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Community climate crisis will kill billions or will optimism save us  | Upload Society

Climate Crisis Will Kill Billions Or Will Optimism Save Us?

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by: Joyce Mahler
climate crisis will kill billions or will optimism save us  | Upload

Creator of the ‘ecological footprint’ on life and death in a world 4 C hotter. UBC professor emeritus William Rees provides the grim calculations for humanity if climate change and growth in population and consumption fuelled by cheap energy goes unchecked. 
Carbon emissions may continue to rise, the polar ice caps may continue to melt, crop yields may continue to decline, the world’s forests may continue to burn, coastal cities may continue to sink under rising seas and droughts may continue to wipe out fertile farmlands, but the messiahs of hope assure us that all will be right in the end. Only it won’t; Chris Hedges

Last April (2019) marked also the 49th Earth Day, a celebration of the natural wonders of the planet. Started in the United States in 1970, Earth Day is now a global environmental movement with 192 countries participating. This year, Earth Day comes on the heels of announcements from the US Energy Information Administration (EIA) that Americans used more energy in 2018 than ever before. While some see this as “troubling,” there’s a lot to be excited about. So here we go….

Climate Crisis May Wipe out Six Billion People

One thing the climate crisis underscores is that Homo sapiens are not primarily a rational species. When forced to make important decisions, particularly decisions affecting our economic security or socio-political status, primitive instinct and raw emotion tend to take the upper hand.

This is not a good thing if the fate of society is at stake. Take 'hope' for example. For good evolutionary reasons, humans naturally tend to be hopeful in times of stress. So gently comforting is this word, that some even endow their daughters with its name. But hope can be enervating, flat out debilitating, when it merges with mere wishful thinking — when we hope, for example, that technology alone can save us from climate change.

As novelist Jonathan Franzen asks: "If your hope for the future depends on a wildly optimistic scenario, what will you do 10 years from now, when the scenario becomes unworkable even in theory?" We needn’t bother Roger Hallam with this question. He can scarcely be held up as a 'messiah of hope'. Quite the contrary. Hallam, a co-founder of Extinction Rebellion, has been desperately warning of societal collapse for years.

Environmental activist Roger Hallam: co-founder of Extinction Rebellion

Environmental activist Roger Hallam: co-founder of Extinction Rebellion

But in a memorable session of the BBC’s HardTalk, Hallam irritated multiple cultural nerves by claiming, on the basis of 'hard science', that six billion people will die as a result of climate change in coming decades. More specifically, our ruling elites’ inaction and lies on climate change will lead to climate turmoil, mass starvation and general societal collapse in this century.

Normally unflappable HardTalk host, Stephen Sackur, just couldn’t wrap his mind around Hallam’s unyielding assertions.

Recommended: Climate Change: Water Scarcity, Hunger, Agriculture And Food

Sackur is no solitary sceptic. UC Davis research scientist Amber Kerr dismisses Hallam outright. The idea that six billion people are doomed to die by 2100 is simply not correct. No mainstream prediction indicates anywhere near this level of climate-change-induced human mortality, for any reason.
Similarly, Ken Caldeira, senior scientist, Carnegie Institution, points out, "There is no analysis of likely climate damage that has been published in the quality peer-reviewed literature that would indicate that there is any substantial likelihood that climate change could cause the starvation of six billion people by the end of this century."

One key to understanding these scientists’ rejections is their language. They assert that there is 'no mainstream prediction' nor analysis in the “peer reviewed literature” that climate change will precipitate such catastrophic human mortality. But keep in mind that scientists are reluctant, for professional reasons, to go far beyond the immediate data in formal publication. Moreover, organizations like the United Nations, including even its Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, are so dominated by economists’ concerns and bent by political considerations that extraneous noise obscures the scientific signal.

Prominent climate scientist Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, director emeritus of Germany’s Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, argues that, in these circumstances "a trend towards ‘erring on the side of least drama’ has emerged" and "when the issue is the survival of civilization is at stake, conventional means of analysis may become useless."
Exploring this argument, policy analysts David Spratt and Ian Dunlop conclude, "Climate policymaking for years has been cognitively dissonant, ‘a flagrant violation of reality.’ So it is unsurprising that there is a lack of understanding amongst the public and elites of the full measure of the climate challenge."

It seems that in mainstream scientific publications and official reports, the truth about climate change and the fate of civilization may be buried deeply between the lines. Fortunately, there are other contexts in which experts are not quite so reticent and whose assertions echo Roger Hallam’s.

As much as a decade ago a climate symposium organized to discuss the implications of a 4 C warmer world concluded, 'Less than a billion people will survive'. Here Schellnhuber is quoted as saying: "At 4 C Earth’s... carrying capacity estimates are below 1 billion people." His words were echoed by professor Kevin Anderson of the U.K.’s Tyndall Centre for Climate Change: "Only about 10 per cent of the planet’s population would survive at 4 C."

Similarly, in May of this year, Johan Rockström, current director of the Potsdam Institute opined that in a 4 C warmer world: "It’s difficult to see how we could accommodate a billion people or even half of that.... There will be a rich minority of people who survive with modern lifestyles, no doubt, but it will be a turbulent, conflict-ridden world." Meanwhile, greenhouse gas concentrations are still increasing.

