For anyone interested in the prospects for human civilization on this planet — and irrespective of whatever views you may already hold — the recent exchange between the Ehrlichs (Paul and Anne) and Prof Michael Kelly, made available for free at the venerable Proceedings of the Royal Society, is definitely worth reading. Paul Ehrlich and Michael Kelly are both Fellows of the Royal Society, the prestigious academy of natural sciences founded in London in 1660.
The Ehrlichs lay out their position in the opening paragraphs of their paper, Can a collapse of global civilization be avoided? :
But today, for the first time, humanity’s global civilization—the worldwide, increasingly interconnected, highly technological society in which we all are to one degree or another, embedded—is threatened with collapse by an array of environmental problems. Humankind finds itself engaged in what Prince Charles described as ‘an act of suicide on a grand scale’, facing what the UK’s Chief Scientific Advisor John Beddington called a ‘perfect storm’ of environmental problems. The most serious of these problems show signs of rapidly escalating severity, especially climate disruption. But other elements could potentially also contribute to a collapse: an accelerating extinction of animal and plant populations and species, which could lead to a loss of ecosystem services essential for human survival; land degradation and land-use change; a pole-to-pole spread of toxic compounds; ocean acidification and eutrophication (dead zones); worsening of some aspects of the epidemiological environment (factors that make human populations susceptible to infectious diseases); depletion of increasingly scarce resources, including especially groundwater, which is being overexploited in many key agricultural areas ; and resource wars. These are not separate problems; rather they interact in two gigantic complex adaptive systems: the biosphere system and the human socio-economic system. The negative manifestations of these interactions are often referred to as ‘the human predicament’, and determining how to prevent it from generating a global collapse is perhaps the foremost challenge confronting humanity.
The human predicament is driven by overpopulation, overconsumption of natural resources and the use of unnecessarily environmentally damaging technologies and socio-economic-political arrangements to service Homo sapiens’ aggregate consumption. How far the human population size now is above the planet’s long-term carrying capacity is suggested (conservatively) by ecological footprint analysis. It shows that to support today’s population of seven billion sustainably (i.e. with business as usual, including current technologies and standards of living) would require roughly half an additional planet; to do so, if all citizens of Earth consumed resources at the US level would take four to five more Earths. Adding the projected 2.5 billion more people by 2050 would make the human assault on civilization’s life-support systems disproportionately worse, because almost everywhere people face systems with nonlinear responses, in which environmental damage increases at a rate that becomes faster with each additional person.
The Ehrlichs then proceed to calmly and lucidly lay out the evidence, citing an impressive range of quality, up-to-date sources, including sources that disagree with their perspective.
Michael Kelly’s comment piece on the Ehrlich’s article, Why a collapse of global civilization will be avoided: a comment on Ehrlich & Ehrlich, summarizes his counterpoint thus:
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 [over-consumption, overpopulation and climate change] (and the many others they cite by way of detail) 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 FRS on food security, Jevons FRS on coal exhaustion, King FRS & 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 with the deployment of steam engines to greatly improve agricultural efficiency, and the discoveries of oil and of fracking oil and gas, respectively, for the three examples given. 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 FRS and Ehrlich will be similarly seen off by work in progress by scientists and engineers.
What is most striking, but perhaps predictable, about Kelly’s argument is its overt faith in science and technology as the saviour. It accurately expresses the mainstream ideology, in economics, the media and elsewhere, that resource limits and most other problems can always be overcome by human ingenuity and technological innovation — with no acknowledgment that there is absolutely no guarantees that such breakthrough technologies can be developed and rolled out in time to meet a situation of mounting urgency. Despite mounting evidence of systemic risk it is proving extremely difficult to dislodge this faith in the deux ex machina of the technofix.
Kelly does make one or two bold (or foolhardy) moves in his critique of the Ehrlichs, the most notable being that he rejects the mainstream scientific view of climate change and believes we have little to worry about. Kelly even cites figures from climate scientist James Hansen about the extent of fossil fuels still remaining in the ground, only to provide a completely opposite interpretation of their significance to mean that we can keep burning fossil fuels for quite a bit longer. In contrast, Hansen is emphatic that we must keep the remaining fossil fuels in the ground to avoid cooking the planet.
The Ehrlich’s rejoinder is pertinent and entertaining, and I will leave it to the reader to explore: Future collapse: how optimistic should we be? However, one nugget from their reply did stay with me:
It seems to us that this is the wrong time in history for unsubstantiated optimism.