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Dear Old Paul Ehrlich Still Doesn’t Get It

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Sure and species are being wiped out, left right and centre. The human population is continuing to grow and isn’t that terrible. We’re all off to Hell in a handcart and we’re going to take the rest of Gaia with us.

That’s the message of the latest – as with all the previous ones – jeremiad from Paul Ehrlich.

The planet is facing a “ghastly future of mass extinction, declining health and climate-disruption upheavals” that threaten human survival because of ignorance and inaction, according to an international group of scientists, who warn people still haven’t grasped the urgency of the biodiversity and climate crises.

The 17 experts, including Prof Paul Ehrlich from Stanford University, author of The Population Bomb, and scientists from Mexico, Australia and the US, say the planet is in a much worse state than most people – even scientists – understood.

Well, OK, Oom Paul, what do we do about it then? The answer being rather less than useful:

The gravity of the situation requires fundamental changes to global capitalism, education, and equality, which include inter alia the abolition of perpetual economic growth, properly pricing externalities, a rapid exit from fossil-fuel use, strict regulation of markets and property acquisition, reigning in corporate lobbying, and the empowerment of women. These choices will necessarily entail difficult conversations about population growth and the necessity of dwindling but more equitable standards of living.

Some of that is useful – a proper pricing of externalities for example.

But that abolition of perpetual economic growth? How are we to go about that? Sure, we can institute socialism which achieves that rather nicely but no on’s ever had a form of that which does properly price externalities, nor take care of the surrounding environment.

Further, the desire to stop economic growth seems more than a bit perverse. You know, given that it’s what people actively desire. Finally, it’s not even necessary. Whatever the ecological constraints we decide to impose upon ourselves it’s still possible to have economic growth. For economic growth is the adding of value.

As long as we continue to find ways of adding value then growth both can and will continue. Growth doesn’t presuppose, nor require, the consumption of more resources. Economic growth isn’t even measured by the resources consumed or not consumed. It’s measured by the value added.

So, say we deliver unto ourselves a perfectly circular economy. We abstract from the environment no new resources. Sure, it’s not entirely possible because entropy but imagine. Can we still have growth? Sure, all we need is to find manners to add value to the resources we have to hand. Turn Simon Cowell into chipboard – that’s growth, right there. Or, to be ludicrous about it, lower the amount of gold we need to make a piece of electronics – say, reduce plating from 200 nm to 2 nm – and we can make more electronics from our limited stock of gold.

Ehrlich is still stuck in the most basic misunderstanding of how the economy works. Which he’s spent a lifetime making the most glaring errors in his statements about the economy. And you’d think that 5 decades after he started to make this mistake people would have cottoned on by now, no?

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2. to wipe out or destroy

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