To build a sustainable world, academics need to tear down the Ivory Tower

Avoiding societal collapse means building bridges between science and the rest of the world.

[Please note: This article is republished with permission from the site, ensia.com. It was accessed at: http://ensia.com/voices/to-build-a-sustainable-world-academics-need-to-tear-down-the-ivory-tower.]

Anthony D. Barnosky
@tonybarnosky Professor of integrative biology, University of California, Berkeley

Elizabeth A. Hadly
@LizHadly Stanford professor and global change scientist

Paul R. Ehrlich President, Center for Conservation Biology and Bing Professor of Population Studies, Stanford University

Elementa wordmarkEditor’s note: This Voices piece is published in collaboration with the academic journal Elementa. It is based on “Avoiding collapse: Grand challenges for science and society to solve by 2050,” a peer-reviewed article published March 15 as part of Elementa’s Avoiding Collapse special feature.

Until recently, Earth was so big compared with humanity’s impacts that its resources seemed limitless. But that is no longer the case. Thanks to rapid growth in both human population and per capita consumption, we are now on the edge of irrevocable damage to our planetary life support systems. If we want to avoid locking in long-lasting impacts, it is imperative that we quickly solve six intertwined problems: population growth and overconsumption, climate change, pollution, ecosystem destruction, disease spillovers and extinction.

The Challenges

Most pressing among these today is climate change. Since the Industrial Revolution, we have produced most of the energy we need by burning fossil fuels. This has added carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases to the atmosphere at a pace 200 times faster than what was normal for Earth’s pre-industrial carbon cycle. As a result, we are now changing climate faster than people have ever experienced since our ancestors became Homo sapiens. Already the changing climate is manifesting as more frequent floods, wildfires and heat waves that kill thousands of people annually; rising sea levels that displace communities and cost hundreds of billions of dollars for coastal infrastructure building and repair; and increasingly acid oceans, which in some places are becoming so acidic that oyster and scallop fisheries are beginning to collapse.

Fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, pharmaceuticals, industrial chemicals and trash have contaminated even the most remote environments of the world.

With no change in course, present emissions trajectories will likely, by mid-century, heat the planet to a level that humans and most other contemporary vertebrate species have never experienced, inhibiting food production and greatly multiplying other climate-change problems, including exacerbating global conflict and national security concerns. Indeed, if the present climate-change trajectory continues to 2100, Earth will be hotter than it has been in at least 14 million years, and large regions will be too hot to support human life outdoors.

Meanwhile, human consumption of natural resources is creating a plethora of other types of pollution as well. More than 6 million people die each year from the health effects of air pollution from burning fossil fuels. Our solid waste — increasingly plastic and electronic — has created burgeoning landfills and massive trash gyres in the middle of the oceans. Fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, pharmaceuticals, industrial chemicals and trash have contaminated even the most remote environments of the world. Whales and polar bears harbor toxins in their tissues; Arctic lakes far from any human settlements exhibit elevated nitrogen levels.

The harm we’re doing to nature is coming back to haunt us in the form of infectious disease risk as well. Increasing encroachment of humans into previously little-touched ecosystems is leading to more frequent and severe “spillovers” of disease from nonhuman to human communities. Climate change is further increasing the odds that novel diseases will crop up in humans and the plants and animals on which we depend: Many of the world’s diseases are tropical in origin, and as we build roads and destroy habitats in the tropics, we increase the probability of exposure. Reverse spillover from humans to animals is an issue as well — an increasing number of animals are afflicted with antibiotic-resistant forms of bacteria.

Finally, meeting human demand for food, housing, water and other goods and services has transformed more than half of the planet into farms, cities, roads and dams. This ecosystem transformation, along with poaching, overfishing and generally exploiting nature for short-term profit, has accelerated the extinction rate of wild animals and plants to levels not seen since the dinosaurs died out. The result has been tremendous loss of ecosystem services such as water filtration, pollination of crops, control of pests and emotional fulfillment. Should present rates of extinction continue, in as little as three human lifetimes Earth would lose three out of every four familiar species (for example, vertebrates) forever.

Overarching Challenges

Contributing to all of these are two overarching challenges: the number of people in the world and our ecological footprints — especially the excessively large per capita ecological footprints in high-income countries.

To feed that many more people under business-as-usual food production, distribution and wastage would require converting even more of Earth’s lands to agriculture and overfishing more of the sea.

Human population has nearly tripled in just one lifetime, and almost a quarter of a million more people are being added every day. Best-case scenarios indicate that by 2050 the planet will have to support at least 2 billion to 3 billion people more than it does today.

