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.

  • Richard_Arrett

    Nice posting. Thanks for bringing this to our attention.

    It would be nice if the social sciences would study the mindset of these half-empty glass environmentalists (and not just climate skeptics).

    The apocalypse is always around the corner to these people.

    No matter how often they are wrong – they just keep changing the date of the end of the world.

    Well we will see in 20 or 30 years who is right about peak population, climate change, food production and GMO’s.

    Personally, I am an optimist.

    I think population growth will be slowing down, there will be enough food to feed the population of 8 – 9 billion, climate change will be considered a smaller problem than today and GMO’s will be helping feed the world.

    Hopefully, we will have invented non-carbon energy production which is cheaper than oil, gas and coal.

    Hopefully we will have thousands of people living in space, moving our industry to space and getting space based solar up and running.

    It is a great time to be alive.

  • Robert Wilson

    While Porritt’s book is hopeful, it frequently violates the laws of physics. My favourite example is the Petronas 2 Tower he comes up with. 800 metres tall and it will generate 92% of its own energy. Porritt was so enthusiastic about this concept that he paid someone to produce a computer generated representation of what it might look like. Instead he should have paid a high school physics student to figure out if it was credible.

    I would also caution against your portrait of Porritt. For example he advocates net zero migration to the UK because of his fears over population growth. A man educated at Eton demanding that the poor of the world must stay poor leaves a nasty taste in my mouth.

    • mem_somerville

      Funny. I never heard of Porritt before today and now it’s twice. When I was at the library today his name crossed the page of my Rayner book, where he’s noted as a former director of FOE. That’s not a group I’d put in my upbeat enviros list.

  • Tom Scharf

    Zadie Smith: “During Superstorm Sandy, I climbed down fifteen floors, several months pregnant, in the darkness, just so I could get a Wi-Fi signal and e-mail a climate-change-denying acquaintance with this fresh evidence of his idiocy.”

    IPCC AR5:

    “Current datasets indicate no significant observed trends in global tropical cyclone frequency over the past century … No robust trends in annual numbers of tropical storms, hurricanes and major hurricanes counts have been identified over the past 100 years in the North Atlantic basin”

    Over 7 years since a CAT3 hurricane made landfall in the US. The longest such period ever on record. And she trots out a non-hurricane as proof tropical cyclones are getting worse.

    Ironic that she calls her “acquaintance” a climate science denier. No doubt this acquaintance could not be a friend because they do not hold the proper beliefs. I wonder what would happen if her daughter dated a denier? My guess is no inter-faith marriages would be allowed in this household.

    Looks like we have hit the tipping point on the term denier. All activists and many in academia now use this term freely. Not sure why anyone thinks this will change anything. The more this debate looks like a screaming circus of zealots, the more likely things will never budge from the status quo.

    I think there is lot of pent up frustration because many activists feel this particular movement is losing its karma, feel powerless, and they have nowhere better to point there eco-shame meter at in the western world.

  • ashermiller

    Pot, meet kettle. If Keith Kloor really thinks that all of those who attempt to communicate the urgency of the sustainability crisis are “self-rightous and scornful” then what does it make him to call them all cynical “merchants of eco-doom”?

    I don’t know. Maybe, just maybe, all of these people actually care about the fate of humanity and just disagree about the severity of the crisis and how best to communicate it.

    • Matthew Slyfield

      “If Keith Kloor really thinks that all of those who attempt to
      communicate the urgency of the sustainability crisis are “self-rightous
      and scornful” then what does it make him to call them all cynical
      “merchants of eco-doom”?”

      Correct.

      Ehrlich and others have predicted doom over and over and over, and they have been wrong over and over and over.

      How many times must the boy falsely cry wolf before you will admit that he is either a liar or a few cards shy of a full deck.

  • J M

    I guess the best thing that could happen to the planet and, simultaneously, the worst thing that could happen to environmentalists would be ECS of 2 degrees.

    • facefault

      That would probably be nice for America and Europe, but terrible for everyone near the equator.

  • Buddy199

    In 1980, a little known economist named Julian Simon made Ehrlich a bet. If Ehrlich’s predictions about overpopulation and the depletion of resources were correct, Simon said, then over the next decade the prices of commodities would rise as they became more scarce. Simon contended that, because markets spur innovation and create efficiencies, commodity prices would fall. He proposed that they each put up $1,000 to purchase a basket of five commodities chosen by Ehrlich and a colleague, John Holdren. If the prices of these went down, Ehrlich would pay Simon the difference between the 1980 and 1990 prices. If the prices went up, Simon would pay.

