On the Soapbox

ABC's earth2100

Tuesday, June 2, 2009
Keywords: Politics, Economics

So I watched ABC's earth2100 tonight. I did not have very high hopes for this show (I often avoid TV in general), but I was pleasantly surprised, though I think their projections were still too optimistic.

First, I think that everyone must read Garrett Hardin's The Tragedy of the Commons, in which he famously declared that "[the] freedom to breed is intolerable." I should add that the amount of moral value that we accord human life is dependent on the quality of life. Historically, even as recently as the early 20th century, we have treated human life with relatively little value; in a country where the euthanasia of one person in a vegetative state could cause an uproar, it is hard to imagine that this same country had embarked on a civilian construction project, the Panama Canal, in which tens of thousands of Americans died. Historically, the amount of value that we accord to life has not been a function of religious awareness or moral advancement, but rather to the quality of life and the amount of capital and resources available per capita. It is no coincidence that the Black Death also marked the start of Western advancement and political reform. Of course, most people are oblivious to history and are thus not aware of this relationship. Perhaps this ignorance of history is why the Catholic Church smugly declares birth control as evil even though such a claim depends on a level of life value that cannot be sustained without population control.

Second, I like that ABC brought up the fall of Rome because most people have the faulty notion that Rome fell because of external invasion. And while external invasion may have been the proximate cause, the Rome's fall was really the result of a breakdown in the economy and trade and the collapse of various regions into autarky. By the time the city of Rome fell, Rome had already long collapsed from within. The result were the Dark Ages in which much of civilization and accumulated knowledge was lost for centuries. Civilization is very fragile, and the sort of collapse imagined by ABC is actually quite possible and had already happened to the civilization that most resembles our own.

Third, I liked the analogy that our problem is that we are drawing from our bank account and that we will soon realize that the account is empty. By consuming at unsustainable levels, we are effectively borrowing from the future, but because that borrowing is covering up for the current shortfall, many people will not recognize that there is a shortfall until the futures starts to collect on those debts.

Finally, our society loves to look for a technical solution to problems, because technical solutions are non-disruptive. But there are limits to what we can achieve with science and technology, and technical solutions can only serve as a catalyst. For example, over the past two or three decades, engine efficiency has steadily increased by 30%, but instead of converting that increase in engine efficiency into energy savings, we have squandered it on larger, heavier vehicles. Across the board, cars today are heavier than comparable models of the same class three decades ago, and compounded with more people driving cars of a larger class (e.g., SUVs), our average aggregate fuel efficiency has actually decreased despite our technical advancements. In another example, instead of ensuring food security, the world has squandered advanced in agriculture by growing in population. As Hardin noted in The Tragedy of the Commons, there is no technical solution. And as such, I think that earth2100 is far too optimistic, because it glosses over the need for a fundamental rethinking of the problem of externalities.

This entry was edited on 2009/06/03 at 00:08:20 GMT -0400.