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The Biggest Problem of All: The End of the World is Coming

Part 1 - The Argument from the Scientists

Paul Ehrlich gave a talk at Stanford titled "Can a Collapse be Avoided"? Ehrlich is a biologist but his interests spread to Economics and Technology as well. The "collapse" of his talk is the catastrophe that, according to most climate scientists, is rapidly approaching. He listed eight major environmental problems and briefly discussed each. Some of them need no introduction (extinction of species, climate change, pollution) but others are no less catastrophic even though less advertised.

For example, global toxification: we filled the planet with toxis substances, and therefore the odds that some of them interact/combine in some deadly chemical experiment never tried before are increasing exponentially every year. There is no known way to fix something like that. We know how to fix pollution and carbon emissions and so forth (if we wanted to), but science would not know how to deal with a chemical reaction triggered by the combination of toxic substances in the soil. The highlight of the talk for me was the emphasis on "non-linearity". Many scientists point out the various ways in which humans are hurting our ecosystem, but few single out the fact that some of these ways may combine and become something that is more lethal than the sum of its parts.

It won't take much for the effect of a biological catastrophe to impact daily life. For example, it doesn't really do much if you kept one little bee somewhere alive, thus avoiding the extinction of a species: what we need is billion of bees in every corner of the world to pollinate fruit trees. If the population of bees decreases suddenly or disappears from some areas, millions of farmers are in trouble and the food supply of everybody is in danger.

Another interesting point that is not widely recognized is that the next addition of one billion people to the population of the planet will have a much bigger impact on the planet than the previous one billion. The reason is that human civilizations already used up all the cheap, rich and ubiquitous resources. Naturally enough, humans started with the cheap, rich and ubiquitous ones, whether forests or oil wells. A huge amount of resources is still left, but those will be much more difficult to harness. For example, oil wells have to be much deeper than they used to. Therefore one liter of gasoline today does not equal one liter of gasoline a century from now: a century from now they will have to do a lot more work to get that liter of gasoline. That was the second key point that struck me: it is not only that some resources are being depleted, but even the resources that will be left are, by definition, those that are difficult to extract and use (a classic case of diminishing margin of return).

The bottom line of these arguments is that the collapse is not only coming, but the combination of the eight factors plus the internal combinations in each of them make it likely that it is coming even sooner than the pessimists predict.

For the record, Ehrlich and the environmentalists are joined by an increasingly diversified chorus of experts in all sorts of disciplines. One of my favorites is Jeremy Grantham who is an economist (managing 100 billion dollars of investments). His main point is that humankind has received a boost over the last 250 years from the discovery of coal first and oil next. The availability of cheap and plenty energy made it possible to defy, in a sense, the laws of physics. However, we are rapidly running out of cheap resources, which means that we the era of steadily falling natural resource costs is coming to an end. In fact, the price of natural resources declined for a century until about 2002 and then in just 5 or 6 years that price regained everything that it had lost in the previous century. This means that we will return to the world of 250 years ago, before the advent of the coal (and later oil) economy, when political and economic collapses were the norm; a return to, literally, the ages of starvation. It is not only oil that is a finite resource: phosphates are a finite resource too, and the world's agriculture depends on them. Grantham also believes that, at the same time, we are approaching the point when global warming will become irreversible. Alternative energy and slowing population growth will have to be adopted worldwide and rapidly in order to avoid a collapse of civilization. Population growth is indeed slowing down everywhere, but "overpopulation" is measured in terms of material resources: most developed countries are not overcrowded, even crowded Singapore, because they are rich enough to provide a good life to their population; most underdeveloped countries are overcrowded because they can't sustain their population. Another point is consumption, which is increasing precisely where population growth is declining: one billion Chinese who ride bicycles is not the same as one billion Chinese who drive cars, run A/C units and wrap everything in plastic. The new Chinese generations consume a lot more resources. If you do it, why shouldn't they?

Ehrlich scanned relatively quickly these eight major problems and then spent some time discussing the aspect that most climate scientists ignore: what can we do to prevent the collapse and why aren't we doing it? The audience for this event was made of social scientists. Unfortunately the conclusion was that the ecological collapse is not a fashionable cultural topic. In Silicon Valley, where i live, you are more likely to get a heated conversation starting if you mention the latest release of a smartphone (or even the new ethnic restaurant around the corner) than if you mention that the end of the world is coming. Ehrlich blamed the social sciences for not having understood how cultural evolution works: if we did, then we could direct cultural evolution towards understanding what is at stake. (My objection: i'm not sure that i want social scientists to be able to direct what people talk about and do).

