Dorling’s Happy Medium

Publication of Emmott’s book “Ten Billion” has been brought forward from September to mid July, possibly in response to this neat spoiler – a book by Danny Dorling entitled “Population Ten Billion”. He has an article at

http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2013/jun/14/global-population-10-billion-worry

There’s a review of the book at

http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2013/jun/16/population-10-billion-dorling-review

and you can read a longish extract at

http://10billion.dannydorling.org/Material_files/Population10Billion_ReadingSample.pdf

There was also an interview with Dorling on BBC radio 4’s “Today” programme which Alex Cull has transcribed here

https://sites.google.com/site/mytranscriptbox/home/20130620_r4

This is extremely good news, since it means the publicity surrounding the publication of Emmott’s book will no longer be a monologue of doom, but a lively dialogue between Emmott’s computer model-based eco-pessimism and Dorling’s more chirpy demography-based reasoning.

Dorling does several things that cheered me up. First, he starts his book with a quote from Dr Seuss –  a sure sign of someone who doesn’t take himself too seriously. Then he takes issue with Emmott over his “arm your children” anecdote, and finally, he defends the original 2004 UN report against the 2011 revision.

Attacking Emmott seems to me to be the most useful thing one can do today. The fact that London’s intellectual élite can be seduced by some anonymous scientist’s gun fantasy and a Microsoft professor announcing “We’re fucked” says a lot about the state of the country. I don’t care how big Emmott’s brain is, he’s an idiot, and he should be ridiculed until he shuts up. Which is more or less Dorling’s position, though he puts it more politely than I have.

The point that pleased me about his view of the UN population estimates is simply that my hunch – that the 2004 UN study (a hefty academic report accompanied by articles by many authors putting forward contrasting opinions) was more likely to be right than some glossy coloured graphs with footnotes on a website (the 2011 revision) – was confirmed by someone with rather more expertise than me. Of course, it doesn’t change anything substantial. Whether the population is 9 billion or 12 billion in 2100 is still anybody’s guess. The point is that there is a clear tendency: population rise is decelerating and will eventually cease. The world will be a different place in 2100 (who could doubt that?) but population rise alone cannot be used as a basis for doom mongering of the Emmott sort.

First, from the introduction to his book, here’s Dorling on Emmott:

“Human beings progress by telling stories […] Our history, knowledge and understanding are all the collections of the few stories that survive. This includes the stories we tell each other about the future. And how the future will turn out depends partly, possibly largely, on which stories we collectively choose to believe.

“Some stories are designed to spread fear and concern. This may be because the story-teller feels there is a need to raise some tensions. They might feel that facts are being overlooked, or that their point of view is not being taken seriously enough. To get attention, people sometimes tell stories to shock their listeners. For instance, one recent story refers to an apparently otherwise mildmannered Cambridge University academic recommending that we should teach our children how to use guns so that, in the apparently inevitable forthcoming population Armageddon, they will have a better chance of survival.

“Stories of us descending into a Lord of the Flies world are frightening; they are totemic warnings: ‘Fail to act now and we are all doomed.’ They suggest that if we do not act in the way the protagonist would wish us and everyone else to act, the consequences will be dire, with our genes, our offspring, doomed to some kind of survival of the least empathetic. The only survivors will be those who find killing easy; what some call ‘the fittest’”.

What tempered my joy was reading what immediately follows:

“Just as there are stories that we are all doomed, so too are there stories that all will be fine as long as we leave everything up to a few especially able, if often a little selfish, adults. Currently this trend is led by those who occasionally describe themselves as rational optimists […] The story-tellers of rational optimism like to try to paint themselves as sensible but cheerful folk. One, Matt Ridley, has argued forcefully along rational optimist lines. His story suggests that it is mostly people trying to become rich (‘wealth creators’) who help others along the way, even if they cause a little hardship as they do so. Matt is the 5th Viscount Ridley. His family made its fortune by owning coal mines in northern England in Victorian times. He himself was chairman of the bank Northern Rock at the time of its collapse, the collapse that triggered the financial crash in Europe. Given his background and business failures, it is not hard to mock his views, but they need to be taken seriously because they are part of the current mantra of many at the top of the tree. 

