by Edward Miller & Jacob Shwartz-Lucas
Snowpiercer was released not too long ago. It wasn’t available at most theaters, but has nevertheless found surprising success through other distribution channels. If you haven’t, be sure to see it.
Caution: there are some very mild spoilers in here.
The film starts by showing the last human survivors of a global warming intervention gone terribly wrong. In trying to stop global warming, humans inadvertently trigger a catastrophic Ice Age, and the world is now a frozen wasteland. The survivors zip around the world in a self-sufficient train.
A new social order has taken root. Cops in riot gear terrorize the hungry rag-wearing lower classes in the back of the train, while the elites enjoy botanical gardens, aquariums, and other spacious amenities in the front.
Wilford, the industrialist who built the train, knew that the world was going to end. He demanded a strict limit on the number of people who would be allowed on. However, it is implied that his old friend, Gilliam, allowed more into the rear out of a sense of altruism. Gilliam was forced to live with the consequences of that action, and to suffer in poverty with those he had helped.
Snowpiercer is likely an allegory inspired by Garrett Hardin’s essay “Lifeboat Ethics: the Case Against Helping the Poor.” In the essay, Hardin makes the argument that if you are in a shipwreck and your lifeboat can only hold a limited number of people, the seemingly altruistic act of helping others could actually doom everyone.
He then extends this argument to international aid and immigration. Hardin says that the planet can only support so many people at the living standard equivalent to those in the United States. The more people let in to developed nations, the nearer we approach the natural limits of the planet. To prevent this, he argues we should limit immigration and foreign aid so that the technologically advanced nations can continue to advance, creating hope for the survival of our species.
In Snowpiercer, Wilford knew that his train couldn’t carry everyone. He also knew that once Gilliam let those extra people on, they would live impoverished lives. The richer cars sealed off entrance from the poor cars, and the poor cars were left without food. Eventually they were given subsistence rations produced from insect protein. The train could not support a high lifestyle for everyone, so Wilford made the decision to keep the rear passengers at bare subsistence level instead of diminishing the lifestyle of everyone else.
Now, before we continue, let’s take a moment to make an out of place request: don’t immediately categorize these views as techno-utopian or environmentalist, but instead remain patient and open-minded. Neil Degrasse Tyson said it best:
“The moment when someone attaches to a philosophy or a movement, then they assign all the baggage and all the rest of the philosophy that goes with it to you, and when you want to have a conversation they will assert that they already know everything important there is to know about you because of that association. And that’s not the way to have a conversation. I’m sorry. It’s not. I’d rather we explore each other’s ideas in real time rather than assign a label to it and assert, you know what’s going to happen in advance.”
Earth as Lifeboat: An adequate analogy?
The difference between Snowpiercer and “Lifeboat Ethics” is that in Snowpiercer it was obvious that the scenario was solely a result of people being stuck on a train. In that case, Hardin’s thinking is accurate, but that is not the world we live in. Hardin thought of our whole planet as if it were actually a cramped and sterile space (boat), not recognizing the true re-productive capacity of the Earth. The Earth is both spacious and organic. You can’t grow food on the floor of a train or a boat, but you can utilize soil more efficiently.
Fear over climate change has people turning their attention to the natural limits of the planet There was recently a podcast with an ex-activist from the Green Party in Canada, Mike Dewar. He has grown pessimistic about the looming possibility of climatic disaster and the ineffectiveness of activism. He referenced Easter Island a couple times, asserting that we’re all doomed to the same fate. As a result of these beliefs, he’s given up trying to change things and decided to just make a boatload of money working in the Alberta tar sands and to live a self-centered life.
If we buy into all the premises he holds, then he seems extremely rational in his nihilistic response. He’s very correct to distrust in the likelihood of humans to collectively reduce CO2 levels within the time frames required by the IPCC and similar organizations. And, if one believes that catastrophe is the inevitable result of failure to do so, then nihilism is a very understandable response.
Yet, the problem with his narrative is multifold. Even his reference of Easter Island (Rapa Nui) is tenuous. Yet, it is frequently the example given for why depopulation is the answer to our environmental woes. The story goes, starting with Spanish Missionaries, and later popularized by Thor Heyerdahl, that a large population of the islanders outstripped Rapa Nui’s available resources and nearly died out before the arrival of Europeans, supposedly because they wasted all their timber transporting giant statues called Moai.
