A couple of weeks ago The Royal Society published a major new report called People and the Planet(pdf),which has drawn a lot of criticism for its apparent commitment to outdated “Limits to Growth” type thinking.
As Tim Worstall points out, while there is much to merit in the nuanced analysis of the main report, in the actual discussions of what we should do about both consumption and population,
it appears that we really are running out of “reserves” and that we should hand out condoms to all and sundry. That last isn’t all that surprising, as Jonathan Porritt is part of the team and he’s incapable of saying anything else on the subject.
Indeed, Porritt is not of course a scientist at all, more an activist, and his presence here which does in itself raise serious questions about the integrity of the study, if it means that the science is being mixed up with ideological interpretations and policy recommendations.
Similarly, Mark Lynas argues
Whilst using a lot of dark language about increasing numbers of humans globally, the report nowhere acknowledges that the current median level of total worldwide fertility has fallen dramatically from 5.6 in the 1970s to only 2.4 today. In other words we are already close to natural replacement levels in terms of total fertility – the reason that the absolute population will continue to grow to 9 billion or more is that more children are living long enough have their own children. To my mind a reduction in infant mortality and an increase in life expectancy are self-evidently good and desirable – and their impact on world population levels should be celebrated, not bemoaned.
Lynas goes onto to explain that the main failing of neo-Malthussianism is that it assumes resource consumption is a “zero-sum game”- that there is a finite pie to be shared by an expanding population, with only one possible outcome- not enough pie to go around. While this might be true in an absolute sense, it ignores technological developments which allow economic growth – “qualitative” rather than just “quantitative” growth to continue even as per capita, and ultimately even total impacts may plateau and even decline.
Chris Goodall at Carbon Commentary picks up on this theme by arguing that more resource consumption and growth need not necessarily result in greater impact. He uses the example of waste and rubbish:
Waste production per person in the UK peaked at around 520 kg a year in the year to March 2002. The latest two quarters figures are fifteen per cent below that level. The latest quarterly figures suggest a figure of about 443 kg. The decline from year to year isn’t smooth but is probably getting steeper.
As societies get richer, they become smarter, more eco-conscious and generally have a tendency to clean up our act. Goodall wryly continues
In contrast to what the Royal Society says, growth may be good for the environment. We waste less and are prepared to devote more cash to ecological protection. Technology improvements mean things last longer and use fewer physical resources to make. Regretfully, I have to say that the world’s most prestigious scientific institution should spend more time checking its facts.
Ben Pile sees the Royal Society’s report in the context of climate change politics, an old story used to bolster the floundering old story of catastrophic climate change:
the Royal Society’s sideways step from climate alarmism to Malthusianism is also a step backwards. Before climate change became the dominant narrative of political environmentalism, the principle issues were ‘limits to growth’ and ‘the population bomb’. Those vehicles failed to give the environmentalists’ political project the profile it needed. Malthusianism was, in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, too easily rebutted. And in the dark days of the cold war, we seemed to have bigger problems to face. The end of the cold war arrived, and the brief era of optimism ended with climate change. It filled the nuclear-winter-shaped hole. But now there is widespread acknowledgement that climate change has been over-stated, the institutions which have sought to attach themselves to the issue have had to find a new story. And the new story is an old story…
Pile is critical of the august scientific institution stepping beyond its role of science into the realm of public policy and lifestyle recommendations- hand out contraception, get the rich world to curtail its consumption.
What caught my eye in particular was Pile’s pointing out that just the week before the publication of the report none other than Paul Ehrlich was made a fellow of the Royal Society.
And in doing so, the Royal Society abandons its claim to be a scientific authority. It has embraced a particular ideology… a nasty, anti-human perspective on the world. It can no longer say Nullius in Verba (on the word of no one). It’s perspective is no longer fixed on the material world. The object of its ‘science’ is now the human world, and control over it.
As it happens, I had just purchased on impulse a copy of a book that has quite a lot to say about Mr. Ehrlich. Future Babble by Dan Gardner is a truly fascinating study of failed predictions of apocalypse, both supernatural and ecological.
Gardner adopts Philip Tetler’s classification, after Isaiah Berlin, of experts as either “Hedgehogs” or “Foxes”
“The fox knows many things,” the warrior-poet Archilochus wrote, “but the hedgehog knows one big thing.”
