Opinion: First thoughts on Trump-era science

Ehrlich, Anne H., Ehrlich, Paul R. | November 29, 2016 | Leave a Comment Download as PDF

Earth and North America from Space - digitally restored by Royce Bair | Flickr | CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Stanford researchers Paul and Anne Ehrlich offer suggestions on coping in a world where science suddenly feels devalued.


This article was originally published on Nov. 22, 2016 by Environmental Health News.
The original article is available here.

SYDNEY—Like virtually all people with interest in the functioning of human society, we’ve been thinking about the consequences of a Trump presidency. The results of the election were a shock but not a surprise.

We were in Britain shortly before the Brexit vote and saw the anger in some people (especially taxi drivers) at President Obama’s attempt to persuade that nation to stay in the Union. At home we were treated to people expressing similar attitudes in support of Trump all through the long elections season. And we knew from an extensive literature that decision-making has a large emotional component.

Many people were clearly enraged at the “Hood Robin” efforts (stealing from the poor and lower middle class and giving to the rich) started by President Ronald Reagan and continued by subsequent administrations, with little attention to the plight of blue-collar Americans.

That working-class Americans’ blind hunger for change would drive them to fall in behind the first effective demagogue to come along, even a narcissistic sexual predator, a racist misogynist, and a climate denier to boot, was to be expected. Left unconsidered, apparently, is that Donald Trump, utterly ignorant of how the world works, seems certain to make the situation for them much worse than Hillary Clinton would have.

They wanted to strike back.

Trump’s victory makes truly              

cooperative approaches ever              

more difficult and deprives              

society of much of the              

intellectual power it needs              

to deal with the existential              

threats civilization faces.              

Immediately, of course, Americans need to speak out about—and act to oppose—the permission the Trump campaign and victory has given to the haters in our society. Following their leader’s example, champions of bullying, ignorance, racism, religious prejudice, misogyny, sexism, and xenophobia feel a new freedom to spread lies, verbal abuse, and physical violence.

They will make it ever more difficult for people and institutions attempting to find ways to soften a collapse of civilization that we fear is imminent, given the clear trends we’re seeing across myriad branches of science. Trump’s victory makes truly cooperative approaches ever more difficult and deprives society of much of the intellectual power it needs to deal with the existential threats civilization faces.

So, what to do about the longer term and those building threats? First, those concerned with the state of the world should face up to a likely further reduction in the odds of society changing toward sustainability. The job many of us have been trying to tackle—making the coming collapse less severe—has clearly become much harder.

We were hopeful that at least a partial recovery would be possible and that the worst impacts of our unsustainable ways could be averted. But today we fear there is close to no chance that Trump will take the obvious steps to improve the future for all Americans, even on parochial issues.

He will not institute more progressive tax policies or reduce the gigantic amounts of money wasted on the military. He wouldn’t use the funds thus released to create jobs redesigning and rebuilding the nation’s energy and other infrastructure or to provide programs such as single-payer health care that would really help the disaffected. His initial appointments indicate he has no idea how badly a President needs to be surrounded by bright, well-informed people with a common vision of the future that they want to build.

Where does Trump stand on the great global issues largely absent from political discourse? We see a growing risk of nuclear war, and on this point Trump seems even more dangerous than Clinton, hawk that she is. In the other interrelated symptoms of the looming civilizational collapse—climate disruption, global toxification, destruction of biodiversity and soils, increasing chances of pandemics, failing governance, and so on—Trump’s statements (like bringing back the coal industry) suggest he will be a total disaster.

Of the most basic forces driving us toward destruction—increasing overpopulation and overconsumption, like most politicians and elite decision-makers—he is pig-ignorant.

He certainly will not dramatically promote the need for population shrinkage in the United States (a long-term project if we are to accomplish it humanely), or advocate reduction of consumption by the rich and substantial redistribution of wealth. When improving the condition of women globally is a sine qua non of tackling the horrendous problem of continuing population growth, he has shown himself to be a determined enemy of women.

The lack of understanding of             

basic science is appalling in             

many so-called “educated”             

people and is often dramatically             

displayed in the mainstream media.             

As scientists, we’re faced with the issue of what our community should do. It seems to us that we should focus on three areas in an attempt to soften the coming crash and make a partial recovery more possible.

The first is generating a thorough discussion of the probability of nuclear war and the likely consequences of both a “small” one and a global one. Few people seem to realize that with such things as “modernizing” the U.S. triad (Clinton) or encouraging proliferation (Trump), the odds of Armageddon will continue to increase beyond where they were during the Cold War. A nuclear war would trigger a global collapse from which recovery in any form would be near impossible.

Scientists and their organizations should speak out loud and clear on the dangers of a nuclear holocaust.

The second area of focus should be on inequity and redistribution, which will be critical to prepare humanity for dealing with the coming environmental collapse. A collapse will hit the poor hardest and fastest as continuing population expansions and consumption growth by the rich take us down.

Worse, it is likely to be accompanied by class warfare that may make any attempt at amelioration impossible. The scientific community must outgrow the foolish old idea that scientists should not advocate and end this reticence to speak frankly and directly on existential problems like overpopulation and overconsumption, governance of Earth’s life-support systems, and inequity in general.

