Lovelock says 'a lot of nonsense'

By Sheril Kirshenbaum | March 31, 2010 11:00 am

lovelockAt age 90, James Lovelock is a bit misguided. He’s a quirky character and has had some good ideas in the past, but I hope he retires from the limelight soon and stops giving Drudge fodder for links by saying ridiculous things like trying to save the planet is ‘a lot of nonsense.’ But then again, this doomsday stuff always gets loads of press.

The truth is that the world’s not ending, it’s changing. And we can still save the planet James–we just have to stop being so damn cheap and lazy about it.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Conservation
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Comments (84)

  1. Sorbet

    Sheril, Lovelock may be making a few extreme statements, but have you read any of his recent books? Lovelock is no slouch. He takes global warming very seriously and makes an excellent and reasoned case for nuclear power as our best hope for the near future. He is a very concerned environmentalist and has even volunteered to bury the annual waste from a nuclear power plant in his backyard to prove the safety of nuclear power. I obviously don’t share his doomsday predictions but in his books he makes a good case that we have already done a lot of damage. And at least in the article you linked to he makes the accurate observation that prediction in climate science is quite difficult.

  2. Lovelock also recently pointed to the possibility of the Pine Island Glacier collapsing and causing an “immediate” rise in sea level of 2 meters(!), including tsunamis.

    I posted about this on my site just this morning:

    James Lovelock and the killer PIG

    http://www.grinzo.com/energy/index.php/2010/03/31/james-lovelock-and-the-killer-pig/

    I don’t care if he’s 90 or 9. We have to hold all scientists to a higher standard than letting them get away with such assertions.

  3. Matias

    From what I’ve read of his books, he seems like brilliant scientist with a penchant for philosophical issues. His ideas about theorizing the earth system as a large cell, gaia, and its organisms as the cellular components, are the closest I’ve found to match a reason for life to exist. Like he puts it, the reason for life’s existence is the continued existence of life. That entails a responsibility for mankind.

    If he calls the public to calm down over the fact that the IPCC’s forecasts range between 2 and 6 and are just that – forecasts, because we don’t really know how the 1c increase that a doubling of CO2 ppm will bring connects with larger systemic tipping points, that’s what would only be expected from a responsible scientist. He does like to make controversial statements, but I wouldn’t mistake him for a fool for one second.

  4. Harman Smith

    “Lovelock is no slouch.”

    Are you sure about that? The things he’s said, you know, sound kinda dumb. Just click the links above.

    If the world was populated with nothing but Rachel Carsons, David Attenboroughs and Sheril Kirschenbaums, protecting the environment would be a piece of cake. Unfortunately a great deal of people don’t understand anything about our dependence on the environment.

  5. Guy

    Our environmental problems are largely an issue of not setting the right priorities. The current political climate makes it difficult make the type of changes needed to save the planet from whatever catastrophe we are bringing on ourselves. People think satisfying their own selfish desires is more important than insuring a viable future for the next generation.

  6. Cody

    I believe the heart of what this man is saying is that climate change is bigger than all of us and to be pompus enough to believe that we can either change the climate for the better or worse is “nonsense.” We have to accept that some things are just bigger than we are, and that is not a reference to “God”; it just a simple realiztion that some things just plain bigger than all of us. No one in their right mind would think pollution in any quantity would be a good thing, and cleaning up our act as a civilization is indeed a noble endeavor, but he has it right thatin the grand scheme of things what we do is pretty insignifigant when it comes to the forces of our universe.

  7. Sorbet

    Lovelock more than almost anyone else (and at least as well as the Carsons, Attenboroughs and Kirshenbaums) understands our dependence on the environment. Recall that he is the father of the Gaia Theory which did a brilliant job of explaining precisely this global dependence; the man published in Science and Nature about this. It is his understanding of this dependence that leads him to adopt a very pessimistic stance about what we can do to save the environment. You may vigorously disagree with his dire prognostications, but calling his stance “nonsense” is a very far cry from this.

  8. Maxwell Wilmarth

    I think we need a definition of terms. What do we mean by “save the planet”? Probably most people mean “prevent the death of the biosphere” or even “maintain background extinction rates”. Of course the Earth’s biosphere probably could, and has in the past, recover from a global sterilization event that penetrated 100 m or more because deep ocean vent and cryogenicaly frozen Antartic bacteria and archea would recolonize the planet in a geologically short 100 My – 1 Gy. Do we mean “preserve a Holocene-type global environment” when we say “save the planet”? By the way, I’m all for the last definition.

  9. Eric the Leaf

    The problem is not restricted to global warming and related environmental impacts. I think the best account of the converging crises of the 21st century (which will probably manifest themselves first in a financial catastrophe) was written by William Catton in his book “Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change.” This is the clearest exposition of the contemporary human condition from an ecological perspective. A second interpretation that also addresses the broad sweep of human prehistory and history is “Cannibals and Kings” by the great american anthropologist Marvin Harris. To me, these are required readings. My suggestion, then, is to first do your homework.

  10. Eric the Leaf

    Ultimately, of course, we cannot preserve a Holocene-type environment–nor should we.

  11. Maxwell Wilmarth

    I believe humans are hard-wired to prefer a Holocene-type environment and will preserve it over deep time, or at least until our species changes into something else, using geoengineering, terraforming or virtual reality.

  12. Sheril, I would think twice before denouncing Lovelock. He is squarely on our side when it comes to global warming. The difference is that he is actually even more convinced about climate change than we are, is much more pessimistic about what’s going to happen and does not believe we can actually make a big difference now; but he has his reasons for thinking in this way. I agree that his dismissive stance toward corrective measures is not cool, but as the originator of the Gaia Hypothesis, he probably understands better than most of us what’s happening to the planet. I would not be so dismissive and trenchant towards him. If you haven’t done so, I would strongly recommend reading his recent books.

  13. Anthony McCarthy

    I wasn’t going to say anything till I came to the “hard-wired” stuff.

    I’m ever more convinced that the conviction that we are biologically destined to be this or that and that we are impelled by some atavistic force, in today’s fashion, genetic, is a disincentive to try to change things because we are talked into giving up before we start.

    I wonder if there has ever been an ideology that is able to see itself as others see it. To me it looks like it’s worth trying something else.

  14. Guy

    @Maxwell #11,

    “I believe humans are hard-wired to prefer a Holocene-type environment and will preserve it over deep time, or at least until our species changes into something else, using geoengineering, terraforming or virtual reality.”

    I disagree. Humans are by far the most adaptive creatures on the planet. People have lived through extreme conditions before. The problem is that we’re changing things so fast that the rest of the biosphere has a hard time keeping up.

    Many people prefer Hawaii’s weather, but we all can’t live in that type of environment without some sort of major weather control scheme. That would disrupt things too much for a lot of other life forms that evolved to live in specific climates.

  15. Maxwell Wilmarth

    Hmm, good points. I suppose “Holocene-type environment” is sufficiently broad to include polar environments prevalent more globally during the Pleistocene (when there were modern humans) and which many people apparently prefer. I think it is true that many species prefer a specific climatic zone in which they thrive, however given human adaptivity, I withdraw the assertion that humans are hard-wired to prefer any particular climate.

  16. Matias

    Lovelock has good reason to be a pessimist. Like he mentions in his book: Humanity’s problem is that we are short-lived, tribal carnivores. Nothing in our evolutionary history has prepared us for rational management of the biosphere.

    I do think he is missing one point. Most of what makes us humans is learned behavior, eg. culture. Culture, or trans-generational memory and its effects like technology, is a far faster adaptive evolutionary system than genes. Since the first cave painting, we’ve been coming to this. Lovelock believes we are doomed to repeat the mistakes written in our genes. I believe human neuroplasticity allows us to rise above them.

  17. Gepinniw

    The man is 90 years old, so it should come as no surprise that he might make a silly comment or two.
    As Yoda put it, “When 900 years old you reach, look as good you will not ehh.”

    To me a more troubling question is, why are you reading the Drudge Report? I mean, really!

  18. GM

    8. Maxwell Wilmarth Says:
    March 31st, 2010 at 3:04 pm
    I think we need a definition of terms. What do we mean by “save the planet”? Probably most people mean “prevent the death of the biosphere” or even “maintain background extinction rates”. Of course the Earth’s biosphere probably could, and has in the past, recover from a global sterilization event that penetrated 100 m or more because deep ocean vent and cryogenicaly frozen Antartic bacteria and archea would recolonize the planet in a geologically short 100 My – 1 Gy. Do we mean “preserve a Holocene-type global environment” when we say “save the planet”? By the way, I’m all for the last definition.

    500My from now the planet is dead because the Sun will have become too bright for it to be able to escape the runaway greenhouse effect. 500My is also roughly the time it would take the planet to reconcentrate and reaccumulate the resources we have burned/dissipated into the environment in a matter of 2 centuries. This is pretty much the only chance this planet has for a space-faring civilization to emerge and we have blown it at this point.

  19. GM

    14. Guy Says:
    March 31st, 2010 at 4:42 pm
    @Maxwell #11,
    I disagree. Humans are by far the most adaptive creatures on the planet. People have lived through extreme conditions before. The problem is that we’re changing things so fast that the rest of the biosphere has a hard time keeping up.

