'Scientists' seek to set world social, economic, tech policy at Rio+20

No babies, no technology, work 'til you die

Comment An international body claiming to represent the world's scientists has issued a set of demands ahead of the "Rio+20" summit this month. In essence the would-be spokesmen say that people should largely stop having babies, old folk should be put to work and most modern technology should be suppressed. The rich nations of the world should accept a much lower standard of living, while poor ones should accept that their scope for improving their lot will be sharply limited, forever.

The demands come from a relatively obscure body known as IAP, located in Trieste and funded by the Italian government. IAP claims to speak for 105 science academies around the world, giving the impression that these are all major bodies such as Britain's Royal Society or the US National Academy of Sciences. Both of these are represented on the IAP governing board, indeed, alongside the premier science bodies of Australia, Chile, China, France, India, Italy, Malaysia and Mexico.

The IAP demands can be read in full here, but summarised they are as follows:

Reduction of levels of damaging types of consumption ... with action critically needed in higher–income countries.

In other words people in higher-income countries must lower their standards of living. And there must be:

Encouragement of development strategies that help reduce population growth

But the science mouthpieces acknowledge that:

Changes in population age structure resulting from declining birth and death rates can have important environmental, social and economic ramifications, for example as a result of increased demands on healthcare and pensions systems. [There should be] policies that improve the quality of life of older people and create new opportunities for their continued contribution to society ...

So, presuming we won't have shorter lives, we'll need to put all the old folk back to work as we can't possibly afford to have them hanging about idly pensioned off in a poverty-stricken world devoid of young people, of the kind the IAP wants to see. (Carefully not mentioned are the large numbers of folk whom we would already see as working-age who are effectively pensioned off too via the welfare budget).

This is all based on science, which apparently tells us several interesting things, for instance that:

Reducing rapid population growth can stimulate and facilitate economic development, improve health and living standards, and increase political and social stability and security ...

Economics and history would suggest that in fact it's the other way round - achieve security and stability, develop the economy, improve health and living standards and population growth will then slow down - but of course economics and history are much less exact and reliable than science.

We also learn that:

Population and consumption determine the rates at which natural resources are exploited and the ability of the Earth to meet our food, water, energy and other needs now and in the future.

It's also a scientific fact, as established by an earlier Royal Society report feeding into this one, that resources available to the human race are finite and not enough to support consumption at current developed-world levels even for the developed world, far less for everyone.

Again, history doesn't bear this out. As technology advances, usually building on new scientific discoveries, the amount of resources expands - often enormously. For instance, with 18th century science and technology, the resources available to humanity were at a certain level which was already vastly more than was the case when humanity lived as hunter-gatherers.

Now, with agricultural productivity increased to heights that even the "scientific" farmers of 1800 could never have dreamed of, with many new sources of energy and vastly more puissant means of transport and communication, the resouces available to humanity have expanded many times over, all over again.

It seems at least as likely that economists are right and availability is just as important as demand in determining the rate at which resources are consumed: and further that if consumption is high enough relative to population then population stabilises. It is then easier to meet needs for food and water in the future - though quite likely the demand for energy would still go up - and anyway the supply of water and thus of food is effectively infinite if you have enough energy.

Then, there's no reason at all to assume that consumption today impacts availability of resources tomorrow. People in the 18th century might well have thought that if their population and their consumption of lighting got too high, the supplies of whale oil, wax and tallow would never hold out and they would be plunged into darkness: but along came gas, and now we have electric lighting. Limited largely to biomass, wind and sun for energy, our ancestors would have assumed that the scope for personal hygiene, clean laundry and warm homes was vastly less than we know it to be today.

Of course, if your underlying assumption is that the human race should be limited to biomass, wind and sun for energy once again, then perhaps these other assertions make sense. And it would seem that this is indeed an underlying assumption of the IAP. The science alliance also says that there must be:

A global shift to a new, green economy through the reduction of levels of damaging types of consumption and the development of more sustainable alternatives.

Even if you take it as a settled fact that carbon emissions must be urgently slashed lest catastrophic consequences befall, there's no need in fact to reduce energy use and economic consumption. Known nuclear techniques and resources could power the entire human race at hoggish American levels of consumption for at least a century - and if technology advances, as it does when Luddites aren't allowed to suppress it, we'll be all set for much longer than that.

Of course there's a common perception out there that nuclear technology is too dangerous to be permitted - a perception that was originally fostered by scientists, in fact, fearing not so much nuclear power (as any fule kno, nuclear is far and away safer than any other technique in terms of lives lost per unit of energy generated) as nuclear weapons.

The problem is, of course, that powerful energy technologies by their very nature have applications as weapons. Indeed almost all technologies - all applications of science - worth having lend themselves to the making of better weapons.

So it would seem that the world's scientists, lacking faith in their fellow humans, are demanding that we should not use or apply the science they discover - certainly that we should apply very little of what they've found out in the last couple of centuries.

Not only does this all speak very poorly of their grasp on engineering, history, economics and politics: it also indicates a severe lack of basic self-interest.

After all, if modern science is largely damaging if exploited at all, and sometimes too dangerous ever to be applied - as the scientists seem to be suggesting - why on Earth would one ever have any scientists? Certainly publicly funded ones.

We here on the Reg science desk have encountered a fair few scientists (even, alas, proper boffins such as physicists on occasion) who do indeed subscribe to the back-to-wind-and-biomass agenda: but we've also met a lot of others who don't agree.

We can't help feeling that in fact the IAP doesn't speak for all the world's scientists after all. ®

Sponsored: 10 ways wire data helps conquer IT complexity