The summer 2014 issue of CALIFORNIA, the magazine of the University of California Alumni Association, was touted as the “Apocalypse Issue.” It contained articles, mostly excellent, on a series of potential California and global problems: asteroid collision, epidemics, extinction, climate disruption and earthquake.  In stark contrast, though, was a summary article, “Apocalypse Later” by Brendan Buhler, interim Science Editor for the issue.

Buhler’s essay hinges around two assertions about the future.  On the one hand he asserts that apocalypse is something that is at worst far off in the future.  It is “not yet”; there is time.  Time for what?  For the technological solutions that he asserts are just around the corner.  To advise a wait-and-see attitude when it comes to confronting severe threats to us and our descendants, and a thoughtless confidence when it comes to future breakthroughs in technology, is a lethal combination; it is not the advice we and many of our scientist colleagues offer up in the classroom.

Sadly, the drift toward apocalypse is propelled by four horsemen: ignorance, denial, faith, and greed.  Education can cure ignorance, and most of the essays in this issue of CALIFORNIA are a useful step in that direction.  But denial, blind faith, and greed are pervasive and recalcitrant, as Buhler demonstrates. Greed, long recognized as the basis of modern economic systems, is illustrated by Buhler’s assertions about salvation via new supplies of oil made available by melting ice caps.  Those who would exploit these resources do so out of greed, not out of concern about the collapse of civilization, and in fact the exploitation of those resources will hasten collapse.  Buhler expresses faith that farm yields will begin to rise again, faith in a second coming of the Green Revolution.  And his assertion that biofuels could well be the path to sustainable energy denies a growing body of scientific literature demonstrating the many ways that reliance on biofuel technology will leave the planet in even worse shape than it currently is: more vulnerable to energy supply disruption because of energy dependence on a capricious climate, more depauperate of biodiversity, and shorter of food as critical resources such as water, nutrients, and land become even more depleted.

To see denial in operation, consider the rant that frames the entire article: Buhler’s dismissal of the concerns about population size found in both Malthus and The Population Bomb.  As is true of so many critics of Malthus and the “Bomb”, Buhler appears to have not understood the content of either.  A widely cited passage from the latter stated “In the 1970s the world will undergo famines – hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.  At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate, although many lives could be saved through dramatic programs to ‘stretch’ the carrying capacity of the earth by increasing food production.  But these programs will only provide a stay of execution unless they are accompanied by determined and successful efforts at population control.”

Let’s evaluate that passage in the light of the reality subsequent to its publication.  Buhler effectively denies that some 300 million people have died of hunger or hunger-related disease since that was written, and that at least two billion people are hungry or nutrient malnourished today – despite the crash program of the “Green Revolution.”  And the concerns expressed in the Bomb have hardly faded away.  The FAO, for instance, estimated that increasing food production by some 70% would be required to feed a 35% bigger and still growing human population adequately by 2050.[1] As the conservative 2013 World Economic Forum Report said: “Global food and nutrition security is a major global concern as the world prepares to feed a growing population on a dwindling resource base, in an era of increased volatility and uncertainty.  Over 870 million people are now hungry, and more are at risk from climate events and price spikes; concerted efforts to improve food security have never been more urgently needed.”

Buhler notes the many barriers to improving that security – the brutal trends in fisheries, ocean acidification and warming, soil loss, and the like, but simply asserts “there are solutions to these problems.” He does not note how far above the long-term carrying capacity of Earth the human enterprise has expanded.[2]     

In short Buhler’s implication that controlling human numbers is not required to solve food problems may be true for the very wealthy, at least for now, but the failure of human beings to solve the production/distribution problems exacerbated by overpopulation has already caused, and is now causing, so much death and misery that “not yet” seems like a very bad joke. Buhler might have the ignorance excuse for not realizing things like the many nonlinear negative effects of population increase,[3] or the frequently-studied tight relationships between human population size and epidemics,[4] and human numbers and the loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services[5].  But only denial can explain his (and most of the media’s) failure to point out the way human population growth helps drive climate disruption, sea level rise, ocean acidification, and soil loss (all those things which Buhler tells us have solutions, but just “not yet”).

