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The South Asian Polycrisis

The South Asian Polycrisis

98 comments

·September 23, 2022

lvturner

I was hoping to find this in the first paragraph or so, but ended up looking elsewhere -- hopefully this helps those who are as apparently unaware as I:

"A global polycrisis occurs when crises in multiple global systems become causally entangled in ways that significantly degrade humanity's prospects. These interacting crises produce harms greater than the sum of those the crises would produce in isolation, were their host systems not so deeply interconnected"

https://cascadeinstitute.org/technical-paper/what-is-a-globa....

buscoquadnary

I appreciate the definition at first I thought this had to do with some sort of interaction between Southeast Asians and the Polynesians.

jonny_eh

Or they were lacking in polymaths

CountSessine

Thanks for this. My first suspicion was that it had something to do with crypto.

refurb

This seems like a definition that isn’t really needed?

EdwardDiego

Seems like you'd be wrong.

refurb

Please explain? We'd had multiple, interdependent crises in the past, but apparently, until now, we were ok just calling them "multiple crises".

What changed?

sn41

While I share the general concern about climate change, talk of population collapse in South Asia is all too familiar to be taken seriously at face value. In fact: life in South Asia has slowly been improving since Independence. Before independence, famines involving millions of deaths were common [1]. The one called "Chalisa Akaal" was particularly devastating. [2]

In the 75 years since independence from Britain, IIRC there has been only one major famine in either India, Bangladesh and Pakistan taken together, the 1970 famine in Bangladesh just prior to the 1971 war. Green revolution has been a great boon.

Doom and gloom about an overpopulated South Asia is common. On the other hand, perhaps the reason why the region is so populated is that it has historically been very conducive for human habitation even using very low technology.

Where I believe most predictions have got it wrong is the ability of humans to adapt. I hope with John McCarthy, that science and sense will be able to overcome such dire crises. [3]

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Famine_in_India

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chalisa_famine

[3] http://jmc.stanford.edu/commentary/progress/index.html

rayiner

Life in Bangladesh has completely transformed even since I lived there in the mid 1980s. My dad laments that it’s too crowded and kids in his village don’t know what it’s like to take a boat to school anymore during monsoon, but progress has happened rapidly.

Energy is the critical thing. We don’t have space for wind mills and solar panels. I’d love to see Pan-Asian cooperation on nuclear. Regrettably, I think all that will have to happen through alignment with China. The west is captured by Malthusian thinking, and their solution is “less brown people,” not “more energy, more infrastructure, more production.”

prottog

> The west is captured by Malthusian thinking

It's been almost 200 years since Malthus's passing and the human population has octupled since then, so you'd think that most people would give him less credence, but you're right those ideas seem more popular than ever.

I keep on repeating on this forum that the way out is through, with better technology allowing us to consume more energy per capita, not less. There is no freezing or turning back the clock without the suffering of billions.

onlyrealcuzzo

Read A Farewell to Alms.

Malthus's thinking was objectively correct up to the time of writing. He just made & recorded the observations at almost exactly the wrong time, right before the trend reversed, during the industrial revolution.

I'm not claiming that we have reached a new era where - once again - growing population = worse living conditions.

But there are a lot of good arguments WRT to limits on fossil fuel extraction, physical limitations on technological progress, etc...

Light bulbs can't get much more efficient. Neither can electricity transmission. Energy generation still has a healthy amount to improve. Maybe there's enough progress left to be made for the population to double again.

But the idea that the population could be near infinite on this planet and that would only lead to more progress and better living conditions is laughable.

There's clearly some limit.

My crystal ball isn't working. I don't know if we've passed it, or are even close to it...

tarakat

The World Lost Two-Thirds Of Its Wildlife In 50 Years. We Are to Blame - https://www.npr.org/2020/09/10/911500907/the-world-lost-two-...

> There is no freezing or turning back the clock without the suffering of billions.

Do you believe developed countries with below-replacement fertility are suffering? Or does "turning back the clock" refer to something other than population shrinkage?

foobarian

> and their solution is “less brown people,” not “more energy, more infrastructure, more production.”

Sadly (or ironically?) the solution might be "less people" through "more energy infrastructure and production." I.e. development for whatever reason seems to drive population growth down, to the point where most of the west is losing population.

