‘The Beautiful Ones’ trilogy comprising Chosen, Torn and United, was published on 15 June by O.M. Faure, a Principal of SAMI Consulting. Since publication it has become #1 in Dystopian Fiction, #1 in Action Adventure Travel, #1 in Political thrillers, #1 in Time Travel on the Amazon Best Seller lists. We brought together O.M. Faure with David Lye, SAMI Fellow and Director, to talk about demographics, climate collapse and populism – and on bringing foresight into fiction. The discussion was moderated by SAMI Fellow Jonathan Blanchard Smith.
JBS: Olfa, David, welcome. Let’s start by talking about ‘The Beautiful Ones’.
OMF: It’s a series of novels written using real data, and scientific forecasts. My aim was to spark debate and propose ideas to the reader but I wanted to do it in the form of a thriller in order to make it easy to imagine that future, easy to digest the concepts and easy to relate emotionally to the issues that face us.
In ‘The Beautiful Ones’, the reader is plunged into 2081, and alongside the heroes, they discover a world with 14bn humans on earth. The global overpopulation has caused water and food shortages, and that future is starting to tip into civil unrest, coupled with environmental catastrophe.
JBS: And I note that Paul Ehrlich at Stanford has said “’The Beautiful Ones’ captures the human predicament through the overpopulation lens with fearless clarity”. David, what did you think?
DL: It’s a really interesting exercise in foresight. It raises many important issues: demographics, environmental catastrophe, populism and racial discrimination. It’s also a really good read, with believable and likeable lead characters
OMF: I chose to use the high variant of the United Nations population forecast because it’s more striking from a dramatic point of view, it makes it easier to see the issue.
I also picked two countries – Uganda and the US which are going to be among the nine most populated countries in the world, by 2080. The US, because of the ongoing curtailment of women’s fertility rights; and Uganda, because it is the smallest of the nine in land area and yet will have 209m people in a country the size of the UK, most of which is taken up by a lake. Fiction requires tension and by setting one of the novels in Uganda, I hoped to create an interesting dynamic that would evidence the friction points of high population growth on a relatively small territory.
Research was really important for the books: it showed that the highest population growth between now and 2080 will occur in Africa which will go from 1.2 billion to 4.7 billion inhabitants; whilst Asia still has significant population sizes, the growth is not as pronounced there. Asia will go from 4.3 billion to 6.8 billion and the other continents will remain at or below one billion.
It’s the overall, worldwide growth in human population that is concerning though. It raises questions about sustainability, food safety, climate-driven migration and its corollary: rampant racism. And of course, there’s the impact of huge additional human numbers which will worsen the climate crisis and threaten biodiversity.
My three regions have three different ways of dealing with the crisis: there is syncretism and blending in continental Europe which chooses to throw its doors open to immigration and to consciously limit the fertility of all its citizens. By contrast, in the post-Brexit 2081 UK, immigrants are no longer welcome and the state prevents people of colour from having children while encouraging white couples’ fertility, through legal and fiscal means. Finally, in the US, given current developments, I imagined a more violent future, harnessing technology and genetic engineering to keep down the population of people of colour through sterilisation or extermination
JBS: David, your view of demographics in the future is different from Olfa’s. Why?
DL: Looking at the UN projections at the median and low end; large parts of world population growth seem to be slowing or coming to a stop. Population is aging: by the time China reaches 1.4bn, its average age will go from 37 in 2030 to 46 in 2040, and the population is then projected to start shrinking.
I was very taken with ‘Empty Planet’ by Bricker and Ibbitson: they argue the UN forecasts are too high and pay inadequate weight to factors driving down population, including urbanisation; access to education for women and girls and access to opportunity in the jobs market.
What’s not in dispute is that Africa will be a crucible of population growth – from 800m in 2000 to 2bn plus in 2050 to the UN median figure of 4bn plus in 2100. Bricker and Ibbitson believe that population growth may tail off after 2050. In ‘Human Tide’, Paul Morland points out that populations surge with industrialisation and urbanisation, but then go into marked decline.
