Pharyngula

Doom, doom, doom

If you’ve got an hour, this conversation between Carl Zimmer and Paul Ehrlich is well worth listening to. Ehrlich has a somewhat controversial reputation as an ecological Cassandra…but remember, Cassandra was right.

Comments

  1. #1 Zeno
    June 30, 2008

    Not only was Cassandra right, people never listened to her.

  2. #2 Token
    June 30, 2008

    That is, I think, the point.

  3. #3 Holbach
    June 30, 2008

    ‘The Population Bomb” aside, it is obvious that several of his forecasts are with us today and will only worsen if there are no sensible methods taken. Six billion people are too many for our planet’s diminishing resources and it will deteriorate. do you know that it takes 100 acres of woods to make one mile of highway? One hundred acres of oxygen producing plants, the animals that live in those woods, and the ascetic and ecological value, gone, to support an ever increasing needless population. I am not an alarmist over this matter, but just a realist who sees and understands the obvious consequences. His book will certainly be worth a read and thoughtful consideration.

  4. #4 joseph
    June 30, 2008

    Any transcripts?

    Deaf people know Greek mythology too, you know :)

  5. #5 Richard Harris
    June 30, 2008

    When most of the people believe there’s a magic spirit sky daddy looking out for them, that loves them, (despite all the evil in the world), & they wouldn’t know what theodicy means, it’s no feckin’ wonder that the edjits are barely aware that the survival of our species, (in numbers beyond a few percent of present population), is very much in the balance. And those few that do survive will likely be sent back to a new stone age.

  6. #6 Dan Jensen
    June 30, 2008

    What’s that Dr. Ehrlich is drinking? Or more to the point, is that the first and last time he’s using that container?

  7. #7 Joseph
    June 30, 2008

    One thing from the comments. I think a lot of these people are living in an imaginary world. See below:

    The book predicted that “in the 1970s and 1980s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death”, that nothing can be done to avoid mass famine greater than any in the history, and radical action is needed to limit the overpopulation.

    I think he missed a few things. That was my basic point in my first post. This guy makes extrapolations that he has no business making. He has no idea how global warming will affect disease patterns just as he had no idea how the “population bomb” was going to affect food supplies. Pretending that he does know makes me, and I’m pretty sure many others, not really care to pay attention to anything he has to say.

    All well and good. Except in the 1970’s and 1980’s millions of people DID starve to death, nothing was done, and radical action is still needed. From Wikipedia:

    During the 20th century, an estimated 70 million people died from famines across the world, of whom an estimated 30 million died during the famine of 1958-61 in China. The other most notable famines of the century included the 1942-1945 disaster in Bengal, famines in China in 1928 and 1942, and a sequence of famines in the Soviet Union, including the Holodomor, Stalin’s famine inflicted on Ukraine in 1932-33. A few of the great famines of the late 20th century were: the Biafran famine in the 1960s, the disaster in Cambodia in the 1970s, the Ethiopian famine of 1983-85 and the North Korean famine of the 1990s.

    So: still not hundreds of millions, true. But most of these famines took place in third-world countries with arguably lousy population tracking. And of course there’s governmental pride. Look at the disparity between recorded deaths and admitted deaths by our government. *sigh*

    Just way too irked by deniers seeking every tiny little straw to push away the reality of global warming.

  8. #8 Marcus Ranum
    June 30, 2008

    As a friend of mine used to say: “Malthus has been proven wrong. So far.”

    Natural population controls will eventually kick in. They’re called “starvation” and “plague” – by making ourselves more resistant to the latter, we choose the former.

  9. #9 David Harper
    June 30, 2008

    Joseph (#7):

    Many of the famines you listed were the result of the political decisions made by deranged dictators (Mao, Stalin, Pol Pot, Kim Il-sung), not by natural disasters.

    Sure, droughts have killed millions in Africa, but politics has killed tens of millions.

  10. #10 Marcus Ranum
    June 30, 2008

    Joseph writes:
    All well and good. Except in the 1970’s and 1980’s millions of people DID starve to death, nothing was done, and radical action is still needed.

    Actually, something was done – by a guy named Norman Borlaug. Depending on how you want to count it, Borlaug can be credited for saving more lives than any other human in history, by helping extend human’s food-growing capacity.*

    There are basically three ways this can play itself out:
    – collapse and cull
    – incremental improvements in food technology allow us to continue layering population growth
    – mankind gets its head out of its collective ass and gently begins to reduce its population

    Neither of the first two is fun and the third seems amazingly unlikely.

    Meanwhile, as David points out, starvation is a popular weapon used by government to suppress people. Unfortunately, I’ll bet that if global warming begins causing pressure on marginal governments, they’ll resort to it more and more.

    (* This is why someone needs to slap da fool Prince Charles of England whenever he says he wants there to be no genetically modified crops. If it weren’t for the already genetically modified crops that people have been eating for decades, there would have been massive food shortages all over the world.)

  11. #11 Richard Harris
    June 30, 2008

    David @ # 9, & it’ll likely be politics, (poisoned by religion), that’ll therefore kill most of the human population. And if it happens, I think there’s a good chance that human civilization will never recover. We’ll have missed the wonderful destiny, the product of the Enlightenmnet, that we might’ve achieved

  12. #12 SC
    June 30, 2008

    I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned it here in the past, but Mike Davis’ Late Victorian Holocausts is a neglected but very solid book on the huge famines of the later 19th century. From Publishers Weekly:

    While this book will not have the impact of Davis’s City of Quartz–a scathing indictment of L.A.’s environmental ravagement, economic disparity and racial divides–in a perfect world, it would. Its subject is nothing less than the creation of what we now call “The Third World,” through a complex series of seemingly disparate natural and market-related events beginning in the 1870s. Davis dives into the data and journalism of the period with a vengeance, showing that the seemingly unprecedented droughts across northern Africa, India and China in the 1870s and 1890s are consistent with what we now know to be El Niño’s effects, and that it was political and market forces (which are never impersonal, Davis insists), and not a lack of potential stores and transportation, that kept grain from the more than 50 million people who starved to death. Chapters brilliantly reconstruct the political, economic, ecological and racial climate of the time, as well as the horrific deaths by hunger and thirst that besieged the peasantries of the afflicted countries. As in City of Quartz, Ecology of Fear and Magical Urbanism, Davis’s synthetic powers, rendering mountains of data into an accessible and cogent form, are matched by his acid castigations of the murders and moral failings that have attended the advance of capitalism, and by cogent detours into the work of journalists and theorists who have come before him, decrying injustice and rallying the opposition.

    For some reason, it lacks a real conclusion, but it should definitely be of use to anyone with an interest in the interplay between natural forces and political action in creating famines. It’s on Google Books.

  13. #13 Andrés Diplotti
    June 30, 2008

    No! That’s impossible! Such an insignificant creature as the human being cannot possibly have any impact on the environment.

    /shameless plug

  14. #14 SC
    June 30, 2008

    Ah, another Borlaug reference, another occasion for me to replay my comment from April:

    Re shinji2k’s post @ #86: I want to point out that alternative views on the “Green Revolution” exist, notably that of Vandana Shiva:

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/reith2000/lecture5.shtml

    http://www.yesmagazine.org/article.asp?ID=698

    Many of those who have promoted alternative paths – like Shiva, and like, by the way, Peter Kropotkin a century ago – have themselves been scientists. Supporting science does not mean that we must or should accept the very biased and partial understandings of it offered to us by corporations or governments, or every ideological-political project they try to promote in the name of scientific or technological progress. My appreciation of genetic research and my support for a scientifically-informed approach to agriculture do not require me to swallow the idea that Borlaug-Dupont-Monsanto-Cargill efforts represent science properly applied in this context.

    I have no desire or intention to debate this here, on someone else’s blog, but I did want to say that much.

  15. #15 James
    June 30, 2008

    Joseph,

    The quote claims Ehrlich predicted 100’s of millions dead in the 70’s and 80’s and you just came up with 70 million in the whole century. I think it is fair to say that his predictions were both inaccurate and imprecise. Ehrlich is an embarrassment to working ecologists because he makes quantitative claims well beyond our ability to justify them.

    There is a lot of room between anti-environmental ostriches and catastrophe driven Chicken Littles. Joel Cohen’s (“How many people can the earth support?”) and Jared Diamond’s book are both much more reasoned approaches. We don’t all have to die to suffer the consequences of resource overuse. As others have pointed out, much of the problems with food still are a result of political and economic decisions about how to divide resources, not result of real scarcity.

  16. #16 SC
    June 30, 2008

    Andrés Diplotti @ #13,

    Is that your work?

  17. #17 Nick Gotts
    June 30, 2008

    “Malthus has been proven wrong. So far.” Neither of the first two is fun and the third [gentle reduction of population] seems amazingly unlikely. – Marcus Ranum

    Malthus thought people would produce as many children as they could possibly obtain the food to rear. He was wrong. Human decisions about how many children to have are a lot more complicated than that.

    Since the 1960s, the number of children per women has fallen sharply in almost every country, and the proportional rate of population increase per annum has fallen from about 2.4% to about 1.2%. Since around 2000 global population growth has probably been slightly sub-linear. In some rich countries (most notably Japan), birthrates are now so low that population will shortly begin to fall quite fast. Total world population is predicted to peak at between 9 and 11 billion, around mid-century, if current trends continue, then decline.

    None of the above means population growth isn’t a problem, but we also know what to do to speed the fall in birthrates:
    1) Move people from rural to urban areas. This is happening, and we couldn’t stop it even if we wanted to, but we could make cities much more liveable for the poor moving to them.
    2) Improve the status of women, above all by educating girls, undermining religion, and making micro-credit available.
    3) Improve access to contraception and abortion – again, religion (specifically Catholicism) is a key obstacle.

