Professor Bill Gladstone: Hello and welcome to UTS. My name is Bill Gladstone and I’m the MC for tonight. It’s my great pleasure to welcome Paul and Anne Ehrlich back to UTS.
No one has done more than Paul to investigate both how the living world works and develop a globally integrated view of what is required to maintain a suitable environment for future generations. His research has brought him virtually every accolade the scientific community can award, and his efforts to bring his results to public attention have resulted in international recognition. He has demonstrated that population growth, over consumption among the rich, and the use of faulty technologies and socio-political economic arrangements threaten the fabric of nature and thus, the environmental security of future generations. He has also been a tireless crusader for racial, religious and economic justice, and a fighter against scientific racism. He was a pioneer in exploring the horrendous impacts of nuclear war, played a major role in the nuclear winter studies, and has continually pointed out the folly of nuclear weapon use to the general public and decision makers. He also, in dozens of books, many hundreds of articles and thousands of radio and TV appearances, has shown how human beings co9uld live in harmony with nature and with each other.
Now, he’s putting his efforts into trying to uncover the ethical and behavioural changes necessary for a transition to sustainability, and promoting his global millennium alliance for humanity and the biosphere. In short, he is a one man definition of social responsibility, with particular emphasis on the environment.
The topic of Paul’s talk tonight is ‘Can a collapse of civilization be avoided, and how might Oz help?’ I sometimes think of Paul as the Wizard in Oz – you notice the spelling of Oz is O Z, not A U S, and if you remember the Wizard of Oz, there was this man who stood behind a curtain making grand proclamations to Dorothy and the Scarecrow and the Tin Man and the Lion when they approached, but Paul is definitely not the man who stands behind the curtain – he comes out and says what he thinks and backs it up with a wealth of experience and knowledge.
The topic of tonight’s talk is also the topic of a paper recently written by Paul and Anne and published earlier this year in the prestigious journal, Proceedings of the Royal Society. Paul and Anne began their paper in this way: Today, for the first time, humanity’s global civilization – the worldwide, increasingly interconnected highly technological society in which we are all, to one degree or another, embedded, is threatened with collapse by an array of environmental problems. Humankind finds itself finds itself engaged in what Prince Charles described as ‘an act of suicide on a grand scale’, facing what the UK’s Chief Scientific Advisor, John Beddington, called ‘a perfect storm of environmental problems.’
Paul and Anne use questions as sign posts in their paper to lead us through. How likely is such a collapse to occur? What needs to be done to avoid such a collapse? How can scientists do more to reduce the odds of a collapse? Tonight, Paul poses an additional question: How might Oz help?
I’d like to invite Paul to join us, and tell us the answers. Thank you.
Adjunct Professor Paul Ehrlich: Thanks a lot Bill. Am I on? Everybody hear okay? I’m going to give some personal advice first, because I think it’s really, really important on avoiding collapse, and that is, if you see the external environment going down the drain, there’s a way to keep your internal environment in good shape.
And Oz has done a great deal to help us in that way, as a matter of fact. I never do my field work around Australia without a case of Louie’s wine, as some of my colleagues here can attest.
I think the first thing I’ll do is not answer the question of whether a collapse can be avoided – because of course it can be; the issue is, will we do the things that are necessary? – but try and go through the connections among all of those, that storm of problems, that are usually neglected in the Australian media and totally neglected in the American mainstream media.
What are the big problems? If the media pay any attention at all, it’s the climate disruption. And that is certainly a gigantic problem, and it’s connected to virtually all the other ones, and it’s one that we are going to have to deal with, but are not dealing with at the moment. But there’s a series of others that could be even more serious, we just don’t know. One of the toxification of the planet – that is, we have spread from pole to pole a series of synthetic compounds that have dramatic effects on ecosystems, on people – we’re beginning to see the edge of it. These are compounds; we’ve recently discovered that many of them are so-called endocrine disrupting compounds which interfere with our biological processes, particularly if young people are exposed. And one of the terrible things about them is they have what scientists call non-linear dose response curves – they break the standard rules of the people who study toxics. That is – many of you may have heard this in grade school – the dose makes the poison. The way it’s usually presented is, even salt is a poison. If you eat enough salt, it kills you. The more you eat, the more likely you are to die. Unhappily for us, that’s not the case for many of the compounds we’re releasing. Many of them are more serious actors at very low concentrations, when you’re exposed to just a tiny little bit. In fact, they have very different effects when you have a small exposure than when you have a large exposure. This could be a problem considerably more serious than climate change if we turn out to be very unlucky.