    It’s not about human survival, the species itself may well, and probably will, get past the bottleneck, the problem is that it will be reduced to the condition it was in before we started developing what we now call civilization, and it will most likely be destined to remain in that state forever because the environment that allowed the development of civilization will not be there any more. What the value of civilization is is a debatable topic philosophically speaking (and if we are talking about the current industrial civilization, we are indeed much better off without it) but the knowledge about the world around accumulated with so much effort will disappear with it too, and this is a problem for the long-term survival of the species.

    The cornucopians have it hopelessly wrong when they say “Overpopulation? Sustainability? No problem, we’ll just colonize spaces”, they have it hopelessly wrong because first, they don’t understand that even this is not a solution the the problem of exponential growth against finite environment (we will consume the whole galaxy in less than 5My if we continue growing a the same rate), and second, we are nowhere near able to do so in time to prevent the catastrophe (you need to start shipping 300,000 people in space every day just to cancel growth), and we don’t have the resources to do it.

    This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be aiming for space colonization though, because it’s our only chance to survive in the very long-term. It may not be physically possible to do so in which case we’re doomed, but we are doomed otherwise too, we don’t know right now. That’s why the right thing to do is to try to conserve resources as much as possible, and this doesn’t not involve just recycling, renewable energy, etc., the major thing to do is end growth and start shrinking as we are already in overshoot. How much we should shrink is debatable, but given what the resources of the planet are and what level of lifestyle we will need in order to get to the next part of the plan, I personally don’t see it wise to have more than 100 million people at any given time, and even this may be too high. A crucial thing to understand is that there is no such thing as 100% recycling so sooner or later you run out of raw materials, that’s why you have to conserve as much as possible. Once you have stopped growth, you invest pretty much everything in technology development of novel energy sources and other technologies that will enable us to get out of the planet and the dependence on concentrated ores and limited energy resources. With the caveat that it may not be possible to develop such technologies, in which case we’re doomed, but at least we have tried.

    Of course, the above will never happen as it requires thinking on a time scale of thousands of years, not the time scale of the 2 years until th next election. It also requires complete freedom of superstition and any sort of beliefs that some higher power out there is thinking and caring about us and will save us so we can breed like rabbits and devour the planet as much as we want. Those conditions aren’t met as we unfortunately aren’t wired to think this way, which is why people like Lovelock are such pessimists.

  20. GM

    16. Matias Says:
    March 31st, 2010 at 6:00 pm
    Lovelock has good reason to be a pessimist. Like he mentions in his book: Humanity’s problem is that we are short-lived, tribal carnivores. Nothing in our evolutionary history has prepared us for rational management of the biosphere.
    I do think he is missing one point. Most of what makes us humans is learned behavior, eg. culture. Culture, or trans-generational memory and its effects like technology, is a far faster adaptive evolutionary system than genes. Since the first cave painting, we’ve been coming to this. Lovelock believes we are doomed to repeat the mistakes written in our genes. I believe human neuroplasticity allows us to rise above them.

    Good points. What I would like to add is that this is the reason why we have to prevent at all costs the loss of all the knowledge science has accumulated so far. Understanding of how we fit in the ecosystem of the planet and where our place in the universe allows us to overcome the “yeast-in-culture” behavior that’s hard-wired into us. However, right now it is a very tiny fraction of humanity that has that understanding and it’s mostly academics who exist only because of the large surplus of resources that has allowed what we call civilization to emerge, and that we are currently rapidly exhausting. Once the resources are gone, civilization falls apart, the academics are gone and the knowledge is gone too. And without it, we are back to “yeast-in-culture”, but without the resources and we’ll stay there forever. The problem is that in order to prevent this, you need to somehow make the other 7 billion human beings understand the situation and this impossible at this point.

  21. GM

    Sheril Kirshenbaum

    At age 90, James Lovelock is a bit misguided. He’s a quirky character and has had some good ideas in the past, but I hope he retires from the limelight soon and stops giving Drudge fodder for links by saying ridiculous things like trying to save the planet is ‘a lot of nonsense.’ But then again, this doomsday stuff always gets loads of press.
    The truth is that the world’s not ending, it’s changing. And we can still save the planet James–we just have to stop being so damn cheap and lazy about it.

    As I have said before, your ignorance on what, for lack of a better expression, we usually call “sustainability issues” is so profound that I am not sure you will ever get it.

    It has nothing to do with money and effort, it is about hard-wired behavioral patterns, inherent inability to think rationally, and a long list of other cognitive deficiencies we all share as a species plus such nice things as religion, a predominantly anthropocentric world view, growth-based social and economic structure, which are a direct result of our inability to accurately understand the world around us, and which have codified that inability into the norm in our society. Knowledge about the physical reality we live in can overcome those cognitive deficiencies in some cases, but for this to happen, they have to be openly admitted and battled against (which is what things like science training are supposed to accomplish), but this is a hugely expensive and not at all guaranteed to succeed process, which only a tiny fraction of people ever go through. And as the majority rules, we’re doomed. It’s not that hard to understand, but it requires questioning a lot of what has been spoon-fed to all of us as unquestionable truth about what is “normal” and “good” and what is not

  22. Maxwell Wilmarth

    I don’t know if I am “pessimistic”, but from my dealings with friends and family who are religious, I know that religion offers many people, maybe most people a better deal than we can give them. What narrative do we offer? “You are all going to die and and be gone forever. In the meantime we’ll spend your tax money on computers, conferences, and paying ourselves to do research while you slave away at a dead end job and wait for the grim reaper.” Not very enticing to most people.

    We need to offer something more in the short-term to the masses of people who support us.

  23. Maxwell Wilmarth

    We need to offer a narrative that we can can avert disaster in the lifetimes of the people who are alive today. The problem is if we are successful that it will be thankless. How can you convince people that your prevented something that didn’t happen?

  24. GM

    How do you that in 5-10 years?

  25. Guy

    “It’s not about human survival, the species itself may well, and probably will, get past the bottleneck, the problem is that it will be reduced to the condition it was in before we started developing what we now call civilization, and it will most likely be destined to remain in that state forever because the environment that allowed the development of civilization will not be there any more.”

    I don’t think it’s as bad as all that. There probably will be major disasters that take a lot of human lives, but the knowledge and basic structure of civilization will likely remain for some time. You would have to wipe out 99.9% of the adult population to take it all away.
    If say, only 10% of the adult population survives you would still have pockets of civilized people going about their lives, educating their young and so on. They would not make progress as rapidly as we do now but they would still make progress. There would still be hope of a future space-faring civilization in a more distant future. Now, they might all transcend what is to be human. In that case, the human race as we know would no longer exist, but civilization itself would still remain.

  26. GM

    This is not what has happened historically though, when civilizations have collapsed (and we are far from the first to do that, we’re just the first to do it on a planetary scale), and things were a lot less complex then

  27. KM

    You fail to understand Lovelock’s dispassionate point. Which is that we have inadvertantly triggered the earth’s volatile transition to another climate state and no amount of sentiment is going to stop that process, especially given the lagging nature of global fossil fueled development which is shifting gear just as climate transition sets in.

  28. Nullius in Verba

    You might like to take some lessons from a previous example – when Paul Ehrlich, the Club of Rome, and other prominent environmentalists declared in the 1970s that the fight to feed humanity was over, and that unless drastic steps were taken immediately to curb population growth, civilisation would inevitably collapse during the 80s and 90s. Ehrlich reckoned it was 50:50 whether Britain would still exist as a nation by the end of the century.

    The threat was taken seriously by the political elites, and was a common background to the more sophisticated dinner-party conversation; often mentioned in an “everybody knows that…” sense. Nevertheless, despite expressing some concern about the future, the world was “cheap and lazy” about it, and (with the notable exception of China) failed to introduce more than token efforts at mass sterilisation and coercive population control in areas of high population growth as hinted at by the Malthusians, failing even with the more politically acceptable persuasive measures.

    “A cancer is an uncontrolled multiplication of cells; the population explosion is an uncontrolled multiplication of people. We must shift our efforts from the treatment of the symptoms to the cutting out of the cancer. The operation will demand many apparently brutal and heartless decisions.”

    And the world we live in today is a result of our past short-sightedness.

    History is repeating itself. Environmentalists are once again predicting our imminent doom, and once again the short-term priorities of politics and capitalism are going for “cheap and lazy”. And once again, we’re all going to die. Again.

    “Not doing it will be catastrophic. We’ll be eight degrees hotter in 10, not 10 but 30 or 40 years and basically none of the crops will grow. Most of the people will have died and the rest of us will be cannibals.”

    I think it would be instructive, therefore, for us to examine what went wrong last time, and consider what concerned advisers to world leaders should have done, faced with a choice between experts predicting certain doom and some politically very unpalatable choices – “apparently brutal and heartless”. What could they have done to get the politicians to make the unpalatable choices?

  29. Bill G

    Many comments deal in emotion. Few have any facts. Lovelock is all about evidence and science’s way of handling evidence.

