The End is Nigh (not, probably): BBC TBQ

Posted by RDN under Economic affairs / Mind & body / Politics & campaigns / RDN's media outings on 12 June 2016

The BBC’s The Big Questions asked a panel of “experts”, and its audience, whether “the end is nigh”. I responded that it almost certainly is not. Indeed, I said, things are going rather well and humans don’t need huge reforms of their psyche – but many long for better politics and economics to come their way.

I think the show’s premise was that some literalist Christians and Muslims and some Greens rather think we face imminent disaster,  or at least (in the case of many Greens), a sticky end for the wild, if not for humans. They don’t agree about much else, except – perhaps – that the advantaged of humanity ought to share more with the poor, and allow more space for Nature.

Cavaliers vs Puritans, secular or not
By the way, I am not one of those who despises religion, per se; nor do I think the Greens in general are using their creed as a proxy for religion. I do however think that many Greens, like many religious, use their faith as a cover for whatever they fancy believing or doing, in the name of their higher cause. In short, secularists can be as antinomian as the Calvinistic types who caused the word to be first deployed widely.

With my usual rather horrible brisk cheerfulness, I blithely argued on the show that actually the planet is in quite good shape and that neither it, nor Nature nor humanity, faced anything like an existential threat. I was, as usual, more boldly Cavalier and less sternly Puritanical than I sometimes feel. I am comforted in this small deceit by the fact that I really do feel that my better nature aspires to be sunnily and bravely Cavalier, and ought to do so for as long as the Puritans – gloomy and cautious in so much of their thinking – have such a run of current cultural bandwidth.

I said the present situation is something like a triumphant repudiation of messages of doom and gloom which have been in place for ever (in the case of religious millenarianism) and for about 200 years (and especially the last 50) in the case of Green anxiety.

The evidence for things going well
The evidence shows that human numbers have exploded in recent centuries; are set to expand quite fast for the next fifty years (but not exponentially); and will thereafter plateau and quite possibly fall gradually. We can reasonably expect that, if current trends persist, peak human numbers may well be about 11bn (a little more than 10bn which was the core reasonable prediction of a quarter of a century ago).

Astonishingly, and against many predictions, the condition of even the “bottom” or poorest billion or so humans is improving, if slowly. There is no particular reason to suppose that recent successes in this direction cannot be continued.

Humans are not yet a disaster
The improvement in human well-being in spite of their huge numbers is almost exactly the opposite of catastrophe. But is it yet a sign that humans will triumph in every way? Are we letting ourselves down, in some way? Are we really immune to some existential threat (the End which supposed to be Nigh)? In short, is our high-wire act sustainable? I want to discuss those issues later (below). For now I want to look at some evidence about the “signs” of Biblical prediction and Green thinking.

Our not very violent times
There has been less violence amongst the peoples of the Earth in the past 50 or so years than there was in the previous 50 years. In one sense this was an easy victory: the first half and even two-thirds of the 20th Century were horribly violent, with death cults and revolutionary extremism producing genocides, world wars and famines. In our lifetimes, right now, death cults and violent revolutionary movements are a tiny minority of the political scene. In several ways, the 20th Century was the victim of the unintended consequences of “Modern” improvements: very old human qualities and failings married modern technologies and ideals, and spawned multicides (as Matthew White calls events involving large numbers of killings caused by a person or persons). .

Nature, and animal extinctions
We are often said to be on the brink of the Sixth Extinction, as humans (rather than natural phenomena, as in the previous five) wipe out the wild. Actually, what looks like happening is the preservation of a good deal of wild habitat and a good many wild creatures in countries where there is good government. A degree of affluence may also be necessary to the process. In many poor or mismanaged countries, the extent of wildness is declining, and within it the numbers of particular species may well decline, and in some, whole populations of individual species may well be lost. This may well be a great pity. But it doesn’t mean the species are extinct (for that, there must be no breeding populations, anywhere, of the species in question).

Discussion of wildness, species conservation and habitat almost always misses the essential point that “degraded” habitats, perhaps now lacking many charismatic species which formerly inhabited them, can be glorious and can provide many environmental services. And very often they can, later, be restored. Most of Europe (including its glorious countryside) is degraded – that is, often, to say that is farmed – ex-wilderness, and much of it is recovering, and there is discussion about “rewilding” it.

We may ask, how much wild is necessary to the human spirit? Some, presumably, for adventurers and artists, for the lovers of exotic species, and for the television voyeur. I admit to having enjoyed more – well-chaperoned – wilderness experiences than most people get. Those experiences encourage me to suggest that for many people, and perhaps most, there is very nearly as much reward in the rhythms in their gardens or local nature reserves – including the persistent shards of an ancient wildlife in both – as there would be in a visit to the Masaii Mara (which can only be achieved at the expense of more anthropogenic climate change).

