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The New Malthusians

Every so often, a group of self-proclaimed experts will predict some new dire threat to civilization as we know it. Via Meadia has documented many instances of modern-day doomsayers who insist that the end is near, whether due to overpopulation, peak oil or rapidly melting glaciers, only to be proven wrong by unforeseen events and by human ingenuity.

So we couldn’t help but chuckle at this gem of a press release from UC Berkeley, via James Fallows, unironically entitled “Scientists uncover evidence of impending tipping point for Earth.” The breathless report begins:

A prestigious group of scientists from around the world is warning that population growth, widespread destruction of natural ecosystems, and climate change may be driving Earth toward an irreversible change in the biosphere, a planet-wide tipping point that would have destructive consequences absent adequate preparation and mitigation.

If that doesn’t grab your attention, these anecdotes may persuade you to get your affairs in order:

Co-author Elizabeth Hadly from Stanford University said “we may already be past these tipping points in particular regions of the world. I just returned from a trip to the high Himalayas in Nepal, where I witnessed families fighting each other with machetes for wood – wood that they would burn to cook their food in one evening. In places where governments are lacking basic infrastructure, people fend for themselves, and biodiversity suffers. We desperately need global leadership for planet Earth.”

Unfortunately, no amount of data modeling can prove what these experts are attempting to predict. It can also never determine how humans will respond to changes in our environment, what new discoveries will reshape our world, and what variables will come into play in the decades to come. While some engaged scientists (and even more policy activists) want to be “clearer than truth” because they genuinely believe that the dangers are real and they genuinely want to spark dramatic action, these efforts almost always backfire in the end. They end up becoming like the shepherd boy who cried “Tyrannosaurus! Tyrannosaurus!” because he didn’t think the townspeople would react fast enough if all they were worried about was a wolf.

Better to be modest and conscientious stewards of the data; in the long run you have more influence as a trusted guide and impartial interpreter of facts than as a wild-eyed fanatic.

In the meantime, Via Meadia can confidently put the odds of “global leadership for planet Earth” at zero. If the clear and present danger of nuclear war hasn’t galvanized an effective global movement against the Bomb in 70 years, the more nebulous (and harder to counter) threats of climate and environmental doom won’t change human nature or international politics, either.

Let’s hope we don’t end up fighting one another with machetes over wood, but the fond vision of the Grand Global Union to prevent environmental catastrophe is a pipe dream whether or not that is where we are headed.

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  • Corlyss

    Fallows used to be okay as a journalist, but since Atlantic moved to DC and he moved to China, he’s become certifiably nuts.

  • Gene

    I’m having trouble seeing how highly localized fights over firewood = need for global leadership NOW! Do these people listen to themselves when they offer public statements?

  • Jacksonian Libertarian

    The Humano-centric ecology is Mother Nature’s greatest achievement.

  • Kris

    “We desperately need global leadership for planet Earth.”

    One planet, one biosphere, one leader.

  • Walter Sobchak

    Another press release on the same article:

    It is more politically explicit:

    Society globally has to collectively decide that we need to drastically lower our population very quickly. More of us need to move to optimal areas at higher density and let parts of the planet recover. Folks like us have to be forced to be materially poorer, at least in the short term.


    If you want to know why “science” has lost its creditibility. This is the explanation. This is done in the name of Science, but it is not science, it is bad politics, bad religion, and bad PR.

    They publish a wave of these studies every 20 or 30 years. Remember the the “Population Bomb” and the “Limits to Growth”.

    Thank God that they are so wrong. There are more people alive now, living longer and more prosperous lives, in more places than ever before in the history of the world.

    When the first round of “Scientists” wrote their Apocalypses, China and India were synonymous with poverty and over population. Now they are the most dynamic economies in the world. The collapse of Soviet Union freed hundreds of millions people from terrible poverty and want. Even Sub-Saharan Africa is showing welcome signs of economic growth.

  • Luke Lea

    @ – “Every so often, a group of self-proclaimed experts will predict some new dire threat to civilization as we know it. Via Meadia has documented many instances of modern-day doomsayers who insist that the end is near. . . ”

    Yeah, but sometimes it turns out they were right:

    Tell me this ain’t real.

  • Lorenz Gude

    Berkeley economist Brad deLong takes a long view in his work – he looks at GDP per capita over the entire history of the human race. His graphs contain a powerful message. GDP per capita remained flat with minor fluctuation throughout history until 1750. Then it doubled every 50 years through 1950. Between 1950 and 2000 it quadrupled. The Malthusians look at it and say that is an unsustainable curve, and I would find it hard to argue with them. given that we have not figured out how to stretch our planet. But I would also say look again at the flat part of the curve prior to 1750 and you will realize that the population has been increasing for tens of thousands of years. Every time humans have found a way to increase their income they have chosen to increase the population, not their GDP per capita. Suddenly terraforming Mars seems less a dream than a biological necessity given that our very DNA is programmed to go forth and multiply.

  • cubanbob

    I will take these communist clowns seriously when they set an example that they belive what they say and kill themselves for the greater good. Until them its just best to ignore them.

  • Louis Wheeler

    It’s hard to tell what is real and what is bad politics.

    Take Peak Oil for instance. Is the world running out of energy? No, more energy has been discovered than was previously known. It is true that oil exploitation is leveling off, but there are a number reasons for that.

    Peak oil was never about energy, per se. It was an idea that all the cheap oil has been exploited. But, the availability of cheap energy depends on whether governments will allow energy we know about to be exploited. This depends on what technology will be used.

    If the US government won’t allow drilling in Alaska or either continental coastline, nor allow the tar sand in Colorado to be exploited, then this is sabotage, not a shortage. This is like people complaining about the effects of cartels, but won’t allow competition to exist.

    The point is that we have so much government meddling in energy markets that we can’t determine what energy is available or its cost. All we know is that no free market exists in energy. And government meddling gives many results, mostly not good.

  • Albert

    The phrase “We desperately need global leadership for planet Earth” actually means “Give us dictatorial powers because we know better than you what is good for you”. In short let’s turn the planet into Greater North Korea.

  • a nissen

    “Too Big to Know” is an interesting bore of a read that pin-points the distinction between pseudo science and Science: Science is that that can be disproven. Networking of data and computer modeling leads inevitably to predicting “what when,” but it is not the Science that scientists have trained us to think of as Science.

    We’d be wise to consider separating from politics, not just religion, but all the growing too big to know matters, as well. It might lead to more civil discourse and a break-through or two.

  • Glen

    The larger joke is Fallows himself.

    He is of a particular class of Baby Boomers who Came of Age during the 1970’s (in Fallow’s case, as a junior staffer in the Carter Administration). They have since led charmed lives either in academia, journalism or non-profits (or combinations of all three), with occasional forays into government when the Executive Branch has been led by a Saviour. Although mostly insulated from the economic shocks that have affected everyone else, they nonetheless have not amassed great wealth. Now in their fifties and facing their own mortality, they are profoundly angry – about almost everything that is the modern, capitalist Western world.

    Fortunately, most will soon retire from public life. But until they do, they represent the biggest threat to prosperity that we have seen in decades.

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