OMF: No-one knows what the future will look like – SAMI’s expertise is to propose scenarios, stemming from the same data points. Looking at the factors that David mentions, urbanisation only reduces population if it is accompanied by better infrastructure. In places where urbanisation is wild – such as the huge slums around Kampala – urbanisation won’t necessarily result in increased development and subsequently modify fertility patterns. On the contrary, research shows that this type of urban environment can retain rural fertility patterns.
David’s second point: education, is provided by religious institutions in certain countries and so you can have instances where education is offered yet only reinforces traditional fertility patterns. For instance, Uganda is a predominantly Christian country and the Roman Catholic Church is notoriously against birth control and abortion.
Finally, rising prosperity through development may be a myth – for instance, the rising prosperity in Africa is accompanied by a silent colonisation of Africa by China. So although on paper, the country appears wealthier and more developed, in reality, divisions in extremes of income continue and do not benefit those at the bottom of the scale.
DL: This is why foresight is fascinating. All these things are spot on, but we don’t know how this will play out. The Chinese Belt and Road Initiative focuses on roads, railways and power supplies, all of which Africa needs, not on the infrastructure of cities. And now, China is Africa’s biggest creditor, which implies development will take place in non-western ways, at least in some parts of Africa.
OMF: It needs to be the right infrastructure to impact development. Building a road from the oil rig to the airport may be good for the economy but it is building water pipes and schools and communication networks which will bring education, development and material change for the population that would in turn impact fertility. Development can only trigger the demographic transition if it is accompanied by the emergence of a middle class and the spreading of wealth to all layers of society.
DL: In our studies, I have been placing African countries into three groups: the failed states, where there is long-running conflict, with no immediate prospect of improvement; those experiencing rapid economic progress, such as Ghana and Senegal,; and the middle group which has the potential to go into the rapid development group but don’t, largely because of poor governance. This group is ripe for exploitation by the Chinese, or others who are willing to turn a blind eye to bad governance.
OMF: I want to be very clear that the points I make about overpopulation are not regional, they are global. This discussion should not just be about Africa. In the US for instance, there is a majority in power which doesn’t want women to have control over their own fertility. We live in a very pro-natalist society – women without children suffer stigma, there is a curtailment of women’s fertility rights; and worldwide, influencers actively reinforce the idea that a “proper” woman has children. But society doesn’t take stock of how many people there are in total on Earth. Each country, each religion, each economy that wishes to wield influence is only looking at their own population and trying to increase their weight and impact through their numbers. You need more believers to go from being a sect to being a religion, more citizens to pay for pensions or go to war, more consumers to prop up the continuous economic growth that capitalism requires.
As a result of this fragmented thinking, there is too little discussion on global overpopulation and its impact on the environment. Neither is there a real understanding of the different ways developed and developing countries’ growing populations have different impacts on the environment.
JBS: So you’re both coming from the same data, from the same direction, but getting very different results.
OMF: The thing that divides us is that you, David, are an optimist and I’m a pessimist. You see the data and foresee all the ways in which it will change for the better whereas I wrote the books specifically to showcase what will happen if we do nothing, if we just continue in the general direction we’re already going. I wanted to paint a picture of the consequences of inertia.
World population was consistently under a billion up to the middle of the 1800’s. See the graph – it’s practically perpendicular. No sign that this course is slowing down. This is clearly exponential growth.
DL: About natalism, you’re absolutely right. But what are governments going to do if they see their population declining? Whatever incentivisation schemes are tried don’t last very long. Enforcement rarely works. You show it well in ‘The Beautiful Ones’, where abortion is punished by death. Look at the US at the moment, where some states are seeking to effectively ban abortion. But government control measures are bound to provoke some response.
The environment is hugely important in your books. Malthus started this in 1798, which is where the population graph began to take off: he has been proven wrong time and again in his assertion that population growth is geometric and food growth arithmetic. But food production has increased geometrically. It’s the prospect of negative impacts of climate change that may bring Malthusian ideas back into play.
OMF: The food aspect is very interesting. You see it all over the natural world, when animal numbers expand to meet the available food, then the food runs out and the animal numbers crash.