    This man is brilliant. He invented a device that can analyze gases of far off planets and NASA and many others use this device. It has been said if he did nothing else in his life, this device classifies him with Newton and other first rate scientists.

    Lovelock identified the Ozone Hole, then came up with a successful way to combat it. How many of these comment writers even know that? To dismiss him for some easy and silly reason (…he is 90) shows how ignorance is a big player with those commenting on Lovelock’s End of the World scenario. We just DON’T WANT TO BELIEVE IT – PERIOD – NEXT ISSUE PLEASE!

    As Lovelock points out in his book, The Vanishing Face of Gaia, people long for “business as usual”. That is why you do not see Lovelock, arguably the top environmental/biosphere scientist alive, on CBS, CNN or any main stream media outlet. He will not sell much of the soap they are about to advertise.

    So put your heads in the sand if you like, but its coming. We have between ten and twenty years AT MOST left. How will the end come?

    World temperatures will spike, probably suddenly, an average of 9 degrees C in temperate world zones, and 5 degrees C in the tropics. Note that is an AVERAGE rise. Peaks will be much more. And that, my friends will put a sudden and permanent end to the agriculture we must have to live.

    Ever wonder why we hear no radio signals from other planets in vast space? A wise man suggested to me, “Global Warming might be a part of evolution.” What he meant was that when intelligent creatures evolved on other planets in our vast universe, they, too, probably had fossil fuels at their disposal and greedily used them to power their world – right up to the end.

    Good night and Good luck.

    Bill G

  30. Nullius in Verba

    Bill G,

    Thanks for that contribution.

    I think Lovelock designed one particular spectrograph for the Viking spacecraft, he didn’t invent spectrographs, and he designed a sensor for measuring CFCs, he didn’t discover the ozone hole. But your emotional reaction is understood and appreciated – Lovelock was indeed an important scientist.

    But I think it was mainly this interview that some people are reacting to. The one in which he said the CFC science was fudged, he was “utterly disgusted” at the Climategate scientists, that we tend to get carried away by computer models, that he doesn’t see how they can accurately predict the climate. He’s got friends amongst the climate catastrophe sceptics as well as the believers, says many of them have done good, and he recommends reading the books of a couple of them. And that the climate experts are “scared stiff” because they “are more than well aware how weak their science is”.

    Still in favour?

    He also said more than a few things the sceptics would disagree with too – like “I have a feeling that climate change may be an issue as severe as a war. It may be necessary to put democracy on hold for a while.” That’s not a new proposal, of course, nor unique to Lovelock, but apart from the damage it does to the Green movement, already under suspicion for somewhat Totalitarian politics, it’s not something anybody there takes very seriously. Just another Green.

    So I don’t think the emotion problem is with those who don’t believe in the end of the world scenario.

    Have you ever wondered whether the reason we hear no radio signals from space is that Environmentalists might be a part of evolution? Radio isn’t “sustainable”.

    Anyway. I hope you won’t be too upset and disappointed if Global Warming turns out to be much the same as the Population Bomb, and we’re all still here in 20 years, richer, healthier, safer, and better fed than we were before. Capitalism sounds much more fun than your ‘cannibal’ thing.

    Good luck, indeed. I wish you the very best of all futures.

  31. Bill G

    Nullius:

    Thanks for your reply to my comment.

    Let’s get oriented with some facts. Lovelock did not invent the spectrometer and I did not say he did. He invented a brilliant device called the Electron Capture Detector, now used world wide in analysis of pollution, CFC’s and many other elements and compounds found in extremely small amounts, but still significant to cause damage to humans and the world’s environment.

    Specifically, the device is used for detecting atoms and molecules in a gas through the attachment of electrons via electron capture ionization. Lovelock invented this device in 1957. It is widely used by scientists today in gas chromatography to detect trace elements of chemical compounds in a sample.

    After development of his Electron Capture Detector Lovelock was the first to use it to find the widespread presence of CFCs in the atmosphere.

    I’m afraid the bulk of your comment fits perfectly into the mold of attacks on Lovelock that are devoid of actual facts refuting his detailed analysis of our biosphere and where things are headed. Your piece is peppered with the usual emotional words. You want very badly to dismiss Lovelock’s ideas, telling us you hope we will not be disappointed if the world stays a sunny and happy place.

    Incredibly, you find today’s world a “richer, healthier, safer, and better fed..” place. You apparently are unaware (or don’t care) about the vast starvation in places like Africa where tens of thousands if not millions have perished, mainly due to climate change wiping out their agricultural base. Erlich may have had the timing wrong, but he was still right. The earth is groaning under the pressure of an estimated 7 billion humans now. And many of those demand a first world level of living with lots of electricity, cars and all the fossil fuel driven devices that will bring and end to most human existence.

    It is a stark scenario Lovelock lays out and supports. HE HOPES HE IS SOMEHOW WRONG AND IS LOOKING FOR AND HOPING FOR SOME PROOF HE IS.

    But most humans, like yourself, like happy endings with a “richer, healthier, safer and better fed…” world. You want badly to believe in such an ending. But like the diagnosis of terminal cancer for a loved one, in this world we can’t always get the happy ending we long for.

    Thank you.

    Bill G

  32. GM

    Bill G Says:
    April 4th, 2010 at 11:39 am
    Ever wonder why we hear no radio signals from other planets in vast space? A wise man suggested to me, “Global Warming might be a part of evolution.” What he meant was that when intelligent creatures evolved on other planets in our vast universe, they, too, probably had fossil fuels at their disposal and greedily used them to power their world – right up to the end.

    Very good point. People have been talking about something called “The Great Filter” to explain the Fermi Paradox, and they have been arguing about which stage in the long transition from star formation through life to the development of a space-faring civilization is most likely to be where The Great Filter is. It has always struck me that we may have the answer unfolding in front of our eyes right now – most civilizations self-destruct at a very early stage of their technological development.

    And it looks certain that this is the case because any biological evolution we can imagine will strongly select for the most efficient replicator, and organisms will be very behaviorally hard-wired to reproduce as much as they can, because if you don’t do that, you don’t ever make it from the unicellular stage to the complex-brain-capable-of-restraining-itself stage. So with the exception of some extraordinary cases, most life will most likely behave like yeast in culture, and will self-destruct once it achieves the technological ability to drastically alter the ecosystem on its planet, and before it has realized the consequences of its actions, restrained itself and made it to space.

  33. GM

    Nullius in Verba Says:
    April 4th, 2010 at 2:58 pm

    Anyway. I hope you won’t be too upset and disappointed if Global Warming turns out to be much the same as the Population Bomb, and we’re all still here in 20 years, richer, healthier, safer, and better fed than we were before. Capitalism sounds much more fun than your ‘cannibal’ thing.

    The Population Bomb got the timing wrong. Other than that, it is 100% correct, because it is axiomatically correct – to deny that overpopulation is a problem is equivalent to denying all of mathematics and physics. You can’t have exponential growth in a finite system, simple as that. No argument, case closed. If you insist otherwise you should check with a doctor.

    The question is when exactly is the overshoot, all the available evidence points out that we have passed it at this point, so the inevitable next thing to happen is collapse. Collapse is a very hard thing to predict because of all the non-linearities involved, so how exactly it will happen, and when exactly it will become obvious to everyone, is impossible to say, but we can be almost certain it will not be to far off in the future

  34. Nullius in Verba

    BillG,

    On the first, I misunderstood. You said “He invented a device that can analyze gases of far off planets” and the only device that can analyse atmospheres from far off is a spectrograph. I see now that what you meant was that he invented a device that can analyse atmospheres, and it’s been used on other planets.

    Not that it’s relevant. Your argument apparently is that Lovelock invented the electron capture device, and therefore everything else he’s said and done is brilliant too. I could point out that Freeman Dyson was an even more brilliant scientist, and that he said the ‘doom’ scenarios were false. So where exactly would that get us? Surely, the only option is to examine the evidence itself for the point in question?

    I didn’t actually attack Lovelock in my comment. I simply pointed out what he said – he doesn’t see how computer models can accurately predict the climate, the climate scientists are scared stiff because they know how weak their science is, etc. That’s not an attack, that’s agreeing with him. The nearest I get to an attack is where he steps outside the science into politics, and I pointed out that suggesting that we “suspend democracy” plays into the perception of Green totalitarianism – and even that can only be construed as an attack if you thing totalitarianism is bad, which given that you agree with him you presumably don’t.

    (For info – totalitarianism is the political belief that the state has the right to regulate every aspect of people’s private lives and business, wherever they see a need. There are reasonable arguments both for and against. I’m using the word in its technical sense here.)

    But even that I see as a positive – because it discredits Greenery. And I absolutely respect his right to hold and express such an opinion, so I am by no means “attacking” Lovelock. I quite like him, actually. He’s quite a character.

    Now then – regarding the state of the world. I’m afraid that here the scientific and economic data is against you. The entire world is indeed richer, healthier, safer, and better fed than it was. At the same time, it is true there is still a long way to go.