Ehrlich threw the ball in the sociologist's court: we basically need to create a ubiquitous culture of panic. The cultural obstacles to action on climate change (the culture that we need to reverse) is the belief that economies can grow forever, the belief that markets can solve all problems, the belief that central planning always fails, and, of course, the propaganda funded by the corporations that don't want the system to change because it would impact their profits. If it sounds like a political attack against the philosophy of the USA in 2012, that's what it was. Not many of these factors work in Western Europe, where people are not so fanatical about the free market, corporations are not so powerful, central planning is respected, and the economies have been anemic for decades. However, his points are largely correct in that the fall of communism and the spectacular success of capitalism in raising the qualify of life for billions of people in the developing world have created a mindset that makes it difficult to deal with climate change.

People forgot that polio was defeated when governments enacted plans to vaccinate all children (very often against the will of the parents). Many problems that took the lives of millions of people were defeated by government-mandated actions. China's very economic boom may be due in no small measure to the one-child policy that stemmed population growth.

But that's only one aspect of the problem. The triumph of democracy has created a world that is largely run by politicians whose main job is to get reelected, not to save the world. Democracy is inherently inefficient in tackling complex problems, especially when solutions would inconvenience millions of voters. Now that democracy has spread all over the world it has become difficult everywhere to take unpopular decisions. The more democracy gets perfected to truly represent the will of the people, the harder it is to pass any law because first you have to convince millions of voters to support it.

Another aspect of the problem is that ordinary people believe in climate change but not necessarily in the apocalyptic scenarios. Ehrlich defies empirical evidence: what people see in most of the world is economic growth, increasing wealth, better health case, longer life expectancy and so forth. Yes, they will readily admit that the air is polluted and that some company dumped toxic chemicals in their backyard, but they are keenly aware that today they are a lot better off than their parents were. Survival instinct tends to kick in when catastrophe happens, not when life is good. If they saw their children die by the millions of toxic chemicals, they would certainly rise up; but they won't rise up for the prospect that perhaps in the future millions of children will die (just like most people living in seismic areas hardly ever think about the earthquake that sooner or later will wipe out their homes... until it happens).

Ehrlich is right that fundamentally the ecological catastrophe (let's call it "the ecological singularity" by analogy with the technological singularity) is not a culturally fashionable topic. Therefore the degree of concern that it creates is very limited and superficial. It's good for cafe conversation but not even the most convinced radical environmentalists would be willing to go on a hunger strike for a month or let alone start a violent campaign against those whom they accuse of destroying the planet. If some Muslims are willing to behead random innocents to avenge that someone burned a copy of the Quran you would expect that environmentalists would be willing to kill thousands of bankers, corporate managers and stock traders to avenge that these people are destroying the entire human race, wouldn't you? Hardly the case.

If you are not a committed environmentalist, you probably don't even list the ecological catastrophe in your list of top ten concerns; and you probably wouldn't vote based on this issue alone. Having to choose between a candidate whom you trust on the economy, foreign affairs and social issues but not on the environment versus a candidate whom you trust on the environment but not on everything else, 99% of us would choose the former (me too), obviously a sign that we don't believe the catastrophe is coming (otherwise everything else is meaningless once we are all dead).

Hence the problem of communication is even bigger than Ehrlich imagines. The very people who believe in the ecological singularity are not willing to fight a war over it. This is for sociologists to explain, but obviously young people in the 1960s were willing to risk jail and life to defend their views on civil rights: they marched, went on strike, clashed with the police, etc to protest racism, to promote gender equality and (in totalitarian regimes) to obtain democracy. Today's youth is not willing to do any of these for what should be an even bigger cause: save the entire human race.

Ehrlich did not mention that academic scientists themselves are to blame for the inaction. Climate change is another victim of the age of hyperspecialization: most scientists are so focused on their own field that they can only visualize one specific threat related to that field, and don't realize that such threat combined from threats visible to other experts in other fields creates a much bigger threat.

