Paul Ehrlich on the Millennium Assessment of Human Behavior

January 10, 2011 • Daily Email Recap

Thanks to Joe Bish for this transcript of the talk by Paul Ehrlich at the Population Strategy Meeting on October 4, 2010.

Paul Ehrlich
Population Strategy Meeting
October 4, 2010

I want to thank Chris for starting out with a wonderful appeal for the MAHB. I think that the basic way I’d summarize the current situation is that the vast majority of people in our society don’t understand the very real things that Chris was talking about; or if they understand them, they don’t want to take action on them. I think the proof in the pudding has been very nicely demonstrated by social scientists: Simply giving people more information about the scientific state of the world does not change human behavior. After all, we’ve known forever that exponential growth can’t go on forever. Even the dumb economists who write for the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal know that gasoline is vastly underpriced and that the externalities are horrendous. Even Greenspan understood that we were invading Iraq to get the oil to help control the oil situation. About 40% of our military expenditures are out there to make sure that whatever oil is left will be channeled to us when we need it. All those things are crystal clear, and yet nobody’s doing anything about it. If you look, as I indicated there, every environmental indicator that we care about, and many of the social indicators we care about, are all going in the wrong direction.

What I’m saying is, we’re going to hell in a hand basket; nobody’s doing anything about it; and simply explaining to people more about what’s happening to our ecosystems, the fact that finally the human complex adaptive system has grown to the size where it is now finally strongly interacting with the global ecosystem complex adaptive system, and anybody who’s looked at complex adaptive systems, as we just heard, knows you can’t predict what the results are going to be.

One thing you can predict, though, is, there are going to be emergent properties, and one can draw the conclusion – at least I would – that many of those emergent properties are not going to be pleasant when we run into them. Just to go down that list: Of course, everybody’s focused now on climate change. I just want to make some of the reasons why the MAHB, the Millennium Assessment of Human Behavior is possibly a tiny little chance for the future. Everybody’s focused on greenhouse gases as an environmental issue. Just before the last presidential election, we had a press conference at the National Press Club to bring environmental issues into the story, and every single question was on climate change, or climate disruption, as John Holdren likes to call it (and he’s right). It’s going to be an extremely serious problem for us, as we all know; but it may not be the worst of the problems that we’re facing environmentally. Unfortunately, it attracts a lot of attention. The loss of populations and species of other organisms – populations in particular, because they’re what deliver the ecosystem services; there’s a major problem with communication about biodiversity with all the focus on species, when the focus ought to be on the loss of populations – it’s going on now thousands of times more rapidly than it has in the last 65 million years, decaying our ecosystem services.

All of the data on endocrine disruptors – these are toxics with nonlinear dose response curves and other toxics where we know nothing at all about the synergisms even at the lowest level – all the signs coming at us are bad. If we have problems there with the toxics, it could be much worse than the climate change problems, because at least with the climate change problems, we have totally insane nutcase solutions that we could try like, you know, having the battleship Missouri fire 16-inch guns every 5 minutes for the next 200,000 years, putting crap in the atmosphere and so on. There are lots of suggestions like that. There are no suggestions for what to do if an unknown synergism starts giving every human being cancer of the pancreas by the time they’re 7. In other words, that’s the kind of thing that may easily show up. Some subarctic villages now have twice as many female babies being born as males. The normal sex ratio is 105/100, roughly. That tells you something is seriously wrong out there, but we’re not doing anything about it, and we’re not even having a discussion about it.

There are just some population numbers for you. I just highlighted the US situation. Incredible to me: No one has ever come up with even a semi-sane reason to have more than 130 million people in the United States. That’s the number we had when we won the biggest land war in history, and long since then we’ve gotten over the idea that numbers of people give you military strength; yet we’re shooting up toward 422 million. I don’t want to get into migration here as an issue; but talking about ethically charged, difficult to deal with, almost impossible to analyze situations; that’s one of the places where our social system is clearly coming close to breaking down.

One of the points which is not recognized anywhere near enough is that there are huge nonlinearities in population growth itself. That is, the next 2 billion people, if we actually manage to add them, will do much more – much more! – environmental damage than the last 2 billion. Why is that? Because people are smart. You know, just remember: We did not start farming the marginal land and gradually move in toward the river bottoms and then eventually, now, we’re ready to farm the richest land. What we did is, we moved into the river bottoms and then intelligently built cities all over them so you can’t grow food in them anymore. So there are all kinds of nonlinearities in population growth, and again, they’re not recognized while we gleefully think about moving on.