    Starvation rates in the developing world in 1970 ranged from 20% in Latin America to over 40% in East Asia, mostly towards the upper end. Today, over most of those places, rates have dropped to around 5-10%, and this despite a vast increase in the population of those countries – itself an astounding success story, the result of better health and nutrition. The one relative failure is sub-Saharan Africa, where the starvation rate has dropped from 37% to only 30%, again with a large population increase. That’s still a considerable improvement, but not as big an improvement as we want or need.

    On average across the world, calorific intake has increased by 700 calories per person per day since 1960, and the intake in the developing world by about 800, a 40% increase. Not only are we supporting more people, but those people are each getting more to eat. Not only the percentages, but the absolute number of the malnourished has also reduced. That’s a fantastic achievement!

    And it is sad that far from us all celebrating this marvel, so many people haven’t even heard that it’s happened! And indeed seem actively annoyed to have it pointed out.

    Far from being uncaring of the plight of the Africans, I care deeply. I am passionate about the poor. Which is why I am so keen that the economic development and technological progress that has made all this possible is not stopped dead in its tracks, by this mad campaign to stop using the only viable source of life-saving energy we’ve got.

    I care about the environment, too. Which is why I want everybody to have the prosperity to enable them to divert resources from staying alive to cleaning the place up. The richer the world is, the cleaner and better cared for the environment will be. And indeed, the statistics on the environment have generally been improving too.

    Here’s some actual research on Africa for you to read. I can provide plenty more material, if you’re interested. (Although I am not hopeful.)

    For thousands of years we’ve been sick, and for thousands of years we’ve had no treatment. Modern technology has given us a shot of penicillin, and all of a sudden we’re getting up and walking about and improving. Growing and putting on weight. But the leech doctors are in uproar at this disaster, saying we’re poisoning the patient, and that as soon as we run out of pills the patient will die. We should leave the pills in the bottle.

    Yes, I like happy endings. I want everyone else to have happy endings too. And we can get them. Even if you still refuse to believe that, why won’t you let us at least try?

  35. Nullius in Verba

    GM,

    “You can’t have exponential growth in a finite system, simple as that.”

    Not true. What you mean is you can’t extend growth indefinitely in a finite system, which is true, but not relevant.

    This argument is akin to saying that you can’t keep walking in a straight line on a finite continent without falling into the sea. It’s technically a logically true statement, but not one of any practical relevance to the business of walking down to the shops, say.

    Population growth isn’t exponential. It has expanded at all sorts of different rates at different times, but is far from deterministic or inevitable. Current projections indicate it should stabilise in about 2050, anyway.

    And resources have always expanded to keep pace with the population. Indeed, the causality is the other way round. It is the increase in available resources that has enabled the population expansion.

    Resources have expanded, and will continue to expand, because what matters is not the physical resource but the human ingenuity in using it. When running out of wood, we switch to coal. When running out of coal, we switch to oil and gas. When running out of oil (which won’t be for a few hundred years yet) we will switch to something else. Not before. When we’re ready.

    We hop from stepping stone to stepping stone – the finite nature of each stone not relevant. We constantly change direction. We improve technology. We increase efficiency. We defy all linear predictions and extrapolations, because our future capabilities are literally unimaginable now. We are like the 19th century futurologists who stated that if society expanded at the rate it was going within fifty years the streets would be nine foot deep in horse manure. That if you tried to connect the whole world to the telegraph that we would run out of copper. As we are to the people of the 19th century, so our great grandchildren are to us.

    Unless we stop.

  36. GM

    The entire world is indeed richer, healthier, safer, and better fed than it was.

    All of this is entirely dependent not only on a stable climate but also on a steady supply of fossil fuels. From which follows that Peak Oil, which is happening right now, means the end of agriculture as we know it, and the beginning of the dieoff from mass starvation. And that’s not the only peak that matters, natural gas and phosphorus will soon follow, and these are only the things that matter a lot of agriculture, civilization as a whole can not exists without another several dozens of non-renewable things that will peak in the next decades/are peaking now/have peaked already and for which there are no substitutes. A big mistake is to frame the issue only in terms of climate, climate is actually a relatively small part of the problem, we would overshoot and crash in pretty much exactly the same manner even without climate change.

    One thing people always forget, or maybe they don’t forget, they simply are completely ignorant of it, is that when a population overshoots the carrying capacity of its environment, the largest size it ever gets to is right before the collapse begins. We have temporarily drastically increased the carrying capacity of the environment by mining the ancient solar energy concentrated in fossil fuels. Once those are gone, the crash will be very hard. It is very foolish to say “Look, we’ve never lived better than we are living now”. It absolutely does not matter, what matters is whether that many people can live the same way indefinitely, and the answer is no. You can borrow a huge amount of money and live like a king for a few weeks, this does not make you richer than you were before that, only now you have to repay the debt

  37. GM

    Mullius in Verba Says:
    April 5th, 2010 at 7:36 am
    GM,
    “You can’t have exponential growth in a finite system, simple as that.”
    Not true. What you mean is you can’t extend growth indefinitely in a finite system, which is true, but not relevant.

    Why is it not relevant????

    This argument is akin to saying that you can’t keep walking in a straight line on a finite continent without falling into the sea. It’s technically a logically true statement, but not one of any practical relevance to the business of walking down to the shops, say.
    Population growth isn’t exponential. It has expanded at all sorts of different rates at different times, but is far from deterministic or inevitable. Current projections indicate it should stabilise in about 2050, anyway.

    BS. Population growth is indeed not exponential, and it is not exponential precisely because of the finiteness of the environment. This is what people fail to understand – we need to avoid having the environment put a stop to growth, because the environment will do it the ugly way. BTW, current projections predict population growth stabilizing at ~10 billion at 2050 based on the assumption that people in the Third world will become richer, more educated and have fewer kids as a result of that. However, it is not possible to lift the Third world from today’s poverty to Western lifestyle, because if we were to do that, we would need another 5 planets, which we don’t have, as inconvenient as it is. there goes you projections of growth stabilizing, if we have 10 billion people in 2050, it is pretty much sure that most of them will be the same ignorant, illiterate, overtly religious type of people who are breeding like rabbits today and who will be breeding like rabbits then too. However, it is not at all certain we will get to 10 billion in 2050 as the collapse is likely to have started by then

    And resources have always expanded to keep pace with the population. Indeed, the causality is the other way round. It is the increase in available resources that has enabled the population expansion.

    Nonsense. Low-entropy resources are a fixed quantity at the time-scale of human civilization, it takes millions of years for them to be reconcentrated. The moment you start using them, you deplete. Stop brain-washing yourself with mainstream economics. The laws of physics are the once that matter

    Resources have expanded, and will continue to expand, because what matters is not the physical resource but the human ingenuity in using it. When running out of wood, we switch to coal. When running out of coal, we switch to oil and gas. When running out of oil (which won’t be for a few hundred years yet) we will switch to something else. Not before. When we’re ready.

    BS. There is no substitute for energy/negentropy. But you are too ignorant to know that. As you are too ignorant to know that we are at Peak Oil right now, and many other things, which I will not waste my time explaining as it makes little sense

    We hop from stepping stone to stepping stone – the finite nature of each stone not relevant. We constantly change direction. We improve technology. We increase efficiency. We defy all linear predictions and extrapolations, because our future capabilities are literally unimaginable now. We are like the 19th century futurologists who stated that if society expanded at the rate it was going within fifty years the streets would be nine foot deep in horse manure. That if you tried to connect the whole world to the telegraph that we would run out of copper. As we are to the people of the 19th century, so our great grandchildren are to us.
    Unless we stop.

    Extrapolation of the past and present trends to the future based on blind fate and zro hard data and logic is hardly a good way of predicting it.

  38. Nullius in Verba

    GM,

    Ah. One of the ‘Peak Oil’ faithful.

    Well I know from past experience that discussion of facts or evidence is a waste of time, so I won’t bother. We’ve been hearing the same story since the 1800s. Only the details change.

    Reality will have to decide which of us is correct.

    PS. But I did like your comment “and many other things, which I will not waste my time explaining as it makes little sense”. Very funny!

  39. GM

    Yes, it indeed makes very little sense to try summarizing many years of researching these issues for people who will not listen. As your last post confirmed

  40. Nullius in Verba

    GM,

    I have listened. And I’ve done the research. And the ‘Peak Oil’ claims are simply not true.

    Partially, they confuse what people choose not to do with what they can’t do. But mostly they are a wilfully determined attempt to prove the Malthusian ‘end of days’ by any means and in in the face of the evidence of more than a century of failed predictions.

    Some people like Apocalypse stories.

    I don’t mind that. And I’m fully confident that when this one turns out to be false too, somebody will just come up with another one, which will be just as convincing. Just think! A never-ending supply!

    There is no sign of ‘Peak Apocalypse’ either.

  41. GM

    …And the ‘Peak Oil’ claims are simply not true because…?

  42. Nullius in Verba

    Because oil exploration and exploitation is limited not by capability but by politics, economics, and the progress of technology. There are oil resources to last for many decades – when we were exploring intensively the reserves shot up far faster than our rate of increase of use, and over most of the world we haven’t even bothered to look yet. (Because of the local politics, mainly.) And given that we have a globe-spanning industrial economy, it would only take a small diversion of resources from everything else into exploitation to multiply production tenfold.

