In a recent article at Crux, I argued that invitations by the Pontifical Academies to Paul Erhlich and John Bongaarts amount to formal cooperation in serious evil and cause grave scandal. The Academies have asked Ehrlich and Bongaarts to speak on the topic of overpopulation at sessions of an upcoming international conference on the extinction of species. Both Ehrlich and Bongaarts advocate abortion and contraception as methods of population control—views that should disqualify them from any discussion of this topic conducted under the auspices of the Catholic Church.
After writing that article, since I am a philosopher interested in practical reason and, in any case, a student of human nature, I wondered what could have made these invitations seem like a good idea to someone. I thought I might find the answer in the collaboration of Erhlich with Partha Dasgupta, an emeritus economist at Cambridge University. Dasgupta is a member of the Pontifical Academy of the Social Sciences and has co-authored eight papers with Erhlich.
The most recent of these was published in the April 20, 2013 issue of Science, a research article titled “Pervasive Externalities at the Population, Consumption, and Environment Nexus.” Regarding its thesis: I simplify, but let’s say that an externality is when some of the costs of my behavior are underwritten by others, so that I end up doing more of that thing than I would if I bore all the costs. Dasgupta and Ehrlich tally up various externalities under the three categories in the article title. They claim that these externalities are all interacting with one another in a vicious cycle, approaching a tipping point that will lead to imminent global collapse.
I urge scientific-minded readers to look at the article themselves. But I studied the article carefully for evidence, rigor, and analysis, and found it to be laughably bad. Here is why.
First, the examples of externalities are problematic. Some are contrived. For example, Dasgupta and Ehrlich say that, in traditionalist societies, households perpetuate traditions out of an overriding desire to conform (“conformism”), including the desire to have just as many children as everyone else—which leads to the society as a whole having more children than anyone really wants.
Dasgupta and Ehrlich give no empirical evidence that such societies actually exist. To support their claim, they sketch a highly simplified model (“To illustrate the structure of household preferences that display conformism, let Ch denote the quantities of goods and services,” etc.). But a model is not an argument. Nor is this drawing, which complements the model:
“Fig. 1. Mutual influences amplified by externalities in the population-consumption-environment nexus.”
Other examples are worrying for what they imply. For example, Dasgupta and Ehrlich say that in places in Sub-Saharan Africa where entire communities take responsibility for raising children (think: “it takes a village”), parents have more children than they would if they bore all alone the full costs of raising the children.
Think of what Dasgupta and Ehrlich are implying with this “externality”: Population control efforts originating from wealthy Western countries, to be successful, must aim to break down these admirable African practices.
The examples are not merely problematic; they are also old. Dasgupta has been repeating a similar message about these externalities for twenty-five years. Five whole paragraphs of the article (almost 20 percent of the text) are lifted verbatim from his previously published papers. The paragraph dealing with communal child-raising has been used by him at least seven times before and was originally a description of anthropological work done in the mid-1980s.
Put aside issues of academic integrity in such extravagant text-recyling, and issues of copyright infringement. The Dasgupta and Ehrlich piece is published in the journal Science under the category “Research Article.” If you are familiar with that journal, you’ll know that it publishes thousands of papers each year, under different categories (“Letter,” “Report,” “Review”). Only a handful fall within the rare and distinguished category of “Research Article.” According to the Science website, Research Articles are expected to “present a major advance.” But are we to believe that evidence recycled verbatim going back to the 1980s represents “a major advance”?
Second, as mentioned, Dasgupta and Ehrlich conclude that excesses in reproduction, consumption, and production are now arriving at a tipping point. Here the text becomes agitated, unbalanced, and hand-wavy—perhaps reflecting now the hand of Ehrlich.
Your guess is as good as mine, but I take the crucial sentence to be this: “Taken together, these factors create the unsustainable stresses on nature that have been recorded in recent years. The harmful effects of those stresses are made urgent by the presence of nonlinearities in the coupled processes at work. As the nonlinearities involve positive feedback, the stresses are yet further amplified and act more quickly.” But astonishingly, in support of these claims the authors cite a 1971 paper by Ehrlich, which predicted a tipping point by 1991! Or perhaps the “major advance” is that Ehrlich will soon, finally, be right.
I like to look “under the hood” when I study an article, so I examined, too, all of the articles Dasgupta and Ehrlich refer to in footnotes. I was horrified to see one source approve of abortion, with this chilling language: “without the 42 million abortions worldwide each year, population growth would be much more rapid”—reminding me again of the grave moral evil in which Bongaarts, Ehrlich, and Dasgupta are implicated.
But—my third point—the article plays fast and loose with its sources. For example, the authors state without qualification that conspicuous consumption leads to excessive consumption, and they sketch a highly simplistic mathematical model of this idea. However, the source they cite in a footnote (Arrow and Dasgupta, 2009) asserts the contrary: “although seemingly plausible, the intuition that conspicuous consumption leads to excess is unreliable.”
Similarly, Dasgupta and Ehrlich claim: “In rich societies, competitive consumption has further adverse consequences. For instance, automobiles make transportation simple and easy, but choices of the make and vehicle use are driven in many ways by the competitive urge.” In support of this contention, they cite a study (Kuhn et al, 2011) that explicitly says that its results cannot be used in this way: “While it is tempting to interpret our estimates as reflective of a psychological need to ‘keep up with the van den Bergs,’ we note that they could also be driven by other factors.” Examples of such misleading sourcing could be multiplied.
I looked to the article of Dasgupta and Ehrlich in a Socratic spirit, to see whether I could prove myself wrong and find some valid grounds for the invitation of Ehrlich by the Pontifical Academies. I am a firm believer in the unity of practical and theoretical truth. Yes, in odd cases they incidentally diverge. But in general they go together.
Perhaps it was Jérôme LeJeune, late member of the Pontifical Academy for Life, who taught this unity to the world most clearly. LeJeune would point out that science which remained within the constraints of the moral law proved, as a rule, to be more creative and more beneficial than science that did not. This principle is not proved false by the work of Dasgupta and Ehrlich.
Before I began my study of Dasgupta and Ehrlich’s 2013 article, I was tempted to describe the Pontifical Academies as “salt having lost its saltiness”—because there are dozens of conferences on the environment at places like Harvard and Stanford, featuring the Paul Ehrlichs of the world, which the Vatican need hardly replicate. But now having studied Ehrlich’s most relevant, putatively scientific work, I would describe the case, rather, as the Academies trading their birthright for a mess of pottage.
Michael Pakaluk is professor of ethics at the Catholic University of America.