We could expand on the “not yet” element of the population driver –not yet for the thousands of environmental/economic/political refugees dying trying to enter the European Union or the United States?  If “not yet”, why did EU nations create the Frontex agency and concentration camps to internationalize its border control and build detention camps[6] against an immigrant flood?

Even catastrophes like typhoons, earthquakes, tsunamis, and asteroid collisions, that at first glance seem to have no demographic connections, actually do.  The first three may be triggered by anthropogenic climate disruption[7] and the impacts of all may be exacerbated by huge numbers of poor people forced to live in exposed areas with inadequate infrastructure.  The high death rates with Typhoon Haiyan, Hurricane Mitch and the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami are examples.  We have so far been fortunate with “city killer” asteroids, but the same principles apply.

Of course, Buhler’s “Apocalypse issue” doesn’t touch on one of the most significant elements of the approaching apocalypse – that building resource/climate[8] wars could easily become nuclear, especially if triggered by the not unlikely possibility of nuclear terrorism.[9]  He doubtless is unfamiliar with the doom inherent in even minor nuclear conflicts.[10]  In his funniest statement Buhler says that “As [oil] supplies dwindle….before long it’s resource wars.”  We wonder if he even knows about Iraq!  But overall, Buhler sadly suffers from a clear case of what political scientist Gunther Anders calls “apocalypse blindness” – an inability to weigh up and respond appropriately to real dangers.[11]   He does not make the connections among the generally excellent other articles in the “Apocalypse Issue” that would tie them together in the notorious perfect storm of environmental (broadly defined) existential problems that are already ruining millions of human lives and darkening the future of civilization.[12]  “Not yet”?  Nonsense.

Pete Seeger summarized our situation best when he wrote about Vietnam:  “We were waist deep in the Big Muddy, and the big fool said to push on.”  To a nation eager to cease fighting an unwarranted and unwinnable war nearly 50 years ago, the nation was told “not yet”.  Today, it is most disappointing to hear that same bad advice, “not yet”, given to university students eager to get to work on a warranted and achievable transition to a sustainable economy and a humane population size.  Means of achieving the former exist in the form of improved efficiency and ever more affordable energy from wind and sun.  Progress toward a sustainable human population worldwide can be made by affording women basic human rights and access to contraceptives, which give women the capacity to exercise freedom over their own reproduction.  Amazingly, in place of advocating these sensible strategies for reducing the risk of apocalypse, Buhler offers up biofuels, oil from under the ice caps, and obliviousness to the population issue. A magazine representing a great institution of higher education can do better than feature such a splendid example of ignorance, denial, faith, and greed.

[3] Harte J. 2007. Human population as a dynamic factor in environmental degradation. Population and Environment 28: 223-236.

[4] Daily GC, Ehrlich PR. 1996. Impacts of development and global change on the epidemiological environment. Environment and Development Economics 1: 309-344.  Keeling MJ, Grenfell BT. 1997. Disease extinction and community size: Modeling the persistence of measles. Science 275: 65-67.

[5] E.g., Ehrlich PR. 1995. The scale of the human enterprise and biodiversity loss. Pages 214-226 in Lawton JH, May RM, eds. Extinction Rates. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[8] Welzer H. 2012. Climate Wars: Why People will be Killed in the 21ST Century. Cambridge, MA: Polity Press.

[10] Toon O, Robock A, Turco RP, Bardeen C, Oman L, Stenchikov G. 2007. Consequences of regional-scale nuclear conflicts. Science 315: 1224-1225.

[11] Welzer H. 2012. Climate Wars: Why People will be Killed in the 21ST Century. Cambridge, MA: Polity Press, p. 137.

[12] Ehrlich PR, Ehrlich AH. 2013. Can a collapse of civilization be avoided? Proceeding of the Royal Society B.