    The reason we don’t is that if we did the price would collapse and nobody would be able to get their investment back for decades. If it wasn’t for tax, energy would be incredibly cheap even today. There are temporary political circumstances that are leading us to reduce the rate of production growth, and some suggestions that they may not have got the short-term economic projection quite right and will need to adjust, but there is no question that we would be capable of rapidly increasing production, if we chose.

    And as for it leading to the collapse of civilisation – even if it were true, (which it isn’t,) we already have a proven almost-as-economic alternative in nuclear fission. Civilisation is not going to collapse for shortage of energy. Not unless we deliberately block every attempt to build new energy infrastructure and generating capacity, in some strange misguided attempt to “save the world”.

    I don’t mind Peak Oil people, because all they’re doing is saying we’re going to run out. It’s the other lot I worry about, the ones who are saying that we should ‘run out’ deliberately, even though there’s plenty of oil left, because they believe using it is doing some sort of damage.

  43. Bill G

    GM:

    Nullius writes, “Yes, I like happy endings. I want everyone else to have happy endings too. And we can get them. Even if you still refuse to believe that, why won’t you let us at least try?”

    This is the key statement in all Nullius wrote. He is saying, “You spoil sports! I and most people want to BELIEVE in our happy endings and you come around with your damn facts, many of which we find VERY negative, and ruin the Happy Ending we are laboriously trying to construct!”

    Nullius has legions of true believers ready and eager to follow a Happy Ending fable about what will happen to the world in the face of seeming self extinction by humans. We on the other hand are accused of being “too gloomy” (one of the very unscientific and freuent “rebuttals” used against Lovelock). “Think Positive” they tell us. “It makes you happier.”

    Well, yes it does. Religions discovered that long ago and constructed a “positive” story to feed the people faced with the awful fact that the self preservation instinct built into their genes was, in the real world, impossible. Wala! Religions, priests, popes, rabbis, mulas sprang up and profited from this immutable animal instinct of self preservation.

    But reality and laws of nature are nasty things, like you and I and Lovelock and many others, unwilling to buy into a Happy Ending conclusion. The laws of nature just plod forward, handing us the results of our folly and our “postive thinking” and they will do so forever. What is that line in an ad, “You Can’t Fool Mother Nature.”

    But cut the Happy Ending folks some slack. We have been nurtured on and now DEMAND a happy ending. Hollywood has drilled the Happy Ending script into us for over 100 years. TV enforces it, too. This is what Lovelock is up against. Vast armies of beings programmed by their culture to believe they don’t really have to worry, EVERYTHING WILL BE ALL RIGHT IN THE END.

    That is why the No. 1 survivor site lists environmental threats including global warming as dead last in their list of threats to these gun toting people. Rambo can deal with a lot of threats, but one he would be powerless to shoot down and exterminate is the crumbling natural infrastructure of our planet. SO PLEASE WRITE THAT OUT OF THE PLOT. FORGET IT!

    Bill G

  44. Guy

    There’s also the concept of a self fulfilling prophecy. If you cling to the idea that the future is going to be like a Cormac McCarthy novel then it just might turn out that way.

    I don’t see any reason to believe that the future is going to be nearly as hopeless as some think.

    People who do well in life often have little doubt that they can succeed. A little more optimism now and then is a good thing.

  45. Nullius in Verba

    Bill G,

    You seem to have started writing in block capitals. That’s a bad sign.

    As I said above, I don’t mind you being gloomy at all, if that’s what you like. Everyone has to have a hobby.

    I’m amused that you think religions tell positive and optimistic stories. Have you ever read the Book of Revelations? First you frighten the sheep, then you open the gate to the promise of escape. And that way they’ll do whatever you want.

    But I think you do hit on an interesting point, which is the belief that reality is nasty and demands a high price for every morsel of happiness. We are so conditioned to expect the worst, that we can’t believe our luck, and keep thinking it must be about to change. We don’t believe we deserve such success. These feelings of guilt are really interesting, for all sorts of reasons I don’t have the time or intention to go into.

    But the laws of nature are really neutral. They are what they are. And if you learn how they work, and are particularly ingenious, then you can get round them, and indeed make them work for you. There is indeed a high price for that – decades of toil, scientific investigation, experimentation, and blow after blow to our pride as our delusions about the way the world works are shattered. But the return on that investment is far greater.

    Like I said before, Paul Ehrlich said we were doomed and you couldn’t fight Mother Nature and we’d all be left in the ashes of the Apocalypse by now. And here we are. Richer, more capable, living longer, better fed than ever before. A happy ending.

    Happy endings are what we are designed for; what our evolution has made of us. It is our desperate desire for happy endings that makes us plot and plan how to bring them about, that has led to each and every success, every new development, every horror of nature banished. Ehrlich said there were no more happy endings left, and here we are, still happy. And here you stand again, declaring that this time it’ll all come true, the world will end, and we’ll be back to all being miserable as we’re supposed to be.

    Well, excuse me, but I hope you’ll forgive me for expressing some doubt. I think we’ve done pretty well so far, and I’m looking forward to us doing even better in the coming years. Like I said, reality shall be the judge.

  46. GM

    Because oil exploration and exploitation is limited not by capability but by politics, economics, and the progress of technology. There are oil resources to last for many decades – when we were exploring intensively the reserves shot up far faster than our rate of increase of use, and over most of the world we haven’t even bothered to look yet. (Because of the local politics, mainly.) And given that we have a globe-spanning industrial economy, it would only take a small diversion of resources from everything else into exploitation to multiply production tenfold.

    Empty assertion without any evidence to back it up. Give me numbers. I can do that, that Hubbert predicted a worldwide peak between 2000-2010 is well known, he was correct about the US using the same methodology, and the data we have right now points that he will be correct once again.

    There many other considerations to be added to the discussion, most of them in the direction of a more pessimistic views, such as the diminishing EROEI of the oil we’re producing now, but of course, such things will simply fly over your head

    The reason we don’t is that if we did the price would collapse and nobody would be able to get their investment back for decades. If it wasn’t for tax, energy would be incredibly cheap even today. There are temporary political circumstances that are leading us to reduce the rate of production growth, and some suggestions that they may not have got the short-term economic projection quite right and will need to adjust, but there is no question that we would be capable of rapidly increasing production, if we chose.

    Producers have no interest in a very high price – if the price is very high the global economy collapses very quickly and the prices does the same, so they end up losing money and investment capital. Which is exactly what happened in 2008

    And as for it leading to the collapse of civilisation – even if it were true, (which it isn’t,) we already have a proven almost-as-economic alternative in nuclear fission. Civilisation is not going to collapse for shortage of energy. Not unless we deliberately block every attempt to build new energy infrastructure and generating capacity, in some strange misguided attempt to “save the world”.

    LMAO

    So how exactly are you going to run a civilization with no energy?

    I don’t mind Peak Oil people, because all they’re doing is saying we’re going to run out. It’s the other lot I worry about, the ones who are saying that we should ‘run out’ deliberately, even though there’s plenty of oil left, because they believe using it is doing some sort of damage.

    Actually Peak Oil people aren’t saying that we’re going to run out of oil, they go to great lengths to point out the importance of flow rates. But anyway, as I said, it is quite pointless to try to educate the uneducatable

  47. GM

    Bill G @ 43:

    Great post

    44. Guy Says:
    April 5th, 2010 at 10:37 am
    There’s also the concept of a self fulfilling prophecy. If you cling to the idea that the future is going to be like a Cormac McCarthy novel then it just might turn out that way.
    I don’t see any reason to believe that the future is going to be nearly as hopeless as some think.
    People who do well in life often have little doubt that they can succeed. A little more optimism now and then is a good thing.

    Wishful thinking gets you nowhere. If the cold facts tell you that we’re in deep trouble, than probably we are indeed in deep trouble. What people like me are trying to do is point out that we should face the cold facts and not be afraid to implement the necessary measures to cope with the situations. And because the necessary measures include such unpopular things as draconian resource conservation and enforced population reduction (through basically a moratorium on births for a few decades), there is a lot of waking people up to be done. Which, of course, will not happen, but we keep trying

    So I don’t see why you bring up the tired “self-fulfilling prophecy” cliche

  48. GM

    45. Nullius in Verba Says:
    April 5th, 2010 at 10:57 am
    Bill G,

    Like I said before, Paul Ehrlich said we were doomed and you couldn’t fight Mother Nature and we’d all be left in the ashes of the Apocalypse by now. And here we are. Richer, more capable, living longer, better fed than ever before. A happy ending.

    It was already explained to you in great detail why Ehrlich is 100% correct in the long term and the fact that he was wrong by 40-50 years means nothing

    You didn’t say anything in response, so you either accept that explanation in which case you should not be posting nonsense again and again, or you take the time to explain why Ehrlich is wrong in the long term

  49. Guy

    “Wishful thinking gets you nowhere.”

    And negative thinking gets you somewhere? How many battles were won by generals who thought that defeat was a certainty? Why even bother, why not just surrender instead?

  50. Nullius in Verba

    “Empty assertion without any evidence to back it up. Give me numbers.”

