Recently, a group of scientists wrote a dire Warning to Humanity, and it was signed by 15000 more. Their warning has been criticized by some as scaremongering. I’m going to comment on the good and the bad in it. The original document is quite short. I recommend reading the whole thing for yourself.
We have unleashed a mass extinction event, the sixth in roughly 540 million years, wherein many current life forms could be annihilated or at least committed to extinction by the end of this century.
Humanity is being compared to the natural disaster that wiped out all non-avian dinosaurs 64 million years ago. As our population continues to increase, I find this believable, but it may be overstating the case a bit.
We are jeopardizing our future by not reining in our intense but geographically and
demographically uneven material consumption and by not perceiving continued rapid population growth as a primary driver behind many ecological and even societal threats.
Overconsumption and population growth are definitely the driving forces which, if we don’t control them, will lead to collapse.
As most political leaders respond to pressure, scientists, media influencers, and lay citizens must insist that their governments take immediate action as a moral imperative to current and future generations of human and other life. With a groundswell of organized grassroots efforts, dogged opposition can be overcome and political leaders compelled to do the right thing.
This would be all well and good if we knew what the right thing was. Media influencers and the majority of lay citizens do not. Most scientists don’t understand economics, and often propose naive political solutions that won’t work. I’m not suggesting we don’t try; I’m merely pointing out that this statement makes it sound like knowing what the right thing to do is is easy.
It is also time to re-examine and change our individual behaviors, including limiting our own reproduction (ideally to replacement level at most) and drastically diminishing our per capita consumption of fossil fuels, meat, and other resources.
In the west and China, the total fertility rate is already well under the replacement rate. While government incentives and taxes can shape consumption to some degree, for significant change, good alternatives are required. Convenient, affordable public transit, inexpensive long range electric vehicles, and meat alternatives like engineered proteins that cost less than the current alternatives will change the world. Not everyone is going to ride a bicycle to work or become a vegetarian.
Notable progress includes the rapid decline in fertility rates in many regions attributable to investments in girls’ and women’s education.
How is the decline in fertility rates attributable to education? It is highly correlated to the introduction of birth control. Perhaps education in the use of birth control is what’s meant?
Sustainability transitions come about in diverse ways, and all require civil-society pressure and evidence-based advocacy, political leadership, and a solid understanding of policy instruments, markets, and other drivers.
The most important driver is economy. Things that have an immediate and obvious economic benefit will be adopted. Evidence based advocacy is great, and it will reach some, but most won’t take the trouble to understand science. Sometimes, that means using governmental power to shape the economy, but economics is always most effective and predictable when people are left to their own devices.
Next the manifesto makes some proposals:
(a) prioritize the enactment of connected well-funded and well-managed reserves for a significant proportion of the world’s terrestrial, marine, freshwater, and aerial habitats.
This is one area where government is essential. The remaining wilderness areas in the world are a commons that must be protected from exploitation by greedy corporations.
(b) maintain nature’s ecosystem by halting the conversion of forests, grasslands, and other native habitats;
It is difficult to prevent individuals from converting wilderness into farmland. The best way to maintain natural environments is to stop population growth.
(c) restore native plant communities at large scales, particularly forest landscapes;
This is needed in areas where large corporations are allowed to harvest the forests. Forestry companies can be required to replant if the land is owned by the government as a shared commons.
(d) repopulate regions with native species, especially apex predators, to restore ecological processes and dynamics;
(e) develop and adopt adequate policy instruments to remedy defaunation, the poaching crisis, and the exploitation and trade of threatened species;
The best way to maintain natural environments is to stop population growth.
(f) reduce food waste through education and better infrastructure;
How will education help? Presumably the infrastructure would allow food to be donated to charity before it went bad.
(g) promoting dietary shifts towards mostly plant-based foods;
How will these be promoted? Currently, plant based meat alternatives are expensive. A real alternative needs to be less expensive and give the same health benefits as meat. Soy protein is not nearly as good a source of iron (for example) as red meat. Artificially grown animal protein is probably a better alternative.
(h) further reducing fertility rates by ensuring that women and men have access to education and voluntary family-planning services, especially where such resources are still lacking;
Such services are especially needed in the third world, where fertility rates are still higher than the replacement rate.
(k) devising and promoting new green technologies and massively adopting renewable energy sources while phasing out subsidies to energy production through fossil fuels;
Government has little ability to devise new green technologies, and promoting them by throwing tax revenues at them is taking money away from the entrepreneurs who can actually make progress. Subsidies to the fossil fuel industries should be stopped immediately and the money saved should be used to pay down debt or reduce taxes.
(l) revising our economy to reduce wealth inequality and ensure that prices, taxation, and incentive systems take into account the real costs which consumption patterns impose on our environment;
By “reducing wealth inequality”, people generally mean increasing taxation, which in turn increases the size of the government, making us less efficient. This will not help the environment. We need less government, not more.
(m) estimating a scientifically defensible, sustainable human population size for the long term while rallying nations and leaders to support that vital goal.
How can they support it, when so many are bemoaning their low fertility rates? By preaching to the third world? How will that be received? Perhaps aid should be contingent on population control.
To prevent widespread misery and catastrophic biodiversity loss, humanity must practice a more environmentally sustainable alternative to business as usual. This prescription was well articulated by the world’s leading scientists 25 years ago, but in most respects, we have not heeded their warning.
While science makes compelling arguments for many of these problems, scientists have consistently made two huge missteps that prevent people for “heeding” their warnings:
- By overstating their cases, scientists make people skeptical when their exaggerations are discovered.
- Many of the “solutions” proposed by scientists are based on giving more money and power to politicians, making people distrust scientists because they justifiably mistrust politicians.
Working together while respecting the diversity of people and opinions and the need for social justice around the world, we can make great progress for the sake of humanity and the planet on which we depend.
By invoking “social justice”, this argument is weakened. Aligning yourselves with a political ideology many consider to be culturally Marxist does not help your credibility. Scientists, being primarily academics, are at risk of buying in to that ideology, as it seems to permeate their environment. When your political opinions are biased, it makes people question whether your facts are biased.