Why Science Matters

It turns out that getting the science right matters. We live in a wondrous age in which a breathtaking understanding of our universe is possible. We understand the nature of life though DNA and how structures arise though protein construction during embryonic development. We are discovering possibly inhabitable worlds at distances measured in light years. We have mapped the interior of our own planet and explored its oceans from deep under its waters and scanned them from above with orbiting satellites. This is not to say that science will answer all our questions, or provide all sources of value in all areas of meaning. But ignore it at your peril. It is typically ignored when its findings grate against deeply entrenched beliefs that people have refused to update in light of more recent and more well-grounded information. It is ignored when its findings chafe against political, religious, or economic dogma.

Take the case of Trofim Denisovich Lysenko. Lysenko was a Russian agriculturist. He became a superstar in the Communist Party and rose quickly to positions of power and authority. He became a favorite of Joseph Stalin and scientists who thought Lysenko might be leading things in the wrong direction where reprimanded and criticized. He became the powerful leader of the Academy of Agricultural Sciences and actively pursued ‘correcting’ those scientists who were buying into Western ideas about genetics (and by correcting I mean, purging, imprisoning, and killing those who would not come around). And what were those ideas? Mendelian genetics. Lysenko was a Lamarckian. He held the long discredited idea that organisms could acquire the characteristics they obtained in life and pass them on to their offspring. And why did he hold this view? Was he was convinced after carefully weighing the evidence? Were genuine scientific debates at stake? No. He held these views because they fit in with theories and prejudices that he thought more compatible with Lenin’s version of Marxism; and there was no amount, or kind of, evidence that he would have accepted to displace those views.

As a result, Soviet genetics was fifty years behind Western science. Key aspects of the green revolution, without the perspectives of the Darwinian and Mendelian synthesis, were missed under Lysenko’s watch.

There are cultural wars waging as we speak over the best and brightest science that has been available since civilization started. Science is making staggering progress in our factual knowledge. Of course, there will be updates, amendments, arguments, and questions. That’s what science does. But ignore it, and genuine, pressing problems will be missed, opportunities lost, and progress stymied. Remember Lysenko.

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32 comments to Why Science Matters

  • Great article and anecdote about Lysenko.

    There’s a great talk by Elder McConkie called The Caravan Moves which ends with the imagery that despite all the obstacles and and people who fight against the church it will continue to press forward and leave the dissenters behind. And those who stay with the caravan will reap great blessings.

    So it is with science to. Just like the Church, good science moves on and though people may fight it and “snap at the heels” of those who are engaged it, good science will press forward. Those who remain on this caravan will reap an unfathomable multitude of blessings. Those who fall off the caravan of good science will find the will have been left behind with nothing to show for it but their pride. (Just as the Soviets you describe.)

    So, in both the case of the Church and good science: The Caravan Moves On!

  • SteveP

    Brad, I don’t allow strings of out of context quotes. This is for discussion not proof texting.

  • SteveP

    Joseph, let me just say (and I need to say it more) I adore your comments.

  • Stan

    There is awe and beauty in science. Truly inspiring when free of the shackles of dogma.

  • Matt Thorley

    Hi Steve,

    I recently posted the following on your discussion string titled The Myth of Global Cooling, but I think it is applicable here as well.

    The Young Men’s President in my ward likes to conclude all his lessons with “therefore what”, meaning, so what will you do with what you have been taught. So Steve, I ask you, “therefore what”? Your arguments are reasoned and rational, so what would you suggest we do about them? You brought up the theory of plate tectonics. The scientific consensus on that issue has changed over time, so what are we doing differently because of that change? Is the theory of ACC like the theory of plate tectonics in that the scientific consensus may change, but there really isn’t much we can do about it? Or do you advocate that we do something about ACC? If so, what do you advocate? You see, therein lies the problem for us “deniers”.

