed harvest in a few regions as mean temperature changes of about 5 degrees could halve the yield in most extreme cases. Also, heat spikes will also be a concern for general health.
Under 2 degree warming, monthly heat extremes that are unusual or virtually absent in today´s regional climate are projected to cover nearly 25 percent of land areas by the 2050s, and unprecedented heat extremes are expected to cover up to 15 percent of land area in the summer.
-World Bank Report: Turn down the Heat (2013)
Due to rising temperatures and lower precipitation rates, the soil will erode and groundwater levels will fall under the level where roots of plants and trees can reach. As a consequence, the Sahara will expand well over a hundred kilometres south, a process called desertification.
Adding all of these factors together, illustrated by a graph from a recent study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture shows us that in the coming decades, vast parts of land will become unsuitable for agriculture and hence will force hundreds of millions of people to leave their homes.
As a result, urbanization will happen a LOT quicker. Given that even now cities in the global south cannot cope with urbanization dynamics, we may see an increase in global slum population from 860 million to potentially over double that number in the coming decades, creating another kind of social diaspora (UN Habitat 2010).
If we overlay the areas threatened by climate change with a population density map, we can see that vast parts of the population in Western, Central and Eastern Africa will be displaced increasingly heavily in the coming 20 years.
Edit: Due to climate-related reasons, productivity has already begun to shrink a considerable amount as a study by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) about the impact of land degradation shows below:
In the visualisation below, I illustrated the key trends and their impacts via a semi-arbitrary ample scheme:
Factor 3: Population
Which brings us to the last major trend.
Not only is supply declining, but demand rising significantly, more to the point: The population of Sub-Saharan Africa is set to double by 2050.
Even now, over 250 million people in the region are not having sufficient nutrition. Though theoretically the continent has physically enough to sustain itself in terms of food production; failing states, land grabbing, climate change and other trends even now cause shortages and just barely ensure the most basic supply in the rural parts. Without population growth; climate adaption, natural fertilizers, agricultural equipment etcetera may be enough to dampen the negative effect in supply and hence could avert this famine. But that will not be the case when the population doubles. The good thing here is that Sub-Saharan Africa still has sizable land reserves that could be used for agriculture, but it remains to be seen just how this ties into the other factors as increasing yield is physically possible even on regional levels but demands comprehensive measures to do so.
So to speak, an agricultural output of 1.0 in face of trends that would shrink it to about 0.7 could be maintained (edit: worst case; at least 0.9 is safe to assume for 2050), but that doesn´t sufficiently rectify the shortage when demand rises to 1.5 or 2.0 rather than remain at 1.0.
Edit: Like with the other presented factors, it is very hard for scholars to make an aggregate prediction about declines in crop yields. Estimates reach from 5 percent to over 30 percent and inherit constant controversy:
Estimated yield losses at mid-century range from 18% for southern Africa (Zinyengere et al., 2013) to 22% aggregated across sub-Saharan Africa, with yield losses for South Africa and Zimbabwe in excess of 30% (Schlenker and Lobell, 2010). Simulations that combine all regions south of the Sahara suggest consistently negative effects of climate change on major cereal crops in Africa, ranging from 2% for sorghum to 35% for wheat by 2050 under an A2 scenario (Nelson et al., 2009).
As mentioned above, agricultural yield will, however, need to increase significantly in the coming years in order to ensure food security as demand will increase sharply.
In any case, if nothing is done or measures are not enough, these famines will happen, though there are too many variables and uncertainties to make an exact prediction as to when. We would need to make a comprehensive study even to make an educated guess. If I had to take a guess, I´d estimate 2035-2045.
And if this happens, about 500 million people will be displaced. As the region, then, cannot sustain the population, a similar amount may starve. At that point, we will see an enormous migration towards Europe which may give substantial rise to right-wing populists and create a form of quasi-social-Darwinistic policy on an international level. But only a fraction of people would have the option to attempt to flee towards Europe as a) the logistical capacities of migrant smugglers cannot accommodate for the sheer dimensions of migration and b) intermediate destinations in intra-continent migration routes may be shut down by states like Ethiopia which will be unable to spare the resources to accommodate the people passing through. They will be factually trapped.
