Catastrophists versus hopefuls

“Population Bombed: Exploding the Link Between Overpopulation and Climate Change”, by Pierre Desrochers and Joanna Szurmak”.

I have had the most useful engagement with a book recently, and I thought I would bring it to your attention. For those concerned with the global warming/climate change issue, the biggest challenge is to realize that this issue is perennial, and that its underlying attitudes have been fought over for ages. The clash between outlooks will never be resolved, I suspect, because it is religious in nature. By religious I do not mean having to do with God, or Gaia, but with basic human propensities towards hope or fatalism.

Let me give you the biologist’s view in a simple picture and quote:

Image may contain: 1 person, smiling, text

In a nutshell, that is the ‘limits to growth’ ideology in two sentences. At the heart of it lies the enemy known as capitalism: relentless, restless, seeking, appetitive, knowing neither piety towards the gods nor despair of the future. Bad dog! Bad man! Bad male! By contrast, the depletionist view holds that we are all just bacteria in a closed petri dish. We will expand until we come up against the limits of the carrying capacity of the planet, as which point we will experience a catastrophic die-off . The metaphor is of fixed limits. It is the product of the epistemic bias of the science of biology.

Then there is the view of the Rational Optimist, which is the view of Pierre Desrochers and Joanna Szurmak, and others whose thinking they expose one to. One such is Adam Frank, astrophysicist and astrobiologist, and I quote him:

“It’s not the earth that needs saving. Instead it’s us and our project of civilization that need a new direction. If we fail to make it across the difficult terrain we face, the planet will just move on without us, generating new species in the novel climate it evolves. The ‘we suck’ narrative makes us villains in a story that, ultimately, has none. What the story does have are experiments – the ones that failed the ones that succeeded.” – cited from page 173 of “Population Bombed”

As Adam Frank told Joe Rogan, “we are what the biosphere is making right now”.

Population Bombed reviews the arguments of the catastrophists and their opponents. One such opponent was Julian Simon, an economist, who famously bet the doomist biologist Paul Ehrlich that a list of five natural resources would be cheaper in a decade’s time than they were at the time of the bet. [It appears that Julian Simon chose the right decade for his bet].

More importantly, Population Bombed shows that there was a straight-line relationship among three catastrophist visions: soil depletion in the 1950s, global cooling in the 1970 caused by polluting aerosols, and global warming of the present day. It was pushed by the same people, and funded by the same sources. Doomists changed their particular cause of doom without breaking stride.

Desrochers and Szurmak conclude:

“Trade, the division of labour, more people and more carbon fuels are what allowed humanity to simultaneously bake and enjoy an ever larger number of economic and environmental cakes, while in the process making human societies ever more resilient against extreme weather events and any climate change they may be confronted with”.

Eventually Desrochers and Szurmak seek an understanding of the doomists/limits-to-growthists in the epistemic prejudice of biology, which is set forth above in the quote from Ursula Le Guin. If your governing metaphor is that humans are like bacteria in a petri dish, and hydrocarbons are the sugar that has been added to the mix, then human population will explode until we suffer a catastrophic die-off. In the depletionist mind-set, humans suck, and you do not have to go far before you discover that many eco-catastrophists are very close to exterminationist in their beliefs.

If, by contrast, your view is the humans are constantly adapting , then one is not surprized to find that one of the first adaptations humans have made to prosperity is to reduce their birthrates in all societies across the planet. The education of women – caused by the advances that energy, technology and prosperity have allowed – has led to plunging birthrates, even in societies that have not industrialized. This was the subject of Empty Planet: The Shock of Global Population Decline, by Bricker and Ibbotson. Empty Planet is worthwhile but much narrower in scope than Population Bombed, since the former confines itself to a discussion of what world population will do until about 2100.

My point is that the optimists – in reality the hopefuls – are right to emphasize that humans adapt. Resources are not fixed. Indeed, the term “resources” is like the word “weed”, or “kosher” or “haram”; it denotes belonging to a class whose nature has been previously determined on other grounds. The iron age has not yet run out of iron, nor did the stone age run out of stones. What is a “resource” depends on a prior idea of science, technology, or art. Resources are not fixed; they expand or contract as human vision and opinions change.

The optimists are aware of this. The eco-catastrophists are fixated on the metaphors of depletion, finite resources, carrying capacity of the planet, and spaceship earth. The optimists are saying, in essence, that we are the things that dreams are made of. that though we are part of the natural order, we are in the most significant ways not a part of the natural order. Using our curiosity, imaginations, our willingness to learn and trade, and to make, the human species has risen to great heights. If we remain flexible and adaptive, we may survive yet.

Finally, in order to explain better that catastrophist mindset, Desrochers and Szurmak refer to an old favourite of mine, Jane Jacob’s Systems of Survival, one of the most important books ever written. Yes, I know that is a large claim. Jacobs discusses the contrasting moral outlooks of the “guardian” and “commercial” syndromes. It is a book of amazing and concise explanatory power, and doubtless it offends those who cherish confusion, nuance and messiness over clarity and precision. However, Jacobs’ two moral syndromes is a heuristic, a rule of thumb, not an exclusive or exhaustive discussion of all things human.

I leave you to look it up. The interest for me was the linkage that Desrochers and Szurmak forge between the guardian mentality and the eco-doomist catastrophist outlook, which for me was akin to finding that piece of the jigsaw puzzle linking large collections of previously separate areas of thought. Population Bombed situates a contemporary debate in a larger and older clash of ideas and beliefs, and I admire it for grounding me in that age-old discussion, as well as ably advancing the cause of the hopefuls.

“Stick with the optimists. It’s going to be tough enough even if they’re right.” 
― James Barrett Reston

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gerry

Hayek in The Fatal Conceit makes a similar point about the throwback mentality to smaller population groups. His point is that population increase enables specialization and greater opportunities for people to develop their unique skills and talents rather than have to be a ‘jack of all trades’. In Hayek’s analysis, socialism (which seems be linked to the guardian mentality as you describe) is oriented towards control (totalitarian in my experience) which stifles innovation and creativity. The whole argument is obviously more complicated but it seems to fit with what you have outlined here just from a different starting point.

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