Predictions are very hard, especially about the future – Niels Bohr but often attributed to Yogi Berra
The latest paper to predict the inevitable collapse of civilization comes from Paul Ehrlich: “Can a collapse of global civilization be avoided?”
Ehrlich has a history of making dire predictions and fortunately he has been mostly wrong about almost all of them. In The Population Bomb, he predicted massive famines in the 1970’s. Ehrlich’s prediction then were remarkably like those of Thomas Malthus over a hundred years earlier. The inevitable growth of population would outstrip food production and eventually epidemic, famine, or war would intervene to correct the imbalance. Given the spectacular failure of his predictions, we might expect Ehrlich to be more cautious. Yet his latest predictions are mostly along the same lines as his previous predictions with the added nuance of climate change thrown into the mix.
Should we take these predictions at all seriously?
Some could argue that predicting a future in itself might alter that future. In other words, just thinking about the future drives us to take action to alter the future. For example, we might take action through the United Nations to reduce population growth so the predicted famines do not occur. While this might be true to limited degree, the problem is what often drives the future state are events and changes that happen outside of the actions we take. In fact, the population growth predicted by Ehrlich did happen. The famines were prevented by a revolution in agricultural production that was not foreseen.
The history of science, technology, and discovery should cause us to be very humble in our predictions.
Of course, we do know that civilizations collapse, tipping points do occur, peaks happen. Knowing when or if, of course, is difficult.
Actually I mostly agree with Ehrlich’s view about where we should be going. We need fewer people in the world. We need to have less impact on the ecological systems of the planet. We need more sustainable technology that can do more with less. We need wealth more evenly distributed around the world.
Can we force ourselves to get there by prescriptive action? That I doubt. The means of getting there is where I disagree with Ehrlich. We can’t predict the technologies and economic forces that will unfold in the next hundred years. The chance of our decisions we make now being able to affect that future is not good. In fact, it might be more or less even odds whether decisions we make now might even affect the future adversely. This is mostly what I argue in regard to the attempt to severely limit greenhouse gas emissions in another post.
This is what I hope and expect:
- Technology and economic growth will reduce population growth
- Solar and alternative energy will become economically feasible and replace fossil fuel burning
- Robots and automation will make human labor almost unnecessary for production of goods
- New forms of business will arise that will assure meaningful, productive work for all
- Medical advances will increase the human life span and these advances will spread around the world to drive a reduction in population growth
- We will let sizable parts of the Earth return to a managed natural state
- Agricultural production will become more intensive, require less land, and be closer to the point of consumption
- We will become more decentralized and move out from our cities
- We will become a global community connected through communications with humans able to move about freely