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The “Sustainability” Paradox–Interview with Paul Ehrlich

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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While the term “sustainability” and the values it implies have gone mainstream, global atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide yet continue to rise, as do per-capita consumptions rates in developed and developing counties. “Consumer cultures” in places like the U.S. apparently die hard. Meanwhile, a warming planet dissolves ecosystems and life-sustaining natural cycles and resources like sugar cubes in a pressurized teapot.

Dr. Paul Ehrlich of Stanford University and colleagues both at the University and representing the Nature Conservancy in Seattle, Washington, imparted wise words and inconvenient truths alike on the state of our planet in a recent Nature article published in a June 2012 issue dedicated to the Rio Earth summit and “second chances” for Earth. Citing the words of U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, the article started out thus: “… We believed in consumption with consequences. Those days are gone… Over time, that model is a recipe for national disaster. It is a global suicide pact.”

Agricultural soils are being destroyed in a tenth of the time that it took to form them. Water in aquifers is being pumped out much faster that it is being recharged. The animals, plants and other organisms that run our life support systems for us are being destroyed at unprecedented rates, in what is essentially the sixth large extinction in 65 million years.

I interviewed Dr. Ehrlich for this article on the paradox of sustainability.

“You can’t negotiate with the environment,” Ehrlich said. “A standard footprint analysis shows that if you want to be sustainable with the kind of civilization we have now – that is with seven billion people, about a billion of them hungry and about another two billion living more or less in misery – you have to have one and a half Earths.”

According to Ehrlich, humans are not living on the interest from Earth’s natural capital, but rather on the capital itself. We can’t change the physics of climate and the laws of nature, he points out, but we can change our social and economic systems.

“Climate change may very well not be the worst of the problems we are facing,” Ehrlich said. “There is no significant dispute in the scientific community that the climate is changing, that humanity is playing a very large role in that change, and that it threatens to destroy our civilization. But on the other hand, the toxic chemicals that we are distributing from pole to pole may turn out to be a worse problem, as could be the epidemiological environment, which grows worse and worse as our population grows and we get more and more immune compromised. And the resource wars that we are already involved in could easily escalate.”

Ehrlich and his colleagues at Stanford University and beyond have offered up their own vision of a sustainable future and how to get there.  They propose an interwoven web of goals including population rescaling, social equity across gender, and buffering against global shock waves through resilience and natural capital planning. According to Ehrlich, the currently limited reach of sustainability is just as much a problem of governance as it is a problem of environmental and technological constraints.

“The destruction of agricultural, water, and ecosystem resources – these things are well known in the scientific community,” Ehrlich said. “But if you followed the debates among the seven dwarfs running for the Republican nomination for President, no single serious problem here was even mentioned in those debates. That is why we need dramatic social change. The scientific community knows what sorts of things we ought to be doing to solve these problems, but we aren’t doing any of them.”

Depleting Natural Resources

The marshy wetlands of the Atchafalaya Basin in south central Louisiana are an example of natural capital that is in peril from oil-pumping and industrial forces of society. These wetlands are some of the largest natural carbon sinks in the world, sequestering excess carbon dioxide that would otherwise drive further climatic warming. These wetlands and the cypress trees that populate them, as shown here, act to naturally protect the coastline from erosion and hurricane damage, to store and convey floodwaters, and to absorb sediments and contaminants. Destroying these wetlands in the name of industrial progress and oil resources has serious consequences for local ecosystems. 80% of U.S. coastal land loss is occurring in Louisiana, with the state losing the equivalent of one football field every 30-60 minutes due largely to human disturbance. Image © by Paige Brown, @FromTheLabBench.

The marshy wetlands of the Atchafalaya Basin in south central Louisiana are an example of natural capital that is in peril from oil-pumping and industrial forces of society. These wetlands are some of the largest natural carbon sinks in the world, sequestering excess carbon dioxide that would otherwise drive further climatic warming. These wetlands and the cypress trees that populate them, as shown here, act to naturally protect the coastline from erosion and hurricane damage, to store and convey floodwaters, and to absorb sediments and contaminants. Destroying these wetlands in the name of industrial progress and oil resources has serious consequences for local ecosystems. 80% of U.S. coastal land loss is occurring in Louisiana, with the state losing the equivalent of one football field every 30-60 minutes due largely to human disturbance. Image © by Paige Brown, @FromTheLabBench.

The production of natural goods and water, water purification, marshland-based coastal protection, insect-driven crop pollination, cultural benefits (who isn’t inspired by nature and our recreation in it?), preservation of genetic diversity: these are just a few of the services that our planet provides us with. But more than half of these services are now in a troubling state of decline. Perhaps even more troubling, declining natural capital and pressures on Earth’s capacity to support human activity are inappropriately concentrated in the poorest regions of the world.

An inequality of environmental services leaves the inhabitants of poor and developing countries most vulnerable to natural disasters – many of which, ironically, are being increasingly precipitated by climatic warming environmental degradation forces exerted by the richest of nations. For example, highly damaging tropical cyclones look to become more frequent as ocean waters warm, posing risks to coastal inhabitants who have limited resources available for protection and or evacuation. These cyclones may do more damage in the future than they do today as land subsidence in the Gulf Coast, for example, is precipitated by pumping the land for oil and developing storm-protective wetlands for agricultural and residential purposes.

Ehrlich draws attention to ecosystem science, tools and decision-making approaches based on natural capital evaluation. He and his colleagues support an integration of natural capital into land use and other resource decisions on a large scale. As a society, especially here in the U.S., we tend to undervalue the natural capital and ecosystem services that sustain our way of life. Under an umbrella goal of harmonizing people and nature by securing critical natural capital, Ehrlich and other environmental researchers support efforts to sequester carbon from the atmosphere, conserve water sources and supplies, control flooding, protect coastlines, and enhance scenic beauty.

Meanwhile, it is now taking more and more energy to secure less and less resources.

“We are now chasing after the scarcest, most depleted, most dangerous resources,” Ehrlich said.

When the first oil well in the United States started at the surface of the ground and went down 70 feet, it hit oil. More recently, the Deepwater Horizon oil well started under a mile of water and had to go down roughly two miles to hit oil. Today, the move toward Artic resources promises to take even more energy to secure hard-to-reach resources, and to pose even greater risks to oil drilling personnel and local wildlife.

“Probably the best single measure for how much destruction we are doing is humanity’s level of energy use,” Ehrlich said. “People don’t understand what is described as the nonlinearities associated with population growth. If the projections turn out to be correct, we are going to add 2.5 billion more people to the Earth by 2050, and those 2.5 billion are going to do much more damage than the last 2.5 billion, because human beings are smart. We picked the low hanging fruit first. We didn’t start farming in the river valleys, and now every person that you add has to be fit for worse and worse land.”

While reducing our per capita consumption, we also need to be preserving critical areas of ecosystem services for future generations. You wouldn’t jam up your only fresh water well to build up a parking lot. But that is essentially what goes on in many places all over our planet. Natural resources are often wasted in the name of urban and commercial progress.

Global Shocks Waves

Fishing for natural resources in Bayou Sorrel, Louisiana. Image © by Paige Brown, @FromTheLabBench.

Fishing for natural resources in Bayou Sorrel, Louisiana. Image © by Paige Brown, @FromTheLabBench.

Not only are natural resources being depleted rapidly on a worldwide basis, but environmental degradation in one region of the world can easily affect inhabitants in other regions, in what Ehrlich terms global shock waves.

Climate change is, among other things, melting glaciers around the planet, which has serious consequences for the availability of water for agricultural operations. This is the case in the Himalayan water tower, or the ice and the snow of the Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateau.

“As the ice and snow melts more – and it will certainly melt more –the flow of rivers in South Asia is going to be restricted during the growing season,” Ehrlich said. “Same as in California. You may get just as much precipitation during the year as you always had, but if water isn’t stored up there as snow, then the water will run off during the winter when it can’t be used for farming. Then in the farming season, you will be short of water.”

Water shortages could become the source of armed conflict between nations suffering from droughts and limited water supplies.

