Here are five things I’m worried about after recent conversations with Globe and Mail readers.
Can we stop calling it “climate change,” please? Let’s call it what it is – climate collapse or environmental collapse. “Change” is a benign term. Change is good, we are told by our employers, by economists, by politicians. If the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change got anything wrong, it’s that the planet is warming up far faster than it had predicted. Change is not so good when it happens quickly. The threat has become existential, with the spectre of mass floods, droughts, crop failures, species extinctions and other biblical horrors becoming clear and present dangers. Yet the output of greenhouse gases continues to rise relentlessly as reduction pledges made at climate conferences are either ignored or prove overly ambitious and expensive for governments. What is needed is a solutions-based approach on the scale of the Manhattan or Apollo projects, where vast amounts of money and talent are deployed to find clean-energy technologies. Remember, John F. Kennedy in 1961 said the United States would put a man on the moon by the end of the decade, a seemingly impossible feat. In 1969, it happened. Will a co-ordinated international climate-rescue plan be implemented? Probably not. Florida and Manhattan would have to sink below the waves first.
Big Agriculture has conned us all. Big Ag and its lobbyists tell us that relentless population growth – more billions of people to feed – requires enormous mechanized farms. They tell us that these farms require genetically modified crops and lavish amounts of herbicides and pesticides, such as Bayer-Monsanto’s glyphosate-based Roundup, to boost yields and prevent hunger. Never mind that about a third of food production is lost or wasted, according to the UN, or that women’s fertility rates are plummeting everywhere (see next item). And never mind that the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer has classified glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic” and that recent glyphosate jury awards in the United States have gone massively against Monsanto (one came with US$2-billion in punitive damages). We don’t need more food; we need healthier, more nutritious food and diets that rely less on meat-based protein so that forests are not razed to make room for cattle farms and the crops that feed cattle.
Privacy is dying or dead and no one is happier than Big Tech – especially Facebook, Google, Amazon and Apple, whose databases record our every keyboard stroke. They know our spending habits, who our friends are, what we like and dislike, and have a pretty good idea of what we are going to buy. They may even be conditioning our behaviour. The Cambridge Analytica scandal does not appear to have slowed them down. This week, a U.S. federal appeals court rejected Facebook’s effort to kill a class-action lawsuit that alleges the company illegally collected biometric data from millions of users without their consent. Surveillance capitalism is a monster and the existing privacy and antitrust laws are not up to the task of regulating them.
THE BABY BUST
On The Globe’s recent Portugal cruise, Ottawa columnist John Ibbitson – the author, with Darrell Bricker, of the book Empty Planet – talked about the seemingly inevitable future depopulation phenomenon. We know it will happen, but Mr. Ibbitson said it’s going to happen a lot sooner than some official forecasts say. The UN predicts that world population, now about 7.7 billion, will reach 11.2 billion by 2100, after which it will slowly decline. The Empty Planet authors challenge this forecast, insisting that birth rates – populations grow when fertility exceeds 2.1 births a woman – are lower than advertised. Fertility rates are crashing. In Italy, it’s 1.4 – Italians are going extinct. In Greece and Poland, the rate is even lower. In South Korea, the rate is 1. In some of the biggest economies, such as China (1.5) and the United States (1.7), fertility rates are well below replacement. Canada’s is 1.6. Even India, at 2.2, has plateaued. Why? In a word, urbanization. Most of the world’s people now live in cities. When women move from rural areas to cities “children go from economic asset to economic liability,” Mr. Ibbitson said; women pursue careers and have fewer children. The upshot, say the authors, is that the global population probably will reach eight or nine billion by mid-century, perhaps earlier, followed by decline. While fewer people might be great news for the environment, it’s potentially disastrous news for economies. Fewer and fewer taxpayers will be supporting the needs of more and more old people, punching great holes in the welfare state.
THE ROBOTS ARE COMING
Since the Industrial Revolution, the launch of transformative technologies (the steam engine, rail, cars, airplanes, mechanized farming) triggered employment doomsday scenarios that never played out. More jobs were created, not fewer. The arrival of artificial intelligence and machine learning could break the trend. Self-driving cars and trucks are coming, threatening the jobs of millions of drivers, to take but one example of potentially epic job upheaval. No government has a credible plan on how to deal with a potential surge in the jobless rate, which brings us to the debate about guaranteed annual incomes. The concept of paying people to do nothing has supporters among the left and the right, and among the unemployed and Big Business alike – employers like the idea of a no-questions-asked system that would make it easier to fire workers. Guaranteed annual income experiments have popped up here and there, and the populist government in Italy, where youth unemployment is 30 per cent, wants to introduce one for the poor. But no one knows how to pay for these schemes. Revenue taxes on the Big Tech companies, such as Amazon, whose success has come at the expense of traditional retailers? These are questions that will need some answers soon.