Sunday, 23 September 2012

140,000? I Don't Believe It!

This week saw the shallowest piece of journalistic sensationalism in Jersey for years. The Jersey Evening Post ran a front page headline that the local population was officially expected to rise to 140,000. (a 45% increase on current levels, for any non-local readers) Shocking, indeed, but then a few moments of reading on makes it clear that the figure is actually a prediction of what another 70 years like the last 10 would lead to.

The shocking thing then moves from being the vast figure to the absurd incompetence of the government statisticians, who thought this worth calculating and officially reporting. The last time in history that European civilisation went 80 years without any major social, economic or climatic upheaval must have been the 13th Century. The last 60 years have been a time of especially rapid changes. However, transformative changes are essentially short term processes. Any statistics about their effects will follow either peaked curves or S curves ramping up or down to a new level. The new levels are determined by the completion of the process, though, and it is a meaningless folly, that a professional statistician ought to be above, to calculate as if a change can continue beyond its own completion.

So much for the principle. What of the substance, that I can greet the report with a sneer for its writers instead of horror at its conclusions? The first question is, of course, where would half as many people again live? This is probably the most widely cited objection to the report's validity, but actually the weakest. With a little compromising of living standards, we could at least house 140,000 mainly in existing stock, (so long as sea levels rise slowly enough to replace coastal settlements with developments on high ground) and certainly with three generations to adapt. Singletons living alone in small flats is a very recent norm, and it would not go against the grain of human nature to return to long-proven practices of grown children staying at home, or sharing with fellow bachelors or spinsters. We could easily occupy our existing housing at much higher density than we now do, and in a worsening economy, will likely find motivation to do so. Increasing the load on other infrastructure is more problematical, though. To maintain the current standard of medical care for a population unlikely to be substantially healthier, especially since the 20th Century's hard-won knowledge about nutrition is being sidelined into a subject for crackpots, will require a much larger hospital for a start. Then there is the re-engineering of the drainage system to dispose of half as much foul sewage again. Some commentators worry about the capacity of our roads to handle that kind of increase in traffic, but I think there are more global reasons why we are already most of the way through the Age of the Car, and in even 20 years time bikes and buses will have reclaimed the streets. And so for all the infrastructure; between enlargements at the upgrades that another 70 years will inevitably require, and more intensive use, we can be ready for so many people by the time we have them. If we have them, which I very much doubt.

The 140,000 prediction ignores all sorts of constraints that any realistic forecasting and contingency planning must allow for. The world of 2082 is necessarily going to differ from ours in many ways. Despite the inclination of some to disbelieve the signs as a macho exhibition of mind over matter, global warming, from the smoke we are making to live our lives as we do now, will have changed the world, and for the worse for many people, even if we cannot yet see which unlucky numbers will come up on the dice. The present baby boom of many poor third-world countries will have grown old and be dying off in another 70 years, and it is improbable that they will themselves raise enough healthy children through decades of failing harvests to maintain the exponential growth with another baby boom of their own.

The capping of global population, by inescapably finite food supply, will then break the current growth-driven model of globalised capitalism, if it has not already been politically dismantled for its social failings. Thus, any local economy that is based in the short-term on servicing contemporary global capitalism must face a very different future, be it failure or profound change, as the present just will not last for 70 more years. This is the real rub. I simply do not believe that Jersey will be able to provide livings to 140,000 people in 70 years time. It could not do so now, and it is improbable that what we euphemistically like to call the Finance Industry will be able to operate on anything like its present scale in even 20 more years.

Without work, many residents will be unable to stay, and so the population will fall. A collapsed post-Finance economy may become a cheap place to do business and attract some re-immigration, but the great boom of recent decades will not come again, and Jersey will never support a tenth of a million permanent residents.