“Recent research shows that a nuclear war between two small countries could easily bring down civilization through both its ecological and economic impacts,” Ehrlich said. “So people think that they are isolated from these impacts, but we are really not isolated.”

Contagious diseases such as the bird flu, which may become more prevalent as warmer environmental conditions foster their development and spread, are another example of the dangers of a globally connected society in an age of environmental degradation. Meanwhile, societies around the world are not prepared to deal with the spread of contagious disease on a global level.

“Our global connectedness means that the way farmers combine ducks and chickens and pigs overseas could easily affect the lives of people in the US,” Ehrlichsaid. “We have problems that are truly global, but we have no governing system that allows us to operate globally.”

Fixing the Problem – What is it Going to Take?

Ehrlich and colleagues suggest potential fixes for the sustainability paradox, but as always these fixes are not simple and require cooperation and effective communications on a large scale. Ehrlich argues for equality of women as important players in environmental protection in developing nations

“I think women are absolutely essential to sustainability in a series of dimensions,”  Ehrlich said. “The most obvious one, and the one that is widely recognized in the scientific community, is that if you give women full rights, same as men, equal pay, equal opportunities, then you can expect that their birth rate will drop rather dramatically.”

Ehrlich and colleagues point to the paramount importance of social justice, education and communication in fostering environmental awareness. Global warming mitigation and environmental protection are perhaps more intimately connected with the human condition than they are with our planet’s physical one.

“We have the potential to educate the entire public about what is actually going on in the world, but we aren’t doing it,” Ehrlich said. “For example, we should start teaching about the environment in kindergarten. Instead of saying “See Scott Run,” we should say “See the Plant Grow in the Sun,” to start making the connection to photosynthesis. The average faculty member at a major university couldn’t give you a coherent story about how we know that there is a huge human factor in the climate impact story, because we don’t train people that way.”

Communication is Key

Author with an alligator

Author with an alligator

Communicators have for years now been trying to attack the problem of environmental degradation and human-driven global climate change on the social science and mass communications front. Collective communication is paramount to solving a problem that exists on a global scale. However, newer forms of media may not be bringing together people of different backgrounds and opinions as much as reinforcing media consumer’s prior opinions and beliefs about the environment.

“I think good communication is absolutely essential,” Ehrlich said. “Unfortunately I think we are moving almost in exactly the wrong direction. Certainly the potential is there with new media, but now what that media basically does is let everybody listen to exactly their own opinions. You can pick a channel or a blog that will tell you exactly what you want to hear. We’ve got to fix that somehow.”

Ehrlich and his colleagues at Stanford University have started MAHB, or the Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere. MAHB is bringing together researchers in the physical and environmental sciences with researchers in the social sciences and the humanities and arts, getting social science researchers much more involved in dealing with the human dilemma in global climate change. Social scientists, for example, conduct research into communications other efforts that can foster pro-environmental behavioral change in the public sphere.

Unfortunately, telling members of the public about the science of global climate change does not promote concern and pro-environmental behavior to the extent that some physical scientists might hope.

We know that telling people the science doesn’t get behavioral change,” Ehrlich said. “But the social scientists know about what does get behavioral change.”

According to Ehrlich, the set of environmental problems that we face today is the perfect storm of problems. Global climate change will have severe impacts on natural resources and our way of life if people from many different backgrounds aren’t brought together to help solve these problems. And what else can we use to bring people together but effective communications strategies?

But these strategies may not be as straightforward as they seem, requiring new and creative thinking to bring key publics to a place of environmental concern. The mass media certainly does not have a good track record in pro-environmental communications, failing to ask and discuss key ethical environmental and global governance issues in the public sphere.

“We are trying to stir that up, but it’s a tough job,” Ehrlich said. “The MAHB is a first attempt to get everybody together, to give a common platform. Who knows whether it will work. It just seems worth trying.”

Only together, in a state of social equality and tied together with effective communications strategies, pro-environmental educational programs, and a media not afraid to treat global climate change and other environmental problems seriously, can we achieve change on a societal level. And, personally, I hope that change will look like the sustainability we so dreamily value.