    My perception is that the issue of ACC (by the way, when did it change from AGW (anthropogenic global warming) to ACC?) has been co-opted by people with a political agenda that does not align with mine. So while you may tend to see this as an issue of science, I tend to see it as an issue of politics. I would find it very refreshing to find that you have no politics associated with your ACC science. So what about it Steve? Is ACC strictly a scientific issue, like plate tectonics, or is there something political (i.e. spend public money, adopt regulations, tax commercial activity, etc.) you think we should do about it?

    No reasonable person denies that the earth has been warming since coming out of the “Little Ice Age” about 1850. That’s just data and it cannot be denied. The questions are, is that warming abnormal? How much of the warming we have experienced over the past 150 years is natural, and how much anthropogenic? Are there reasonable options to mitigate the anthropogenic portion?

    By the way, if this really is just about science and not politics, why don’t ideas like this ever get a fair hearing?

    http://intellectualventureslab.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/10/Stratoshield-white-paper-300dpi.pdf

    I completely agree that science matters. I once explained to a friend that the way I see it, God is the ultimate scientist. What makes him God, and by the way omnipotent (from our point of view at least), is that he knows and obeys all law. God does not do magic. What God does, which we call a miracle or supernatural, is not done by magic because God is above the law, rather, God does it by knowledge of and obedience to all law. The problem is that we don’t yet know all law, so it appears supernatural or magic to us. And that is the point I want to make, we don’t yet know all law. As long as both science and religion admit their limitations, I see no inconsistency between them at all. My religion embraces all truth regardless of the source. And, I would contend, there is nothing inconsistent between my religion and the science we know so far.

  • Hey — new template. Very nice.

    I am grateful that LDS leaders largely avoid picking fights with science and support the teaching of bona fide science at all LDS universities. There will always be some tension between the claims of faith and the claims of science, but the Lysenko approach is obviously not the way to deal with those tensions.

  • SteveP

    Matt, It’s unfortunate that CC has become politicized, the case for anthropogenic climate change is as solid as any science we have. What you do with it depends on what changes it will make to the world, our economy, and to our ecological support system (including agriculture). Information is power as the Lysenko case demonstrates. Here’s a nice take on what the Chinese are doing. The question is today when it comes to CC are we acting more like the Soviets or the US did at Lysenko’s time. There were no certainties then either. Science just told us how to bet. It turned out to be a good one for us. The Soviets lost that one. Science is the best bet we have, despite what politics (of the then Soviet Union or now) might be saying.

  • Matt Thorley

    Steve,

    You direct me to Thomas Friedman? Really? He starts out with, “In a year that’s on track to be our planet’s hottest on record,”. Just for the sake of discussion, I will stipulate that may be true. So how long is the record? Perhaps a 150 years. As stated above, we have been coming out of the Little Ice Age since about 1850, so of course it has been trending up (less than 1 degree centigrade, by the way). The relevant questions are; is the increase outside normal bounds? How much of the increase in anthropogenic, and how much is natural? What can we realistically do about the anthropogenic component?

    Then there is this. “ There is really no debate about climate change in China” No kidding! Nor is there much debate about anything else at all. So what does that prove? He mentions the “runaway pollution in China”, and it’s true. Command economies have a dismal environmental record. It is only free economies that produce enough wealth to support environmental progress. So why are Friedman and you holding up China as an example? Give me a break!

    And Freidman talks about the jobs being created. Now you’ve got my interest. I’m all about creating jobs. My senator, Harry Reid, says it his job to create jobs, but I don’t believe government can create jobs. It can only confiscate wealth from the private sector, which really does create jobs. Don’t get me wrong, there is a place and purpose for government, but I’m tired of the idea that government creates jobs. And I’m really tired of hearing about “green jobs”. Give me data and economics I can sink my teeth into, not some pie in the sky about government creating green jobs.

    Thomas Friedman! Really? Color me disappointed.

