“To the extent that the challenges that the article documents are more real than Paul Ehrlich’s 1968 declaration that ‘The battle to feed all of humanity is over,’ the best response is to ignore the scientists’ solutions.”
In January 2021, Paul and Anne Ehrlich and a host of other famous scientists published the grimly titled article, Underestimating the Challenges of Avoiding a Ghastly Future. The piece appeared in the online journal, Frontiers in Conservation Science, “where,” the masthead informs us, “scientists empower society.”
The heavily footnoted article warns that continued population growth will lead to increased consumption which will, in turn, result in loss of biodiversity leading to a 6th mass extinction, climate change leading to mass migrations, declining child health, water and earth toxification, more pandemics, increased terrorism, war over resources, and greater material inequality.
The authors also warn about carrying capacity “inflation” and “overshoot”:
A central concept in ecology is density feedback — as a population approaches its environmental carrying capacity, average individual fitness declines. This tends to… [slow or reverse] population growth. But for most of history, human ingenuity has inflated the natural environment’s carrying capacity for us by developing new ways to increase food production, expand wildlife exploitation, and enhance the availability of other resources.
This inflation has involved modifying temperature via shelter, clothing, and microclimate control, transporting goods from remote locations, and generally reducing the probability of death or injury through community infrastructure and services. But with the availability of fossil fuels, our species has pushed its consumption of nature’s goods and services much farther beyond long-term carrying capacity (or more precisely, the planet’s biocapacity), making the readjustment from overshoot that is inevitable far more catastrophic if not managed carefully.
Though apparently horrified by the fruits of human ingenuity, the authors seem dimly aware that material wealth is essential for solving the myriad problems they predict, but only insofar as it is required for “political capacity”:
The added stresses to human health, wealth, and well-being will perversely diminish our political capacity to mitigate the erosion of ecosystem services on which society depends.
Their solution is, of course, less freedom and more government:
The gravity of the situation requires fundamental changes to global capitalism, education, and equality, which include inter alia the abolition of perpetual economic growth, properly pricing externalities, a rapid exit from fossil-fuel use, strict regulation of markets and property acquisition, reigning in [sic] corporate lobbying, and the empowerment of women.
While we are told that government solutions are essential, government focus is sadly misplaced:
Stopping biodiversity loss is nowhere close to the top of any country’s priorities, trailing far behind other concerns such as employment, healthcare, economic growth, or currency stability.
Nations have in general not met the goals of the 5 year-old Paris Agreement (United Nations, 2016), and while global awareness and concern have risen, and scientists have proposed major transformative change (in energy production, pollution reduction, custodianship of nature, food production, economics, population policies, etc.), an effective international response has yet to emerge.
What to do? Scientists (who “empower society”) must step up and get scary:
While there have been more recent calls for the scientific community in particular to be more vocal about their warnings to humanity, these have been insufficiently foreboding to match the scale of the crisis. Given the existence of a human “optimism bias” that triggers some to underestimate the severity of a crisis and ignore expert warnings, a good communication strategy must ideally undercut this bias without inducing disproportionate feelings of fear and despair. It is therefore incumbent on experts in any discipline that deals with the future of the biosphere and human well-being to eschew reticence, avoid sugar-coating the overwhelming challenges ahead and “tell it like it is.”
To the extent that the challenges that the article documents are more real than Paul Ehrlich’s 1968 declaration that “The battle to feed all of humanity is over,” the best response is to ignore the scientists’ solutions. Instead, I suggest we: