Twenty-Three GeniusesIf there is a Pulitzer Booby Prize for stupidity, waste no time in awarding it to The New York Times’ Monday feature, The Unrealized Horrors of Population Explosion. The former “newspaper of record” wants us to assume now that the sky’s the limit for human activity on the planet earth. Problemo cancelled. The article and accompanying video was actually prepared by a staff of 23 journalists. Give the Times another award for rounding up so many credentialed idiots for one job.
Apart from just dumping on Stanford U. biologist Paul Ehrlich, author of The Population Bomb (1968), this foolish “crisis report” strenuously overlooks virtually every blossoming fiasco around the world. This must be what comes of viewing the world through your cell phone.
One main contention in the story is that the problem of feeding an exponentially growing population was already solved by the plant scientist Norman Borlaug’s “Green Revolution,” which gave the world hybridized high-yielding grain crops. Wrong. The “Green Revolution” was much more about converting fossil fuels into food. What happens to the hypothetically even larger world population when that’s not possible anymore? And did any of the 23 journalists notice that the world now has enormous additional problems with water depletion and soil degradation? Or that reckless genetic modification is now required to keep the grain production stats up?
No, they didn’t notice because the Times is firmly in the camp of techno-narcissism, the belief that the diminishing returns, unanticipated consequences, and over-investments in technology can be “solved” by layering on more technology — an idea whose first cousin is the wish to solve global over-indebtedness by generating more debt. Anyone seeking to understand why the public conversation about our pressing problems is so dumb, seek no further than this article, which explains it all.
Climate change, for instance, is only mentioned once in passing, as though it was just another trashy celebrity sighted at a “hot” new restaurant in the Meatpacking District. Also left out of the picture are the particulars of peak oil (laughed at regularly by the Times, which proclaimed the US “Saudi America” some time back), degradation of the ocean and the stock of creatures that live there, loss of forests, the political instability of whole regions that can’t support exploded populations, and the desperate migrations of people fleeing these desolate zones.
As averred to above, the Times also has no idea about the relation of finance to resources. The banking problems we see all over the world are a direct expression of the limits to growth, specifically the limits to debt creation. We can’t continue to borrow from the future to pay for our comforts and conveniences today because we have no real conviction that these debts can ever be repaid. We certainly wish we could, and the central bankers running the money system would like to pretend that we could by making negligible the cost of borrowing money and engaging in pervasive accounting fraud. But that has only served to cripple the operation of markets and pervert the meaning of interest rates — and, really, as a final result, to destroy any sense of consequence among the people running things everywhere.
The crackup of that financial system will be the signal failure of the collapse of the current economic regime. The financial system is the most fragile of all the systems we depend on (though the others do not lack fragility). This is the reason, by the way, that oil prices are so low, despite the fact that the cost of producing oil has never been higher. The oil customers are going broke even faster than the oil producers. Does anybody doubt that the standard of living in the USA is falling, despite all our cell phone apps?
The basic fact of the matter is that the energy bonanza of the past 200-odd years produced a matrix of complex systems, as well as a hypertrophy in human population. These complex systems — banking, agri-biz, hop-scotching industrialization, global commerce, Eds & Meds, Happy Motoring, commercial aviation, suburbia — have all reached their limits to growth, and those limits are expressing themselves in growing global disorder and universal bankruptcy. Do the authors of The New York Times report think that the oil distribution situation is stable?
There were two terror bombings in Saudi Arabia the past two weeks. Did anyone notice the significance of that? Or that the May 29th incident was against a Shiite mosque, or that the Shia population of Saudi Arabia is concentrated in the eastern province of the kingdom where nearly all of the oil production is concentrated? (Or that the newly failed state of neighboring Yemen is about 40 percent Shiite?) Have any of the 23 genius-level reporters at The New York Times tried to calculate what it would mean to the humming global economy if Arabian oil came off the market for only a few weeks?
Paul Ehrlich was right, just a little off in his timing and in explicating with precision the unanticipated consequences of limitless growth. But isn’t it in the nature of things unanticipated that they generally are not?