Notes from ‘Slowdown’ by Danny Dorling

This book begins by commenting on the current state of population growth, stating that over the past 160 years our numbers have doubled and almost doubled again; and stating that we will never see such a rise again. This is linked to the title by stating that slowdown (a word first used in the 1890s, meaning to go forward more slowly) affects far more than our rate of population growth. It affects almost every aspect of our lives – because so many of our current belief systems are built on assumptions of rapid future technological change and perpetual economic growth.

I found this book thought provoking, fascinating, and really interesting given the current context.

Key Notes

  • A slowdown in population does not necessarily mean immediate stability, but rather stability to come. Slowdown means that within a century the new global norm will be a slowly shrinking total planetary human population. (Pg. 4)
  • A child born today can expect to live to see the world’s human population shrink – with no disaster needed to bring that about. (Pg. 7)
  • A slowdown is upon us, and this is something to be very thankful for. The alternative- an ever-growing total human population, ever more economically divided societies, ever-greater consumption per head -would be a catastrophe. (Pg. 10)
  • Soon our descendants (or other people’s descendants) will look back at how we are now and ask why we could not see hte transformation that was underway. But, in our defence, it is worth remembering that when you are on a speeding train and the brakes are suddenly applied, you feel that you are being thrown forward. It is only when you look back that you see that you are no longer moving forward as quickly as before. (Pg. 15)
  • Stability does not mean always staying the same. Populations are likely to gently oscillate up and down each generation, more slowly shifting in size after gradually falling for some time following the peak. (Pg. 18)
  • The future rural idyll will depend on urban tourism, not self-sufficiency, but if tourism is well spread out, it need not spoil the idyll. It could even help make reality more like the myth. (Pg. 24)
  • People can easily think immigration is out of control both because they have too little information (“It is too early to say”) and because they are not looking at the information in the clearest way. (Pg. 26)
  • Ridiculous generalisations are repeatedly made concerning the pace of change. We are creating more data than ever, we are told: more information, more knowledge, all swelling in volume at unfathomable rates. Of course there is some truth in this claim, but nevertheless we have not in the past view decades actually discovered significantly more information than over the course of the rest of human history, but this phenomenon mirrors the introduction of new forms of duplication in the past. This time the quantity is much larger, but the shock is not necessarily any grater than before. (Pg. 64)
  • The deluge of new data and new ideas is now slowing down. However I measured it, from Wikipedia page entries to Dutch books to so much else, I have found no time series concerning data that is now still rising exponentially. Everything appears to be decelerating, even if still often going faster than before. (Pg. 85)
  • ‘For way too long the politicians and people in power have got away with not doing anything at all to fight the climate crisis and ecological crisis. But we will make sure that they will not get away with it any longer’ Greta Thunberg, 22 April 2019 (Pg. 89).
  • Between 1913 and 1920, annual global CO2 emissions dropped by 1 percent. The greatest fall had been in 1919, during and in the immediate aftermath of when the deadliest outbreak of influenza the world has ever known spread and the number of young adults fit enough to work in industry was severely reduced. The number shrank through illness more than through death, and because people buy much less when they are not well and earning, demand fell. The flue pandemic hit the young particularly hard, which might help explain why global carbon emissions fell by 14 percent between 1918 and 1919, bu then rose by 16 percent the next year after most of the sick had recovered. Influenza had a far greater effect on industry, production, and consumption than the First World War. (Pg. 103)
  • In October 2018 the IPCC produced a report on global warming. The report confirmed that if the additional carbon added to the additional carbon added to the atmosphere could be kept below 420 gigatons of CO2, then there was a 66 per cent change of keeping global temperature rises below 1.5 degrees Celsius. At the current rate of emissions, that total would be breached by 2013. If the rate of emissions were to continue to increase as it has been doing since 2015, then that limit will be exceeded earlier. In contrast, if action is taken now, the ate by which that limit was breached could be delayed… Climate and ecological protests are one of the few things not slowing down – along with the global rise in surface temperatures. (Pg. 119).
  • Almost everything is slowing down apart from one thing: the rise in temperature of the air around us. Even the rate of growth of CO2 emissions has, within most people’s living memory in some years and in some places been slowing, if not the total amounts of emissions themselves. (Pg. 120)
  • Only within the past five generations have global temperatures noticeably warmed. People born in the years between 1901 and 128 entered the world where on-land average temperatures were just four-thousandths of a degree celsius lower than the second generation. The second generation, people born between 1929 and 1955, experienced five-thousandths of a degree lower than the third generation. Generation X, born between 1956 and 1981, experienced six-thousandths of a degree. Generation Y, those born from 1982 to 2011 experienced temperature rise of fifteen-thousandths of a degree. Generation Z saw in just its first five years of existence an increase thrice as large as that experienced by the fourth. By the time the last members of the fifth generation are born, around the year 2042, the rise is expected to be far higher. (Pg 124-125)
  • By early 2016 it looked as if the global temperature might soon be completely out of control. Sea levels are currently about 130 meters higher than they were twenty thousand years ago. They have risen twenty-three centimetres since 1880 and are currently rising over three centimetres a decade. Increasing extreme weather events magnify the seriousness of ay sea level rise. Melting of all the ice caps and glaciers could potentially raise it by many tense of meters. Just one meter would be devastating for much of humanity. Have we entered a period of very dangerous ‘positive feedback’ as a result of changes that have already happened? (Pg 130)