    The over-emphasis on population, of which the Ehrlichs’ earlier work is a good example (I haven’t looked at the interview yet), is a good way of distracting attention from the gross inequalities that have been directly or indirectly responsible for all for significant famines since 1900 at least; and the fact that it is overwhelmingly the rich (us) who are responsible for the unsustainable use of resources, including the planet’s ability to cope with pollution.

    This is why someone needs to slap da fool Prince Charles of England whenever he says he wants there to be no genetically modified crops. – Marcus Ranum

    Whether you agree with his view or not, Charlie is talking about something very different from the techniques Borlaug and others used: the introduction of specific genes using biotechnology methods that were simply not available in the 1970s and 1980s. While the “green revolution” undoubtedly increased yields, it also worked against many small farmers who could not afford the fertilisers and pesticides the new crop strains needed – one reason why there are still more malnourished children in India than in Africa (where the green revolution had little impact), as small farmers became landless labourers. The key objection to current agricultural biotechnology is that it is almost entirely aimed at concentrating control over food supplies in the hands of a few large corporations – not at “feeding the poor” as the PR would have you believe. Large increases in yield for poor farmers can be achieved by very simple methods: small amounts of artificial fertiliser, more efficient stoves (so they can use their animals’ manure as fertiliser not fuel) simple tools, better storage and transport facilities, probably biochar.

  18. #18 Alcyon
    June 30, 2008

    ‘ehrlich’ is german for ‘honest’…

  19. #19 Bill Dauphin
    June 30, 2008

    Six billion people are too many for our planet’s diminishing resources and it will deteriorate.

    I think this is true, but I think the take-away lesson is not that we need fewer people, but that we need more resources… which means, more planets.

    Managing our existing resources won’t do the trick: No matter how efficient we are, if we continue to grow, we’ll eventually outstrip the planet’s true carrying capacity (as an aside, I think that point is farther out in the future than many doomsayers… but it’s out there nonetheless). Expecting us to not continue growing isn’t realistic, either: The vast majority of population growth comes from cultures and regions that have yet to fully enjoy the benefits of a first-world middle-class (which is to say, resource-intensive) lifestyle. It’s both unfair and naive to expect those cultures to voluntarily give up their own hopes of modernization so that the rest of us (distinctly in the majority) can continue to enjoy the lives they would never have. Generally, I think humans expect a continuing trend of more people living better lives… and I don’t think that’s an undesirable expectation. What else should a species hope for for itself (esp. the only species, as far as we know, that is capable of forming those sorts of abstract, forward-looking hopes and dreams)?

    Of course, there are plenty of possible nonvoluntary checks on our growth — the Malthusian resets of plague, famine, and war — but they’re hardly things we should hope for. But all this is based on the assumption that the resource pool is fixed; I say we need to stop thinking that way: If we start thinking of the whole Solar System, rather than just this planet, as our home, the time horizon for resource saturation changes radically.

    I’m not suggesting some sci-fi movie scenario of space lifeboats ferrying masses of humanity off-planet just ahead of species-wide disaster: That just doesn’t stand up to any sort of rigorous analysis. But if we start now thinking about bringing resources (solar power, platinum for catalyst applications, He3 for potential fusion applications) from space to Earth and simultaneously beginning to create infrastructure for off-Earth human populations, then just maybe we’ll have enough of a relief valve to stave off Malthusian resource wars.

    And, of course, by the time (millennia hence) we have to start talking about having depleted all the exploitable resources of the Solar System… I have no doubt humanity will have spread to the stars.

    Sorry for the propellor-beanie geek-out here… but I don’t see wagging our collective fingers at folks, asking them to back their frickin’ lifestyle up a couple hundred years is either plausible or desirable.

  20. #20 Andrés Diplotti
    June 30, 2008

    Andrés Diplotti @ #13,

    Is that your work?

    Yes, it is.

  21. #21 raven
    June 30, 2008

    Where Malthus went wrong is in assuming that agriculture technology and food production per acre (or hectare for those using the wrong measurement system :>)) is static. It wasn’t and yields have been steadily increasing over time.

    Where Erlich went wrong and he was wrong about the famines of the late 20th century, was in calculating how much food the earth could produce. Some calculations I’ve seen indicate that with state of the art agriculture, the earth could support up to 12 billion people. Whether the planet should and whether this is sustainable is another question.

    It doesn’t look like food is the problem anyway. Our technological civilization is based on cheap fossil fuels. We are quite likely at or near Peak Oil. There is uncertainty since one never knows where the top is until you are on the other side and looking back.

    The other potential problem is environmental degradation. Some ecologists think we have been mining the life support system rather than using it and we will have an overshoot and a die off some day. For myself, I don’t believe there is enough data to say one way or another and we will just have to find out, perhaps the hard way.

  22. #22 SC
    June 30, 2008

    Yes, it is.

    Really well done. Please keep on plugging! (and please forgive the lame Monday-morning pun)

  23. #23 SC
    June 30, 2008

    raven,

    What’s good, in terms of taking action, is that these problems are all related. So if we can, say, move away from industrial agriculture, we’ll make a huge dent in oil use and promote environmental recovery; conservation efforts will create and maintain better conditions for food production; etc.

  24. #24 Nick Gotts
    June 30, 2008

    It doesn’t look like food is the problem anyway. Our technological civilization is based on cheap fossil fuels. We are quite likely at or near Peak Oil.
    Our current food production and distribution systems are heavily oil-dependent. That doesn’t mean we can’t feed 12 billion people – but we certainly can’t do it without major changes. A large-scale shift away from meat and dairy among the rich is likely to be essential, for one thing, and far more production for local use. Fortunately, peak oil should itself encourage at least some of the necessary changes.

  25. #25 scooter
    June 30, 2008

    Ehrlich is an embarrassment to working ecologists because he makes quantitative claims well beyond our ability to justify them.

    Fluid Dynamics is easy, population forecasts are difficult

    Differential equations are not for English Majors

  26. #26 Peter Mc
    June 30, 2008

    Marcus: we British who host the Royal family (in the sense of a host/parasite relationship) have gone beyond wanting to inflict physical violence on the gentlemen.

    His Ma clearly thinks he is barking and suspect will not stand down to give him a crack at Kinging while there is a breath in her body. Her Ma (The Qeuen Mother) lived to 102 thanks to the theraputic properties of gin drunk in heroic quantities, so this Queen probably has another 20 years in her making Charles either 79 or dead by the time the present Queen (Gawd blesser!) karks it.

    Charles looks a reduced, grey, disappointed figure whom I suspect knows will never wear the crown.

    Anyway Charles is Prince of Wales. He’s bugger all to do with us English. They’re welcome to him: he’s very into his Woo.

  27. #27 Bill Dauphin
    June 30, 2008

    Differential equations are not for English Majors

    Differential equations create English majors! At least, that’s how it worked in my case. (BA English, 1981; MA English/Creative Writing, 1984; MS Space Studies, 2003)

  28. #28 Marcus Ranum
    June 30, 2008

    SC writes:
    What’s good, in terms of taking action, is that these problems are all related. So if we can, say, move away from industrial agriculture, we’ll make a huge dent in oil use and promote environmental recovery; conservation efforts will create and maintain better conditions for food production; etc

    These problems are all related, and at the crux of all of them is population. Greenhouse gas emissions, conversion of forest to farmland, fossil fuel consumption, electrical demand, etc — all are directly impacted by population and population growth. The song “conservation” sounds really nice but any gains from conservation will rapidly be eradicated by population growth, unless there are highly unlikely and gigantic improvements elsewhere in the system. Put differently: if mankind managed to get a sustainable space alien fusion energy source (cheap clean free safe energy) the result would not be a better standard of living for everyone, which is what many people seem to expect, but instead we’d just get more humans.

    There’s probably some game theory/evolutionary explanation for why it is that everyone is comfortable limiting someone else’s population growth but secretly covets that limitation as an opportunity to increase their niche.

    If humans were rational, they’d recognize this as a matter of species survival and skip a couple breeding cycles, abandon 2 or 3 continents to revert to nature, and drop our population to something reasonable but very low. At that point humankind’d be able to last a very long time and there’d be plenty of surplus, etc. It just seems so damn obvious to me.

    ..But then I’m a misanthrope who particularly dislikes children. :)

  29. #29 Hank Fox
    June 30, 2008

    Yeah, that Malthus guy, that Ehrlich guy, they’re all wrong, wrong, wrong. Ha-ha! Why just look at all the stuff those guys got wrong! I’m so glad we can point at them and laugh.

    I think it was Thomas Sowell who said the entire population of the earth could fit inside the state of Texas, with room for a house and yard for each family. I ran the figures and he was right.

    Of course, there wouldn’t be enough room for all the farms needed to grow food for those people, or the stores to buy stuff from, the bauxite mines for aluminum, the forests for lumber, the parks and wildernesses for recreation, the oceanic fishing grounds for seafood, the electrical generation plants, the roads and rivers and railroads and wires to deliver all this stuff, or for schools, hospitals, factories, dairies, meat markets, cattle pastures, government buildings, churches, entertainment facilities and on and on and on.

    I read a piece in the local paper about a guy who tried the 30-day experiment of cutting his energy consumption by half. He succeeded. The article was hopeful and optimistic, the writer pointing out that we CAN do something to save the earth.

    What he didn’t notice, in the midst of his happy crowing, was that in that month, 10 million more humans arrived on planet Earth.

    There’s not enough room or food or resources on the whole planet for 6.5 billion people, much less the supertanker-load of new ones pulling into port every day, and our only solution seem to be conservation and recycling … which simply can’t work if population continues to soar. It’s like bailing out a canoe with a teaspoon, when there’s a bucket-sized hole in the hull to refill it.