According to this interpretation, the islanders, rather than correcting course, depleted all available resources, experienced famine, and turned to war & cannibalism. Well regarded anthropologists like Jared Diamond have continued along this vein. Yet, from our perspective, this interpretation seems all too convenient for the colonialists. There is evidence to support the theory that the natives were very conscious of their environment and went to great lengths to be sustainable.
For instance, the islanders are thought to have taken large igneous rocks, broken them up, and then scattered them across a tenth of the island. The strong sea winds would hit the rocks, releasing mineral nutrients. This in turn would help restore fertility for the cultivation of taro and other crops.
When the dutch explorer Jacob Roggevin sailed to Rapa Nui in 1722, he reported that the people didn’t ask for food. Ask yourself, would you have the energy to move 70-ton statues around if you were starving? Indeed, most of the depopulation probably resulted from tuberculosis, STIs, slavery, and Jean-Baptiste Dutrou-Bornier’s clearing of the original inhabitants for his massive sheep ranch.
“Demographic and cultural collapse resulted from European contact beginning in 1722 A.D. with the devastating consequences of newly introduced Old World diseases to a nonimmune Polynesian population.” (Science)
Also undermining the native ecocide theory is recent carbon dating and tool analysis that suggests that violence and cannibalism were rare. Only 2% of the fossil record suggests such activities (Easter Island: Mysteries of a Lost World).
It’s possible the overpopulation wasn’t a problem at all. In fact, having more people to farm and scatter rocks could have been highly advantageous. Regardless of what actually happened, it’s clear that the standard Rapa Nui narrative is dubious. We should be careful about how we apply that narrative to the planet as a whole. Even if we agree that it was attributable to natural scarcity, it is one of the only famines of significance that one cannot supposedly trace to colonialism, war, or totalitarianism.
Iraq: ISIS and the Yazidi
At the time of this writing, there is a famine going on in the mountains of northern Iraq. The members of a small ethno-religious sect called the Yazidi have been driven from their homes by the Islamic extremist group ISIS. They’ve taken refuge in the mountains. But there’s no food or water up there. The water shortage is even more serious than the food shortage, since people die sooner without water. About 40,000 people are in this situation as we speak. If they leave the mountain, they will be shot or beheaded by ISIS. At best, the women may be sold into sexual slavery, rather than killed.
If we focus only on the water shortage, we are missing the bigger picture. Their problem is not one of resource scarcity; it’s political. And their situation is a microcosm of most famines in this respect. Indeed, I challenge you to think of a single famine that can be traced at its root to anything other than political exclusion, pillaging, or mismanagement by authoritarian rulers, all man-made problems, not naturally occurring ones.
Absolute Limits vs Social Limits
We can see that the planet indeed does have absolute limits, a maximum carrying capacity for human life. It is a fact of physics that theoretical limits exist, even if they remain undefined. However, our global environmental predicament is not as simple as that. Rather than offering up a one-time supply of resources such as 20 billion loaves of bread in one go, the Earth has a re-productive capacity to yield bread indefinitely. Matter and energy are neither created nor destroyed. If we use the planet’s resources efficiently, the natural carrying capacity can be far greater than we might assume.
In addition, when people become more secure in their basic needs, they exhibit lower birth rates. This has at least been the course so far in the world’s developed countries, in what demographers call demographic transition (DT). DT means more efficiency and lower demand upon the resource base. Alternatively, if we hoard resources and destroy the productive capacity of the planet, the carrying capacity is greatly reduced.
In Jared Diamond’s TED talk, he discusses some of the reasons why societies collapse. Even within the confines of his somewhat Malthusian narrative, he points out something very interesting.
“Among the Greenland Norse — a competitive rank society — what the chiefs really wanted is more followers and more sheep and more resources to outcompete the neighboring chiefs. And that led the chiefs to do what’s called flogging the land: overstocking the land, forcing tenant farmers into dependency. And that made the chiefs powerful in the short run, but led to the society’s collapse in the long run.” (TED)
This example highlights that it’s not the number of people that are causing the problem per se, but the inefficient use of resources stemming from the policies of larger entities. Practically speaking, the key determinant of scarcity is how those people manage their resources as a community. This is a subtle and nuanced difference, but the ramifications for appropriate action are profound.
Q: The more the merrier?
If people are the problem, that automatically devalues human life. It makes us more willing to shrug our shoulders at the plight of those on the back of the train, the 3rd world, the victims of war and other calamities.
If we treat people as shareholders in the common project of creating prosperity, it may mean improving living standards and in turn, greater access to contraception (sans certain religious groups), and reduced incentives to have children. City dwellers don’t have much need for extra farmhands. Freed from child labor, urban children can receive more attention: better education, nutrition, and a higher quality of life. In a virtuous cycle, those children in turn are more likely to grow up to innovate and improve the efficiency with which we use resources.