As many of you know, there is a series of insane proposals made in an area called geo-engineering. These proposals are nuts at an ecological level; they’re even more nuts at a political level. For example, you may have heard that all we have to do to cool the planet as it heats is have the battleship Missouri fire its 16 inch guns every 5 minutes for the next 250,000 years, putting crap up into the atmosphere to shade us.
Or, we’re going to build a space shade out there somewhere which will shade earth. The ecological effects of these can be imagined, but think of the political effects if the Americans put up the space shade and China ends up frying while the US does well. So, all kinds of problems there, but at least there are nutcase plans for dealing with the climate situation if it gets away from us, the way it now looks like it’s going to. There are no such plans or ideas for if the mix, the incredible mix of toxics we’re all exposed to, start giving everybody, say, cancer of the pancreas by the time they’re five. What are you going to do about it? You won’t know what the synergisms are – there are thousands and thousands of compounds out there, and we know many of them interact in ways that make them more deadly, and if you see that going on, what are you going to do? Try and identify them and then have your graduate students go out with forceps and try to pull them back out of the environment? There aren’t even nutcae plans for dealing with that. So toxics are a much neglected but extremely serious potential problem.
There’s a whole series of others related to climate change, such as the loss of biodiversity. You’ve probably all heard about the loss of biodiversity – if you think of the picture of the panda which has become the symbol for the loss of biodiversity. Unhappily, the panda is probably gone, to begin with, at least in the wild, but it’s relatively meaningless to the ecosystem services upon which we all depend. The loss of biodiversity is basically, as we work on destroying it, we’re sawing off the limb that we’re sitting on. We’re utterly dependent on the other organisms of the planet for our lives, for our food, for everything we care about, and we’re in the middle of a human-caused extinction crisis. And most of the numbers – and we’ve been working on them, actually, in our group – indicate [that it is] already going to be as serious as the K-T extinction, and that was 65 million years ago when the dinosaurs were wiped out and much of the rest of the biota, that is the plants, animals and other microorganisms of the planet were exterminated. Interestingly enough, that was the border between the Cretaceous and the Tertiary, if some of you remember your geological terms. We’re now, according to many scientists, in the Anthropocene, that is, the human beings dominate the planet to the degree that geologists think we ought to define the present geological period as one that is controlled by the human beings – it is the human beings that are destroying the life support systems of the planet.
It’s kind of interesting in that we don’t call the Tertiary the [inaudible] – I don’t know, does anybody here know how to pronounce it? The huge asteroid that hit the northern part of the peninsula in Northern Mexico that caused the extinction at the KT boundary? It’s spelled something like C H I T L X C U B B – but the point is, why name a geological area in the name of the people who are causing it instead of giving it some other name, as in, we don’t call the Tertiary after the thing that caused the Tertiary extinction, but we are calling our period after Homo sapiens. I think I need a drink while I’m talking about this.
It’s Homo sapiens causing the destruction. But of course, as you’ve already thought, one of the major reasons that we’re losing the biota of the planet, the populations of organisms – millions of them go extinct every year, species at a slower rate – and one of the reasons of course is we’re changing the climate. In other words, these things are not disconnected. When you change the climate, for example, some of you may have been involved in designing reserves, national parks, places for organisms to be protected. Now Australia is not a great example of that, because your national parks are not put anywhere to protect organisms in general – they’re put places where farmers didn’t want to farm, and it’s considered waste land, and so various governments thought they’d look very green and ecological by making them reserves, but they’re lousy places for reserves. But nonetheless, whatever they are, whatever’s protected there, the climate’s going to move away, so the organisms that were originally protected will not be able to survive there. By the way, I should mention, when I say something like that – we’re going to go past 2 degrees Celsius almost certainly, which was what the international scientific community considered maybe safe, that human beings might be able to keep a civilization going if we only heat the planet by 2 degrees C. Most of the climatologists I know now think we’re headed for 3, 4, 5 or even beyond, and how far we get is going to depend very much on what happens with feedbacks that we don’t understand, and more important, with political feedbacks. For example, will the United States Congress be replaced by people with over 50 IQs so they can actually try and do something about it?
