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IEET > Security > Biosecurity > Vision > Bioculture > Contributors > Piero Scaruffi

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


piero scaruffi
By piero scaruffi
piero scaruffi

Posted: Oct 4, 2012

Paul Ehrlich recently gave a talk that listed eight major catastrophic environmental problems that are coming sooner than even pessimists predict… should we create a “culture of panic”?

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.
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COMMENTS


Your points on the need to create urgency are well taken. Even those who are working on the reality of climate change are often unrealistically optimistic or stridently pushing their own solution. I’ve been reading an interesting book called “The God Species” that is based on the idea of boundaries. The idea with boundaries is that we create objective goals and strategies to meet those goals. It strikes me as I read the book that the goals and strategies are not just economically viable, but actually good business! If we change our thinking just a little we can make a profit saving the world.

What is holding us back is the lack of real thinking about the way we do things and why we do it that way. I’m not sure that creating fear is going to change it. Most people’s reaction to fear is to bury their heads deeper. I think we need to hold out the carrot of what is possible if we make the necessary shifts and move into the potential of the new way of being.





“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.”


A general strike might have to be arranged, things cannot be changed in America without civil disobedience. Was the Vietnam War truncated without civil disobedience? No. Plus a certain GOP candidate s looking better now, he is extremely slick. This is not a promising time yet civil disobedience does hold the key—or a key. We’ve got to pull every string save for using violence.. no alliance with Communists or other totalists.
If the outlook is as bad as Piero writes then what have we to lose by making the attempt?





“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.”

Well, that pretty much blows up the fundamental democratic premise of progressivism, doesn’t it?





I recommend Chandran Nair’s book Consumptionomics on this topic. Scaruffi’s points echo many of those of Nair, including the point about the inherent weakness of democracies…but also the foolishness of the West’s obsession (in practice, if not in rhetoric) with peddling it’s latest iProducts to cultures that don’t have adequate sanitation, and the utter unsustainability of projected (or hoped for) growth. Put simply, there aren’t enough planets to allow China, India and the rest to mimic Western lifestyles. Nair pins his hope (rightly or wrongly) on Asian governments to resist this and change tack. He doesn’t believe the West can do it.

@advancedatheist
The fact that Scaruffi seems to be “blow[ing] up the fundamental democratic premise of progressivism” doesn’t mean he’s wrong, of course. (Not sure if you meant to suggest it did.) Still, we need to do our best to work within the system we have. Politicians may not be primarily interested in saving the world, but civil society can make a difference in incentivising them to make the decisions they need to take. Austerity may be misguided (I fervently believe it is), but the fact that a country like the UK has voluntarily voted for it because many of them have become convinced it is a “necessary evil” shows that democratic societies CAN move beyond comfortable short-termism.

But I agree with the basic idea in the title of the piece: perhaps “panic” is the wrong word, but we certainly need to find some way to create a sense of urgency, otherwise our transhumanist dreams will not survive the bottleneck.

Perhaps that really is why we don’t find evidence of alien life-form: perhaps progression to type II/III civilisations really is vanishingly unlikely?





A culture of panic? I think Douglas Adams had it right when he wisely advised “Don’t Panic,”.





I don’t know about a culture of panic. I suspect a culture of despair. Some people I’ve spoken to have a ‘drink, eat and be merry’, attitude because they don’t think we can now react in time. We’re having too many big problems coming at us and too fast. As noted above, maybe we’re about to find out irrevocably the answer to the Fermi paradox.

Discovery Channel in Taiwan recently aired ‘Exodus Earth’, a series of programs dedicated seriously to trying to show how (remnants of?) humanity might survive if, as the show opened up regularly with (approximate words), ‘somewhere humanity can live if Earth is no longer habitable’. This used to be sci-fi, now things are apparently so bad some scientists are seriously thinking about it. I think we’re up the cosmic creek without a warp drive. Ray Kurweil has said the singularity will happen well before the environmental (the only one he referred to) crisis really hits. Of all his prophecies, this is the one he’d better get right.





I agree with Taiwanlight about the culture of despair, but in fact it’s an even more toxic mix of despair and complacency (contradictory positions, of course, but as we all know people - even ethicists! - are perfectly capable of holding contradictory beliefs). We don’t need panic, but we do need a sense of urgency. We can’t afford to sit around waiting to see if Kurzweil was right. We have to prove him right.





“More cars, gadgets and plastic” may be adding to the problem, but they are also the only conceivable solution. We technologized our way into this mess, and we need to technologize our way out.





This link demonstrates a religious attraction to fossil fuel:

http://spectator.org/archives/2012/10/08/counting-on-coal-country

A small-time salesman of gasoline told me when he looks in his truck’s tank he sees the beauty of God and nature in the liquid; when I replied gasoline has nothing to do with beauty, he snapped, “well you drive around, don’t you?” He thinks God put petroleum in the Earth to be exploited by humans to the maximum, and the inference seems to be he thinks we will be saved deus ex machina.





Agree totally with the sentiments of your article. Yet “Further” environmental catastrophe may be required to shock humanity to radical action.

Consumerism - indeed Apathy is widespread, Apathy is institutionalized, Apathy is indoctrinated, Apathy is orchestrated?

This apathy may also be viewed as distinct from “tragedy of the commons” and can be rectified?

So where are the solutions here? I read of none? Democracy is like a muscle, use it or you lose it? Yet democratic muscle is not lost, merely wasting away and needs more exercise?

Solutions: “More”.. democratic gadgets, social interaction, participation, education, informed democracy, and empowerment. For this, we each need participate and share responsibility to promote “informed” democracy?





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