Keeping in mind the vast territory of Sub-Sahara Africa, it is almost guaranteed that the actual "Malthusian famine" will be preceded by smaller, regional famines and crises (similar to the ones that are occurring right now) that will make the danger of this disaster even more scientifically irrefutable and the need to act increasingly pressing. Even our conservative minister for development in Germany, Gerd Müller, has admitted the real danger of such a large famine with large-scale migration on television. All in all, the portfolio of people in the development community warning from the scenario as described here steadily continues to rise.
In any case, nowhere nearly enough is done to address this. And even if we were to, say triple international capacities in humanitarian aid, it would still just comprise a tiny fraction of the type of intervention that would, at the point where is will be happening, be better characterised as a futile act of late minute desperation next to the fundamentally paramount dimensions of a disaster where the deaths of hundreds of millions of people will become almost inevitable. If we fail to act comprehensively and decisively in the coming years on an international level, it will be too little too late.
In numerous conversations with (former) politicians, the disposition to avert this, in my opinion, isn´t really there - or at least not to a sufficient degree. To create it in time, to then also implement a vastly complex action-agenda that is up to the task means to form an Advantgarde that climbs a very steep scientific and political mountain while time relentlessly advances against it.
Effective Altruism needs to be part of that Advantgarde. Cause areas here may be, among others, fighting land grabbing, agricultural policy or even helping to further the concept of a water pipeline as proposed by a Canadian NGO called "TAP". As my illustration indicates, water is an increasingly scarce resource in the Sahel, rectifying shortages in the dimensions that continue to present themselves, building this thing is the only way to even have a chance of saving vast parts of the people there.
It´s that black and white. It´s not some "patronising narrative" I articulate here, but a matter of physical laws and basic human needs, as at some point in the near future due to the trends pointed out, water and food supply will fall under the minimal demand to sustain the population. Other means of external supply, like deliveries per vehicles or further tapping into the groundwater, I checked with geoscientists, not doable on this scale and will only accelerate the actual problem that will be groundwater in agriculture.
Hundreds of millions of lives are potentially at stake here.
We as Effective Altruists should get behind that.
Scenario 2: A so-called "Peak Oil" scenario with a subsequent global economic crisis as postulated by the Club of Rome
Around the same timeframe, scenario number two comes in, which is "doubly" problematic in that it may massively hinder resolving 1 and consequently claim even more lives on previously unconceived absolute scale.
Among various others that have presented "the case", THIS article from The Guardian makes a good to the central points. In the German-speaking realm, Prof. Dr Dirk Messner, chairperson of the German Development Institute, has come to very similar conclusions in an interview by "Entwicklung und Zusammenarbeit"(1-2/17 p.29).
So, what is this "Peak Oil" scenario?
It describes the point where global oil extraction has reached its technically feasible peak and is the due to steadily decline where it will fall heavily under global demand. Because nearly every economic sector worldwide hinges on oil to operate, we will see a new global recession, where the conduct of "business as usual" will be absolutely impossible.
Multiple studies are expecting global oil extraction to halve by 2040, thereby outstripping the projected demand by almost 2.5 times.
The issue, as part of a larger one, was first brought up by the “Club of Rome”, an MIT-based think tank founded in 1969. Three years after, their first report “The Limits to Growth” was published and rapidly gained widespread attention in the United States. However, politicians were quick to dismiss their arguments, especially the central one that economic growth is finite and that climate change is a direct result of a highly unsustainable economic system - despite the scientific soundness of the report as confirmed by other parts of the scientific community.
As mentioned, the central argument of the Club of Rome is that humanity´s economic systems are highly unsustainable to the point where either worlds ecosystem collapses and/or all feasibly extractable oil is used up, at which point, the world economy will find itself in major crisis, possibly even collapse and the very foundation of our existence may be threatened (edited).