  • Matt, this isn’t the place for politcal rants. For those interested in what scientists are saying I recommend Science, Nature or any of the climate science journals. Also, Scientific American, Science News, National Geographic, Discover, The Economist, Atlantic Monthly, American Scientist, Science Daily, do a good job of responsible reporting on the primary literature.

  • I’ve recommended it to Matt before, but I would add Skeptical Science. It’s becoming an indispensable resource for the lay person.

    Geoengineering may have a place in mitigation. Who says it doesn’t?

  • Jared*! Once again you point the way!

  • Cap

    This is my bit on science.

    I love it, I feel that there are many aspects that I understand and accept such as evolution. But where I really know my stuff, (at least more so than many aspects of science) is in astrophysics and astronomy. I feel that having a knowledge of the stars, how they work, how the space in between them is formed and its functions, (etc.) help me to understand that God works with nature and with science. (I guess just science as nature is pretty much a part of it but you get what I mean).

    I think having willingness to listen to what sciences can teach and understanding that it can be a part of religious views is an wise and important realization. We cannot afford anymore to throw science by the wayside but must have a desire to listen to what it has to offer and accept it; and like looking at the stars, understand that God loves science.

  • Mark D.

    the case for anthropogenic climate change is as solid as any science we have

    That is one one the most ridiculous things I have ever heard. The gold standard of science is predictive power and as of yet AGW theory has very little – primarily because the problem domain is too complex and too many other things are going on. To compare our level of understanding of climate change with the level of predictability that we have with both classical and quantum mechanics is laughable.

  • Matt Thorley

    Steve,

    You’re the one who referred me to Thomas Friedman, the New York Times and China. I’m more than willing to stick to science and leave politics out of this dicsussion. I would find that refreshing indeed.

    As near as I can determine, over the past say half million years, the history of the earth’s climate has been ice ages lasting approximately 100,000 years, interrupted by warm interglacial periods of approximately 10,000 years. It appears that the earth started coming out of the last ice age about ten to twelve thousand years ago, so if the pattern continues, we are about due to begin another ice age. And, of course, within those interglacial periods there is variability, such as the “Little Ice Age which ended approximately 150 years ago.

    What I have been looking for is “smoking gun” evidence that anthropogenic CO2 is the primary driver of the warming the earth has experienced over the past 150 years. Even within the current interglacial period, it does not appear that the recent warming is unprecedented. It appears the earth’s climate has been warmer at least a couple times before within the current interglacial period when anthropogenic CO2 could not have been the culprit, so where is the evidence that CO2 is the primary driver this time? I read the IPCC 4th Assessment Report looking for that evidence and couldn’t find it. Can you point it out to me?

  • “compare our level of understanding of climate change with the level of predictability that we have with both classical and quantum mechanics is laughable.”

    I made no claims to understanding or predictability, I made claims into the science–peer review, care of analysis, depth of discussion and debate, conclusions drawn on the evidence available, effort in modeling methods, etc. On those things it matches nicely with quantum mechanics. Incidentally, if you make physics your standard, chemistry, biology, and many other sciences are going to have to be thrown out. The politburo has done a fantastic job of obfuscation on this issue. Comparing apples and oranges.

  • Matt, You are going to have to get out of the denier industry to find the answers to your questions which have been answered again and again in the literature I’ve provided. A nice book on the denier industry is Historian of Science Naomi Oreskes & Erik Conway’s book, Merchants of Doubt, which details the Pravda-like efforts of the denier industry to obscure the science (brought to you by the very same people who worked for the Tobacco denying cancer connection before being hired by petroleum industry) . Murdoch uses his media empire to like a Soviet style propaganda machine to confuse the public about the science.

    But then you really don’t want to know, do you? You’ve been provided with sources to the answers to your question again and again. The inter-glacier diversion has been answered ad nausium, but the denier industry keeps holding up as if there where something there. There isn’t. Go look at the science, not the denier web industry. If you don’t accept science just say so, and live in a world where it’s ignored. You will find the spirit of Lysenko smiling down on you.