    Sitting here at our computers commenting about this, all glib and confident and rich, with nothing but distant images of starvation and shortage in our heads to clue us in, I begin to suspect that none of us are even capable of realizing just how screwed we are, or of how fast it’s getting worse.

    Like every child star you ever heard of who made millions in his/her glory days but wound up broke as an adult, we’re burning through our wealth like … well, like there’s no tomorrow.

  30. #30 scooter
    June 30, 2008

    Natural population controls will eventually kick in. They’re called “starvation” and “plague”

    I don’t think there’s a correlation between population size and plagues or pandemics.

    The really nasty plagues that swept Europe and Asia were a direct result of the Mongol Conquest, and the re-opening of the Silk Road trade routes which spread the thing around.

    The most recent was the 1918 flu pandemic which spread rapidly because WWI was on and people were traveling like crazy to go kill each.

    That thing was a mofo. The flu itself was not particularly lethal, but it caused an over-reaction by the immune system in about 10% of those infected. Death was excruciating with blood running from every orifice, including the eyes. However, from onset to death was typically 1 day.

    It targeted healthy people, young males with strong immune systems were the hardest hit.

    Those nasty type flus seem to show up about every hundred years, and we’re overdue.

    This time around it is going to be quite a hideous wave of world wide death.

    Have a Nice Day!!

  31. #31 Nick Gotts
    June 30, 2008

    The song “conservation” sounds really nice but any gains from conservation will rapidly be eradicated by population growth, unless there are highly unlikely and gigantic improvements elsewhere in the system.

    Population growth is slowing (in proportional terms, has been doing so for forty years), and we know how to encourage that process. Your pessimism, on this matter at least, is not supported by the evidence.

  32. #32 Marcus Ranum
    June 30, 2008

    Charlie is talking about something very different from the techniques Borlaug and others used: the introduction of specific genes using biotechnology methods that were simply not available in the 1970s and 1980s.

    I understand that – but is there a real difference??

    I find it mega-ironic that a failed experiment in controlled breeding (a member of the British royal family) – is complaining about intelligently designed new foods… Or, is that it – do you think he’s maybe just jealous? ;)

    There are some aspects of some GM crops that horrify me – deliberately producing versions of food that are going to lock farmers into having to effectively license them on an annual basis, etc. An example of the ruthlessness of capitalism in its worst form. The rich get richer and the poor get screwed; nothing new here.

  33. #33 scooter
    June 30, 2008

    #20 Andre

    BRAVO !! good one!!

  34. #34 raven
    June 30, 2008

    There’s probably some game theory/evolutionary explanation for why it is that everyone is comfortable limiting someone else’s population growth but secretly covets that limitation as an opportunity to increase their niche.

    It’s not quite that bad. The USA would be at or below zero population growth if it wasn’t for immigration, mostly from Mexico.

    Parts of Europe and Japan are at or below zero population growth. Even Australia is facing ZPG and they are trying to increast their birth rate.

    The data is clear. Wealthy, urban, industrialized societies decide there is more to life than producing babies with an uncertain future ahead of them.

  35. #35 guthrie
    June 30, 2008

    Peter Mc #26- given that the title Prince of Wales was created by an English King who liked killing Welshmen, as a way of cementing his rule by appearing to give the Welsh a link to the royal family, as it were, your final sentence is a bit wrong.

  36. #36 Marcus Ranum
    June 30, 2008

    Population growth is slowing (in proportional terms, has been doing so for forty years), and we know how to encourage that process.

    I didn’t realize it was happening in the more populated parts of the world, too; so mark me “schooled” while I go update what I thought I knew on that topic.

    I thought the deal was that countries like Sweden and Japan were having negative population growth but, so what, those are relatively small populations to begin with. If humanity is actually managing to rein itself in, that’s very very good news because I just don’t see any way that’d work otherwise.

  37. #37 SC
    June 30, 2008

    These problems are all related, and at the crux of all of them is population. Greenhouse gas emissions, conversion of forest to farmland, fossil fuel consumption, electrical demand, etc — all are directly impacted by population and population growth. The song “conservation” sounds really nice but any gains from conservation will rapidly be eradicated by population growth, unless there are highly unlikely and gigantic improvements elsewhere in the system.

    Population control is important, of course, and as Nick Gotts has pointed out above, doable (and happening). But I disagree that population itself has effects, beyond the most basic level, that are not powerfully mediated by our choices and actions. There’s no biological imperative, for example, to consume in the way we do in the US. Moreover, I question the proposition that the “first-world middle-class (which is to say, resource-intensive) lifestyle” (to quote Bill Dauphin) is desired by all; I think this is more a conceit of growth-above-all neoliberal propaganda. Rather, it is increasingly recognized that this lifestyle doesn’t necessarily bring happiness or health (micronutrient malnutrition and obesity are major problems in rich countries built around industrial agriculture, alongside other major issues). At the same time, I believe recognition is growing that this unsustainable, polluting, resource-sucking culture is a crime against the rest of the planet, and people are fighting back. Will the changes that are necessary come about without large-scale struggle? I don’t know. But while control of our numbers is crucial, control of our actions is feasible and potentially more effective.

    – SC (not a misanthrope)

  38. #38 Bill Dauphin
    June 30, 2008

    If humans were rational, they’d recognize this as a matter of species survival and skip a couple breeding cycles, abandon 2 or 3 continents to revert to nature, and drop our population to something reasonable but very low.

    You’re probably right to suggest that as a rational solution… but it’s not emotionally realistic.

    But then I’m a misanthrope who particularly dislikes children. :)

    Yah, and if your attitude were typical throughout the species, we would never have survived long enough/increased enough in numbers to be having this conversation.

    It’s not just about liking children, either: To think radical reductions in population — plus radical descoping of human lifestyles — is a culturally sustainable solution for our species’ future, you have to imagine a whole world full of people who don’t really like people very much. IMHO, species-wide self-loathing is not a viable long-term strategy, even if it would enable some quantitatively effective changes.

    This is not to say I’m opposed to asking people to make sacrifices in order to protect the future — indeed, I think it’s essential that we do so — rather, I think it’s unrealistic to ask people to sacrifice in order to protect a future that strikes them as less worthy than the present. Instead, in order to motivate sacrifice, you have to show people their sacrifice is in service of a more abundant future.

    Ultimately, I believe, it won’t be doomsayers like the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement who will save humanity; it will be people who can persuasively make the case that a much more exciting and abundant future is possible if we’re only careful and smart and judicious in the present.

  39. #39 Bad
    June 30, 2008

    Ehrlich is a case study in trying to do implicit cost benefit analysis by only counting costs and ignoring benefits.

    Economists have a name for this sort of behavior: crap.

  40. #40 Marcus Ranum
    June 30, 2008

    This is not to say I’m opposed to asking people to make sacrifices in order to protect the future — indeed, I think it’s essential that we do so — rather, I think it’s unrealistic to ask people to sacrifice in order to protect a future that strikes them as less worthy than the present. Instead, in order to motivate sacrifice, you have to show people their sacrifice is in service of a more abundant future.

    That’s a really good way of putting it!!!

    I think one of the big problems with the current environmentalism is that it’s making an appeal to sacrifice for an unforseeable future – and a lot of people (read: most of the developing world) are going to think “not until I get mine.” While I can be semi-facetious and say “humans should skip a few breeding cycles” it’s about as realistic as expecting that the population of China is going to look at the insane wealth of tchotchkes we have over here and turn their backs on them in favor of an eco-friendly society.

    Could we agree that picking a safe path through the future is a global problem? If so, the first thing that’s got to go is nationalism, because virtually every sustainable path forward entails scrapping national soverignty (good!) Ultimately, the only way to make everyone wealthy, high-tech, entails massive wealth redistribution. I’d sooner try to take a nice tasty treat from an adult male chimpanzee than I’d try to take assets from the wealthy power elite. And you can see exactly how well that’s working. I.e.: it’s not.

    (PS – no, I didn’t expect people would do the rational thing, or even the smart thing. That’s why I fully expect humanity will join the fossil record in fairly short order.)

  41. #41 SC
    June 30, 2008

    I question the broad characterization of social changes as unpalatable “sacrifices.” Again, I think that the dishonesty of the propaganda of consumerism-“growth” has been revealing itself for some time now, and people are looking more positively at alternative paths, as well as to visions of a future that are radically different without being bleak or dystopic. Part of the problem may be that people aren’t generally aware or appreciative of what’s happening on these fronts in other countries (India, Venezuela, Brazil, Bolivia,…). The resistance to any such efforts on the part of the rich is and will continue to be fierce, but they will continue.

  42. #42 Nick Gotts
    June 30, 2008

    Yeah, that Malthus guy, that Ehrlich guy, they’re all wrong, wrong, wrong. – Hank Fox
    Er, well yes, they were. Should we not say so?

    What he didn’t notice, in the midst of his happy crowing, was that in that month, 10 million more humans arrived on planet Earth. Hank Fox

    Where is your 10 million figure from? That’s slightly low for births, but considerably too high for population increase (people do die as well as get born). According to the Population Reference Bureau (
    http://www.prb.org/Articles/2002/HasGlobalGrowthReachedItsPeak.aspx yearly increase in population, in absolute terms, peaked at around 87 million in 1990, and in 2002 was down to slightly below 80 million. No cause for complacency, but none for despair either.

  43. #43 Pierce R. Butler
    June 30, 2008

    Marcus Ranum @ # 10: Borlaug can be credited for saving more lives than any other human in history, by helping extend human’s food-growing capacity.*

    C’mon, all Borlaug did was figure out how to turn petroleum into grains. As noted above, we’re getting low on petroleum now: arguably all the “Green Revolution” did was postpone Ehrlich’s doomsday – and make it much worse (and even more subject to political manipulations).

