Guest essay by Eric Worrall
h/t Nick Shaw – US Author Kim Stanley Robinson wants half the Earth to be depopulated, by somehow inducing rural people to move into cities.
Empty half the Earth of its humans. It’s the only way to save the planet
Kim Stanley Robinson
There are now twice as many people as 50 years ago. But, as EO Wilson has argued, they can all survive – in cities
Right now we are not succeeding. The Global Footprint Network estimates that we use up our annual supply of renewable resources by August every year, after which we are cutting into non-renewable supplies – in effect stealing from future generations. Eating the seed corn, they used to call it. At the same time we’re pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere at a rate that is changing the climate in dangerous ways and will certainly damage agriculture.
The tendency of people to move to cities, either out of desire or perceived necessity, creates a great opportunity. If we managed urbanisation properly, we could nearly remove ourselves from a considerable percentage of the the planet’s surface. That would be good for many of the threatened species we share this planet with, which in turn would be good for us, because we are completely enmeshed in Earth’s web of life.
So emptying half the Earth of its humans wouldn’t have to be imposed: it’s happening anyway. It would be more a matter of managing how we made the move, and what kind of arrangement we left behind. One important factor here would be to avoid extremes and absolutes of definition and practice, and any sense of idealistic purity. We are mongrel creatures on a mongrel planet, and we have to be flexible to survive. So these emptied landscapes should not be called wilderness. Wilderness is a good idea in certain contexts, but these emptied lands would be working landscapes, commons perhaps, where pasturage and agriculture might still have a place. All those people in cities still need to eat, and food production requires land. Even if we start growing food in vats, the feedstocks for those vats will come from the land. These mostly depopulated landscapes would be given over to new kinds of agriculture and pasturage, kinds that include habitat corridors where our fellow creatures can get around without being stopped by fences or killed by trains.
Meanwhile, cities will always rely on landscapes much vaster than their own footprints. Agriculture will have to be made carbon neutral; indeed, it will be important to create some carbon-negative flows, drawing carbon out of the atmosphere and fixing it into the land, either permanently or temporarily; we can’t afford to be too picky about that now, because we will be safest if we can get the CO2 level in the atmosphere back down to 350 parts per million. All these working landscapes should exist alongside that so-called empty land (though really it’s only almost empty – empty of people – most of the time). Those areas will be working for us in their own way, as part of the health-giving context of any sustainable civilisation. And all the land has to be surrounded by oceans that, similarly, are left partly unfished
A few thoughts.
One of the main reasons farming is far from carbon neutral is producing nitrate fertiliser is very energy intensive. It takes a tremendous amount of energy to break nitrogen gas molecules apart, and convert the shattered gas molecules into biologically available forms of nitrogen like ammonia and nitric acid. To give a sense of the scale of energy required, natural nitrate is largely produced inside lightning bolts. But there is nowhere near enough natural nitrate produced this way to feed the world.
Finding a viable artificial method to produce nitrate fertiliser was one of the great innovations which made modern agriculture possible. Reducing the land available for agriculture would require even more intensive nitrate fertilisation and enhancement of whatever land was left.
I appreciate Robinson’s desire for non-violence, but I doubt a purposeful policy of rural depopulation would remain peaceful for long. In Guatemala and Africa, creation of carbon credit forest projects has allegedly resulted in native people being forcefully removed from their homes.
Even if the violence was avoided, I don’t think natural demographic trends will achieve anything like the result Robinson seems to want. In the near future I suspect the social pressures which created the need for cities will diminish. Better transport and communications technology is making it easier to live outside cities. Growing numbers of people no longer have to commute to work; my office is wherever I open my laptop. There will always be people who love the bustle of high density city life, but plenty of city people yearn for a quieter life, with more affordable housing and with neighbours who aren’t always in their face. Modern technology and social change is making this choice increasingly available.
I like some of Kim Stanley Robinson’s work, the Red Mars / Green Mars / Blue Mars trilogy is an excellent read. I want to believe Robinson’s intentions are good. But sometimes the road to hell is paved with good intentions.