Keep in mind that a global temperature increase averaging 4 C means land temperatures would be 5.5 to 6 C warmer away from the coasts. Much of the tropics would be too hot for humans and many densely populated parts of the temperate zone would be decertified. A 4 C warmer world map suggests that as much as half the planet would become uninhabitable. (A ‘4 C world’ assumes business-as-usual or no new climate policies in coming decades. Note, however, that known and unknown ‘feedback’ mechanisms could make 4 C possible, even with new politically acceptable policies in place.)

In a recent review of this debate and related evidence, David Spratt asks (and answers): "So did Roger Hallam ‘go too far’? Not at all, there is serious research and eminent voices in support of his statements. The gross error in all of this are all those who cannot countenance this conversation."

                                                                     Consequence of Overpopulation

Forbidden Calculations

Which begs the question of whether 'all those' would countenance any uncomfortable conversation. Population has long been a forbidden topic despite being at the root of the ecological crisis. Where might a discussion of population ecology lead and would its conclusions be any more politically acceptable?

  • We can begin by gaining some insight into the startling implications of exponential growth.When something is growing exponentially, it has a constant doubling time. For example, a population growing at two per cent a year will double every 35 years. Interestingly, the increase that occurs during any doubling period will be greater than the sum of the increases experienced in all previous doublings.
    As the figure below shows, it took 200,000 years for the human population to reach its first billion in the early 1800s. In other words, population growth was essentially negligible for 99.95 of human history. But when sustained exponential growth kicked in, it took just 200 years — 1/1000th as much time — for the population to top 7.5 billion early in this century!
    The recent two centuries of population growth generates this classic hockey stick curve. At most, just 10 of 10,000 generations of modern humans have experienced this unprecedented human explosion. Chart by Jonathan von Ofenheim.
    Graph population growth

  • This population explosion could not have occurred without abundant cheap energy, particularly fossil fuels.Obviously other factors are involved,  but energy is essentialfor humans to produce the food and acquire all the other resources needed to grow both populations and the economy. While human numbers were increasing by a factor of seven, energy consumption grew by a factor of 25 and real gross world product ballooned 100-fold.
    Rockcramming many people
  • Because of sometimes super-exponential growth, half of all the fossil energy and many other essential resources ever used have been consumed in just the past 30-35 years.Look no further to explain why human-induced climate change has suddenly become so urgent.

  • The pace of change is unprecedented— the recent spurt of population, economic and consumption growth that people today consider to be the normactually represents the single most anomalous period in human history.

  • Meantime, Earth hasn’t grown at all — on the contrary, natural life-support has arguably contracted.Global ecological deterioration indicates that the human enterprise has ‘overshot’ long-term carrying capacity. We are currently growing the human population and economy by liquidating once-abundant stocks of so-called ‘natural capital’ and by over-filling natural waste sinks. Humanity is literally converting the ecosphere into human bodies, prodigious quantities of cultural artefacts, and vastly larger volumes of entropic waste. (That’s what tropical deforestation, fisheries collapses, plummeting biodiversity, ocean pollution, climate change, etc. are all about.) Corollaries: We will not long be able to maintain even the present population at current average material standards. And, population growth toward 10 billion will accelerate the depletion of essential bioresources and the destruction of life-support functions upon which civilization depends.

  • The recent history of human population dynamics resembles the ‘boom-bust’ cycle of any other speciesintroduced to a new habitat with abundant resources and no predators, therefore little negative feedback. (The real-life example of reindeer herds can be found here.) The population expands rapidly (exponentially), until it depletes essential resources and pollutes its habitat. Negative feedback (overcrowding, disease, starvation, resource scarcity/competition/conflict) then reasserts itself and the population crashes to a level at or below theoretical carrying capacity (it may go locally extinct). The 'boom-bust' population cycle. Note the resemblance of the human population growth curve in Fig. 1 to the exponential ‘boom’ phase of the cycle. The world community can still choose to influence the speed and depth of the coming bust phase. 
    Graph boom phase cycle
    The 'boom-bust' population cycle. Note the resemblance of the human population growth curve to the exponential 'boom' phase of the cycle. Source: Biology: Life on Earth, 8th ed

  • Some species populations, in simple habitats, cycle repeatedly through boom and bust phases.The height of the boom is called the ‘plague phase’ of such cycles.

  • Hypothesis: Homo sapiens are currently approaching the peak of the plague phase of a one-off global population cycle and will crashbecause of depleted resources, habitat deterioration and psycho-social feedback, including possible war over remaining ‘assets,’ sometime in this century. ('But wait', I hear you protest. “Humans are not just any other species. We’re smarter; we can plan ahead; we just won’t let this happen!” Perhaps, but what is the evidence so far that our leaders even recognize the problem?)

  • The crash may be triggered or exacerbated by the depletion or abandonment of economic stocks of fossil fuels. As noted above, modern civilization is a product of, and dependent on, accessible abundant energy. (At present there are no viable alternatives to fossil fuels. Even if we do develop equivalent substitutes for fossil fuel they will, at best, merely delay the crash).

