By Nick Breeze


I must admit to not having heard of Clive James for a couple of decades or more. Last I saw he was hosting a television talk show series that featured a Cuban singer called Margarita Pracatan. So it was with an open mind that I read this review of a biography of the political theorist Thomas Robert Malthus by Robert Mayhew in Prospect Magazine.

 

Clive James And Margarita Pracatan

Clive James and Margarita Pracatan


James immediately states that “Malthus was wrong that population growth would lead to famine” and asks “Why are his ideas still popular?”. Alarm bells chime in the distance. Malthus is very famous for his conclusions about population growth and natures ability to feed it. The human population has gone from 2bn to 7bn in 85 years [1]. What makes his conclusions more prescient is the enormous body of scientific research that estimates that the Earth’s human carrying capacity has exceeded its resource capacity to sustain us. We are now in exponential population growth, whilst all of our life support systems (forests, oceans, agriculture, water, etc.) have become stressed and are at risk of collapse. Although James would undoubtedly describe this as alarmist, I would certainly assert that it is alarming!


What becomes quickly apparent is that James does not care much for any form evidence in making his grand put downs of the scientific establishment. He prefers statements alluding to his own wisdom instead, such as “… I know quite a lot about mass media, having worked in that area all of my life.” The reader should be reminded that James’s mass media career peaked over two decades ago and, from a media perspective, the pre-internet world was a very different place. The contemporary world, he seems to have no knowledge of at all.


There are so many incorrect statements (with no citations of evidence except “…all the statistics agree…”) that I’ll only highlight a few. James is certain that food security on the planet “will be abundant for years to come.” This seems quite opposed to what is coming out of the scientific studies that show that increased soil erosion, weather anomalies, water and energy shortages, have put the global food baskets under considerable stress. [3, 4].


James cannot abide the author of the book, Robert Mayhew, seemingly because he, himself, does not believe in the seriousness of climate change. All criticisms are framed around this premise, existing without any evidence and with (oddly amusing) demonstrations of James’s own wit in tackling the subject. One of the best lines is as follows: “… I speculated aloud that the famous 97 per cent consensus among scientists was perhaps only a consensus among climate scientists…” [5]. It begs the question, which branch of scientific specialism would he prefer us to trust in analysing the state of the Earth’s climate? Dentists?


James goes on to describe the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) as “an unfailing source of alarmist propaganda…”, following up that they have somehow backtracked on their assessment of the global impacts that we can expect from a hotter planet. The truth could not be further away. The past few months has seen IPCC lead authors stating that we are on track for a global average of 4C rise in temperature by the end of century that will cause resource scarcity, increased conflict and sea level rise to name but a few outcomes [6]. He then goes on to state, “the emphasis had clearly shifted from mitigation to adaptation.” There is an element of truth to this but not because the problems we face are any less dangerous (as he implies). It is rather that the political and corporate will does not exist to take the necessary precautionary action. Therefore the world population at large are forced into the only response available: try to adapt.


But the change is happening and in the US we see a huge willingness by the Obama administration to show courage in squaring up to this very real issue [7]. With wildfires, drought, incredible sub-zero conditions and dangerous hurricanes as Sandy becoming a real threat to the wellbeing of the nation, it is sad that the likes of Clive James wish to remain in a silo of ignorance. Many of the poorer nations around the world are feeling the dire effects of manmade climate change, with low-lying islands and coastal areas facing direct threats from rising sea levels and extreme weather. To them, the idle jokes and mass media wit of a has-been like James would sound galling if ever they heard it [8,9].


From this point on James’s mask is off as he invokes the memory of the famed non-scandal tagged “climategate” by the media, representing vested business interests, propagating similar myths as James himself [10]. The inquiry that followed the non-scandal exonerated all those scientists whose emails were illegally hacked and misrepresented to the press to discredit their work. But the damage was done. The most important conversation we needed to have in 2009 (James says it was 2007 but that is incorrect) was dropped from the agenda altogether. That itself will be seen as a far greater scandal in the years to come [11]. It seems odd that our “mass media” expert was unable to decipher the truth from the loud shrills of tabloid mania that scoffed at innocent men.


Although I was compelled to smile at James’s peculiar rant against something he can’t seem to grasp despite mountains of evidence, his case against Malthus, climate change and associated risks, do carry an undertone of sadness. For James is not inheriting the Earth, he is bequeathing it to future generations and it is in a terrible state. To shrug and insinuate that the problems we face collectively, as a result of the mistakes made in the preceding decades, are just an illusion, is disrespectful and ignorant.

 

Thomas Robert malthus
Thomas Robert Malthus (pic. Wikipedia)


Clive James’s appraisal of ‘Malthus: The Life and Legacies of an Untimely Prophet’ [12] seems to fall away somewhere in this piece of writing. But between the lines of his misty views, he has done us some service. His message is clear but our reading of it should be clearer: the book is likely to be a very good insight and analysis of a man who, over 200 years ago, diagnosed the problem that we today are facing: population really does matter!


Nick Breeze

12 June 2014

 

References:


1. http://populationmatters.org/wp-content/uploads/population_problem.pdf

2. http://populationmatters.org/issues-solutions/sustainable-consumption/contraction-convergence/

3. http://www.nrdc.org/health/climate/drought.asp

4. http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/mar/31/climate-change-threat-food-security-humankind

5. http://climate.nasa.gov/scientific-consensus

6. http://www.carbonbrief.org/blog/2011/06/iea-and-ipcc-temperature-projections/

7. http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2014/03/03/3349411/john-holdren-roger-pielke-climate-drought/

8. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/climate-change-damage-to-poor-countries-goes-far-beyond-money/

9. http://www.progressive.org/news/2014/04/187646/how-climate-change-dooming-worlds-poorest-nations

10. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Climatic_Research_Unit_email_controversy

11. http://www.skepticalscience.com/Climategate-CRU-emails-hacked.htm

12. http://www.amazon.co.uk/Malthus-Life-Legacies-Untimely-Prophet/dp/0674728718

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