Earth is Headed for Disaster?

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.”

 

 

 

 

Author: Matthew E. Kahn

Professor of Economics at UCLA.

38 thoughts on “Earth is Headed for Disaster?”

  1. Paul Ehrlich’s input alone means that this report is worthless and should be disregarded.

    1. Anyone who disregards Ehrlich doesn’t know what they are talking about, and therefore can be disregarded. Even though he commented on the report and provided no input.

      And this goes to all the bots who flocked here just to bag on Ehrlich.

  2. One of my favorite cartoons shows a group of scientists sitting around the table. The guys who is leading the meeting says “Washington is looking to the scientific community for an answer…Gee, I’ve wanted to say that my whole career”.

  3. Professor Ehrlich gets trashed because his Population Bomb predictions did not come true in all particulars.

    Fair enough I guess, and I for one certainly hopes he got it wrong. But it seems to me that the innovation Dr. Kahn asks about here has (fortunately) delayed the inevitable results of too many people living and leaving waste in a closed system. Of course, recent efforts by politicians in North Carolina and Virginia to frame the climate change debate by prohibiting the use of certain “leftist” terms in government studies suggests that innovation won’t save us in the very long term because the people in control of finding collective solutions stand to lose too much from doing something about this that will actually work.

    If you’re not one of those folks who believes that Jesus will soon arrive to save us from ourselves, you should be worried.

  4. “Professor Ehrlich gets trashed because his Population Bomb predictions did not come true in all particulars.”

    That’s one way of putting it. Another way of putting it would be that they were without significant exception all wildly wrong. No mass die-offs, starvation down in India, you name it. If the prediction was scary, he blew it. Really, why would anyone who wanted to be taken seriously associate themselves with the man? The only explanation I can come up with is that you’d have to be so cloistered that it wouldn’t occur to you that Ehrlich wasn’t taken seriously anymore.

    I would note that the Earth is not actually a closed system. Were it such, there’d be no life on it. While this is a pretty basic mistake, it didn’t stop a lot of people from taking Georgescu-Roegen seriously, even though his “fourth law” was based on that very basic mistake.

    1. Bellmore, let us know when you take an actual college-level natural science course, see what you don’t know, and realize you should come back here and correct yourself.

      snork

      I crack myself up sometimes.

    2. Is there some significant matter exchange that makes the Earth an open system? Also, why would life be impossible in a closed system?

      1. Is “Brett Bellmore” complaining that someone else got it wildly wrong? On this blog? Sometimes the word chutzpah seems miserably inadequate.

      2. There’s significant energy exchange, and that’s enough to not be a closed system.

        1. Funny how you neglected to answer the second question. Just out of curiosity, Brett, do you not think that the universe is a closed system? Or do you not think that there’s life in the universe?

          1. There’d be no life on Earth were it a closed system, for the simple reason that the Earth is too small compared to the time frame at issue. We’d have already died, were there no Sun, no cold dark night sky.

            The ‘universe’, the observable part of it anyway, might well be closed, (Or might not.) but it’s big enough to last a rather long time if it is closed.

          2. There’d be no life on Earth were it a closed system, for the simple reason that the Earth is too small compared to the time frame at issue.

            LOLz!

            I’ll add to my ‘natural science’ suggestion: physics. I suspect chemistry is on order as well.

          3. Dan, I’m a practicing engineer. I aced thermodynamics, granted back in the late 70’s. (When the famines should have already hit according to Paul Ehrlich.)

            Life on the Earth, outside of chemosynthetic bacteria in deep rock strata and around volcanic vents, is powered by the Sun. The night sky is a heat sink. Take away either of these and we’d be dead. This is the basis for saying that we’d already be dead if the Earth were a closed system.

            Contrarywise, while the universe as a whole *might* be closed, it is sufficiently vast and empty that it serves as it’s own heat sink, while stars will continue to burn for billions of years to come. So life is possible, temporarilly, in a closed universe, due to the scale of things.

            Or to put it differently, go teach your grandma to suck eggs.

        2. I don’t know if Georgescu-Roegen used terms differently than in thermodynamics, but a system that does not exchange matter or energy is called isolated, not closed.

  5. “…he foresees…climate change, water shortages, and the widespread use of man-made toxins.”

    Hmmm … isn’t it a few years too late to call that “foresight?”

    1. I’d say that the modern GOP qualifies as a man-made toxin (sorry, creationists!) and the other two predictions are obviously coming true as we speak.

  6. = = = “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.” = = =

    I’m a little uncertain about equating parking lots and cornfields when calculating the ‘percent transformed’ in this analysis. Natural prairie is a good thing, but cornfields are still areas covered by plants not asphalt.

