Current Problems with Global Sustainability: Talks by Paul Ehrlich and Clive Hamilton

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Tonight, I attended talks by Paul Ehrlich and Clive Hamilton here in Berkeley. Ehrlich is perhaps best known for his Population Bomb which was published as far back as 1968. Clive Hamilton is an Australian professor and author of several books related to climate change and sustainability. It was an odd event where everyone seemed to agree with everyone that climate change is happening, that it will change the world as we know it, and that profound changes to political, economic, and social systems are required to do anything about it. It was also both enlightening and interesting, even encouraging. Although both Ehrlich and Hamilton drew stark pictures of the current situation, the future of the planet and us on it, it made me feel both wanting and obligated to try and do something about it.

Hamilton spoke first and spent most of his time talking about the new, geological time period we have entered. The period where human’s impact disturbs the entire earth system. While scientists still haven’t fully agreed upon all the details, there seems to be little doubt the earth has moved into a new phase. The next ice age (which was coming up in about 50 000 years) is cancelled, the long period of stable temperatures will be end, but we do not know exactly what we are in for. At least we have been vigorous in the current spell of stability, for example developing agriculture. (‘We’ is of course a stretch here; someone is better. The undue usage of ‘we’ in the sense of humanity was touched upon in the ensuing debate, as was also a key element of the climate problem; it’s intergenerational dimension.)

Ehrlich seemed to just talk from the top of his head. I presume he has addressed hundreds of audiences on the same and related topics throughout the years, because he never seemed to loose track or run out of words (which I do on a regular basis). He talked about a range of problems, from how the yield gap most likely will be closed (the yield gap is the difference in agricultural yields from the mid-Western prairie and from the Amazon; according to Ehrlich, the gap will not be closed by Amazonian yields getting up to speed, but by mid-Western yields collapsing), the dependence of agriculture upon fossil fuel, biodiversity loss (in particular the loss of pollinators); I am sure he touched upon population, but also a range of other issues.

The debate after the talks were at least as interesting as the talks themselves. A particularly interesting remark from Ehrlich was upon social science. Social science is extremely important, more important than the sciences. The problem is there is no social science. It is a mess, with no direction, no common language, and most topics of investigation are wholly unimportant. He claimed to have read an article in the Journal of Economic Perspectives (‘the top journal in economics’), which concluded that in the last 30-40 years, economists has not really figured out anything. Economists study the economics of college football! This critique is of course somewhat unfair, but I see Ehrlich’s point. Economists and other social scientists should get their act together and start thinking about what matters most (survival of the species humans, which did not seem to require specification at this point). The debate flourished. The worry about the aging population was more or less made fun of (‘it is an obvious fact of demographics and arithmetic’), the Vatican was scorned for their view on women and family planning, and the entire event concluded on the note that the climate problem is not one of information or knowledge (we know what is happening and why) or technology (we have the necessary technologies to deal with the problem), but one of political and social action. It was a memorable night.

Ehrlich had a couple of other great comments which comes to mind: We should abolish the current university systems (‘dissolve the departments!’); the university system was dreamed up by Aristotle over 2500 years ago, and cemented by the Royal Academy 250 years ago; time calls for something different. (What we need instead, Ehrlich forgot to mention.) And we should get the money out of American politics. Hamilton, on his part, said carbon sequestration had cost us ten years in battling climate change, that geoengineering will likely cost us ten more, and that consumption is more important than population growth in the sense that more rich people is a much bigger problem in terms of climate change than more poor people. (That last thing became a bit convoluted, I must admit, but it is in a ballpark.)

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