Thursday, September 29, 2016

Climate change and scientific reticence

This is a link to 1 minute 43 secs video about Australia's coal frenzy, explaining why I became the first Australian IPCC contributor to be arrested for civil disobedience to protest climate change inaction. Please spread the word!

Somewhat relatedly, the Arctic expert Peter Wadhams recently wrote: "In my professional lifetime, I have witnessed the transformation of the top of the world from a beautiful ice-bound expanse of wilderness to a region now characterized by warming and melting on all fronts. These changes represent a spiritual impoverishment of the earth, as well as a practical catastrophe for humanity. The time for action has long since passed.”

James Hansen has also written of scientific reticence, concerning sea level rise. Scientific reticence is another name for self-censorship. It occurs and is reinforced by conservative granting bodies and literature gate-keepers. Scientists know that to get published, or to get grants, many boundaries must not be crossed.

A very deep cause for these boundaries is euphemistically called "ideology". Developed countries, especially if English speaking, are governed by excessive forms of the profit-making motive, ultimately reinforced by violence, such as by the Central Intelligence Agency, as documented by David Talbot and many others. As a result of this ideology there are many taboos in research, reaching beyond catastrophic sea level rise to include the harmful effect of high population growth on development and, ultimately, the possibility that civilization will collapse.

Of course, there are other ideologies, such as extreme versions of communism, Nazism and many religions.

Reviewing a book critical of the corrupt Stalinist scientist Trofim Lysenko, G.A. Clayton wrote: "When fear born of tyranny stalks the land, men become corrupted and perverted along with their science and society. Whether it be the CIA, the Mafia, BOSS, the SS, the NKVD or any other instrument of coercion, once its growing power puts it beyond the reach of John Citizen and the Commonweal, the lamps of freedom go out and darkness descends."

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Signs of impending social collapse and what we can do

A version of this is to be published by the Frank Fenner Foundation.

The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (USA) has published, in late September 2016, a paper called Anticipating societal collapse; Hints from the Stone Age. This repeats speculation that the Syrian conflict has in part been triggered by the worst drought in the Fertile Crescent in its instrumental record, and it lists several mechanisms for why societies can sometime be so slow to take evasive action that collapse becomes inevitable. 

One of these is called the “sunk-cost effect” – essentially, people have invested so much effort and time in something that once worked, that they keep on with the same approach, even though it is like sending more money after bad. A second is the “bystander effect.” We are herd creatures and behave like those around us. A third is that elites have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo, thus blocking change – this mechanism surely is easy to see today, in modern Australia and elsewhere.

The paper reviews evidence that science can increasingly detect incipient collapse (by finding evidence of falling “resilience”) and concludes by suggesting that science and big data be used to scan the globe for empirical indicators of such declines, in the hope that this will finally shift society’s behaviour. That seems reasonable, but evidence alone will not be enough to overcome either the sunk-cost effect or to convert predatory human elites into benevolent change agents. Furthermore, does one really needs big science to sense that resilience is in decline – is not the massive increase in global refugee numbers sufficient evidence of a major problem?

Much of my own academic work (since 1991) has been relevant to social collapse. In particular, I have been making the case that if societies collapse then this will do immense harm to public health. Therefore, public health and medicine more broadly would be well served – indeed they have a duty of care – to  recognise these issues and to try to prevent collapse. The bystander effect could switch from a liability to an asset – humans can change their collective behaviour, not only to do harm (e.g. by going to war) but to transform society in ways that mean civilisation can survive, e.g. by switching to clean energy, eating less meat, and establishing a fairer, more bio-sensitive world.

In the last three months I have published two more articles about these topics, called Sounding the Alarm: Health in the Anthropocene and Planetary overload, limits to growth and health. They are both open access. I welcome any comments.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Limits to growth, planetary boundaries, and planetary health

Draft paper here: comments welcome*

This paper presents an overview of the “Limits to Growth” debate, from Malthus to Planetary Boundaries and the Planetary Health Commission. It argues that a combination of vested interests, inequalities, and cognitive impediments disguise the critical proximity to limits. Cognitive factors include an increasingly urbanized population with declining exposure to nature, incompletely substituted by the rise of simulated and filmed reality.

Following prominence in the 1960s and early 1970s, fears of Limits to Growth diminished as the oil price declined and as the Green Revolution greatly expanded agricultural productivity. While public health catastrophes have occurred which can be conceptualised as arising from the exceeding of local boundaries, including that of tolerance (e.g. the 1994 Rwandan genocide), these have mostly been considered temporary aberrations, of limited significance.

Another example is the devastating Syrian civil war. However, rather than an outlier, this conflict can be analysed as an example of interacting eco-social causes, related to aspects of limits to growth, including from climate change and aquifer depletion. To view the “root causes” of the Syrian tragedy as overwhelmingly or even exclusively social leaves civilization vulnerable to many additional disasters, including in the Sahel, elsewhere in the Middle East, and perhaps, within decades, globally.

An aspect of the Limits to Growth debate that was briefly prominent was “peak oil”. Fear of this has fallen with the oil price. But this does not mean that Limits to Growth are fanciful or will apply only in the far future, even if (which seems unlikely) the oil price remains low. The proximity of dangerous climate change is the starkest example of an imminent environmental limit; other examples include declining reserves of phosphorus and rare elements. Crucially, human responses have the capacity to accelerate or delay the consequences of these limits. 

Greater understanding of these issues is vital for enduring global population health.

Keywords: Anthropocene, civilization collapse, climate change, conflict, environmental determinism, human carrying capacity

* This was published as "Planetary overload, limits to growth and health" in Current Environmental Health Reports