Surviving in the 21st Century
Evolution on earth, which for billions of years had been in the hands of nature, is now in human hands and proceeding at breakneck speed. But unlike nature, which has built-in mechanisms that allow it to recover its equilibrium, man so far has shown no signs of controlling the urge to exploit the planet. The results of our rapacity are clear: the destruction of ocean resources and the depletion of land resources— from tropical forests to top soil. The science and even the technology needed to create a better, more affluent world already exists. But if humans allow change to slip out of control, the ‘momentum trend’ as the author calls it, will make catastrophe inevitable and our children and grandchildren will inherit a planet that is unlivable.
James Martin is not widely known in India though he is arguably the world’s foremost technology expert with a record of identifying emerging trends and their social impact. He predicted the Internet and its impact long before personal computers became available. He has a special talent for spotting and analyzing epoch making developments hidden in a maze of confusing detail. At the same time he is anything but utopian.
The book is in four parts of which the first is of the greatest interest, especially for India. The central argument he makes is that though the world is in a crisis, solutions exist if humans are prepared to kick old habits like burning fossil fuels. It comes as a surprise to learn that much of the technology needed to replace fossil fuels as the main source of energy already exists. The problem here is the lobbying power of the oil and coal industry and bad government policies. Other experts have also noted this.
Among new energy technologies, he mentions two— fuel cells and pebble-bed nuclear reactors; these are to nuclear reactors what personal computers are to mainframes. They are completely safe and have the additional virtue of releasing hydrogen as byproduct which can be used in fuel cells. He also makes the tantalizing statement that a new kind of “hot” fusion reactor has been invented which may soon be marketed by a company. It will be quite different from the experimental reactors being built at great expense by researchers.
According to Martin the major challenge before us is not energy but the rapid deterioration of land and ocean resources, and bad policy. Oceans are being fished at such a reckless rate that many species of edible fish may soon become extinct. Indiscriminate industrial pollution has turned the once idyllic Black Sea into a stagnant pool devoid of marine life. In 1995 alone, $124 billion were spent to catch $70 billion worth of fish. The difference was made up in government subsidies. There are now “twice as many fishing boats as are needed for the entire world’s sustainable fish catch” and this at a time when fish populations are declining alarmingly.
With regard to looming food shortages, Martin debunks Amartya Sen’s influential 1981 study claiming that poverty rather than food shortages is what causes famines, and that modern famines are due to armed conflicts rather than crop failures. This was before global warming was understood. According to Martin this “comforting popular wisdom of the Nobel Prize winner has given governments a false sense that no action is needed.” The reality is that the Green Revolution is sputtering while simultaneously reducing biodiversity by focusing on just a few efficient varieties. “Global warming will slowly reduce the farmers’ yield in many areas; in certain countries where farming is already difficult, climate change will wreak havoc on food production.” Indian leaders should pay attention to it.
It is sobering to see expert opinions on population projections and how greatly we have exceeded Earth’s carrying capacity. A theme that runs through the book is improving the lot of women. “It is a fortunate fact that we can lower fertility rate by increasing the quality of life of women.” If we neglect it, the explosion of the population bomb is only a matter of time. Technology alone will not reverse the present destructive trend.
James Martin is no prophet of doom. He presents two scenarios: what we would like to see happen and what is likely to happen if we do nothing. He also provides policy alternatives to make the planet livable.
In summary, The Meaning of the 21st Century is a book that every thinking Indian, especially every policy maker should study with close attention.