It's nearly over

by Russ Roberts on March 30, 2005

in Environment

The human race is about to go extinct taking everything down with it.  Unfortunately, science has already died.

The headline in the Guardian:

Two-thirds of World’s Resources ‘Used Up’

Only a third left.  What does that mean exactly?  Let’s turn to the article.

The human race is living
beyond its means. A report backed by 1,360 scientists from 95 countries
- some of them world leaders in their fields – today warns that the
almost two-thirds of the natural machinery that supports life on Earth
is being degraded by human pressure.

The
study contains what its authors call "a stark warning" for the entire
world. The wetlands, forests, savannahs, estuaries, coastal fisheries
and other habitats that recycle air, water and nutrients for all living
creatures are being irretrievably damaged. In effect, one species is
now a hazard to the other 10 million or so on the planet, and to itself.

"Human activity is
putting such a strain on the natural functions of Earth that the
ability of the planet’s ecosystems to sustain future generations can no
longer be taken for granted," it says.

Pretty frightening stuff.  What’s the evidence for this extraordinary pessimism at a time when life expectancies in almost every area of the world are at all time highs?

· Because of
human demand for food, fresh water, timber, fibre and fuel, more land
has been claimed for agriculture in the last 60 years than in the 18th
and 19th centuries combined.

· An estimated 24% of the Earth’s land surface is now cultivated.

·
Water withdrawals from lakes and rivers has doubled in the last 40
years. Humans now use between 40% and 50% of all available freshwater
running off the land.

·
At least a quarter of all fish stocks are overharvested. In some areas,
the catch is now less than a hundredth of that before industrial
fishing.

·
Since 1980, about 35% of mangroves have been lost, 20% of the world’s
coral reefs have been destroyed and another 20% badly degraded.

·
Deforestation and other changes could increase the risks of malaria and
cholera, and open the way for new and so far unknown disease to emerge.

Look at that last item again:

·
Deforestation and other changes could increase the risks of malaria and
cholera, and open the way for new and so far unknown disease to emerge.

That is not science.  That’s scare-mongering.  Or wild-guessing.  Or something else.  But it’s not science.  Is that from the journalist or the report?  Alas, it’s more or less from the report.  Here’s how the press release words it:

The degradation of ecosystem services could grow significantly worse
during the first half of this century and is a barrier to achieving the
UN Millennium Development Goals. In all the four plausible futures
explored by the scientists, they project progress in eliminating
hunger, but at far slower rates than needed to halve number of people
suffering from hunger by 2015. Experts warn that changes in ecosystems
such as deforestation influence the abundance of human pathogens such
as malaria and cholera, as well as the risk of emergence of new
diseases. Malaria, for example, accounts for 11 percent of the disease
burden in Africa and had it been eliminated 35 years ago, the
continent’s gross domestic product would have increased by $100 billion.

When you read the actual press release rather than the news story, you realize that we’ve left the realm of science and are somewhere else.  ‘Could grow worse.’  ‘Four plausible futures.’  (Only four?)  And they’re worried about malaria’s impact on GDP?  But we could have saved millions of lives from death by malaria by using DDT.  But that’s bad for the environment.  So is that good or bad?

Look at the first two items:

· Because of
human demand for food, fresh water, timber, fibre and fuel, more land
has been claimed for agriculture in the last 60 years than in the 18th
and 19th centuries combined.

· An estimated 24% of the Earth’s land surface is now cultivated.

Sounds scary.  But why go back 60 years?  Is 24% the critical number where the whole system is going to collapse?  Why?  Where’s the evidence?  I’m trying to find a reliable source on the web for what has happened since 1960.  Most sources suggest that land under cultivation has risen from 1.3 billion hectares in 1960 to about 1.4 billion hectares today.  (In the meanwhile, I’m searching for a reliable link.)  If true, not so scary.

Water could be a problem down the road.  It’s a problem now around the world due to poorly run thugocracies around the world, but that’s not what the report is referring to.  The world’s fisheries are probably mismanaged.  But where’s the evidence that we’re standing on the edge of a precipice?  There isn’t any.

I plan to sleep well tonight, though I am worried about the state of science.

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