Monday, June 25, 2012

Robert Zubrin…Promoter of Hell on Earth

This is a follow up to my post Robert Zubrin; The Merchants of Despair - Initial Reaction

In Merchants of Despair Zubrin mocks the concept of limits to growth or finitude as he terms it. He calls it a “quasi-religious concept upon which the Malthusians stake the ultimate truth of their dogma” (Zubrin, 2012, p.123).

You’d expect then that Zubrin would take some care in demolishing this foundational dogma of his hated enemies, the Malthusians. Let’s see how he does.

Zubrin asks (Zubrin, 2012, p.124):

In what sense can a resource be regarded as finite if you not only never run out, but never experience any shortage? Our ability to turn the matter of planet into useful items is increasing daily. Someday it may all be useful.” (my bolding)

Zubrin must truly believe then that the Earth is an infinite resource that humanity can draw upon forever. But then, Zubrin acknowledges that the Earth has a finite mass of 6 trillion trillion (6 x 1024) kilograms. So the finitude of the Earth is not a quasi-religious concept but a simple scientific fact. This seems a very shaky start for Zubrin, acknowledging that the Earth is indeed finite. 

Zubrin explains that if the human population increased a thousandfold from 6 billion (this was our population in 1999) to 6 trillion we’d still have a trillion kilograms of mass available to each one of us. 

Mathematically this is true, as far as it goes. However, there are a number of considerations Zubrin does not discuss:

  • How quickly might this occur?
  • What sorts of technologies might allow us to support such a vast human population?
  • What would the ecological impact be to the rest of life on Earth if we increase our human population to 6 trillion?
  • What would the human impact be like of living on a world with a thousand times the number of people alive?
  • Will some nations expand their populations at the expense of others, in a repeat of Hitler’s quest for lebensraum (living space)?
  • is the future that we all want? 
A useful rule of thumb for calculating population increase is The Rule of 70.  Put simply, if you take the annual growth rate and divide it into 70 then you get the population doubling period. Taking examples from recent human population growth, if the annual growth rate is 1% then the doubling period is 70 years and if the annual growth rate is 2% then the doubling period is 35 years.  Hence, it took just 39 years for our global population to double from 3 billion in 1960 to 6 billion in 1999.

So how do we estimate how long it would take for our 6 billion to increase by a ratio of one thousand? Well, 10 population doublings slightly exceeds a thousandfold increase (210 = 1024). Hence, at a 2% annual growth rate 10 population doublings would take just 350 years (35 x 10) and at a 1% annual growth rate it would take 700 years (70 x 10).  Note that if the annual growth rate were to vary between 1% and 2% then our global human population would still increase more than a thousandfold somewhere between 350 and 700 years from now.

So in just 350 to 700 years, at very modest annual growth rates, our human population would be 6,144 billion (6 x 1024) or just over 6 trillion. Can we do it? Should we do it?

Zubrin’s vision will require some pretty advanced technologies in order to manipulate Earth’s matter to meet an ever-growing human population. One of the most futuristic technologies is perhaps K Eric Drexler’s vision (Engines of Creation, 1990) of molecular nanotechnology, precision engineering of non-organic material at the molecular level. See K. Eric Drexler - An Exponentialist View for more. However, in his earlier work Entering Space Creating a Space Faring Civilzation Zubrin (p 240) suggests that the absence non-organic self-replicating entities and the omnipresence of organic self-replicating entities combine as strong evidence against the possibility of “Drexler-style nanotechnology.” Zubrin is betting on bioengineering and “human-improved microorganisms” instead.  Time will tell, but it’s interesting that Zubrin’s blind faith in human ingenuity does not extend to Drexler’s molecular nanotechnology.

And it’s a pity then that Zubrin hasn’t learn to respect the lessons that Malthus taught us back in 1798 (An Essay on The Principle of Population) as Drexler has (Drexler, 1990):

"Concern about population and resources will remain important because the exponential growth of replicators (such as people) can eventually overrun any finite resource base."

When it comes to imagining a world of filled with humans we cannot do better than the great American science-fiction author Isaac Asimov (refer Isaac Asimov - An Exponentialist View for more).   In one of his non-fiction works (Stars In Their Courses) Asimov imagined a world of 20 trillion (just two more population doublings from Zubrin’s 6 trillion would exceed this, at 24 trillion) with a population density everywhere equivalent to New York’s Manhattan Island (Asimov, 1974):

"There would have to skyscrapers everywhere. There would be hardly any open space. There would be no room for wilderness, or any plants or animals except those needed by human beings."

Like Drexler, Asimov warns us that in the end (Asimov, 1974):

"Science, in other words, cannot keep up with populations no matter what it does."

However, Asimov’s most famous quote on the impact of overpopulation comes from an interview with Bill Moyers in 1988:

“… democracy cannot survive overpopulation. Human dignity cannot survive it. Convenience and decency cannot survive it. As you put more and more people onto the world, the value of life not only declines, but it disappears. It doesn't matter if someone dies.”

