There have been endless pastiches-upon-pastiches of the zombie movie genre in recent years. As far as I can tell, the only significant development in the basic plot is that whereas zombies were once driven by supernatural forces, the contemporary living-dead seem more often to have been rendered flesh-hungry by some kind of virus, typically engineered by some mysterious agenda. What does this revision of an already hackneyed metaphor stand for in today’s world, then? A cautionary tale about our incautious meddling with the natural order perhaps? No. This phenomenon of remakes is not unlike the phenomenon it depicts. The contemporary zombie perfectly mirrors the zombie movie writer. What drives the zombie is the death of his author’s imagination. The future is gone, eaten away by his nihilistic malaise. Unable to author a new story, he drags one out of the past.
Does this remake sound familiar?
Can a collapse of global civilization be avoided?
Environmental problems have contributed to numerous collapses of civilizations in the past. Now, for the first time, a global collapse appears likely. Overpopulation, overconsumption by the rich and poor choices of technologies are major drivers; dramatic cultural change provides the main hope of averting calamity.
In this case, however, the authors are re-making their own work. The words belong to Paul and Anne Ehrlich, who brought Malthus back from the dead in the 1968 epic, The Population Bomb.
The Ehrlichs have been claiming that ‘now’ is the ‘first time’ that ‘a global collapse appears likely’ for nearly half a century. Their many failed predictions are well understood, and need no re-telling here. Suffice it to say that the world’s situation is precisely the opposite: there are more people, but there are more resources. There is less suffering, disease and poverty. People are wealthier.
In spite of which, the Ehrlichs drag out that Zombie script…
But today, for the first time, humanity’s global civilization—the worldwide, increasingly interconnected, highly technological society in which we all are to one degree or another, embedded—is threatened with collapse by an array of environmental problems. Humankind finds itself engaged in what Prince Charles described as ‘an act of suicide on a grand scale’ , facing what UK’s Chief Scientific Advisor John Beddington called a ‘perfect storm’ of environmental problems . The most serious of these problems show signs of rapidly escalating severity, especially climate disruption. But other elements could potentially also contribute to a collapse: an accelerating extinction of animal and plant populations and species, which could lead to a loss of ecosystem services essential for human survival; land degradation and land-use change; a pole-to-pole spread of toxic compounds; ocean acidification and eutrophication (dead zones); worsening of some aspects of the epidemiological environment (factors that make human populations susceptible to infectious diseases); depletion of increasingly scarce resources [6,7], including especially groundwater, which is being overexploited in many key agricultural areas ; and resource wars . These are not separate problems; rather they interact in two gigantic complex adaptive systems: the biosphere system and the human socio-economic system. The negative manifestations of these interactions are often referred to as ‘the human predicament’ , and determining how to prevent it from generating a global collapse is perhaps the foremost challenge confronting humanity.
There is nothing new here. Consider this United Nations video from 1972, which features Paul Ehrlich.
This was forty years ago, but it could almost be the most recent UN climate meeting. Zombie protesters. Zombie world leaders. Zombie conference. Zombie ideas. Like the remakes, all that changes is the film stock, the clothes and some of the back story. The United Nations is the longest running zombie movie franchise.
Having their zombie prophecies proven wrong by billions of people every day for nearly half a century has not caused the Ehrlichs to pause and reflect on their failure, much less revised the script.
“What is the likelihood of this set of interconnected predicaments leading to a global collapse in this century?”, they asked, as though the question had never been asked before.
There have been many definitions and much discussion of past ‘collapses’ [1,3,28–31], but a future global collapse does not require a careful definition. It could be triggered by anything from a ‘small’ nuclear war, whose ecological effects could quickly end civilization , to a more gradual breakdown because famines, epidemics and resource shortages cause a disintegration of central control within nations, in concert with disruptions of trade and conflicts over increasingly scarce necessities. In either case, regardless of survivors or replacement societies, the world familiar to anyone reading this study and the well-being of the vast majority of people would disappear.
“A future global collapse does not require a careful definition. No, any old careless zombie definition will do. All that is necessary is to say that a catastrophic end of the world is possible. And then, by virtue of it merely being possible, we must take it seriously as a fact and act to stop it. In fact, why not choose the zombie apocalypse to be the definition of a ‘global collapse’? After all, it does seem to be the case that a bunch of people infected with an idea that causes them to be preoccupied with the end of humanity seem the most opposed to the expansion of humanity, its development and prospering. That looks like a zombie apocalypse to me.
One such organisation that has been infected by such a poisonous agent is the Royal Society. As I reported back in April last year, the Royal Society made Paul Ehrlich a fellow, just as they released their report on population, ‘People and planet‘. The report was an attempt by the Royal Society to expand its reach over policy-making on the basis of an immanent global catastrophe. And it is in Proceedings of the Royal Society B journal that Ehrlich’s latest zombie tome is served up.
The Ehrlichs’ essay continues, with the familiar claims about the environment going to hell in a handcart. References to 163 papers seem to make the case that war, pestilence, plague, famine, flood, drought, biodiversity.. and the rest… will overwhelm civilisation. And then we get to the nub of the argument. In order to avert the crisis, there is a ‘need for rapid social/political change’.
Until very recently, our ancestors had no reason to respond genetically or culturally to long-term issues. If the global climate were changing rapidly for Australopithecus or even ancient Romans, then they were not causing it and could do nothing about it. The forces of genetic and cultural selection were not creating brains or institutions capable of looking generations ahead; there would have been no selection pressures in that direction. Indeed, quite the opposite, selection probably favoured mechanisms to keep perception of the environmental background steady so that rapid changes (e.g. leopard approaching) would be obvious [132, pp. 135–136]. But now slow changes in that background are the most lethal threats. Societies have a long history of mobilizing efforts,making sacrifices and changes, to defeat an enemy at the gates, or even just to compete more successfully with a rival. But there is not much evidence of societies mobilizing and making sacrifices to meet
gradually worsening conditions that threaten real disaster for future generations. Yet that is exactly the sort of mobilization, we believe is required to avoid a collapse.
But the Ehrlichs always believed that the ‘mobilization’ they wanted to see was the only thing that could save the world. Like the unlikely heroes at the centre of every implausible zombie film, the Ehrlichs exist in the centre of their own fantasy. The advantage such protagonists enjoy in zombie films is that anyone they might have to negotiate with has already succumbed to the sea of the living dead. Any remaining doubters find that their doubt is the agent of their own demise, except for a handful of doubters, perhaps, one of whom is redeemed at the last moment as the heroes risk their own lives to save him or her. But the real world is neither made out of movie clichés, nor does it revolve around the Ehrlichs.
In most blog posts here, I usually attempt to work out what the argument I am taking issue with is. But the Ehrlichs do not offer one. Like a zombie, the Ehrlich’s essay has no real identity, only an insatiable appetite to devour humanity. There is no serious analysis of society’s systematic failures. There is no real attempt to quantify the actual — much less hypothetical — problems they are referring to. Indeed, they admit that they don’t think they have to identify the issue, they only need to demonstrate that it is plausible. And just as there isn’t any argument, there isn’t any science. There is the environmental litany… A zombie, again, which has plodded on and on in search of flesh since the 1960s. And there is a conclusion — the claim that on the basis that a catastrophe is merely plausible, the institutional apparatus to prevent it is necessary — which has the moral depth of a zombie film’s final moments.
This is what happens when you tell the same story for fifty years, non stop. The Ehrlichs offer no more than banal science fiction. It dominates the scientific establishment — the Royal Society and its journal — just as zombie movies dominate the Sci-Fi section of NetFlix. It’s time to kill the Malthusian franchise.