This past weekend the NYT regaled us with a little piece of unexpected nostalgia, running a report (and a retro one at that!) about the 1968 classic “The Population Bomb”, by Stanford biologist Paul R. Ehrlich. You can find the article here The unrealized horrors of population explosion, and although it is a fine piece of journalism as you would expect from what I only half jokingly call the NoRoOT (Newspaper of Reference or Our Time), of much higher interest was (for me at least) the comments of the readers, the vast majority of whom are just to enmeshed within the framework of desiderative reason and the need to justify their own lifestyles (lifestyles that, as the most cogent of them realize, could only be shared by a tiny fraction of Today´s humanity) as to unthinkingly rush to the defense of Mr. Ehrlich basic tenets (there are just too many of “us”! –actually, behind that war cry I always distinguish a hidden protestation that what there are really is too much of “them”; Everybody should stop reproducing immediately, even if they have to be forced to do so!) although such defense required somehow ignoring the obvious recognition that every single statement of fact contained in his famous book has turned out to be dead wrong… For most of the very liberal readers the author may have not gotten the timing right (England still exist, and no American has died of hunger due to an overall lack of food since his tirade hit the presses), but he must still be right in his main contentions, and unless we do something urgently all the grim predictions he made will come to pass sooner rather than later (no matter how soon they eventually happen, ol’ Paul would still be at least 50 years off the mark, as massive famine was prophesized to cripple most world’s governments in the 70’s).
So essentially what we have here is a guy that makes a number of easily testable, clear cut predictions in the not so distant future, none of them actually happens, but he is essentially undaunted by such failure (he just tells the reporters he stands by all his predictions, and he considers them as valid today as they were almost half a century ago –without a hint of irony and apparently without realizing how much that undermines his whole argument!). And what is more sociologically significant, droves of apparently well educated readers rush in his defense, and criticize the tone of the report for being too harsh on him, and for daring to question if all that hubbub about a “population explosion” was not a bit overblown after all, as for them it is clear as water that the planet is already overpopulated and Ehrlich was, if something, too tepid on his admonishments. Wow! Talk about cognitive dissonance, and a belief system that doesn’t seem to be a) falsifiable or b) open to reevaluation when it conflicts with reality. Evidently, there is something seriously amiss here, and I intend to devote the remainder of this post to try to find out what it is, and why it is so extended. To that end, I’ll first present a little parade of statements of famous thinkers and opinion makers about impending doom that happened not to be as prescient as their authors believed (so we can have some perspective on common weaknesses), then I’ll advance my argument about why Ehrlich position is as wrong as all the rest, and finally I will state why I think it is still so popular between certain (pretty wide) segments of the citizenry.
Let’s start then with a “top of my mind” recount of intelligent people being abjectly wrong about where the society was heading:
· I distinctly remember the shock when I read in my early teens a paragraph by Bertrand Russell (I humbly confess I have endeavored to find the exact book for decades in my father’s labyrinthine library, to no avail, so you will have to trust my feeble memory on this one) that in the struggle between socialism and capitalism the first was surely to prevail, as it could devote all its energies to produce a single model of whatever product was best (let’s say a car), more efficiently and with less cost, while the second dissipated countless energies in developing and marketing multiple brands, with no clear advantage. Already in the early 80’s it was clear that capitalist Volkswagen (or Renault, or Fiat) were vastly superior to its Trabant and Wartburg socialist equivalents, but I was utterly convinced for some time, as Russell was undoubtedly a genius, and a genius surely knew better than poor pre-adolescent me. With time I became less impressed with Russell predictive powers, as he espoused a one sided pacifism as only road to avoid total annihilation that ended up not being the only alternative to a more stable world system (but it may have been too much to ask from him to admit the possibility of socialism crumbling from inside, even with the advantage its non competitive state-branded cars conferred to it)
· Founded in 1968 under the auspice of an Italian precursor of the consulting profession (Aurelio Peccei) the Club of Rome issued the direst warnings in its 1972 publication Limits to Growth, in which it forewarned that industrial society was (most likely) facing (relatively imminent) collapse. I’m writing all those caveats in parentheses because the report highlights the results of a computer simulation (run on 1972 computers, which had the computing power you can nowadays find in a corkscrew) that contemplated multiple scenarios, and some of them were compatible with society more or less standing up to 2050 (however, the date of the beginning of the collapse in that central scenario was 2015, which has some environmentalists all giddy identifying our current crisis as the parting shot of the final great flush down history’s toilet of our consumerist and evil society, look no further than here for an example: Is global collapse imminent?). What caught the attention of the majority, of course, where the more pessimistic scenarios where the collapse happens by the end of the 20th Century, a lack of happening that badly undermined the whole enterprise and tarnished a bit the reputation of most doomsayers of similar persuasion (including Ehrlich)…
