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Apocalypse Now!

March 05, 2004 14:59 IST

For all those who have been worrying about what will happen in 2050, I have a good news, bad news story. The good news is that you don't have to worry about whether India will be a major economic success story. The bad news is that we will all be practically extinct by then because of global warming. Or so it appears from a purported secret report from the Pentagon, commented on by The Observer, thanks to a tip from a reader with the fanciful name of skilful-lover.

Well, I guess the really good news then is that it doesn't matter how much we screw up the environment till then. I am reminded of James Watt, a fundamentalist Christian member of Ronald Reagan's cabinet, who, as Interior Secretary, urged the Bureau of Land Management (during his tenure alternatively known as the Bureau of Logging and Mining) to feel free to rape and pillage the land and rivers and forests. His reasoning: in 2000 CE, the world is supposed to end anyway, so what me worry?

I wonder if this latest report is along the same lines. It also reminds me of the periodic doomsday cult prediction of the end of the world. These appear regularly in the US, which is full of loony cults. I don't remember reading about many end-of-the-world scenarios lately: the last one was the Heaven's Gate cult some years ago, which believed that the comet Hale-Bopp would take them to heaven or something along those lines.

I know I shouldn't take these dire predictions about environmental issues too lightly. I too have personally been concerned about water issues, specifically the availability of drinking water. The plan by the Chinese to divert the Brahmaputra in Tibet is what I consider a national security threat to India of the highest order: a matter of life and death.

Similarly, as someone who has lived much of his life on the coast, I have seen the ravages of sea erosion even in normal times. If the sea level rises even a little, most coastal cities will be unlivable, and there will be mad scrambles for higher ground. Those who occupy desirable pieces of real estate, especially those that sustain food production, are likely to turn them into fortresses. This is the assumption in all those post nuclear war movies such as the Mad Max saga or even Waterworld, where of course there is no land.

As for my friend M who dreams of buying an island and turning it into a resort, maybe this is not exactly the right time to do that. She is really serious about it: I got an SMS from her on the subject while I was writing this. Really, M, maybe some second thoughts are in order?

The alleged Pentagon report is alarming, and quite Malthusian in content: it claims that we have already exceeded the carrying capacity of the planet. Perhaps. And their predictions are for the immediate future: 'as early as next year,' it says widespread flooding due to global warming will cause millions to be at risk.

India, alas, is dismissed with the following statement: 'Riots and conflicts tear apart India, South Africa, and Indonesia.' Well, we know how war-like Indians are. So much for our dreams about economic and military superpowerdom.

Apparently parts of Europe will turn really cold, parts of the US, especially in the breadbasket Midwest, will turn much hotter, and there might be Dust Bowl like symptoms as the topsoil is carried away by hot, dry winds. Fortress Europe will be swamped by boat people from Africa. Rather a grim picture, indeed.

While I am not yet convinced about these cataclysms apparently causing new war game scenarios to be cranked up at the Pentagon, I have been concerned about the state of environmental degradation in India. Bangalore, my favourite city, is of course blessed: the city's elevation will spare it from being submerged by the sea, a fate that awaits coastal people: goodbye, Mumbai, goodbye Chennai, goodbye Kerala, goodbye most of Bangladesh.

Yet Bangalore's climate has changed noticeably for the worse in the last few years: much more dusty, much more polluted, much warmer; it is no longer so pleasant, even though it is still better than any other large city in India. Much of this has to do with emissions from internal combustion engines, as elsewhere in the world: San Francisco's persistent brown smog is another example.

So if there is to be any hope of slowing global warming, there must be alternatives to petroleum and coal based energy. Maybe this is just the push that will get US defense laboratories to accelerate their programs on solar energy. I have long felt that the West has deliberately slowed down work on low-cost amorphous silicon because that technology would give those in the tropics the great advantage of energy security.

I also read in The New York Times about 'sonofusion': a novel way to use ultrasound to create fusion reactions. One of the scientists is Rusi Taleyarkhan, a professor at Purdue and at Oak Ridge National Labs. He is an IIT Madras product, and maybe if this works out, there will be a Nobel Prize in Physics for him. That would be great, for it is absolutely original work. I wish him lots of luck on the Nobel.

That is, if the world lasts until then.

Comments welcome at


Rajeev Srinivasan