Warning to Humanity

In his essay "Man and Earth," German philosopher Ludwig Klages despaired of the idea of human progress, which he called "a sick, destructive joke." Progress, he wrote, "is devastating forests, exterminating animal species, extinguishing native cultures, masking and distorting the pristine landscape with the varnish of industrialism, and debasing the organic life that still survives." Klages wrote this in 1913. If it sounds familiar, that's because we've been hearing the same anti-progress, anti-development, anti-capitalist refrain ever since.

Two days ago, 15,364 scientists from 184 countries issued a Warning to Humanity, reminding us yet again that we are on "a collision course with the natural world." Much is noteworthy about this century-old critique, including its authoritarianism (political leaders must be "compelled to do the right thing") and its historic connection to Nazi biopolitics. But its most persistent and apparently beguiling imperative is that we calculate "a scientifically defensible, sustainable human population size for the long term." Scientists have, in fact, been making precisely these sorts of calculations since Malthus—culminating in the Sixties-era admonition to achieve zero population growth. "The battle to feed all of humanity is over," biologist Paul Ehrlich proclaimed in his 1968 book The Population Bomb. "In the 1970s the world will undergo famines—hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death." When Ehrlich made this macabre prediction, there were 3.5 billion people in the world, roughly half the global population today. And what can be said of human progress since then? According to historian Johan Norberg, author of the award-winning 2016 book Progress, "we are witnessing the greatest improvement in global living standards ever to take place. Poverty, malnutrition, illiteracy, child labour and infant mortality are falling faster than at any other time in human history."

From Malthus' and Klages' eras to our own, the path of progress has been littered with dogmatic and dangerous "scientific" predictions about the human (and non-human) future and Earth's capacity to sustain it. Sensible people know this (click the video link, above). It does not make them "anti-science" but it does help to explain why they're unwilling to give scientist-activists like Paul Ehrlich a free pass on climate change, demography, food security, resource scarcity or any other serious policy issue on which they claim to have a crystal ball.