Dave Darby talks with Julia Steinberger, professor of ecological economics at the University of Leeds and a member of the IPCC, about her work and the links between biodiversity loss and economic growth.
Today I’m talking with Julia Steinberger, professor of ecological economics at the University of Leeds and (tell me if this is right) a member of the intergovernmental panel on climate change – the IPCC.
Yes, I’m one of the lead authors – one of many. And I don’t speak on behalf of the IPCC because nobody does – the reports do.
And both your parents were Nobel laureates, is that right?
That’s news to me. One is – Jack Steinberger. My mom maybe should have been.
And you’ve got a PhD from MIT, and you work on things like the cosmic microwave background of the universe, and quantum electrodynamics.
Some of these things sound a lot more glamorous than they are.
That’s not what I want to talk about though – you’d lose me very quickly. What I want to talk about is your work on ecological economics – what’s happening to the global environment, the consequences of that for humans, and about GDP growth. I read some of your articles – especially liked the timeline one, which took us back to the climate in the Miocene. Also watched you on YouTube. Love what you’re saying. I especially liked a couple of things:
First, your recognition that all the lovely things that greenies would like to happen are going to face opposition, from very wealthy, powerful people who will lose some of their wealth and power if these things happen. I don’t know if you find this, but I find that a lot of people say ‘we should do this, or we should do that’, as though we only have to provide information, and when enough people get it, things will change – as if there aren’t very powerful people out there who are not going to let that happen. Why do you think that’s so difficult for a lot of greenies to see?
I think it’s a combination of two things. At the beginning of the environmental movement – say at the founding of the UN environmental programme, when people began to realise that climate change was happening, the environment was something that was taken seriously by politicians and to some extent business people. It wasn’t controversial. The Rio Earth Summit was a big deal. It was a huge gathering of heads of state. So at the beginning, it wouldn’t have been delusional to believe that everyone was going to take this seriously. Everyone was saying the right things, and to some extent doing the right things – passing legislation on water, on air, fixing the hole in the ozone layer. Those things happened. There was mobilisation for them, and politicians took them seriously and did them.
However, these things weren’t as hard to tackle in terms of what they do to the economy, as climate change. Climate change is a full-frontal challenge, and I don’t think it was taken seriously. So for a time it was ok to be apolitical, because things happened as regards environmental goals. But also, in terms of not being able to see the political nature of what we’re up against, sustainable development was presented as apolitical – there was a ‘have your cake and eat it’ framing of the problem. That was compelling to everybody, because in some ways, nobody wants a fight.
So the idea was that if we use the term ‘sustainable development’ and talk about ‘green growth’, ‘decoupling’ etc. then we won’t have a fight. We’re not in a strong position as environmentalists. Let’s not go out and seek that fight. We might not win. Let’s just be nice to everyone. I think that framing, in hindsight, was kinda disastrous.
That brings me to the second thing I liked about what you said – that change-oriented people (I don’t like to say left or right) are not saying enough about GDP growth. So you’ve looked into climate change a lot, obviously, and my question is – can there be a solution to climate change with a perpetually growing global economy?
So many people just can’t see that though.
At the beginning of my career, I was looking for the ‘green growth’ solution. I became convinced that it just couldn’t happen out there in reality. So I stopped looking for it. That’s been happening more and more, for lots of people, so now we’re not just seeing studies, we’re seeing comprehensive, exhaustive meta-studies that say ‘no way – we really need to be thinking about this very differently. Those were nails in the green growth coffin for me. And it’s not just climate change research. There’s also a lot of research on biodiversity loss and its links to economic growth. If we want to take biodiversity loss seriously, we have to accept that it’s driven by economic growth. So many excellent studies have come out on this that I can now feel confident to say ‘no’.
Are you optimistic that it might nudge towards the mainstream at some point? You know that ‘sustainable economic growth’ is one of the UN sustainable development goals? (No. 8)
I don’t think we’re going to be fast enough. I’m not optimistic. I don’t talk about ‘hope’ or things like that. That’s not my personality, and it’s not my job. But we’re getting closer to understanding that economic growth and environmental sustainability are completely different things, and we’re getting better at explaining why economic growth is not the same as ‘good things’, and in fact has a lot of bad things associated with it.
