The Merchants of Doom

By Keith Kloor | March 17, 2014 11:54 am

Paul Ehrlich and Ann Ehrlich, two long-time prominent voices in the environmental community, often speculate about the future of humanity. They recently shared this anecdote:

A few years ago we had a disagreement with our friend Jim Brown, a leading ecologist.  We told him we thought there was about a 10 percent chance of avoiding a collapse of civilization but, because of concern for our grandchildren and great grandchildren, we were willing to struggle to make it 11 percent.  He said his estimate of the chance of avoiding collapse was only 1 percent, but he was working to make it 1.1 percent.  Sadly, recent trends and events make us think Jim might have been optimistic.  Perhaps now it’s time to talk about preparing for some form of collapse soon, hopefully to make a relatively soft “landing.”

If you want to know why the Ehrlichs think it’s essentially game over for civilization, read their 2013 paper published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society. Their diagnosis:

The human predicament is driven by overpopulation, overconsumption of natural resources and the use of unnecessarily environmentally damaging technologies and socio-economic-political arrangements to service Homo sapiens’ aggregate consumption.

Translation: Too many damn people on the earth, driving cars, buying too much crap, all made possible by a globalized, industrialized, capitalistic system. Or something like that. Unsurprisingly, the Ehrlichs don’t agree with those who paint a sunnier view of humanity’s current trajectory. (What might a model sustainable society look like? Paul Ehrlich recently pointed to Australia’s Aboriginal culture.)

Now I’m not the only one to observe that the environmental community, as a whole, has a bleak view of the future.

But is the near-future collapse of civilization virtually guaranteed, as the Ehrlichs seem to think? Is there no reversing this collision course? Here’s what UK environmentalist Jonathan Porritt said last week in an interview:

A lot of people in my community of sustainability professionals have basically come to the conclusion it’s too late.

This strikes me as a self-defeating outlook, as I hinted the other day. It lends itself to the fatalism that has already infected environmental discourse, which I have previously discussed:

If you are a regular consumer of environmental news and commentary, you are familiar with the narrative of humanity’s downfall.

In the current issue of The New York Review Of Books, the novelist Zadie Smith is conflicted about this eco-doomsday narrative. On the one hand, she is bothered that most people aren’t taking seriously “the visions of apocalypse conjured by climate scientists and movie directors,” which she refers to as “the coming emergency.” But she also seems to get the futility of this storyline:

Sometimes the global, repetitive nature of this elegy is so exhaustively sad—and so divorced from any attempts at meaningful action—that you can’t fail to detect in the elegists a fatalist liberal consciousness that has, when you get right down to it, as much of a perverse desire for the apocalypse as the evangelicals we supposedly scorn.

Indeed, the merchants of eco-doom who peddle their vision of apocalypse to a secular choir are just as self-rightous and scornful of humanity as the fundamentalist preachers who hawk their hellfire and brimstone sermons. And like the most warped fundamentalists who exploit tragedy, the merchants of eco-doom also cynically seize on current events. On this score, nobody rivals Nafeez Ahmed (the UK Left’s faux-scholarly equivalent to Glenn Beck), who has an unquenchable appetite for peak-everything porn. (For commentary on his latest connect-the-collapse dots, see this post.)

Not all greens have a fetish for doomsday scenarios. Some are are trying to chart a more empowering vision for environmentalism. Porritt belongs to this group. He has a new book that appears hopeful about the future.

If only more environmentalists could snap out of their endless mourning for the planet and offer the rest of us something to look forward to other than imminent eco-collapse.

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Collide-a-Scape

Collide-a-Scape is an archived Discover blog. Keep up with Keith's current work at http://www.keithkloor.com/

About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, and an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.

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