The Biggest Problem of All: The End of the World is Coming?

By Piero Scaruffi | 4 October 2012
Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies

Paul Ehrlich gave a talk at Stanford titled “Can a Collapse be Avoided”? Ehrlich is a biologist but his interests spread to Economics and Technology as well. The “collapse” of his talk is the catastrophe that, according to most climate scientists, is rapidly approaching. He listed eight major environmental problems and briefly discussed each. Some of them need to introduction (extinction of species, climate change, pollution) but others are no less catastrophic even though less advertised.

For example, global toxification: we filled the planet with toxic substances, and therefore the odds that some of them interact/combine in some deadly chemical experiment never tried before are increasing exponentially every year. There is no known way to fix something like that. We know how to fix pollution and carbon emissions and so forth (if we wanted to), but science would not know how to deal with a chemical reaction triggered by the combination of toxic substances in the soil. The highlight of the talk for me was the emphasis on “non-linearity”. Many scientists point out the various ways in which humans are hurting our ecosystem, but few single out the fact that some of these ways may combine and become something that is more lethal than the sum of its parts.

Another interesting point that is not widely recognized is that the next addition of one billion people to the population of the planet will have a much bigger impact on the planet than the previous one billion. The reason is that human civilizations already used up all the cheap, rich and ubiquitous resources. Naturally enough, humans started with the cheap, rich and ubiquitous ones, whether forests or oil wells. A huge amount of resources is still left, but those will be much more difficult to harness. For example, oil wells have to be much deeper than they used to. Therefore one liter of gasoline today does not equal one liter of gasoline a century from now: a century from now they will have to do a lot more work to get that liter of gasoline. That was the second key point that struck me: it is not only that some resources are being depleted, but even the resources that will be left are, by definition, those that are difficult to extract and use (a classic case of diminishing margin of return).

The bottom line of these arguments is that the collapse is not only coming, but the combination of the eight factors plus the internal combinations in each of them make it likely that it is coming even sooner than pessimists predict.

Ehrlich scanned relatively quickly these eight major problems and then spent some time discussing the aspect that most climate scientists ignore: what can we do to prevent the collapse and why aren’t we doing it? The audience for this event was made of social scientists. Unfortunately the conclusion was that the ecological collapse is not a fashionable cultural topic. In Silicon Valley, where I live, you are more likely to get a heated conversation starting if you mention the latest release of a smartphone (or even the new ethnic restaurant around the corner) than if you mention that the end of the world is coming. Ehrlich blamed the social sciences for not having understood how cultural evolution works: if we did, then we could direct cultural evolution towards understanding what is at stake. (My objection: I’m not sure that I want social scientists to be able to direct what people talk about and do).

Ehrlich threw the ball in the sociologist’s court: we need to create a ubiquitous culture of panic. The cultural obstacles to action on climate change (the culture that we need to reverse) is the belief that economies can grow forever, the belief that markets can solve all problems, the belief that central planning always fails, and, of course, the propaganda funded by the corporations that don’t want the system to change because it would impact their profits. If it sounds like a political attack against the philosophy of the USA in 2012, that’s what it was. Not many of these factors work in Western Europe, where people are not so fanatical about the free market, corporations are not so powerful, central planning is respected, and the economies have been anemic for decades. However, his points are largely correct in that the fall of communism and the spectacular success of capitalism in raising the qualify of life for billions of people in the developing world have created a mindset that makes it difficult to deal with climate change.

People forgot that polio was defeated when governments enacted plans to vaccinate all children (very often against the will of the parents). Many problems that took the lives of millions of people were defeated by government-mandated actions. China’s very economic boom may be due in no small measure to the one-child policy that stemmed population growth.

But that’s only one aspect of the problem. The triumph of democracy has created a world that is largely run by politicians whose main job is to get reelected, not to save the world. Democracy is inherently inefficient in tackling complex problems, especially when solutions would inconvenience millions of voters. Now that democracy has spread all over the world it has become difficult everywhere to take unpopular decisions. The more democracy gets perfected to truly represent the will of the people, the harder it is to pass any law because first you have to convince millions of voters to support it.

Another aspect of the problem is that ordinary people believe in climate change but not necessarily in the apocalyptic scenarios. Ehrlich defies empirical evidence: what people see in most of the world is economic growth, increasing wealth, better health case, longer life expectancy and so forth. Yes, they will readily admit that the air is polluted and that some company dumped toxic chemicals in their backyard, but they are keenly aware that today they are a lot better off than their parents were. Survival instinct tends to kick in when catastrophe happens, not when life is good. If they saw their children die by the millions of toxic chemicals, they would certainly rise up; but they won’t rise up for the prospect that perhaps in the future millions of children will die (just like most people living in seismic areas hardly ever think about the earthquake that sooner or later will wipe out their homes… until it happens).

Ehrlich is right that fundamentally the ecological catastrophe (let’s call it “the ecological singularity” by analogy with the technological singularity) is not a culturally fashionable topic. Therefore the degree of concern that it creates is very limited and superficial. It’s good for cafe conversation but not even the most convinced radical environmentalists would be willing to go on a hunger strike for a month or let alone start a violent campaign against those whom they accuse of destroying the planet. If some Muslims are willing to behead random innocents to avenge that someone burned a copy of the Quran you would expect that environmentalists would be willing to kill thousands of bankers, corporate managers and stock traders to avenge that these people are destroying the entire human race, wouldn’t you? Hardly the case.

If you are not a committed environmentalist, you probably don’t even list the ecological catastrophe in your list of top ten concerns; and you probably wouldn’t vote based on this issue alone. Having to choose between a candidate whom you trust on the economy, foreign affairs and social issues but not on the environment versus a candidate whom you trust on the environment but not on everything else, 99% of us would choose the former (me too), obviously a sign that we don’t believe the catastrophe is coming (otherwise everything else is meaningless once we are all dead).

Hence the problem of communication is even bigger than Ehrlich imagines. The very people who believe in the ecological singularity are not willing to fight a war over it. This is for sociologists to explain, but obviously young people in the 1960s were willing to risk jail and life to defend their views on civil rights: they marched, went on strike, clashed with the police, etc to protest racism, to promote gender equality and (in totalitarian regimes) to obtain democracy. Today’s youth is not willing to do any of these for what should be an even bigger cause: save the entire human race.

Ehrlich did not mention that academic scientists themselves are to blame for the inaction. Climate change is another victim of the age of hyperspecialization: most scientists are so focused on their own field that they can only visualize one specific threat related to that field, and don’t realize that such threat combined from threats visible to other experts in other fields creates a much bigger threat.

My guess is that democracies are inherently incapable of facing complex problems. Just like they reacted to fascism only when fascism attacked them, so they will find the consensus to act on climate change only when the catastrophe starts happening; and scientists tell us that it will be too late. Meanwhile, the high-tech world will keep manufacturing, marketing and spreading the very items that make the problem worse (more vehicles, more electronic gadgets, more plastic); and my friends in Silicon Valley will keep boasting about the latest gadgets, the things that environmental scientists call “unnecessarily environmentally damaging technologies”.

Piero Scaruffi is an author, cultural historian and blogger who has written extensively about a wealth of topics, ranging from cognitive science to music. Find him on Twitter at @pscaruffi.

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