A voice of optimism about humanity’s future

A few months ago I listened to Paul Ehrlich on Margaret Throsby’s radio program on Classic FM, and felt moved to write a small essay on him. It was not supportive. A little while later I read an essay that he and his wife Anne had written, entitled ‘Can a collapse of global civilization be avoided?‘, published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society. This too was more doomsday stuff, and since I felt that I had said enough on Ehrlich, I moved on.

And I’ll stick to that view, other than giving you the following sentence: ‘The threat from climate disruption to food production alone means that humanity’s entire system for  mobilizing energy needs to be  radically transformed.’ Ehrlich loves the big words of fear: ‘threat’, ‘humanity’, ‘mobilizing’, ‘radically transformed’. You get the message. He doesn’t, however, say how immediate or strong the threat is, and says nothing about the pause in warming, or mention that the IPCC itself has said there is no observable connection between global warming and extreme weather events. Why let facts get in the way of a gloomy story?

Another Fellow of the Royal Society, Michael Kelly, decided that some kind of rebuttal was necessary, and wrote one, also published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society. It is short, benign and eminently accessible. Perhaps I should say Michael Kelly has a most dignified title: he is Prince Philip Professor of Technology at Cambridge University, and that he was a member of the Committee that looked into the University of East Anglia ‘Climategate’ issue. He has also publicly decried the supposed ‘consensus’ about climate science.

His principal beef with the Erhlichs is that while they give plenty of references about the potential downsides for humanity, what is missing is any balancing assessment of the progress being made on these … challenges (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.  

As he and many others have said, the problems that Malthus raised about food, Jevons about the exhaustion of coal, King and others about peak oil, have been overcome in time by human ingenuity, which seems to rise to an imagined crisis. Take population, he says. The populations of Europe, the USA, Japan (and I would add, Australia), would be declining were it not for immigration (about which I wrote the other day). As people move into cities and have access to education, the birth rate goes down. There are even suggestions that by 2100 the world’s population will be seriously in decline, with what to do with unwanted infrastructure being a key question for governments.

Food production has risen (the Ehrlichs agree, but they are worried about the growing demand for meat), and Kelly wonders why there was no discussion about the generation of animal protein in the laboratory. In the last thirty years there has been an astonishing increase in the development of prawn farms, salmon farms and the like. Where might all that be in 2050, let alone 2100?

His starkest example, at least for me, is the smart phone, developed in the context of business as usual — just a device to help us communicate. The text is so good that I quote it whole:

First, the small piece of metal, plastic and semiconductor that fits in the palm of a hand contains the functions of a camera, radio, telephone, answering machine, photo album, dictaphone, music centre, satellite navigation system, video camera and player, compass, stop-watch, Filofax, diary and more, which were all separate and bulky items only 20 years ago. This represents the great dematerialization of modern civilization, well ahead of any imminent collapse of natural resources. The shape of high streets and retail centres are [sic] changing to reflect this evolution. Indeed, the recycling of electronic systems will enhance further this capability of doing more with less material, and the market for extended time between recharging has driven extraordinary improvements in energy efficiency. It is these new low-resource technologies with ever-increasing recycled materials that will drive the world in future.

Second, the mobile phone is being used in rural Africa and India to inform farmers of optimal times for taking their products to market, thus reducing greatly the loss of product and/or income, and reducing the stress on land from the need to overproduce to compensate for such losses.

He goes on to provide a thoughtful counter to each of the Ehrlich claims. We are not obvious at risk of running out of fossil fuels. Future temperatures may not be anything like as warm as the Ehrlichs claim, while advances in communications, materials science and health, not to mention the Internet, mean that human health could indeed improve dramatically.

He finishes with this calm sentence: The mainstream scientific and engineering community can see nothing that suggests an imminent collapse of civilization, and it is well on track to deal with new problems as they emerge, in continuity with the history of the last 200 years. 

I think it’s great stuff, and I recommend that you hand copies of it to any hand-wringers whom you encounter.

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