January 06, 2011

Read These Now: New SciAm and NatGeo

Good issues to pick up, not just for my love of magazine names that are easy to abbreviate when I don’t have much time to type.

Starting with the current National Geographic, the cover story examines whether the world population – set to reach 7 billion sometime this year – can move toward a higher living standard without critically stressing the world’s resources. The article takes you through the basics of Malthus and Paul Ehrlich (the earth can only take so much pressure on resources without igniting conflict). For anyone who doesn’t follow world population trends much (a camp I’m not too far from myself) it provides a great primer on what you should know: the current trends of population growth are set to continue for a few more decades before leveling off; most of the growth is in developing countries; and China’s birth rate has been declining for years due to its one-child policy.

The article focuses largely on India, which is still within its high-growth period. But what’s most notable in terms of security and stability is not mentioned in the text at all. On pages 50-51 the magazine provides a cartogram sizing each country by its population for 1960 and for 2011. Russia is tiny, with some of the lowest population growth in the world. Recall that Russia is also one of the world’s top reserve holders and transit route-controllers for petroleum and natural gas, and will be for decades to come. More than the need for economic growth to reduce poverty in the high-population India and China, how trends will emerge with Russia given its disparity between people and resources is a big, huge unanswered question.

(Our friends over at New Security Beat do the best work on thinking through demographic-resource linkages, so I’ll send you to them for more extensive reading if this article piques your interest for further info.)

Next, there are two good and quick reads in the January Scientific American. First is an interview with the often-controversial energy-focused venture capitalist Vinod Khosla. His focus is on “radical” innovation rather than marginally improving technology. No surprise given that he’s a VC. What’s notable is that he’s not focused on hydrogen or methanol or the other more commonly-considered “breakthrough”-type technologies. No, he thinks we need dramatic overhauls to infrastructure and for technologies in common use that could gain major efficiencies. His big examples (and current investments) include automobile engines and air conditioning, and infrastructure materials like cement and glass.

This issue also has a great set of graphics and blurbs on "Casualties of Climate Change."  The authors examine the effects of climate change already observable in 3 countries for hints at how their regions will be affected, focusing on population displacement and migration. This is a short and easy read.  Note the choice to include the Mekong Delta region, which is popping up in sea level rise studies more frequently these days.