References:

“Blue Marble” NASA composite images – Wiki

Ehrlich, P. R., Kareiva, P. M., & Daily, G. C. (2012). Securing natural capital and expanding equity to rescale civilization. [10.1038/nature11157]. Nature, 486(7401), 68-73.

Related:

Paul Ehrlich and the vital role of women in this century

Paige Brown About the Author: Paige Brown is a 3rd year Ph.D. student in Mass Communication at the Manship School, Louisiana State University. In her research, she focuses on science and environmental communications and message effectiveness. She also holds B.S. and M.S. degrees in Biological and Agricultural Engineering from Louisiana State University. Paige is the author of the science blog From The Lab Bench, hosted on SciLogs.com, where she is also the blogging community manager. Follow on Twitter @FromTheLabBench.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.






Comments 16 Comments

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  1. 1. rodestar99 4:04 pm 07/10/2012

    The most interesting part of this is the biography of the writer. She has a phd in mass communications. (Substitute propaganda). Her research is going to focus on science communication and science technology.
    This should be a very lucrative field for her. She is not
    a scientist but she will be hired by politicians and scientists
    with an ax to grind to (Spread the truth). One thing they should have taught her on her way to a phd is if you want to sell propaganda you have to hide your true intentions and who is paying for it.

    Link to this
  2. 2. paigekbrown 4:17 pm 07/10/2012

    Hi rodestar99… thanks for reading the article! Not sure what you mean by true intentions and who is paying for it… I blog on my own accord, do research on my own accord. I care about the environment on my own accord to. Many areas of science need good communicators to really make a difference, because that science only makes a difference if people accept and internalize it. Science is only as good as the people doing it communicate with one another and with the public… every scientist must remember this. Ah yes, and finally, I AM a scientist.

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  3. 3. CliffClark 7:59 pm 07/10/2012

    One of the big assumptions most people addressing the topic of communication of science seem to make is that it is wholly dependent on the communicator, eg. the scientist. My perception of the situation today is that the person(s) on the receiving side of the communication are not capable of understanding or dealing with most or all of the information that may make positive change possible, and are furthermore not inclined to make the effort to become better communicators. See, for instance, the blog about Sir Harold Kroto: Science is “Lost in Translation”. Who communicates well? Advertisers! If we wish to change behaviour we need to use advertising techniques, with more funding than advertising uses, to get points across to the public at large. Advertisers in their current incarnation are the adversary, and we need to be better than they are. We have to use all the psychological tricks in the book. Unfortunately, because advertising usually doesn’t care too much for “The Truth”, the scientifically based advertising response may have to go the same way. Scientists are not the best people to do this; they would too frequently be unwilling or unable to make the necessary sacrifices in order to be flexible about the message. All our training, all the social and political milieu in which we work and live and breathe, mitigates against us communicating in a fashion that will speak to the masses. In this, I speak as a research scientist in infectious diseases.

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  4. 4. paigekbrown 9:18 pm 07/10/2012

    CliffClark, you make a good point. I think new, creative, and outside of the box communications strategies will be necessary to move us into a sustainable and green future. Maybe a truth-driven advertising approach could be key!

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  5. 5. geojellyroll 9:02 am 07/11/2012

    I stopped reading after “But if you followed the debates among the seven dwarfs running for the Republican nomination for President”

    Yawn,… why can’t Americans ever lift their myopic vision above domestic politics. (and I say this as a ‘liberal’ Canadian).

    Another agenda driven piece of drivel. This is supposed to be ‘scientific’ Scientific American.

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  6. 6. G. Karst 10:26 am 07/11/2012

    paigekbrown – “Ah yes, and finally, I AM a scientist.”

    Then stick to the scientific method (you have heard of it) and leave the propaganda to the less enlightened.GK

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  7. 7. geojellyroll 11:20 am 07/11/2012

    cliffclark: Your desire ‘to interpret’ science for the masses is noble…that is until you add agenda to the equation. Once one adds agenda then it’s akin to a directive from the Politiboro of the former Soviet Union.

    Science…’there is an increase of arsenic levels of ‘x amount.’

    Agenda…’there is an alarming increase in levels of arsenic to levels that pose a threat to….blah, bah.”

