Thursday, May 18, 2017

Our most fearsome predator

This is prompted by a Population-Environment Research Network Cyberseminar, called “Culture, Beliefs and the Environment” (15 - 19 May 2017) and a background paper called "Without Consumer Culture, There is No Environmental Crisis by Prof Richard Wilk at the Department of Anthropology, Indiana University.

Prof Wilk’s paper says in part:

“About 20% of the human population is using more than 80% of the available resources, while producing a similar proportion of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. No matter what this charmed one fifth does to reduce its emissions, the problem is that the other 80% of the world wants to join their ranks.”

I basically agree, but would like to add that one major reason for the higher birth rates of most of the poor is due to the selfishness of the 20%, in not supporting more global fairness (when perhaps there was a chance for it to work in time) and in also supporting (at least implicitly) denial of limits to growth. These are topics I have written about for more than 25 years eg:

Butler C.D. (1994): Overpopulation, overconsumption and economics. The Lancet 343: 582-584.
Butler C.D. (1997): The consumption bomb. Medicine, Conflict and Survival 13: 209-218.
Butler C.D. (2004): Human carrying capacity and human health. Public Library of Science Medicine 1(3) e55: 192-194.
Butler C.D: (2016) Sounding the alarm: Health in the Anthropocene. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 13, 665; doi: 610.3390/ijerph13070665.

We are an animal species with technology but insufficient collective wisdom for our current time; an argument I heard Paul Ehrlich make in 1989 (eg Ornstein and Ehrlich: New World New Mind). I think consumerism, waste and the pursuit of status goods is hard wired, ubiquitous if the culture and local resources permit it (but of course can be dampened by necessity, eg in the Depression).

The little bits I skimmed of the posts I looked at seem to reflect a greater concern that civilisation is getting closer to the cliff, compared to PERN posts from years ago (though a minority of contributors to these discussions have always understood this).

Unfortunately, as we get closer to that cliff, we seem less collectively capable, as a species, of self-rescue; eg as shown by the reduction in funds for scientific research to support public goods, certainly in the US and Australia.

What will happen? The best I can foresee is a deepening fortress world, with less and less freedom. This is very different to the “Health for All” rhetoric that inspired me decades ago. Perhaps, after our collapse, a re-emergent human civilisation will do a better job than we are. I think it is plausible Indigenous Australians may have learned a lesson in collective ecological self-restraint, working out how to live within limits (but also at a cost to individual freedom, including small families in harsh environments). If so, they a group we are unlikely to learn from in time to rescue ourselves from the most fearsome predator on the planet: ourselves.