Describing the ends but not the means

The sheltered workshop and tax dodging former newspaper, The Guardian, ran an opinion piece about science by a writer whose entire qualification seems to be that he writes a genre of fiction with the word “science” in the category description.

Science fiction writer Kim Stanley-Robinson wants to save the planet.

Of course, the usual Malthusian Fallacy is the main theme of the opinion piece. No surprises there and the consistent formula is employed;

1. Define an unverifiable looming catastrophe,

2. Define an untestable solution,

3. As a consequence, demand resources and behavioural changes from the population.

What’s quite interesting in this article is the use of gentle language to describe what would require severely authoritarian measures to implement.

Some examples follow;

The tendency of people to move to cities, either out of desire or perceived necessity, creates a great opportunity. If we managed urbanisation properly, we could nearly remove ourselves from a considerable percentage of the the planet’s surface.

Just a mild “if we managed urbanisation” there, you might say. Of course, everything hinges on one’s definition of “managed“.

It could be said that Hugo Chavez managed the distribution of food in Venezuela, for example…..

Many villages now have populations of under a thousand, and continue to shrink as most of the young people leave. If these places were redefined (and repriced) as becoming usefully empty, there would be caretaker work for some, gamekeeper work for others, and the rest could go to the cities and get into the main swing of things.

Redefined and repriced? Sure, by whom, when, to what price and how?

If we recall, Robert Mugabe redefined and repriced the fertile farmland of Zimbabwe….

So emptying half the Earth of its humans wouldn’t have to be imposed: it’s happening anyway. It would be more a matter of managing how we made the move, and what kind of arrangement we left behind. One important factor here would be to avoid extremes and absolutes of definition and practice, and any sense of idealistic purity. We are mongrel creatures on a mongrel planet, and we have to be flexible to survive.

Quite right; people have been self-selecting and moving to urban centres since the Industrial Revolution. Urban living overtook rural living over a decade ago.

So what’s Kim’s call to action here, if we’re doing this by free will already?

Ah, he wants to lock the gate once we’ve left so it’s harder to return.

We will have to have decarbonised transport and energy production, white roofs, gardens in every empty lot, full-capture recycling, and all the rest of the technologies of sustainability we are already developing. That includes technologies we call law and justice – the system software, so to speak. Yes, justice: robust women’s rights stabilise families and population. Income adequacy and progressive taxation keep the poorest and richest from damaging the biosphere in the ways that extreme poverty or wealth do. Peace, justice, equality and the rule of law are all necessary survival strategies.

That’s quite a word salad which can perhaps be summarised as “people like me need to rewrite the law“, such as;

….because we will be safest if we can get the CO2 level in the atmosphere back down to 350 parts per million.

Says who? If I’m living in a violent urban neighbourhood in Lagos, Nigeria, I might question Kim’s assertion about precisely what actions might keep me safest.

All these working landscapes should exist alongside that so-called empty land (though really it’s only almost empty – empty of people – most of the time). Those areas will be working for us in their own way, as part of the health-giving context of any sustainable civilisation. And all the land has to be surrounded by oceans that, similarly, are left partly unfished.

Which is fine until we get around to talking about how we are planning to keep the people off the land and stop them dropping a net in the water.

All this can be done. All this needs to be done if we are to make it through the emergency centuries we face and create a civilised permaculture, something we can pass along to the future generations as a good home. There is no alternative way; there is no planet B. We have only this planet, and have to fit our species into the energy flows of its biosphere. That’s our project now. That’s the meaning of life, in case you were looking for a meaning.

There is no alternative way? Is that like, “the science is settled“?

Bill’s Opinion

Comparing expressed preferences with revealed preferences is always an interesting exercise.

Kim Stanley-Robinson is urging us to move to large conurbations and then for armed police (no really, how else is he proposing we enforce it?) to close the gates to the newly-vacant countryside.

Out of curiosity, Kimbo, where’s your primary residence? Where exactly is Chez Stanley-Robinson?

The high-density sprawling metropolis of Davis California (pop. 65,622).

Just to illustrate the hypocrisy, this is the satellite view of Davis;

With a strong right arm, one could probably throw a frisbee the entire length of the town in one shot. Although, it sounds like the sort of place where Ultimate Frisbee has no social shame so there’s a good chance it might be intercepted.

In Kim’s own words, from his wiki page (emphasis mine);

Politically, Robinson describes himself as a democratic socialist, going on to say that libertarianism has never “[made] any sense to me, nor sounds attractive as a principle.”

No shit, Sherlock.

Prince William takes on the Malthusian baton for another generation

The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree; Prince William Is Worried There Are Just Too Many People in the World

This has been the Prince’s father’s schtick for years so we shouldn’t be surprised that the same views are held by Windsor Jr.

The headline speaks to a common underlying view held by many people living in rich western countries, that there are limiting factors to the size of the human population and catastrophe awaits us when we trend closer to that finite number.

The development of this idea can be traced back to Reverend Malthus’ 1798 work, An Essay on the Principle of Population. In it, he offers the hypothesis that populations grow into the space they inhabit until they reach a natural limit based on the resources they consume.

It’s an intellectually-attractive theory and one supported by countless observable flora and fauna examples. With regards to human populations, however, the theory doesn’t seem to be correct, or it hasn’t been for over 200 years.

Perhaps Malthus is correct but we just need to wait a little longer?

Well, perhaps but how can we explain the glorious and happy fact that the numbers of people in absolute poverty has fallen consistently over the period since his publication? Better still, that number fell off a cliff from the 1970s and continues to fall.

This makes Mathusian predictions seem somewhat unrealistically pessimistic. We are feeding and keeping people alive longer and in far greater numbers than ever before with no obvious reason to assume that this trend will end soon.

Why then, does Malthus’theory stand true for animals but not the shaved ape we call homo sapiens? Human ingenuity, would be my guess; we’re the only species producing efficient farming techniques, improving crop yields and robustness, creating effective pharmaceutical products, building dwellings in locations where extremes of temperatures would usually kill us, etc.

That’s not to say Malthus will be wrong forever about human populations but, if we were to place a bet, the clever money would be on us innovating our way out of trouble long before the catastrophe occurred. If the catastrophe occurs 200 years hence, we’re likely to be capable of colonising other planets, for example. Who knows? Certainly not Malthus, he’s a long time dead, and it’s highly unlikely that a couple of members of the Sax-Coburg-Gotha British Royal Family  have any real insights to offer either.

Of course, if one truly believes that there are too many people in the world, it seems reasonable to ask what might be the possible solutions?

Well, there’s really only two levers we can pull here; lower the birth rate and/or kill a bunch of people.

Examining the delta between people’s expressed and revealed preferences is always a useful test; Prince William and his wife are currently expecting their third child.

So, let us be charitable and assume the Prince doesn’t secretly harbour desires for genocide, we can only conclude that he wants other people to have fewer babies to make more room for his. Which people? Poor people, presumably, people not of his group.

I’m not an evolutionary biologist but I’d suggest that there’s a deep evolutionary instinct at play there.

Bill’s Opinion

Malthus is wrong with regards to humans and has been since 1798. He might be correct one day but the data trends suggests otherwise.

When someone expresses a Malthusian sentiment, it is a great indicator that you are speaking with someone with subconscious authoritarian tendencies.

In his speech, the Prince goes on to bemoan the extinction of species due to human activity. It’s a shame this point was rather lost in the Malthusian guff as we probably all can agree completely that this is a bad thing. Killing millions or asking poor people to do what you aren’t prepared to do yourself isn’t the solution though.