paging Reverend Malthus

29 August 2006, 8:35 pm

Once upon a time, I attended a conference about (unclassified) artificial intelligence applications in (defense) logistics. One presentation there trumped any horror flick I’ve ever seen for sheer terror. It dealt with robots designed to enter storage tanks that had a mixture of toxic contaminants, identify their contents, and neutralize them (if possible). What made it scary was how matter-of-fact and precise the presenter was. He didn’t really say anything that I hadn’t heard environmental activists say before, but he said it more calmly, with more concrete supporting data, and much less obvious an agenda. (Actually, his agenda, as far as I could tell, was to get government funding to build awesome robot spiders.)

Today I attended a similarly frightening presentation. It was nominally about the environmental impact of commercial air travel, specifically its contribution to global warming. It was the first such presentation I’ve seen that assumed its audience remembered a fair chunk of high school-level chemistry and physics. It’s not as if I’ve pooh-poohed the evolving consensus about climate change. But this overview went beyond the level of “this is what’s going into the atmosphere, and this is how it behaves once it’s there” and into “here are some equations that govern this behavior.” It substantially altered my understanding of the issue.

The reaction of the audience was almost as interesting as the lecture itself. The questions made it obvious that I was with a group of people who took a real interest in mitigating the environmental consequences of their behavior. As the lecture wound down, it entered distinctly Malthusian (or, if you prefer, Club of Roman) territory, and people responded with a variety of coping mechanisms, including belligerance toward the speaker and some remarkably unfunny attempts at humor.

It seemed to me that the human brain was just not comfortable trying to process the conclusions that extrapolation from well-supported facts leads to.

My coping mechanism? Denial — not of the problem itself, but of the futility of trying to deal with with it. I’ve never bought that old saw about “accepting things I can’t change” and I don’t see any reason to stop now. More on that soon.

3 comments on “paging Reverend Malthus”

  1. Ezra

    I’m curious to know the details of what made the speaker’s arguments Malthusian. The audience was probably right to recoil. Malthusian thinking is just evil; at best it’s a completely inhumane way of looking at humanity and at worst it’s a justification for eugenics projects. It can also be refuted simply, by looking the last 200 years of history.

    And the thing is, you could also say that his arguments were just conclusions extrapolated from well-supported facts. They just gloss over those fuzzy, hard-to-quantify human attributes of intellect, desire, responsibility, altruism, selfishness, and greed that have had this funny way of driving people, individually and en masse, to increase their capacity to survive without procreating their way into starvation and disaster.

    I’m optimistic too. Though I do think we will get to sustainability in ways that I never would have predicted.

  2. bernd

    Things are hopeless, and yet there is still a good chance we’ll emerge from under this rock of unenlightened greed and cultural rot (as a species) and start acting like the stewards we’re meant to be.

    Here’s jane goodall’s take on it (4 reasons for hope.) It’s my first time replying on your site, so I don’t think I’m whitelisted. Here’s the raw URL:

    http://www.janegoodall.org/jane/essay.asp

  3. Terri

    I’ll just quote ’cause it’s worth seeing again: “My coping mechanism? Denial — not of the problem itself, but of the futility of trying to deal with with it. I’ve never bought that old saw about “accepting things I can’t change” and I don’t see any reason to stop now.” Yay!!! Who says you/we can’t change things? (OK, I guess I know who… but who cares what they say?)

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