In the 13 scenarios described in “The Limits to Growth”, entailing everything between a successful sustainability transformation of the world economy to “overshoot and collapse”, the data firmly points at the latter, which they (more realistically than cynically) called "standard scenario" in that despite some advancements, the global economy (and people) largely maintain "business as usual", oblivious to the threat which is thereby continually reinforced.
To quote the GEO-5 Report by the UN Environmental Program (UNEP):
Forty years ago, Meadows et al. (1972) argued in The Limits to Growth that unchecked consumption and economic growth on a finite planet were leading the Earth towards overshoot of its carrying capacity, which would be followed by major impacts on the global economy. Hall and Day (2009) looked back at the conclusions of this study and found that its warnings were generally correct. Turner (2008) compared historical data for 1970–2000 with scenarios presented in The Limits to Growth and found that 30 years of historical data compared favourably with key features of the business-as-usual scenario, which results in collapse of the global system midway through the 21st century.
Especially over the last few decades, humanity has consumed an unprecedented amount of fossil fuels, and that trend even continues to climb. Over this period, we have used up more fossil fuel that in all of history.
Furthermore, the global population is about four times larger than in the beginning of the 20th century and, depending on other macro trends, will likely exceed 9 Billion by 2050. Consumption rates and energy demand will henceforth increase and thereby further increase ecological stress.
"So far, our calculations have not just been roughly what we estimated, but almost exactly what we estimated. And [The Paris Agreement] is not going to fix it."
-Graeme Maxton, Secretary General of the Club of Rome at CoR´s summer academy (which I was fortunate enough to attend)
With current trends, earth cannot sustain the human population and is firmly headed toward a global economic crisis and a possible phase of civilizational collapse.
At current levels of consumption, even with current technological advancements that increase general efficiency, we will soon have used up all oil that is technologically feasible and energetically “profitable” to extract. "Western" lifestyle is only possible because of highly unsustainable consumption, global exploitation and ruthless immigration policies. But the key point is: The only reason that Earth can currently nourish 7.5 Billion people is our advanced agricultural equipment (enables around three times the yield relative to subsistence) , which largely, you may have guessed it, requires fossil fuels to operate. Without it, the agricultural yield would only be a fraction of what it currently is. And given the vast political and economic complexities, it seems unlikely that when such a scenario occurs that we would immediately seize to waste this precious energy and homogeneously prioritize as well as distribute whats left globally to ensure that agriculture won´t collapse and people wouldn´t starve as a result, though this obviously marks the worst case scenario.
And we are now starting to see the symptoms of unchecked growth and unsustainable economic conduct. But due to the interlaced personal interests of elites that penetrate every level in the global economy, how can this be stopped? Green Growth, despite all the hype it has seen, remains an illusion as well as decoupling Growth from material consumption. We need a shift in paradigm.
While internationally stricter measures to tax carbon emissions and perhaps even ration oil consumption via Global Energy Governance regimes are not unlikely, some governments may retain their usually egotistical stances about their "way of life" (yes that is an insinuation) and hence will keep quasi-obliviously wasting it in sans-suici-fashion that will irreversibly force the very lifeline of perhaps Billions of People over a threshold where subsequent food shortages will cause global mass starvation. The key point is distribution: While half of global oil may suffice to keep key industries and basic services running, it seems unlikely that we will distribute them in a way to enable this and hence specific countries may experience vastly more grave shortages that lead to economic collapse. As postulated by various political scientists, ecologists and others already, material shortages may cause resource wars which (for further reference see history books), bring out the ugliest sides of humanity once again.
Edit: Due to the rightfully controversial discussions triggered by this in the comments, I must stress again that a global ecomomic collapse is the worst case scenario following peak-oil.
What is safe to assume however is that, with current trends the global energy transition, despite the very welcome influx of solar energy (it sits at 3% in the global energy mix right now) and increased general efficiency, is not happening fast enough to sufficiently rectify the shortage peak-oil will create. The implications of this will be heavily determined by a variety of other factors that will decide whether peak-oil will create mere economic "inconveniences" that slow down the global economy for a certain time or throw it into a major crisis whose disruptive dynamics will seroiusly threaten supply chains and basic services.