So, and when you start moving up that direction, you won’t be able to grow most of our main crops. The straight heat stress problems for people will mean that gradually over much of the planet, people will not be able to work outdoors in the summer. And that will become wider, and there’s a lot of information on what the physiological limits are for mammals, and we’ve already, the estimate is since the start of the industrial revolution, in various areas, there’s about a 10% reduction in how much you can work outdoors in the summer without suffering heat stress. There are really very strict limits out there, and we seem to be heading towards them. So, and of course, exterminating the other mammals.
I was just in a small town to the west of here that some of you have heard of, called Adelaide.
And I went there for an outdoor meeting in 39, 38, 39 degree weather. It gets a little higher than that and fruit bats start dropping out of the trees. It’s already happening in some places, some places around Sydney, you get enough heat, the mammals start to die. And you’ve had the death of fruit bats – there was almost deaths of us actually, in this environment. For us, people who consider ourselves second hand Australians, we spend maybe five years of our lives here, we wouldn’t have wanted to miss this summer. I mean, to come here during the first Murdoch summer was just incredible. The IPCC named it in honour of one man who has done the most that he possibly could to see to it that our grandchildren suffer and die and don’t have decent lives, working through the false news channel, through the various rags, the Wall Street Journal – by the way, the Wall Street Journal, [for you] Australians, the paper’s not good enough to use for the only purpose it’s really good for. But anyway, we saw the first of the Murdoch summer, maybe have even more of it, next year maybe another Murdoch summer, which you’ll want to remember, we had the Sandy event in the United States, all these things tightly tied to what the models predict – not discussed by the politicians. And what you want to remember about the Murdoch summer is, on average, it’s teeny compared to what comes soon after. Remember we [inaudible] heated the planet 1 degree Celsius and we’re already seeing these horrendous events around the world – tornadoes in January in the US, and that’s not – occasionally, people will say ‘Well, that’s what it’ll be like in the future.’ Nonsense. It’s going to be that times 10, or 100. It’s going to get worse and worse and worse, unless we do something and do something fast. So again, a tie into climate.
One of the problems with climate, and one of the main problems we’re going to face is, how are we going to feed people in the future? This is, in my view, an end. The most critical problem is likely to get us very quick, and very quick that is in a matter of decades, and almost certainly when you talk about climate change, most people tend to think, and the media tend to deal with, the problem of sea-level rise as being the most important. And sea level rise is a very important problem if you’re living on Tuvalu, for instance, the atolls in the edge of Micronesia – you’re already seeing the problem because you’re wading a lot where you used to walk. But sea level rise is generally very slow, it’s also very uneven. Don’t’ be fooled by somebody saying ‘the sea level shrunk around here but it rose over there.’ The average sea level rise is a matter of a millimetre or so a year, I don’t’ remember the exact numbers. It’s very uneven, it depends on – there are many events that change sea level far beyond the heating of water which causes it to expand, and the melting of Greenland and the Antarctic and glaciers on land – the southern oscillation that gives you La Niña and El Niño cause much bigger changes in sea level in year to year than you get from the overall sea level rise. How much the sea level rises depends on plate tectonics, it depends on things like the nearness of the Antarctic ice mask, which produces a gravitational pull, so no one place or no one time tells you about sea level rise. And the overall sea level rise is going to be very slow – I almost guarantee you that here in Sydney you’ll be able to walk away from it. In other words, you’re unlikely to have a tsunami event that’s going to carry a lot of people out to sea, unless the West Antarctic ice shelf cracks off all at once, which seems highly unlikely.
