Ehrlich Lecture – Population, environment, extinction and ethics

Blavatnik Public Lecture with Prof. Paul Ehrlich

CSER Cambridge
Streamed live on 9 May 2016
Population, Environment, Extinction and Ethics

It seems to me that Paul is a bit over half right.

Yes we have some really serious issues.
Yes we need to address them.

And people are starting to see quite clearly what the root causes of those issues are, and how to strategically work past them.

Complexity theory is starting to mature, and in combination with games theory and probability offers us a path to security and abundance, and it is not at all a business as usual path.

Technology is expanding at a far greater exponential than population.
Information technology is doubling roughly every 10 months, and that is starting to move automation into the realm of molecular level manufacturing.
We are working out ways to do more with less.

We know how to harvest sunlight at useful efficiencies already, it is mostly the mindset of profit that keeps us wedded to fossil fuels, and there are some real technical issues to work through.

We are developing ways of manufacturing and recycling that make no sense from an economic perspective (of making profit) but make a great deal of sense from the perspective of creating a world that universally delivers freedom, prosperity and security to all people.

People are starting to wake up to the logic of exchange based values, and the fact that anything universally abundant has, by definition, zero value in an exchange based (market based) system of values. Thus oxygen in the air has no market value, because it is universally available, yet it is arguably the single most valuable thing to every person alive.

The fact that markets require scarcity to deliver value is now directly in opposition to our technological capacity to universally deliver an abundance of a large and exponentially expanding set of goods and services. The often repeated lie that “demand expands to fill supply” is false at so many different levels. Most people have quite reasonable needs, that are quite easy to meet (much to the dismay of marketing companies).

Money and markets are now becoming an even greater existential threat than nuclear weapons.

And it is possible for individuals to change their perspectives, to see new possibilities, and sometimes it takes a while – quite a few repetitions of exposure.

So while Paul accurately spells out some very real issues, he does a very poor job of exploring our exponentially expanding abilities to deliver technological solutions, and to ensure that every individual on the planet has what those of us in the west would consider a high minimum standard of living.
That may not mean V8 gas guzzlers for everyone, and it will mean efficient transport available to all, to go where-ever they reasonably choose, in reasonable time frames.

And yes, there will be limits, and the most effective way of expressing those limits will be as individual energy budgets (matter is near enough to unlimited, energy is the major constraint – at least for those of us living on earth – those who go to space won’t be so tightly limited). Most people will be able to easily live within their energy budgets, and some people may need to get the agreement of others to use the unused portions of their budgets for a period, and we may need to have statutory limits on the amount of time such agreements can be binding for, say 2 months.

It’s quite easy to get off our addiction to oil, once we get over our addiction to money (and the implicit scarcity based measure of value present in all markets measures of value). Such scarcity based measures arguably worked reasonably well when most things were in fact genuinely scarce. Now that we are moving into an age where molecular level manufacturing and recycling are becoming possible, there is little or nothing that need be scarce. Money is nearing the end of its utility as an organising tool.

Exponential technology is taking us post scarcity, and it will be in everyone’s best interests, and it will involve change for everyone.

So yes – sure, there are risks.
Nothing in reality is 100% certain.

And I am more cautiously optimistic about the future of humanity now than at any time over the last 53 years (since the Cuban stand-off).

And sure, there are lots of opportunities to make very big mistakes, and there are also lots of opportunities to cooperate for the mutual advantage of everyone.

Humans are really good at cooperating for mutual benefit, provided the benefits are real and can be clearly seen by everyone.

In this case, they are real.
The problem is, not too many people are looking in a useful direction or in a useful way!
And that will change, is changing, exponentially.

Three specific points I want to elaborate on that Paul raised.

And hour into the actual video (post title), Paul says:
“drivers of major problems:
too many people;
too much consumption amongst the rich;
too little equity – making it very difficult for large numbers of people to participate.”

To me this is not accurate.
We have enough energy and mass and space to give all the people a high standard of living, if, and only if, we stop using money and profit as our guiding principles and start using the actual reasonable needs of people, and the most efficient technologies we have available to meet those needs. Marginal cost of production is now so low that there is little economic incentive for environmental efficiencies. Markets are failing in many different dimensions of complexity space.

So change is required.
Such change is even in the self interests of the most wealthy in today’s system, but few of them can currently appreciate that – they are so used to relying on what worked in the past (at all levels of abstraction).

Secondly, I completely agree with Paul when he states about 1:16:40 in to the talking part that the single greatest issue is “getting everyone on the planet well fed and secure”. It is abundantly clear in logic that we cannot achieve that within a market based (scarcity based) set of values. We can use markets as tools in the process, but it will never make sense to do so from a market based perspective – the incentives to maintain scarcity are just too great – too much profit to be made.

The third issue relates to how Paul used the term “ethics” as “agreed upon standards of behaviour” (just after the comment above).

That is only sometimes true. The most common use of Ethics is “The moral principles by which a person is guided” – and in that sense Ethics are a very personal thing, though in most cultural contexts the majority of those values are shared with others. There is also a sense in which ethics are “the rules of conduct recognized in certain associations or departments of human life”. So both of those senses can have real meaning, and for many people, particularly many people who’s evolutionary path is post cultural, ethics is a very personal (though usually universalised) thing.

About Ted Howard NZ

Seems like I might be a cancer survivor. Thinking about the systemic incentives within the world we find ourselves in, and how we might adjust them to provide an environment that supports everyone (no exceptions) - see www.tedhowardnz.com/money
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