We’re All Going To Die: Alarmists In Our Midst

  • Date: 27/11/19
  • Steven Boykey Sidley, The Daily Maverick

We are inundated daily with shock stories of climate-collapse-driven mass extinction and other dire horrors. But the reality is different — extrapolation of graphs into the future is a terrible idea in the face of human ingenuity and technological and societal change.

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We are all going to die. The raspy scream of headlines, op-eds, demonstrators, wonks, activists, dinner guests and friends. Or worse, our kids are all going to die (a dash of guilt to spice up the fear). The public sphere is so awash with alarms so loud that our ears ring.

Not so fast.

We read it every day. Climate, Trump, fundamentalists, Putin, antibiotic resistance, asteroids, AI weapons, Brexit. Misery is certain to come, thousands will die. No, wait, millions. Maybe billions.

Well, perhaps. But more likely perhaps not.

An interesting report came out recently from the Brookings Institution in the US. It presented findings from a Stanford academic, Michael Webb. Webb was apparently dissatisfied with the gloomy predictions of imminent mass global unemployment under the boot of artificial intelligence and robotics and other Fourth Industrial Revolution magic.

His very clever trick was to analyse applications lodged at the US patent office across many industries and professions to see who would lose jobs in the future, and by what means (he used AI to do the analysis, a lovely irony). It turns out that we are not all going to lose our jobs. Some will, and surprisingly, a goodly percentage of those will be university-degreed experts, where AI really earns its stripes — doing the smart things that smart humans think are untouchable. The rest of the middle class need not worry too much, Truck drivers, of course. Repetitive labour, yes. But for the majority of jobholders — don’t worry too much.

And then there is the climate crisis. The science behind climate change is pretty robust, even largely settled at this point, with arguments and contestation mainly happening at the arcane edges of the science. But a careful look at the reports of the IPCC (where the science has been grinding away for a long time in one of the largest multi-country science investigations in history), you will find none of the horrors described by Greta Thunberg or Extinction Rebellion or many smart writers and journalists. To those horrors — they may be out there, but you will find no scientific consensus, just opinion and less-than-disciplined extrapolation.

What you will find in the IPPC studies is a careful description of a clear problem. You will find little about specific extreme weather events (like the fires in Australia or California), or cities being swamped in the next 15 years, or mass eco-migrations, or the dessication of food supply or sixth extinctions and so on.

You will find inside and outside boundaries of temperature rises and ice studies and sea level rises and parts-per-million carbon graphs. No one is unconcerned and some are more concerned than others, but there are not many within the deep-number-wrangling labs who will extrapolate to the point of the human extinction or even mass immiseration.

The prediction-caution shown by scientists is at least partially a result of previous embarrassments. Like The Club of Rome in the early 1970s and its population projections (and how the world would certainly see mass starvation and social upheaval on a spectacular scale). What happened? It failed to foresee success in contraception and family planning and massive-scale increases in food production. The same happened with AIDS (whatever happened to the blaring headlines about the depopulation of Africa?). It was nonsense, imagined by well-intended people. Extrapolation of graphs into the future is a terrible idea in the face of human ingenuity and technological and societal change.

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