The “Green Revolution” of the 1960s dramatically increased crop yield and averted the famines that would otherwise certainly have occurred. But, with our numbers continuing to grow exponentially, what will happen if another Green revolution doesn’t coma long to save us?
What strikes me though is that in all the conversations about overpopulation, people always say that there will be enough to sustain humans, so everything is fine. What about the impact of our huge numbers on our environments? On other species? As Sir David Attenborough says, “Instead of controlling the environment for the benefit of the population, perhaps it is time to control the population to allow the survival of the environment.”
Every environmental issue is compounded by our numbers. Plastic straws, the Chinese switching from bicycles to cars, the consumption of meat by the rising middle classes all over the world: it is completely multiplied by there being so many of us.
DL: We certainly can’t go on like this ad infinitum.
JBS: We have an author and futurist here, and a foresight expert: let’s talk about the roles of fiction and foresight.
DL: Foresight is in part about developing compelling narratives: fiction is an extremely useful tool in foresight.
Fiction allows you to make moral judgements at all levels, whereas foresight as a scientific process allows for ethics but requires a standing back. Foresight needs to be objective, impartial, and scientific towards issues but it would be bad foresight not to recognise ethical issues.
OMF: I have always thought that the business scenarios which allow you to jump into the future person’s shoes are very powerful. So one day, I realised I could do something like the first-person scenarios that we use in projects for clients and just expand them.
I thought “Wouldn’t it be interesting if we put the foresight tool and methodology in the hands of individuals to allow them to make robust decisions for their personal lives,” and at that point, I realised that it would be best done through a novel.
DL: And of course this is happening: the Gates Foundation, the Half the Sky movement, are all about women’s empowerment. Education, emancipation and empowerment of women is what we have to do: it seems to be self evident.
OMF: I agree there is progress. The “Good Club” is another example: It’s an association of philanthropists including Ted Turner, Warren Buffet and Oprah Winfrey which is looking into ways to reduce overpopulation while supporting development. Famous environmentalists are starting to speak up about human overpopulation as well: Sir David Attenborough, Dame Jane Goodall, Chris Packham just to name a few.
DL: if you give women and girls agency, the cumulative effect of their choices will result in a lower birth rate.
OMF: Quite right. We were talking earlier about government control of demographics. Fertility-control measures from governments are a slippery slope and inevitably when one speaks about overpopulation, there will be someone who will mention either war or epidemic being a “solution”. But those are morally wrong. There are no silver bullets when it comes to overpopulation. The solution is to start talking about the issue, to start explaining the impact of our species’ numbers on the planet, to allow this debate to even take place.
I am convinced that if people have freedom over their fertility decisions and if the impacts of overpopulation on our planet become clear, individuals will make their own choices in the privacy of their homes, without the need to involve governments. Certainly, it would be a decades-long process to shift the culture but I believe it’s feasible.
My books propose to the reader what happens when we do not get that freedom to choose our fertility, when we do not empower and educate women, when we do not support the economic growth of under-developed countries. I hope the reader will see what this dystopian future would look like and make their own choices about what to do today to prevent it.
JBS: Olfa, David, thank you.
The Beautiful Ones trilogy is comprised of Chosen, Tornand United.
The books can be purchased from Amazon, Apple, Nook, Kobo, Barnes & Noble and Waterstones. For the links to the different retailers, just follow:https://www.omfaure.com/the-books
References of books mentioned in the discussion
- UN Population forecast: https://population.un.org/wpp/Publications/
- Empty Planet: The Shock of Global Population Decline,Darrell Bricker and John Ibbitson, 2019
- Half The Sky: How to Change the World, Nicholas D. Kristof Sheryl WuDunn, 2010
- An Essay on the Principle of Population,Thomas Malthus, 1798
- The Human Tide: How Population Shaped the Modern World, Paul Morland, 2019
- Good Club: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2009/may/31/new-york-billionaire-philanthropists
Written by Jonathan Blanchard Smith, SAMI Fellow and Director
The views expressed are those of the author(s) and not necessarily of SAMI Consulting.
SAMI Consulting was founded in 1989 by Shell and St Andrews University. They have undertaken scenario planning projects for a wide range of UK and international organisations. Their core skill is providing the link between futures research and strategy.
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