🌻 Paul Ehrlich interview on '60 Minutes' shows the need to finally defeat degrowth environmentalism
Humanity is still paying the price for losing that battle a half-century ago
Because you’ve subscribed to this newsletter, I’m assuming you’re aware of last weekend’s 60 Minutes segment on declining biodiversity or, as the program put it, a “sixth extinction” because “animals are running out of places to live.” And a big reason for your awareness is the program’s decision to include Stanford biologist and long-time catastrophist Paul Ehrlich, whose 1968 book The Population Bomb famously predicted, “The battle to feed all of humanity is over” and as a result lots of apocalyptic events would occur in our near future. Not surprisingly, I have some thoughts:
1/ Why Ehrlich? Maybe if you accept the theory that all publicity is good publicity, including the 90-year-old scientist — who has a memoir coming out later this month — in the piece makes sense. After all, it’s why I’m writing about the segment today. Certainly, husband-and-wife biology team Tony Barnosky and Liz Hadly, researchers at Stanford University’s Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve, who also appeared on the show have less PR oomph (although I found them to be kind of interesting and compelling). But publicity at what price? Ehrlich’s inclusion undermines the issue’s seriousness because he comes across as the sort of kooky, counterculture activist who would wildly exaggerate a problem to attract public attention. It’s a tactic that has undermined the movement to tackle climate change, especially on the right where many see the environmentalism as more about anti-capitalism, anti-Americanism, and anti-Westernism.
2/ Ehrlich gonna Ehrlich. Any hope that Ehrlich had updated his pitch or priors was quickly dispelled when I heard him say, “Too many people, too much consumption, and growth mania.” Ehrlich 1968, Ehrlich 2023 — same fellow, same message. Also Ehrlich 1975. This essay by him nearly a decade after the publishing of The Population Bomb gives a good feel for his ideology, which seems to be what drives him rather than scholarship:
… mankind, largely ignorant of both the functioning of ecological systems and the nature of human attacks upon them, follows the pied pipers of technology to destruction. Those who believe that science will pull a technological rabbit out of the hat to save us at the last minute simply suffer from an inability to learn. Technological rabbits tend to create more problems than they solve—they usually have large appetites and abundant noxious droppings. The “green revolution,” broadcast use of antibiotics and chlorinated hydrocarbon pesticides, dependence on the automobile for personal transportation, and nuclear power are prime examples.
Ehrlich’s bit about “technological rabbits” reminds me of how Nobel laureate economist William Nordhaus once described the inherently gloomy scientific modeling of the famous 1972 “The Limits to Growth” report, “It is hardly surprising that dead rabbits are pulled out of the hat when nothing but dead bunnies have been put in.”
3/ How about some balance, or at least some data? Imagine if instead of Ehrlich, 60 Minutes had instead featured Hannah Ritchie, head of research at Our World in Data where she focuses on “the long-term development of food supply, agriculture, energy, and environment, and their compatibility with global development.” (She holds a Ph.D. in GeoSciences from the University of Edinburgh.) Ritchie would have presented data-driven analysis of the reality of the situation. (The segment’s idea of data is a couple of passing references to a study from the World Wildlife Fund. Hey, good enough for television!) Among the insights she might have offered:
“On average, there has been a large decline across tens of thousands of wildlife populations since 1970”
“Not all animal populations are in decline; around half have increasing numbers”
“Wild mammals have declined by 85 % since the rise of humans”
“Wild mammals make up only a few percent of the world’s mammals”
“Thanks to conservation efforts, some wild mammals are making a comeback”
Ritchie might have also helped the program feature a few informative graphics such as this one:
Ritchie might have provided the sort of context missing from the 60 Minutes segment:
A diverse range of mammals once roamed the planet. This changed quickly and dramatically with the arrival of humans. Since the rise of humans, wild land mammal biomass has declined by 85%. Our history with them has been a zero-sum game: we either hunted them or destroyed their habitats with the expansion of agricultural lands. Without these wild habitats to expand into and produce food on, the rise of humans would have been impossible. But, for the first time in human history, we have the opportunity to turn this into a net-sum game: we can produce enough food from a smaller land area, making it possible for them to flourish again.
Back in June, I featured a 5QQ Q&A with Ritchie where I asked what we could learn from the many successful conservation efforts of recent decades. Her answer: “Most biodiversity indicators are moving in the wrong direction, which is a massive concern. But there are a number of success stories from across the world where we’ve brought species back from the brink of extinction; these give us exemplars of how this can be achieved — through reducing agricultural land use; creating protected areas; and investing in reintroduction programs. As always, success stories can give us examples to adapt and replicate.”
4/ Odd timing, again. The lack of good news or a plausible way forward in the segment is stunning. Again, some like Ritchie could have provided that. But nothing new here, I guess: The same year that Ehrlich published The Population Bomb, gaining massive celebrity in the process (including something like 20 appearances on The Tonight Show with host Johnny Carson), William Gaud, director of the U.S. Agency for International Development, coined the term “Green Revolution,” referring to the creation of high-yielding crop varieties, especially rice and wheat, that has prevented maybe a billion starvation deaths since the 1960s. And just two years later, scientist Norman Borlaug, the central figure in the Green Revolution, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. What’s more, the 2018 NER working paper “Two Blades of Grass: The Impact of the Green Revolution” finds that a “ten-year delay of the Green Revolution would in 2010 have cost 17 percent of GDP/capita [with a] cumulative GDP loss [of] US$83 trillion, corresponding to one year of current global GDP.”