  • It has been obvious for some time to a small group of demographers that the human population slowdown began many decades ago, but just how rapid that slowdown is has been apparent only more recently. This is true when people are counted across the globe as a whole, but the slowdown began even earlier in certain countries and especially when it comes to very low birth rates, within a few cities in those countries. (Pg141)
  • There are four areas of the world we have yet to discuss: the population in the sky which is still rising and reached over 1.3 million people, or two hundred thousand planes, in 2018; the population on ships, which has not been calculated; the population of Antarctica; and the population in space. Antarctica is home to just under one thousand people in winter and just under four thousand in summer. The international space station peaked at a population of thirteen in 2009. (Pg 179)
  • Fertility rates were falling through the 1998-2016 period when viewed as a worldwide total, but between 2001 and 2003, and then 2004 and 2006, they appeared to be falling more and more slowly. However, after 2014, the hesitant trend was no longer evident; the fall in fertility was again accelerating. (Pg 186)
  • A time is coming when rampant consumption will wane’ when it is recognised that wealth does not engender happiness, and that much advertising is designed to create jealousy; when the lives of most people will be improved by better organisation and cooperation, not by more competition; and when now understand that much that is enjoyable is free or virtually free – dramatically more so with the rise of the World Wide Web. Love, friendship, and caring preceded capitalism and will outlive it. Capitalism is a transition, not a steady state. The protesters of 1968 were simply ahead of their time. (Pg 215)
  • What matters most is that our fertility will soon reach two children per couple worldwide: it is already a reality for most people, and the rate is falling even faster and further in the world’s major cities. It may well, for a time, fall below two per couple worldwide for a generation or two or three. After that, we do not know. (Pg 230).
  • Capitalism may well come to an end with a whimper, not a bang. Feudalism came to an end almost everywhere when traders began to arrive and settle, using their capital to invest and their armies to impose. So, too, it is possible that capitalism is already being pushed out from certain parts of the world by governments that use money raised from taxation to invest and employ the rule of law to better the behaviour of the rich. At first, we will not see the change as that much different than what we had before. We may just tell ourselves that certain places have a more protective welfare state and are less entrepreneurial, although invention tends to be higher where there is more cooperation; we may say that these places have more of a tradition of supporting the rights of women, although this is a tradition that was hard won. We might argue that these trends have grown a little more strongly in particular cultures, but then we might also notice that, in general, the areas where these changes are happening are spreading.(Pg 236)
  • Geopolitics is about time as much as space. WE are currently learning more about our distant past than we have ever known. What is it possible for humans to be? Very recently a team of U.S.-based archaeologists working near Lake Turkana in Kenya discovered graves that led them to conclude that five thousand years ago, large groups of people once shared their workload without significant social hierarchy – successfully, generation after generation for centuries. (Pg 264)
  • The global economic slowdown is so great that the rich cannot carry on getting ever richer. In 1950 the worldwide average GDP per person rose by about $156 in today’s money, or by about 4.3 percent. By 2015 it rose by $158, or nearer to 1.6 percent a year – almost three times slower. And these snapshots are taking from the economists high points! (Pg 297).
  • Since live began on Earth, there have been five major mass extinction events. Some six out of seven of all the planet’s species died around 450 million years ago due to global cooling, then about 380 to 260 million years ago three-quarters were wiped out, probably due to multiple causes, including falling CO2 levels and climate cooling. About 250 million years ago there was again very rapid climate change, a five-degree warming, and only one species in every twenty survived. Some 200 million years ago the climate changed again and only one in five species on Earth survived, and then the last of the great vie mass extinctions occurred around 65 million years ago when an asteroid, six to nine miles wide, hit Earth, and three out of four of all species (including almost all of the dinosaurs) became extinct. Today we are just a few decades into the sixth and most rapid of all the mass extinctions. Humanity has had a worse effect on the biodiversity of the planet than a huge asteroid. However, at the very same time, we have shipped more surviving species around the planet than have ever travelled between the islands of the Earth so quickly before, and we may well be doing other things that will accelerate the appearance of new species. We have almost no idea of the repercussions of any of this. (Pg 302).
  • In 1903, in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, the first powered airplane took to the skies with a wingspan of twelve meters. Today the sky is full of monster planes, the largest objects that have ever flown – and inside them is us. They now transport 4 billion passengers every year, and thus far we show now signs of slowing down in our keenness for air travel, unless we become forced to do so by the introduction of new carbon taxes on flying. These taxes have already been instituted in Sweden and are now proposed for France. I suspect there will be many more in place in other countries before this book is printed. (Pg304)
  • Slowdown means goods lasting longer; it means less waste. It means that many of the things that we currently thinkg of as great social and environmental problems will not be problematic in future. WE will, of course, have new problems – most of which we cannot even imagine right now. And we will, of course, do things we have always done, adn that we did long before the great acceleration began, throughout it, and after it- enjoying friends, fun, family. What do you hope for in the future? (Pg 331)