by Judith Curry
Earlier dire predictions have been made in the same mode by Malthus on food security, Jevons on coal exhaustion, King & Murray on peak oil, and by many others. They have all been overcome by the exercise of human ingenuity just as the doom was being prophesied. – Michael Kelly
Last January, the Proceedings of the Royal Society published this paper by Ehrlich & Ehrlich: Perspective: Can a collapse of global civilization be avoided? My main rationale for a post on this is the rebuttal by Mike Kelly (see below).
From the news release by the Royal Society:
Throughout our history environmental problems have contributed to collapses of civilizations. A new paper published yesterday inProceedings of the Royal Society B addresses the likelihood that we are facing a global collapse now. The paper concludes that global society can avoid this and recommends that social and natural scientists collaborate on research to develop ways to stimulate a significant increase in popular support for decisive and immediate action on our predicament.
Paul and Anne Ehrlich’s paper provides a comprehensive description of the damaging effects of escalating climate disruption, overpopulation, overconsumption, pole-to-pole distribution of dangerous toxic chemicals, poor technology choices, depletion of resources including water, soils, and biodiversity essential to food production, and other problems currently threatening global environment and society. The problems are not separate, but are complex, interact, and feed on each other.
The authors sayserious environmental problems can only be solved and a collapse avoided with unprecedented levels of international cooperation through multiple civil and political organizations. They conclude that if that does not happen, nature will restructure civilization for us.
An article in the Huffington Post provides further information on the paper:
[E]minent Stanford University scientists Paul and Anne Ehrlich have issued a report, revealing that “global collapse appears likely.” The reason? “Overpopulation, overconsumption by the rich, and poor choices of technologies are the major drivers.”
The Ehrlich report stresses “the need for rapid social/political change” and explores some of the psychological and social barriers to swift cultural transition.
Our ancestors apparently “had no reason to respond genetically or culturally to long-term issues,” the Ehrlichs claim. So as a species we suffer from what we might call the “next tiger syndrome” (or the “next quarter” or “next election” syndrome). If something is right on top of us, we can rouse ourselves to deal with it. If the threat seems far off, we start to snooze…
But snoozing as the oncoming train barrels towards us just won’t cut it in present circumstances. And sadly, “There is not much evidence of societies mobilizing and making sacrifices to meet gradually worsening conditions that threaten real disaster for future generations. Yet that is exactly the sort of mobilization that we believe is required to avoid a collapse.”
Without significant pressure from the public demanding action, we fear there is little chance of changing course fast enough to forestall disaster. The needed pressure, however, might be generated by a popular movement based in academia and civil society to help guide humanity towards developing a new multiple intelligence, “foresight intelligence,” to provide the long-term analysis and planning that markets cannot supply.
Academics and nonprofits at the forefront of a revolution? The Ehrlichs claim that “helping develop such a movement and foresight intelligence are major challenges facing scientists today.” The problem is, of course, that most scientists have absolutely no training or aptitude for effective communication, marketing or political activism.
“Do we think global society can avoid a collapse in this century?” The Ehrlichs are cautiously optimistic while also admitting that the odds are against us.
Modern society has shown some capacity to deal with long-term threats, at least if they are obvious or continuously brought to attention (think of the risks of nuclear conflict). Humanity has the assets to get the job done, but the odds of avoiding collapse seem small because the risks are clearly not obvious to most people and the classic signs of impending collapse, especially diminishing returns to complexity, are everywhere.
A sobering analysis, but one we need to take seriously as it comes from distinguished scientists with a deep understanding of our collective situation.
Michael Kelly responds
What is missing from the well-referenced perspective of the potential downsides for the future of humanity is any balancing assessment of the progress being made on these three challenges that suggests that the problems are being dealt with in a way that will not require a major disruption to the human condition or society. Earlier dire predictions have been made in the same mode by Malthus on food security, Jevons on coal exhaustion, King & Murray on peak oil, and by many others. They have all been overcome by the exercise of human ingenuity just as the doom was being prophesied. It is incumbent on those who would continue to predict gloom to learn from history and make a comprehensive review of human progress before coming to their conclusions. The problems as perceived today by Ehrlich and Ehrlich will be similarly seen off by work in progress by scientists and engineers. My comment is intended to summarize and reference the potential upsides being produced by today’s human ingenuity, and I leave the reader to weigh the balance for the future, taking into account the lessons of recent history.