ElevenLathe

This is the absolute best-case scenario for humanity: advancing technology allows us to develop the poor parts of the world with green energy and stabilize population voluntarily rather than through a series of apocalyptic wars and famines. As far as nature goes, the market will clear one way or another (unless we destroy the biosphere entirely and turn Earth into Venus).

tarakat

> The west is captured by Malthusian thinking, and their solution is “less brown people,”

Ironic then that brown people is the only group still growing in the west then:

America’s white population declined for the first time [..] Meanwhile, there was significant growth among minority groups over the last decade. - https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2021/aug/12/us-2020-cens...

enraged_camel

>> The west is captured by Malthusian thinking, and their solution is “less brown people,”

Not sure why you believe this. Antinatalist and child-free movements have exploded in popularity in the west.

cercatrova

Let's also not forget that the Indian subcontinent will be too hot to feasibly live in in the next 50 to 100 years. As someone who came from there, there is no way I'd go back to live in India given that fact alone, not to even mention any others.

FlyingSnake

Doomsday predictions about millions dying in India is an age old trope since 1947. You could find such tropes in "Moon is the harsh Mistress" or "Le Camp des Saints" which sounded like the doomsday scenarios being talked about in this very thread.

While I understand that the climate change will hit India hard, (I witnessed it this summer personally), I still think we should not be quick to jump to assuming the destitution of millions as if it was a simple matter of statistics.

I have faith in science, human resilience and ingenuity and I tend to believe that the future doesn't have to be so grim and humans will find a way.

signal11

> Doomsday predictions about millions dying in India is an age old trope since 1947

I agree a lot of these scenarios are 'doomsday', but the risk is real and hard to plan for / budget.

You're effectively fighting history (Indus Valley and its history with climate change), and human biology -- you cannot be outside when wet bulb > 35 C even if you're fully healthy. For older / less-well people, > wet bulb 31 C can be a problem. And India will be very middle-aged by 2040 with an increasing older population.

You're also fighting greed. Bangalore was told, repeatedly, that building apartments in flood plains wasn't smart. The message was ignored. Heck, even after the recent floods, it's unlikely this policy will change. India has a construction boom right now -- this is happening elsewhere too.

Managing these within budgetary constraints and the large population impacted will be challenging. It's not doomsday by any means -- e.g. the Konkan coast will probably be fine. But what happens when Vidarbha (already relatively poor and home to extremely cruel summers) gets worse -- can we stop people from migrating en masse? How will you stop millions of people internally migrating in a country with no border controls?

How this gets worse: Forget about en masse migrations. That's doomsday you say. Okay. But even a small uptick in migration figures will have massive consequences for already-overstretched Indian cities.

> I have faith in science, human resilience and ingenuity and I tend to believe that the future doesn't have to be so grim and humans will find a way.

Faith is great, but India hasn't invested in good urban planning or healthcare (the scenes in small-town India in early 2021 come to mind). To be fair, many other countries haven't either.

So the pessimist in me says that a Katrina-style or 2022 Pakistan-style floods event can be especially traumatic for such countries.

toss1

Well before the '08 financial crisis, I started noticing that whenever I looked at the world through the lens of science and innovation, the future looked insanely bright, but whenever I looked through the lens of politics, it looks like we're sooo screwed.

The next decade and a half, with the rise of authoritarianism and populism, and the clear and miserable failure of the Grand Experiment — that openness and trade would bring liberal democracy to authoritarian states like RUS and CCP — merely make it even more obvious that governance is forked, and not in a good way.

Overall, it looks like the technology trend is from 1) barely possible, to 2) scaled up and dirty, to 3) scaled up, efficient, clean, and sustainable. We're sort of moving from Stage 2 to Stage 3.

But, can we get there in time? The disaster is already upon us, faster than expected, and there are a number of tipping points and feedback loops just starting to come into play (e.g., lower reflectance at the poles, melting permafrost set to release gigatons of stored methane which is ~22x more potent a greenhouse gas than CO2, etc.).

