A study by a team of NASA-funded researchers has been getting a lot of play in recent months. Headlines scream about the “irreversible collapse” of civilization if we don’t smarten up. In order to stave off disaster, the study says, we need to a) reduce economic inequality, and b) reduce resource consumption, both by using less and by reducing population growth. But a closer look suggests that reports of humanity’s future demise may have been greatly exaggerated.
There are many contentious ideas in the snippets of the forthcoming study excerpted in the various articles I read, but one of them trumps the rest: the time frame. Though some articles fail to get specific, others report the study’s predictions of when we can expect the sky to fall. The best-case scenarios apparently give us 1,000 years before it all comes crumbling down, whereas the worst-case ones give us just 350.
Are you kidding me? Your mathematical models predict collapse in three to ten centuries, and I’m supposed to take you seriously? To quote Michael Crichton, if people in the year 1900 had been worried about their descendants just one hundred years in the future, they probably would have wondered, “Where would people get enough horses? And what would they do about all the horse [manure]?” Today, of course, horse manure in city streets is not a very big problem, thanks to the widespread use of motorized vehicles. A hundred years from now, today’s specific problems will have been replaced by other as yet undreamt of challenges. Three hundred years from now? Please.
By all means, let’s do what we can to reduce economic inequality and use resources wisely instead of wastefully. I suggest greater reliance on markets for both objectives. Population growth is already slowing as people around the world get wealthier, and last I checked, was set to top out at nine or ten billion in the second half of the 21st century. But nobody has any idea what technologies will have been developed in a hundred years, much less three hundred. I don’t, you don’t, and those NASA-backed researchers don’t—whatever their models may say.
Bradley Doucet is Le Québécois Libre‘s English Editor and the author of the blog Spark This: Musings on Reason, Liberty, and Joy. A writer living in Montreal, he has studied philosophy and economics, and is currently completing a novel on the pursuit of happiness.