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Doomsday Scenarios Make Better Fiction Than Science, Says Researcher Karl Butzer

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By David Ochsner, College of Liberal Arts
Published: June 20

For more than 50 years Karl Butzer, a renowned environmental archaeologist at The University of Texas at Austin, has trekked across continents, sifted through countless excavations and pored over collections in some of the world’s greatest libraries and museums in a quest to better understand humanity’s age-old relationship to the natural environment.

He has seen evidence in the geologic record of serious challenges to our survival, but he has also seen abundant proof of our resilience, of our ability to adapt, persist and even thrive in a changing world. Unfortunately, Butzer finds our current debate about the environment to be less about crisis response and adaptation and more about alarmism.

“We have serious problems, yet many writers do nothing but sell us on apocalyptic scenarios, of societies at the mercy of environmental forces beyond their control,” says Butzer, Raymond Dickson Centennial Professor of Liberal Arts in the Department of Geography and the Environment.

Focusing solely on environmental factors — such as climate change — results in “finger-pointing and fear-mongering,” he says, when our energy would be better spent in finding new ways to adapt to a changing world. Indeed, the historical record offers many more examples of societies that have survived and adapted than those that collapsed.

“Pundits continue to pontificate while ordinary people go about their lives adapting and adjusting,” Butzer says. “Many who consider themselves experts claim to have the definitive answer, even a revelation, but what we really need is a rational approach. We need to invite people to discuss, and think, and overcome this ideological dissonance.”

To this end, Butzer and Georgina Endfield, professor in environmental history at the University of Nottingham, organized an international collection of critical papers for a special feature on sustainability in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (March 6, 2012, vol. 109).

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