Thomas Picketty, the most eminent economist of our generation, has also shown that economic growth is accompanied by widening inequality. Growth goes to the wealthiest classes and comes from the impoverished classes, who don’t have assets any more. So now the poorest in society have net negative wealth, because the system runs on debt now. So we’re learning to tell the story of how growth is economically, socially and environmentally disastrous, but we’re possibly not telling it fast enough.
What term do you favour – steady-state, degrowth, post-growth – and why?
I’m quite opportunistic, so I’d probably be happy with any of those terms. I’m happy with degrowth or post-growth. Steady-state I think is not possible right now, because we’re headed for a period of instability. I think we can look to a steady-state economy in the future, but right now I think we’re looking at a very strong period of degrowth, certainly on the physical resource side, if we want to have a chance at maintaining stable climatic conditions that allow us to have things like agriculture.
Degrowth is a harder sell, isn’t it? It makes people think they have to give things up – which they probably do.
Economic growth is this hegemonic concept that sits in the middle of our society. And yes, a lot of people say ‘I don’t like degrowth, because it’s negative’ – but everything else is co-opted by growth. It’s our secular deity. It’s dominant, and it will swallow everything else. So ‘sustainable growth’, ‘green growth’, ‘equitable growth’, ‘inclusive growth’, everything becomes part of growth. So if you’re going up against the hegemon, you have to fly that flag. So that’s one of the reasons I’m happy with degrowth. It makes people think. The first couple of times they hear it, they maybe don’t like it, then they wonder why anyone would want it, then they think about it some more, and maybe read about it, and then many people come to terms with it. I’ve seen this happen very rapidly.
I guess we’re only talking about a small percentage of people? I don’t think the mainstream are going to come to terms with any of those phrases really – or even confront them.
Maybe – but I’m very hopeful. I see these popular movements that involve a lot of people – including the student strikes. Greta Thunberg gave an anti-growth speech at the UN. I’m not saying everyone is going to embrace degrowth, just that there are more and more people pushing the conversation.
Ecological economics – forgive my ignorance – is it a specific discipline? Can you get a degree in ecological economics?
If you go to the University of Leeds, which I’m sadly leaving, you can get a masters in ecological economics.
Do all ecological economists see the absurdity of perpetual growth?
There are some people who think that some parts of the economy could still grow, but most don’t associate growth with progress and would definitely agree that at least some parts of the economy need to degrow. And interestingly, that’s a mainstream position now. There was a statement by mainstream economists that we have to degrow parts of the economy.
I don’t think the New Economics Foundation have come out against it – it’s more like ‘GDP growth isn’t everything’ – the same with Kate Raworth and ‘Doughnut Economics’.
It’s about turning away from growth as a metric of social progress. And I think these intermediates are very important. I’m very much in favour of there being a spectrum of debate, because it allows that debate to happen across a wider fraction of the population. So pragmatically, I admire Kate Raworth’s work, and the work of the New Economics Foundation. And the fact that they’re taking the middle ground and saying that some parts of the economy need to degrow. Talking about a Green New Deal, they’re saying that some sectors, specifically fossil fuels and adjacent industries need to degrow to nothing.
How can we best explain it to people – because it’s still a minority position? And I know a lot of intelligent people who don’t get it. And it’s on Radio 4 all the time – how are we going to get back to growth? How do we get through?
Well I’ve never been asked onto Radio 4. I think the pro-growth position is very strong. But the fraction of people who understand differently has grown by leaps and bounds, and I would say now includes large chunks of mainstream economists. Certainly in the academic sphere, I think the sentiment that we need a fundamentally different economy is growing rapidly. Just in the last year, people have been coming out and talking about it in ways I haven’t seen before. It’s been much bolder and uncompromising.
Covid has shown this too. When we’re facing a big problem, and we need to save lives, then we do stuff differently. And climate is a lot worse than Coronavirus. Not right now, but it will be soon enough. But we can stop the worst incarnations of it.