  • Matt Thorley

    Steve,

    I assume you are open minded enough to admit that there is an “industry” and “literature” supporting both sides of this issue. I will admit the industry and literature supporting your side is larger than that supporting my side, but that is changing. You keep telling me to go look at the “science” as if the “science” only supports your position. Are you open minded enough to admit that there is real science (and real scientists, I might add) that supports the “denier industry”? If not, then I guess we will continue talking past each other, and may the spirit of Lysenko smile upon you as well.

  • Stan

    Matt,
    - We know CO2 is a green house gas. That can be demonstrated in the laboratory.

    - We are rapidly reintroducing large quantities of CO2 into the atmosphere that has been sequestered in the Earth’s crust since the carboniferous period 300 million years ago.

    - Even deniers admit the Earth is warming and as best that science can tell, it started about the same time the CO2 started being reintroduced.

    I admit, these three facts alone don’t support causation, but why would your default position be that the warming is a natural cycle and not caused by reintroducing all this CO2? Given that the majority of climate scientists are strongly warning us of painful and expensive adaptation to climate changes we are causing (yes there are other facts that support causation), why do you believe a minority of mostly non-climate scientists who say it’s normal, don’t worry about it? Just wondering what predisposition would cause you to fall on that side of the issue.

  • Matt Thorley

    Stan,

    I understand the physics of green house gases. There is no doubt that CO2 is a green house gas which can contribute to global warming. No reasonable person can deny that.

    There is no doubt that that amount of anthropogenic CO2 has increased dramatically over the past 150 years. No reasonable person can deny that either.

    There is no doubt the global average temperature has gone up about one degree Celsius over the past 150 years. That cannot be denied. What also cannot be denied is that the Little Ice Age ended approximately 150 years ago.

    So why is my default position that the warming is natural? Occam’s razor. The simplest answer is usually the right one, unless something more complicated can be demonstrated.

    Why do I care? Because I believe this issue has been co-opted by people with a political agenda that does not align with mine. Steve wants to keep the discussion about the science and I would like that. But this is not the theory of plate tectonics where getting the science wrong doesn’t mean much in the real world. Would that scientists remained scientists, and did not become political activists.

    Science by consensus strikes me as odd. Consensus would seem to be more a tool of politics, not science. Shouldn’t scientists be using the scientific method, not consensus? Certainly I don’t need to give you all the historical examples where the scientific consensus has been wrong. The scientific consensus is continually changing. That’s what science does.

    The bottom line is I’m not comfortable basing our politics on scientific consensus, particularly not now with our fragile economy.

  • Stan

    “So why is my default position that the warming is natural? Occam’s razor.”

    I look at those three simple facts and believe Occam’s razor would lead to believe that warming is anthropogenic. CO2 causes warming. We are adding CO2 to the atmosphere. It is warming. I don’t see how Occam’s razor would lead you to another conclusion. Add the weighty science that Steve talks about and it is difficult to understand how a thinking person would conclude warming is mostly natural. Given the three simple facts I stated, I think the reasonable position would be cautionary at least.

    “Shouldn’t scientists be using the scientific method, not consensus?”

    My friend, is it not the scientific method that leads to a consensus? What does Occam’s razor tell you? Is it more likely that climate scientists have conspired with considerable solidarity to support a political agenda, or that the scientific method has indeed led to a consensus which to the best of scientific ability approximates the truth?

    “The bottom line is I’m not comfortable basing our politics on scientific consensus, particularly not now with our fragile economy.”

    If we cannot make political decisions based on input from a consensus of scientists regarding a very scientific topic, what then should we base those political decisions on? The minority of scientists? Our gut feelings? (Truthiness, as Mr. Colbert puts it) Actually, your last sentence states the true matter of fact. It’s the economy, stupid! It is my belief that economic factors drive the opposition to AGW consensus and, as Steve pointed out, those detractors are using the same methods used by the tobacco industry, acid rain opponents etc… which in retrospect were despicable and deceptive. I too think the economy is important, but that economy must be sustainable. Degrading our environment does not sustain our economy in the long run. An economic motivation to maintain an unsustainable status quo is very short sighted and unwise.

