“Scientists in a war for a future of humanity” – I strongly disagree!

A guest post by Carsten F. Dormann.

In October 2021, Paul Ehrlich wrote a “Correspondence” in Nature with which I seemed to sympathise to a surprisingly large part. But the last sentence wiped out all agreement, as it revealed a fundamentally different view of the role and “duty” of “scientists”. I wrote this blog at that time, and stashed it away. Now, a year later, with an actual war raging in a country close by, Ehrlich’s rhetoric seems more misplaced than ever. Here’s what I wrote then.

“Scientists are in a war for the future of humanity: they must get off of their peacetime footing.” Paul Ehrlich in Nature (https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-021-02751-9)

The elephant in the room of the accelerating loss of natural habitats and its knock-on effects for human and nature is human overpopulation. At the current, and even less at future, population sizes, our earth cannot provide the required resources – arable land, water, fish stocks, energy, housing. We may quibble how many people can be sustained, 8 billion, 10 billion, 3 billion, but we certainly cannot argue (with scientific validity) that we can ignore human overpopulation.

Paul Ehrlich, a long-time conservation activist, thus rightly chides the lack of this essential factor of the “food nexus” in current reports, e.g. that of the Scientific Group for the UN Food Systems Summit 2021. His short piece in Nature is correct, I think – except for the last sentence, which is quoted above.

The war metaphor, a common cry in US politics and culture, is here as inappropriate as in most other applications outside, well, actual war. In this case, also the term “scientist” is extremely unfortunate.

So, who are the “scientists” who “are at war”? And with whom? Do scientists currently fight some group of people aiming to end the human species? Who are they? As a scientist myself, I have plenty of “frontiers” I keep “battling” at: getting better data to test a theory, finding more appropriate ways to do an analysis, getting that paper past the thick-headed reviewers; but I am not “at war”. And I shouldn’t be, and neither should Mr Ehrlich: war is a horrible thing!

Our world is going down the drain in fast-forward. The destruction of our environment, which we cause and witness, is shocking. But the people causing the destruction are we! It is the same people who have to be part of the solution, unless you fancy a supervillain-style world-destroying collapse. We may have to convince ourselves that using more than is available is stupid, understand that egoistic and greedy behaviour is unacceptable, and realise that “big business” is almost by definition disinterested in humanity. But this is not a war. Any “we against them”-attitude is at best trash-talk, but more likely creates the trenches (sic!) we need to get out of.

And what does this have to do with scientists? Does Mr Ehrlich think that they have the moral high-ground? That they are intellectual super-beings? That they have any super-democratic right to define what is right and wrong? Sure, ecologists in particular, incl. Mr Ehrlich and myself, have the experience and the data to quantify the demise of our plant. But that we (humans) do not turn such knowledge into action has nothing to do with science (or scientists), and everything to do with (a) the unwillingness of the Global North to make sacrifices until the very last minute, if ever, and (b) the powerlessness of the Global South to make a difference, even if they wanted. (Admittedly, I am glossing over a few more points, which are also not related to science.)

War-talk will certainly not put overpopulation on anybody’s agenda. And pitting scientists against a strawman-army of anti-humanists won’t either. Pointing out, time and again, that overpopulation is, with overconsumption, the ultimate cause of environmental destruction, possibly, just possibly, may. I am with you, Mr Ehrlich, up to and excluding the last sentence of your piece.

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