  • The long-term human carrying capacity of Earth — after ecosystems have recovered from the current plague — is probably one to three billion people,depending on technology and material standards of living. (Estimates varyfrom fewer than a billion to a truly ludicrous trillion.)

  • Getting there would mean five to nine billion fewer people on the planet.This is where we end up after a recovery following either controlled descentor chaotic crash.

Recommended: The Future Of Farming: Finding A Better Way To Feed The World

Making The Looming Disaster An Election Issue

The first thing to take from this analysis is that we are once again playing in Roger Hallam’s death-toll ballpark. But a more important point is that climate change is not the only existential threat confronting modern society. Indeed, we could initiate any number of conversations that end with the self-induced implosion of civilization and the loss of 50 per cent or even 90 per cent of humanity.

And that places the global community in a particularly embarrassing predicament. Homo sapiens, that self-proclaimed most-intelligent-of-species, is facing a genuine, unprecedented, hydra-like ecological crisis, yet its political leaders, economic elites and sundry other messiahs of hope will not countenance a serious conversation about of any of its ghoulish heads

Climate change is perhaps the most aggressively visible head, yet despite decades of high-level talks - 33 in al - and several international agreements to turn things around, atmospheric CO2 and other GHG concentrations have more than doubled to over 37 billion tonnes and, with other GHG concentrations, are still rising at record rates. In these circumstances, the only certainty is that the longer we deny reality and delay concerted action, the steeper and deeper the crash is likely to be.

So, where does this leave us? Jonathan Franzen has a suggestion: "You can keep on hoping that catastrophe is preventable.... Or you can accept that disaster is coming, and begin to rethink what it means to have hope." Certainly hope is sterile if unaccompanied by vigorous action that reflects looming reality.

Recommended: Climate Change, A Sideshow In Trump's State Of The Union

Optimism Save Us. The Earth Deserves More Than Doom And Gloom

For one, renewable energy use in the US hit an all-time high in 2018. In addition, coal use fell even more as low-cost natural gas pushed out more coal from energy markets. These two trends are why in January the EIA also reported that energy-related carbon emissions grew in 2018, but predicted a decrease in both 2019 and 2020. In addition, the US energy supply is likely to be even lower carbon each year going forward as renewable energy technologies become cheaper and better.

These changes reflect the distinction between what journalist Charles C. Mann calls wizards and prophets. As Mann described them in an interview with Nathanael Johnson:

Well, I coined them as a sort of shorthand. A philosopher friend of mine said that there was a very clear way to describe these groups, one of them is a Schumpeterian–technophiliac–meliorist (laughs). But that didn’t seem all that clear to me, so I call them wizards, as in techno-wizards. Wizards basically believe that science and technology, properly applied, can let us produce our way out of our dilemmas. Prophets believe that there are natural limits, and we transgress these limits at our peril.

Be Smart, Make More Or Hunker Down, Conserve

Their recommendations are kind of the opposite of each other. One is saying, "Be smart, make more, and that way everyone can win.” The other is saying, "Hunker down, conserve, obey the rules, otherwise everyone is going to lose."
This model of prophets and wizards is a useful tool to understand much of the debate around our environment. Many spoke out about Earth Day this year some clearly on the side of prophets, others will be wizards.
Only time will tell, but the case for thinking like a wizard gets stronger every year. Technological wizardry repeatedly wins out over doom and gloom prophecies.

Recommended: Earth Day: Colonialisme, Overexploiting Of Natural Resources

Optimism

There’s a historical case in favour of wizardry. It’s borne out in a variety of ways in which education, economic prosperity, and child mortality are improving. From Our World in Data to the late Hans Rosling to Matt Ridley’s brand of rational optimism all tell stories about how these measures have improved along with technology. It’s the same story for each metric; We are living in a wealthier, healthier, and more prosperous world.

                                        DON'T PANIC — Hans Rosling showing the facts about population

World In Data

According to others, taking up the role of Mann’s 'prophets', none of this was supposed to happen. As Paul R. Ehrlich, the Bing Professor of Population Studies at Stanford predicted in the first lines of his 1968 book The Population Bomb,

The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the1970s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate, although many lives could be saved through dramatic programs to ‘stretch’ the carrying capacity of the earth by increasing food production. But these programs will only provide a stay of execution unless they are accompanied by determined and successful efforts at population control.

There’s a lot to unpack in just these four sentences. Luckily, the main takeaway is that the wizards won this round, all because of the Green Revolution. The Green Revolution, led by the agronomist Norman Borlaug, dramatically boosted the yields of wheat through selective breeding. The hundreds of millions of people Ehrlich predicted would die were saved and Borlaug is routinely credited with saving around a billion lives with the improvements in the wheat he developed.
Yet, if you read Ehrlich’s opening words carefully — and charitably — you may think that Borlaug’s innovations were just the kind of programs that stretch the planet’s carrying capacity. They merely stay humanity’s execution, not prevent it. Overcoming one cause of famine doesn’t mean that humanity will survive the next.