· Although I read it later, it was shortly thereafter (still within the whole zeitgeist of a society rapidly approaching its natural limits and close to total collapse), in 1979, when Hans Jonas published his Das Prinzip Verantwortung (translated as The Imperative of Responsibility: In Search of an Ethics for the Technological Age). In it he stated that to remedy the unacceptable inequality between countries a world dictatorship would need to be imposed that forced the advanced economies to renounce to a good deal of their standard of living so the less developed countries could catch up (it was also the only way he could foresee to avoid total war, famine, ecological impoverishment and the advent of Disco music… well may be I’m making the last one up, although I see it as a much graver danger to human flourishing than the previous ones). A good thing such dictatorship was never imposed, as starting about five years after the publication of his book those very same developed countries happily and voluntarily started shedding their industrial base, moving it under no kind of compulsion to those very same third world places that were more than happy to receive them (it has to be noted that the whole scheme didn’t work so well as Jonas expected, as the receiving countries have met with very unequal successes regarding the reduction of their wealth and income gap)
By now you have probably noticed a common theme running through all those predictions, which we could have traced back to the (in) famous essay of the Reverend Malthus in 1798 stating that population grew exponentially (a concept the report from the Club of Rome spends a lot of pretty boring pages expounding) whilst the ability to generate resources to feed and shelter it could only grow linearly. In all of them we are essentially screwed because of the inability of our finite planet to check the population growth all by itself smoothly, and left to their own impulses the unenlightened masses will keep on reproducing like rabbits until that growth comes catastrophically, apocalyptically, and very, very painfully to a halt, so we need the intervention of an enlightened elite who knows better to check it for us, because if not, the end of the (social) world is always at most fifty years away (probably the prognosticators all realize that larger timeframes for certain doom are not as effective in focusing people’s imagination). As it happens, Malthus was wrong way back then, Russell was wrong, Jonas was wrong, Ehrlich was almost absurdly wrong (as much as it seems to pain him to recognize it) and all the clever guys of the Club of Rome (which have kept regularly updating their report to show that they were not so wrong after all) were equally wrong (the amount of things their model had to leave out due to lack of processing power is almost comical, which does not prevent it from still having some defenders, but then again so does psychoanalysis).
And they were all wrong by a simple reason, elegantly stated by none other than Sir Karl Popper in a little tract written in 1936, although not published until 1957 (in time for all our doomsayers to have read it… alas, if they did it was to no avail), entitled The Poverty of Historicism, in which he criticized every attempt of the human disciplines to forecast the future based in the impossibility of taking into account one single factor that has demonstrated once and again during human history to be of some passing importance in determining how societies organize themselves, as is the level of scientific and technological development. Indeed, no ideology (or computer simulation) can properly predict what technologies will be available, at what costs, in the future, because to be able to accurately forecast them would mean to know them, to discover them in advance, and that is a logical impossibility. And just that little unknown has showed once and again that any model, or simulation, or prognostication that doesn’t takes it into account is essentially invalid and bound to generate false predictions.
Just to put things in perspective, we could read, the very same day the NYT published their report, this article in “The Economist” about the global decline in population of almost any big city outside Africa (which indeed understates the extent of depopulation, as cities are the last bastions of demographic growth, which can keep on attracting inhabitants long after the countryside has become a ghostly, empty landscape): Cities plan for shrinking populations . It seems after all the “population explosion” is rather coming to an end without any compulsion whatsoever (I’ve already harped about the inability of our current socioeconomic system to entice its citizens to find their lives worth reproducing, a phenomenon I call “gonadal vote”), as Philip Longman noticed more than 10 years ago (The empty cradle). The bomb Ehrlich warned us about has already been defused, and most evidence points to a peak of 9 to 10 billion human beings between 2050 and 2100, and then a more or less precipitous decline, depending basically on how fast we can fully incorporate the remaining African nations (North of South Africa and South of the Sahara) within the western liberal consensus, so they also realize that life is not basically worth it, neither for them nor for their potential children, and so give up having them in the first place. The question that remain to be answered then is why so many people are still alarmed about high birth rates as to throng the comment section of any enlightened newspaper that dares to give some voice to the opinion that maybe, only may be, we are not so immediately doomed after all (not just the NYT, see also this article in the Grauniad: Coming population crash will kill the economy - good for the planet which met with similar vitriol from most readers when published). But that question will have to wait for another post, as this has already run for too long…