This is the Hellish future that Zubrin promotes for humanity in the coming centuries here on Earth. His stark lack of care for non-human life is obscene, and his locust mentality for Earth’s resources to be turned into an endless sea of human flesh is just appalling.

Of course, the obvious next question is what next? What happens after we get to 6 trillion?  After all, Zubrin is meant to be dismantling the foundation dogma of the Malthusians that the Earth is finite. So why does Zubrin stop at 6 trillion? Well, it’s a big number of people and there’s still plenty of matter to go around (a trillion kilograms each…hooray!). By avoiding a timeframe, or explaining what sort of world it would be like, Zubrin promotes the positive and omits the negative.

In fact, Zubrin then avoids the challenge he set himself (to destroy the dogma that Earth is finite) by making the leap into space (Zubrin, 2012):

Long before we have six trillion people, or sixty billion for that matter, we will have mastered space travel.”

So Zubrin has cheated and sidestepped the question of what happens next on a finite Earth.  Why? Because he knows that the Malthusians are right!

Ah, you cry, but Zubrin is right as once we’re in space human expansion is potentially limitless!

Well, if the Earth is in fact finite then so too is our Solar System. Each asteroid, each comet, each planet, each moon and every other solar system will also represent localized limits to growth that space-faring replicators such as humans will be forced to face.

I think it's also worth repeating the idiotic claim of one  of Zubrin's heroes, Julian Simon, who won his famous (but comparatively irrelevant) bet on commodity prices against one of Zubrin's hated Malthusians, Paul R Ehrlich (Simon, 1995):

"We now have in our hands - in our libraries really - the technology to feed, clothe and supply energy to an ever-growing population for the next 7 billion years."

Simon apparently revised that claim down to 7 million years when challenged. Professor Albert Bartlett's answer at the time was (Harding, 1999):

"Let us, Professor Bartlett said, assume that 7 million is what Simon had in mind. Assuming the present world population of six billion and the recent rate of population growth of 1 percent per year, how long would it take for the human population to equal all the atoms of the universe. The answer is shocking: just 17,000 years."

Also, do not forget that we left six trillion humans on Earth some time after we mastered space travel. So, Mr. Zubrin, what happens to that human population on Earth?  If they keep growing as you say they can - thanks to their limitless ingenuity - then they will consume the entire Earth and all non-human life on it. Read my article Human Global Ecophagy to see just how quickly humans could consume the entire planet and turn it all to human flesh…roughly speaking it could take as little as 1,600 to 3,200 years.

In conclusion then it is obvious that the mocking Mr. Zubrin has failed to make his point. The Earth is, after all, finite. The Malthusians are right on this point.

However a finite world does not automatically mean, as Zubrin (2012) claims (p252), that:

If the idea is accepted that the world’s resources are fixed with only so much to go round, then each new life is unwelcome, each unregulated act or thought is a menace, every person is fundamentally the enemy of every other person, and each race or nation is the enemy of every other race or nation….Only in a world of unlimited resources can all men be brothers.”

What about the possibility that we promote education (especially for women), health and longevity in the Third World in order to foster a demographic transition and reductions in population growth rates? Every child would be even more precious if we voluntarily restricted the size of our families.

What about the possibility that in the future wealth and consumption are more equitably distributed rather than focussed in the Western democracies?

What about the possibility that many humans respect and care for non-human forms of life on Earth and for biodiversity? What about the possibility that  humans are willing to protect other life on Earth at our own expense?

Above all, we must avoid Zubrin’s blind faith in limitless human ingenuity (Zubrin, 2012, p.252):

That is why we must reject antihumanism and embrace instead an ethic based on faith in the human capacity for creativity and inventiveness.”

Zubrin’s unscientific, irreponsible and dishonest blind faith will push us towards human global ecophagy and the worst of all holocausts not just for humanity but also for all life on Earth.

Wake up…we live in a finite world (6 x 1024 kilograms, according to Zubrin himself) and we therefore need to plan to live sustainably on Earth even as we reach for the stars. 

Zubrin presents a false dichotomy, arguing our choice is either sustainability or growth. But we can do both - live sustainably where we must (such as Earth), and expand into space when we can.

Asimov, Isaac. The Stars In Their Courses. Panther. 1974
Drexler, K. Eric. Engines Of Creation - The Coming Era of Nanotechnology. Oxford University Press. 1990.
Hardin, Garrett, The Ostrich Factor: Our Population Myopia. 1999
Simon, Julian, The State of Humanity: Steadily Improving, Cato Policy Report, 1995 (based on the introduction to his 1995 book, The State Of Humanity)
Zubrin, Robert. Merchants of Despair Radical Environmentalists, Criminal Pseudo-Scientists, and the Fatal Cult of Antihumanism. New Atalantis. 2012.


Blogger bill said...

Thank you for reading Zubrin's book so I don't have to. Your review was very helpful.

10:38 AM  

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