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"The New North: The World in 2050" by Laurence Smith could well be the best geography book this year. If you feel underwhelmed by that statement, then you are probably not alone. Geography is a subject that has suffered greatly over recent years with an image problem; it is often seen as a fuddy-duddy subject taught by dull old men in tweed jackets and really of no great consequence to modern society. If you Google "geography popularity" you will see scores of press articles lamenting the decline of this subject in schools and universities across the Western world, and there was apparently even a government task force assigned to this very issue back in 2006. Why this should be the case rather mystifies me, given that we live in a rapidly changing world; as geography seeks to explain many of these changes, it is increasingly a vital subject area. Highly topical issues such as climate change, energy dependency, globalisation and the impact of modern life on non-Western societies are all burning questions for geography. As a professor of geography at UCLA, Laurence Smith has written this book not only explaining their impact today, but also how we might see further change as a result of them by 2050.
Smith has identified four key drivers that will effect out future environment: demographics (the world's population is both growing and aging); resource consumption (we use a lot of resources in our daily lives, and this is only set to increase as populations grow); globalisation (the impact of mass production, transportation and trade), and climate change (whether you believe it is driven by humans or not, Smith produces a frightening amount of evidence that it is happening, and happening now). Using these drivers, Smith considers the world today and how it might look after four decades - he assumes that current models are good enough to do this with a degree of accuracy, and makes these predictions based on the rules that there will be no magic bullet from technology, no World War III, no "hidden genies" waiting to pop out of the bottle, and no Black Swan events. Predicting the future is a perilous business, but one with continued appeal to us. We enjoy reading books and watching films that promote a utopian future where scientific and engineering wonders have combined to solve society's problems. But perhaps one of the reasons why The New North is such an interesting read is that it avoids this unbridled optimism and instead delivers what feels like a more realistic picture of what lies in store for us. The future's blight, the future's change.
Much of the future Smith describes is not a happy one. While an expanding population has been used to drive economic growth and build prosperity in the shining "technopolis" of Singapore, for example, in many other places it is causing and will continue to cause overcrowding, resource shortages, desperation and misery. Smith points to those cities of sub-Saharan Africa and the crushingly poor megacities of Asia as future victims of their demographics. Models point to the world's population hitting 9.2 billion by 2050 - that is the equivalent of adding China's current population twice more to the world over the next 40 years - and as the populations grow, there is going to be more competition for food, water, energy, space and other resources. An interesting point that Smith points out is that as China is developing, they are building two new coal-based power plants every week, while renewable sources of power such as wind, water and solar energy currently provide less than 1% of the world's electricity. So, the question of where the world will be getting its energy from in 2050 looks to be much the same as where they got it from in 2010 - fossil fuels. The prospect of a cleaner, greener future looks bleak indeed.
It is not just energy resources that will become stressed in the future - water is likely to as well. Indeed, Smith believes it will become an even bigger issue given how basic a necessity it is to human life. While Smith dismisses the idea that water wars will break out (there is a remarkably positive history of water resources being shared, even between neighbours who are otherwise fractious, mostly because water is too important to risk losing it in a war), the images of a hot, overcrowded water-stressed south makes for grim reading. It is even possible that ideas such as building a giant trans-Asia canal to bring Siberian lake water to parched areas of the continent may not seem quite so crazy very soon.
The reliance on fossil fuels links in strongly with climate change, Smith's speciality. He present frighteningly comprehensive evidence to show not just that the world might be changing in the near future, but that change is already upon us - sea level rises, species migration (including evidence that grizzly and polar bears have started to inter-breed, where once they were separated by huge distances), more occurrences of extreme weather (like the super-drought which hit California in 2009 costing an estimated $500m in lost agricultural revenue), spring arriving earlier, and melting ice and permafrost in the north.
But it isn't all doom, gloom and despondency. Smith makes a credible case that not everyone or everywhere will be devastated by these trends; indeed, some areas will positively thrive. Having researched thoroughly into northern rim countries (or NORCs) - which he defines as Russia, the United States (via Alaska), Canada, Iceland, Finland, Sweden, Norway and Denmark (via Greenland) - he argues that these countries have the potential to become a boom belt over the coming decades. While they will not be immune from the effects of climate change (melting permafrost may present engineering problems, but many areas will benefit from their winters becoming shorter and less severe), these countries have the huge benefit of being water rich, relatively lightly populated and having access to the Arctic Ocean, a potentially rich source of future energy reserves. When intense international competition for access to the Arctic really gets underway, groups of isolated northern indigenous people - such as the Sami in Scandinavia, the Greenland Inuit and the Yupik of Alaska - may be in for a shock and further fights for their land and resources. Smith argues that the growing autonomy seen amongst such people over recent decades will continue into the future as their regions become economically more important: "I see the original stewards of this land taking it back again," he writes. This is the one point in the book where I raised an eyebrow at his logic. How many examples can you think of from history where a small group of indigenous people has successfully managed to fend off larger numbers of resource-hungry Westerners? Exactly.
For a book that discusses what could be a very depressing topic, The New North is remarkably readable. Smith manages to convey academic ideas and scientific theory to his audience in a bright, articulate and clear way; the level of writing is pitched at about that of the New Scientist, making it accessible to a wide audience of non-specialist readers. Take his descriptions of climate change, when he is explaining the significance of earlier springs and animals migrating ever more northwards, for example. "Imagine," he writes, "your lawn crawling north, away from your house, at a speed of 5.5 feet per day, or that your birthday arrived 10 hours sooner each year." It doesn't get much clearer than that! For all that the information is accessible, though, I found the density of information presented meant it was essentially a book for reading in small chunks. Attempt more than one chapter at a time and you end up drowning in data; better to read and fully consider each section before moving on to the next.
Having now read and contemplated The New North, I suppose the question at the end of it all is: am I convinced by Smith's argument? Well, let's just say that I now think that learning Norwegian might not be a bad investment in your future.
=== Book Detail ===
The New North by Laurence C. Smith
Profile Books (2011)
Hardback, 336 pp.
=== With thanks to Profile Books for providing me with a copy of this book for reviewing ===