The population explosion (and its Malthusian societal disruptions) that Ehrlich predicted for the 1990s has not come about, and the concerns in this present Ehrlich paper are not tempered by the mounting evidence of the demographic transition that occurs when the majority of people live in cities and have access to education. In Japan, Europe and North America the population, excluding immigration, is in decline. Some studies indicate that a peak of 9 billion people in 2050 will be followed by a decline to a population of approximately 6 billion in 2100—less than that in 2000 and bringing new problems of unwanted infrastructure assets! The UN is revising its future population estimates downward. If we look at the waste in the contemporary food chain, at the point of growth, in transit to the market and into the homes of consumers, and compound that loss by the amount of food thrown out rather than consumed, we generate the quantity of food to feed the 9 billion today with the systems in place if we were less wasteful and could distribute it.
The starkest example in the consideration of material overconsumption is the smart phone. This was developed within the paradigm of business as usual to improve the way in which we communicate. Two points are relevant. First, the small piece of metal, plastic and semiconductor that fits in the palm of a hand contains the functions of a camera, radio, telephone, answering machine, photo album, dictaphone, music centre, satellite navigation system, video camera and player, compass, stop-watch, Filofax, diary and more, which were all separate and bulky items only 20 years ago. This represents the great dematerialization of modern civilization, well ahead of any imminent collapse of natural resources. The shape of high streets and retail centres are changing to reflect this evolution. Indeed, the recycling of electronic systems will enhance further this capability of doing more with less material, and the market for extended time between recharging has driven extraordinary improvements in energy efficiency. It is these new low-resource technologies with ever-increasing recycled materials that will drive the world in future. Second, the mobile phone is being used in rural Africa and India to inform farmers of optimal times for taking their products to market, thus reducing greatly the loss of product and/or income, and reducing the stress on land from the need to overproduce to compensate for such losses. Peak planet is now the new research topic.
Communications, new materials and health systems all present humanity with clear opportunities to avoid future problems with tools not available to earlier generations. The Internet, and its implication of all information available everywhere, instantaneously for everyone, will ensure that technical, medical and societal advances will proceed and propagate very rapidly. An advance in one corner of the world will almost instantaneously be accessible and adaptable anywhere. Human travel will change from becoming a necessity to an option, freeing up time, reducing emissions and enhancing business between continents. New ‘designer’ materials and three-dimensional printing technology for manufacture are likely to massively reduce our reliance on depleting natural resources, providing for a far more adaptive approach to materials in applications. The incredible waste we currently produce is likely to reduce very significantly, making for greater resilience against resource depletion. Ehrlich & Ehrlich are concerned about future pandemics in a closely interconnected world. However, advances in medicine and diagnostics will result in significant economic gains in terms of treatment efficacy, in days lost from the workplace and in the ability of mankind to respond to a future pandemic.
The mainstream scientific and engineering community can see nothing that suggests an imminent collapse of civilization, and it is well on track to deal with new problems as they emerge, in continuity with the history of the last 200 years. Neo-Malthusians have proved comprehensively wrong so far, and this comment argues that this is set to continue into the foreseeable future. This comment is not denying challenges, but is really questioning defeatism. Weigh the evidence.
Finally, it is only civilizations backed by strong economies that are in a position to do the research and make the necessary scientific, engineering and technological advances to offset environmental threats. Scientific views that undermine economic progress are a threat in themselves, and need a careful and robust justification before they are widely propagated.
Ehrlich & Ehrlich respond to Kelly
Ehrlich & Ehrlich respond to Kelly [link]. Excerpts:
Prof. Kelly is optimistic about the chances of avoiding a collapse, but sadly we find his arguments entirely unpersuasive. For example, have Malthus (or we) really been wrong about food security? Roughly 850 million people are seriously undernourished (lacking sufficient calories) today, and perhaps 2 billion are malnourished (lacking one or more essential nutrients). The concern is that climate disruption combined with other problems with the agricultural system will make it impossible to feed an ever larger future population, even if equal distribution were achieved. That concern is reinforced by the recent observation that, even before the likely heavy impacts of climate disruption on agriculture appear, production is failing to keep pace with projected needs.
There has been an important decline in birth rates in much of the world, but the median projections still foresee an increase of approximately 2.5 billion people by 2050, and recently there have been worrying signs of ‘a fundamental change in the well-established negative relationship between fertility and development’. Most recently, the UN has revised its projections of future population sizes upward, projecting a 2100 population of roughly 11 billion. On the brighter side, there is certainly good reason to think that, with modern contraception and communications, the population trajectory could be changed, leading to reduced fertility in rapidly growing populations if a significant international effort to promote women’s rights and family planning in every nation were mounted.
