I’m vanishing for more than a month so I want to exit on a high note. The Chronicle of Higher Education is a magazine for old professors. I like it very much. Given my research interests, this piece with the catchy title “Earth Is Headed for Disaster, Interdisciplinary Team of Scientists Concludes” caught my eye.
To quote the Chronicle:
“The report’s conclusions center on a measure of the amount of the earth’s land surface that has been transformed by people, from forests and prairies to uses such as cornfields and parking lots. The percentage of transformed land now stands at 43 percent, with the world’s population at seven billion.
The scientists contributing to the report have calculated the various forms of damage that will be seen when the usage level exceeds 50 percent, as is expected around 2025, when the population reaches eight billion, Mr. Barnosky said. The scientists making those estimates include biologists, ecologists, geologists, paleontologists, and complex-systems theoreticians in the United States, Canada, South America, and Europe.”
Note that no economists participated! My humble question is: “What is “disaster” and how does it happen?” The Scholars must have a n extrapolation model that takes as inputs global population levels and per-capita income levels and predicts the total land area that is required to provide a flow of services to satisfy the desires of this big globe so we are back to I = P*A*T but where is the T? An economist might ask the question; “where are the prices”? As we “run out of water”, do water prices rise? Do self interested households and firms economize on resource consumption as prices rise? Do innovative profit seeking firms seek to innovate to create new substitutes in a resource constrained world? If we anticipate a problem, does the problem cause real damage? Or does some innovator step up?
Paul Ehrlich gets a nice quote at the end of the article. Here it is!
“The authors of the report, in fact, make clear that they cannot be totally sure when the earth’s environment will reach a “tipping point” beyond which recovery to anything resembling current conditions will be impossible, or even if that will happen. “That’s the usual scientific covering-all-your-bases” statement, Mr. Barnosky said.
But for others, the warning contained in the Berkeley-led report may not be strong enough. “I suspect it’s a little too optimistic,” said Paul R. Ehrlich, a professor of population studies at Stanford University known for his 1968 book The Population Bomb.
Mr. Ehrlich said he foresees a series of dire threats to humanity, many virtually untouched by political leaders, including climate change, water shortages, and the widespread use of man-made toxins. Even a single repercussion of one of those, such as water scarcity leading to nuclear war between India and Pakistan, could devastate populations worldwide, he said.
“Generally the scientific community has spoken many times,” Mr. Ehrlich said, “but nobody’s paying any attention.”