    Now, I think you have thought this issue through quite well. You acknowledge the facts but draw a different conclusion. I wonder though if it is really the economy that is your primary determining factor. If that is the case, that’s fine. I think it would be nice if we could move the conversation to acknowledge that it is really all about the economy. Warming, anthropogenic warming, is occurring. We can try to stem our CO2 output as well as other measures but those measures would be detrimental to our economy. Let’s move past arguing about the science and focus on what can or ought to be done. If we, as a society, decide that the short term economy is more important than long term sustainability, so be it! We won’t be the first society the has willfully destroyed itself. At least this time it won’t be in ignorance.

  • Matt Thorley

    Stan,

    I will concede that the economy probably is my primary concern. If the issue were a bunch of scientists debating plate tectonics, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be involved. However, having said that, I’m not willing to concede that Steve has the science right and we just need to agree to disagree about the economy.

    I assume the IPCC 4th Assessment Report is the “gold standard” of the climate establishment. If you think it is something else, please enlighten me. Now I’ve read the 4th Assessment Report looking for evidence that anthropogenic CO2 is the primary driver of observed temperature increase over the past century. There are all kinds of information in that report about the impacts of global warming and what can be done to mitigate them, but I can’t find exactly what I am looking for. It appears to me that what the report kind of does is say, well it can’t be this, and it can’t be that, so it must be anthropogenic CO2. It is kind of proof by inference, not direct proof, or even evidence. If I’m mischaracterizing the report please enlighten me.

    It seems to me that the climate establishment tends to oversell what is actually known about climate change while concealing fundamental uncertainties and open questions regarding key processes involved in climate change. In the models used to project catastrophic global warming, open questions include not only the size, but the direction of feedback effects that are responsible for the bulk of the predicted temperature increase due to anthropogenic greenhouse gases. Those feedback effects are assumed to strongly positive when more and more peer reviewed scientific papers seem to suggest that the feedback may actually be small, or even negative.

    Is it possible to have a debate about the IPCC 4th Assessment Report, climate models, what they can and cannot do, and feed backs assumed in those models? If so, I’m in. If not I guess we’ll just have to agree that it’s the economy stupid, and call it a day.

  • Matt, the uncertainties are well understood. The denier industry tries to make it look like there are problems: “but the direction of feedback effects that are responsible for the bulk of the predicted temperature increase due to anthropogenic greenhouse gases. Those feedback effects are assumed to strongly positive when more and more peer reviewed scientific papers seem to suggest that the feedback may actually be small, or even negative” is very typical of the statements in the denier literature as if these haven’t been addressed by the the scientists who look at and continue to look at these model concerns. My expertise is in complex simulation. This is as good as they get in any science. Again go to the sources above. We have excellent records of C02 and temperature going back 600,000 years and some data going back millions and there is nothing natural about what we see. It’s unprecedented (including the interglacials the dinier literature keeps bringing up–as if the data they cite was a surprise to the scientists who actually study the interglacials and are part of those arguing for anthropogenic CC). There may be magical source, but humans seem completely sufficient to explain it. There is no alternative. All natural causes have been eliminated. If there is another explanation scientists would love to hear it. It’s human or magic caused right now.

    Stan you hit the nail on the head. Thank you for that. That was very well expressed. It is an ethical issue. The science is solid, the question is what are we going to do about it, how much to we care about future generations’ economy, environment and quality of life. If we don’t: drive the system down to collapse.

  • Forgive me for repeating a comment from my blog, but it seems appropriate here.

    Look at 10 Indicators of a Human Fingerprint on Climate Change. Searching for “fingerprint” will turn up other information. You might also find this Wikipedia page helpful.