All right. Let me say a couple things; again, things that I think a millennium assessment of human behavior actually deal with. We’ve already had several nice talks dealing with the ‘it’s only consumption’ view of the world. Obviously that’s gibbering nonsense. The analogy I like to use in saying that consumption is what makes a difference, not population size, is like saying, ‘it’s the width of a rectangle that contributes much more to its area than the length of the rectangle.’ What you can talk about in this context, though, is which part of the rectangle you might be able to work on more easily. It might be that the length of the rectangle has got something blocking it, and you can could go change the width, if you want to change the area; the area in this case, in the IPAT equation, being the amount of damage your society does to its life support systems. One of the reasons I like to point out to people that we should have been working on population long ago and that we should certainly be working very hard on it now is that we know perfectly well that we can change consumption behavior if it gets bad enough almost instantaneously. The example is up there. I’m old enough to remember when suddenly I couldn’t have all the roast beef I wanted. I couldn’t have all the sugar I wanted. We stopped making automobiles and started making tanks and eventually atomic bombs. It was only 4-1/2 years, for God’s sake, that we went entirely into a brand new kind of economy, which resulted in all kinds of restrictions on human behavior. Then, at the end of that period, we switched right back, or actually went into a super-growth mode in consumer goods. You can change economies very rapidly if you’ve got the right incentives and if you still have the resources. There is no way you can humanely change the population factor that rapidly, which tells you why you should have been working on population all the time and why it’s one of the most important things to do here.

I heard, actually in a very nice talk, but at the same time something said about how population control is immoral. Is it? There was recently a really dumb book written, or I should say, “a mixed book written,” in which almost every chapter asserted that every woman has the right to have all the children she wants. Does she? No discussion of where rights come from. No discussion of what your rights may do, if practiced, to the rights of your children or grandchildren and so on. It’s crystal clear to me and, I think, to anybody who’s thought about it, that population control is just as important a social function for governments to practice as control of any other massive aspect of the economy, which affects everybody. It’s like this craziness in the United States now that taxes are a plot by the government to steal money from rich people, and that we don’t really need taxes for anything. We do need population control, ethically, and that’s why all the stuff you heard about the behavior of the Catholic Church is totally unethical. You know, hundreds of millions of people have suffered because of the church’s doctrine. Hundreds of thousands at least, and probably more, women have died because of, for instance, bans on legal abortions so that illegal… As everybody knows here, hopefully, by banning abortion legally, you don’t stop abortions; you just stop legal abortions. The abortions continue at roughly the same level, except that women end up dying. You can think of the, again, hierarchy of the Catholic Church as a gigantic conspiracy against women; and as I will repeat, this is not Catholic behavior. As you know, in the United States, the average Catholic, as was pointed out, uses contraception and abortion more than the average non-Catholic; and it’s the old men in the hierarchy who deserve condemnation for their behavior. Next slide, please. Oops. Sorry, I got up awfully early this morning.

Okay. So, obviously we don’t have to control just population. We don’t have to control just consumption. At least in population, many literate people understand there are too many people, and we need to push population growth down until it becomes negative and gradually shrink our population toward – we don’t know exactly what size will be optimal, because it depends on what technologies are available; but we know to do it humanely, it’ll take a century or so to get back well below where we are now to maybe 2 or 3 billion people. That’s a century during which groups like this and the society as a whole, if we get a MAHB together, can debate how many people we want and what balance we want between numbers of people and prosperity; because again, it’s a finite pie, and if you judge prosperity by availability of resources, then the size of your chunk is going to have to do with how many other people you’re sharing the resources with at the moment and what the impact of your use of resources is going to be on the people who can’t vote in the future, which is one of the more difficult ethical problems that, at least, economists have looked at at various times.

So we’re going to have to do something about population size, and consumption is an even bigger problem from the point of view that, although many politicians (although few of them would admit it) understand that there are too many people; they’re totally out of it when it comes to consumption, because as you know, you can hardly turn on a news program without hearing somebody talking about how growth has slumped only 2% a year, and we’ve got to get it back up to 3% a year, or something like that. In other words, the standard answer to any economic problem in today’s world is more growth; and of course, that’s straightforwardly insane. We don’t even, today, have anything the equivalent of consumption in condoms. In other words, we know how to control population. It’s not all that mysterious. Consumption is a very different issue.

