Paul Ehrlich thinks we have about a 10 per cent chance of civilisation not going down the environmental drain, although he thinks it’s worth really fighting to make it an 11 per cent chance. Apparently, that makes him an optimist among his colleagues.
“My distinguished colleague, the best biogeographer in the world, Jim Brown, disagrees strongly,” he said. “He says there is only a one per cent chance, but it’s well worth working very hard to get a one point one per cent chance.”
Professor Ehrlich, biologist and Professor of Population Studies at Stanford University, was speaking as part of a public lecture entitled, ‘The End of Growth?’, alongside Dick Smith, Australian entrepreneur and political activist, on Wednesday, November 7. The lecture was run by University of Technology, Sydney as part of its Science in Focus series.
The theme of the daunting but nevertheless worthy environmental fight that lies ahead ran throughout the lecture and was taken up by both speakers.
Professor Ehrlich said there are many serious environmental problems facing the world, including loss of biodiversity, land degradation, and epidemics caused by population growth, but at the top his list is climate change, although he said many economists believe that toxification of the planet will be even harder to deal with.
Sea level rises that could affect hundreds of millions of people aren’t even the worst effects of climate change we could experience, he said; the long-term change in precipitation patterns could be much more serious.
“It turns out that it’s not correct what most people think in the United States and Australia, that their food comes from supermarkets,” he said. “It comes from a very complex system that is utterly dependent on patterns of water availability.
“The agriculture system is fundamentally threatened by climate change because it is so dependent on where the water is, and what the temperature is, and whether the crops can grow in that temperature, and whether the crops are going to be in the right place for that temperature.”
Professor Ehrlich lamented the lack of political leadership on these issues, noting an absence of discussion during the presidential campaign in the United States.
Sections of the media that Professor Ehrlich believes are complicit were also called to account in no uncertain terms.
“We are facing the most serious crisis in the history of the world, and people like [Rupert] Murdoch are trying to keep it going,” he said.
Dick Smith was also critical of a lack of media coverage, in particular relating to his campaign against perpetual growth.
“There has not been one article in the mainstream media that examines any of the issues,” he said. “Wouldn’t you think that there would be a great angle for any journalist? ‘Dick Smith, what a hypocrite: benefitted from growth and now he is doubting it’. But nothing was said at all.”
Mr Smith is critical of a system that he believes is falsely propped up by unsustainable growth.
“Since World War II, when we brought in the measure of gross domestic product, the way we kept people employed was by making more stuff,” he said. “So now if you walk into a typical shopping centre, about half the stuff there is actually not necessary. But if we stop buying it, there will be catastrophe. Without doubt there would be a huge recession. People would be out of work, there would be a complete economic collapse.”
Mr Smith said the current obsession with growth will lead to a population of 100 million in Australia by the end of of the century, putting a huge strain on the environment.
“I believe that Australia could probably cope with a 100 million people,” he said. “You’d have to desalinate every bit of water, using every bit of uranium to generate nuclear power. You’d have glass houses everywhere with desalinated water growing food.”
Mr Smith believes the answer lies in not replacing the present system, but in altering it.
“As a proud capitalist, I believe that we can have a fantastic enterprise system,” he said. “Some people believe we need to change to some new kind of socialism. But I think capitalism, which is based on, dare I say it, greed and self interest …with a bit of adjustment can work really well.”
What is vital, Mr Smith said, is a level playing field, that can be achieved in part by bringing in sustainability legislation.
“You bring in legislation that says you cannot produce something unless it’s sustainable,” he said. “So the growth will be in trying to make it more efficient.”
However, there could be a hidden upside in all this.
“The way we kept people working as we got productivity gains from capitalism, up until the Second World War, was to reduce working hours,” Mr Smith said. “Otherwsie you get unemployment. We need to do that again. If you weren’t making all this rubbish that we need to make, the working week would probably be 30 hours, for the same amount of money.”
Despite this, Mr Smith said he is unsure whether change like this will be implemented until a catastrophe prompts action.
“Human beings came from the plains of Africa,” he said. “We responded to instant threats, not long-term threats, that’s the problem.”
Professor Ehrlich believes we have got to go on “a war footing” and that real leadership is needed to address the inevitable.
“We are coming to the end of growth whether we like it or not,” he said. “We are going to change our ways, or nature is going to change them for us. There is no other choice. The idea that presidential candidates can still run around and talk about getting back to the good old growth standard tells you that we basically have a dysfuntional society.”
Amid this gloom, however, Professor Ehrlich does offer one eternal solace.
“Camus said, ‘fortunately there is gin; the sole glimmer of light in this darkness’.”