Fair points, but they miss the underlying flaws in the mental model of prophets. People create more and more wealth over time, they’re not just resource-drains. More people means more innovators like Norman Borlaug. Efforts to control population growth misunderstand many of the problems that population growth poses for the environment.

AI, homo sapiens sapiens’ path to singularity

AI, homo sapiens sapiens’ path to singularity

Tragedy? Is There Any?

Ehrlich is far from the only person to make this pessimistic prediction. Historically, Thomas Malthus, a 19th-century economist, argued famines would destroy much of the world’s population because humanity’s ability to produce food would be outpaced by population growth. Malthus, like all the population naysayers so far, was wrong because he couldn’t have predicted the invention of fertilizers and the industrial revolution that allowed us to feed so many more people.

Garrett Hardin, a University of California professor of biology, was one of the most widely-known advocates of population control for the environment’s sake. Hardin’s concerns about population are stated clearly in his famous paper, 'The Tragedy of the Commons'. If you’ve heard of it before, it was probably illustrated with a thought experiment of grazing on publicly owned lands. Hardin argued that if a pasture is open to all, then it will be overused and its productive capabilities destroyed.

                                              What is the tragedy of the commons? - Nicholas Amendolare

Source

There were two solutions, according to Hardin, for preventing the tragedy of the commons from playing out in pastures and other common resources.

  • One was privatizing the commons so that owners had better incentives to care for the pasture.
  • The second was centralized control over common resources to determine who could use them and when.

Fundamentally, Hardin saw the imposition of centralized control as necessary to prevent the tragedy of the commons. Hardin wanted to apply the tragedy of the commons to more than pastures, he wanted it applied primarily to people. And not all groups of people equally. Hardin’s theory had a darker side as well that led to him advocating for eugenics. In fact, one of his subheadings in the short paper puts it clearly, 'Freedom to Breed is Intolerable'. Hardin worked against sending aid to developing countries because their existence threatened Earth’s 'carrying capacity'.

Luckily for humanity, Hardin had a variety of notable critics. For one, Susan Jane Buck Cox, a political science professor at Northern Arizona University, wrote a paper titled, 'No Tragedy on the Commons', which documents the ahistorical nature of Hardin’s thought experiment. Seeing the potential for overgrazing, local communities developed means to prevent that overgrazing.

Hardin’s greatest critic won a Nobel prize in economics for her work. In contrast to the necessity of centralized control in Hardin’s view, Elinor Ostrom made a career documenting bottom-up responses to commons problems like Hardin’s pasture. As Ostrom put her central thesis, 'People self-organize common property institutions of a wide diversity of kind and sometimes solve problems very well'. Ostrom’s research showed that the idea that rules must be imposed on users by an external authority failed to grapple with the ways individuals design their own rules for common access resources. People aren’t trapped in the sort of prisoner’s dilemma that the pasture thought experiment presumes because they invent their own forms of governance.


                                                Numbers are boring, people are interesting | Hans Rosling 

In the case of population growth and whether or not there’s a tragedy of the commons worth worrying about, there’s a lot to learn from people like Ostrom. For example, much like the ahistorical accounts of overgrazed pastures, Hans Rosling argued that the world population will never reach 11 billion. That’s because wealthier people tend to have fewer children. The growth in developed countries will fall even as developing countries become more wealthy and have more children and then join rich countries in decreasing their family size. All of this happens without force, without government policies like family-size limits.

Ingenuity And Wizardry Win Out Over Fear And Prophecy

The past is littered with failed prophecies which all boil down to the failure of the prophets of doom to properly reckon with the power of human ingenuity. Concerns about resource depletion deserve consideration, but it’s more likely that they’ll be proven wrong than that humanity is truly in danger.

Henry George, an American economist, made the fundamental point brilliantly in his 1879 book Progress and Poverty:

Here is a difference between the animal and the man. Both the jay-hawk and the man eat chickens, but the more jay-hawks the fewer chickens, while the more men the more chickens. Both the seal and the man eat salmon, but when a seal takes a salmon there is a salmon the less, and were seals to increase past a certain point salmon must diminish; while by placing the spawn of the salmon under favourable conditions man can so increase the number of salmon as more than to make up for all he may take, and thus, no matter how much men may increase, their increase need never outrun the supply of salmon.

George’s arguments remain true today. Even the new problems of climate change have solutions that will come from human ingenuity and the development of new technology.

In the energy space, fracking enabled the growth of natural gas which contains about half as much carbon as coal. Now coal is being beaten in the energy marketplace, which is a boon to the environment. But natural gas is also an effective partner for renewables. Renewables like wind and solar cycle up and down outside of the control of those powering the electrical grid, but natural gas is better at varying its production to meet those fluctuations. That makes natural gas a bridge fuel to a cleaner future as it can back up intermittent energy sources better than coal. Researchers have found an almost one-to-one ratio of expanded natural gas generating facilities and expanded renewables.

Climate Crisis Will Kill Billions Or Will Optimism Save Us? What Will It Be?

More rational optimism about population growth and potential solutions to climate change are needed now more than ever. The threats of climate change are real, but so were the threats put off by the Green Revolution and the famines that Malthus warned about.