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/not-yet/

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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.
  • John Taves

    This topic is littered with subjective crap. Buhler referring to the
    black plauge says, “Yet, when this unimaginable catastrophe happened,
    the world did not end.” What is Buhler’s definition of an apocalypse? If
    it isn’t one third of the population being killed in a few years then
    he must be referring to 100% of the population being killed, which of
    course, nobody can possibly witness. You can find the same subjective
    garbage with the comments below with “a small apocalypse would be
    beneficial for man kind”. What is an apocalypse? What is “small”? What
    benefit? Why does Weedon think millions of premature deaths will result
    in some situation that will be beneficial to man kind? Global warming,
    soil erosion, ocean acidification are all bad, but only because they
    might cause premature deaths, so how can some lump of premature death be
    beneficial?

    Similarly, the sentence “We can only survive by
    getting off our fossil fuel addiction.” makes no sense. Who can only
    survive? Billions of people, me included, require oil to survive. Humans
    do not require fossil fuels to survive, but 7 billion at one time do
    require it. Is charlesjustice saying that humans will go extinct if we
    do not stop using fossil fuels? This is ridiculous, humans existed for
    thousands of years without burning fossil fuels in any significant
    quantity. If the CO2 changes the climate such that the arctic is the
    only hospitable place on the planet, then thousands of humans will live
    there. Is a planet that can support only thousands of people somehow
    bad? Why do we care what number can be supported? It must be the
    premature death that will happen to get our numbers to that lower level
    that is the problem to avoid.

    Ehrlich is not exempt either:
    “Those who would exploit these resources do so out of greed, not out of
    concern about the collapse of civilization, and in fact the exploitation
    of those resources will hasten collapse.” What is a “collapse of
    civilization”? Is it where we no longer say “please” and “thank you”? Or
    is it the same as “apocalypse”, which is defined as what? Who is
    exploiting resources? Other people but not Ehrlich? Ehrlich does not
    burn fossil fuels? Did Ehrlich loose sight of the fact that we do not
    know how to keep 7+ billion alive at one time without burning fossil
    fuels? Maybe he makes the mistake of predicting that we can feed our
    numbers without fossil fuels, and then uses that bold prediction to
    conclude we don’t need them whenever some new area is being drilled.
    Maybe he thinks there are solutions to greed. If that isn’t subjective,
    nothing is.

    In addition, let’s look at Ehrlich’s statement that
    describes his solution. He says “Means of achieving the former exist in
    the form of improved efficiency
    and ever more affordable energy from wind and sun. Progress toward a
    sustainable human population worldwide can be made by affording women
    basic human rights and access to contraceptives, which give women the
    capacity
    to exercise freedom over their own reproduction. “. First, let me make
    it clear that depending on the destruction of renewable resources to
    feed our numbers is a big problem and therefore I have no objection to
    affordable energy from wind and sun. I totally agree that every human
    must have access to contraceptives. I do not disagree with Ehrlich in
    sentiment. I disagree with his, and every other population scientist’s,
    comprehension of the fundamental concepts. But first notice the pile of
    subjectives here.

    Wind and solar will be energy will be ever more
    affordable? Really? Not one solar panel or wind farm was created
    without burning fossil fuels. What is a “sustainable human population”?
    Is it just a steady population size? That’s ridiculous on a planet of
    finite size that changes with and without our influence. He is saying
    that we need a population size that will not require the use of fossil
    fuels, but we don’t need to do anything to achieve that. Any activity
    that uses resources faster than they renew are only temporary
    activities. Eventually it will be impossible to do them and the
    population size cannot be larger than what can be sustained.

    I
    totally agree that women should have control over their reproduction,
    but this suggests that somehow billions of women can independently pick
    the right number of babies to make. This notion comes from the
    demographic transition theory where population scientists have observed
    that as women get better education and equal rights and access to birth
    control the fertility rate drops. Unfortunately the science behind this
    is nothing more than a lot of correlations to low fertility. These
    scientific studies are all excellent at making sure they state “low
    fertility” and never sufficiently low fertility to achieve some useful
    goal. I certainly have not read all scientific papers on this topic, so
    it is possible that there are many that do attempt to figure out some
    good fertility rate and compare to that instead of “low”. The one I know
    of is titled “the ideal fertility rate”. This study by Wolfgang Lutz
    tried to find the optimum fertilty rate for “education‑weighted
    dependency burden”. It did not mention that fossil fuels are required to
    feed our current numbers, so it had no concept of premature death
    caused by failure to produce enough sustenance as a consequence of
    fossil fuels costing more. I asked him how it makes any sense to produce
    such a report and his reply was that we can assume that we will find
    substitutes for fossil fuels as they run out! Wolfgang Lutz has
    published many papers on population issues and he is operating with this
    mindlessly stupid assumption.