My guess is that democracies are inherently incapable of facing complex problems. Just like they reacted to fascism only when fascism attacked them, so they will find the consensus to act on climate change only when the catastrophe starts happening; and scientists tell us that it will be too late. Meanwhile, the high-tech world will keep manufacturing, marketing and spreading the very items that make the problem worse (more vehicles, more electronic gadgets, and, soon, more robots); and my friends in Silicon Valley will keep boasting about the latest gadgets, the things that environmental scientists call "unnecessarily environmentally damaging technologies", firmly believing that we are living in an era of accelerating progress.

Ehrlich calls it "growthmania": the belief that there can be exponential growth on a finite planet.

Below seven key slides (click to enlarge) and one picture to remember his talk:

and here is his 2013 paper on the Collapse of Human Civilization

The Biggest Bluff of All: Yet Another Apocalyptic Prediction

Part 2 - The Counter-argument from Ordinary Folks

There is widespread consensus among experts (notably scientists and economists) that climate change and unsustainable growth are a deadly problem, and that some kind of catastrophe is coming soon. Their main opponents are not other experts but... ordinary people. Any television show that attacks the science of climate change is hailed by millions of ordinary people as a whiff of fresh air. The very people who complain that the seasons are no longer what they used to be or that natural disasters tend to intensify will scorn talks of climate change, global warming, etc. and shrug off the doomsayers.

Let's assume for a second that scientists are right about the coming apocalypse. This is the same science that happens to be right about what that bomb would do to Hiroshima (as unlikely as Einstein's formula may look), that is right about what happens when you speak in that rectangular device (as unlikely as it may sound that someone far away will hear your voice), that is right about what happens when someone broadcasts a signal in that frequency range to a box sitting in your living room (as unlikely as it may sound that the box will display the image of someone sitting far away), that is right about what happens when you turn that switch on (as unlikely as it is that turning a switch will light up a room) and it's the same science that got it right on the polio vaccine (as unlikely as it may look that invisible organisms cause diseases). Let's assume for a second that the same science that has been right on just about everything is also right on the consequences of rapid climate change and therefore the situation is exactly the opposite of the optimistic one based on common sense that you depict in your email. Common sense and word of mouth have been consistently proven wrong by that science. That science (that has been right about all the things we experience daily against common sense) has failed to convince the skeptics who think that common sense and word of mouth are more credible than science.

It's easy to convince you once it happens. When a climate catastrophe happens, today's skeptics will certainly be the first to yell at politicians for not having done anything to prevent it. But how can science convince today's skeptics that we need to do something now before it happens? A lot of people still doubt that SARS was a serious epidemics that could have killed millions of people because it was prevented and only a handful of people died. People tend to believe and be proactive only AFTER a catastrophe happens.
People trust the weather forecast for tomorrow, that comes from the same discipline. They do take the umbrella if the weather forecast says "rain". They don't send their children to school if it says "extreme severe weather". Still, they do not believe the same science when it predicts that something much worse is going to happen to their children.

For the sake of playing devil's argument (and proving that ordinary folks are not necessarily dumb nor suicidal), here is my own criticism of the whole climate change debate, and the point is to show what a terrible job the scientists have done.

First of all, the "climate change" science does not have a name. It is not just climatology. It involves Chemistry, Physics, Biology, etc. When a Physicist says something about the speed of neutrinos or the Higgs Boson, we know what a Physicist is. When a scientist says something about climate change, s/he is either a Biologist, or a Physicist, or an Engineer, or... but what qualifies her/him to talk about the consequences of climate change? If you are an expert on ants, you are not necessarily an expert on earthquakes, and if you are an expert on earthquakes, you are not necessarily an expert on tropical diseases. All the scientists that talk to us about climate change indirectly create a very confusing cacophony coming from all directions, but not a simple, consistent picture.

Secondly, climatology and the likes are not taught in school the way Electromagnetism and even Relativity are. People are raised to believe that, when you turn a switch on, you get light in a room, and that when you talk in that rectangular device someone in another city hears your voice, and that the moving images on that box in your living room are of real events happening in other continents, facts which go against common sense but that are explained by things we learned in school. We would suspect divine intervention or sheer luck if we had not studied in school that there are scientific theories explaining (and predating) those amazing inventions. Elementary schools and high schools do not teach the equivalent for climate change. Therefore it is not surprising that most people are skeptic or ignore the issue altogether. These scientific theories just don't have the same credibility when you hear them for the first time at 35 or 52 or 76.