Sea level rise is going to cause enormous problems eventually by flooding agricultural land. Most of the agricultural land in Bangladesh is would go in a century or so. It’s going to salinise coastal aquifers, and it’s going to do exactly what it did during the Sandy episode in New York – the sea level is higher than it was since the last episode, and a very small amount of rise in the sea level gives you a much longer run in of storm surges. So we may only have a metre of rise over 100 years or 200 years or 300 years, but that metre of rise may be a kilometre of additional run-in when you have a really big storm. In some, probably sea level rise over the next century or so, would make refugees terribly inconvenienced from storm surges and so on, maybe a few hundred million people. Which is not great, but it’s trivial compared to what’s likely to happen in the next 40, 50, 60 years – not being able to tell when – because we’ve already entrained more than a thousand years of changing precipitation patterns, constantly changing precipitation patterns. Why do we care about precipitation patterns? Because agriculture is absolutely dependent on patterns of precipitation. And they are changing in Australia, as you know, and they effect, already, are affecting our agricultural ability. In fact, I brought one thing to read to you because it’s kind of interesting to see that even the plutocrats are starting to get worried about feeding the people of the world. There’s an organisation called Destroyers of the World – it’s the World Economic Forum report – these are the people who are pushing three, four, five percent constant economic growth. These are the people who fly every year to Switzerland in their executive jets and plan the world for the rest of us. But even they wrote in [inaudible] 2013:
Global food and nutrition security is a major global concern as the world prepares to feed a growing population on a dwindling resource base in an era of increased volatility and uncertainty. Over 870 million people are now hungry and more are at risk from the climate events and the price spikes. Concerted efforts to improve food security have never been more urgently needed. I think the answer is, of course, to give more money to the agribusiness corporations that are already wrecking the agricultural system, but who knows. Anyway, people are slowly waking up to the fact that we have almost a billion people hungry. We have, as they don’t mention, probably 2 billion more that are micronutrient deficient, leading to blindness, inability to work and so on and so forth. In other words, close to half the world’s population doesn’t have an adequate diet, which always thrills me when say, the Catholic bishops, as they did a few years ago, said ‘We’ll easily feed 16 or 20 billion people.’ Well, Anne and I – we got that same kind of thing when we wrote The Population Bomb in 1968 – ‘Don’t worry, technology’ (here we’re the University of Technology, Sydney) ‘will allow us to take care of 4, 5, 6 billion people, feed them all, give them housing, health care – no problem at all. And what we said when we had 3 ½ billion people in 1968, ‘Great! Show us you can feed 3 ½ billion people, house them, educate them and so on, and then you can come back to us and tell us and we’ll discuss whether it’s wise to go beyond 3 ½ billion.’ Well, we’ve been to 4, we’ve been to 5, we’ve been to 6, we’ve been to 7. Same situation – most people on the planet – well, most, but – most people are not living lives that any of you would like. Most people are living lives of desperation, and those numbers are in the billions. And the idea that somehow it’s okay, as this thing indicates, that we should just accept that we’re going to go on to 9 ½ billion people in 2050 is in my view, and Anne’s, and all of my colleagues, absolutely insane, since we could easily change that. In other words, let’s suppose that we could stop not at 9 ½ billion, but maybe stop at maybe 8 ½ billion or maybe 8 billion. But how could you possibly do that?
Well, one thing that you do is you give women around the world an equal break. All you have to do, as far as we can see, is empower women. Give them equal job opportunities, give them equal education, give them equal pay for equal work – total fertility rates, whenever that’s done, tend to go down very rapidly. And if we started right now, it’s entirely possible that that alone, if you matched it by giving – and very inexpensively too, doesn’t cost much compared to other things – modern contraception and back-up abortion, to every sexually active human being, the population problem could be on the way to what needs to be done by 2050. And what needs to be done, of course, is to gradually reduce the size of the human population until it can be sustained permanently – essentially, permanently.
If you go to the website of the ecological footprint – it has the ecological footprint analysis on it – you know that even with today’s mid-levels of misery, if we wanted to maintain today’s population at roughly today’s standards or living, more or less permanently , you’d need at least another half an earth. If you wanted to support 7 billion people, like we have today, at a US or Australian standard of living on the long term, then you’d have to have several more earths – three or four, depending on what assumptions you make.
So we’re vastly overpopulated already. The drivers of the situation are not just population size, of course – the other biggest driver is of course, is per capita consumption increasing among the rich, so the two multiply together. If you do the numbers it turns out that since in the last 150 years or so, population has done slightly more damage, done slightly more damage, to the life support systems of the planet than per capita consumption, but essentially they’re about equal. A third driver is simply inequity. One of the reasons it’s a driver, of course, is that by our sexist operations, we don’t get from the women either the brain power that we need to solve problems, and we keep the fertility rate high, so you can think of inequality as a driver in that way. Similarly, racial discrimination keeps us from taking advantage of the brains of a lot of people on the planet to help solve these problems and so on, so we’ve got a set of drivers that we’re not doing anything about. There’s not a single nation in the world where women have anything like equal opportunities with men.
Oh! I thought someone was going to argue with it. So, I haven’t been through the entire litany of problems yet. Let me mention a couple of others before we all go out and get drunk.