Scientists must, to paraphrase Garrett Hardin, make clear that a “life-boat” philosophy among the rich, besides being unethical, is also suicidal. Having poked a hole in the bottom of the lifeboat of civilization, it is not prudent to announce to the poor “your end of the boat is sinking.” Remember, there likely will be no post-collapse scientific community.

The third area of focus ought to be to work to bring universities into the 21st century. As the results of recent elections have shown, while most politicians have college educations, most are also hopelessly ignorant of how the world works. This leads to such things as climate denial, anti-evolution, belief in perpetual growth, and faith-based policies.

It is quite possible to graduate from Stanford—arguably one of the best universities in the world—without knowing anything of significance about the impacts of population growth, the second law of thermodynamics, ecosystem services, total fertility rates, how the climate works, externalities, exponential growth, the food system, the biology of race, nuclear winter, the limits to growth, Federalism, the history of fascism, or many other topics of critical importance to modern citizens.

The lack of understanding of basic science is appalling in many so-called “educated” people and is often dramatically displayed in the mainstream media.

Needless to say, much of the essential material should be taught pre-college, but the time to institute the changes and get a widespread improvement in the grasp of the crisis among the young is probably too short.

But it should be tried. Because a better understanding of the coupled social and ecological systems might help any young people who survive the end of civilization to avoid further mistakes in a post-collapse world.

This article was originally published on Nov. 22, 2016 by Environmental Health News.
The original article is available here

Paul Ehrlich is the president of the Center for Conservation Biology and the Bing Professor of Population Studies at Stanford University and of the Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere (MAHB). Anne Ehrlich is a senior research scientist and the associate director of the Center for Conservation Biology at Stanford. The two, who are married, have co-authored several books on overpopulation and ecology.

MAHB-UTS Blogs are a joint venture between the University of Technology Sydney and the Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere. Questions should be directed to joan@mahbonline.org.

MAHB Blog: https://mahb.stanford.edu/blog/trump-era-science/

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The views and opinions expressed through the MAHB Website are those of the contributing authors and do not necessarily reflect an official position of the MAHB. The MAHB aims to share a range of perspectives and welcomes the discussions that they prompt.
  • aattlee

    When “states rights” are right:
    “States Rights” used to be synonymous with “Jim Crow”,
    now , in California, we will need to assert an antipodal version
    of states rights in opposition to the Trump regime.
    The organization of this California resistance to tyranny must start NOW.
    (Are you listening, Jerry?)

  • Marc

    I’ve seen many well-educated graduates from prestigious universities – engineers, geologists, environmental scientists, policy specialists, and such. What they learn in school becomes inert when they go the professional life because organizations pigeonhole them into silos and buckets. Gradually, their education atrophies and they learn to become like others in the herd in order to keep their jobs.

    For college education to really work, the life-after-college structures need to be reformed. There’s a great discontinuity between those two. The institutionalized belief that “go to college, learn knowledge, and apply them in the job” is incredibly simplistic and rather platonic than realistic. And it’s the propaganda we’ve been spreading to kids as parents and educators. One other reason why college graduates also struggle finding work — they’re perceived as ‘too’ educated for issues that are deliberately kept simplistic and ignorant.

    Long story short, the task of adult education is probably far more pressing and important than educating K-12 kids. After all, important decisions like reducing GHG emissions are made by adults, not kids. As Michael Moore said, millennials actually turned out just fine. It’s the baby booming dinosaurs and Gen X’ers that are severely middling, mired in conspiracy theories, fabricated truths, and hold too much power over processes they simply don’t understand or even bother to study and understand — my dad, an engineer whom one might think as talented and bright (as they say to all engineer folks since they build stuff), a typical representative of that ignorant dinosaur sample. And the saddest thing is, they have the same voting power as the Stanford professor across the street.

    In hindsight, democratic voting system turned out to be the the greatest virus that we all once believed to be the cure to what ailed human societies. It has now hit its expiry date. Guess we’ll need to find out the next best idea and the conditions are now perfect to begin cooking it. The Scientist-King?….yet a few hundred years down on the road, that too may turn into a horrible model. Perhaps, better to attach a legal expiry date to it.

  • Excellent summation of our present situation Paul and Anne. I think that Science is in real danger of being savaged in this coming administration. I’ve noticed a trend in Conservative Administrations like the Bush Jr. and Stephen Harper in Canada, a trend towards defunding Environmental Sciences, trashing the Long Form Canada Census, destroying libraries of books on Water Quality.. I will not be surprised if a Trump Government defunds Earth Sciences and cuts the study of Earth right out of NASA.

    There is a precedent for the wholesale destruction of sciences and it comes from the Twentieth Century Totalitarianism. Evolutionary Biology in the Soviet Union and “Jewish Science” in Nazi Germany. Each of these cases shows the destruction of certain branches of scientific knowledge for roughly ideological reasons.