Much of Prof. Kelly’s criticism of our article is that our treatment of climate disruption, which we discussed first in 1968 and many times subsequently without significant dispute, is mistaken. This is critical, since, for example, the ability to feed people has been dependent on a stable climate, and most other elements of the human predicament have a climate component. We are not climate scientists, but follow the technical literature closely. So we chose to use the consensus view of the climate situation, which is accepted by more than 95% of those scientists, and the best and most experienced of them on the whole.
Those who would like a point-by-point scientific refutation of the positions cited by Kelly can consult the electronic supplementary material, which refers people to the SkepticalScience website (http://www.skepticalscience.com/argument.php). The website deals with each of the ‘myths’ from the standard ‘denier’ literature, which Kelly promotes. The site gives several levels of detail, provides references to the refereed scientific literature and has a well-moderated discussion of each view.
Of course, science never ‘proves’ anything, and consensus does not guarantee correctness. Despite the gigantic effort that has gone into studying the Earth’s atmosphere, the entire climate science community could be mistaken. In this case, we hope Kelly has seen through evidence that has confused that community and so alarmed it, and if he is correct we certainly would have a brighter view of the future. But we saw no choice when commenting outside of our own areas of expertise but to give the climate scientists’ near-unanimous view.
We think mobile phone technology does not speak well to the basic issues of overconsumption, especially since its environmental and socio-political consequences are hardly established. Pole-to-pole pollution with toxic chemicals (many of which are endocrine-disrupting compounds), destruction of biodiversity and decay of ecosystem services (none addressed by Kelly) are critical parts of the consumption problem and may be even more serious than climate disruption. We will stick with the references we cited, plus more recently the key point about resource depletion made by Davidson & Andrews.
Much of the rest of Kelly’s criticism strikes us as proof by vigorous assertion, but we will leave that for others to decide. It seems to us that this is the wrong time in history for unsubstantiated optimism.
Finally, Kelly states, ‘The mainstream scientific and engineering community can see nothing that suggests an imminent collapse of civilization … ’. That’s one phrase in Kelly’s article with which we heartily agree, assuming that he does not consider diverse scientific signatories of earlier warning statements, climate scientists or ecologists ‘mainstream’, since they have spoken out clearly on the issue, most recently in very large numbers. The lack of foresight Prof. Kelly notes in the engineering community is one of the main reasons we see the odds of collapse as greater than he does. We hope the complacency of that community is justified and the future is bright, but fear that it and Kelly are dead wrong.
JC comment: This debate between Kelley and the Ehrlichs has many interesting dimensions.
In light of the recent threads on expertise and the role of scientists’ advice in the policy process, there are several interesting examples in the above material. First, consider the final statement in the Huffington Post article: “A sobering analysis, but one we need to take seriously as it comes from distinguished scientists with a deep understanding of our collective situation.” Paul Ehrlich is Bing Professor of Population Studies in the department of Biological Sciences at Stanford University and president of Stanford’s Center for Conservation Biology. Michael Kelly is Prince Philip Professor of Technology, Department of Engineering, Cambridge University. These two experts obviously disagree; which expert is most distinguished? Its a tough one to call. The point should be the arguments, not who is making them.
The second interesting point related to expertise is in context of the discussions on climate change. Ehrlich & Ehrlich acknowledge “We are not climate scientists, but follow the technical literature closely. So we chose to use the consensus view of the climate situation.” And then they cite the Skeptical Science website as an authoritative source! On the other hand, Kelly presents his own assessment of climate science, which does not seem inconsistent with my own assessment. Kelly, while not a climate scientist, is perfectly capable of assessing climate science and in fact was asked by the University of East Anglia to participate in the Oxburgh Panel on the assessment of CRU’s controversial climate science.
Back to the main topic of debate: Ehrlichs and Kelly present very different views of the problems and solutions, which have foundations in two fundamentally different world views. Kelly’s view is more consistent with my own world view, and E&E do a pretty poor job on the rebuttal IMO. Kelly’s view brings to mind the book Infinite Resource: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet, by Ramez Naam. While Naam argues that mankind is on a perilous path, the book is exhilarating in understanding the role that human ingenuity can play in meeting societal and technological challenges if cultures are conducive to innovation.