Books: the future lies to the north

In The New North, Laurence Smith argues that global warming and other burdens could drive societies towards the pole, a region poorly equipped to cope with change. Crispin Tickell found the volume compelling.

The New North: The World in 2050
Laurence C Smith
Profile Books, 2011

We do not know what the world will look like in 2050. But it seems certain that the impact of one species – our own – will continue to increase. Also clear is that the burdens imposed by climate change, rising populations and diminishing natural resources will be spread unevenly. One possibility, therefore, is a movement of society in the northern hemisphere towards countries around the North Pole. This book examines why and how this might happen.

To make his case, Laurence Smith brings together much familiar information on current trends in demography, energy generation and our so-far-vain efforts to reduce dependence on fossil fuels. He is particularly interesting on the geography of the north, the ways in which the former Soviet Union exploited Siberia, the effects of the cold war (including what is described as the US occupation of western Canada) and the likely impacts of climate change.

Colouring the analysis is the author’s personal exploration of the ring of Arctic territories – including the US, Russia, Greenland, Canada, Norway, Sweden, Iceland and Finland – and his many contacts with the people living there. He shows how poorly equipped the north now is to cope with major change and he is respectful of the law of unintended consequences.

Many will agree on Smith’s central thesis. As far as we can foresee, the south from the equator northwards will be facing an unprecedented combination of problems: a possible population of more than nine billion; marked differences between rich and poor; political and economic instability; and climatic hazards, with new patterns of storm and drought threatening supplies of fresh water. So it seems reasonable to expect a push towards what look like greener prospects in the north.

There will also be a pull to develop natural resources – fossil fuels, water, land – that have hitherto been protected by harsh weather conditions. Already, the growth of cities is increasing demand for labour in the north; in some areas the indigenous population is now in the minority.

Nonetheless, the north would still not be all that attractive to live in: dark for a lot of the year, with less snow but more rain and a host of basic practical problems concerning food and energy. As for governance, we can only hope that the northern rim countries will work harder to resolve their overlapping territorial claims and fit whatever they can achieve into a global structure of agreements over the environment and international law.

This book is written with a mix of academic and populist style. There is a bit too much autobiography and partial use of evidence but the cumulative result is good – perhaps a little too simple but nonetheless compelling. The year 2050 is not now so far away. Let those who disagree come forward and make a different case. There is a lot for us to do in the meantime.

Sir Crispin Tickell is the former director of the policy foresight programme of the Oxford Martin School and a member of its advisory council.

Copyright © Sir Crispin Tickell 2011