As the economist and optimist Julian Simon wrote, 'The ultimate resource is people, skilled, spirited, and hopeful people who will exert their wills and imaginations for their own benefit, and so, inevitably, for the benefit of us all'.

Before you go! 

Recommended: Artificial intelligence Makes The World More Sustainables

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Climate Crisis Will Kill Billions Or Will Optimism Save Us?

Creator of the ‘ecological footprint’ on life and death in a world 4 C hotter. UBC professor emeritus William Rees provides the grim calculations for humanity if climate change and growth in population and consumption fuelled by cheap energy goes unchecked.  Carbon emissions may continue to rise, the polar ice caps may continue to melt, crop yields may continue to decline, the world’s forests may continue to burn, coastal cities may continue to sink under rising seas and droughts may continue to wipe out fertile farmlands, but the messiahs of hope assure us that all will be right in the end. Only it won’t; Chris Hedges Last April (2019) marked also the 49th Earth Day, a celebration of the natural wonders of the planet. Started in the United States in 1970, Earth Day is now a global environmental movement with 192 countries participating. This year, Earth Day comes on the heels of announcements from the US Energy Information Administration (EIA) that Americans used more energy in 2018 than ever before. While some see this as “troubling,” there’s a lot to be excited about. So here we go…. Climate Crisis May Wipe out Six Billion People One thing the climate crisis underscores is that Homo sapiens are not primarily a rational species. When forced to make important decisions, particularly decisions affecting our economic security or socio-political status, primitive instinct and raw emotion tend to take the upper hand. This is not a good thing if the fate of society is at stake. Take 'hope' for example. For good evolutionary reasons, humans naturally tend to be hopeful in times of stress. So gently comforting is this word, that some even endow their daughters with its name. But hope can be enervating, flat out debilitating, when it merges with mere wishful thinking — when we hope, for example, that technology alone can save us from climate change. As novelist Jonathan Franzen asks: "If your hope for the future depends on a wildly optimistic scenario, what will you do 10 years from now, when the scenario becomes unworkable even in theory?" We needn’t bother Roger Hallam with this question. He can scarcely be held up as a 'messiah of hope'. Quite the contrary. Hallam, a co-founder of Extinction Rebellion, has been desperately warning of societal collapse for years. Environmental activist Roger Hallam: co-founder of Extinction Rebellion But in a memorable session of the BBC’s HardTalk, Hallam irritated multiple cultural nerves by claiming, on the basis of 'hard science', that six billion people will die as a result of climate change in coming decades. More specifically, our ruling elites’ inaction and lies on climate change will lead to climate turmoil, mass starvation and general societal collapse in this century. Normally unflappable HardTalk host, Stephen Sackur, just couldn’t wrap his mind around Hallam’s unyielding assertions. Recommended:  Climate Change: Water Scarcity, Hunger, Agriculture And Food Sackur is no solitary sceptic. UC Davis research scientist Amber Kerr dismisses Hallam outright. The idea that six billion people are doomed to die by 2100 is simply not correct. No mainstream prediction indicates anywhere near this level of climate-change-induced human mortality, for any reason. Similarly, Ken Caldeira, senior scientist, Carnegie Institution, points out, "There is no analysis of likely climate damage that has been published in the quality peer-reviewed literature that would indicate that there is any substantial likelihood that climate change could cause the starvation of six billion people by the end of this century." One key to understanding these scientists’ rejections is their language. They assert that there is 'no mainstream prediction' nor analysis in the “peer reviewed literature” that climate change will precipitate such catastrophic human mortality. But keep in mind that scientists are reluctant, for professional reasons, to go far beyond the immediate data in formal publication. Moreover, organizations like the United Nations, including even its Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, are so dominated by economists’ concerns and bent by political considerations that extraneous noise obscures the scientific signal. Prominent climate scientist Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, director emeritus of Germany’s Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, argues that, in these circumstances "a trend towards ‘erring on the side of least drama’ has emerged" and "when the issue is the survival of civilization is at stake, conventional means of analysis may become useless." Exploring this argument, policy analysts David Spratt and Ian Dunlop conclude, "Climate policymaking for years has been cognitively dissonant, ‘a flagrant violation of reality.’ So it is unsurprising that there is a lack of understanding amongst the public and elites of the full measure of the climate challenge." It seems that in mainstream scientific publications and official reports, the truth about climate change and the fate of civilization may be buried deeply between the lines. Fortunately, there are other contexts in which experts are not quite so reticent and whose assertions echo Roger Hallam’s. As much as a decade ago a climate symposium organized to discuss the implications of a 4 C warmer world concluded, 'Less than a billion people will survive'. Here Schellnhuber is quoted as saying: "At 4 C Earth’s... carrying capacity estimates are below 1 billion people." His words were echoed by professor Kevin Anderson of the U.K.’s Tyndall Centre for Climate Change: "Only about 10 per cent of the planet’s population would survive at 4 C." Similarly, in May of this year, Johan Rockström, current director of the Potsdam Institute opined that in a 4 C warmer world: "It’s difficult to see how we could accommodate a billion people or even half of that.... There will be a rich minority of people who survive with modern lifestyles, no doubt, but it will be a turbulent, conflict-ridden world." Meanwhile, greenhouse gas concentrations are still increasing. Keep in mind that a global temperature increase averaging 4 C means land temperatures would be 5.5 to 6 C warmer away from the coasts. Much of the tropics would be too hot for humans and many densely populated parts of the temperate zone would be decertified. A 4 C warmer world map suggests that as much as half the planet would become uninhabitable. (A ‘4 C world’ assumes business-as-usual or no new climate policies in coming decades. Note, however, that known and unknown ‘feedback’ mechanisms could make 4 C possible, even with new politically acceptable policies in place.) In a recent review of this debate and related evidence, David Spratt asks (and answers): "So did Roger Hallam ‘go too far’? Not at all, there is serious research and eminent voices in support of his statements. The gross error in all of this are all those who cannot countenance this conversation."                                                                      