    *… someone needs to slap da fool Prince Charles of England whenever he says he wants there to be no genetically modified crops.

    Your other comments are politically astute, so it’s particularly odd to see you echoing corporate propaganda here. (Okay, I’m not aware of any mega-corps promoting the bitch-slapping of Mr. Windsor. But the supercrops spiel is pure agribiz…)

    Likewise, your comments indicate you have a grasp of basic evolutionary principles, which theoretically translate into elementary ecological logic. Here’s a hint: GM crops = massive monocultures, overwhelming reduction in genetic diversity, huge vulnerability to diseases & pests. (The dietary alarms heard from the newagers are a red herring; dismissing those seems to have successfully distracted the pro-science crowd.)

    Malthus, like Darwin, missed a lot of clues and has been largely superceded – but was not, all in all, wrong. I very much doubt that we’ll see that projected 11 gigapeople peak and gentle decline that some very optimistic demographers project.

  44. #44 Hank Fox
    June 30, 2008

    Thank you, Nick. When the theater catches fire, and you stand up to shout “Fire!”, it’s extremely important that one’s pitch and intonation are perfect, and that you carefully explain the full nuances and details of the fire, getting your facts (such as the temperature, combustion products and rate of spread) correct.

    Also, as everyone files calmly toward the exits, it’s important to ignore those people who point out that they’re blocked. They don’t have all the facts, and their unnecessarily pessimistic attitude is unworthy of civilized people.

    The fire, if there is a fire, is still rows and rows away. Plenty of time.

  45. #45 Nick Gotts
    June 30, 2008

    Could we agree that picking a safe path through the future is a global problem? If so, the first thing that’s got to go is nationalism, because virtually every sustainable path forward entails scrapping national soverignty (good!) – Marcus Ranum
    Agreed!

    Ultimately, the only way to make everyone wealthy, high-tech, entails massive wealth redistribution.

    Agreed again! Very difficult, but not necessarily impossible. The strongest point in our favour is that, objectively, everyone who cares about what happens more than 20-30 years hence has a common interest in mitigating anthropogenic climate change. Doing that is going to require a global “deal” on other issues as well.

  46. #46 Pierce R. Butler
    June 30, 2008

    Bill Dauphin @ # 19: … not that we need fewer people, but that we need more resources… which means, more planets.

    Yeah – pity none of those in the neighborhood seem suitable.

    Let’s say the technogeeks come up with a set of terraforming techniques that work first time, every time, even on a bare chunk of rock like our nearest neighbor, Luna. Then all we need is a way to relocate >80 million humans to the moon, every year.

    There’s a potential good sf novel lurking in that scenario, but a solution for the current planetary crisis? Not so much.

  47. #47 Bill Dauphin
    June 30, 2008

    I question the proposition that the “first-world middle-class (which is to say, resource-intensive) lifestyle” (to quote Bill Dauphin) is desired by all; I think this is more a conceit of growth-above-all neoliberal propaganda.

    I’m not sure to what extent we really disagree, but I wanted to clarify my position a bit. When I say “first-world middle-class … lifestyle,” I think people’s minds immediately go to the most trivial, superficial indulgences of our culture (as an aside, whether some of those things are really as superficial as they seem is, I think, arguable… but that’s a different argument). That’s not really what I mean: I really mean a level of shared wealth, technology, and physical infrastructure such that people’s lives are not entirely given over to toiling in support of mere survival. I believe that virtually all people aspire to lives that are more than simply “nasty, brutish, and short,” and if that marks me as the victim of “neoliberal propaganda,” well, mark me down as a happy victim. In terms of pure physical survival, time (and emotional energy and resources) to pursue art and study and discovery and invention is a luxury… and yet those are the things that give the continued existence of the human species purpose. I don’t think it’s shallow or inappropriate to hope for a future in which Life/(Life Devoted to Subsistence) >> 1 is true for all people and cultures.

    But achieving that sort of abundant life, even assuming we’re rational and balanced about it, for all (as opposed to the wealthy minority of us who enjoy some version of it now) will, I suspect, entail steady growth in resource usage, no matter how careful we are. Since I don’t hope for less than that life for my fellow humans and our descendants, I do hope we’ll expand beyond this little ball of rock.

    Plus which, I think all approaches to the future that ask people to forever give up on what they consider the good life, not only for themselves but for their children and grandchildren, are doomed to failure. Even if we stipulate for the sake of argument that that’s the right answer logically and morally, it’s not an answer that will ever broadly win the hearts and minds of the human animal at its present state of evolution. IMHO, the emotional and political reality is that we can only hope to get people to sacrifice for the future by showing them a future that looks bigger and better; a vision of a future that’s smaller and meaner will only motivate people to cling tenaciously to what they’ve already got.

    -Bill (Not a misanthrope, either!)

  48. #48 another
    June 30, 2008

    Andrés Diplotti @ #13,

    Nice work! Planting my tongue in my cheek though, let me say this:

    Aren’t we lucky that the cyanobacteria didn’t rein themselves in. The fact that they went ahead and crapped their own bed created the environment that allowed the likes of us to come along.

    Can we now in good conscience save the planet for ourselves and thereby preclude the development of some future species that would have evolved to enjoy their environment as we have enjoyed ours?

    We’ve had our turn.

  49. #49 Andrés Diplotti
    June 30, 2008

    Really well done. Please keep on plugging!

    Thank you. I think I will. :)

  50. #50 D
    June 30, 2008

    Pierce R. Butler @ 43

    GM crops = massive monocultures, overwhelming reduction in genetic diversity, huge vulnerability to diseases & pests.

    I have to ask, exactly how do you think this is different than current agri-business crops? I’ll also point out that the last bit is one of the things GM can overcome.

  51. #51 Nick Gotts
    June 30, 2008

    Re #44
    Hank, I appreciate the gentle sarcasm, but your parallel actually makes my point not yours: in emergencies involving large numbers of people, panic is often a killer – people get crushed to death, or fall and block the exits for others. Moreover, you should shout “Fire!” if and only if people have not noticed the fire. Even when Ehrlich brought out his Population Bomb in 1968 this was not the case. The IPPF was founded in 1952. the WWF, IIRC, was making the connection between population growth and pressure on animal populations by the early 1960s. The Bihar famine of 1966 (when mass death was averted only by US food aid) also concentrated minds.

    If people believe, as many do, that nothing is being done about population growth, or that it is unstoppable (very often, though not here so far, these are people who claim that it is “never talked about” because of “political correctness”), they will arrive at foolish or immoral suggestions for what to do about it – like halting emergency food aid in disasters, forced sterilisation, or even deliberate mass murder. Population growth is also, as I’ve already noted, a very convenient way for the rich to scapegoat the poor for environmental damage and unsustainable use of resources.

  52. #52 Nick Gotts
    June 30, 2008

    Can we now in good conscience save the planet for ourselves and thereby preclude the development of some future species that would have evolved to enjoy their environment as we have enjoyed ours?

    We’ve had our turn. – another

    Well, we may be on the way to returning it to the anaerobes. If the temperature rises too much, ocean currents will slow as the Equator-Pole temperature gradient is reduced, large parts of the ocean will become anoxic, and vast amounts of hydrogen sulphide will be produced by anaerobic bacteria – as may have happened (due to volcanic eruptions on a vast scale producing massive amounts of carbon dioxide) at the end of the Permian, when IIRC 96% of species are estimated to have persihed.

  53. #53 SC
    June 30, 2008

    Could we agree that picking a safe path through the future is a global problem? If so, the first thing that’s got to go is nationalism, because virtually every sustainable path forward entails scrapping national soverignty (good!)

    Agreed, but I thought this was a given :).

    Bill Dauphin – I’m not sure if we really disagree, either. I think there are a few separate issues here with regard to “the good life” or a high standard of living. This first is how we define this. Is the current lifestyle of the US a model of the good life for humans? I think (but I may be wrong) that we agree that it isn’t, though we may not be in full agreement as to the elements of that lifestyle, if any, that are valuable and those that are not.

    Second, there is the question of whether “people” (and we’d need to specify which people, precisely, we’re talking about) consider that lifestyle valuable and either want it for themselves or, if they have it, regard abandoning it as an unmitigated sacrifice and living any other way as wholly undesirable. You appear to lean more toward the “they value/want/want to keep it,” while I lean in the other direction. I’ll admit that I’m not able to provide at the moment empirical support for my position, and there may be some intuition involved, but nevertheless I think much of the notion of such a powerful attachment to this way of life is the result of propaganda.

    Third, there’s the question of the role of science/technology in our present way of life vs. in alternatives. I resent that the people on the other side have been so successful in selling the idea that science and technology go hand-in-hand with the current system, and that calls for radical change entail their rejection. Since I’ve already mentioned Kropotkin above and thus the day is lost on that score, I’ll do so again. The anarchist horticultural vision promoted by Kropotkin was an extremely scientific, high-tech one. It was very different from the types of communes that predominated in the ’60s, and in fact Kropotkin rejected all such schemes. Efforts to develop radical alternatives in agriculture, energy use, urban planning, etc., in the present can similarly be based in science. They can also be used to bring more people into scientific work and educate them about science, but that’s a topic for another time (FFA sponsored by agrocorps *grumble*).

    I’m giving a talk on a related theme at a conference next month. Perhaps you could come and heckle me! :)

  54. #54 Bill Dauphin
    June 30, 2008

    Bill Dauphin @ # 19: … not that we need fewer people, but that we need more resources… which means, more planets.

    Yeah – pity none of those in the neighborhood seem suitable.