    Cranky

    1. While one cannot equate parking lots and cornfields, the fact that cornfields are covered by (annual) plants with constant soil disruption that are filled with drainage tiles and sprayed with a surfeit of fertilizer make them behave in a qualitatively different way than other vegetated areas liked prairies. End run on.

      1. True, but by this standard if you manage to reverse desertification, you’re making Earth worse off. It’s not much more advanced than nature worship, conflating all human changes to the environment, negative AND positive.

        1. True, but by this standard if you manage to reverse desertification, you’re making Earth worse off.

          OK, so we have the following needed classes, from above:

          o natural science
          o physics
          o chemistry

          and we add from this comment: rhetoric.

          My, my. List growing almost exponentially! Better get Rmoney on it to lower tuition for the lower-middle classes!

          1. Dan, all I need to make you happy is a class in Danology. Problem is, to pass it I’d have to forget every bit of math, physics, chemistry, biology, and history I know. I think the price is too high, and I’m not talking tuition.

    1. Well, yes, koryel, but that’s the government, which can’t be expected to run efficiently. When the eminent capitalist Warren Buffett discovered a problem with the derivatives markets back in 2002*, you saw the marketplace immediately and efficiently deal with the issue:

      I view derivatives as time bombs, both for the parties that deal in them and the economic system.

      *link is to a pdf.

  7. And aren’t we all grateful that we listened to the doomsayers in Iraq, and the pre-2005 critics of the Army Corps of Engineers’ work in New Orleans? Just think what would have happened if we lived in a world where anticipation of a problem didn’t lead to solutions.

      1. I go by track records. Krugman’s track record of economic predictions is quite good, much better than most other economists. The Army Corps of Engineers are experts in their fields, and don’t tend to be over-the-top or sensationalistic. The critics of the second Iraq War included many respected foreign-policy experts – and not just those who are opposed to war as an instrument of policy in general, but also many realists who correctly figured that it simply didn’t meet a basic cost-benefit analysis.

        Ehrlich’s doomsday predictions are in an entirely different category. He’s been so wildly wrong that I don’t see why his statements should be taken seriously at all, any more than idiots like James K. “Dow 36000” Glassman.

        1. Ehrlich’s doomsday predictions are in an entirely different category. He’s been so wildly wrong that I don’t see why his statements should be taken seriously at all

          Say he was off by 50-100 years. Is that wildly wrong in your book?

          1. 100 years from now his predictions will still be wrong, because they were predictions of what would have happened by now. But if you wish to make your own predictions, even as we progress away from what he predicted, go for it.

          2. 100 years from now his predictions will still be wrong, because they were predictions of what would have happened by now.

            Brilliant. We shouldn’t pay attention to resource limits because some predictions were off by a few %. That is compelling argumentation, I tell you. Wow.

          3. A few percent? He predicted the world would starve, (In the 70’s, yet!) and we actually have MORE calories of food available per person today than when he made his prediction! Per UN figures, the undernourished fraction of world population is HALF what it was then! It wasn’t a few percent, he got the freaking DIRECTION things would go wrong! It’s like somebody predicts a heat wave, and it snows, and you defend him by saying he was only a few degrees off.

            He gets the sign wrong, why do you thing a few more years are going to prove him right? Rather than there being something fundamentally wrong with his analysis?

        2. I don’t have an important disagreement with you, Josh. Erlich was unambiguously wrong, though I have a lower opinion than you do of the Army Engineers.

          Prof. Kahn, however, makes a persistent error in overestimating the efficacy of market solutions. That’s the point I was addressing.

  8. Yes, it’s quite likely that some innovator will step up when we start running short of potable water and other essential resources, much like the shortage of money in certain Europeans countries during the 1930s resulted in innovative attempts to implement a final solution to that problem.

    One has to suspect that the future innovative responses to such a crisis will resemble those of the past – the productive classes will once again attempt to rid the world of the parasites, leeches and other clearly inferior beasts who masquerade as human beings only to soak up precious resources. We’re already working on that.

  9. Prof Kahn might like to look at what people actually do in times of acute shortages of essentials (clue – they don’t let prices rise: they either institute rationing or exclude some people from access).

    He might also like to look at two other reasonably recent pieces:

    A look at how the Limits to Growth predictions are panning out: http://www.csiro.au/files/files/plje.pdf

    and

    The starting article on planetary boundaries referenced here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Planetary_boundaries

    I would like examples of when prices have actually halted a process short of a critical boundary (such as extinction). I can’t think of any off-hand, but I am sure the Prof will have plenty.

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