Tetlock was involved in a committee brought together by the National Research Council in 1984, at the height of the Cold War, to examine the success or failure of expert opinions. In an extensive study involving 284 experts in many different fields, Tetlock compared predictions with reality, and found that the foxes- who tended to make much more cautious and contingent predictions, scored much more highly than the over-confident hedgehogs.
“On both calibration and discrimination, complex and cautious thinking trounced simple and confident.”
Ehrlich provides a spectacular example of a hedgehog, having founded a career spanning several decades on failed predictions.
“In the early 1970s, the leading edge of the age of scarcity has arrived,” he wrote in 1974’s The End of Affluence. With it came a clearer look at the future, revealing more of the nature of the dark age to come.” Of course there would be mass starvation in the 1970s- “or, at least, the 1980s.” Shortages “will become more frequent and more severe”, he wrote. “We are facing, within the next three decades, the disintegration of nation-states infected with growthmania.”…The mere continuation of current trends will ensure that “by the year 2000 the United Kingdom wil simply be a small group of impoverished islands, inhabited by some 70million hungry people, of little or no concern to the other 5-7billion of a sick world.”
Despite these outrageously wide-of-the-mark predictions, Ehrlich’s appointment to the Royal Society is only the latest in a long string of top awards, including the Gold Medal Award of the World Wildlife Fund International; the John Muir Award of the Sierra Club; the MacArthur Fellowship, nicknamed the “Genius Award”; and the Crafoord Prize of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, widely considered the Nobel of environmentalism. Many of these awards were for his work as a biologist, but they were often given for his popular books like The Population Bomb.
Gardner notes that “the Crafoord Prize citation specifically noted Ehrlich’s ‘numerous books on global environmental problems, such as overpopulation, resource depletion nuclear winter, and greenhouse effects. It has been said that with Rachel Carson he is the one person with the greatest importance for present-day awareness of the imminent global catastrophe.'”
No matter what global catastrophe, Gardner wryly points out- on a survey of Cambridge University alumni in 2009 producing a list of the most important 50 books ever on sustainability, representing “the wisdom of our age” The Population Bomb came in at number four…
Another doomer who has made a career from predicting collapse is peak-oil pundit James Howard Kunstler. Well known in the peak oil community for his role in the documentary The End of Suburbia and his 2005 book The Long Emergency, Kunstler is lesser-known, or perhaps forgotten as “one of the most extreme voices in the Y2K fiasco.”
“If nothing else, I expect Y2K to destablize world petroleum markets”, Kunstler wrote, and the effects of that wil be as bad as, or worse than, those of the 1973 oil embargo. Industrial agriculture will collapse. “Spectacular dysfunction” will plague car-dependent cities. Supply chains will crumble. “I doubt that the WalMarts and the K-Marts of the land will survive Y2K.” That was the minimum-damage outcome. He actually expected things to get much worse…
Failure- even repeated failure over decades- does not seem to be a hindrance for these hedgehogs. “One might think that after Kunstler’s Y2K pratfall people wouldn’t pay for him to be their tour guide to the future, but The Long Emergency was a best-seller and Kunstler- a wildly entertaining speaker- became a fixture on the lecture circuit, where he is paid significant amounts of money to tell audiences they are doomed”- while “for experts who want the public’s attention” Gardner observes, “Ehrlich is the gold standard. Be articulate, enthusiastic, and authoritative. Be likeable. See things through a single analytical lens and craft an explanatory story that is clear, conclusive, and compelling. Do not doubt yourself. Do not acknowledge mistakes. And never, ever say ‘I don’t know’.”
What is fascinating is that retrospect does not seem to make these predictors of doom any the wiser. Rather than admit failure and revise their approach- turning as it were from Hedgehog to Fox- both Ehrlich and Kunstler played down the gaps between forecast and reality: for Ehrlich, the expected population collapse may not have happened on the timescale expected, but it is bound to come sometime- all the signs are still there; while Kunstler tended to exaggerate the actual effects and downplay the extremity of his own predictions. And anyway, even if Y2K didn’t do for America, the whole place is on the way down anyway- which makes him nearly right in any case.
This rationalisation follows a very similar pattern to that described by Leon Festinger in his classic 1956 study When Prophecy Fails.
Marian Keech, an American psychic who had had a vision of the imminent end of the world, had gathered a small group of faithful around her, who all believed that they would be saved by aliens on a certain date while God wiped out the rest of humanity. Some of Keech’s followers had given up their jobs and sold their houses. But when the hour of destruction arrived and nothing happened, they had to reinterpret events: it was their faith that had inspired God to have second thoughts and save the world after all.
