Monday, April 03, 2006

"People are dying"

Those who follow the loonie right media, especially creationists, will think the phrase above must be from Eric Pianka's much maligned speech to the Texas Academy of Sciences. But no, it comes from Senator Rick "Santorum" Santorum, who discussed our brothers in arms across the pond:
I, believe it or not, believe faith is incredibly strong in America. If you look at the rest of the world and the struggles they are having, particularly in Western Europe, who just completely abandoned faith, completely have gone to a secular society...Its cultures are dying. People are dying, they're being overrun from overseas, and they have no response. They have nothing to fight for. They have nothing to live for.
Awful. Simply offal, suggesting that millions of Europeans should be killed for their lack of faith.

Ah, but wait, that isn't what he said. He simply claimed that this was happening, and seems to think it's inevitable, natural, and ultimately that nothing is to be done.

Which brings us to Eric Pianka. While giving a speech in acceptance of the Texas Academy of Sciences' Distinguished Texan Scientist award, Pianka discussed the state of the human population. Like people have done since Malthus, Pianka pointed to the imminent reach of human populations beyond our ability to sustain such population levels and discussed what might happen. One creationist who attended the event reported that Pianka said something to the effect that:

Professor Pianka said the Earth as we know it will not survive without drastic measures. …

War and famine would not do, he explained. Instead, disease offered the most efficient and fastest way to kill the billions that must soon die if the population crisis is to be solved. …

His favorite candidate for eliminating 90 percent of the world's population is airborne Ebola ( Ebola Reston ), because it is both highly lethal and it kills in days, instead of years.…

After praising the Ebola virus for its efficiency at killing, Pianka paused, leaned over the lectern, looked at us and carefully said, “We've got airborne 90 percent mortality in humans. Killing humans. Think about that.” …

“And the fossil fuels are running out,” he said, “so I think we may have to cut back to two billion, which would be about one-third as many people.” So the oil crisis alone may require eliminating two-third's of the world's population.
Predictably, the creationists at the DI are having a field day. And equally predictably, they seem to be missing the point.

Given that our creationist reporter failed to quote anything to support his most radical claims against Dr. Pianka, instead quoting factual claims about how Ebola works and the depletion of fossil fuels. The only thing suggesting anything genocidal is the quote about cutting back to two billion. Context would allow us to determine whether that was intended as a call to begin culling humanity or a comment on the inevitable consequences of a petroleum-deficient world. We lack that context, except to note that no other attendees seem to be bent out of shape about a call to eliminate 90% of the world's population. To me, this suggests that no such call went forth.

Wes Elsberry points to Dr. Pianka's website, where he makes this comment:

During the past quarter of a century, world population has increased from about 3.4 billion people to over 6.4 billion, an increase of over 85%. In some parts of the world, human populations are growing even faster.

If humans do not control their own population (and we seem unwilling and unable to do so), then other forces will certainly act to control our population. The four horseman of the apocalypse (conquest, war, famine, and death) are all candidates. Most likely, lethal virulent microbes like HIV and Ebola zaire will set limits on the growth of human populations. HIV, by allowing infected hosts to survive years while they spread the virus and infect new hosts, has already become a pandemic, but it will be years before it decimates the human population. Although Ebola kills 9 out of 10 people, outbreaks have so far been unable to become epidemics because they are currently spread only by direct physical contact with infected blood. However, a closely related virus that kills monkeys, Ebola reston, is airborne, and it is only a matter of time until Ebola zaire evolves the capacity to be airborne.
I would say that this is the rough equivalent of Santorum's comment above. He isn't calling for Ebola to be aerosolized, he's saying that it's a good chance it'll happen, and the results when it does will be devastating. And that our excessive population density will speed the spread of the disease, making things worse. And that if we don't want that to happen, we need to think about ways to control our population growth that don't involve the four horsemen.

One can disagree with his claims, and my reference to Malthus above reveals one line of critique. For 200 years, people have been insisting that we're right around the corner from a horrific population crash, yet population growth rates in that time period have been accelerating, sometimes faster than exponentially. Improvements in desalination and agriculture have prevented the Malthusian crash from materializing, as improvements in metallurgy and extraction techniques have managed to stay ahead of sky-rocketing demand for oil, gas, coal, metals and minerals. That doesn't mean it'll last forever, but I don't see in Pianka's argument anything that Malthus didn't say 200 years ago or that Paul Ehrlich didn't say in
The Population Bomb
. Both got something wrong, and any revival of the argument must address those failures.

Pianka's only difference seems to be that Malthus and Ehrlich focused on famine as the cause of the collapse of populations, while he sees disease as the likely cause. It does not appear that he advocates this, indeed he seems to be warning against an imminent disaster rather than cheering it on. I wasn't there when he spoke, nor have I ever heard him speak. I have seen people at speeches, and don't recall anyone cheering advocacy of horrific death. Not even Texans. That makes me think that he didn't do any such thing.

I'll put up a more serious discussion of the ecology behind his claims in a separate post. He's an interesting scientist and his views on ecology give some insight into this speech.

Update: "Pianka says he would never advocate genocide or extermination like some suggest he does."