Review of The Royal Society report -- People and the Planet (Part #1)
The Royal Society has published the results of a study, by a very distinguished group, on the population challenge of humanity (People and the Planet, 2012). The approach is introduced as follows:
Given the controversies that surround the issues of population, consumption and the environment, the Royal Society felt that a close look at the debates would be both timely and appropriate. It established an international Working Group, with wide ranging expertise covering natural and social sciences, to provide an overview of the impact of human population and human consumption on the planet, and the subsequent implications for human wellbeing. (p..11)
It is explicitly put forward not as a definitive statement on these complex topics, but as an overview of the impacts of human population and consumption on the planet. As noted, the initiative is very significant in its own right because of the many political, religious, cultural and psychological sensitivities associated with any consideration of the matter. Discussion has long been carefully avoided at the highest levels, even though the extensively debated resource "shortages" can be usefully understood as the direct systemic consequence of a population "longage", as argued by Garrett Hardin (From Shortage to Longage: forty years in the population vineyards, Population and Environment: a journal of interdisciplinary studies, 1991):
Instead of speaking of a shortage of supply we could just as truly say that there is a longage of demand. As we seek solutions to practical problems why do we never use the word "longage"?
The Royal Society report is very clear and well-written -- a model of excellent presentation. It gathers many facts and trends otherwise disseminated across a variety of often inaccessible reports. The references cited reflect this.
Consistent with such exemplary professionalism, further comment can however be framed by a caricature whose aptness is easily recognized within the world of computer users. This is the fairly well-known tale of a small plane, lost in thick cloud on a dark and stormy night in the vicinity of Seattle -- as a consequence of the failure of the navigation system. Suddenly the top of a skyscraper appears close by, with a man visible on the terrace of a penthouse office. The pilot shouts to the man: Where am I? The man responds: You are in a Cessna 182, flying at 600 feet, in turbulent conditions with extremely low visibility. You are in a plane that is currently unstable and your control system urgently requires an upgrade. The pilot says to the co-pilot: Now I know where we are. The co-pilot asks: How? The pilot responds: The information was absolutely correct and totally useless. That must therefore have been an expert in the Microsoft office tower.
Similarly, the Royal Society report presents information that is absolutely correct and fundamentally useless. It is an excellent analytical summary of data pertaining to the demographic situation of the world. It offers well-articulated conclusions and recommendations. In doing so it completely fails to address the question of why the many trends -- known over decades, as the report acknowledges -- have not enabled appropriate institutional responses. Neglecting to attend to this matter, suggests that its worthy recommendations will be similarly ignored in practice. For some, as in other contexts, this may well have been a factor in undertaking the initiative, or in supporting it.
It is in this sense, as with the "office tower", that the professionalism of the report could be seen as an excellent example of "silo thinking". It is beyond reproach with respect to the mandate by which its preoccupations are implicitly defined. It's relevance to governance of society is merely as a point of reference -- which may be all to which "science" currently aspires. It fails completely to explain the widespread existence of arguments which dispute its perspective -- and which are considered valid by large constituencies to which governance must necessarily attend. In the spirit of silo thinking, such arguments are simply "wrong" and irrelevant. They are not -- from the perspectives of those making them. What then?
The report was released immediately prior to that of Jorgen Randers (2052: a Global Forecast for the Next Forty Years, 2012), as presented to the Club of Rome, and reviewed separately (Engendering 2052 through Re-imagining the Present, 2012).