A: It Depends
We may have already exceeded the carrying capacity of the planet, on the other hand the true carrying capacity could be 100 billion people, given new technology. The point is that we don’t know. It’s preferable to think in terms of actionable and tangible things we can do to save the environment and maximize technological innovation. There’s no use wallowing in pessimism, anymore than there is in blind optimism.
More people means greater technological innovation and thus the potential for efficient resource use. However, rather than a linear or exponential relationship between population and technological innovation, we see an an inverted U shape, indicating an optimal population growth rate of 0.25%, ironically measured in terms of patent filings.
Of course, it may be argued that those living under conditions of prosperity and higher growth rates may be less motivated to innovate as a means of survival. What seems to be more important in terms of increasing innovation, and thus the efficiency of resource use, is the opportunity for collaboration brought about by population density.It is a virtuous cycle. Such density is also desirable in terms of limiting sprawl and the plethora of environmental problems it causes.
Economic Growth, Good or Bad?
From a techno-utopian perspective we should blindly follow the forward momentum of the economy, regardless of its trajectory, and ignore any side-effects. Eventually, technology will trump all of the problems associated with economic growth anyway. From an extreme environmentalist perspective, nature is more important than humans and their economies. We reject both arguments.
“An intelligent approach to growth involves 1) distinguishing between the benign and harmful elements of growth and 2) designing policies based on those distinctions. Analyzing the elements of growth entails moving away from highly stylized views that lump diverse activities into single categories, such as IPAT (Impact = Population x Affluence [income/capita] x Technology) or ultimate bio-physical limits on human activity.” –Clifford Cobb
Take energy usage for example, a process which has many negative environmental side effects. With the exception of Switzerland and Germany, which have experienced zero and negative energy-GDP elasticity respectively, most economies use more energy as they grow. That said, we can look at the high degree of variance between these countries for examples of policies that maintain growth while also reducing environmental damage.
Poverty Destroys the Environment
Increasing technological innovation tends to correlate with desirable environmental outcomes. For example, pesticides are often used more in disadvantaged countries, and insecure property rights can breed neglect of the environment as surely as unjust property rights. Prosperous and well educated people can make better ecological decisions.
Efforts designed to slow economic growth will not reduce the consumption of nickel-cadmium batteries as compared to alkaline batteries, nor would doing so necessarily increase the proper disposal of environmentally harmful products in general. These problems require political solutions.
“We find no evidence that environmental quality deteriorates steadily with economic growth. Rather, for most indicators, economic growth brings an initial phase of deterioration followed by a subsequent phase of improvement. The turning points for the different pollutants vary, but in most cases they come before a country reaches a per capita income of $8,000.” (NBER)
Poverty has been known to actually increase the rate of deforestation faster than affluence. Poverty can reduce people to homesteading in the rainforest, and this is a leading cause of deforestation.Environmental damage is not the inexorable consequence of economic growth. We can achieve economic prosperity without eco-destruction.
That doesn’t mean that we blindly pursue any trajectory the animals spirits of the economy dictate; it means that we make the economy work for us, we encourage those activities that create real wealth while discouraging wastefulness. This can be achieved by a tax code that imposes costs on the use and abuse of nature, and removing taxes from economic activities that create genuine wealth. It would encourage people to consume as little of our resource base as possible. “Only take what you can eat,” as Mom says.
A lot of environmental activists hate the term “efficiency,” with good reason. It is offender used narrowly to mean financial efficiency, i.e. decisions are streamlined such that the environmental costs are not accounted for. If however, the environment was part of the bottom line, just as labor costs are, it would induce corporations and individuals to take a little a do a lot with it.
We fall into the trap of thinking about our planet as cramped and limited in its capacity for supporting life. We often hear this sentiment when people speak of Spaceship Earth. Yet, the man who coined the concept of Spaceship Earth had a different perspective:
“It is a well-provisioned ship, this on which we sail through space. If the bread and beef above decks seem to grow scarce, we but open a hatch and there is a new supply, of which before we never dreamed. And very great command over the services of others comes to those who as the hatches are opened are permitted to say, “This is mine!” – Henry George, Progress and Poverty
If we are to sail gracefully into an abundant future, we must not allow waste or allow people to obstruct access to the bounty of nature. The progress of civilization hangs on the ability for people to harness the fantastic reproductive power of nature, and use it to transcend the constraints we find ourselves in.