Consequence of Overpopulation Forbidden Calculations Which begs the question of whether 'all those' would countenance any uncomfortable conversation. Population has long been a forbidden topic despite being at the root of the ecological crisis. Where might a discussion of population ecology lead and would its conclusions be any more politically acceptable? We can begin by gaining some insight into the startling implications of exponential growth.When something is growing exponentially, it has a constant doubling time. For example, a population growing at two per cent a year will double every 35 years. Interestingly, the increase that occurs during any doubling period will be greater than the sum of the increases experienced in all previous doublings. As the figure below shows, it took 200,000 years for the human population to reach its first billion in the early 1800s. In other words, population growth was essentially negligible for 99.95 of human history. But when sustained exponential growth kicked in, it took just 200 years — 1/1000th as much time — for the population to top 7.5 billion early in this century! The recent two centuries of population growth generates this classic hockey stick curve. At most, just 10 of 10,000 generations of modern humans have experienced this unprecedented human explosion. Chart by Jonathan von Ofenheim. This population explosion could not have occurred without abundant cheap energy, particularly fossil fuels.Obviously other factors are involved,  but energy is essentialfor humans to produce the food and acquire all the other resources needed to grow both populations and the economy. While human numbers were increasing by a factor of seven, energy consumption grew by a factor of 25 and real gross world product ballooned 100-fold. Because of sometimes super-exponential growth, half of all the fossil energy and many other essential resources ever used have been consumed in just the past 30-35 years.Look no further to explain why human-induced climate change has suddenly become so urgent. The pace of change is unprecedented— the recent spurt of population, economic and consumption growth that people today consider to be the normactually represents the single most anomalous period in human history. Meantime, Earth hasn’t grown at all — on the contrary, natural life-support has arguably contracted.Global ecological deterioration indicates that the human enterprise has ‘overshot’ long-term carrying capacity. We are currently growing the human population and economy by liquidating once-abundant stocks of so-called ‘natural capital’ and by over-filling natural waste sinks. Humanity is literally converting the ecosphere into human bodies, prodigious quantities of cultural artefacts, and vastly larger volumes of entropic waste. (That’s what tropical deforestation, fisheries collapses, plummeting biodiversity, ocean pollution, climate change, etc. are all about.) Corollaries: We will not long be able to maintain even the present population at current average material standards. And, population growth toward 10 billion will accelerate the depletion of essential bioresources and the destruction of life-support functions upon which civilization depends. The recent history of human population dynamics resembles the ‘boom-bust’ cycle of any other speciesintroduced to a new habitat with abundant resources and no predators, therefore little negative feedback. (The real-life example of reindeer herds can be found here.) The population expands rapidly (exponentially), until it depletes essential resources and pollutes its habitat. Negative feedback (overcrowding, disease, starvation, resource scarcity/competition/conflict) then reasserts itself and the population crashes to a level at or below theoretical carrying capacity (it may go locally extinct). The 'boom-bust' population cycle. Note the resemblance of the human population growth curve in Fig. 1 to the exponential ‘boom’ phase of the cycle. The world community can still choose to influence the speed and depth of the coming bust phase.  The 'boom-bust' population cycle. Note the resemblance of the human population growth curve to the exponential 'boom' phase of the cycle.  Source: Biology: Life on Earth, 8th ed Some species populations, in simple habitats, cycle repeatedly through boom and bust phases.The height of the boom is called the ‘plague phase’ of such cycles. Hypothesis: Homo sapiens are currently approaching the peak of the plague phase of a one-off global population cycle and will crashbecause of depleted resources, habitat deterioration and psycho-social feedback, including possible war over remaining ‘assets,’ sometime in this century. ('But wait', I hear you protest. “Humans are not just any other species. We’re smarter; we can plan ahead; we just won’t let this happen!” Perhaps, but what is the evidence so far that our leaders even recognize the problem?) The crash may be triggered or exacerbated by the depletion or abandonment of economic stocks of fossil fuels. As noted above, modern civilization is a product of, and dependent on, accessible abundant energy. (At present there are no viable alternatives to fossil fuels. Even if we do develop equivalent substitutes for fossil fuel they will, at best, merely delay the crash). The long-term human carrying capacity of Earth — after ecosystems have recovered from the current plague — is probably one to three billion people,depending on technology and material standards of living. (Estimates varyfrom fewer than a billion to a truly ludicrous trillion.) Getting