    If you’re imagining kids playing Frisbee on the green, green grass of a park in downtown Burroughs City, Mars… well, yeah. But that’s explicitly not what I was talking about.

    …terraforming techniques…. Then all we need is a way to relocate >80 million humans to the moon, every year.

    In particular, I specifically disavowed the idea of relieving population pressure by the sheer relocation of excess population.

    Look, the first step can occur without moving even 1 person off planet permanently: If we can develop space-based solar power, we can radically change our current energy-use reality, which underpins many of the interlocking resource problems we face (as several others have noted). Ditto WRT lunar He3, if we ever solve the problems of practical fusion power (a big “if,” I admit… but I’m afraid a successful human future depends on some “big ifs” paying off). Plus which, so far (though I know this may change) fuel cells are heavily dependent on platinum group metals, which are both rare on Earth and ecologically damaging to extract… but which may be abundant in certain types of asteroids, or even on the moon (h/t to Dennis Wingo, who is, IMHO, wrong about many things, but may not be wrong about this).

    Opening field of view a little more, would we ever have to worry about running out of hydrocarbons if we could mine the gas giants?

    As for population, you’re quite right that moving any significant portion of Earth’s existing population off the planet in any near-term timeframe is purest fiction. So is waving the magic terraforming wand and producing duplicate Earths on the moon or Mars. But creating small, self-sustaining off-Earth human populations is not nearly so farfetched. And once created, they wouldn’t stay small: Like colonists always do, those populations would learn to adapt both themselves and their environment to each other, and would grow in the same way that new human populations always have.

    There’s a potential good sf novel lurking in that scenario, but a solution for the current planetary crisis? Not so much.

    The science fiction novels (not all of them good) along these lines are thick on the ground, rather than “potential,” but I’m not even vaguely talking about an immediate solution for current crises. Of course we need to nurture and protect our beachhead in the universe while we’re in the process of figuring out how to go beyond it. But I find it hard to root for a future in which all of humanity remains locked in this particular cage, doomed to periodically horrific Malthusian prunings (at best), or extinction (at worst). In the (admittedly very) long term, we need to expand both our range and scope, else what’s the point of our current mean existence?

    BTW, one of the (you should pardon the expression) blessings of being an atheist is that one’s species need not be cosmically humble in deference to a nonexistent God. If we were not, after all, created by some big sky daddy who quixotically endowed us with innate depravity, why not seek to inhabit and master the whole universe?

  55. #55 Peter Mc
    June 30, 2008

    Guthrie @35: it was wishful thinking.

  56. #56 SC
    June 30, 2008

    Andrés Diplotti – Me gusta. I just bookmarked your blog.

  57. #57 Pierce R. Butler
    June 30, 2008

    D @ # 50: … exactly how do you think this is different than current agri-business crops?

    As I understand it (is AIUI recognized acronym-speak yet?), genetically-modified crops are, even more than Borlaug’s Frankenplants, geared up to deliver maximum yield per acre, with correspondingly minimized immune functions and maximized input dependence. Even more than with the present (and alarming: read up on the current threats to bananas and wheat) massive monocultures, these new crops are a standing invitation to the next big potato blight.

    … the last bit is one of the things GM can overcome.

    That’s what Monsanto wants us to believe, anyhow. In point of fact, such gimmicks as the wiring-in of Bacillus thuringiensis israeliensis to plant DNA are money-back guaranteed to promote the evolution of Bti-resistant pests, and leave us with a net reduction in biological controls – as well as already-documented collateral damage to beneficial insect species.

    Before I’m accused of neo-Ludditism: I’m not saying there is no place for such new technologies. I am saying that, as currently applied (on gigantic scales, for short-term megacorporate profit, without adequate study or regulation), their net long-range effect will probably be negative, and certainly no substitute for population control and reduced consumption.

  58. #58 Nick Gotts
    June 30, 2008

    Bill,
    I don’t dismiss the possibilities of using extraterrestrial power sources or materials, nor the advantages of a future prospect of human (or more likely post-human) expansion off Earth, but I don’t think either has much relevance to getting through the “long crisis” of the 21st century. Neither SSP nor fusion is going to help over the next few decades, which is when we need to make a fundamental shift away from CO2-producing energy sources; and over the entire century, it’s difficult to see space-derived metals being feasible alternatives if we run short on Earth. Lead-times for all these possibilities just look too long. Where space capability will be important is in learning more about Earth via comparative planetology, and above all in environmental monitoring, mostly from near-Earth orbit. In that regard, severe problems may arise because we’ve already started to seriously pollute near-Earth space, with debris from previous launches: a “collision catastrophe”, where collisions raise the number of separate bits of junk which in turn increases the probability of further collisions, is a real possibility. As far as long-term human extraterrestrial expansion as a carrot for being good now – well, it might motivate a few geeks like you and me, but is that really how most people think? I’d say there’s more chance of appealing to people’s desire that their children, or other younger people they know, will have a chance of a decent life. As for “inhabit and master the whole universe” – I worry about the aggressive, domineering, hyper-masculine attitudes that phrase reeks of, and the effect they would have in the nearer term. How about aiming for a decent life for all in the medium-term future, and leaving mastery of the universe for our descendants, if any, to worry about?

  59. #59 D
    June 30, 2008

    Pierce, I understand where you are coming from now. I would agree that the problem is indeed more with the monopolistic controllers of GM crops and their short sighted choices, not with the technology. There are also other routes for pest resistance, such are R genes, as well as ways to mitigate damage and resistance development in pests from pesticide factors, specificity of toxins & limiting expression for the former and use of multiple toxins for the later. It has been a few years since I have been in any real contact with the field, so it is likely other solutions have since been developed.

  60. #60 Pierce R. Butler
    June 30, 2008

    Bill Dauphin @ # 54: So all we have to do is move >80 megapersons’ worth of resources from space to Earth, every year? Well, that might be easier than getting them distributed to those who, um, actually need said goodies.

    At the risk of inviting jeers from the capitalist-propaganda echo chamber here, I’d like to invite you to remember the “Club of Rome” study from circa 1980 (one of the early computerized global-modeling projects, for you whippersnappers). Though their approach was horribly oversimplified, the projection that simply adding more materials and energy would only produce more wastes – and a consequent population crash – still stands as a significant warning.

    Somehow I’ve missed the Earth-exodus eco-sf stories you mention – any recommended titles? (Stories set on the new colony planets, even Robinson’s Mars trilogy, don’t count.)

    … why not seek to inhabit and master the whole universe?

    The likelihood of non-supernatural Big Bastards who wouldn’t put up with a gang of greedy punks?

    FTR: I would love, absolutely go into spasms for, a realistic and ambitious space-settlement program. But I don’t see it as a capital-s Solution to our impending disasters, except as a relatively small component of a massive redirection of human efforts to research and education, itself just part of a species-wide effort at self-rescue. The present probability of such an enterprise seems in inverse proportion to its necessity.

    Hell, even our esteemed host barely touches on any part of the on-going 6th Extinction in 1 of 100 posts, at maximum.

  61. #61 Nick Gotts
    June 30, 2008

    I’d like to invite you to remember the “Club of Rome” study from circa 1980 – Pierce R. Butler

    1972, Meadows, Meadows, Randers and Behrens Limits to Growth. I reread my disintegrating copy recently for a conference paper I was writing, and was surprised how well the thesis, as opposed to my copy, held up. There were some very obvious faults (e.g. ways of estimating how long various metals and other resources would last were excessively crude even for 1972), but it was much better than I expected. There are also updates, from 1993 Beyond the Limits and 2004 Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update.

  62. #62 raven
    June 30, 2008

    While the earth might be able to feed 10 or 12 billion people, right now for the first time in a while there is a food shortage worldwide.

    In fact, people are starting to starve to death in a few places. Afghanistan and Ethiopia are two such places. Many more are just having food riots while the poorer people are under and mal nourished.

    This will probably get worse rather than better over the next year or two. Petroleum, an important input as fuel and fertilizer is pricing itself out of reach of marginal third world farmers and marginal agricultural lands elsewhere. Plus a good chunk of the US midwest’s crops have just drowned.

    I’m not aware that the USA is doing a whole lot about it but it isn’t all that clear that we even can do much about it. At least the US is donating food stocks to some of the relief aid efforts.

  63. #63 raven
    June 30, 2008

    There are two reasons why our future should lie in off of earth settlements.

    1. We have all our eggs in one basket. The average species only lasts 1 to 10 million years. And we are one catastrophe or Chickxulub asteroid class impact away from extinction. If nothing else in 1-2 billion years, the sun will go red giant and torch us.

    2. The galaxy appears to be empty or at least the small part we can study. No aliens nearby are broadcasting sitcoms. If we spread out we could own it all.

    The technological hurdles seem daunting. But we have only been doing Hi Tech for a few hundred years. Who knows what we will be able to do a thousand years from now?

    One would hope that at least some humans have higher aspirations for the species than pretending that 2 pages of 4,000 year old mythology in Genesis is fact.

  64. #64 Bill Dauphin
    June 30, 2008

    SC:

    I’m not sure if we really disagree, either…. Is the current lifestyle of the US a model of the good life for humans? I think (but I may be wrong) that we agree that it isn’t, though we may not be in full agreement as to the elements of that lifestyle, if any, that are valuable and those that are not.