Human extinction
For about half a millennium, no wars, revolutions, diseases, or natural phenomena have got close to seriously denting the inexorable and historically exponential rise in human populations, and that is probably true at a nation level and is certainly true at a continental level. Indeed, that story is true of the 20th Century, which produced not only more death than any other, but a firmer, deeper, more formal commitment to human decency than any other. The latter, not the violence, may well be its true legacy.

Nature may of course have a catastrophe up her sleeve which might seriously reduce our numbers. Such a diaster might be the product of our success: a disease may sweep through our interconnected, dense populations.

It may be that we have made and will go on making a catastrophic mistake in not sufficiently slowing anthropogenic climate change. For all sorts of reasons, doing so will take perhaps half a century, which may be too late. But too late for what? Climate change may be very bad indeed for sufficient people – the majority likely poor and in the tropics – to be classed as a catastrophe, at least for them. Their discontent may produce difficulties, perhaps serious dangers, for the more privileged in other parts of the world.

But the extent of those dangers is much harder to predict than is often supposed. And it is not as easy as might be supposed to formulate – let alone to effect – the right policies to deal with whatever the problems might be. It is possible that between idleness, indifference, selfishness, lack of evidence, and other political and diplomatic difficulties, our species fails to address the issue successfully. It is possible that our failure may not much dent the prospects of our species, or even those of the rest of Nature.

Existential threat
Greens often say that Gaia will look after herself, and that if humans become extinct, the Earth will spin on and life will regenerate and recover from whatever catastrophe humans have wrought and suffered.

I imagine that is true, but I think it is rather a gloomy view. I think it is hard to imagine a scenario which stops the human enterprise. That is to say: I think our civilisation is highly resilient. Our numbers may be very greatly reduced (or hugely expand); either way, the civilisation tricks we have learned and will continue to learn may well flourish. I think the human species learns new things and does not unlearn old ones.

In short, I do not think it is likely that the human species will cease to exist, unless perhaps it is superseded by a form of life which is even more interesting in terms of its intellectual, organisational, moral or spiritual being.

The point of it all
I see the point of being human as being the business of fulfilling our promise as shards of stardust which have achieved consciousness, which is not the property of individuals alone, but of societies. This gift (and curse) of consciousness is wonderful, and strange, and challenging. It does not require huge populations, and could probably well survive – might even profit from – very large declines in human populations.

It is part of our humanity’s greatness – its spirit – to be discontented. That way lies technological, aesthetic and political improvement, as well as occasional disasters. But I dispute that we should be too discontented with ourselves.

Most religious people (but not, perhaps the doomster Biblical literalists), many political movements, and most Greens, hold the view that “we” (the privileged amongst humanity; the West; the British – whatever) ought to “share” more with the less advantaged. They suggest that humanity ought to transform itself in some way, to avoid extinction, or impoverishment of spirit, or the oppression of the human poor, or the rest of creation, or the planet. Variously, they suggest that individuals need a moral reboot; or that societies need more socialism, or more religion. They are often rather contradictorily in favour of both more community power and more international power – though that is less of a dichotomy when both trends are seen as preferred alternatives to national power, which it is now fashionable to disparage. There is also often a heartfelt desire for more “people power”, or community power, and less elite power. Individualism is often seen as synonymous with greed and selfishness.

I disagree with the heart of much of this: I do not seek very much of a transformation in the human spirit. I think, broadly speaking, that Western ideas of liberty and government, and the balance of individual human rights and obligations, and views as to equitability and fairness, are more or less adequate, and that – very broadly – they are rightly and decently spreading globally, though they do so with many setbacks, hiatuses, and in many varieties. This is not about the triumph of the West over the East or South, but rather about the dissemination of painfully learned lessons about the human spirit and how it can thrive. One of those lessons is about the tolerance and even admiration of non-“Western” ways of thinking and feeling.

It is obvious that existing ways of living in the West must change. But, for a wide range of reasons, they always have changed, and improved. We may need to make fewer long journeys, or stay away longer when we do travel. We may need to overcome the self-obsessiveness and propagandising nastiness which threaten to make a blight of our personal communication and computing apparatus. We may need to eat less meat and more vegetables and fungi. Such changes might require self-discipline, or even social discipline. But they are not about reaching for what is beyond the human spirit, nor retreating from its liveliness.

I can imagine that religion and socialism each hold out grand prospects for their followers, who often therefore believe their prescriptions to be both true and beneficial for the rest of the world. For myself, I am not religious, except as a spiritual tourist, but I rather if ambivalently admire what religions do for the majority their adherents. I think socialism has done a good deal more harm than good, and that it is a busted flush. I think an admiration for Nature is capable of being really rather fine, but can stray toward misanthropy – sometimes rampantly – and sometimes encourages what can be dangerous ideas about purity.