The politics are obviously decades behind where they need to be, and the VC money is only beginning to see the opportunity in clean energy after focusing for decades on worthless internet trends instead of real hard innovation. Will it still be enough for some breakthrough as the mountain we must climb becomes even steeper?

kiliantics

If you looked through the lens of science for the last few decades, you would also have seen a growing alarm over the climate/ecological crisis that has been developing, evidence for which was well established since the 70s and earlier. Not insanely bright if you ask me but actually pretty bleak really and nowadays down right abysmal.

dsr_

Humans have trouble finding a way to live in wet-bulb temperatures above 36C. Being in the shade and properly hydrated is not enough.

bryanlarsen

Humans thrive in Houston which has a similar problem. They thrive through pervasive air conditioning and spending very little time outside.

It's a crappy solution for many different reasons but it does seem to be the direction we're heading.

mschuster91

> I have faith in science, human resilience and ingenuity and I tend to believe that the future doesn't have to be so grim and humans will find a way.

Unfortunately, if humanity wants to prevent that outcome, we would have to start doing massive changes now.

Relying on "humanity will find a way to work around in 30 years" is foolish, simply because when the expected progress doesn't happen in this time frame, humanity in 30 years is going to have to commit much more effort and resources than if current humanity would start now.

s5300

What do you think will happen to the bulk of the population in this time?

cercatrova

Those who are rich enough (or those who seek asylum and are accepted) will leave, and those who are not able to leave will literally roast alive. We are already seeing this today [0], so in 50 to 100 years, the temperatures will be such that no human will be able to live there anymore.

[0] https://www.worldweatherattribution.org/climate-change-made-...

jl6

I would imagine that a catastrophic and sustained rise in temperatures would disrupt agriculture, reducing food production to the point where people starve to death before they roast to death. And in practice people don't just sit there and starve to death - they migrate, with the cooperation of other nations or not.

A lot depends on the rate at which migrants arrive, and where they go. If the migration is towards northern Asia, spread out over 100 years, with only a few tens of thousands arriving each day, Russia will probably be able to manufacture bullets in sufficient quantity. If 1.5 billion Indians descend all at once, nothing will be able to stop them.

These are extreme outcomes. There are so many other possibilities that could be negotiated. Perhaps India will gain economic leverage through exporting solar power, and be able to strike a deal to resettle some of its migrant population elsewhere.

s5300

Do you think we’ll actually see 500mil+ die in India directly from heat & heat related issues in the next 100 years?

I’m very much starting to think we may, but I’m at least hoping they may be able to save themselves from catastrophe via nuclear energy & engineering.

addicted

People will migrate to other countries or other parts of their own countries leading to war and strife.

You can already see this happening in parts of Africa.

winReInstall

They will try to migrate northwards - right into hostile neighbours (china or pakistan), which will escalate into conflict. Regional nuclear exchange.

mellavora

Well, obviously they will do the responsible thing and clean up all their hazardous wastes before they migrate north.

godmode2019

1 degree isn't really going to do very much is it?

That's the current best estimate for warming in the time period you are suggesting.

India has a bigger problem with feeding it's population which is likely to be the biggest in the world by that point.

To suggest to the most populated place in the world in 2050 will have no people is hyperbolic.

The gates foundation has the best estimates on this topic and their estimates also suggest growth in the region.

hikingsimulator

Thinking about climate change as an increase of mean temperature is misleading. And this is such a case.

While the mean temperature rises, e.g. by 1 centigrade, you have to account for variance increasing too.

India might become unlivable not because the mean temperature rises, but because extreme, deadly events will become standard during certain periods of the year.

godmode2019

You are changing the goalpost making a hyperbolic statement seem reasonable. Read what they said, its borderline hysteric.

You are agreeing with it not on the merits but on the premises.

kortilla

People live in Phoenix. It has extreme deadly events every summer. Boston has extreme deadly events in the winter.

Get a heat pump or an air conditioner and move on.

viraptor

The estimate is for climate and is a world average. The actual weather is expected to get more extreme on both ends, so that means India is looking at higher temperature swings up in the summer. No citations because I'm on a phone but they're not hard to find.

hackerlight

People die from 99th percentile heatwaves, not mean changes.

braindead_in

> And India’s steps to secure its food supplies by limiting first wheat and sugar and now rice exports have sent shock waves through the global food economy.

I wonder if the farm reforms which was later revoked could have made it much easier for India to handle the food crisis. It was one of the most significant reforms enacted, but Modi was forced to back down. But looks like there'll be no choice left but to push it through if the situation worsens.

unmole

> I wonder if the farm reforms which was later revoked could have made it much easier for India to handle the food crisis.