Thirdly, scientists have objectively done a terrible job. In fact, i would blame them before i blame right-wing politicians. If someone asks me for a textbook that explains Newton's theory, i can point them to dozens of them, and some of them very easy to read in a few days. If someone asks me for a textbook on the consequences of climate change, at best i can send them to a random selection of papers spread all over the Internet, each difficult to understand and to relate to the others (and probably difficult to find anyway), and none of them truly supported by the whole scientific community. If someone asks me how many exoplanets we discovered, i can send them to the NASA database. Where is the repository of all empirical data that, according to most scientists, prove without any doubt that we are heading for a catastrophe? All we can point at is headlines in mass media, the same media that mislead us about so many facts. The 2012 report from the International Union for Conservation of Nature states that 20,000 species are in danger of going extinct: where is the list of the species that "have gone" extinct? And how does it compare with the number of species that went extinct one century ago? five centuries ago? one thousand years ago?

It is telling that the typical presentation/talk about climate change rarely lists any bibliography at all: it is difficult even for them to compile a meaningful list (that all of them agree about). Most talks about climate change begin with the fateful "and recently we discovered..." which is typical of unreliable science. Most "recent discoveries" turn out to be false alarms (recently we discovered that neutrinos travel faster than light... only to find out later that it does not). Listening to these talks feels like listening to a religious sermon in a church or mosque.

Science is, first and foremost, predictive. That's what distinguish it from superstition. If climate change studies are science, they should be able to define what is the "catastrophe" that we are about to face and the timeframe: extinction of all living species by 2038? Universal flood by 2065? Annihilation of life by asphyxia by 2048? Just claiming that something really bad is going to happen if we don't change our behavior is what the street preachers do on the Hollywood Strip ("repent because the end of the world is coming").

There is a broader problem with today's science: no accountability. Scientists can pretty much decide what to do and when to do it with little or accountability towards the society that pays for their work. There is nobody checking that they go to work at 8am and stay till 5pm and are productive on the job the way you get controlled by your boss in a regular job. The timescale of academics is often measured in weeks, if not months, even for the most trivial chores: projects that would take a few hours in a small company may take literally weeks in a university. Everybody claims to be busy all the time (and, in particular, too busy to go out and save the world), but a cursory look at their recent published papers reveals only the faintest of progress. I think it would be just fair to demand that, as part of their duties, scientists explain to the public what they are doing and why, and present progress reports from which one can understand if they actually work or not. The most important way to show accountability is for them to do more public events: to talk about what they do to the public (instead of talking only to their peers). When someone mentioned to a distinguished climatologist that he should present his data on the coming catastrophe at a public event open to everybody that i was organizing, he replied that he is too busy: too busy for what? to save the world?

Their attitude is that it is somebody else's job to "act". Their attitude implicitly assumes that the masses are ignorant and dumb, and therefore difficult to sway; that convincing the masses of the perils ahead is a futile exercise, doomed to failure like trying to convince a child to wear warm clothes in cold weather. Hence their refusal to preach outside the choir, and their reluctance to take questions from the lay public. Implicitly, many scientists advocate an executive order, a dictatorial decree, that would bypass the democratic process and de facto overrule the constitution to pass what they (the scientists) believe is necessary. I myself have argued that this would be a "better" system than pure democracy in which every vote counts the same (regardless of competence). Like it or not, this is not the world in which we (Westerners) live.

Let's face it: there is not much that looks like science in this science. People are right to be skeptic and indifferent. It just doesn't feel like the scientists themselves believe in what they are saying. It just doesn't feel like a catastrophe is coming any time sooner than Jesus' resurrection.

To be fair to scientists, it is certainly true that Western society is training people to be more interested in a new consumer-electronic gadget and in a local restaurant's menu than in the fate of the planet. We are bombarded daily by adverts, articles and talk shows about products and services. Those become our main interests because people tend to talk about what people talk about. But ultimately there has been a sharp decline in the trust between the public and the science, the science believing that the public is little more than a herd of cows and the public believing that the scientists are simply desperate to justify their salary with their apocalyptic predictions.

This is actually a very good piece of journalism that debunks the predictions of climate change: read it. The reason that Norman Rogers can write that article (and win the argument) is simple: climate science still looks like very bad science, and not only to ignorant right-wing fanatics.

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