    I get the sense that you and I probably have substantial disagreements about the value of various elements of the current U.S. lifestyle, but the point I’m struggling to make doesn’t really depend on the “goodness” of, for instance, having 3 televisions in every house or an Xbox for every kid. Instead, what I’m referring to in talking about the “more abundant” life of the first-world middle class is the relatively high degree, compared to both less-developed societies and previous human societies, to which we’re freed by technology and material wealth from the requirement to devote all our waking hours to the toil associated with getting food and shelter for ourselves. IMHO, having to devote relatively little of our total material, physical, emotional, and intellectual resources to merely surviving, and thus having the “luxury” of being able to devote more of those resources to “higher” purposes or seeking pleasure (I’m suggesting a broad definition of “pleasure” that is not limited to [but doesn't necessarily exclude] the sort of shallow short-term gratification many people associate with that word) is inherently good, aside from the fact that we may think some people and cultures fail to make wise use of that luxury. I’m guessing there are very few people or societies that actually prefer to devote most of their resources to subsistence toil as opposed being relatively free from material want.

    My problem with too many people who propose to “save the planet” by advocating radical reductions in population, descoping of lifestyle, or both seem to be saying that in order to ensure our future as a species, we must sacrifice the very hopes that make ensuring our future seem worthwhile… or, to put it another way, “we must destroy the village in order to save the village.” Asking people to sacrifice in the present to provide a better future amounts to asking them to accept deferred gratification, which is plausible; asking them to sacrifice now to provide a future that seems less valuable than the present seems like no gratification at all. Even if that’s the right logical, moral choice, it’s unlikely to be persuasive… especially to the majority of Earth’s population who’ve witnessed but never yet tasted the pleasures they’re being asked to permanently forego.

    This is why I say we have to search for ways to “save the world” that promise a more, rather than less, abundant future: A world that appears (rightly or wrongly) to be on a downward trajectory is one few would likely sacrifice the present moment for.

  65. #65 Bill Dauphin
    June 30, 2008

    Nick:

    Neither SSP nor fusion is going to help over the next few decades, which is when we need to make a fundamental shift away from CO2-producing energy sources;

    Over the next few decades, we’re going to have to scramble and improvise and patch shit together in order to survive, agreed. If we’re successful in that, it won’t be a bad thing to have started down a more sustainable long-term path… and if we fail, it’ll be moot. Everything has a lead time; using lead times as an excuse to not start is short term thinking of the sort that is, in part, what’s gotten us into the trouble we’re in (IMHO).

    and over the entire century, it’s difficult to see space-derived metals being feasible alternatives if we run short on Earth.

    I don’t claim to be an expert on the subject, but my understanding is that fuel cell technology still relies on platinum-group metals for catalysts. I gather the amounts required to support a global fuel-cell economy are relatively small in absolute terms, but even so huge in comparison to current terrestrial production. In addition, I gather extracting such rare metals is one of the more environmentally destructive kinds of mining… which magnifies the benefit of securing extraterrestrial sources. It’s not just about getting the metal; it’s also about isolating/relocating the environmental harm.

    Maybe I’m being optimistic, but I think the lead time for extracting relatively small volumes of high-value metals from the asteroids or the moon is closer to “the next few decades” than “the rest of the century.”

    As far as long-term human extraterrestrial expansion as a carrot for being good now – well, it might motivate a few geeks like you and me, but is that really how most people think?

    That’s not precisely what I was getting at. I wasn’t thinking of the vision of a better, more expansive future as some sort of motivational reward for “being good”; rather, I was imagining that the opposite supposition (i.e., that the future we’re working to ensure will be mean and small and less worthy than the present) might serve as a disincentive to “be good.” I realize it’s a subtle distinction I’m making, but, as I tried to suggest in my note to SC, it seems to me that far to many folks’ ideas about saving the world amount to telling everybody “go to your room and stay there!“… which strikes me as a singularly uninviting reason to sacrifice whatever standard of living you currently enjoy. I’m not suggesting that any particular “project” by itself would be a positive motivator, but rather that a future devoid of reasonable hope is a poor reason to defer gratification… in much the same way that the hopelessness experienced by some of the urban poor provides little incentive for them to eschew the instant gratification of drugs and crime.

    Just as some of the aformentioned poor will “do the right thing” anyway, some percentage of the population will support the changes needed for us to survive regardless of the “quality” of the future they’re sacrificing to preserve… but I doubt that merely “some percentage” of support will be sufficient to solve the massive global problems we face. The noble and selfless alone can’t do it; we also need to bring along the venal and shallow… not to mention the vast majority who lie between those extremes.

    As for “inhabit and master the whole universe” – I worry about the aggressive, domineering, hyper-masculine attitudes that phrase reeks of…

    I was all ready to get really pissed at you for this comment, which struck me as an ad hominem attack on me (and an off-base one as well: If you knew me, you’d know I’m about as far from “hyper-masculine” as a straight man can get, for good or ill)… but then I saw that Pierce had said something similar, and realized I should clarify: I didn’t mean to suggest we should wade into the universe like “greedy punks,” beating up on every swinging dick (or whatever the ET equivalent might turn out to be) we blunder into. I only meant that, in the absence of a domineering, disapproving Sky Daddy, we should feel somewhat unabashed about using the whole environment, including the extraterrestrial environment, for our own benefit. Mind you, I mean “benefit” in a sustainable, long-range sense: I am, to be sure, advocating a certain sort of boldness, but please don’t think I’m advocating arrogance or recklessness.

  66. #66 Nick Gotts
    June 30, 2008

    Over the next few decades, we’re going to have to scramble and improvise and patch shit together in order to survive, agreed. Everything has a lead time; using lead times as an excuse to not start is short term thinking of the sort that is, in part, what’s gotten us into the trouble we’re in (IMHO). – Bill Dauphin

    But some things have much longer lead-times than others. Insulating homes, improving public transport, replacing flying with video-conferencing, cutting down on meat and dairy, adapting clothing to the temperature rather than switching on the heating/air conditioning, protecting tropical forests – these things can all be done now. Investment in renewable energy sources and CHP could yield big results in 5-10 years, as could programmes to make growing cities more sustainable. Other approaches, such as carbon capture and storage and possibly nuclear new build (neither of which I’m keen on, incidentally) in 10-20. Those are the timescales on which it might be possible to prevent disaster. Above all we need changes in attitude, at all levels from individual to global. I’m not saying abandon fusion or space research altogether, but both have failed so far to live up to the promise they seemed to have 50 years ago, despite enormous investment.

    I agree that people won’t be motivated by a “small mean” future, but I think most people don’t find all the “Boldly Go” stuff essential to imagining a large and generous future – and as I said before, most would be motivated by a future offering a decent life for their children, their communities.

    it seems to me that far to many folks’ ideas about saving the world amount to telling everybody “go to your room and stay there!”
    I don’t accept that that’s true. A few curmudgeons and misanthropists, maybe, but the environmentalists I meet just don’t fit that stereotype, and I can’t help wondering how many you meet.

    I only meant that, in the absence of a domineering, disapproving Sky Daddy, we should feel somewhat unabashed about using the whole environment, including the extraterrestrial environment, for our own benefit.
    I disagree. I don’t want the whole of the rest of the solar system, any more than the whole of the Earth, turned into feedstocks for our industrial systems.

  67. #67 Krubozumo Nyankoye
    June 30, 2008

    Bill @ #54 and #65

    Not to rain on your parade particularly but you may have been misinformed about cosmic abundance of Pt and it’s significance. The crustal abundance of Pt on earth is 8 to 10 ppb, but it is only producable in concentrations 4-7 orders of magnitude richer than that. Those types of abundance do not occur in asteroids or on the moon. (They might, I will speak to that in a moment.) As to its environmental impact it is negligable compared to the production of say Portland cement, or coal, or natural gas etc. etc. Global production of Pt is 170+ metric tonnes per year 90% of which comes from one source region, the Bushveld complex of S. Africa. There are only a handful of other economically feasible deposits and no new deposits have been discovered for decades.

    Though lunar and meteoritic abundances of Pt are higher than crustal abundances on earth that does not imply that there are rich deposits of Pt that could be exploited or even found in those two environments. Consider the exploration constraints for the lunar environment, never mind the asteroid belt. In 1970 the basic cost for 3-5 days on the moon was about $6 billion.

    Although it is not my area of expertise we have fairly good knowledge of where and how economic Pt deposits tend to occur here on earth. There are probably a few already known that are now or will soon become economic as the price increases (currently ~$65/g). It would be a far better investment to dedicate our efforts to re-evaluation of known sub-economic deposits and exploration for new deposits, more research into deposit types and geochemistry of deposits here on earth than to contemplate exploiting off earth sources.

    Furthermore we can look forward to applying existing stocks of Pt to fuel cell technology simply by recycling catalytic converters into fuel cells instead of new catalytic converters thereby also reducing carbon emissions.

    Finally, please don’t misunderstand my point here. I am generally in agreement that it is the high minded approach to consider the use of off earth resources for future technology. However, given the current level of education and rationalism globally, I suspect the technology will exist decades if not centurys before humanity grows up enough to realize that earth IS our spaceship. We should make the best use of it we can and strive to improve on that use to preserve it in as “natural” a state as we can because it is a given that we do not understand its natural state well enough to predict all of the consequences of our meddling with it.

    If I can say anything of substance I think that your approach is correct, but your objectives are a little too idealistic. The correct approach is of course to learn more and the obvious way to do that is to educate more people so that rational and scientific ways of dealing with problems become increasingly universal.

    Just to clarify, another poster referred to themselves in this thread as a misanthrope. I think I would fit that category if only because the status quo seems to attribute to H. sapiens special stature. I admit readily that we are unique, but I would dispute special. I’ll stop blathering now and pour another whiskey, its 19:00 and still 30 degrees C. here.

    Ciao,

  68. #68 Bill Dauphin
    June 30, 2008

    Nick:

    But some things have much longer lead-times than others. Insulating homes, improving public transport, replacing flying with video-conferencing, cutting down on meat and dairy, adapting clothing to the temperature rather than switching on the heating/air conditioning, protecting tropical forests – these things can all be done now.