I often hear that growth can be dematerialised. It drives me insane. Growth means more spending power. if there’s not increased spending power, there hasn’t been GDP growth. And if you have a growth in spending power, there’s no way to ring-fence it so that it’s not spent on material things. It can’t be dematerialised.
So recent studies have looked at everything from emissions and resource use – materials and energy. Dematerialisation is not happening.
Here’s another big question: can we take the growth out of capitalism, or will it require a new system?
The reason we have growth is capitalism. It’s a system based on competition. Firms don’t have a choice – they’re competing in the market, and they have a motive of profit accumulation. The only way firms survive in that context is by growth. Lack of growth in capitalism is a crisis. So it’s not possible to take the growth out of capitalism, because we have the growth problem because we have a capitalist system that can’t cope otherwise.
The craziest thing for me as a physicist is talking to mainstream economists and saying ‘OK, where are your alternative models, of what a macroeconomy would look like, that doesn’t need to grow?’ – and they’ll look at you as if you’ve just sprouted five heads. It’s incredible. Economists haven’t even bothered to model a non-growing economy. It’s a religion, not a science. There’s a fixation on what the system should be, and a refusal to consider alternatives, because when you drill down, you see that capitalism does not have other options. So degrowth – fine, but it does mean getting rid of capitalism.
Firms have to advertise to gain customers, but advertising also has the effect of increasing consumption overall.
Do you know Schnaiberg and Gould – The Treadmill of Production? They were American Economists who said that we have this idealised version that says that the consumer demands stuff, and production is to meet consumer demand, but if you look at what the economy is really doing, producers overproduce and so they need to create demand, and that’s what they’re doing with advertising. Plus in one study I was involved with, we looked at automobile dependence – the car as the central product of our era. And you see all these different ways that the product is not the car – the product is car dependence. It’s about creating that demand, and removing other options.
Yeah – nobody ever woke up and thought ‘I want a razor with 5 blades’ or ‘I want bluey whiteness in my sheets’. It was generated by the advertising industry. But countries are in global competition to attract capital, which they’re not going to do with a stable or shrinking GDP, so they have to go all out for economic growth.
The word ‘countries’ is doing a lot of work in that statement. It’s true, what you said, but we have to consider who, within countries, is doing this. So we see a lot of inequality between countries, but we also see a lot of inequality within countries. So when we say that countries need to attract capital, we’re talking about a fairly small population within each country, which actually benefits from that capital and the financial entanglements it brings, whereas the rest of the population suffers under structural adjustment programmes, increased prices for food, energy, school fees etc. So you have this impoverishment that goes with global capitalism having access to a domestic market.
A paper has just come out that shows how the World Bank and the IMF have been transformed away from their original purpose towards opening up foreign markets for capital. It was a deliberate shift, driven by big financial firms in the US.
I heard another argument recently that I’d never really thought of before: that technical innovations mean that labour productivity constantly rises, which means that the economy has to grow to maintain employment levels.
Tim Jackson makes that point really well in Prosperity Without Growth. David Harvey is another author who talks about it. So technological innovation is not neutral. The tech that’s adopted is the tech that allows more profits to be made, via labour productivity.
So we need a new system? How do we actually say that? If you say you want to replace capitalism, some people will immediately think you’re some kind of Stalinist.
They do, don’t they? Within ecological economics, I once gave a talk about inequality and capitalism, and someone said ‘the Soviet Union was a failure’. So that idea is there very strongly. I think one of the ways is to confront it directly by showing our opposition to Soviet Russia, and China right now – complete horror shows, economically, socially, environmentally, and in terms of democracy. So we have to talk about these things openly, and I think one of the most important concepts to get across is economic democracy, and that alternatives to capitalism don’t have to be about state-imposed central planning, with a few people making all the decisions. It’s about bringing the economy into the civic sphere.
This is something NEF talk about as well – universal basic services, like water, transport, food, energy, housing – these are things we can own and deliver, democratically, at the community level. There’s a whole bunch of wonderful ideas, that exist in practice, and are very successful, that have this economic democracy element to them. So we need to move towards that model. And the funny thing is that that the same people who say they don’t want to be part of something like the Soviet Union, are happy to join a credit union or a housing association or a housing co-operative, because the rent’s cheaper. Or they might have a veg box delivered.