    I think that the elimination argument should not be undervalued. The climate is physics, not magic. If we can rule out other known drivers of climate change, it leaves us with a shrinking pool of candidates.

  • Mark Olsen

    I hate to break the chain, but I just wanted to comment on the history that Steve points to in his excelent little blog. I read a biography of Stalin some years ago, and the deaths caused by Lysenko were not limited to a few scientists who held to “western” scientific ideas. The policies of Lysenko were at least partially and perhaps more directly responsible for policies in agriculture that led to famine and starvation in Russia. Hundreds of thousands of deaths are (in this case) the result of not paying attention to science.

    Thanks, Steve, for reminding us to stay viligent.

    mark

  • Matt Thorley

    Steve,

    “The science is solid, the question is what are we going to do about it, how much to we care about future generations’ economy, environment and quality of life. If we don’t: drive the system down to collapse.”

    So if I don’t buy what you are pedaling, I don’t care about future generations? Do you have any idea how silly you sound? Fools keep making Malthusian catastrophe predictions that never come true. Do you really want to be associated with them? Do you really think this is the way to win the hearts and minds of people?

    I still contend the relevant questions are; is the increase outside normal bounds? How much of the increase in anthropogenic, and how much is natural? What can we realistically do about the anthropogenic component? You answer those simple questions by giving me a bibliography, as if I am not worthy to have an opinion until I have read them all. I would hope (but doubt) you are open minded enough to admit that I could just as easily answer you with an alternate bibliography. You may hate to admit it, but there are real scientists doing real science who do not agree with you position. Here is one recent example of a real scientist who has become feed up with the establishment.

    http://thegwpf.org/ipcc-news/1670-hal-lewis-my-resignation-from-the-american-physical-society.html

    I am perfectly willing to stipulate that you are more well read, better qualified, and more intelligent than I am. “My expertise is in complex simulation.” I get it! But if you can’t provide simple answers to the simple questions I pose, I don’t trust you, and neither will the voters. When I was in grad school (MBA, BYU, 1980), we were taught that if we can’t take a complex issue and provide a simple explanation, then we don’t really understand the issue. I’ve found that to be true. Sure the science is complex, that’s why we have scientists, but if you can’t distill it down to simple answers to simple questions, I don’t believe you really understand the issue, and I don’t believe you can win the hearts and minds of the people.

    I find it interesting that you started this discussion with the story of Lysenko. Lysenko represents the establishment. He was a favorite of Joseph Stalin. He was the government! Who exactly in this discussion do you think represents the “establishment”? The warmists? Or the deniers? You have academia, the media, and the governments on your side. You talk about “the Pravda-like efforts of the denier industry to obscure the science (brought to you by the very same people who worked for the Tobacco denying cancer connection before being hired by petroleum industry)” as if there are no resources behind your position. Make no mistake, in this issue, your position is the Goliath. My position is the David, and we all know how that story ends. May the spirit of Goliath smile upon you.

  • “I would hope (but doubt) you are open minded enough to admit that I could just as easily answer you with an alternate bibliography.” Not one based on Science. Thanks for the link to a particle physicist who has been part of the denier industry since the 90′s. I don’t get my particle physics from climatologists either sorry. And no if you are not going to look at the science you cannot form a scientific opinion. Our position is Goliath in the sense of the supporting evidence, yes, but in terms of resources spent, i.e. Money ,you trump us by billions, the oil industry, and the Murdoch empire of disinformation blows us out of the water.

  • Matt Thorley

    Steve,

    Talk about “the pot calling the kettle black”. I assume the “Murdoch empire of disinformation” you refer to is Fox News. So what do you consider ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, MSNBC, etc? Just straight forward news reporting with no political bias? Does anybody still believe that? By the way, notice how we are having a difficult time leaving politics out of this science discussion? You would like to be seen as an unbiased scientist who is just calling it as he sees it, but you just can’t veil your political advocacy.