Above all, I think the prospects for human civilisation and its relations with the rest of creation are good, and failing that are at least middling. But I hold that it is just as well that the human spirit does not need a radical change or improvement, since I see no prospect for either. The West and perhaps the world in general have become more liberal (that is, more respecting of human rights) as a matter of enlightened self-interest, rather than as a result of a new niceness (though the two can look very alike). The people of the world need better government and better economies; we have a fair idea of what such things look like; their achievement is quite possible for everyone and likely or probable for most. As human populations increase for a while, the human enterprise and the planet will be put under greater and greater strains. But, with luck, we will have the sense to build on the lessons we have already learned about our flawed societies and the flawed natures which build them. We will probably not merely survive, but thrive. I suspect one of the challenges will be, as always, to resists the siren call of various forms of reformist romance.

References

Global population predictions
A sober view
http://yaleglobal.yale.edu/content/world-population-trends-signal-dangers-ahead

Global food predictions
Graphic account of some farming scenarios
http://www.nationalgeographic.com/foodfeatures/feeding-9-billion/

World poverty
Good World Bank summary of poverty data
http://www.worldbank.org/en/topic/poverty/overview
UNDP data on human well-being by many desiderata
http://hdr.undp.org/en/2015-report/download

Important nerdy calibration of world poverty data
http://documents.worldbank.org/curated/en/2015/10/25114899/global-count-extreme-poor-2012-data-issues-methodology-initial-results

World hunger
A decent Greenish-account of farming and food poverty
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/eric-holt-gimenez/world-hunger_b_1463429.html
Good account of world hunger and food data (UN FAO)
http://www.fao.org/publications/sofi/2014/en/
Upbeat account of human food progress (and more)
http://www.ruthdefries.com/book/big-ratchet/

World violence
The good news on 21stC violence (US Smithsonian)
http://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/globally-deaths-war-and-murder-are-decline-180950237/
Data on violent death trends (UN/Swiss govt)
http://www.genevadeclaration.org/measurability/global-burden-of-armed-violence.html
Fascinating study of death-by-violence statistics (Matthew White)
http://necrometrics.com/all20c.htm
Punchy graphic on how murders etc way outnumber large scale-killings

The Global Burden of Armed Violence


Computing Syria civil war dead (bold, October 2015)
http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2015/10/31/syrian-civil-war-death-_n_8440378.html
Syria civil war dead (Washington Post, nuanced, March 2016)
https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2016/03/15/the-syrian-wars-death-toll-is-absolutely-staggering-but-no-one-can-agree-on-the-number/
Medical causes of death (WHO)
http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs310/en/index2.html

Climate change issues
De-coupling economic growth from greenhouse gases (IEA)
http://www.iea.org/topics/climatechange/
Country-by-country carbon emissions (UCS)
http://www.ucsusa.org/global_warming/science_and_impacts/science/each-countrys-share-of-co2.html#.VuxaZEmnxYk

Humans and extinctions
Humans not the main cause of non-human extinctions. (Matt Ridley)
http://www.rationaloptimist.com/blog/invasive-species-are-the-greatest-cause-of-extinction/
Humans said to cause new 6th Extinction (Paul Ehrlich, et al)
http://advances.sciencemag.org/content/1/5/e1400253.full

Humans are star-dust
http://www.physics.org/article-questions.asp?id=52 (physics.org)

2 comments

  • Written by rippon on 14/06/16 at 7:40 pm:

    The Greens’ argument is that climate science says that we are in the process of destroying ourselves and that a crucial first step in averting that is rapid decarbonisation of the economy.

    It’s not clear that you have addressed that argument at all.

    Your retort seems to be that the Greens need not be taken seriously because they are simply a (secular) religious movement. Even if that’s correct, what is your retort to the climate science community that AGW threatens our existence?

    All that you seem to offer is, ‘Don’t worry, humans will take care of things in (the nick of) time because we are so ingenious.’

    In other words, your argument is just an expression of your own personal mood of optimism. People can be happy for you that you feel that way, but your *mood* is not actually relevant to the debates at hand.

  • Written by RDN on 27/06/16 at 2:08 pm:

    Thanks for that. I think my argument allows more gloom and nuance than you allow. I think climate change may be serious and very nasty for many poor people in the south hemisphere. But I am pretty sure it is not terminal or existential as a threat, either for human life in general, or even civilisation as we know it. Nor do I think standard green arguments about going renewable will answer the problem in the short term: nuclear and gas look very important too as we decouple industrial and consumer life from the worst carbons (coal and oil). I hope that fusion will do well. I do think renewable, as in direct dependency on current sun energy, may one day be a very big deal, but I do not think spraying subsidy around willy-nilly has done or will do much good.

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