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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:

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

Half the population will die if the Green Plan is implemented – Patrick Moore

If you are of my school of thought, this is the actual goal of the Greens: mass extermination of humans, based on pure misanthropy. Here is Patrick Moore, former leader of Greenpeace.

Only rising prosperity will guarantee the reduction of the human population. Fertility is dropping everywhere in the world as women become educated. This includes especially Islamic societies, where the birth dearth is taking place in three generations instead of 150 years, as it did here. Women become educated when the societies in which they live pass beyond subsistence, and fossil fuels are the main reason the world has passed beyond subsistence. See Darrell Bricker and John Ibbitson’s Empty Planet: the Shock of Global Population Decline.

Also, Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist draws a direct line between fossil fuel consumption and the increasing prosperity of the last four centuries.

According to Ocasio-Cortez and her ilk, this is all a crime against Gaia and a disaster, because, as we all know, food is made in the basement of supermarkets.

Empty Planet: the shock of global population decline

This is a useful introduction to the next 70 years. The authors Darrell Bricker and John Ibbotson trace the debates about total human population, they side for good reasons with the view that the media UN demographic projections are too high, and they speculate on some of the effects that decreasing population will have on economic growth (bad), global warming (good) , and the extinction of small cultures (ongoing).

The argument is simple: women are becoming less fertile – having fewer babies – under the influence of higher education, moving to cities, greater aspirations, and the decline of social control of their reproductivity. This decline is occurring nearly everywhere, including in non-industrial societies, advanced industrial societies, and regardless of whether the people in question are Catholic, Protestant, Buddhist, secular, or Islamic. The fertility decline is occurring with especial speed in Islamic societies, and formerly strongly Catholic ones.

This is counter to what you have been taught in university back in the days of the Club of Rome report (1972) and in the doomist press. Births are below replacement rate (2.1 per woman) in most parts of the world. Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Mali are exceptions, though birth rates will fall there shortly, too. The point of demographics is that it correctly predicts the shape of societies for decades to come precisely because people tend to live by statistically valid durations of time. Lifespans are calculable.

Overall, the global average length of life has doubled to 70 years since 1900.

The UN predicts in its medium growth scenario a global population in 2100 (roughly 80 years away) at 11.2 billion, at which point it holds stable and then starts to shrinks. The low variant of UN projections say that the world population will peak at 8.2 billion around 2050 and decline to 7 billion, where we are now, by 2100.

A good portion of the argument of Bricker and Ibbotson is that the low variant will prove to be the correct one. I encourage you to read the argument.

The authors indulge themselves in later chapters with some attacks on nativism and Trump’s policies, which express Toronto-centric Upper Canadian snobbery and fail to address that the issue for the US is illegal immigration. Legal immigration to the United States continues to be high and is socially approved of, at about 1.1 million a year. Undocumented immigration has amounted over the years to more than 10.5 million US residents, and this is what excites the antipathy of the US citizenry.

They do venture to observe that declining world population, coupled with roughly stable energy use per person, will alleviate the global warming crisis (as they would see it). “Urbanization, innovation, and depopulation might be the best solution to halting the march of climate change.” (p.231)

However, the chief merit of this book is to draw attention to the shape of the next 80 years, as population rises until mid-century and begins to drop, in some cases precipitously, by 2100.

The same material is discussed from a deeply religious (meaningful) viewpoint in David Goldman’s How Civilizations Die (and Why Islam is Dying too). Both books start with UN statistics on population, but the resemblance ends there. Goldman links fertility, past and future, to the tenacity to which people hold to their religious creeds. This will be an unwelcome thought to the purely secular minds of Ibbotson and Bricker, and many other reasonable people. Yet of the subject of the world’s population interests you, Goldman’s interpretation of the facts evokes much deeper issues than urbanization and female empowerment. Says Goldman:

“Two cultures are contending at the family level throughout the world: secular modernity and renewed faith. Secular families have few children and religious families have many. That means that in each generation, religious families will increase in number and secular families will diminish” (at p 197)

Thus, says Goldman, the path out of secular population decline will necessarily require a change of views regarding family, women’s roles, fatherhood, and the really important issues of life. These are what I mean by the word “religion”. I do not see anything like this happening soon, and maybe it will never happen. By 2050, in a world that is shrinking in population, radical alternatives to population decline may seem more achievable and desirable. Or maybe we will have been assimilated by the Borg by then.