    Compare the size of the global construction industry with the size of the bit of it devoted to oil extraction. Or energy production generally.

    “but of course, such things will simply fly over your head”

    An assertion backed by no evidence. I’m well aware of EROEI. But I’m impressed by your self-confidence.

    “Producers have no interest in a very high price – if the price is very high the global economy collapses very quickly and the prices does the same, so they end up losing money and investment capital.”

    Quite so. The law of supply and demand sets a market equilibrium price somewhere in the middle. Producers don’t want high prices or low ones.

    “So how exactly are you going to run a civilization with no energy?”

    I never said I would. Civilisation will not collapse for shortage of energy, because there is no shortage of energy.

    “Actually Peak Oil people aren’t saying that we’re going to run out of oil,”

    No, they’re saying that demand will increase faster than supply can. Economically speaking, that’s effectively the same. I was simplifying.

    “It was already explained to you in great detail why Ehrlich is 100% correct in the long term and the fact that he was wrong by 40-50 years means nothing”

    Ehrlich made the impact he did because not only did he say the crash was inevitable, but that the time scale was inevitable too. He said there was nothing we could do to stop it. He was wrong.

    If I tell you that the sun is going to expand into a red giant and burn the Earth up in about ten years time, am I 100% correct, or am I wrong? If in ten years I say, well OK, it’s a bit delayed. Fifty years, then, am I now right?

    Because it’s a scientific fact that the sun’s supply of Hydrogen fuel is finite.

  51. GM

    Successful generals tend to be those who outsmart the opponent, not the ones who go in battle against a tank army with spears and knives.

    If there was a big enough chance that someone will somehow find a way around the laws of thermodynamics, then we could continue breeding and expanding our material consumption. From all we know, however, it is much much more likely that no such way will be found in the foreseeable future, therefore organized retreat is the best strategy.

    Everything else is insanity, and this has nothing to do with “positive” or “negative” thinking, it is about reality, which does not at all care that we have built a cult around being an opitmist

  52. Nullius in Verba

    It is good for a general to know his opponent, it is better for him to know himself.

    Nobody needs to find a way around the laws of thermodynamics. (And I hadn’t heard that Peak Oil was a thermodynamic limitation before!)

    We can continue expanding for a long while yet. Going for a walk does not mean falling into the sea.

  53. GM

    50. Nullius in Verba Says:
    Compare the size of the global construction industry with the size of the bit of it devoted to oil extraction. Or energy production generally.

    What does this have to do with extractable reserves or decline rates??

    “but of course, such things will simply fly over your head”
    An assertion backed by no evidence. I’m well aware of EROEI. But I’m impressed by your self-confidence.

    You claim that you are aware of EROEI is not supported by the amount of nonsense you post

    I never said I would. Civilisation will not collapse for shortage of energy, because there is no shortage of energy.

    At some point there must be, you can not expand indefinitely. Or you’re denying that too?

    No, they’re saying that demand will increase faster than supply can. Economically speaking, that’s effectively the same. I was simplifying.

    Good that you understand it

    “It was already explained to you in great detail why Ehrlich is 100% correct in the long term and the fact that he was wrong by 40-50 years means nothing”
    Ehrlich made the impact he did because not only did he say the crash was inevitable, but that the time scale was inevitable too. He said there was nothing we could do to stop it. He was wrong.

    And this refutes what I said because…?

    If I tell you that the sun is going to expand into a red giant and burn the Earth up in about ten years time, am I 100% correct, or am I wrong? If in ten years I say, well OK, it’s a bit delayed. Fifty years, then, am I now right?
    Because it’s a scientific fact that the sun’s supply of Hydrogen fuel is finite.

    False analogy. The Sun will turn into a red giant 500 million yeas from now while if we continue growing the population at current rates there will be 1 person per square meter of Earth surface in something like 1000 years. Clearly, limits will hit long before that. This is SOON

  54. Nullius in Verba

    “At some point there must be, you can not expand indefinitely. Or you’re denying that too?”

    If you go for a walk on a finite continent, you must eventually fall into the sea. You cannot walk forever, so you shouldn’t walk at all. That, essentially, is your argument.

    “while if we continue growing the population at current rates there will be 1 person per square meter of Earth surface in something like 1000 years.”

    See? If you keep walking on a finite continent for 1000 years, you will eventually fall into the sea. So we must all stop walking, before it is too late.

    The point of the analogy is that Ehrlich (and you) are mistaking time scales too. You keep on invoking the finiteness of resources, but unless the disaster is to happen in some very short time scale, it’s not relevant. You make an extrapolation argument that only works (if at all) in the long run, then declare that it’s going to happen in the short run. And then when it doesn’t happen when you say, declare yourself to be 100% correct, and start the clock again.

    The time when it’s going to happen matters. If, as Ehrlich claimed, it’s going to happen in the next twenty years, we’d have a problem. It’s like walking near a cliff. If it’s going to happen in the next five hundred, we don’t care because by that time the circumstances would have changed. Getting the time wrong is a bit critical.

    If we kept on doing exactly what we’re doing now, then eventually, probably in a couple of hundred years, we’d run into a problem. But we’re not intending to keep doing exactly what we do now. We’ll completely change direction as we always do, I’d guess sometime in the next 50 years, and the question will become as academic as the one about how we will power civilisation without enough horses. Until then, what we’re doing now is not a problem.

  55. GM

    I think I have continuously stated that we aren’t making it past the middle of this century unless we change things drastically. I don’t know why you keep beating the “it’s not happening anytime soon” mantra

  56. Nullius in Verba

    GM,

    “I think I have continuously stated that we aren’t making it past the middle of this century unless we change things drastically.”

    Very well. Now would you be prepared to agree that in the half centuries from 1850 to 1900, 1900 to 1950, and 1950 to 2000, in each case we “changed things drastically?”

    So assuming that in the 50 years from 2000 to 2050 we could be expected to do the same, does it make sense to try to project the consequences of what we’re doing now for the next hundred (let alone thousand) years?

  57. GM

    The only time a prediction of imminent collapse of civilization due to ecological overshoot has been made was the 1970s. Malthus never predicted anything like this, he was content to point out the connection between poverty and birth rates, and that population growth will be held in check by limited food production. There wasn’t even anything like a world civilization back then.

    Ehrlich and the rest got it wrong because they didn”t take into account the effects of the Green Revolution. It is a delusion to think that another Green evolution or an equivalent will bail us out every time, because it becomes harder and harder to do so the more we breed, and there are hard physical limits on how much energy can be converted to food on this planet, and we have reached them

  58. Bill G

    I wonder if Easter Island had any “positive thinkers”? What did their people think of them after nature made it clear resources and space are finite?

    All you positive thinkers – when you play a slot machine do you use your positive thinking? How does that work out for you?

    Like Mother Nature, slot machines have their set rules of operation and don’t care about the positive attitude of the person pulling the handle.

    If positive thinking actually led to mankind organizing itself and dealing with the rules of nature as they are, that could have a good outcome. I personally do not see anything like this happening in the remotest sense now.

    Ok positive thinkers, how about this scenario: the doctor comes to you and tells you your loved one is terminally ill with a disease that has no known cure. Is this doctor a negative thinker? Of course you will do all you can to bolster the spirits of the loved one, but do you believe negative thinking is the problem with this doctor?

    Good points have been made by all, but it seems positive thinking is being applied inappropriately. I believe there have been some recent works on the downside of positive thinking (as shocking as that statement it in our present feel-good-at-all-costs society).

    There are always things we can do to prepare for and deal with outcomes such as those outlined by James Lovelock. But to dismiss him as “old”, “too gloomy” and other irrelevant responses dooms us to suffer the worst from the coming drastic climate changes.

    Our built in expectation that everything will turn out OK, and taking little or no action – which is exactly what we are doing now – is extremely unwise and probably fatal. Lovelock estimates 5 billion or more humans are going to perish due to termination of the food supply, lack of water, war and related effects of a spike in global heating.

    This is not fun and logic games, folks. You, your families, your grandchildren lives are at stake in all this. This is deadly serious business.

  59. Guy

    You are confusing optimism with positive thinking or magical thinking. An optimist is grounded in reality. Where the pessimist sees the glass as half-empty the optimists sees the glass as being half-full. The glass really is half-full.

    Positive thinkers or magical thinkers are not grounded in reality. They train their minds to see infinite wealth/resource potential where it doesn’t exist. A lot of get-rich quick schemes rely on that type of thinking. It’s type of thinking that lets you clear-cut forests and scam people out of their money because, “there’s always more where that came from.”

  60. Bill G

    Guy,
    In business, academic pursuits, love affairs – having an optimistic outlook on your chances can be beneficial.

    How would you apply optimism to the situation where police knock at your door and report to you your child has been killed. (These things happen every day.)

    Would you cheerfully say, “Well, officer, I do not think she was killed?” Would you find reasons why the officer suffered from negative thinking?

    It is not pessimism to draw logical conclusions from evidence, even if the conclusions are not happy ones.

    For example, Lovelock and other scientists believe human life, and perhaps civilized life, may be able to continue in the polar regions. Tropical life thrived there many millions of years ago evidenced by fossils of crocodiles and palm trees in the Arctic. A Manhattan style project might plan for a move of a significant part of the US population to the Arctic, preserving our form of government and feeding our people.