I was involved in a public debate about capitalism, organised by our local Transition group. They asked me to give the anti-capitalist position. As the debate went on, it turned out that my pro-capitalist opponent was a member of a community energy scheme and a community-supported agriculture scheme. I asked if he thought those things were part of capitalism and he said yes. I asked if he thought capitalism was a free market and he said yes. I said that if he was in favour of community energy and community-supported agriculture, then we should stop arguing. That’s not capitalism for me, but if it is for you, let’s not worry about labels. But for me it’s not capitalism.
Absolutely not. Capitalism is about profit accumulation to a few actors, and all of these community schemes have the idea of re-investment. And that’s what we need now. In terms of telling people that we need to transform the economic system completely, that’s something the IPCC is shouting from the rooftops. But in terms of convincing people that it’s something desirable for them, I think we need to be making those links with the ‘good stuff’ like community energy schemes, housing coops. But they have to become mainstream, so we have to shut down the alternatives. I think that’s something people have a harder time wrapping their heads around. Everybody likes to see good alternatives, but the hard part is closing down the big examples of ‘badness’. This prevents the alternatives from becoming the norm.
- So the idea was that if we use the term ‘sustainable development’ and talk about ‘green growth’, ‘decoupling’ etc. then we won’t have a fight. We’re not in a strong position as environmentalists. Let’s not go out and seek that fight. We might not win. Let’s just be nice to everyone. I think that framing, in hindsight, was kinda disastrous.
- If we want to take biodiversity loss seriously, we have to accept that it’s driven by economic growth.
- So we’re learning to tell the story of how growth is economically, socially and environmentally disastrous, but we’re not telling it fast enough.
The views expressed in our blog are those of the author and not necessarily lowimpact.org's
1Steve Gwynne August 23rd, 2020
What surprises me in these sorts of discussions is the failure to point out that financially viable oil reserves are set to end in around 50 years time. This isn’t to detract from the contents of this well informed interview, but oil depletion is clearly a significant risk to economic stability and social stability, especially without alternatives that have a similar energy density.
Analysis that incorporates energy return on investment (EROI) or energy cost of energy (ECoE), eg https://surplusenergyeconomics.wordpress.com/2020/08/22/179-penny-plain-tuppence-coloured/
will clearly show that ‘organic’ economic growth is already reaching secular stagnation, which is occurring due to the rising costs of surplus energy and that the consequence ‘prosperity degrowth’ is being mitigating by private and public debt.
In this respect, it is a combination of profit maximisation (which can be variously justified by the need for profits to cover operating costs and sustain investment, to maintain inflation, to pay off debts and sustain poverty alleviation) and debt that is allowing the economy to grow, albeit in an increasingly diminishing way.
Another main driver of economic growth is human population growth since as the population grows, resource availability per human diminishes which is what gives rise to both resource competition and cultural competition with governments seeking to avoid social instability through monetary mechanisms and supply/demand subsidies.
Of course, what is at the root of these various paradoxes which economic growth seeks to circumvent is our human growth crisis. In other words, too many humans needing their 1.8 hectares of land/water with many developed countries needing much more. Consequently, many rich nations like the UK are in severe ecological debt which means a growing population requires imports, which leads to land grabbing, forced evictions, deforestation, urban poverty and migration as resource conflicts grow.
As such, it is not as simple as saying economic growth is the problem, the drivers of economic growth need to be identified and addressed. This includes profit maximisation (for the reasons listed above), but also includes debt finance and human population growth. Together these add up to a human growth crisis which will become more acute as oil depletion gets nearer.
Within this context, many ecological economists have demonstrably failed to provide the bigger picture and have instead waxed lyrical about climate change, economic growth and wealth inequality when, whilst these are important sustainability areas, they only touch upon the politically correct fringes of the bigger picture. It is this politically motivated obfuscation that impedes the need for system change. In this respect, acedemics, environmental activists, sustainability experts, politicians and business leaders are all pretty much singing off the same hymn sheet.
By defiantly ignoring human population growth as a main driver of economic growth, carbon emissions and biodiversity loss, which is currently supported with increasing debt, then an atmosphere of distrust is cultivated which turns a very real ecological issue into a political one with much of the debate then about the inconsistencies within the various political arguments.