5/ The battle against degrowth. Ehrlich represents that segment of the environmental movement that wants fewer humans to live less well on this planet. For this group, the nuclear power renaissance seemingly happening all over the world, as well as the recent nuclear fusion breakthrough, is hardly good news. Not only do they see abundant, cheap, reliable power as energizing more consumption, but it might eventually remove climate change as a reason for humans to have a lighter environmental footprint. The threat of a chaotic climate has served such worriers well after their 1970s predictions of impending starvation and resource depletion didn’t pan out. One thing that pops up in the Ehrlich essay I referred to earlier is his disdain for nuclear fission:
We contend that the position of the nuclear promoters is, preposterous beyond the wildest imaginings of most nuclear opponents, primarily because one of the main purported “benefits” of nuclear power, the availability of cheap and abundant energy, is, in fact, a cost. … Consider the values being generated by the nuclear power industry. According to one nuclear proponent, physicist Alvin Weinberg, mankind should make a “Faustian bargain”— that is, consider creating a garrison world and selling its collective soul to the nuclear technologists—in order to enjoy the benefits of atomic power. … For the sake of argument, however, let’s give the devils their way and consider what would happen if we made Weinberg’s Faustian bargain. Suppose that the United States and then the world were carpeted with nuclear power plants, that they worked very economically, and all direct nuclear hazards had been reduced to the vanishing point. Assume further that the portable fuels problem were solved with a minimum of dislocation. Now mankind has available the abundant, cheap, clean power that the nuclear establishment envisions, and that power is being consumed. What happens then? Possibly the end of civilization as we know it.
There you go: Abundant energy, no matter the source — coal and oil or solar, nuclear, and geothermal is the bug in the system, not a key feature. And that’s the ultimate battle that pro-growth, pro-progress types like myself will have to fight: this notion that we are running out of Earth and that anything like a rich-country lifestyle is unsustainable without far fewer humans. The other option for degrowthers: Somehow persuading the existing eight billion of us to downgrade our aspirations — especially in the West — while also fighting against public policy that would encourage more technological progress and economic growth. (Degrowth for OECD nations, at least.) This is a battle pro-progress forces lost a half century ago. This time we must win it.
▶ Chinese researchers claim to find way to break encryption using quantum computers - Richard Waters, Financial Times | The method, outlined in a scientific paper published in late December, could be used to break the RSA algorithm that underpins most online encryption using a quantum machine with only 372 qubits — or quantum bits, a basic unit of quantum computing — according to the claims from 24 researchers from a number of academic bodies and state laboratories. … “As far as I can tell, the paper isn’t wrong,” said Peter Shor, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology scientist whose 1994 algorithm proving that a quantum machine could defeat online encryption helped to trigger a research boom in quantum computing. Shor’s method requires machines with many hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of qubits, something that many experts believe is a decade or more away. Shor added, however, that the Chinese researchers had “failed to address how fast the algorithm will run”, and said that it was possible it “will still take millions of years”. He said: “In the absence of any analysis showing that it will be faster, I suspect that the most likely scenario is that it’s not much of an improvement.”
Papers and patents are becoming less disruptive over time - Michael Park, Erin Leahey, and Russell J. Funk, Nature | We find that papers and patents are increasingly less likely to break with the past in ways that push science and technology in new directions. This pattern holds universally across fields and is robust across multiple different citation- and text-based metrics. Subsequently, we link this decline in disruptiveness to a narrowing in the use of previous knowledge, allowing us to reconcile the patterns we observe with the ‘shoulders of giants’ view. We find that the observed declines are unlikely to be driven by changes in the quality of published science, citation practices or field-specific factors. Overall, our results suggest that slowing rates of disruption may reflect a fundamental shift in the nature of science and technology.
AI Has Come to Save the Arts from Themselves - Leonid Bershidsky, Bloomberg Opinion | If what you do is new and truly original, you have no reason to fear: By the time AI catches up, you will move on. If you challenge convention, you will be hard to imitate on the basis of that convention — and all the checks and balances built in by AI creators to avoid getting shut down will play into your hands. It’s also a time of reckoning for people of modest talent. The modern educational system has made sure they weren’t left behind and convinced many of them that being “uniquely you” is enough. But a lot of the stuff that goes for writing or art these days might as well have been produced by a deep learning model — it has taken more from the cultural context than contributed to it.
A breakout year for artificial intelligence - Editorial Board, FT | “The promise of generative AI is that it can boost the productivity of workers in creative industries, if not replace them altogether. Just as machines augmented muscle in the industrial revolution, so AI can augment brainpower in the cognitive revolution. This may be particularly good news for jaded copywriters, computer coders, TV scriptwriters and desperate school children late with their homework. But it may also have a big impact on areas as diverse as the automation of customer services, marketing material, scientific research and digital assistants. One intriguing open question is whether it will reinforce the dominance of existing search engines, such as Google’s, or usurp the
What’s next for mRNA vaccines - Jessica Hamzelou | Moderna, the biotech company behind one of the two approved mRNA vaccines for covid-19, is developing mRNA vaccines for RSV (respiratory syncytial virus), HIV, Zika, Epstein-Barr virus, and more. BioNTech, which partnered with Pfizer on the other approved mRNA-based covid-19 vaccine, is exploring vaccines for tuberculosis, malaria, HIV, shingles, and flu. Both companies are working on treatments for cancer. And many other companies and academic labs are getting in on the action.
Excellent read, James.