One is – I can recommend a book to you that one of my colleagues doesn’t like very much, but it’s got the information in it. Michael Klare’s written a book called The Race [For] What’s Left pointing out that we are now moving rapidly to more and more scarce resources, to ones that are harder to extract, that are of less higher quality – after all, this is why we have so many non-linearities in the whole system, that is, disproportionate effects. Human beings are smart – they didn’t start out farming the marginal land and are now gradually moving towards the river bottoms to farm the rich lands – it’s the other way around. We didn’t start out dragging water from great distances and purifying it a lot. We settled down right in the river bottoms, we started drinking the water there, we started farming there and then we built our cities over it. So basically every person you add to the planet has to be supported from resources that require more expenditure of energy to mobilise and get where you want them. And that’s why, for instance, that Ian Lowe keeps pointing out to Australians, you add 2% to the Australian population, that adds a lot more than 2% to the expenses you have to go to, to create the infrastructure for them, because again, we’ve already don’t the simple things. And Klare’s book, Michael Klare, The Race [For] What’s Left, gives you the data on this. It also shows you such things that I bet most Australians aren’t aware of – that the Saudis and the Chinese are busy buying up Africa to create farms to feed their people, not the Africans. In other words, people understand what’s happening to the world – most Americans and Australians don’t, and one of the reasons is Mr Murdoch, because they hear the – I think the technical term is ‘bullshit’ – that flows continually from his various sources.
One of the things technically in the US, we have a problem with concentrated animal feeding operations where you put 10,000 hogs in a room like this and outside you have a 15 acre lake of hog feces, which ferments and bubbles and boils and makes the neighbourhood just wonderful. But every now and then, the dam breaks, and huge floods of hog feces go down the street, and they generate a microorganism that creates neurotoxins. So if you’re standing on a bridge over one of these floods, you end up having psychological problems. And this, this kind of flood of hog feces is known as the technical literature as the ‘Fox News Effect.’ So look it up any time you want to.
So we’re in a race to take care of the last resources. The one we’re most likely to generate resource wars over after oil – which of course, we have the resource wars going on right now – after oil is water. And of course, water is one thing Australia has very little of. It’s the only continent in the world without a river, unless you consider the Murray Darling a river, but it would be a creek on any other continent. And resource wars are a big problem, again, the US as you may know, spends about 40% of its military budget only to grab other people’s oil and make sure the flows of oil keep going towards the United States. As many people in our government pointed out, the invasion of Iraq had nothing to do with weapons of mass destruction, part of a long-term program to try and control oil. And the interesting thing about it, the basic insanity is, we can’t afford to burn the oil. In other words, the nuttiest thing we’re doing now is burning coal and oil and gas to generate energy, to mobilise energy. It’s like if Iraq had a huge supply of cyanide, and we were starving, we invaded them to get the cyanide to eat. You know we have a CENTCOM based in, I think it’s Florida, that runs the drones and runs our military operations in Central Asia over oil and gas and pipelines. We also have an Africom, to make sure that the Africans keep the stuff flowing towards us, and so on. We’re members of a vast empire, which you guys are connected to, but you’re just not as central in the empire as we are.
The most recent studies show that if the current situation leads to some small-scale nuclear wars, that they would end civilization. The most likely one is one between India and Pakistan, could happen any time, because there are people in both government and military who would love to have a nuclear war. But of course the water situation is getting very serious in that area. The climate has not been happy, has not been treating them well, and if the Himalayan ice tower, when it melts, reduces the amount of ag water available to those two countries, they could easily have a war over it. And there’s a paper which I can refer you to – it’s by Turko, Toon and others, in about 2007, showing that even a small scale nuclear war, using what are today firecrackers, Hiroshima-size bombs, 15 kilotonnes, 100 or so of those, would end Australia and the US at the same time. So that’s another environmental problem we have to worry about. And finally of course – well, not finally. But close to finally! Oh yeah, I got another hour and a half.
There’s the problem that as the population grows, as more and more malnourished people, higher and higher speed transport systems, more people in contact with the animal reservoirs of disease – all, all of our infectious diseases come from other animals – that the chances of a worldwide epidemic of colossal proportions increase, and we’re doing very little to avoid that, even though there are lots of things we known how to do. It’s just like in a time when we desperately need better agricultural research everywhere, the funding is lousy compared to the funding for things like battleships – not battleships, aircraft carrier fleets, you know the Chinese and the Americans are building up for a war in the Persian gulf. Our military knows, their military knows – we’re not building all our fancy military equipment to fight Al-Qaeda, we’re building it to fight the Chinese. And the money that goes into that could easily go into things like ag research, education, things that are badly needed. Unfortunately, it’s not [inaudible].