How? If anything liberalised agriculture would have incentivised growing crops other than rice and wheat.

omegalulw

Crop rotation is agriculture 101 at this point. A diversity in crops being grown could very well lead to higher yields overall, including that of rice and wheat, even if they are not grown as often.

unmole

Rice and wheat are seasonal. Crop rotation is already baked into the Rabi-Kharif cycle. The idea that reducing acerage will lead to higher yields is wishful thinking.

testemailfordg2

Crisis in India & China could be the deciding factors for a polycrisis. People can easily sideline the weightage of this factor, by pointing to their low per capita GDP when compared to other western & developed countries. Covid has shown that if factories in China are closed while the world is open, theb there would be inflation across the world because of decrease in supply. The fuel to this fire of inflation would be food export bans from countries like India, which have more than a billion to feed first and additonaly war in countries like Ukraine and Russia, further impacting food production / logistics around it.

concordDance

It's annoying how the rhetorical "one third of Pakistan underwater" has been repeated as fact even though a quick glance at a topological map shows that to be impossible for values of "underwater" that mean "comes up to your ankles at least".

EdwardDiego

How is that impossible according to topology?

Maybe there's some context like "1/3rd of the bits where people live is underwater".

Like, my country is roughly the same size as Germany. But the relevant context is "but 90% of our landmass is hills or mountains, so only 10% of our land is actually inhabited"

So yeah, 1/3 of what...

refurb

Never let eyeballs you grab during a crisis go to waste (not see an ad).

paganel

Industry is shutting down all over Europe [1] but no-one yet talks about a "poly-crisis" around these parts, it's like we're sleepwalkers, all it's fine as longs as we don't actively talk about it. And who-ever protests the causes behind it is labeled as a left-winger or right-winger (or both at the same time), and called an ally of Putin.

I had expected Tooze to also write about it, after all the book that made him famous, The Wages of Destruction [2] (which I heartily recommend, I've just finished reading it), touched heavily on the Nazis' quest for energy resources. This time around Europe decided to cut itself off from said energy resources out of its own volition, never read of anything like that happening before in the context of a war.

[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2022/09/19/business/europe-energy-cr...

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Wages_of_Destruction

tuatoru

> Industry is shutting down all over Europe [1] but no-one yet talks about a "poly-crisis" around these parts...

The core of Europe is not suffering from extreme political dysfunction and crippling inability to export enough to pay interest on foreign debt. Yes,it has had heatwaves, droughts, and floods, but not on the same scale as South Asia's.

Europe's crisis is food and fuel prices, not famine, epidemic diseases, and transport and industrial paralysis (anecdotes notwithstanding). Not nearly the same.

The polycrisis is poly because it combines economic, political, physiological (medical/food), environmental, and infrastructural (power, transport fuel) crises.

yodelshady

Europe's crisis is wholly self-induced; a deliberate decision to switch off in favour of coal (Germany), or defund (France), or delay replacement of (UK) nuclear power stations in a region with cold dark winters and not the almost embarrassing excess of oil of Canada/Texas/Russia/Venezuela.

That's it. A power grid cannot be allowed to fail and no financially credible projects to store the required amount of energy (minimum, tens of TWh) exist, so renewables in such an environment have left us wholly dependent on gas. Nuclear fuel can be stockpiled, wind simply cannot, again at the required scale. If you think it can be within the next 30 years you're an idiot, a liar or a data scientist, it's that simple.

And yes, I've been to engineering conferences in EU where almost the entire topic now is "how do we minimise the damage from unreliable power". It takes zero financial acumen to realise the capital cost of the plant is not decreasing, the output is, and the best case is a reduction in output proportional to the interruption in power. That is the best case, much more frequent is a far greater loss of product. Quite a few people, myself included, were visibly on the verge of crying, because the writing is on the fucking wall. Quite honestly, the Energiewenders do not seem to give a shit, nor do they seem to about Germany's reversion to coal, a move that permanently make's Europe's position on the world stage re climate change laughable.

This is not a Russia-induced crisis - comedy shows were mocking the certainty of Putin using gas as a weapon fifteen years ago. This is entirely self-induced.

mschuster91

France didn't defund their nuclear industry, quite to the contrary, and neither did the Brits.