Our ecological problems will not be resolved until we are all singing off the same hymn sheet with the title of that hymn sheet being our human growth crisis. Any attempts to obfuscate our human growth crisis by only focusing on a fringe element of the much wider problem will simply be interpreted as politically motivated aggrandisement.
Our human growth crisis has already set into play resource competition, social competition and cultural competition. Without elucidating the big picture which seeks to address all the main drivers, then the attempted resolution of our growing crisis will simply be lost in political competition.
2Malcolm purvis August 23rd, 2020
What and excellent article. Thank you very much Dave and Julia!
3Dave Darby August 23rd, 2020
Steve – like you I see that population growth is problematic in terms of our effect on global ecology. But it’s not a popular position in environmental circles. I remember George Monbiot writing that the biggest growth is in poorer countries, where they don’t consume as much per capita as in the wealthier countries. That’s correct, but the issue is that they want to consume as much, and soon we will have 10 billion people, all trying to increase their consumption, as capitalist advertising and their governments are telling them that they should.
But it’s not the main driver of economic growth (quite apart from the fact that population is set to stabilise this century, but not economic growth). You know what the ‘ is at the end M-C-M’ don’t you? It means ‘more than’. In capitalism, money M is invested in the production of commodites C to make more money M’. Not less money or the same amount of money – always more. It’s impossible to stabilise the economy under those circumstances – under capitalism, as Julia said.
But also, M’ doesn’t just mean numbers – it comes with a very real increase in spending power. And there’s no mechanism on earth that can dematerialise that extra spending power.
You’re right that overall GDP = per capita GDP x population, and so population is a very important factor. But stabilise or even reduce the population, and under capitalism, the ecology-eating growth has to continue.
(and from ecology’s perspective it is the size of the human economy that’s the problem, regardless of how it’s generated. 2 billion people living American lifestyles might have the same effect as 20 billion people living Tanzanian lifestyles – but nature doesn’t care).
We can do what we can do. What do you suggest? (I seem to remember we were more-or-less on the same page re solutions).
4Dave Darby August 23rd, 2020
Malcolm – thank you. Part 2 coming soon. (but the social media shares are broken – our web guy’s trying to fix them – so it looks like nobody likes our articles atm!)
5Malcolm Purvis August 23rd, 2020
Yes, for sure population growth is a big issue in our ability to survive our current crisis.
However, the UN have recently said that we have enough food to feed 10 billion https://medium.com/@jeremyerdman/we-produce-enough-food-to-feed-10-billion-people-so-why-does-hunger-still-exist-8086d2657539 Of course this is not the only issue with population growth and water will be an issue as climate change increases but, as ‘degrowth’ continues the real issue surely is that we all use less of the valuable resources that are available. We really cant all have a dishwasher, car, fridge, 2 foreign holidays a year etc etc. Once we all start to degrow, do jobs that we enjoy, not for the ‘money’ in the new system of ‘Credit commons’, or something similar, many of these difficulties and delusions (that we need so much stuff in order to be happy) will disappear.
It has also been stated in various research papers that population growth will level out in the not too distant future https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/06/17/worlds-population-is-projected-to-nearly-stop-growing-by-the-end-of-the-century/.
So, many people might need more convincing that population growth is really THE main issue here? Assuming of course that we can create a new economic system and people start to realise that we have been deluded by the false promises that capitalism brings?
6Tracing Horizons August 24th, 2020
Spot on. Wonderful interview and read. Couldn’t agree more. Thank you.
7Tracing Horizons August 24th, 2020
Spot on. Wonderful interview and read. Couldn’t agree more. Thank you.
8Steve Gwynne August 25th, 2020
Thanks Dave and Malcolm. My position is that all the drivers of our human growth crisis need to be considered including population and consumption.
Each person requires land to survive, from which they derive and fulfill their hierarchy of needs. If each person needs an acre (ecological footprint network actually says 1.8 global hectares), then there is a whole lot of difference between 50 million and 500 million people.
Hence, in the first instance, any population increase demands land consumption which will invariably displace wildlife habitats. It is upon land that human economic activity takes place, which will displace even more wildlife habitats.