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  8. 8. geojellyroll 11:26 am 07/11/2012

    paigekbriown: “Science is only as good as the people doing it communicate with one another and with the public”

    WTF? Where did you learn this baloney? The quality of science has ZIP to do with how one communicates it to the public…ZIP. It’s legitimacy is 100% on it’s own merit. You must have never taken even a science 101 course.

    Yes, it’s ‘nice’ if there is some public input, communication, etc. but that has zip to do with whether it is good science.

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  9. 9. Fine Material 12:18 pm 07/11/2012

    Paul Ehrlich? Really? He says he knows, in fact every SMART person knows, what to do to fix the problems. On the other hand exactly 100% of Paul Ehrlich’s predictions about the future have been wrong. Why is he being interviewed in a serious magazine? His own arrogance and vanity have destroyed his credibility many times over.

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  10. 10. Michael Huesemann 1:00 am 07/12/2012

    In the interest of full disclosure, Paul and Anne Ehrlich wrote the introduction to our recent book, Techno-Fix: Why Technology Won’t Save Us or the Environment” (www.technofix.org). Techno-Fix underscores the points made in this blog, namely that social and cultural change rather than technological innovation are key to achieving sustainability. Unfortunately, we find an entrenched and highly unrealistic techno-optimism among the American people, who believe that new technologies will solve our many environmental problems and that major changes in values, culture, personal behavior, economic arrangements, and governance will not be necessary. We need to recognize that most of our current environmental problems (e.g., massive pollution, depletion of natural resources, global warming, species extinction, etc.) have been caused in one way or another by the use of advanced technologies. It is therefore naïve to believe that more of the same will solve the problem. This is why it is so vital to start looking for non-technological solutions to our sustainability challenge, and Paul Ehrlich’s efforts, including the recently formed MAHB (Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere), are important steps in the right direction.

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  11. 11. tsnell 4:53 pm 07/12/2012

    If you’re interested in the communication of ideas, read some of George Lakoff’s books. I’m in the middle of “Don’t think of an Elephant – Know your values and frame the debate”

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  12. 12. Tractorthoughts 6:20 pm 07/12/2012

    The problem of sustainability is highly complex and will require solutions that address the issue from multiple angles. Your article is an excellent starting point. I totally agree that women’s equality is a major factor that has huge implications. Yet even having identified one factor, achieving a solution is much more complex. Sexist attitudes are deeply intrenched in our societies and cultures. It even is apparent in some of the comments to the article. But I want to address two other issues that I believe are crucial to solving sustainability.
    The first is scientific literacy. Science is the one area that allows for some reasonable predictions. It certainly beats palm reading. So if we are going to address problems that have long time frames like sustainability we need to rely on science. By we, I mean the public in general. But that means that the public needs to understand the science behind the issue. This can be simple like “if the glaciers of the world melt, then the sea levels will rise” to more complex issues like “the influence of wood fires in Asia on the warming of the Arctic.” But with the United States ranking around 20th in scientific literacy among OECD countries, the American public is lacking the resources to make the necessary decisions which will effect the future.
    The second important issue which needs to be addressed is political power. Powerful entities tend to entrench themselves. Therefore they are not at all interested in seeing significant change at any level unless it is to increase their power. This can be at a national level (Russia has everything to gain and little to lose from climate change) or more local (oil and coal companies have everything to lose with policies like a carbon tax). Are there equivalent entities to counteract this power? At this point, there are not. I find it almost laughable that some claim that the scientific community via an international conspiracy is such a force. The only force capable of creating change is the public at large (on a world wide basis). Unfortunately I don’t see that as happening anytime soon.

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  13. 13. Lenedwin 10:09 pm 07/12/2012

    The foregoing essay on the environment and sustainability outlines what we can expect if we do nothing to change our ways. But it’s no use preaching to likes of us. It’s the bankers, financiers and Wall street that has to be convinced. Their whole existence revolves around ‘growth’ and consumption which, obviously,demands ever increasing amounts of energy. They cannot conceive of any other life. Until these Gurus invent a system that can exist on zero or negative ‘growth’ then we are doomed to that 6TH extinction.