I completely agree that the original LTG report is outdated especially as feasible alternatives in energy have emerged, but peak-oil nontheless remains a viable concern one should not underestimate.
This dilemma, just like the first one, is still avertable, if global societies muster up the collective courage to see it through. That said, we need a new era of global cooperation, we need CO2 levels to stop growing by 2020 and stop CO2 emissions altogether by 2050, we need to greatly reduce meat consumption, we need to tax emissions heavily, accelerate the transition to renewables by a factor of over three, ration fossil fuels via a global regime, transition to sustainable post-growth economies - list goes on.
Concluding remarks: A Global Transformation and the Politics of EA
This article is not about doom-saying, it is about making people realise that we need to get a global transition underway fast and comprehensively to ensure the well-being of current and coming generations. For this, we need ambitious transformative currents on an international level - and fast.
For a movement with an interdisciplinary and ultimately difficult goal such as Effective Altruism, it´s evident that, we need to be more nimble, branch out geographically and professionally, ensure adequate coordination and organisation AND maintain a clear focus of what requires immediate prioritisation. In the scope of pandemonium in international politics, startling dynamics of globalization and ever-present real-world complexities that EA factually operates in, we need have a sober overall vision of just HOW pressing specific cause areas are to one another relative to context and timeframe. Only then can we explore their delicate interlinkages and deduct action that is in and of itself effective.
Especially the perspective of political science and future research are rather underrepresented fields in the movement that can not only support specific goals through the insight it provides (as many decisions inside them demand to be passed through respective political institutions in some form or another, for which Political Science can point out how EA "agents" need to navigate these arenas) but at the same times provide a more systemic perspective to comprehensively embed our causes into a contextual framework that enables higher understanding of their interdependencies as just described.
I argue that it is an integral part of our undertaking to constantly re-evaluate to determine priorities in current but also longitudinal terms to gain an enlightened understanding of how we can shape the agenda of our movement in an evidence-based manner relative to the global political environment we engage in. Although looking at the statistics as pointed out HERE, most indeed identify as progressives, and the general narrative of EA tends to point in such directions - it is perhaps more about the ethical convictions that people in the movement hold dear that, conversely, “substitute” pre-existing political beliefs we hold. Either way, increasing engagement with “the political sphere” in EA will become seemingly inevitable.
Among others measures, Effective Altruism should:
- · Further explorative research concerning global megatrends and facilitate scientific deliberation with experts in corresponding fields (such as the Club of Rome, development research and global cooperation research)
- · Checking the feasibility of new cause areas such as humanitarian response, international agricultural policy advocacy or systemic analysis as possible cause areas
- · Provide support for the Transafrican Water pipeline Project (TAP) and evaluate as to how it may be supported by the means and tools of the EA movement in order to get it on the political agenda
- · Assist in increasing advocacy work for a resilience turn in international development to dampen the negative humanitarian effects of coming global and regional crisis
- · Keep political factors and systemic global trends in mind by striving for a higher degree of inclusion of corresponding experts and representatives of political science
- · Develop a holistic and integrated framework to determine ethical importance of cause areas relative to time and interacting factors
Finally, with such immense proportions of global human suffering on our doorstep, Effective Altruism in accordance with its core values, needs to respond. But how exactly? No one knows yet.
But what is sufficiently clear is this: To interact with these situational demands in such a way that the largest degree of suffering as a physical result of EAs collective action within them is averted, we need to concern ourselves with them thoroughly. We will need some form of an internal action agenda, meticulous operative principles and frameworks for some parts of EA as well as further internal research and deliberation in general – things that will considerably alter the way EA as a whole operates at the moment.
In whatever coming arenas of deliberation about the "compass" of our movement, the arguments articulated here need to be treated with the appropriate attention and embedded in the personal networks that represent this vast array of other factors that should determine this course. Factors that this author is only partially aware of yet longs to understand. I´m looking forward to the debates and the constructive critique in the comments and hope, if possible, to successfully instil these matters in the coming conferences and research practices.
Let´s navigate this pandemonium together!