Science fiction and fantasy                                            

The New North: The World In 2050

by Laurence C. Smith


Possibly the only certainty about the future is how uncertain it is. Laurence C. Smith approaches this problem by applying lots of different predictive models, as well as data from a range of scientific fields. The New North looks ahead to a world where northern countries are reshaped by climate change and trends in population, globalisation and the demand for natural resources. But just how different will 2050 be from the present?

Big, scary catastrophes on the horizon might sell books, but the author isn't playing the fearmongering game. Smith's forecasting is deliberately conservative. It's based on things like sophisticated climate models and known demographic patterns. He styles it a "thought experiment" and excludes the possibility of technological silver bullets coming along to fix mankind's troubles. This is a book where realism and facts win out over alarmist prophecies of doom.

Climate change is an important focus. A few degrees of greenhouse warming is taken as inevitable, something which there is a great deal of consensus on amongst scientists. How will this affect waters supplies, ocean currents, and farming, however? Will the Arctic ocean thaw enough to open up for shipping on a large scale? Will global warming melt the polar ice caps and drive polar bears and other northern species to extinction? The author considers these issues and more, and makes a clear analysis of the way warming is likely to affect the world, driven by the highest levels of atmospheric CO2 in 800 000 years.

But the changing climate is far from the book's only concern. It's linked to population growth and humanity's relentless pursuit of fossil energy, which in turn makes globalisation easier. These are examined in turn. Each one is likely to have a profound effect on the future, and they don't act in isolation. The far north is rich in fossil fuels and water, but empty of people. Laurence C. Smith looks at where we are now in terms of peak oil and at other fuel sources, extrapolating to predict where we're likely to be by the middle of the century. He also looks at peak water and the prospect of the arid southern USA having to pipe more of its water from the north.

The trouble is, there are so many factors shaping our planet's future. The author juggles admirably with the ones he has considered, but reality will always be more chaotic. The population forecasts point to a depressingly overcrowded world, but they assume that developing countries won't learn from the mistakes made by western countries in the past. The forecasts also don't take into account the possibility that a world population of 9.5 billion won't trigger a self-limiting crisis. For instance, overcrowding can lead to more deadly pandemics because pathogens don't need a mobile host to spread them around when people are packed together like sardines. Only time will tell how many people the Earth can support before it hits the buffers.

So the projections are quite conservative, and a passing meteor, a world war, a plague, or a massive volcano erupting or other surprise could come along and skew them completely. But dismissing the book's conclusions because of that would be rather like calling On the Origin of Species incomplete because it doesn't have enough apple pie recipes. It's not an oracle, but it is a goldmine of geographical information. There's as much about politics and economics as there is about science. It covers such things as the treatment of northern indigenous peoples and the history of Soviet Gulags. Smith paints a picture of northern countries on the brink of an economic resurgence, but he always does so with both feet planted firmly on the ground. He explains the problems of infrastructure and survival which will persist and even worsen in the hotter and more populous future that awaits us. This is a rigorous account of the way global change will impact the top of the world. It's written in an engaging style that brings out the human side of the epic changes mankind will face during the 21st century. It's the kind of book that should be on the curriculum for policy makers, science fiction writers, geography students and, well, everyone else as well.

12th April 2011

Book Details

Year: 2011

Categories: Books


If you like this, try:

Future Arctic cover    

Future Arctic by Edward Struzik
A detailed look at how the Arctic is changing and is likely to continue changing in response to politics, climate change, animal movements, and other ecological challenges.

The Knowledge cover    

The Knowledge by Lewis Dartnell
If humanity suffered an apocalypse, what would it take to rebuild civilisation from its ashes?

The Sixth Extinction cover    

The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert
We are in the middle of a mass extinction event, caused by the actions of mankind. This book tells the story so far, and examines how we are changing the biosphere.

5 star rating

Review © Ros Jackson