NO ONE KNOWS THE EXACT MOMENT, OR EVEN the day. But somewhere, sometime last year, say United Nations–sponsored researchers, an infant gulped his or her first breath and tipped the global population to 7 billion. In 15 years, someone in Mogadishu or Sydney or Wenatchee will give birth to the 8 billionth earthling. After that, according to a UN report released last fall, 10.6 billion people could be on the planet “by 2050 and more than 15 billion in 2100.”
And, argues University of Washington paleontologist Peter Ward, as the population increases and resources dry up—including water in the soon-to-be-drought-stricken American Southwest and Midwest—humans will descend on Western Washington. “I mean, look at the natural resources here,” Ward says. “You’ve got plenty of wood. You’ve got plenty of fresh water.”
Ward’s not talking about a migration on the scale of, say, early 1990s grunge, when twentysomethings packed their lives into the backs of VW Golfs, invested in flannel, and flocked to Seattle looking for Nirvana. He’s talking on the scale of the Dust Bowl and the hundreds of thousands of midwesterners it blew toward California in the 1930s. Ward believes that by the century’s end our region’s population could increase by as much as 15 million people.
Those future Tom Joads will be fleeing a world ravaged by epic famine brought on by climate changes unseen in recorded history: escalating temperatures, melted ice caps, rising sea levels, scorched landscapes.
People will eye the Northwest, cross an America that looks increasingly less like a Norman Rockwell painting and more like The Road, and cool their heels in the Emerald City.
Ward has made a name for himself over the past decade as an expert on mass extinctions. He’s best known for his Medea hypothesis, which posits that the planet is prone to kill off multicellular organisms—including humans—like a scorned Greek wife cutting her sons’ throats. (His 2008 TED talk on the topic has been viewed nearly 250,000 times.) And with the exception of the asteroid that snuffed out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, he says, the majority of extinction events on the planet were due to climate change.
But Dr. Extinction isn’t all grim all the time. “Go to your friends and ask, ‘How many more years do you think humans have left?’ And you’ll get somebody who says, ‘Oh 10 years,’ and somebody says, ‘Maybe 100’…but you don’t have anybody that says, ‘Oh we could easily, with the right type of planetary engineering, last a billion years.’ But we could.”
Of course there’s existing and there’s existing happily. “There’s our ability to put on a gas mask and build a gas mask and our ability for long-term prediction—science can fix a lot of things. But we may be really miserable.”
As watersheds vanish and crops die, people will eye the Northwest, cross an America that looks increasingly less like a Norman Rockwell painting and more like The Road, and cool their heels in the Emerald City, one of the few major metropolitan areas with both a seaport and an abundance of fresh water. In addition to the Cascade and Olympic watersheds, the region has two nearly bottomless Big Gulps in the form of Lake Washington and Lake Sammamish.
Sweetening the deal, as the climate warms “our growing season’s going to increase,” Ward says. “And we’re going to have the ability to become, in some respects, kind of how Northern California is for crop growth. Plus, the political system up here is pretty good. That’s going to attract people like crazy.”
Ward, who grew up in Seattle, has already seen the impact of population growth on our region in his lifetime. “When I was a little boy, we used to go to Pine Lake, which was like this wilderness; it was cool. And when I was in college”—at UW—“we used to go to Pine Lake. I went to Pine Lake recently; they have shopping malls everywhere.”
Can our region sustain 15 million more Homo sapiens?
“Look at the traffic gridlock we have now and just double the number of people and tell me what the quality of life will be like. On the other hand, if you’re saying, ‘Oh my god I’m spending every minute in traffic’ versus ‘Oh my god my kid might die because this water’s tainted and full of pollutants and there’s not enough food’—that’s an easy one. You know, that’s a real easy one.”