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Forgive me for not cheering

As the British media gush over the latest addition to the Civil List, we might want to consider how a third royal baby fits into the wider picture.

There are already 7.5 billion of us on the planet; this is due to rise to between 9 and 10 billion by 2050.  If our planet were infinite, this would not be much of an issue.  Unfortunately, it is not… and many of the resources that we depend upon for our existence are already running short.  Most worryingly, the last time humanity had to make do with renewable energy and sustainable resources, the best we could manage was to support around a billion people worldwide – and many of these lived on the margins; at constant risk of famine.

Fortunately, we are not about to run out of fossil fuels any time soon.  That is the other jaw of our predicament.  There is more than enough accessible coal, gas and oil to cook the planet to the point that no more than a billion of us worldwide will survive the hotter climate and the ensuing destruction of our food supplies.

When we think about over-population (insofar as anyone does) we tend to think of billions of impoverished souls in third world countries.  This is to miss the point.  Indeed, if all 7.5 billion of us lived like the average citizen of Mali, we would not have to worry about resource depletion, energy shortages or climate change.  The problem part of the population is us – the ten percent of the population in the developed states who are the most profligate humans ever to have lived.  And among that top ten percent, few live so lavish a lifestyle as the British Royal Family.

As we have pointed out time and again, the answer to climate change is not renewable energy or electric cars.  As Damian Carrington in the Guardian explains:

“The greatest impact individuals can have in fighting climate change is to have one fewer child, according to a new study that identifies the most effective ways people can cut their carbon emissions.

“The next best actions are selling your car, avoiding long flights, and eating a vegetarian diet. These reduce emissions many times more than common green activities, such as recycling, using low energy light bulbs or drying washing on a line. However, the high impact actions are rarely mentioned in government advice and school textbooks, researchers found.”

Rearing an average child in a developed state like the UK has a similar carbon footprint to running three SUVs continuously for a decade each.  In effect, each average western child arriving on the planet serves to cancel out any attempts at sustainability that we might otherwise have achieved… and, of course, the latest royal offspring’s carbon footprint will be far from average.

At this stage, the man who purports to be second in line to the throne and future head of state might be expected to lead by example.  If the head of state of the fifth largest economy on earth cannot limit his progeny to just the two, what signal does that send to the rest of us?  Presumably the same as the kind of nonsense dreamed up by desert tribesmen millennia ago and later codified into several religions that instruct their followers to ‘go forth and multiply.’

I am not particularly concerned about that privileged royal baby; who will probably be spared the gnawing hunger and frigid cold facing millions of Britain’s precariat as our civilisation unravels.  But I have every sympathy for the millions of children who will be born into a world of scarcity by parents who followed the Prince’s example.  My hope is that our descent to a more sustainable way of life (i.e. the one that supports one billion of us at most) will be gradual enough that our children and grandchildren have time to adapt.  They may not be so fortunate.  Civilisations can last for centuries, but historians and archaeologists measure their collapse in mere decades.  As the preamble to Ugo Bardi’s latest book The Seneca Effect: Why Growth is Slow but Collapse is Rapid notes:

“The essence of this book can be found in a line written by the ancient Roman Stoic Philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca: ‘Fortune is of sluggish growth, but ruin is rapid’. This sentence summarizes the features of the phenomenon that we call ‘collapse,’ which is typically sudden and often unexpected, like the proverbial ‘house of cards.’”

As climate change takes its toll and energy, resource and food production begin to falter, those who claim the mantle of leadership have more responsibility that most to live within planetary limits.  Bringing additional children into the world at this point is an abrogation of that responsibility; something to be deplored, not celebrated… so forgive me for not cheering.

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