“Matt’s brother-in-law, Owen Paterson, was made Environment Secretary by the British prime minister in September 2012. Owen thinks like Matt. Currently he is buying into the family tradition of promoting carbon extraction and pollution as progress: ‘he wants to end all energy subsidies and fast-track exploitation of shale gas.

“This would shatter any ambition for the UK of keeping to targets for renewables or greenhouse gases.’ The views of people like Matt Ridley and the idea that they are taken seriously by so many in positions of power, despite their practical failure through the ages, can bring others to the brink of despair. The failures on Matt’s part alone in the rational optimism fable – the suggestion that greed will prevail – range from his family’s private mining endeavours requiring nationalizing, if just to bring in a little humanity for the coal miners, to the collapse of the privatized building society he chaired, resulting in the first run on a British bank in living memory. However, stories about how greed is ultimately good give people with power and wealth a warm feeling that they are somehow part of the solution. This is why such stories have a lot of clout behind them, and why they spread.” 

I can agree with Dorling’s criticisms of Northern Rock-style unbridled capitalism, and the need for nationalised industries to maintain our energy supply, while condemning utterly the kind of ad hominem arguments used here. What on earth has the fact that Paterson is his brother-in-law got to to do with anything? Does he really think Paterson favours shale gas because he’s got in-laws whose ancestors exploited the miners in the nineteenth century?

Dorling is positioning himself here as the reasonable voice of sensible sustainable energy policy between the two extremes of the mad green boffin who has given up hope and the descendant of Victorian mineowners who robs the working man of his savings. It will probably work.

I wish him luck in provoking a bit of scepticism of Emmott’s thesis, and look forward to some debate in the media – hopefully encompassing the Ridley position, as well as those of Emmott and Dorling. And maybe even the point of view of global warming sceptics who don’t happen to be Viscounts descended from Victorian mine owners.

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6 Responses to Dorling’s Happy Medium

  1. I agree with your criticisms of the ad hominem nonsense. Assertions like “despite their practical failure through the ages” are pointless unless supported in some way. Ridley robustly supports all his claims in his book; so for someone to dismiss them without producing a speck of contrary evidence is idle and pathetic.

  2. To be fair, my quote is from the extract from the introduction to his book from the link I give above. Maybe there’s something more substantive in the book itself.
    I urge people to look at Dorling’s site
    http://www.dannydorling.org/
    Dorling is an independent-minded leftwing thinker, which is something to be cherished these days. Also, there’s some videos for Brian, which haven’t looked at.

  3. alexjc38 says:

    Like Brian, I also found the criticism of Matt Ridley rather silly, as Danny Dorling seems apt to boil all of “The Rational Optimist” down to “greed is good”. But aside from the class-war stuff, there are some reasons to be cheerful, as this radio interview shows:
    https://sites.google.com/site/mytranscriptbox/home/20130620_r4

    My favourite quote from that segment: “Peak baby was in 1990″. Also Dorling’s observation that human violence levels are actually going down matches the assessment of Steven Pinker, whose book The Better Angels of Our Nature” is one I’ve been meaning to read for a while now.

    Where Dorling departs from Ridley (apart from the climate question and the tribal thing) appears to be that he’s bigger on planning – “we can now see a future where it’s worth beginning to plan for these things optimistically”. All well and good. Then he spoils it by saying “How do we slow our movement down? How do we reduce unnecessary consumption…?” Hmm, the “behaviour change” garden path, beckoning once more…

  4. Vinny Burgoo says:

    Emmott versus Dorling next week on Start The Week:
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0367dzs

  5. Many thanks Vinny. I’lll be listening.
    Of course, Alex and I are a bit miffed that we haven’t been invited, since we know more about Emmott’s facts and figures than anyone, including Emmott himself, but that’s the way the media machine works.
    Two academics with books with similar titles and different points of view. It’s a story, and thank goodness that the Sue Macgregors of this world, however ignorant they may be about the subjects they discuss, know a story when they see one.

  6. Pingback: Danny Dorling – a fish out of water | Rhetauracle

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