Friday, November 07, 2008

Susan Blackmore, John Gray and the problem of population

From the 'Free Thinking Festival' in Liverpool, as broadcast on Radio 3's Night Waves. Gray argued that green thinking is dangerous because the usual green prescription - stop using fossil fuels, switch to organic farming, etc - won't work and is politically unrealistic. Most importantly, he sees, following Lovelock, that the Earth is a living thing. Human action may have caused the climate crisis, but human action cannot prevent it from happening.

Side-by-side with emissions, Gray believes there is the problem of the destruction of biosphere which might 'mop up' greenhouse emissions. Industrialisation represents the 'legitimate aspirations' of the people in China and India. We need to adapt to climate change, whose ultimate cause is industrialisation plus the rise of human numbers.

Technical fixes we can move to: nuclear energy (see Finland's decision to go 100 per cent to nuclear); Dutch giving up land to the sea, creating new wetlands. We should consider all non-harmful solutions - biofuels are, for example, intrinsically harmful due to deforestation. Need to use technology to reduce the impact of humans on the Earth over the next 50 years. Environmental tokenism/utopianism will lead to unpleasant phenomena like resource wars.

Sue Blackmore: Like others here, I expected something more Daniel-like. The real unsaid thing, the real free-thinking thing that needs to be said is that the fundamental problem is that there are too many people.

John Gray: I did say that.

Sue Blackmore: Yes, you did, but you didn't grasp the nettle and nobody can because what it means and I find myself in the situation is thinking is 'for the planet's sake I hope we have bird flu or some other thing that will reduce the population because otherwise we're doomed. As a humanitarian person I want to have cures and to have people not die. I don't know what to do about this problem. But at least it's a Free Thinking festival and we need to say that's the problem. What do we do?

Presenter: Okay, that's the well-known neuroscientists Dr Sue Blackmore. A brief answer to that.

John Gray: Well, people want forbidden thoughts, they say this is all too conformist and we've heard it all before. I think we've heard one now. Do I share it? Only in part. There's a twofold cause I said in the present situation. It's worldwide industrialisation plus the present level of human numbers which is unsustainable. But I don't see the solution to that in bird flu or some other catastrophe. First of all, because that involved cataclysmic suffering but also because it would take down an awful lot of the other lifeforms because it would be associated with terrible wars. What we've really got to think of is a way in which we can get through the next 50 years and at that point, I believe, population will begin to trail off as it has done and is beginning to do in many parts of the world.

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