there would mean five to nine billion fewer people on the planet.This is where we end up after a recovery following either controlled descentor chaotic crash. Recommended:  The Future Of Farming: Finding A Better Way To Feed The World Making The Looming Disaster An Election Issue The first thing to take from this analysis is that we are once again playing in Roger Hallam’s death-toll ballpark. But a more important point is that climate change is not the only existential threat confronting modern society. Indeed, we could initiate any number of conversations that end with the self-induced implosion of civilization and the loss of 50 per cent or even 90 per cent of humanity. And that places the global community in a particularly embarrassing predicament. Homo sapiens, that self-proclaimed most-intelligent-of-species, is facing a genuine, unprecedented, hydra-like ecological crisis, yet its political leaders, economic elites and sundry other messiahs of hope will not countenance a serious conversation about of any of its ghoulish heads Climate change is perhaps the most aggressively visible head, yet despite decades of high-level talks - 33 in al - and several international agreements to turn things around, atmospheric CO2 and other GHG concentrations have more than doubled to over 37 billion tonnes and, with other GHG concentrations, are still rising at record rates. In these circumstances, the only certainty is that the longer we deny reality and delay concerted action, the steeper and deeper the crash is likely to be. So, where does this leave us? Jonathan Franzen has a suggestion: "You can keep on hoping that catastrophe is preventable.... Or you can accept that disaster is coming, and begin to rethink what it means to have hope." Certainly hope is sterile if unaccompanied by vigorous action that reflects looming reality. Recommended:  Climate Change, A Sideshow In Trump's State Of The Union Optimism Save Us. The Earth Deserves More Than Doom And Gloom For one, renewable energy use in the US hit an all-time high in 2018. In addition, coal use fell even more as low-cost natural gas pushed out more coal from energy markets. These two trends are why in January the EIA also reported that energy-related carbon emissions grew in 2018, but predicted a decrease in both 2019 and 2020. In addition, the US energy supply is likely to be even lower carbon each year going forward as renewable energy technologies become cheaper and better. These changes reflect the distinction between what journalist Charles C. Mann calls wizards and prophets. As Mann described them in an interview with Nathanael Johnson: Well, I coined them as a sort of shorthand. A philosopher friend of mine said that there was a very clear way to describe these groups, one of them is a Schumpeterian–technophiliac–meliorist (laughs). But that didn’t seem all that clear to me, so I call them wizards, as in techno-wizards. Wizards basically believe that science and technology, properly applied, can let us produce our way out of our dilemmas. Prophets believe that there are natural limits, and we transgress these limits at our peril. Be Smart, Make More Or Hunker Down, Conserve Their recommendations are kind of the opposite of each other. One is saying, "Be smart, make more, and that way everyone can win.” The other is saying, "Hunker down, conserve, obey the rules, otherwise everyone is going to lose." This model of prophets and wizards is a useful tool to understand much of the debate around our environment. Many spoke out about Earth Day this year some clearly on the side of prophets, others will be wizards. Only time will tell, but the case for thinking like a wizard gets stronger every year. Technological wizardry repeatedly wins out over doom and gloom prophecies. Recommended:  Earth Day: Colonialisme, Overexploiting Of Natural Resources Optimism There’s a historical case in favour of wizardry. It’s borne out in a variety of ways in which education, economic prosperity, and child mortality are improving. From Our World in Data to the late Hans Rosling to Matt Ridley’s brand of rational optimism all tell stories about how these measures have improved along with technology. It’s the same story for each metric; We are living in a wealthier, healthier, and more prosperous world.                                         DON'T PANIC — Hans Rosling showing the facts about population World In Data According to others, taking up the role of Mann’s 'prophets', none of this was supposed to happen. As Paul R. Ehrlich, the Bing Professor of Population Studies at Stanford predicted in the first lines of his 1968 book The Population Bomb, The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the1970s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate, although many lives could be saved through dramatic programs to ‘stretch’ the carrying capacity of the earth by increasing food production. But these programs will only provide a stay of execution unless they are accompanied by determined and successful efforts at population control. There’s a lot to unpack in just these four sentences. Luckily, the main takeaway is that the wizards won this round, all because of the Green Revolution. The Green Revolution, led by the agronomist Norman Borlaug, dramatically boosted the yields of wheat through selective breeding. The hundreds of millions of people Ehrlich predicted would die were saved and Borlaug is routinely credited with saving around a billion lives with the improvements in the wheat he developed. Yet, if you read Ehrlich’s opening words carefully — and charitably — you may think that Borlaug’s innovations were just the kind of programs that stretch the planet’s carrying capacity. They merely stay humanity’s execution, not prevent it. Overcoming one cause of famine doesn’t mean that humanity will survive the next. Fair points, but they miss the underlying flaws in the mental model of prophets. People create more and more wealth over time, they’re not just resource-drains. More people means more innovators like Norman Borlaug. Efforts to control population growth misunderstand many of the problems that population growth poses for the environment. AI, homo sapiens sapiens’ path to singularity Tragedy? Is There Any? Ehrlich is far from the only person to make this pessimistic prediction. Historically, Thomas Malthus, a 19th-century economist, argued famines would destroy much of the world’s population because humanity’s ability to produce food would be outpaced by population growth. Malthus, like all the population naysayers so far, was wrong because he couldn’t have predicted the invention of fertilizers and the industrial revolution that allowed us to feed so many more people. Garrett Hardin, a University of California professor of biology, was one of the most widely-known advocates of population control for the environment’s sake. Hardin’s concerns about population are stated clearly in his famous paper, 'The Tragedy of the Commons'. If you’ve heard of it before, it was probably illustrated with a thought experiment of grazing on publicly owned lands. Hardin argued that if a pasture is open to all, then it will be overused and its productive capabilities destroyed.                                               