As such, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is also a template by which human economic development requires more and more land.
Yes Dave we are on the same page regarding solutions ??️.
My latest epiphany is that it is only through ecocentrism that we will collectively provide the remedy for our human growth crisis.
9Steve Gwynne August 26th, 2020
Hi again. In response to Malcolm in particular, I’m having a similar discussion on an ecocentric forum and unfortunately economic/consumption degrowth is not as simple as it seems. I’ll repost my most recent reply to show you what I mean.
Much of the discussion is in reference to the ecological footprint data accessed here
I need to spend more time looking at the data but I feel it is somewhat more complicated than simply reducing consumption levels. I say this because US gdp for example, supports jobs, taxes etc so a reduction by 122% in order to economically degrow within the country’s biocapacity will leave a lot of people unemployed, increase resource competition and decimate the tax base, leaving much of the country acutely short of public services.
This means many more people will have to return to the land or adopt a Detroit model of urban community agriculture but with little opportunity to raise income to pay for bills. This means homelessness on a massive scale.
Presumably for a country to reduce its material consumption and gdp by 122% will require a complete rethink of grey infrastructure along with a tax heavy form of capitalism or socialism. Certainly regarding grey infrastructure, I’m thinking the need to retreat back from a car culture since the tax base will be insufficient to maintain roads etc. Similarly, with incomes dropping by 122%, then questions of affordability arise. Not only in terms of individuals purchasing energy but the more stark question of whether energy companies can afford to provide energy with prices dropping by 122%.
The same of course applies to the UK and even more so with our ecological footprint exceeding national biocapacity by 301%. A reduction in the tax base of 301% would render most public services obsolete resulting in mass unemployment with no welfare benefits to rely upon. This would mean a mass exodus to the countryside to eek out a subsistence lifestyle since mega cities like London would collapse into anarchy with few people able to afford energy or energy companies unable to provide energy due to low prices.
Essentially, if my prognosis is correct, in order to provide essential infrastructure, goods and services within the context of the US and the UK, the entire global economy would have to devalue in order to readjust commodity prices to make the consumption of commodities more affordable for essential needs. This collapse in global commodity prices will collapse global incomes, so in order to sustain consumption degrowth in the USA and the UK, the global economy will need to readjust quite dramatically, thereby collapsing prices and incomes globally. Thus, increasing relative and absolute poverty in the USA and the UK will result in increasing relative and absolute poverty globally.
This is the paradoxical dilemma facing humanity including democratically elected governments. A severe contraction of major economies will have a knock on effect globally. Presumably this will mean a global recession/depression and the inability to finance a transition to a post carbon world, especially in terms of the necessary research and development to find viable alternatives to fossil fuels considering that 90% of the global economy is dependent on fossil fuels.
Obviously this makes for a grim picture with a global recession/depression fuelling the intensification of human competition.
Overall, I’d assume to make the necessary adjustments globally will require an unprecedented level of global cooperation which may mean creating a global system that relies heavily on mutually agreed voluntary work in order to sustain the provision of essential infrastructure, goods and services. Especially if it is borne in mind that collapsing incomes will result in a collapse in prices and a collapse in taxes which will further collapse incomes, prices and taxes.
In other words, economic degrowth in major economies means a global degrowth in incomes, prices and taxes. In order to compensate for the collapse in incomes, prices and taxes that help to sustain essential infrastructure, goods and services, we would need to work voluntarily to provision ourselves whilst the global economy adjusts.
The alternative is population degrowth!!!
Adapting human animals to meet the needs of tamed animals and wild animals ? ?
10Malcolm Purvis September 6th, 2020
Sorry for the delay, I have been away.
Thanks for that, some good and interesting points you make.
My view would be that less consumption (by all) would mean that we would not need the income in order to fund the present unsustainable lifestyle that we have. If we levelled the playing field (with a new economic system-credit commons or similar) the rich would no longer be ‘rich’ in monetary terms, their consumption would decrease massively, far more than the vast majority of people and people would no longer need to work the ridiculous hours that they do now, leaving more time for voluntary social services etc. This has already happened in our current lockdown.
