After more than 15,000 scientists from 184 countries issued a ‘warning to humanity’, the CBC is reporting that the scientists have been accused of scaremongering and ‘overheated claims’. Who are these shit lords who dare criticize science? Other scientists.
“It concerns me that the message from science is this doom-and-gloom scenario that just turns off about 75 per cent of people,” said Erle Ellis, an associate professor of geography and environmental systems at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. “There’s a small percentage that loves the crisis narrative, and they just repeat it over and over to each other.”
While the message is very negative, and that will turn people off, if it is entirely accurate, those facts don’t matter.
Ellis said he’s “somewhat embarrassed” for his scientific colleagues who have rallied behind this warning, arguing that it mostly talks about negative trends and ignores the increasing wealth, health and well-being of human populations globally.
This is true. The question is, do these things come in the present at the expense of them in the future.
Ted Nordhaus, environmental policy expert and co-chair of California-based think-tank the Breakthrough Institute, said while there are certainly global environmental issues that need to be addressed, some of the more “dystopian” forecasts often end up being “wildly inaccurate.”
While it’s certainly true that past predictions that the end is nigh have been less than accurate, often they’ve been overturned by advances in technology that were unforeseen at the time. A good example is the discovery of nitrogen fertilizer, without which the world population would have starved long ago. Betting your future on possible scientific advancements seems pretty unwise.
In 1968, Stanford University biologist Paul Ehrlich caused waves with the publication of The Population Bomb, which predicted that overpopulation would result in the starvation deaths of hundreds of millions of people. In an interview in 1979 with CBS News, Ehrlich said, “Sometime in the next 15 years, the end will come — and by ‘the end,’ I mean an utter breakdown of the capacity of the planet to support humanity.”
Ehrlich failed to see the complexity of our environment. The thing is, he was correct that if population growth were to continue long enough, eventually the ecosystem would fail catastrophically. It’s also likely that there could be a tipping point that, once crossed, would make such a breakdown inevitable, and the tipping point might not be obvious. That’s the problem with complex systems. They are hard to predict.
But with the rise in technology, Ehrlich predictions failed to materialize, says Ellis, and instead, the opposite occurred— there’s less famine now, and “pretty much every indicator of human well-being” has increased since the 1970s.
The technologies that enabled huge increases in food production, nitrogen fertilizer and mechanized cultivation, both rely heavily on fossil fuels. The very technology that allowed the population to continue to grow is contributing to global warming and consuming the resources we’ll need to sustain the population in the future.
Meanwhile, as more people move to urban, industrial societies from agrarian societies, where people tend to have more children, human population growth is expected to peak, and likely decline at the latter half of the century, Nordhaus said.
This is certainly our greatest reason for hope. The question is, will the tide be turned before it’s too late.
In an interview with CBC News earlier this week, Eileen Crist, a professor at Virginia Tech’s department of science and technology in society and co-author of the article, said the real issue when it comes to overpopulation is the rapid rise of the global middle class. The flip side of more people being lifted out of poverty, she said, is that it’s also increasing the carbon footprint on the planet and taking a toll on the environment.
As I’ve been saying in recent posts, China and India are growing, whereas the west is in decline. These are exactly the places that are lifting massive numbers of people out of poverty and making them consumers of the levels of resources and energy once seen only in the west. The good news is that, as this happens, China and India’s birthrates are falling. China’s total fertility rate has already fallen below the replacement (around 2.05) and India’s is predicted to by the year 2035.
Ellis agreed that the relationship between how wealth is gained and how it affects the environment needs to continue to improve. But compared to the past, we use less carbon to generate energy and less land to generate food, he said.
And as the green revolution continues, hopefully that trend will too. Given that countries like India who are emerging from the third world into modernity have a blank slate, they are able to adopt the best technologies that we have. It’s unfortunate that the west doesn’t set a better example.
“We think that’s the other message that we need to have out there that people need to hear: We can do this. We can pull people out of poverty and not expand our environmental footprint,” he said. “It is not easy, it is not trivial, but we can do it. We can even do it with existing technology.”
I agree that such a message (and a message of conservation) is what we need, not a message of doom and gloom that many will simply ignore. This is the biggest problem with the environmental movement. By constantly ramping up their rhetoric in order to force people to listen, they make the movement less credible. A positive message that talks about problems and solutions, not just problems, is sorely needed.
For some time to come, Nordhaus said, the growth in per-capita consumption will be greater than the decline in fertility rates and the slowing in population growth. However, in the long term, that will be moderated through technology and the more efficient ways resources are turned into goods and services.
I hope it is enough, and happens soon enough.