    In October 1990, Mr. Ehrlich mailed a check for $576.07 to Simon. Although world population had increased by 800 million in the meantime, the prices for the five commodities had decreased by more than 50%. And they did so for precisely the reasons Simon predicted—technological innovation and conservation spurred on by the market.

    Ehrlich’s wildly inaccurate predictions of global apocalypse never seem to have dimmed his star power in certain circles. Ironically, in 1990, just as he was mailing his check to Simon, the MacArthur Foundation awarded him one of its “genius” grants. And 20 years later his partner in the wager, John Holdren, was appointed by President Obama to be director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

  • JH

    I suspect the probability of a collapse of civilization is pretty close to zero – at least if we can stop the greens from making it happen.

    The Ehrlichs are so whacked It’s hard to know where to start with them, but I’ll try.

    The Ehrlich’s start from the assumption that the earth has some sort of set ecological carrying capacity. They completely ignore the fact that the existence of modern humanity proves this assumption is false – modern humanity has risen precisely because our technology increases the carrying capacity of the earth.

    In fact, the entire biosphere proves the assumption is false. Had they assessed the carrying capacity of the Earth 500 million years ago, they’d have concluded that, once all the near-shore and shoreline environmental niches are filled, the Earth’s carrying capacity will have been reached, and no further growth in biomass could be achieved.

    But, alas, fish and other organism that live in deeper waters emerged and changed the equation. The equation changed again when the first terrestrial plants and animals emerged. It changed again when critters took to the skies, and it changed again when C4 photosynthesis emerged.

    Today, humanity changes the equation almost daily.

  • earlysda

    Sounds like a lot of these so-called “scientists” are believers in Evolution. They are just evangelising to spread the word that they’ve been taught – “mankind is really just worthless pond scum”.

  • David Skurnick

    IMHO the question shouldn’t be whether a group is scornful of humanity or whether they encourage a self-defeating fatalism. The question should be what opinion is scientifically correct. If disaster is inevitable, we should admit it. If disaster is unlikely, we should admit that.
    IMHO current pause in warming during a period of skyrocketing greenhouse gases shows that there’s no reason to believe that man’s activity is warming the earth at a catastrophic rate.

  • noblesseoblige

    Few people in our lifetime have been so wrong so often. Paul Ehrlich is kind of like the zany Woody Allen character Zelig, an empty headed but ubiquitous reminder of how easy it is to fool our fellow humans.

  • Sonoffar

    For some years now we, humanity in general, have faced the certainty of gloom, doom, death, and destruction, all because of the rapid increase of Global Warming. Make that Climate Change, so as to remain current with the finest vernacular Climate Scientists can come up with.
    For an equal number of years I have provided the simplest and near perfect solution for these predictions of gloom, doom, death and destruction. If I may I will, once more, make my offering and provide reasons why it is the best solution to the headlong stampede of humanity into certain destruction.
    All those who are firmly convinced that mankind is on the brink of destruction should, at their earliest convenience, commit suicide.

    You read that correctly. They should commit suicide as soon as they can!

    These acts of self termination would not only reduce the overall population to only those who refuse to accept the story and it’s current truths, but their acts of selflessness would also reduce carbon emissions by a significant degree, simply by reducing the number of scientists who find it necessary to jet around the world in their quest to reduce carbon emissions, and Global Warming.

    Sorry. Make that Climate Change.

    There you have it. Why should those distractedly concerned Climate Scientists suffer for the foolish acts of a few “Deniers”, and their insistence on destroying themselves, and everyone else, with their head long rush to prosperity and a better life than their ancestors enjoyed?

  • JH

    Keith,

    Environmentalism itself is the trap. As you’ve pointed out frequently before, environmentalism depends on the “nature fallacy” – that is, it seeks to move the world back toward a more “natural” state. Working from the premise of the Nature Fallacy, there can only be one acceptable outcome: fewer humans, less development, less technology, less growth.

    Its kind of interesting that, just as it’s increasingly clear that the fundamental concepts of environmentalism are bankrupt, it’s leaders are more influential than ever, with many of them established as senior scientific authorities and many of their adherents firmly entrenched in senior positions in government.

    It will be interesting to see if and how long the movement’s leadership can hold the nation to the environmental meme as the narrative that supports it slowly dissolves.

    It will also be interesting to see if the younger vanguard can push the movement itself toward it’s much acclaimed “sustainability” by changing the fundamental precepts to which it adheres.

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Collide-a-Scape is a wide-ranging blog forum that explores issues at the nexus of science, culture and society.

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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