Gardner does not only look at failed predictions of doom- he also considers the spectacular failure to consider the aftermath of the Iraq invasion for example- but our preference for negative predictions has its root in our evolutionary psychology: better be safe than sorry, and expect the worse, may be hard-wired into the human mind: that rustling in the bushes might be just the wind, but you get it wrong and it turns out to be a sharp-toothed predator, you might not survive to pass on your incautious genes.
The book also considers the great-grandfather of peak oil, M.K. Hubbert, who correctly predicted in 1957 that US oil production would peak between the late 60s and early 70s; however his global predictions of global peak in 1995 were wide of the mark, and his expectations of rapid decline even more so: “By 2010 it would be down a terrifying 17%. ‘The end of the Oil Age is in sight,’ proclaimed Hubert in 1974.”
Vaclav Smil, in his book Energy Myths and Realities also points out that while Hubberts’ date for US oil Peak was roughly correct, he had hugely underestimated the level at which this would occur, which was 18% higher- at 4.12 billion barrels/year rather than Hubbert’s 3.5billion. More importantly, says Smil, Hubbert predicted ultimate recovery for the US to be around 200billion barrels in total- for all time- yet by 2005 the US had already extracted 192bb, and continues to be the world’s third largest producer, with 30bb reserves, and is even today once again increasing output due to new techniques of shale oil extraction.
Smil dismisses the peak-oil/collapse camp as a “cult”- Hubbert’s predictions suffered from the same shortcomings that today’s peak oil predictions have- assumptions of linear trends which take no account of improvements in technology of extraction and of efficiency of use, and changes in the way we use energy. Neither The Long Emergency nor other classic peak oil texts like Heinberg’s The party’s Over foresaw the shale gas revolution for example.
“Thus” says Smil, “the post-peak decline of US oil extraction has not been a mirror image of the incline: Hubbert’s rate for the year 2000 production was 1.5billion barrels, while the actual extraction was 2.8bb, or nearly 90% higher- hardly and enviable accuracy for a 30-year forecast.”
Gardner also considers climate change predictions.
For the record, I accept that anthropogenic climate change is all too real. But as the reader may guess, I am skeptical of climate models that purport to forecast changes in the climate decades and even centuries out.
The climate system “is almost indescribably complex” and non-linear, and of course the models might also underestimate the negative effects. That does not mean we should do nothing however. Instead we should make choices that will be winners in any scenario- capturing methane from landfills, improving energy efficiency, and controversially he advocates “a stiff carbon tax with the revenues returned to the economy in the form of cuts to other taxes. Would it deliver benefits even if climate change turns out to be bunk? Absolutely. Carbon taxes raise the effective cost of fossil fuels, making alternative energy more competitive and spurring research and development. And reducing the use of fossil fuels while increasing the diversity of our energy sources would be wonderful for a whole host of reasons aside from climate change.”
Future Babble is a great book with the power to cut through a lot of the blather that pertains to be certain predictions about the future, and in particular provides a welcome antidote to the constant stream of doom-mongering from self-appointed “experts” on the coming collapse of civilisation.
Concerns about the cost of oil, turmoil in the Middle East and the economic collapse will guarantee, says Smil, that pundits of doom will continue to come to the fore and gain disproportionate air-time for their certainties:
No wonder that uninformed, and outright misinformed, pontification on oil futures has been reaching new heights, nor that this flood of opportunistic “analyses” and sensationalized “revelations” has been magnified by scores of cable TV news channels eager to fill their round-the-clock coverage with any willing talking head, and by the self-appointed experts of the blogosphere.
In an uncertain world, we are easily seduced by those who sound confident enough to predict the future.
Nobel prize winner and Fellow of the Royal Society, biologist Sir John Sulston, co-author of the “People and the Planet” report claimed in rather unscientific language on BBC Radio 4’s Any Questions “we need to cut back on consumption or the planet is going to burn”;
And, it seems, even when similar predictions, made so confidently at the time, have been shown to be out by a mile, those who make them never learn: just this minute as I was finishing the post, a tweet from @mark_lynas linked to a report that a new book out by some of the original authors of the 1972 Limits to Growth study repeat pretty much the same linear projections- apocalypse, not wrong, but just deferred. Again.