A birth and bereavement gives food for thought. GFS Champion Tim Benton reflects.
Two recent events – the death of my father and the birth of a friend’s first child – have made me ponder about the course of a human life. In particular, for someone born now what will happen to the world during their lifetime?
During our debates over food security and climate change we often look ahead. But does the timescale we choose to look ahead matter? If so, is there one that resonates with sufficient power to promote action?
One prediction is analysing the growth in demand for food by mid-century. The choice of 2050 was partly driven by the hope that this would be the turning point for global population growth so that, thereafter, the global population size stabilises (ref 1). 2050 is also a nice round figure to aim for: far enough away that we can plan for it now by making small, and cheap, changes in advance. This is the ‘Lord Stern argument’: small changes accumulating over a long time can save a lot of money compared to larger changes later (ref 2).
However, for many people 2050 is too far away and this disempowers action. So, increasingly, we talk about the billion extra mouths that will be born in the next decade. These people will need the infrastructure associated with over 50 cities the size of metropolitan New York (and the 350000 square miles of lost agricultural land these cities will need). In an even shorter timescale, there are the billion or so people starving in the world today.
One worry is that if we concentrate only on the immediate problems, big as they are, we don’t necessarily also act on the ones looming for the future. Sometimes the urgent problem’s most obvious solution is to do something that could make the future worse, rather than better. For example, for a starving family thinking about the long-term sustainability of agriculture is irrelevant, whereas producing food now, in whatever way, is important.
Planning for the future really requires that we align short-term needs and long-term goals to avoid temporal trade-offs; but we almost always discount the future more than the near-term present.
Thinking about climate change typically takes us to an even longer time scale than 2050. The IPCC emissions scenarios are run out to the end of this century to get past the inherent lags in the system (it takes 25-50 years for the climate system to respond (ref 3) to any change in emissions).
And we have just passed 400ppm of CO2 in the atmosphere and are currently on course for 5-6 degree average temperature rise by 2100 Given that 2003, the hottest summer ever in France and northern Italy where 70,000 people died of heat-related causes and yields declined by 20-30%, was ‘only’ about 3.5 degrees hotter than last century’s average, the challenges of coping with an extra 5-6 degrees (or even 10 in a hot year) is frightening.
But however worrying such figures may be, for many people 2100 is so far away it is the realm of science fiction – plenty of time to work out a technological fix, right? Wrong. The birth of my friend’s child prompts the thought that there is a resonant timescale that makes 2100 seem not so long away.
There is a good chance, about one-in-three, that a girl born today will live to be over 100 years old, and if medicine continues to advance this could even be two-in-three. 2113 or beyond is thus a single lifetime for today’s babies – 2050 is well short of their middle age. The end of the century will be experienced by our children.
Recognising this timescale surely empowers us in taking serious action to ensure the planet is in a good state to grow food and preserve human well-being for the long term.
$ense and $ustainability
For some, it is easier just to forget about preserving the world in a good state for the future, assuming it can look after itself.
I recently met an American farmer who said that “nothing on God’s earth” would make him produce less food than he could “simply to be more sustainable”. He wanted to make his profits for the now and had every expectation that there will be a technological fix for loss of soil quality, eutrophication of water resources, emitting carbon, removing biodiversity and so on. He said that he was alive now and put himself first – future generations would have to deal with the cards they are dealt.
Despite being a scientist, I don’t have that faith in technology.
Watching my father die reminds me of the sacrifices he made for his children through his lifetime. That’s what parents do. Isn’t it up to us to plan for our children’s futures and take sustainable living seriously, even if it costs us?
- Hansen, J., et al. 2005. Earth’s Energy Imbalance: Confirmation and Implications. Science 308:1431-1435.
About Tim Benton
Tim Benton is GFS Champion and an interdisciplinary researcher working on issues around agriculture-environment interactions. Formerly, he was Research Dean in the Faculty of Biological Sciences, University of Leeds, and Chair of the Africa College Partnership, an interdisciplinary virtual research institute concerned with sustainable agriculture in sub-Saharan Africa. He has worked on the links between farming and biodiversity (and ecosystem services) for many years.