In mainstream circles, serious acknowledgment of the problem of population growth has, for some years, been more or less taboo. Mentions are made, the occasional article appears, but extended, prominent discussion is rare. A case in point was a recent issue of Scientific American. Al Bartlett, one scientist who does raise the issue of population growth, and whom I mentioned in the previous entry here, reviewed it in the last issue of the The Physics Teacher. The review is now available online at Culture Change.
As I mentioned previously, Dr. Bartlett, physics professor emeritus at the University of Colorado and former national president of the American Association of Physics Teachers, is one of my favorite thinkers on sustainability, population growth, and related issues. He’s been speaking on the topic of population and energy since 1969, and has written some of the clearest, most incisive articles you will find on sustainability-related topics. His review of the Scientific American issue is no exception. This was a special issue devoted to “Energy’s Future Beyond Carbon: How to Power the Economy and Still Fight Global Warming.” The articles focused on topics such as carbon capture and alternative energy sources. Yet, article by article, Dr. Bartlett points out the conspicuous lack of any mention of population growth as a major driver, arguably the major driver, of the trouble we’ve created for ourselves in our burning of fossil fuels and emission of greenhouse gases:
As the size of the world population increases, the rate of burning of fossil fuels increases and this can be expected to increase the rate of rise of global average temperatures. The authors of these nine articles have to know that the size of the global population is a major factor in determining the rate of release of greenhouse gases. Yet in a special issue devoted to reducing global warming, SA almost completely ignores population size and growth
And that is a serious problem. While not involving overt lies, does the “silent lie” of omission among these authors constitute an instance of collective intellectual dishonesty? It’s so pronounced it surprises me to see it, despite my awareness that the topic of population growth has been generally squelched.
Hinting at a reason
But in the title of the special issue we do get a hint at one force keeping population growth out of view: “Energy’s Future Beyond Carbon: How to Power the Economy and Still Fight Global Warming.” (emphasis added) It’s the growth imperative that’s so pervasive in this age. The assumption is that we must continue the push for constant economic growth which, in turn, cannot happen without population growth. There seems to be little thought given to the glaringly unsustainable nature of a strategy based on infinite economic growth.
In fact, as Dr. Bartlett puts it, quoting from one of the articles, “Growth remains sacred. ‘But holding CO2 emissions in 2056 to their present rate, without choking off economic growth, is a desirable outcome within our grasp.’”
They should know better
As scientists, this collection of authors is surely more aware than most of the limits of the ecosystem and the limits to growth. But rather than examine how we might adapt to those limits (such as through policy consistent with the goal of a steady state economy), this whole group of authors opts simply to ignore the problem, examining instead technological possibilities which certainly are a key part of the solution, but which fail to address this central, causal issue.
Daniel M. Kammen, the author of the article on alternative energies, actually identifies the causal role of economic growth in creating the problem: “Because economic growth continues to boost the demand for energy–more coal for powering new factories, more oil for fueling new cars, more natural gas for heating new homes–carbon emissions will keep climbing despite the introduction of more energy-efficient vehicles, buildings and appliances.”
But his proposed solution fails to deal with that cause, not to mention ignoring the even more fundamental problem of population growth: “To counter the alarming trend of global warming, the U.S. and other countries must make a major commitment to developing renewable energy sources that generate little or no carbon.”
Dr. Bartlett refers to “a lonely isolated touch of reality” in Kammen’s opening sentence: “No plan to substantially reduce greenhouse gas emissions can succeed through increases in energy efficiency alone.” The reason for this, Dr. Bartlett explains, “is that continuing population growth, even at the level of approximately 1% per year, will likely overwhelm the annual savings that can be achieved nationally or globally through improved efficiencies.” I might add that continuing population growth will further a variety of ecological problems which are not even directly related to CO2 emissions. (The severe overfishing of the oceans is one of many examples.)
Time to speak up!
While the authors of the articles in Scientific American avoided the topic of population growth, I hinted at the beginning of this post that some scientists do not shrink from grappling with it in their published writings. We will of course examine what they have to say in subsequent posts. It is time, though, for other scientists began to talk about it as well. We do not have very much time to get population growth on the table as one of the key items to address. Our ecosystem is in trouble right now.
(Apart from the articles on energy related topics, this issue of Scientific American was also the one containing a column by Jeffrey Sachs which did discuss population growth. Dr. Bartlett took issue with some of Sachs’s comments as well. But that is a topic for an upcoming post.)
Image source: Stuart Staniford, as posted on The Oil Drum under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.5 license