Environmental Collapse on a Global Scale?

Paul Ehrlich has been a controversial figure at least since 1968 when he published The Population Bomb that predicted widespread starvation due to overpopulation.  Twelve years later, in 1980, Ehrlich made a famous bet with economist Julian Simon.  Ehrlich wagered that the price (in US dollars) of five industrial metals would rise over the next ten years.  Simon wagered that they would decline and the bet helped publicize Simon’s intellectual rebuttal to Ehrlich, The Ultimate Resource, in which he argued that human ingenuity and intelligence could overcome practically any resource constraint imposed by overpopulation.

As luck would have it, Ehrlich lost the wager.  1980 was near the peak of US price inflation, and it seemed a safe bet to Ehrlich that commodities prices would continue the upward trajectory the began in 1973 during the Arab Oil Embargo.  But energy prices collapsed.  By 1990 commodity prices were in the middle of a long-term bear market while stock and bond prices were soaring.  Oil prices

In fact, the wager was more complicated than Ehrlich’s thesis.  Prices represent the relative abundance of two things: currency (e.g., dollars) and goods (e.g., pork bellies).  When dollars are more abundant (as in inflationary times), the ratio of currency supply to commodity supply goes up, and so do prices.  Then goods become more plentiful relative to the supply of dollars, prices go down.

So it is possible for goods to become more physically more scarce even as prices decline, or prices to rise and goods become more plentiful because prices reflect the ratio of dollars to goods — not some absolute level of abundance of goods.

Ehrlich and his wife Anne have recently published a new article in the Proceedings of the Royal Society that renews their dystopian vision of the state of the Earth.  Lise Lauren, of Earthshift, suggested that it would make for a good topic of discussion on this blog, and so I’ve post the abstract (with a link to the full article here).

Can a collapse of global civilization be avoided?

Paul R. Ehrlich & Anne H. Ehrlich, Stanford University

Abstract. Environmental problems have contributed to numerous collapses of civilizations in the past. Now, for the first time, a global collapse appears likely. Overpopulation, overconsumption by the rich and poor choices of technologies are major drivers; dramatic cultural change provides the main hope of averting calamity.

1. Introduction

Virtually every past civilization has eventually undergone collapse, a loss of socio-political-economic complexity usually accompanied by a dramatic decline in population size [1]. Some, such as those of Egypt and China, have recovered from collapses at various stages; others, such as that of Easter Island or the Classic Maya, were apparently permanent [1,2]. All those previous collapses were local or regional; elsewhere, other societies and civilizations persisted unaffected. Sometimes, as in the Tigris and Euphrates valleys, new civilizations rose in succession. In many, if not most, cases, overexploitation of the environment was one proximate or an ultimate cause [3].

Read the full article.



Vlad Coroama says:

Tom (and Lise), thanks for pointing this out.

I’ve just finished reading it and find it quite similar to their older article “The culture gap and its needed closures”, Int J. of Environmental Studies 67(4), 2010. The focus is shifted from the “culture gap” (as explanation for society’s lack of awareness) to a possible consequence, the end of civilization as we know it. And the current article is obviously more elaborate, having 5 times as many citations as the 2010 one.

Other than this, to me both articles seem to have a similar logic: a) huge issues on our hands (climate disruption, toxification, ecosystem services under stress), b) one sociopolitically ‘hot’ issue (population size and the need – in view of the authors – to “humanely reduce” it), c) the “culture gap” as explanation for the lack of societal awareness of the magnitude and interdependence of the issues above, d) the collapse of civilization as possible consequence of inaction, and e) how politics and science could – and should – contribute to points a)-c).

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