    We are facing something similar with a Trump Administration. The more Authoritarian a leader, the more effective he will be in suppressing fact gathering and information regarding the bad consequences of his policies. Why did Harper want to get rid of the Canadian Long Form Census? My guess is that it would make it a lot harder to talk about and understand inequality in Canada without those vital statistics. As George Orwell showed us in 1984, knowledge is on the road to destruction when it becomes political.

    One of the biggest mistakes we have made is to make Science so Dependent on large sums of money. A lot of science can be done inexpensively, in the sense that Science isn’t about using expensive machines and technology, it is really about Scientific Peers reviewing each other’s work. As long as Science depends on large sums of money it makes itself less resilient in the long run. I expect a major effort to defund Eco-Systems Study, Earth Sciences, and the study of Water Systems. All of these scientific subjects pose impediments to the unconstrained extraction of fossil fuels.

    In my mind the most important task is moral and philosophical. To come up with a better form of ideological liberalism to counter the coming fascism. Ideological, because facts and good scientific theories are not enough. To counter fascism there has to be a way to motivate and mobilize the masses, something that has emotional substance and gives politics a strong sense of purpose.

    Trump has tapped into the Birther Movement, with it’s deep racism and xenophobia. This is a way of making fanatic supporters, it has to be countered with something that also has an emotional center, one based on freedom, tolerance and our deep connection with all other human beings and with all of Creation.

  • liveoak

    It is shocking to see the lack of scientific understanding that is so prevalent among people of all educational levels, and the apparent lack of interest in how the real world works strikes me as strange enough to be worthy of investigation as a phenomenon in its own right. One might assume that, up until a century or so ago, even in the industrializing societies most people had some connection with agriculture and had a clue about dealing directly with physical and biological objects; they seemingly must have had a sense of being dependent upon the larger systems of the planet, even as they felt no need to question their basic stability, shorter-term fluctuations notwithstanding. But there has been a turning away from “objective” reality–a contested notion in contemporary academic philosophy–in favor of an increasingly subjectivized but also increasingly shared “world” made up largely of social constructions with little or nothing supporting them–they do not “bottom out,” as John Searle might say, in real reality. I agree with Searle that philosophical anti-realism–which became a fashionable position sometime during the 70s, as far as I can gather, and leads to a kind of epistemological relativism–at these lofty academic levels has a great to do with a loss of intellectual integrity that I think has beset many of our academic institutions as well as our primary and secondary educational institutions.

    I recall that, somewhere in your writings, the two of you–Anne and Paul Ehrlich–pointed out that economics is not a science. I don’t remember to what degree you elaborated on the difference, but it clearly reflects the ontological distinction between that reality that we humans did not create and the one that we have constructed by means of collectively shared symbols that have meaning for us, and “work” for us, only because we all agree, tacitly if not in full conscious awareness, to accept that they do; such linguistic constructions alone do not provide sustenance for biological organisms. It’s a hopeful sign, I think, that some of us are coming into awareness of how this operates, but still lacking as yet is convergence upon a common ontology that we can all collectively visualize, which will need to include our social ontology–the way we social primates do construct a conceptual “world” among ourselves–but seen in its place, as a part of the much larger biosphere, also to be seen within the frame of planetary systems, and also, one might hope, as a social world consciously re-constructed to function in conjunction with, rather than counter to, those larger systems. I believe attaining such a shared image would reflect the kind of “consilience” E. O. Wilson had in mind, and I don’t think it’s impossible to achieve. But there’s also been a lot of active resistance to seeing ourselves in such a way among academics–perhaps as a form of psychological denial of a threatening, or at least ego-deflating, situation–and overcoming this within academic ranks may be an important part of the challenge now.

  • As the Ehrlich’s write, “It is quite possible to graduate from Stanford—arguably one of the best universities in the world—without knowing anything of significance about the impacts of population growth, the second law of thermodynamics, ecosystem services, total fertility rates, how the climate works, externalities, exponential growth, the food system, the biology of race, nuclear winter, the limits to growth, Federalism, the history of fascism, or many other topics of critical importance to modern citizens.”

    And there you have it.

    We often think that an individual utilizing an umbrella can stay dry more or less during a downpour. But there are no umbrellas, no Stanford Universities, no number of well-intended individuals, who can stem a downpour called the Anthropocene. We have already long set it in motion, as the Ehrlichs, along with their colleague Gerardo Ceballos, have more than amply documented in their astonishing book, The Annihilation of Nature.

    I believe the most important take away from this short essay by the Ehrlichs is the urgent need for all people – particularly ecologists – to advocate assiduously and smartly for some measure of remaining local and obviously global life-support. There is no longer the slightest scope for dodging the bullet of public outcry, effective leadership within micro-communities of those still communicating across party lines, and a thorough and uncompromising commitment to biological, chemical and IPAT data, filtered by personal and unstinting compassion, sanity and sobriety.

  • Dac Crossley

    Paul and Anne – the glimmer of hope in these dark times is that more and more of us are standing up and speaking their minds. I’ve long warned my friends of the war on science. I first fought those battles years ago – as I’m sure you did also – and we do make progress, if miniscule. There are some new voices, such as Deborah Blum. Take heart.

    — Dac