    Sure. And precisely how is any of these things in even the slightest conflict with pursuing the longer-range goals I mentioned? I see synergy, rather than tension, between near-term conservation and a grand longer-term vision of the future.

    Above all we need changes in attitude, at all levels from individual to global.

    Yah, but if the attitude you want people to adopt feels like permanent self-denial, it’s gonna be a hard sell. Actually, though…

    …far too many folks’ ideas about saving the world amount to telling everybody “go to your room and stay there!
    I don’t accept that that’s true. A few curmudgeons and misanthropists, maybe, but the environmentalists I meet just don’t fit that stereotype, and I can’t help wondering how many you meet.

    …I wasn’t really referring to attitude, or accusing environmentalists of being curmudgeonly. I was talking about the content of these ideas, rather than the style of delivery: All the items in your list above are perfectly sensible… but some large fraction of people are going to think you’re asking them to be less comfortable, and less free in their movements, and accept less variety in their diets… and to many, that will feel like impoverishment, regardless of how optimistically it’s offered to them. Moms are usually pretty upbeat about the spinach, too; that doesn’t mean the kids want to eat it. I think if we want to sell folks on a green future, we have to sell them on the idea that it’s going to be a better future… and we need to understand that pleasure, material comfort, and personal liberty are parts of the “better” equation for most people.

    I agree that people won’t be motivated by a “small mean” future, but I think most people don’t find all the “Boldly Go” stuff essential to imagining a large and generous future…

    I’m not naive about the percentage of people to whom space exploration/exploitation is a significant concern. OTOH, I suspect (note that this is a gut feeling, not a claim of fact) that if you picked people off the street at random and asked them what they would think if they knew that humans would never live anywhere but Earth, the vast majority would be significantly dismayed by that prospect.

    But aside from attitudinal issues, I think we actually need to start planning for life beyond Earth. I’m confident we can “save” the Earth (though perhaps not before we have to abandon more than a few coastal settlements), and I’m cognizant of projections that population growth will slow and even stop in the medium term… but I don’t really believe we’ll ever achieve long-term population equilibrium on this planet: Over the grand sweep of the future, we will either dwindle to nothing or continue to grow (again, a gut feeling; take it or leave it). I can hardly root for the former; if the latter happens, then eventually, no matter how much more efficient we become, we’re going to need a bigger home.

    To me, that expansion sounds like a glorious possibility… but I gather this is where you and I part company:

    …we should feel somewhat unabashed about using the whole environment, including the extraterrestrial environment, for our own benefit.
    I disagree. I don’t want the whole of the rest of the solar system, any more than the whole of the Earth, turned into feedstocks for our industrial systems.

    This makes it sound as if you assume human presence throughout the Solar System would necessarily be a pestilence. But if you assume we’re capable of learning to be good stewards of the Earth (as your argument implicitly does), why would you not assume we could be equally good stewards of a larger environment? Do you assume the “pristine” natural environment (if any such thing could be said to exist) has some a priori moral standing that precludes our right to change or use it? The point I was making is that any such standing could only come from some external source of moral authority (e.g., a God who might arbitrarily confine us to our existing quarters)… but I thought the predicate for this discussion was that He doesn’t exist.

    I do think it’s incumbent upon us to be good stewards of the world (and I mean that word in its broadest sense, not limited to “planet”) in which we live and the other creatures with which we share it. I think we can accomplish that, and I believe we will… but I also don’t think we, as a species, have any fundamental moral obligation to do anything other than what’s best for us. If we manage to grow up before we off ourselves, we’ll realize that good stewardship and what’s best for us as a species are one and the same… and at that point, there’ll be no reason to fear our spread.

  69. #69 Bill Dauphin
    June 30, 2008

    Krubozumo Nyankoye:

    Not to rain on your parade particularly but you may have been misinformed about cosmic abundance of Pt and it’s significance.

    It’s more than likely that I have been misinformed; I tried to be very clear in indicating my uncertainty about the Pt stuff. Mostly I was repeating (from several-years-old memory) arguments made by Dennis Wingo in another forum I used to frequent. If this is a bad example of space resources, so be it. Just for fun, though…

    Though lunar and meteoritic abundances of Pt are higher than crustal abundances on earth that does not imply that there are rich deposits of Pt that could be exploited or even found in those two environments.

    Wingo had a very specific theory (which I can’t remember well enough to repeat accurately) about how such rich deposits might well have been created on the moon during its early bombardment… and an idea about how to locate them using remote sensing. He may well have been all wet, but to his credit, he was advocating collecting actual data, not just going off half-cocked.

    If I can say anything of substance I think that your approach is correct, but your objectives are a little too idealistic.

    I’ll cop to that. If I am to err — and don’t we all? — I have a philosophical preference for erring in the direction of too much idealism, rather than too little.

  70. #70 McH
    July 1, 2008

    Man – His chief occupation is extermination of other animals and his own species; which however; multiplies with such insistent rapidity as to infest the whole habitable Earth and Canada.

    Ambrose Bierce

  71. #71 Nick Gotts
    July 1, 2008

    Bill,
    how is any of these things in even the slightest conflict with pursuing the longer-range goals I mentioned?
    Competition for investment and skilled people.

    some large fraction of people are going to think you’re asking them to be less comfortable, and less free in their movements, and accept less variety in their diets
    Well in some ways, yes, certainly as far as travel and diet are concerned. There’s just no way we’re going to cut greenhouse gas emissions and the use of various non-renewable resources by enough if the rich (us) go on the way we have been. What we have to work on are the compensating advantages of a shift toward a sustainable future – and I think these need to be somewhat more immediate than the distant prospect of our descendants ruling the universe.

    I don’t really believe we’ll ever achieve long-term population equilibrium on this planet: Over the grand sweep of the future, we will either dwindle to nothing or continue to grow (again, a gut feeling; take it or leave it).
    Bill, your gut feelings about what might happen in future (and mine of course) are neither here nor there without arguments.

    if you assume we’re capable of learning to be good stewards of the Earth (as your argument implicitly does), why would you not assume we could be equally good stewards of a larger environment?
    How about we learn to be good stewards of the Earth first, then expand off-Earth (if our descendants at that time want to). After all, there’s no rush.

    To me, that expansion sounds like a glorious possibility… but I gather this is where you and I part company
    No, you’re wrong. I like the idea in principle; but it has no relevance to the urgent problems we face, aside from very specific space-based applications, of which I’ve mentioned a couple, and will here mention another, reminded by the Tunguska thread: warning of, and in time possible prevention of, asteroid/comet strikes.

    I also don’t think we, as a species, have any fundamental moral obligation to do anything other than what’s best for us.

    So if it’s in our interest to exterminate any intelligent life-forms we come across, or introduce our own food-plants into an alien ecology, that’s OK with you? Here, we really do disagree – I have no more loyalty to Homo sapiens than I do to the United Kingdom – which is to say, none. I do care about people (and secondarily, sentients), and it just so happens that at present the only people we know of are, biologically, members of Homo sapiens; but that may not be so for very long, even if we don’t encounter alien life-forms.

  72. #72 Bill Dauphin
    July 1, 2008

    Nick:

    We may have talked this out, so I’ll keep this to just one more trip around the bases:

    how is any of these things in even the slightest conflict with pursuing the longer-range goals I mentioned?
    Competition for investment and skilled people.

    Giving aerospace engineers meaningful projects to work on competes with asking them to turn their thermostats down, carpool, and eat organic? Fascinating! But seriously, folks… I’m pretty sure the limiting factor on the changes you’re championing (and I support) will turn out to be political will, not the talent pool. And as for investment, there will almost certainly be huge synergies between the R&D needed for space exploration and technologies for green living here.

    What we have to work on are the compensating advantages of a shift toward a sustainable future…

    I absolutely agree. All I’m saying is that we need to make sure those advantages look like advantages even to the venal, self-interested person-in-the-street, and not only to visionaries and eco-poets, if we want votes and public investment and commitment to behavior change.

    …and I think these need to be somewhat more immediate than the distant prospect of our descendants ruling the universe.

    Keep in mind that I’ve specifically disavowed the argument that “ruling the universe” would be a motivator for good. I do think explicitly giving up the possibility of ever ruling the universe would be a demotivator, but I’ve said all along that’s nothing more than a secondary aspect of my argument.

    Bill, your gut feelings about what might happen in future (and mine of course) are neither here nor there without arguments.

    Of course; hence, the disclaimers. As an observer of human nature, I find it impossible to imagine people, expansive and restless as we are, settling indefinitely for not growing and not going anywhere… but of course, my observation is more a matter of art than evidence, and not objectively more likely to be correct than yours.

    How about we learn to be good stewards of the Earth first, then expand off-Earth

    Not to worry: As you and others have pointed out, the lead times for expanding off-Earth are long. If we don’t learn to be good stewards of the Earth first, we’ll never get the chance to go beyond. But planning now for the future we’ll want when we grow up strikes me as a positive, affirming step, rather than a distraction. I’m not disagreeing with your vision for the short term; I’m only suggesting that putting that vision in the context of a longer-term one is a Feature, Not a Bug™.

    I also don’t think we, as a species, have any fundamental moral obligation to do anything other than what’s best for us.
    So if it’s in our interest to exterminate any intelligent life-forms we come across, or introduce our own food-plants into an alien ecology, that’s OK with you?

    It’s inconceivable (and yes, that word does mean what I think it means [g]) to me that humans would conclude that the indiscriminate extermination of another intelligent species was in our best interest. One of the oldest and most universal human values (however imperfectly we live up to it) is that murder is wrong. We could not embark on a program of indiscriminate galactic slaughter without destroying our own most deeply held principles… and how could that possibly be in our best interest?