    In fact, I heard something about a Pentagon project to research a US response to world chaos caused by extreme global heating. I wrote my Senators, but got no answer. Maybe its a secret DoD project?

  61. Guy

    You’re example doesn’t make sense. Optimism isn’t having some silly response to a bad event that you cannot change. It is more like thinking that a difficult problem can and probably will be solved if the right steps are taken.

    The example would work better if you thought that based on the skills you teach your children they will probably be OK in most ordinary situations. You know that it doesn’t make them invulnerable to harm, but it does improve their chances.

    Global warming is another good example. First you acknowledge the fact that it is real then you look for reality based solutions. A pessimist would say there aren’t any workable solutions and give up. An optimist would say that there probably is a workable solution until proven otherwise. Being optimistic just means that you believe you can overcome a difficult situation through due diligence. It isn’t about denying that bad things happen.

    Lovelock is just being pessimistic based on what he believes. He doesn’t have a crystal ball to see into the future anymore than you or I do.

    Have you noticed that the younger the brilliant mind, the more optimistic about the future they tend to be?

  62. Bill G

    Guy,

    I suggest you read both Lovelock’s last two books – The Revenge of Gaia, and The Vanishing Face of Gaia. There’s good background on this subject I think you will benefit by.

    Best regards,

    Bill G

  63. Guy

    I’ve seen Lovelock’s presentation on “The Vanishing Face of Gaia” and he does make several good points. Yes, we should use nuclear power, consider geoeengineering, focus on survival of the species and all that. What I disagree with him on is that saving the planet is just a lot of nonsense. That is yet to be determined. We don’t know how effective our solutions will be until they are put to the test. Until we know for certain, there’s no justification to be so gloomy.

  64. Bill G

    Guy,
    Don’t you agree all the commercial campaigns by companies trying to prove they are more green than the next company are silly and nonsense. Main stream is trying to make a new little interesting fad in being green. They are not putting serious resources of their company to work in a “war effort” type of push.

    Again I suggest reading Lovelock’s books. They will give you the basic building blocks of environmental/ atmospheric science upon which to draw conclusions of your own and test his conclusions. These books are written for laymen, yet lay out the science behind what is happening today with our one and only planet – Earth.

    Based on your obvious interest in earth science, you may find these books highly interesting.

    Regards,
    Bill G

  65. GM

    61. Guy Says:
    April 6th, 2010 at 2:24 pm
    Global warming is another good example. First you acknowledge the fact that it is real then you look for reality based solutions. A pessimist would say there aren’t any workable solutions and give up. An optimist would say that there probably is a workable solution until proven otherwise. Being optimistic just means that you believe you can overcome a difficult situation through due diligence. It isn’t about denying that bad things happen.

    Yes, there is a workable solution: limit births to 1 per woman until population goes down to 500 million or so (abortion and sterilization in case of a second pregnancy), ban personal cars, abolish market capitalism in favor of a energy-based economy and a number of other measures that will need some brutal enforcing on the population in order to ever be implemented. However, this will not happen because the very people these measures are trying to help will rebel against them due to mass illiteracy and ignorance about the situation.

    People are called pessimistic when they suggest something like this, because in this case pessimism is defined as anything different than BAU happy motoring and breeding like rabbits

  66. GM

    Lovelock is just being pessimistic based on what he believes. He doesn’t have a crystal ball to see into the future anymore than you or I do.

    Nonsense. I throw a ball in the air, I don’t have a crystal ball to see into the future, but I know with very close to 100% certainty that it will fall down. Because we know it from experience and because the laws of nature which as far as we know are immutable within our Universe, dictate that.

    I drop you on a remote island in Canadian Acrtic in the middle of the winter with no food, fuels or any other supplies, and wearing only a Hawaii shirt and short pants. Again, with close to 100% certainty I predict that you will be frozen to death within a few hours at most. Because again, we know that this what happens to people in such a situation and because the laws of Nature dictate that.

    It is exactly the same with civilizations – if they exceed their resource base and they don’t do anything to bring their footprint in accordance with that resource base, they fall apart, with close to 100% certainty. Why – because, once again, this is what has happened historically and because this is what the laws of Nature dictate.

  67. GM

    63. Guy Says:
    April 6th, 2010 at 4:57 pm
    I’ve seen Lovelock’s presentation on “The Vanishing Face of Gaia” and he does make several good points. Yes, we should use nuclear power, consider geoeengineering, focus on survival of the species and all that. What I disagree with him on is that saving the planet is just a lot of nonsense. That is yet to be determined. We don’t know how effective our solutions will be until they are put to the test. Until we know for certain, there’s no justification to be so gloomy.

    Actually it is easy to see Lovelock as being too optimistic when he says “we should use nuclear power and geoengineering and we might save ourselves”. The problem with nuclear is that at this point is too late to do that – it will take many decades to train the engineers needed to build and run all the nuclear power plants we need and to actually build them, and they have to be of the breeder and thorium types because we will soon be running out of uranium for the conventional ones. If there are plans for doing this, they should have been made known to everyone, but I am not aware of them, so it’s safe to say it is too late at this point, with Peak Oil here, having at most a decade or two to drastically cut emission to prevent a truly disastrous global warming, and no signs of any population reduction policy coming.

    Geoenginnering doesn’t even exist as a technology right now, and it only takes care of the climate part of the problem, which is actually not even the major part. You may be able to geoengineer the climate, but unless you solve you r energy and raw materials problems, you collapse anyway, most likely even before climate change hits you really hard

  68. Guy

    @GM,

    “Nonsense. I throw a ball in the air, I don’t have a crystal ball to see into the future, but I know with very close to 100% certainty that it will fall down. ”

    Not if someone else is there to catch it.

    Your examples really aren’t comparable with predicting climate change. The climate is much too complex to arrive at a premature conclusion that we’re destined to fail. There are too many factors involved to make such a prediction.

    Lovelock also seems to think that environmentalism is just gimmicky and useless. I think that we will all have a much better chance if we embrace it. Is it useless to promote recycling, energy efficiency, conservation, clean water and all the other things? I think it’s just being lazy to avoid taking these things seriously. If only a few people embrace it, then it probably won’t make much of a difference. If everyone does it, it could be a big enough factor to matter, especially for the long term.

  69. GM

    Not if someone else is there to catch it.

    LOL, keep trying…

    Your examples really aren’t comparable with predicting climate change. The climate is much too complex to arrive at a premature conclusion that we’re destined to fail. There are too many factors involved to make such a prediction.

    As I have said many times, climate is actually not the major problem we face. You may be in denial about climate change, but if you are in denial about the whole set of 7 or 8 game-ending issues that we face and we’re not doing anything about, you’re a certified lunatic

    Lovelock also seems to think that environmentalism is just gimmicky and useless. I think that we will all have a much better chance if we embrace it. Is it useless to promote recycling, energy efficiency, conservation, clean water and all the other things?

    Yes, it is absolutely useless, because this way you’re not treating the disease, but only the symptoms, and only the minor ones on top of that. The disease is growth (evolutionary wired into our behavior) and our inability to understand our place in the world and our dependence on the environment. Unless you tackle the root of the problem, you ain’t doing anything useful

  70. Nullius in Verba

    Pop Quiz! Who said this about the business-as-usual future? Does it really sound that bad to you? And are they certified lunatics?

    The A1 storyline is a case of rapid and successful economic development, in which regional average income per capita converge—current distinctions between “poor” and “rich” countries eventually dissolve. The primary dynamics are:

    * Strong commitment to market-based solutions.

    * High savings and commitment to education at the household level.

    * High rates of investment and innovation in education, technology, and institutions at the national and international levels.

    * International mobility of people, ideas, and technology.

  71. GM

    Which gets you to:

    1. Rapid exhaustion of non-renewable resources
    2. The market “signals” the above long after it has become way too late to start looking for solutions to the crisis
    3. Complete climate meltdown due to the increased GHG emissions associated with growth
    4. Population continues to grow
    5. At some point oil becomes too expensive for the economy to be able to afford it, and as a result the economy collapses (we actually already saw the first phase of that cycle in 2008); then it may recover for a while but only until demand exceeds supply once again and it crashes again, only harder than before
    6. With scarce fossil fuels and fertilizers (and even capital), and with the weather being totally unpredictable, agriculture fails to provide for the growing population, which means widespread starvation all over the world.
    7. Widespread starvation all over the world means total chaos, the details of which by definition are hard to predict, but it will certainly involve such nice things as mass refugee waves, government being toppled by angry mobs, wars being started over whatever scarce resources are left (it is happening even now as we all know too well), etc. 8. Gradually, in the best case scenario, centralized state control disappears and we descend into the phase of the collapse where warlords take over and start fighting over the whatever’s left to scavenge from industrial civilization while the dieoff unfolds at full scale. In the worst case scenario we pull out the nukes and use them. If humans survive, they descend into barbarism out of which there will be no escape as there will be no fossil fuels left for another civilization to emerge out of the ruins

  72. Nullius in Verba

    Yeah, so you said.

