I have some good news and some bad news about the reception of my book Embracing Limits. The good news is that the folks at Animals 24-7, a nonprofit independent online investigative newspaper, have taken notice of Embracing Limits!
The bad news is that it comes in the form of a review of my book in Animals 24-7 by Merritt Clifton which is, shall we say, less than the ringing endorsement of degrowth veganism that I hoped it would be.
Well, I knew it was going to be a controversial book.
Merritt Clifton’s review generally takes a “denialist” tack—implying that we don’t really have an environmental crisis at all, or at least not a very serious one. Biodiversity collapse—not happening! Soil erosion—can be easily fixed! Pollution: not a problem at all! Widening inequality: also not an issue! Industrial civilization—stronger than ever!
There are so many problems with the review that it’s hard to know where to begin. He’s smart, so the review isn’t completely off the wall, but it resembles a stream-of-consciousness grab bag of objections that quickly fall apart when you start to look at them in more detail.
1. Clifton implies that we actually don’t have a problem with biodiversity collapse: “Known biodiversity is increasing.”
So what? Since science is advancing and we’re discovering a lot of species, we’re expanding our knowledge, but this doesn’t mean that biodiversity is in good shape! The evidence for “staggering declines in biodiversity” is overwhelming. It’s not even a controversial topic—it’s just news, and treaties are being negotiated to deal with the problem.
2. He cites the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN ) in his support, implying that they think that biodiversity is stable.
Well, where is he getting this? He doesn’t say. A key annoying feature of his review is that he frequently makes claims without citing his sources. But in fact, the IUCN web site says the opposite: “Biodiversity is declining at a faster rate than at any other time in human history, driven by unsustainable economic activity.” So the IUCN not only agrees with me that biodiversity is declining, but also that our economy is unsustainable! Exactly the point of Embracing Limits.
3. Then he quotes Stewart Brand, founding editor of the 1970s classic, the Whole Earth Catalog, who wrote a 2016 essay for Aeon entitled “We are not edging up to a mass extinction.”
So now Stewart Brand is your authority on biodiversity? Oh, for heaven’s sake. Clifton has been taken in by a crank. A recent article in The Nation (at least as good a source as Animals 24/7), that reviewed a biography of Brand, concludes that “Stewart Brand is not a scientist. He’s not an artist, an engineer, or a programmer. Nor is he much of a writer or editor . . . Brand, 83, is a huckster—one of the great hucksters in a time and place full of them.”
4. The chart that Brand uses (see above) doesn’t prove what Brand thinks it does. First, it only documents “genera,” not species—so if just one species in a genus is not extinct, it’s not counted as “extinct” on this chart, dampening the visual impressions of mass extinction on the chart. The end-Permian extinction, caused by massive global warming, in which likely 98-99% of all life died and 90% of all species went extinct, shows up as just a minor dip on this graph. Humans are not going to survive if we have something like another end-Permian event! And today’s pace of warming is much faster than the warming which took place during the Permian over the span of millions of years. So sure, after 10 to 20 million years, biodiversity might recover—but without us.
Also, consider the time scale of the graph. The chart represents 542 million years! If it were printed out on a piece of paper 10 inches wide, the entire Industrial Revolution (started about 300 years ago) would constitute about 6 millionths of an inch. If Darth Vader had totally destroyed the Earth at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, wiping out all life on earth, it wouldn’t even show up on this chart.
That’s what’s driving wildlife conservationists crazy these days; human-driven extinctions are happening so fast. The late Devonian extinctions unfolded over 10 to 15 million years. In just a fraction of that time, humans already done immense damage, with 75% of all large animal species in the Americas already gone. Animal advocates, the disappearance of animal biodiversity should be YOUR issue.
5. He quotes Einstein’s saying that “God does not play dice with the universe,” as seeming to reassure us that of evolution is functioning normally here and everything is just fine. Do I need to point out why this statement shows absolutely nothing? First, Einstein isn’t a biologist, he’s a physicist! Second, Einstein was wrong on this point! The field of quantum mechanics, founded on the opposite assumption, is now a basic part of physics. Third, even if the process of evolution is functioning normally, this does NOT mean everything is fine; homo sapiens could be precipitating another mass extinction event!
4. He says that the fact that humans and their livestock are 95% of the biomass of all large animal species doesn’t mean anything, because that’s just 1.6% of the biomass of all life on earth, when you count insects, plants, fungi, bacteria, and all the rest. This ignores basic ideas of biology such as that of an ecological niche. Animals all occupy the same ecological niche as that of other large animal species; they all compete for a large (but not unlimited) supply of plants. It is indisputable that as humans and livestock have dramatically increased in this niche, wild animals and insects are declining rapidly. Most alarmingly, plants are declining massively, being cut in half, from 916 Gt C biomass to 450 Gt C! (Erb et al., “Unexpectedly large impact of forest management and grazing,” Nature 553 (December 20, 2017): 73–76.)
5. He doesn’t see why pollution is a problem. Pollution is listed by wildlife biologists as one of the leading causes of biodiversity collapse (which is really happening, see above), using the acronym HIPPO: Habitat destruction, Invasive species, Pollution, Population, and Overhunting (see Embracing Limits, p. 70).
I could go on, but I think you get the idea. I will briefly mention a few of the many other problems. He doesn’t think that deforestation is threat, it all happened thousands of years ago. (So what exactly is going on today in the Amazon?) He thinks soil erosion is easily solvable because we can spread manure on fields. (News flash: manure doesn’t fall from the sky! It comes from cows grazing, which itself is tremendously destructive.) He’s not worried about political instability which is “quite unlike” that which preceded the collapse of other civilizations. (Empires collapse all the time; inequality in the USA is greater than that of ancient Rome; in 2021, “barbarians” occupied the Capitol.)
We need to understand how science actually works (discussed in chapter 3). Science is conservative (scientifically conservative, that is), and tends to stick with existing theories or paradigms. There’s a very good reason for this. It is easy, VERY EASY, to come up with superficial objections to an idea, without thinking it all through. This is what Clifton has done very well in his review. You can then waste a lot of time wading through it, trying to sort it all out.
You see this ALL THE TIME coming from the climate denialists. They don’t understand the basic science involved, so constantly make tedious objections. In the 2000s, they would say things like, “Arctic sea ice has been increasing lately!” or make some other inane comment. It takes time to go in, research what Arctic sea ice has actually been doing lately, look at the relevant time scale (Arctic sea ice does normally increase in, like, winter), write a paragraph or two in explanation, and properly footnote it.
Today, the “Arctic sea ice has expanded recently” trope seems to have faded away, along with much of the Arctic sea ice. Climate denialism has become a bit more sophisticated (“Climate change is natural” or “Plants and animals can adapt”) but the end result—you waste your time responding to nonsense—is the same.
I don’t think that Clifton is a climate denier. Animals 24-7 often has interesting material which I read regularly. They’ve actually published some of my stuff, too, so they can’t be all bad. We agree on a number of things (as Clifton points out). And I appreciate that Clifton is inquiring seriously and trying to double-check what I say.
But the science is clearly against him on virtually every point. If you’re going to challenge basic beliefs of a discipline, that’s all right—I do it in my book regarding economics. But you need careful reasoning and documentation. If you want to convince me, show me the science.