To feed that many more people under business-as-usual food production, distribution and wastage would require converting even more of Earth’s lands to agriculture and overfishing more of the sea. There simply isn’t enough productive land left to accomplish that, or enough of the species we like to eat left in the ocean, especially in the face of climate stresses that agriculture and aquaculture have not yet witnessed.

Maintaining present rates of consumption — let alone raising standards of living for billions of poor people today — is similarly problematic. Continuing currently accepted norms of manufacturing goods and services into the future would dramatically increase what already are dangerous levels of environmental contamination worldwide and deplete water and other critical natural resources we depend upon today.

Beyond Breakthroughs 

How can science and society solve these intertwined problems and avoid environmental tipping points that would make human life infinitely more difficult?

Solutions will require scientific and technological breakthroughs — but breakthroughs will not be enough. On a global scale, obstacles include political, economic and social factors, including inequalities in economic opportunities and land tenure rights, or poor distributional infrastructure — problems science alone can’t solve. In addition to science, solutions will require effective collaboration of environmental and physical scientists with social scientists and those in the humanities.

In other words, we must recognize the interrelated facets of seemingly distinct issues. We must actively exchange information among practitioners in academics, politics, religion and business and other stakeholders to connect different pieces of the solutions puzzle that are emerging from different specialties.

In addition, people outside the scientific community must recognize and accept that the problems are serious and that solutions are at hand.

That means we within academia must link our work with stakeholders in ways that elicit significant action. This is especially important, since guiding the planet for the future will likely require some fundamental changes — not just in human economic and governance systems, but also in societal values. Engagement with religious leaders, local communities and businesses, subnational groups, and the military and security sectors of society is critically important to further these necessary conversations and impel action.

It is no longer enough to simply do the science and publish an academic paper. That is a necessary first step, but it moves only halfway toward the goal of guiding the planet toward a future that is sustainable.

The good news is we are already making progress in both areas. Scientists and others are coming together to propose and pursue solutions. And three initiatives have been constructed specifically to bridge the science-society divide. The Millennium Alliance for Humanity and Biosphere was founded specifically to connect scientists, humanists, activists and civil society in order to foster positive global change. The Consensus for Action provides a venue for policy-makers to quickly digest why it is essential to immediately address the issues described here; for scientists to communicate to policy-makers throughout the world the importance of dealing with these key environmental issues; and for members of the public to voice their support to policy-makers for taking action. And Mapping the Impacts of Global Change: Stories of Our Changing Environment as Told By U.S. Citizens provides rapid and locally relevant information to everyone, from the general public to political leaders, about how these threats to humanity’s life support systems play out.

In summary, it is no longer enough to simply do the science and publish an academic paper. That is a necessary first step, but it moves only halfway toward the goal of guiding the planet toward a future that is sustainable for both human civilization and the biosphere. To implement knowledge that arises from basic research, we must establish dialogues and collaborations that transcend narrow academic specialties and bridge between academia, industry, the policy community and society in general.

Now is the time to rise to these scientific and communication challenges. The trajectories of population overgrowth, climate change, ecosystem loss, extinctions, disease and environmental contamination have been rapidly accelerating over the past half-century. If not arrested within the next decade, their momentum may prevent us from stopping them short of disaster. View Ensia homepage

Comment:

Robert M. Christie  Mar. 19th, 2016
This is the most precise and concise delineation of the elements of the contemporary human-planetary predicament I have yet heard. If allowed, I will republish it on my little blog, TheHopefulRealist.com. My only qualification is that the ultimate obstacle to the solution is the global political economy and its power over culture and consequently public and political awareness. We are confronted with the necessity of performing the next, and perhaps final, Great Transformation of humanity’s relationship to the earth systems upon which it depends and which it is destroying. All that is said here is true, but moot if a path to the transformation of the extractive system of industrial growth to a truly ecological economy is not found and rapidly pursued.

Malthus, Mistakes, and Missing the Obvious

I’ve been reading a very interesting book lately. It is all about scientific ideas or theories that the authors of its many small chapters believe are impeding scientific progress in a wide variety of specialties. The book is called, This Idea Must Die: Scientific Theories That Are Blocking Progress (New York: Harper Perennial, 2015). Edited by John Brockman, the theme is based on the famous quote by theoretical physicist Max Plank (1858-1947) to the effect that a new scientific truth triumphs not by convincing its opponents, but because opponents eventually die off. Opponents of new ideas are usually older than those who come up with them and are usually “believers” in the dominant paradigm of the time. They resist changing their beliefs.

Yes, scientists can hold on to their notions of truth in the face of new evidence or ideas just as vehemently as the rest of us. The idea of inevitable progress is one such idea. We must make our progress, despite the claims of “rational optimists.” We must make progress by facing reality and dealing with it; progress won’t happen just by believing it so. That is what hopeful realism is about.