    But that wasn’t what was predicted. The scenario projects continued growth up until the end of the century, and an end to poverty. So are the authors “certified lunatics”?

  73. GM

    Whoever thinks it is possible is a “certified lunatic”, yes

  74. Guy

    @GM,

    Are you a psychiatrist? What qualifies you to evaluate a person’s mental state?

    I think Nullius in Verba has won this latest round.

  75. Nullius in Verba

    Guy,

    I just wanted to see if I could get him to call the IPCC “certified lunatics”. :-)

    That quote is from their SRES A1 series of scenarios projecting possible futures to put into their simulations, based on their best understanding of the economics.

    Frankly, I don’t trust economic models much more than I do climate models. But in this case it’s a pretty conventional understanding of how technological progress works and will play out.

    I thought it was amusing, anyway.

  76. Guy

    One of GM’s misconceptions is that he thinks that you have a decline in economic growth that would in turn reduce population growth. Some of the most improvised nations on the planet are overpopulated. Some of the poorest countries have the highest birth rates. If you want to prevent overpopulation you need things like improved education and empowerment of women. You need to eliminate poverty so they have more to live for aside from raising kids. You can’t do those types of things if your country is bankrupt.

  77. GM

    75. Nullius in Verba Says:
    April 8th, 2010 at 12:39 pm
    Guy,
    I just wanted to see if I could get him to call the IPCC “certified lunatics”.
    That quote is from their SRES A1 series of scenarios projecting possible futures to put into their simulations, based on their best understanding of the economics.
    Frankly, I don’t trust economic models much more than I do climate models. But in this case it’s a pretty conventional understanding of how technological progress works and will play out.
    I thought it was amusing, anyway.

    Very stupid of you to think you have done that

    A1 is a hypothetical scenario in the IPCC, not a endorsement of a policy.

  78. GM

    76. Guy Says:
    April 8th, 2010 at 1:24 pm
    One of GM’s misconceptions is that he thinks that you have a decline in economic growth that would in turn reduce population growth. Some of the most improvised nations on the planet are overpopulated. Some of the poorest countries have the highest birth rates. If you want to prevent overpopulation you need things like improved education and empowerment of women. You need to eliminate poverty so they have more to live for aside from raising kids. You can’t do those types of things if your country is bankrupt.

    Again, you completely miss the point due to your ignorance of basic concepts. Remember, the equation has 3 components I=PAT, (population,affluence,technology). The P component stands for population growth, the A and T components roughly stand for economic growth. You need to stop and reverse the growth of product of those to prevent collapse.

    You are, once again, a certified lunatic if you think that you can prevent overpopulation by educating the poor and lifting them out of poverty when you have 7 billion people on the planet. It is simply physically impossible to do that because there aren’t enough natural resources for that, in fact we are already in overshoot mode. The most overpopulated countries in the world are actually Western nations (OK, after the oil states in Persian gulf) . You just don’t see it because they import a lot of carrying capacity from the Third world, but that doesn’t mean that their environmental footprint isn’t well beyond what the carrying capacity of their land is.

    Also, something else that is typically conveniently left out of the discussion is that educating the poor so that they stop breeding will take many decades, probably centuries, especially in places where you run against aggressive cultural resistance to such changes due to religion. We don’t have many decades or centuries, we have 10-20 years at most, maybe even less than that. If we had started this 100 years ago, then yes, it would have made sense. At this point organized retreat is the only option left

  79. Guy

    How you propose to get the governments of the world do an “organized retreat?” What all would this entail?

  80. GM

    Of course it’s not going to happen, I am no that naive. BTW, any working proposal would involve abolishing nation-states and creating a single governing body for the whole world, but this isn’t going to happen either…

  81. Guy

    Then what is the point of discussing it?

  82. GM

    The point of discussing it is that it is better if it is at least discussed than if 100% of us live with our heads in the sand

  83. Bill G

    GM,
    Thanks for your compliments to my comments. You and I seem to be on the same page.

    Lovelock in his last book, The Vanishing Face of Gaia, explains well how most humans hope for, long for and deny what they see with their own eyes because they have a built in strong desire for “business as usual” as he puts it.

    People are conditioned by our culture (and movies) to think everything will be fine in the end. The guy will get the girl and they will live happily ever after.

    If only our universe operated on such happy, human-like rules. But Mother Nature is cruel old gal by our standards. She doesn’t give a damn about our little desires for happy endings. She just expects and demands her rules be followed. She is truly the ruler of the universe.

    It seems to me far too late for remedies such as going nuclear for our electricity. I don’t know if you noticed, but we are nearly at 400 parts per million CO2 in our atmosphere as measured at the observatory in Hawaii.

    350 ppm is considered “red lights and sirens”. 400 is a sign the global system is ready to tip at any moment. Lovelock estimates 10-15 years before dooms day. But he too could have been too optimistic. CO2 has been rising faster than all models predicted. People lay down like spoiled children when they hear this, kicking and screaming, “No, no, no, its impossible, he’s a crazy old man, etc. etc.”

    We should be thinking about human survival and drop the silly “Save the Planet” stuff used to sell cars and light bulbs and bring money into the coffers of organizations like the Sierra Club. If we are to preserve the human race and its better accomplishments we need to plan to move north – or south to areas it is thought may be habitable. By that is meant we can grow food there. The military should be fully geared up to deal with evacuations and international fighting and chaos that one can easily imagine will break out immediately.

    This would take a WWII type effort and perhaps even more massive than WWII. But I don’t see it happening, sadly. We humans need for the brick to be dropped on our head, or something like a huge attack on Pearl Harbor before we can get everyone moving in the same direction. But this crisis is not so forgiving. It may fall on us suddenly and in a very short time.

    If temperatures were to spike worldwide (as they actually did in the 9-11 crisis for three days when all planes were grounded – world wide there was a 1 degree C rise in temperatures caused by skies cleared of contrails and jet exhaust everywhere). Food will vanish fast – as fast as it takes food to spoil in your refrigerator when the power goes out.

    Some areas near cooling seas may be able to continue agriculture, but these areas are few. The great corn belt and wheat belt of the US has no cooling sea currents nearby. The same holds for the agricultural lands of China and India and Russia. Mass chaos and hysteria could break out as people realize there is no longer any food. I suppose we could live for awhile slaughtering our animals (whose food would also disappear), but that would be a very short lived thing.

    Lovelock believes some nations will be hit less hard, such as the UK and Scandanavia but masses of immigrants could force they way into these nations to be stopped by armies from over running and stripping food supplies and water supplies.

    Many alive at this moment could live to see this horrible scene and be participants in it. Yet we snooze… we deny…we long with every once of our being for business as usual. Tomorrow will be exactly like today and I can go to work on the bus, eat my lunch, and come home to the wife and kids just like I always do we tell ourselves.

    We may be cursed to live in “interesting times” as the Chinese saying goes.

    Best regards,

    Bill G

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About Sheril Kirshenbaum

Sheril Kirshenbaum is a research scientist with the Webber Energy Group at the University of Texas at Austin's Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy where she works on projects to enhance public understanding of energy issues as they relate to food, oceans, and culture. She is involved in conservation initiatives across levels of government, working to improve communication between scientists, policymakers, and the public. Sheril is the author of The Science of Kissing, which explores one of humanity's fondest pastimes. She also co-authored Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future with Chris Mooney, chosen by Library Journal as one of the Best Sci-Tech Books of 2009 and named by President Obama's science advisor John Holdren as his top recommended read. Sheril contributes to popular publications including Newsweek, The Washington Post, Discover Magazine, and The Nation, frequently covering topics that bridge science and society from climate change to genetically modified foods. Her writing is featured in the anthology The Best American Science Writing 2010. In 2006 Sheril served as a legislative Knauss science fellow on Capitol Hill with Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) where she was involved in energy, climate, and ocean policy. She also has experience working on pop radio and her work has been published in Science, Fisheries Bulletin, Oecologia, and Issues in Science and Technology. In 2007, she helped to found Science Debate; an initiative encouraging candidates to debate science research and innovation issues on the campaign trail. Previously, Sheril was a research associate at Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment and has served as a Fellow with the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History and as a Howard Hughes Research Fellow. She has contributed reports to The Nature Conservancy and provided assistance on international protected area projects. Sheril serves as a science advisor to NPR's Science Friday and its nonprofit partner, Science Friday Initiative. She also serves on the program committee for the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). She speaks regularly around the country to audiences at universities, federal agencies, and museums and has been a guest on such programs as The Today Show and The Daily Rundown on MSNBC. Sheril is a graduate of Tufts University and holds two masters of science degrees in marine biology and marine policy from the University of Maine. She co-hosts The Intersection on Discover blogs with Chris Mooney and has contributed to DeSmogBlog, Talking Science, Wired Science and Seed. She was born in Suffern, New York and is also a musician. Sheril lives in Austin, Texas with her husband David Lowry. Interested in booking Sheril Kirshenbaum to speak at your next event? Contact Hachette Speakers Bureau 866.376.6591 info@hachettespeakersbureau.com For more information, visit her website or email Sheril at srkirshenbaum@yahoo.com.

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