So I’ve run down a list of small problems that are all tightly interconnected with one another. You can’t solve, you can’t say ‘Oh, we’ll put all our money into this one, and let that one go.’ They’re all tied together. And what do these say about the chances of a collapse of a civilization, and what Oz can do about it?
Well, there’s, again, a big literature on what collapses are like – there have been many, many of them in the past. Some of them have been essentially permanent; that is, the Mayan civilization disappeared. The Mayans didn’t, but the Mayan civilization did. They had a highly developed science, they built huge buildings, they had big cities – all that’s gone. The ones that have recovered and stayed in place – China’s one example, but the best example is Egypt. Egypt has gone on for 3500 years, roughly. There’s been several collapses in Egypt, but they’ve always managed to come back. Egypt had an advantage that the whole globe doesn’t have, namely, its agricultural land, until recently, was replaced each year by the floods of the Nile. And that gave them a permanence that, for example, the hydraulic civilizations of Mesopotamia didn’t have. So now we’re faced with a situation where we could have a global collapse of a civilization. In other words, when [inaudible] went down the drain, there was still Egypt going, and when China had its – and by the way, a lot of people in the US think China is a developing country that may slowly come around and be the kind of place that Australia is. Actually, the Chinese had a fantastic civilization while Brits were living in caves and painting themselves blue. They had a bad run from the time of the Opium Wars through the Revolution, but it’s a good example of a civilization that has persisted. Very clever, extremely bright people. The Chinese government may be dictatorial, but it’s way ahead of the Australian government in understanding what’s happening in the world and way, way, way, way, way ahead of the US government. We had a presidential election in the United States – some of you may have heard about it?
And not a single important issue was debated in it. What did they debate? Gay marriage. Should gays be allowed to get married? [It’s] a really critical issue. As I’ve told many audiences, I’m totally in favour of gay marriage – why should us straights be the only ones who suffer? It’s ridiculous.
We debated abortion, we debated a whole series of fiscal issues – fiscal cliffs, disasters, debt ceilings, and so on. Nobody in any of the debates mentioned that for every nickel of debt there is, there’s a nickel of credit. That in fact all these fiscal debt problems can be solved by human beings with computers in almost no time at all, with some redistribution of wealth, but they’re totally solvable. They’re made entirely up by us, and they can be solved by us. Nobody mentioned any of the big problems – nobody mentioned that while you can negotiate debts away, you can’t negotiate with nature. You can’t say, ‘Look nature, we’re gonna bust through two degrees Celsius, there’s going to be huge problems to our agriculture’. Unless you can negotiate and say, ‘You can’t grow your crops just like you do now up to five degrees.’ I mean, no, why not? Nobody mentions that.
So, we have a totally dysfunctional government in the United States, with the exception of people like Bob Carr, you come pretty close in this country. How many of you remember Abbott & Costello, the comedians?
Well, we got Abbott & Costello here pushing for more growth, pushing for more population, pushing to shut up about climate, and so on. So, both of my favourite countries are not exactly doing themselves proud. Could Australia do itself proud? What could Australia do about this at the US camp?
Well, for one thing you have yet to form an empire and put in all your money into military operations to make sure you get oil, because you’re much too busy working hard to make Australia a less developed country by getting rid of your natural resources, unprocessed, as fast as possible. And it looks like your plans are to continue that. But, you know, small countries have had huge impacts in the world. I like to think back, I have to emphasise back, to Canada in the days of Lester Pearson when they were really in the front line, how the world ought to be run and organised and so on. I’m sorry to say that the Canadian government has gone further down than the Australian government in part, by copying one of the worst aspects of Australian government; namely, you have in my view the best per capita group of environmental scientists in the world in Australia, but many of them work for state governments and those governments censor them. And the same thing is happening in Canada now, big time. Because they’re trying to persuade the world that getting rid of a whole pile of carbon and putting it in the atmosphere, this hideous gunk that they have that they want to build the pipeline to move the tar sands from the west. They’re now beginning heavy censorship of their scientists. It really shows you what happened to a government, as has happened here where a country pays to have excellent science, and then the government blockades them and does not permit them to tell the people what the hell is happening.