The problem is that the EPR is a fundamentally flawed design that led to serious time and budget overruns wherever it was attempted - Flamanville, Olkilouto, Hinkley Point C, Taishan all have fallen victim to that.

Additionally, you are completely ignoring that nuclear plants need cooling - and the lack of said cooling water is what has been impacting France and Switzerland as well over the last weeks.

> A power grid cannot be allowed to fail and no financially credible projects to store the required amount of energy (minimum, tens of TWh) exist, so renewables in such an environment have left us wholly dependent on gas. Nuclear fuel can be stockpiled, wind simply cannot, again at the required scale. If you think it can be within the next 30 years you're an idiot, a liar or a data scientist, it's that simple.

There are alternatives: Pumped hydro for storage, battery parks for ultra-short-term demand smoothening (like the Tesla battery park in Australia), bio-mass/bio-gas as fuel for burner plants (think of cow dung, sewage sludge, household bio waste and the likes), electric cars as distributed energy storage units, or simply a massive overbuild of renewable electricity generation and trans-European UHV distribution networks to get, say, wind power from the Portuguese coast to the German industry in the Ruhrpott - China already does similar distances ffs.

Additionally, it's high time to make the demand side smart as well: big consumers like aluminium smelters or parts of the chemical industry could be converted to dynamically react to the power available on the grid, extremely large consumers could be placed on seasonal holidays (e.g. during winter), and large consumers could also finally take the money in their hands and invest into energy efficiency so they don't need as much energy any more. A shocking amount of industry equipment is three decades or even older!

And finally: Right now the European electricity grid has almost zero real-time visibility. The "smart meters" we have are bullshit, they're just used once a year and all "advantage" they have over the old Ferraris wheel meters is that they have an LCD - for a truly smart grid, grid operators need a live feed of who is consuming or producing what amount of energy and what the exact load conditions of grid-side equipment like sub-district transformers are.

EdwardDiego

Your post is great, but I'm not sure about the aluminium smelters being dynamic - IIRC once they deactivate a pot, it's done, it can't be reactivated.

Manuel_D

> Additionally, you are completely ignoring that nuclear plants need cooling - and the lack of said cooling water is what has been impacting France and Switzerland as well over the last weeks

No, it's restrictions on river temperature. https://www.reuters.com/business/energy/warming-rivers-threa...

Not to mention nuclear plants can be cooled by sea water or by waste water.

I don't think you appreciate the scale of energy storage. The world uses 2.5 TWh of electricity every hour. And electricity is less than half of total energy use. And as countries develop these figures are going to rise, not shrink.

If your solution involves shutting down industry because of insufficient energy production, then that's going to have a cascading effect of making good more expensive, and making products using those gooda more expensive. It may very well be that nuclear is cheaper than renewables when the cost of economic shutdowns due to insufficient energy are taken into account.

EdwardDiego

You were on the verge of tears over a lack of nuclear? Did I read that correctly?

Manuel_D

If the US continued to build nuclear plants at the same pace it did in the 1960s and 70s we'd have reached 100% nuclear generation by 2010. The world would be in a much better place.

bryanlarsen

The European crisis will likely end up making them stronger.

- They're not just making themselves independent from Russian gas & oil, they're making themselves independent of American and Middle Eastern gas & oil too. The resulting price stability will provide massive benefits down the road.

- Wind & Solar energy costs up front but has 0 fuel cost and little maintenance cost. Energy at essentially 0 marginal cost is going to pay dividends for a long time...

- The Ukraine crisis has united Europe like hasn't been seen since the end of WW2.

This winter will suck, but if Europe can stick together until spring, they'll be well positioned for the future.

2-718-281-828

What would be a realistic prognosis for Thailand and its peninsula?

winReInstall

Singapore approach, basically arcology with a local state alliance to protect a comon border?

hunglee2

the petro-dollar system really screws energy importers - an interest rate hike from the Fed is an economic Godzilla, a random event which turns up to casually destroy the entire country

rejor121

China has been going through something similar. The river is drying up due to no rain. Electricity black outs has forced factories to shut down by government decree.

winReInstall

Jared Diomands: Collapse comes to mind, were island nations that overpopulated were taken down by a crisis of dependency.