    That phrase, best interest, isn’t quite the blunt instrument it appears to be: At any given moment, it might be in the instantaneous best interests of any number of individuals to kill the person in front of them and take that person’s stuff… but in fact, that only extremely rarely happens, and when it does, we all consider it a crime. That’s because we have a more expansive notion of what “best interests” means. In exactly the same way, when we finally meet other intelligent life, I imagine we will understand our best-interest course of action more subtly than simply kill!!

    As for introducing food plants to an alien ecology… well, “ecology” implies life, and the nature, scope, and complexity of that life would have a lot to do with what we consider good stewardship. My guess is that when we first encounter alien life (and I’m thinking here of ecosystems that do not include “people”), we’ll want to keep it as unchanged as possible, because we’ll value the scientific opportunities more than the real estate.

    That said, I don’t think any alien ecology or environment has any a priori moral right to remain unchanged that obviates our right to do what’s best for us. Change is endemic in the universe, regardless of whether it comes in the form of alien visitors or comets or storms of gamma rays or simply the natural aging of the local star. I disagree that the current state of any environment or species has special status.

    I certainly wouldn’t have any moral qualms about terraforming the moon or Mars. We might choose not to do either, for reasons that were important to us, but I disagree that it would be inherently immoral.

    Here, we really do disagree – I have no more loyalty to Homo sapiens than I do to the United Kingdom – which is to say, none. I do care about people (and secondarily, sentients), and it just so happens that at present the only people we know of are, biologically, members of Homo sapiens; but that may not be so for very long, even if we don’t encounter alien life-forms.

    Here we really do not disagree: In purely biological terms, I think the only project of Homo sapiens is to ensure that Homo sapiens survives and thrives… but I have previously (right here on this very blog) made almost precisely the same distinction you make between Homo sapiens and people. We’ve struggled, in previous threads, about whether there’s a real distinction between people and not people (I gather you think there is, and so do I) and what, in the absence of a metaphysical soul, distinguishes people from not people (at the risk of sounding glib, I think our ability to have this kind of conversation about what makes us people may be what makes us people), but I’m right there with you on the notion that we may well discover other people who are not Homo sapiens… and that we will need to treat them like people. If it gives you any comfort, substitute “people” for “humanity” in all my previous comments… with the caveat that all the people we know of so far are contained within humanity.

    You seem to think I’m proposing that huma… er, people ought to become rampaging bulls in the china shop of the universe, but that’s not it at all. I’m only proposing that we shouldn’t lock ourselves in our house forever because we’re afraid we might accidentally step on a fern if we go outside.

  73. #73 Nick Gotts
    July 1, 2008

    Giving aerospace engineers meaningful projects to work on competes with asking them to turn their thermostats down, carpool, and eat organic?

    Not what I meant: there is plenty of useful stuff for aerospace engineers to do, in the three projects I’ve mentioned. Plenty else for engineers generally. Moreover, you don’t deal with the investment point. We’ve surely seen over the past half-century the diversion of vast resources into human spaceflight, with very little to show in return. If we’d put 10% of that effort into additional work on the space-related areas I’ve mentioned, and the rest into better insulation and transport technologies, solar cells, batteries, wind, wave and geothermal power, CCS, even nuclear – we wouldn’t be in nearly as bad a mess as we are.

    In purely biological terms, I think the only project of Homo sapiens is to ensure that Homo sapiens survives and thrives

    Homo sapiens has no project, in any terms.

  74. #74 Bill Dauphin
    July 1, 2008

    We’ve surely seen over the past half-century the diversion of vast resources into human spaceflight, with very little to show in return.

    “Vast resources”? Nah. Human spaceflight hasn’t diverted anything significant from anything other than other spaceflight. Expenditures on human spaceflight, even in its heyday, have historically been trivial in the context of the overall human enterprise. These days, in any given week the U.S. Army spends more on toilet paper than the whole world spends on human spaceflight in a year. (OK, I admit I just made that up… but I wouldn’t be shocked if it were true; you get the point.) Opponents of human spaceflight have always overstated its draw on our overall resources.

    Al Franken used to say (and maybe he still does, on the campaign trail) that we need an “Apollo program” for energy independence. He’s right in principle, but (IMHO) wrong in scale: I read recently that the total cost of the whole Apollo program was ~$135 billion (that’s billion in the American sense of thousand-million) in 2005 dollars… which is to say an average of ~$10 billion/year ($2005) over the life of the program… which is to say, less per year than we’re currently spending on the Iraq war per month. Trivial. We don’t need an “Apollo program” to save the planet; we need an “Iraq war”… in place of the Iraq war we actually have. In that context, an actual human spaceflight program would be little more than sales tax (which in the U.S., BTW, is typically an inconsequential portion of the total purchase).

    The notion that we might spend so much on space travel that we won’t have enough left over to save the planet strikes me as what my mother would call a “baroque worry.”

  75. #75 Bill Dauphin
    July 1, 2008

    PS to my last: Not for nothin’, but among the things we got for the Apollo investment were (no, not Tang and Teflon) development of the first practical fuel cells and a huge boost in the development of minaturized solid-state electronics. I’m jus’ sayin’….

  76. #76 Nick Gotts
    July 1, 2008

    Bill,
    Sure, small compared to the Iraq war – but come on, that’s about serious things – grabbing power and money ;-). That $10 bn/yr, insignificant though you deem it to be, would have been very welcome to those developing sustainable energy technologies – or just for insulating houses properly! We also have to consider the costs of the Shuttle (about $145 bn apparently), the ISS (over $200 bn), and the Soviet pre-ISS manned program.

  77. #77 negentropyeater
    July 1, 2008

    Bill,

    it does seem to me that many Americans are not very rational when it comes to approving what their governments are doing with their money. They do not find extraordinary that their government spends close to $ 600 billion on military expenditures when the total military expenditures of the planet is just double of this, and when the second and third biggest spenders (France and UK) spend less than 15% of the US and are supposed to be no threat at all. I bet you this year, they would not find extraordinary that their government spend a few hundred billion a year to defend the nation from a hypothetical Iranian nuclear threat when Iran spends a huge 1% ($ 6 billion) of the total American military expenditures, and such countries as Pakistan or India already have the nuclear bomb !
    So it’s just impossible to make any kind of rational argument about analysing the real value of potential threats (Iranian nuclear threat for instance versus global warming, even extra-terrestrial threats such as meteorites etc…) because we have politicians that are such experts at manipulating those most irrational responses amongst the population in order to ensure that wealth distribution remains as unbalanced as it is.
    The US could easily cut its military expenditure by $ 400 billion and spend the money on more beneficial programmes but you’ll see, nothing is going to happen, even with Obama as President.
    Maybe the fact that the 2008/2010 crisis is going to be the worst recession to hit this country since 1929 will force the next administration to change this stupid habit, but I’m not even that optimistic. It’s now clear that the U.S. and global economy is facing the worst of the shocks that led to the U.S./Global recessions of 1974-75 and 1980-82 (stagflationary shocks from oil prices) together with the shocks (asset/credit bubbles gone bust) that led to the recessions of 1990-91 and 2001. It’s kind of a double whammy, and 2008/2010 is going to be the worst recession we will have known since 1929. Let’s see if they don’t change their bad military spending habit and don’t adjust for a slow growth world.

  78. #78 Bill Dauphin
    July 1, 2008

    it does seem to me that many Americans are not very rational when it comes to approving what their governments are doing with their money.

    Tell me about it!! Some of it, of course, is ideological: Conservatives will oppose certain kinds of public investment on principle (i.e., because they’re “socialism”), with no regard whatsoever fow how cost-effective they might be. Part of it, of course, is deliberately (and dishonestly) cultivated fear. And part of it is typically weird human psychology: How many times do we drive way out of our way to save $.05 per gallon on a 10-gallon fillup… on our way to have a $50 dinner out?

    But mostly we’re just frustratingly stupid about the relative scales of things. “Of course” we need to spend hundreds of billions on the military, but schools all over the country are cutting (pitifully poorly paid) classroom assistants and paraprofessionals because they’re “too expensive.” And with all due respect to Nick’s sense that human spaceflight is sucking all the air out of the room, we frustrated space advocates would be happy if we could just get the frickin’ loose change from the Pentagon’s sofa!

    I’ve always said this country was (despite all the claims that we have to have tax cuts because everyone is so broke) wealthy enough to do pretty much anything we want, if we wanted it badly enough… but, as you point out, it looks like we’re in for a few years during which that won’t be true either. The silver lining is that, when there’s really no money, we can take a rest from being frustrated over how foolishly we spend it.

  79. #79 Leigh
    July 2, 2008

    Thanks for the substantive and thought-provoking discussion, folks . . . especially Bill and Nick.

    I’m personally archiving this thread for further pondering.

  80. #80 Bill Dauphin
    July 2, 2008

    Leigh:

    It was fun, wasn’t it? Notwithstanding the sputtering in another thread somewhat upstream, I always enjoy my exchanges with Nick.

  81. #81 Bill Dauphin
    July 2, 2008

    I realize I should’ve been clearer: I was referring to “john j” sputtering at Nick (and me) in the Obama thread; I wasn’t suggesting Nick and I had been sputtering at each other.

  82. #82 Chi
    July 3, 2008

    Sorry PZ, this is one situation where you don’t speak for me. I think Ehrlich is an attention whore who was wrong wrong wrong, and anyone who idolizes him after reading the wikipedia summary page should discounted pretty quickly.

    Perhaps the world needs to scale back its population to survive. But not without a lot of thought and a lot of World Government.

  83. #83 Nick Gotts
    July 4, 2008

    I always enjoy my exchanges with Nick. – Bill Dauphin

    Thanks Bill – appreciated and reciprocated!

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