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  14. 14. rabarker 4:32 am 07/13/2012

    Oh, for God’s sakes, attacking this author as a propagandist is just another typical ad-hominim attack. She isn’t part of your inagined and fiercely imagined “scientific conspiracy”. She is simply trying to apply her unique skills to the task of changing the behavior of large populations. Call that “propaganda” if you wish, but it is actually the only way of spreading an idea that may become critically important for large societies to comprehend and accept. As for Paul Erlich, I read his first book (the Population Bomb) in a political science class in 1969, and I have been pretty amazed (and discouraged) by the general accuracy of what he predicted then. All this “denial” business is simply emotional and tribal behavior by conservatives who simply can’t imagine a better world resulting from an effort to adopt new and more sustainable habits. I often wish there were a way to deliver the consequences of their truculence only to their own decendants, leaving mine a happier planet to grow up in.

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  15. 15. hro001 5:50 pm 07/13/2012

    Ehrlich claims:

    You can pick a channel or a blog that will tell you exactly what you want to hear. We’ve got to fix that somehow.”

    What unmitigated arrogance! No doubt if Ehrlich had his way the only voices that one would be permitted to hear are those that agree with his opinions!

    As for improved “communication” being the panacea that is going to solve all the problems as they are perceived by activists and advocates such as Ehrlich and Brown … has it ever occurred to either of them, I wonder, that the problem lies not in “communication”, but in the anti-democratic attempts to manipulate behaviour change(s) in the name of, well, in the name of whatever the cause du jour might be!

    Mike Hulme once declared that “the idea of climate change should be seen as an intellectual resource … [that is] so plastic, it can be deployed across many of our human projects and can serve many of our psychological, ethical and spiritual needs”.

    I’m not sure that “plastic” truly reflects the properties he’s describing. The shape-shifting we’ve seen over the years strongly suggests that “plasticine” would be more apt.

    And plasticine seems to work just as well with “sustainability” or “sustainable development” or the “green economy”! All of which share the same fault-line: there is no agreement as to what any of these terms actually mean. But the ambiguity (and shape-shifting property) is such that one could drive a virtual truck-load of “causes” and agendas through any one of them.

    Indeed, this seems to be what occurred at Rio, except that it didn’t quite work out that way. People there seemed to be stuck in the “plastic” mold, perhaps overlooking the fact that – unlike “plasticene” – “plastic” can become quite brittle, and that which is brittle can break if too much pressure is brought to bear!

    This article concludes:

    Only together, in a state of social equality and tied together with effective communications strategies, pro-environmental educational programs, and a media not afraid to treat global climate change and other environmental problems seriously, can we achieve change on a societal level. And, personally, I hope that change will look like the sustainability we so dreamily value.

    Ah! Just what we need … more “plasticene”! I doubt that either Ehrlich or Brown has ever stopped to consider the October 2009 Bali address of UNEP Chief scientist (and IPCC alumnus) Joseph Alcamo:

    [A]s policymakers and the public begin to grasp the multi-billion dollar price tag for mitigating and adapting to climate change, we should expect a sharper questioning of the science behind climate policy.

    Ehrlich and Brown (along with others who call themselves scientists or journalists) should perhaps give some consideration to the extent to which they might be undermining their own “cause” – which, this week at least, seems to be the “sustainability [they] so dreamily value” – because they have crossed the line from simply reporting the facts and/or findings to advocacy and activism.

    Perhaps Ehrlich and Brown (amongst others) need to set aside their crystal balls of doom and gloom for a while, and take the time to decide what they really want to be when they grow up: Scientist? Journalist? Or activist-advocate “dreamily” playing with “plasticine”?

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  16. 16. Ranchman 10:26 pm 09/3/2012

    The vast majority of the comments seem more in tune with reality than the article. This bologna is more akin to Al Gore’s “I created the internet” as well as calls for Chinese style population reduction than any kind of science I’m familiar with. What a bunch of liberal propaganda. Over 3500 scientists have joined together denouncing the UN’s global warming hysteria and there are likely thousands more who think the same way. The UN’s Agenda 21 is an evil, totalitarian model for world Communism. “Settled Science.” Really??

    Link to this

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