What does the future look like?

As I said in a previous blogpost, there is no dispute among scientists that massive change is happening to our planet right now and that is very likely human induced. What is under debate though are scenarios for the possible consequences. They range from a very optimistic view that essentially claims that so far all the gloom and doom predictions were incorrect (a prime example is Paul Ehrlich’s population bomb prediction) and did not have the negative effects that were projected. A strong proponent of this view is Earl Ellis (http://ecotope.org/), who came for a visit to OU in November, 2013. Ellis also points out that human impacts on the environment are probably as old as our species.

Does this really mean we can trust our own ingenuity and assume that humanity will be presented with a solution for our man-made problems on time? Or are we just playing Russian Roulette with the environment, not knowing if the next chamber will actually be loaded?

Jeff Nekola is lead author on a paper in the highly respected journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution (TREE) (http://www.cell.com/trends/ecology-evolution/abstract/S0169-5347%2812%2900300-X), which tries to evaluate the situation from a biologist’s point of view. The paper explains how key resources are in fact not unlimited, and argues that humanity needs “negative population growth for a number of generations”, a sustainable economy, and a “new social norms” that favor the “welfare of the global population over that of specific individuals” [page 129].

Personally, I think the last proposition clashes with two elements of evolved human nature. First humans are inherently selfish and selfishness is often the key to individual success. Indeed, the unit of selection for biologists is the individual (or its genes), not the population of the planet. Furthermore humans have a poor track record at making good decisions on behalf of humanity or the planet.

There is one sentiment in Nekola’s paper, however, with which I wholeheartedly agree: if we want to have a chance at all, natural and social scientists (and humanities) will need to talk to each other and work together. The facts seem to be in, but how do we get individuals to respond? How do we explain the widespread resistance to science (not just on global change) in societies that flourish based on the scientific research of past generations? And how do we get our elected leaders to tackle the problems?

Jeff Nekola will give a seminar in the Biology Department on September 24th, 2014 at 4:30pm in George Lynn Cross Hall 123, on the University of Oklahoma campus, Norman, OK.

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