    We have load of
    subjectivity coming from the scientists that are supposed to be the
    experts and wrecking this debate. “low” fertility is subjective.
    Predictions about future energy supplies are subjective. “Sustainable
    human population” is either trivial to achieve buy doing whatever we
    damn well please, or subjective, or see definition below that Ehrlich
    has never specified. The concept that women, (which leaves men somehow
    blameless), can magically manage to not average too many babies if only
    they had full power to exercise control over their fertility, is not
    just subjective it is absurd.

    This garbage goes back to Malthus
    with his “famine, war, and vice” concept. War and vice are clearly
    subjective. Famine is some ill-defined level of starvation that allows
    people to subjectively decide that the “Malthusian catastrophe” is not
    happening in spite of the fact that we see plenty of child mortality
    grouped economically with starvation as the proximate cause.

    There
    is no way to get agreement with such a ridiculous pile of subject crap
    being tossed around. This is not science, this is religion. Actually
    this is worse, because plenty of participants in this debate have very
    impressive scientific credentials so the audience assumes this is good
    science.

    The one common thread throughout this topic is premature
    death that could have been avoided. Specifically it is child mortality
    that is caused by excessive births. Child mortality is not subjective.
    The fact that only one government on this planet controls the fertility
    rate of their population is not subjective. The fact that the Earth is
    finite and that humans have been in existence on this planet for plenty
    of time for our numbers to have reached much much higher numbers, is not
    subjective. The objective conclusions from those facts are clear.

    Excessive
    births are required for the theory of evolution. Every species attempts
    exponential growth. That attempt fails in a finite environment allowing
    nature to kill children without harming the species. Darwin
    comprehended this and allowed him to understand the theory of evolution.
    Malthus seems to have failed to comprehend it. He made up a pile of bad
    excuses, including the notion that the poor limit their fertility as if
    that could stand a chance to reduce overall average number of children
    sufficiently to prevent driving our numbers into the limit. Those
    excuses allow us to believe that births are not killing children.
    Scientists today continue that legacy of bad excuses to avoid the
    reality that even though we have witnessed exponential growth in our
    numbers it was not enough growth to ensure we were not killing children
    as a consequence of averaging too many babies.

    There is no
    scientific concept for the situation where the population is at the
    limit and births are attempting to drive the numbers higher than the
    limit causing child mortality. How is this rational? We all know that
    cramming too many people into a building will kill. We know that births
    do the cramming. We know that the Earth is finite, yet there is no
    scientific understanding of what must happen when a population is at the
    limit. You might think that “carrying capacity” is the concept, but it
    isn’t. Look at the definition of overpopulation. It is where the
    carrying capacity is exceeded. How can the limit be exceeded? Scientists
    assume it is not happening. The definition of replacement rate that
    scientists use, assumes that the birth rate does not contribute to the
    child mortality rate. Maybe they see a rising population and assume that
    it has not hit the limit as if a rising limit was not possible. Maybe
    they assume that we have not hit the limit because we do not have the
    famine that Malthus predicted. I cannot explain this horrid oversight by
    thousands of population experts, but it is very real. This seems to me
    to be the same damn denial that Ehrlich accuses Buhler of having.

    Scientists, like Ehrlich, need to understand and teach a set of fundamental concepts that are not subjective:

    1)
    We are at the limit, which means that we are killing children by making
    babies too fast. How many children adults average determines how many
    children have to die (along with how fast we are able to increase the
    limit). Work through a simple example and you’ll see that children and
    only children have to die as a consequence of adults averaging too many
    babies. (see stopattwo.org/explain). You’ll notice that horrid adult
    life expectancy and poverty are the result of not knowing this fact of
    nature. A basic understanding of evolution will lead one to predict that
    if the population is at the limit we would expect to see groups of
    people suffering horrid child mortality rates grouped together
    economically. (see stopattwo.org/exponentialgrowth). This is objective,
    and this is not taught.

