Opinionista Steven Boykey Sidley 27 November 2019

We’re all going to die: Alarmists in our midst

We are inundated daily with shock stories of climate-collapse-driven mass extinction and other dire horrors. But the reality is different — extrapolation of graphs into the future is a terrible idea in the face of human ingenuity and technological and societal change.

We are all going to die. The raspy scream of headlines, op-eds, demonstrators, wonks, activists, dinner guests and friends. Or worse, our kids are all going to die (a dash of guilt to spice up the fear). The public sphere is so awash with alarms so loud that our ears ring.

Not so fast.

We read it every day. Climate, Trump, fundamentalists, Putin, antibiotic resistance, asteroids, AI weapons, Brexit. Misery is certain to come, thousands will die. No, wait, millions. Maybe billions.

Well, perhaps. But more likely perhaps not.

An interesting report came out recently from the Brookings Institution in the US. It presented findings from a Stanford academic, Michael Webb. Webb was apparently dissatisfied with the gloomy predictions of imminent mass global unemployment under the boot of artificial intelligence and robotics and other Fourth Industrial Revolution magic.

His very clever trick was to analyse applications lodged at the US patent office across many industries and professions to see who would lose jobs in the future, and by what means (he used AI to do the analysis, a lovely irony). It turns out that we are not all going to lose our jobs. Some will, and surprisingly, a goodly percentage of those will be university-degreed experts, where AI really earns its stripes — doing the smart things that smart humans think are untouchable. The rest of the middle class need not worry too much, Truck drivers, of course. Repetitive labour, yes. But for the majority of jobholders — don’t worry too much.

And then there is the climate crisis. The science behind climate change is pretty robust, even largely settled at this point, with arguments and contestation mainly happening at the arcane edges of the science. But a careful look at the reports of the IPCC (where the science has been grinding away for a long time in one of the largest multi-country science investigations in history), you will find none of the horrors described by Greta Thunberg or Extinction Rebellion or many smart writers and journalists. To those horrors — they may be out there, but you will find no scientific consensus, just opinion and less-than-disciplined extrapolation.

What you will find in the IPPC studies is a careful description of a clear problem. You will find little about specific extreme weather events (like the fires in Australia or California), or cities being swamped in the next 15 years, or mass eco-migrations, or the dessication of food supply or sixth extinctions and so on.

You will find inside and outside boundaries of temperature rises and ice studies and sea level rises and parts-per-million carbon graphs. No one is unconcerned and some are more concerned than others, but there are not many within the deep-number-wrangling labs who will extrapolate to the point of the human extinction or even mass immiseration.

The prediction-caution shown by scientists is at least partially a result of previous embarrassments. Like The Club of Rome in the early 1970s and its population projections (and how the world would certainly see mass starvation and social upheaval on a spectacular scale). What happened? It failed to foresee success in contraception and family planning and massive-scale increases in food production. The same happened with AIDS (whatever happened to the blaring headlines about the depopulation of Africa?). It was nonsense, imagined by well-intended people. Extrapolation of graphs into the future is a terrible idea in the face of human ingenuity and technological and societal change.

Of course, democracy is over with Trump. Or perhaps democracy has been forever debased by the Democrat-led impeachment hearings (as some otherwise very smart friends of mine proclaim). The US, of course, is on its way to becoming a has-been power, and soon we will all be under surveillance by the Chinese. Capitalism is not even worth a debate. It’s over. Right? Right?

The intellectual polymath Stephen Pinker has written a book titled Enlightenment Now, in which he takes on the very foundations of these alarm bells, their psychological drivers, their underlying statistical laziness, even their willful deceit. He covers the history of (and evidence for) human violence, climate, health, democracy, longevity and more.

He presents the peer-reviewed data, the sources, the conclusions (and in most cases does not try to look into the future). He has angered just about every activist who has read the book, and more who haven’t. He has been accused of cherry-picking, of Pollyanna Syndrome, of right-wing bolsterism.

But a careful reading of this book (and some of his later online defences against the charges) show him to be on much more solid scientific ground than his detractors, sometimes embarrassingly so. (Quick — how many people died in 2018 from natural disasters? 11,000. How many in the opening decades of the 20th century when the population was one quarter that of today’s? An average of 400,000 a year. The difference? Technology, communications, medicine, governance and process. Who would have predicted that?)

So, back to climate. There are many paths humanity can take to mitigate and even arrest the slope that we are on. The most immediately scalable one is nuclear energy (with multiple new designs that mitigate most, if not all the historical objections and technology weaknesses). And by manipulating fundamental economic imperatives with a tightly controlled carbon tax, with UN oversight. And many other technologies, all bubbling with the fuel of urgency, such as renewables.

I must admit to having rung some alarms myself, and been exercised by others. But our planet and its inhabitants have improved over millennia, in almost every way we can measure — that’s what the data shows, pretty incontrovertibly.

Of course, the alarms will not quiet soon, because we seem to need them, even love them. But they do not solve the problems.

People do, often the quiet ones. DM


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