But that doesn’t have to go and Australia has got people like Bob Carr that can show the way, and Australia could show the way to the world. Why? You have superb solar scientists. Why in hell doesn’t Australia say, ‘OK, we got a program for the next 10 years to turn Canberra entirely into a solar city, show it can be done, and then sell the technology to the Chinese and Indians who desperately need it and shouldn’t be burning all that coal which threatens everybody.’ Why don’t we say we’re going to cut down coal exports?
I can’t remember the name of the woman who wants to destroy the Great Barrier Reef by shipping coal through it. But, you know, send her to the United States. She would be lost in the mob of morons there.
So, there are lots of things that a country like Australia can do, as the U.S could by setting an example. People hate the US, okay. But they like to imitate the US. If America said, and Australia followed, that we are going to have a program for the next 50 years, that we were going to be reconverting from a place for automobiles to a place for people, that alone could start a trend in the world because the amount of energy that goes into motorised traffic around the world is increasing dramatically. One of the big problems, as you know, and it’s only a problem in a certain sense, is that within giant countries like China and India, they are huge countries [of] already three or four hundred million people – same scale as the US – that are adopting a US lifestyle which is hitting the food situation hard because they’re moving into more demand for meat. [It’s] hitting the energy situation hard, because if you’ve ever been into China recently you can see traffic jams that would even put Sydney to shame. So, the way we can change things is by showing that we made a mistake going through the old industrial, Victorian industrial revolution. That things should be done differently now and put our money where our mouth is. Say okay, we’re going to start banning cars from down town Sydney. We’re going to start banning cars from LA and various places. We’re going to put in mass transit. We’re going to chop down a lot of the slums of tomorrow we’ve created in the countryside – convert this wonderful sub-division into a forest and move people more into towns. All sorts of things you can do if we wanted to do it. It’s two basic approaches that we’ve got to take.
One, of course, is to deal with the population issue and if you’re going to do that humanly, it’s got to be done relatively slowly. You can’t change population size extremely rapidly, but if you did what I said about equity for women, access to contraceptives and so on, then the odds are you can begin shrinking the population as it has already begun to shrink in places like Europe, gradually. We’re on the verge of shrinkage in a lot of the rich countries, which is exactly where you want to have the shrinkage, because those are the super consumers. The US is the most over populated nation in the world, not just because we have the third largest population, but because if you look at our capita consumption compared with the bigger countries – China and India – we’re still way, way ahead of them. So we should start on population shrinkage. But the cheery news is that changing our consumption patterns can be done almost instantly. A few people in the audience looking around will remember a thing called the Second World War. In 1945 – excuse me, in 1941 – the US produced almost 4,000,000 automobiles. December 7th, we stopped producing automobiles.
December 7th was the date of Pearl Harbor. Following that, in the next, roughly, four years, we built almost 350,000 military aircraft, we built hundreds of thousands of howitzers, hundreds of thousands of tanks, we developed, deployed nuclear weapons. We rationed meat, we rationed butter, we rationed all sorts of stuff – we had hundreds of thousands of people killed in battle, and at the end of the four years or so, we turned it around and went right back to producing automobiles and TV sets and so on. Same sort of thing happened in Britain, in Japan, in Germany, in the other combatants. We saw that if the incentive is there, you can change the patterns of consumption in a country very dramatically. So you need to change the patterns of reproduction and the patterns of consumption. What the [mob?] is very much involved in doing is trying to figure out how that possibly can be done. People have to understand, for instance, that if you have one kid and then you want to have a second, that that is a much worse thing, environmentally, than, say, buying four Hummers and driving them around, because the Hummers don’t reproduce.
Not only does a kid consume all kinds of stuff, but it’s going to produce more kids who are going to produce, right on down the line. So we know what directions we should be moving, and what Oz and the United States can both do, although I think you’ve got a better chance. You’re ahead of us – and I’m mostly serious – population is a political issue here that politicians have actually talked about. You already have a cap and trade system, although it’s under fire, but climate change at least is discussed here, whereas it isn’t in the United States. So I think of all the countries I know, the one that has the best chance of really turning things around is Australia, because there’s not a hope in Canada at the moment. So lots of things we can do. There is a big debate in this area. I’ve given a lot of talk here, but I haven’t managed the biggest debate in the scientific community of whether or not we can avoid a collapse. Anne and I have published that we think there’s about a 10% chance. That’s not, if we, I think we’ve got a much higher chance if you can say that all governments are going to start right now doing the right things, but when you consider the social side, we consider there’s about a 10% chance, and we think ethically it’s working really hard to make an 11% chance. We have great grandchildren – we’d like to see it happen.