What is the tragedy of the commons? - Nicholas Amendolare Source There were two solutions, according to Hardin, for preventing the tragedy of the commons from playing out in pastures and other common resources. One was privatizing the commons so that owners had better incentives to care for the pasture. The second was centralized control over common resources to determine who could use them and when. Fundamentally, Hardin saw the imposition of centralized control as necessary to prevent the tragedy of the commons. Hardin wanted to apply the tragedy of the commons to more than pastures, he wanted it applied primarily to people. And not all groups of people equally. Hardin’s theory had a darker side as well that led to him advocating for eugenics. In fact, one of his subheadings in the short paper puts it clearly, 'Freedom to Breed is Intolerable'. Hardin worked against sending aid to developing countries because their existence threatened Earth’s 'carrying capacity'. Luckily for humanity, Hardin had a variety of notable critics. For one, Susan Jane Buck Cox, a political science professor at Northern Arizona University, wrote a paper titled, 'No Tragedy on the Commons', which documents the ahistorical nature of Hardin’s thought experiment. Seeing the potential for overgrazing, local communities developed means to prevent that overgrazing. Hardin’s greatest critic won a Nobel prize in economics for her work. In contrast to the necessity of centralized control in Hardin’s view, Elinor Ostrom made a career documenting bottom-up responses to commons problems like Hardin’s pasture. As Ostrom put her central thesis, 'People self-organize common property institutions of a wide diversity of kind and sometimes solve problems very well'. Ostrom’s research showed that the idea that rules must be imposed on users by an external authority failed to grapple with the ways individuals design their own rules for common access resources. People aren’t trapped in the sort of prisoner’s dilemma that the pasture thought experiment presumes because they invent their own forms of governance. {youtube}                                                 Numbers are boring, people are interesting | Hans Rosling  In the case of population growth and whether or not there’s a tragedy of the commons worth worrying about, there’s a lot to learn from people like Ostrom. For example, much like the ahistorical accounts of overgrazed pastures, Hans Rosling argued that the world population will never reach 11 billion. That’s because wealthier people tend to have fewer children. The growth in developed countries will fall even as developing countries become more wealthy and have more children and then join rich countries in decreasing their family size. All of this happens without force, without government policies like family-size limits. Ingenuity And Wizardry Win Out Over Fear And Prophecy The past is littered with failed prophecies which all boil down to the failure of the prophets of doom to properly reckon with the power of human ingenuity. Concerns about resource depletion deserve consideration, but it’s more likely that they’ll be proven wrong than that humanity is truly in danger. Henry George, an American economist, made the fundamental point brilliantly in his 1879 book Progress and Poverty: Here is a difference between the animal and the man. Both the jay-hawk and the man eat chickens, but the more jay-hawks the fewer chickens, while the more men the more chickens. Both the seal and the man eat salmon, but when a seal takes a salmon there is a salmon the less, and were seals to increase past a certain point salmon must diminish; while by placing the spawn of the salmon under favourable conditions man can so increase the number of salmon as more than to make up for all he may take, and thus, no matter how much men may increase, their increase need never outrun the supply of salmon. George’s arguments remain true today. Even the new problems of climate change have solutions that will come from human ingenuity and the development of new technology. In the energy space, fracking enabled the growth of natural gas which contains about half as much carbon as coal. Now coal is being beaten in the energy marketplace, which is a boon to the environment. But natural gas is also an effective partner for renewables. Renewables like wind and solar cycle up and down outside of the control of those powering the electrical grid, but natural gas is better at varying its production to meet those fluctuations. That makes natural gas a bridge fuel to a cleaner future as it can back up intermittent energy sources better than coal. Researchers have found an almost one-to-one ratio of expanded natural gas generating facilities and expanded renewables. Climate Crisis Will Kill Billions Or Will Optimism Save Us? What Will It Be? More rational optimism about population growth and potential solutions to climate change are needed now more than ever. The threats of climate change are real, but so were the threats put off by the Green Revolution and the famines that Malthus warned about. As the economist and optimist Julian Simon wrote, 'The ultimate resource is people, skilled, spirited, and hopeful people who will exert their wills and imaginations for their own benefit, and so, inevitably, for the benefit of us all'. Before you go!  Recommended: Artificial intelligence Makes The World More Sustainable s Did you find this an interesting article or do you have a question or remark? Leave a comment below. We try to respond the same day. Like to write your own article about sustainability? Click on  'Register'  or push the button 'Write An Article' on the  'HomePage'
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