One of my colleagues, actually, for those of you who come from the shop at Berkeley – the name is – Malcolm Potts’ shop, one of my colleagues is the father of one of the people working there. He pointed out that what we ought to have is government trucks that when you’ve gone out on a shopping spree on Tuesday, they come by on Wednesday, grab all the stuff back and take it back to the store. It would be the equivalent of a consumption morning after pill, but it doesn’t seem to be likely to be showing up very soon. The other thing that everybody should face but nobody will is that, of course, we’re going to need redistribution. There’s no way in hell even 6 billion people, less than today, can live on the standard of a Beverly Hills millionaire. It stunned me that everybody was complaining – I shouldn’t say that. The Republicans were complaining that Obama was a redistributionist. Well, of course, the Republicans are the champion redistributionists of the last 30 years. They’ve been taking money from the poor and giving it to the rich hand over fist, and have done a very nice job of it. We’re going to have to reverse that. We’re going to have to reverse it on a global level. There’s no way to have a satisfactory world with nuclear weapons with the epidemiological environment in the kind of shape it’s in now, and so on, unless we start – or to solve the so-called immigration problems – unless we take a global view of it and try and give everybody on the planet a decent way of life; and that can’t be done while we in the United States and other rich countries are trying to grab everything for ourselves. I’m not saying it’s good or bad. It’s just what has to happen if we’re going to have a decent world.

Now, to get to the MAHB. The term ‘MAHB’ was developed by Anne and me many years ago at the time when everybody was doing assessments around the turn of the century. So we had millennium assessment of ecosystems, millennium assessment of that, millennium assessment… Nobody was talking about a millennium assessment of human behavior. We are a small group animal. The average person really relates to about 150 people max, and that’s about what the average person in a hunter-gatherer society related to. We are just beginning, in ecological time and evolutionary time, to struggle with the issue of how we really are going to organize ourselves into gigantic groups. Gigantic groups, in terms of evolution, are really new. You know, just a few thousand years’ big groups and a few hundred years’ gigantic groups. We clearly haven’t solved it. The average person seems to think that the nation state is the permanent way that we’re going to run the planet. Nation states are only about 200 years old. I mean, we just got there. A lot of the problem that we face is that our cultural evolution is going on very slowly in critical areas, while it’s going on extremely rapidly in technological areas. So we’re giving, basically, an unorganized species weapons with which it can destroy itself and its entire civilization. I don’t think – I should say, most of my colleagues no longer believe that there’s a prayer in hell of solving our problems by simply explaining to people in greater and greater detail that we are screwing up the planet, that we’re going to run out of oil, that the climate is going to change so that we’re likely not going to be able to feed ourselves, on and on.

What we’ve got to do is get a global discussion going of the ethical problems – I have another slide that says some of this – discuss these things. The kind of discussion that a group like this has is totally unknown. How many congressmen would know what we’re talking about, for God’s sake? To say nothing of what people in our country with the crumbling education system would recognize? You can go all the way through Stanford University to name a university at random; and have no idea where your food comes from, have no idea what the second law of thermodynamics means to you, have no idea whatsoever of how the climate system works, have no idea whatsoever what a complex adaptive system is and what it means to them. I could go down a long list. We do not have an educational system that comes close to fulfilling the needs we have today, and the reason for that is something that’s brand new in human society. By the way, this is a plea to get the social scientists in, and I think Chris gave a very good example. He was talking to George Lakoff, or referred to him. We now know that social scientists already have discovered a lot of things that natural scientists ought to know about what makes people act. One of them is not giving them just information to get them to act.

So we’ve been trying to co-opt social scientists into the MAHB, with considerable success, I might say. But what we’re facing today is something that came home to me a long time ago. I was lucky enough when I was a kid, I lived with the Inuit. One of the things that impressed me was that every one of them knew basically the entire culture of the Inuit. That is, all the non-genetic information of the group was available to everybody. The men knew how to use a woman’s knife, an ulu. They didn’t often do it, but they knew how to do it. Look at the change. The standard hunter-gatherer. Look at the change. Here we’re sitting, extremely educated audience. I doubt – certainly no one here, and I doubt if all of us together, are possessed of 1 ten-billionth of the non-genetic information that our society has. That’s one of the reasons you can get Brooks writing an insane column in the New York Times. You know, Brooks is supposedly semi educated. He may have gone to Harvard or someplace like that, and yet he’s able to write in the New York Times about how cheery it is that we’re going to have another hundred million people in the United States very soon.

So, we are getting organized. We have a lot of support around the world. We don’t have any structure. We’ve had wonderful support from one advanced foundation called the Winslow Foundation. We are slowly but surely getting people together. For instance, we had social scientists talk to the ecologists at the Ecological Society of America meeting, and they liked it so much they’re going to continue the whole program. In other words, the ecologists are getting on board. So I think there’s a real hope that we can at least start talking about these things. Whether we’ll do anything about them, I don’t want to give you my opinion there; but you can probably guess it. I’ll stop there, because I don’t want to run over my last minute.

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