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4 September 2009 | Uncompleted

Ranges of Responses to Overpopulation Challenge

including the unthinkable and the improbable

-- / --


The consequences of climate change are widely ranked as the greatest challenge facing humanity. There are other less evident problems that might merit similar attention: resources according to some constituencies: pollution, unemployment, species loss, earth-crossing asteroids, etc. More worrying is the possibility of a combined crisis of such crises, as envisaged by John Platt in 1969. Also of concern are the unexpected crises as noted by Taleb *** and Cerulo**.

If exploding population is framed as a key challenge, exacerbating the threat of other crises, the question is how responses to that challenge might be usefully framed. The purpose of such framing -- as explored here -- is to distinguish responses which may be both viable and legitimate from those which are either improbable or highly undesirable, or both. The latter should not however be omitted from consideration

There is a need for such a framing precisely because there is a well-recognized tendency to avoid consideration of exploding population as constituting a challenge and to seek other means of responding to the complex of challenges faced by a resource-constrained global society. This avoidance is a danger in its own right in that focuses attention too narrowly when emergency measures may dictate use of alternative strategies, possibly initiated unilaterally or by parties with only limited respect for the interests of the global population as a whole. Variants of such unwelcome initiatives may emerge by accident and therefore their possibility needs to be within a sufficiently general frame in a spirit of strategic vigilance.

It should not be forgotten that in the depths of the Cold War there was a strategic willingness to "think the unthinkable" in the face of evident threats to global annihilation. Arguably there is value in enlarging the spectrum of strategic possibilities in that spirit.

Possible range of criteria

Probability: Clearly at this point in time some possibilities may be viewed as more probable and others as less probable. Such evaluations may themselves change over time in the light of new appreciations of threat. In particular the financial crisis of 2008 offers lessons in the questionable value of methodological tools previously considered sound -- until they proved faulty. This is potentially a feature of many models.

Serendipity: Much is made of human ingenuity as a means of circumventing in the future the crises currently prediucted. Clearly discoveries may indeed be made that reframe the challenge in fruitful ways -- but necessarily (cf ). Whether it is human ingenuity, intervention by extraterrestrials or divine intervention, all such possibilities should at least be on the table -- especially given the credibility attached to them by some important constituencies.

"Misadventure": Despite claims and assumptions regarding good intentions, it is evident that crises can be triggered by various forms of human error, misunderstanding and miscommunication. An example is currently provided by analysis of the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers as the triggering effect for the subsequent fiinancial crash. The governments of the USA and the UK are currently asserting that the other was at fault for the miscommunication between them that failed to provide essential support at a criticla moment.

Malignancy: It would be unwise to preclude the possibility of rogue governments, rogue groups or other parties acting with malignant intent -- whether or not they would claim that intent to be in the best interests of human survival. The scenario has been frequently rehearsed in media dramatisations. Such intent may simply be "selfish" on the part of a particular group committed to a worldview justifying the vital need for its own survival irrespective of the consequences for others.

Transparency: Clearly initiatives may be formulated and implemented with varying degrees of transparency. This may be total, seeking a worldwide mandate, however effectively populations are claimed to have been consulted. Strategies may however be conceived and implemented covertly, without such consultation or any publicity concerning the intent, the manner of implementation or the associated risks. Current debate on geo-engineering options highlight this issue.

Risk-aversion: The credibility of strategies may be highly influenced by different tolerance of risk in the face of uncertainities, urgency and unproven outcomes. Again this consideration has been noted in relation to geo-engineering options.

Communicability: The nature of any risk and the viability of any proposed strategy may be inherently difficult to communicate, or be claimed to be such. This may allow the emergence of cliques which use this as a justififcwtion for limited transparency and the need to act without expected consultation, notably as with rogue groups.

Dependence on hope and prophecy: There is a marked tendency to depend on hope however it may be justified. In this respect it would be a major error to neglect the "end times" scenarios important to religious groups with a high degree of influence on faith-based governance in many countries. Such scenarios may provide for welcome outcomes for all or for only a selected number. Problematic aspects of such scenarios may in fact be welcomed as a necessary precursor to the welcome outcome. In practice this may mean that efforts to mitigate unwelcome conditions may be resisted and inhibited this process.

Reasonability: It is readily assumed that strategic initiatives will be undertaken on the basis of some commonly understood standard of what is reasonable. There is sufficient historical indication to suggest that this may well not be the case. Strategies may be undertaken unilaterally for reasons perceived elsewhere to be lacking in credibility.

Degree of democratic consensus: Whilst efforts may be made to see global consensus, perceived urgency may be such as to encourage questionable mandates -- as with the UN mandate for the intervention by the Coalition of the Willing in Iraq. The situation mahy be framed such that the need for such a mandate, or any broad-based consensus, is set aside.

Management of implementation: The track record for the implementation of successful strategies is not encouraging. The challenge will be greater if the strategy has limited support. As noted by the Financial Times with respect to research on the possibility of geo-engineering initiatives, the scientific and legal communities need to work out a code of practice and governance framework within which research can take place and, if the worst comes to the worst, technical fixes can be deployed (Cool engineering, 3 September 2009).

Possible forms of strategic action on population

Legal initiatives:

Economic initiatives:

Fiscal initiatives:

Geo-engineering intiatives:

Design and architectural linitiatives

Biological initiatives:

Genetic initiatives:

Communication initiatives: image reframing

Educational initiatives:

Military initiatives:

Inter-faith theological initiatives:

Varieties of inaction: withholding aid


Monitoring ****

different styles of opposition / support to initiatives -- requisite variety

what are the enabling institutuonal and insight gathering facilities -- Wiki etc

bullet biting implications

perceptual challenge of framings and image reframing

under the table issues, undermining the table


angelic assumptions


reflexive framing -- to include the modelling perspective -- avoid privileged perspective of modeller as opposed to that of those modelled and those to whom the model is presented

pre-empt and include critical perspectives -- kein gegenstand


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