Jim Brown, who’s an energy expert and the world’s greatest bio-geographer, contests us on this. He says we’re out of our minds. He says there’s only about a 1% chance. But he’s willing to work really hard to make it a 1.1% chance.
In Adelaide, we were joined – God, I’m trying to remember his name. Anne? Doesn’t matter. An Australian scientist, very good guy, I’m just having a senior moment now. If his name comes back to me I’ll tell you. And he was saying, ‘You know, I really think you guys are wrong on this. I think there’s about a 20% chance, but my advice to you is live it up, because I don’t think we’re going to get there.’ He wasn’t a raving idiot like me – he was a calm idiot. It hurts me that [inaudible] – never mind. Anyway. Graham Turner. Graham Turner. He’s an economist and a physicist, as I recall. Anyway, that’s what the debate is about in the scientific literature – how big is the chance that we could do it if we tried? And I have to say that my only cheery, really cheery thought, is I could be dead wrong because we have a long history of human societies changing, at least in recent decades, or at least in recent centuries, changing extremely rapidly by surprise when the time is more or less ripe. And I’ve said this to many audiences – the Second World War was a terrible thing, but it transformed the situation of women in the United States, and the situation of other minorities, particularly blacks. Because women went to work in the war plants, and they showed that they could be – there was a song called ‘Rosie the Riveter’, and they showed that they could do men’s work just as well, or better.
We now have airline pilots, that are – captains, as you have here too – that are women. When I took my flight training, I went really out of my way, to find, I found a very fine woman who gave me my instrument training. But she had gotten her training ferrying fighter planes in the Second World War. A lot of women had learned to fly because the men went into the combat units but there was a lot of opportunity to move aircraft to Europe and so on by flying them over, and so there was a whole group called the Ninety-Nines who learned to fly in order to ferry airplanes. Same thing, African American units showed they could fight very, very well, and Harry Truman desegregated the military, so something like a war can change it dramatically, something we don’t understand could change it dramatically – reproductive habits in the United States turned around in a very few years in the 1970s and the birthrate dropped dramatically. And the best example, which is the one I always use, is that none of my politically sophisticated friends saw that the Soviet Union was going to disappear and that Communism was basically going to retreat. And if we had had this discussion in 1988 – if you’d said, ‘What do you think is going to happen with the east/west split?’ I’d say ‘It’s probably going to go on for a century.’ And I’d have been wrong, because it ended in 1989. So when the time is ripe, societies can change very fast. And I see no reason why, with some luck, we couldn’t change the ways we treat each other and our environment equally fast, if the incentive is right. So what we have to do is find a way to ripen the time, and that’s all of your job – I turn it over to you.
Thank you very much.
14 March 2013 47:33
Tags: environmental science, sustainability
For the first time an array of interconnected problems is moving a global civilisation toward collapse. Driven by increasing overpopulation and overconsumption by the rich, these dilemmas include climate disruption, loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services, global poisoning, depletion of resources (especially soils and groundwater), and the threat of vast famines, epidemics and resource wars. Only a concerted effort to reduce the scale of society, revise the world’s entire energy-mobilising and water-handling infrastructures, and focus much more attention on agriculture and equity seems likely to much improve the human prospect. Growth is the disease; sustainability is attainable, but only with unprecedented rethinking, effort, and cooperation. Australia has the potential to become the international leader, a model for moving society off its present course to catastrophe. All it needs to do so is the political will.
About the speaker
Professor Paul Ehrlich is a prominent, award winning ecologist, entomologist, biologist, educator, author, fighter against scientific racism and pioneer in exploring the horrendous environmental impacts of nuclear war. Professor Ehrlich’s passion is to investigate how the living world works and develop a globally integrated view of what is required to maintain a suitable environment for future generations. His research has brought him every accolade the scientific community can award. He became well known after the publication of his controversial book The Population Bomb. He is widely published arguing that population growth, overconsumption, the use of faulty technologies and our socio-political-economic arrangements threaten the fabric of nature, and thus the environmental security of future generations.
UTS Science in Focus is a free public lecture series showcasing the latest research from prominent UTS scientists and researchers.
Professor Paul Ehrlich and Professor Graham Pyke compare the past, our current approaches and what we should be doing to ensure the environmental security of future generations.