    So let’s talk about the money behind this issue. Greenpeace searched for denier funding and found $23 million paid by Exxon over 10 years. However, it appears that Exxon may be funding both sides of this issue.

    http://gcep.stanford.edu/about/sponsors.html

    Now, maybe Greenpeace missed some things and the $23 million should have been higher. And maybe there was funding from other fossil fuel companies that Greenpeace didn’t find, but you are still just talking about tens of millions of dollars.

    The US government alone has spent $79 billion on climate research and technology since 1989. To be sure, a lot of this funding has paid for things like satellites and research and studies, but is also includes the PR departments of NOAA, NASA, EPA and a host of other federal agencies. And this does not include amounts spent by other governments around the world. You really expect anyone to believe there are more financial resources behind climate deniers?

    The big problem is that there are no grants for scientists to demonstrate that carbon has little effect. There is no Institute of Natural Climate Change. That’s why denier scientists tend to be retired, like Steve McIntyre and Anthony Watts, because they are the only ones with the time and expertise the do the work. It’s a monopsony.

    But the big money is in carbon trading. According to the World Bank, carbon trading totaled about $130 million in 2009. This is total trades, not profits, but the point is that there is a lot of money involved, and money talks. Because they make money on both the buy and sell, trading firms such as Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan, BNP Paribas, Deutche Bank, Barclays, Morgan Stanley, and just about every other financial institution you can name are just licking their chops to get a piece of this trading action. If it were still around, ENRON would be a major player in these markets. The head of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission has predicted that within five years carbon trading could be a $2 trillion market, larger than the market for oil.

    So Steve, do you really expect anyone to believe there are more resources behind deniers than warmists? You really think deniers are the Goliath in this issue?

    Oh, and by the way, are particle physicists not worthy of an opinion on this issue? Or is it only those who have an “expertise in complex simulation”?

  • Matt Thorley

    Hey Everyone,

    This looks interesting. It appears to be a public debate about AGW between two qualified scientists in Montana, of all places. I intend to book mark it and watch what happens.

    http://climateclash.com/2010/09/15/introduction/

  • Fools keep making Malthusian catastrophe predictions that never come true.

    Matt, you should check out Jared Diamond’s “Collapse” for a good historical overview of Malthusian catastrophes–and narrowly averted catastrophes–in human history. No, there hasn’t been a large-scale population collapse yet, but there’s evidence that humans have exceeded the population limits dictated by local resources in a number of places (Easter Island, Chaco Canyon, etc.) and seen local populations crash as a result. Population collapse has been seen for many other species when a population expands beyond the carrying capacity of the local environment; there’s no reason to believe the same wouldn’t be true for humans.

  • Argh. Apparently I can’t use tags correctly.

  • Matt Thorley

    Kristine,

    The proven reserves of practically every commodity you can name, including oil, are greater now than they were a decade ago, which in turn was more than the decade before that. If these resources are finite, and they certainly are, how can that be? The answers are; 1) we discover new sources, 2) technology improves or prices increase so that previously uneconomical resources become economically recoverable, or 3) an alternative resource is discovered and/or developed. In reality all three happen at the same time. Now I understand that in the long run the earth is finite, but I see no reason why this pattern wouldn’t continue for at least the foreseeable future.

    Certainly it is possible for a civilization to overuse finite resources to the point that it brings down that civilization. Isolated civilizations like Easter Island, and I would argue the Jaredites, may be examples of that, but it is much more difficult to make that argument on a world-wide scale. On a world-wide scale, shortages are more often driven by economics or politics, which is why those are the areas I think we need to really focus on.

    Command economies have a miserable environmental record. It is only free economies that produce enough wealth to indulge the luxury of environmental protection. Command economies can barely feed their people. So to me the secret of a clean environment is a free economy that produces significant wealth.

  • S.Peck,

    We disagree on some things, but agree on others like the message in this post. Good job.

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