Most of the several dozen chapters that I have read out of the 285 or so in Brockman’s book are quite thought provoking if not downright enlightening. The chapters range from one to three pages long, ideal for a quick perusal in anyone’s reading room. I began reading way over my head when I was a child; I was fascinated by the graphic illustrations in The Scientific American. I tried to get the general idea, just reading right past complex formulae about which I didn’t have a clue. Well, I was only twelve. Some of the chapters in Brockman’s book gave me a similar feeling: way over my head in any technical sense. But even reading the chapters on topics related to the ephemeral unified “theory of everything” or the “singularity” in theoretical physics, or the idea of infinity and the extent of our universe, I could get the general idea. Anyway, it is all good intellectual exercise.

Of course, I am much more familiar with some of the topics discussed, such as economic growth, about which I have written a number of posts here. IQ is a topic that has always been controversial for me as a social psychologist. Issues around the confusion of correlation with causation have always intrigued me as a problem in research methodology, as has the question of anecdotal versus experimental evidence, and the issue of timing in causal analysis. So, I have enjoyed reading these diverse discussions of controversial ideas in various sciences.

Misreading Malthus

But when I read Matt Ridley’s chapter on Malthusianism, I was flatly annoyed. I had been annoyed similarly many years ago on reading Julian Simon’s claims that extensive economic growth should not raise concerns over resource depletion because it involves improved productivity and that population growth contributes to prosperity, not resource depletion. Ridley, a self-proclaimed “rational optimist,” dismisses the Club of Rome’s “Malthusian tract,” The Limits to Growth, despite the fact that its forecasts have been right on target over the decades since its publication. It has always been amazing to me how some writers can preach their “theories” in the face of mounting and even incontrovertible evidence – e.g., the climate deniers whose outlook on the petro-industrial system is quite similar to that of Mr. Ridley.

But the essence of my irritation is really quite simple. Timing is everything. Ridley obtusely exploits the short-term burst of industrial growth in the West to claim validity to the absurd idea that endless economic growth is somehow sustainable on a finite planet. He conveniently ignores the fact that western prosperity has been achieved on the backs of indigenous peoples across the globe, ever since the first European “explorers” began pillaging their lands and enslaving them. That is more than annoying. The “ingenuity” that turned material resources into capital was and remains grounded in violence perpetrated against diverse peoples and environments almost everywhere.

In predicting a quasi-Malthusian population crisis, Paul Ehrlich had been premature in his book, The Population Bomb, back in 1970, but he was not wrong. Technology did delay the clash of population growth with resource depletion, in large part because economic growth has been mainly confined to the Western industrial nations that have plundered resources from every continent. Population growth has had much less impact on the environment in the “developing” world, despite having been faster than in the West. That is because poor people living under oppressive regimes backed by the western industrial nations, consume very little energy or other resources. Poverty in the third world has been more extreme in part because of the imperial resource extraction from the “underdeveloped” nations that allowed techno-industrial growth in the West. But if the rest of the world had the same rates of consumption as the U.S. and Europe, global resources would have been depleted already. So, technology did facilitate growth in productivity, allowing the West to sustain a short-term prosperity through the latter half of the 20th century. That pattern cannot be sustained and is already showing major signs of impending collapse.

Irrational Optimism

Enter climate disruption, about which Ridley has nothing to say in this short chapter. However, his dismissal in his book, The Rational Optimist, of the not so optimistic forecasts resulting from massive and diverse data sets processed by hundreds of climate scientists worldwide disqualifies him as a “science writer.” Rather, he acts as a propagandist for the naïve optimism that dominates the extractive industrial culture that he so vehemently defends against any evidence that it has problems. His blind faith, not science or evidence, drive his foolish arguments that we have nothing to worry about. If the dominance of favorable ratings by other optimists on Goodreads and Amazon is any indicator, one thing we do have to worry about is the persistence of this a priori optimism in the face of an observed reality we must face if we are to retain any hope of achieving human survival in the next half century.

The mistakes about population growth are not Malthusian as Ridley claims. They are found instead in his myopic “Simonist” ideology of endless economic growth that simply denies the environmental and human impact of profligate extractive capital. The complexities of global demographics today have been given far too little attention. Ridley’s quasi-religious faith in human ingenuity is part of the technophilia that continues to culturally prop up the global capital-growth project. If the destructive trajectory of industrial “civilization” is allowed to continue just a little longer, the forecasts of Thomas Robert Malthus will soon seem understated. They will be mistaken only in the details of the collapse of a global techno-industrial system of plunder that he could not have predicted.