    2) We are unable to keep our current
    numbers alive without destroying the resources that we need to achieve
    that feat. This tells us that we have a huge built up potential for
    premature death. That tells us we have a moral responsibility to average
    less than 2 children. A sustainable human population is not the
    ill-defined situation that Ehrlich is thinking. It is the situation
    where we regulate the number of births each are allowed such that we
    know we are not killing children by averaging too many, and have gotten
    our numbers low enough such that we do not need to consume resources
    faster than they renew. Whether that is achieved with wind farms and
    solar energy is irrelevant. It is all about how many children adults
    average and not about technology. Notice how this paragraph does not
    make any predictions about the future. Scientists need to stop making
    predictions. Ehrlich is a perfect example of a scientist that made
    predictions and got burned for it. They are not necessary. Today’s huge
    built up potential for premature death is not a prediction. It is an
    objective, undeniable, fact of today’s status.

    3) If your
    descendants average more than 2, they will overpopulate the planet. This
    tells us that any belief system that results in an average of more than
    2 is immoral. It kills children. The belief that I have the right to
    have as many children as I want is a fine example. This also tells us
    that everyone has to know this. Scientists that produce the demographic
    transition garbage and other population projections need to know this
    too. The data and the techniques demographers use to produce their
    projections filter out the effects beliefs have on the next generation’s
    average number of children rendering any conclusions from that data
    mere wishful thinking.

    4) averaging too many children is a worse
    evil than infanticide. This is not some subjective opinion. It is an
    objective fact. (Do you know this? see stopattwo.org/explain).

    This topic needs to shift from subjective to objective. Population experts like the Ehrlichs need to lead this.

    • david higham

      If there is to be any hope for avoiding the avoiding the impending collapse, one of the measures would be a ‘stop at one’ population policy,implemented worldwide.Is this going to happen?Fat chance.

      • JohnTaves

        What is your point? Are you suggesting we should continue to be ignorant of the 4 points at the bottom of my comment?

        I agree that at least a stop at one policy would be required. Ehrlich and the MAHB are doing absolutely nothing to make that happen. By continuing to comment on the consumption side and totally ignore the reality of the birth side, population scientists are a problem, not a solution.

  • John Weedon

    Soooon! We are in a need of a population reduction, so in the long term, a small apocalypse would be beneficial for man kind. Of course there is the tragedy of million lives lost, but you know what they say about making an omlette.
    Window Cleaners Brighton

  • david higham

    Without the Haber-Bosch method of fixing nitrogen for industrial agriculture,the estimated maximum human population that could be supported on the land area now cultivated is around 3 billion people .That process is completely reliant on fossil fuels for its operation and is a very energy intensive process.
    Is any government in the world not advocating more economic growth?Every government is advised by neoclassical economists who are in a realm of delusion when it comes to the biophysical reality of the planet Earth.
    I am a great admirer of Paul Ehrlich,I have all of his books and he and Anne have been tireless in their efforts to bring attention to the many unsustainable practices we have occurring in our society.
    Unfortunately it seems to me that we have run out of time and the collapse of our industrial civilisation is now certain.There are too many points to cover in a blog comment The reliance on fossil fuels has allowed the development of the ultimate
    ‘Bubble ‘ civilisation.
    Even without the huge problem of climate disruption,the trends of many other problems would mean that the bubble would burst this century.
    Perhaps reincarnation does exist after all.The person discussed in the article above sounds frighteningly similar to Julian Simon.

  • charlesjustice

    Population control is a sovereignty issue, a religious issue, and an ethnic issue. It automatically pushes peoples buttons. And it is not really the primary problem. The primary problem is our use of fossil fuels. This is what has allowed us to have sustained population growth over centuries. Fossil fuels, economic growth, acceleration in technology, population growth – all tied together. We can only survive by getting off our fossil fuel addiction.