We would no longer need to do the work to make the rich even richer, resource use would decrease. A whole rethink of our system would mean a rebalancing of working hours (reduction) negating the need for unemployment and therefore reducing biodiversity loss and global warming/fossil fuel use.
I’m not sure why Maslows hierarchy would necessitate more land being needed? Basic needs such as food, shelter and heat should be available for all if the top 5% do not use so much of the resources we have (we would all have to use less also)? After that we would have the society in order for those able and willing to reach ‘self actualisation’? The return to the countryside you mention would be a marvellous thing and the large monoculture farms would no longer be necessary, Smallholding’s (organic) would increase, health would improve, we would have a far better sustainable society.
I know I am a dreamer but be careful what you wish for! And we must remember that ‘thoughts become things’!! Let’s think some good ones.
11Dil Green September 7th, 2020
The problem for persons arguing that human population is a core problem is that it raises the question – what are we working for? What do we want to save? Is it something that people being alive doesn’t not count towards?
The Artificial Intelligence answer to human global warming is, of course, to eliminate humans.
If you are not pro-human, then precisely what is it that you are arguing for? Because the wonder of the biosphere is a human value. As far as I can tell, the universe cares not a jot – does not obviously value Venus or Jupiter less than it does Earth.
If your argument is to population reduction through choice – all well and good. There is ample evidence that throwing resources at educating young women in countries where access to education is hard will address this problem within a generation or two.
If you are suggesting that some humans alive need to die earlier than they otherwise would, or that people should be subjected to coercive measures to restrict population growth, then I ask again, what exactly is it that you are interested in preserving? And who will choose who will be subjected to these enforcements? Will you? Will you do the enforcing? If not you, then who? These are not abstract questions.
12Dave Darby September 7th, 2020
I think this century is key really. What happens this century will dictate whether the next century is a cruise into a sustainable, democratic future, with peace and plenty for all, or a shitstorm that will make ‘The Road’ look like ‘Little House on the Prairie’.
This is where ‘what I hope’ and ‘what I think’ part company. What I think is that climate change will run away from us, and temperatures will just keep increasing, turning the world into a desert. Governments will continue to chase economic growth to the bitter end, and there will be permanent resource wars as we desperately try to burn all the fossil fuels that are left. Coral reefs will be first to go, followed by polar ice, tropical rain forests, insects, and most other species. Billionaires will retreat to bunkers in New Zealand and Alaska, but their money will be useless, so their security staff will torture them until they tell them the codes to the tinned food stores, then they’ll kill them. Africa’s population will quadruple as the continent desertifies, and so 4 billion Africans and most of the rest of the world will be on the move looking for food and water. Warlords will rule in a dwindling population as war, violence, famine and disease take their toll. Then antibiotic resistance and plummeting sperm count will finish us off.
What I hope is that humans will build democratic institutions to provide food, energy, housing, care, exchange and governance in resilient communities that prevent wealth from being extracted and centralised, and that don’t require fossil fuels. The state/corporate growth/war machines will wither and die. Fossil fuels will stay in the ground, but we’ll lose the coral reefs anyway (even in a best-case scenario now). We might keep some rainforest and a few polar bears. Jeff Bezos will join a hippy commune in Wisconsin, and Bill Gates will get a job as a janitor at a school in Swindon. I think there’s a miniscule chance of scenario two happening (zero for the last bit, obvs), but I’ll keep working towards that, because everything else is sort of nonsensical.
In both these scenarios, the population will get to at least 10 billion, before falling violently to about zero in scenario one, and in scenario two, gracefully gliding downwards until people start to worry that we’ll just peter out, unless now educated and empowered women can be persuaded that sickness, stretchmarks, drudgery, talking jibberish for years and loss of sex life is worth the joys of bringing up someone that turns out not to like them that much really, and moves to another city.
But in both scenarios, population will turn out not to have been the thing to worry about. Sure, our problems would be easier to solve if there were 2 billion of us instead of 10 billion, but getting there would be pretty horrific in itself. GDP growth, war and wealth concentration are the three horsemen of the apocalypse. And the fourth is….. dunno – maybe TikTok?