Category Archives: Per capita consumption

Watch for this error

factors and products

By John Feeney:

Update #1: See Brishen Hoff’s, Paul Chefurka’s, and Graham Strouts’s critiques of the Monbiot article as well.

Update #2: For a correct, non-deceptive comparison of population growth and consumption growth, click here for a recent example from former AAAS president, John Holdren.
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Sometimes I read something, such as a recent article by George Monbiot (whose work I’ve often admired, by the way), and realize the basics bear repeating.

Environmental and other writers speak often about resource consumption. On occasion they write something about population growth. Once in a while they tackle the whole package – population and consumption. When they do, they often make a simple error and come to the wrong conclusion.

Typically, it goes something like this: “Yes, population growth is a problem. But growth in consumption is occurring faster, so it’s an even bigger problem.”

Usually, they’re talking about total consumption of one or another or a combination of resources. And the comparison is an error.

Total resource consumption (of one or all resources) is the product of population size and average per person consumption. Naturally, we would expect the growth of the product to exceed that of either of two growing factors driving it! As an example, 2*2=4 and 4*4=16. Here the factors have increased by the same amount; they’ve doubled. But the product has quadrupled. A factor and the product are not comparable elements.

The more appropriate comparison is between the factors, population and per person consumption. There the data tell us the differences are not so pronounced, and it’s clear we cannot prioritize and say it is more urgent to address one than the other.

It’s the same error if you see a comparison suggesting economic growth far outweighs population growth as an environmental problem. Economic growth can, after all, be understood (PDF) as closely overlapping total consumption. It’s held to be driven by population multiplied by per person consumption. George Monbiot certainly sees it that way as he equates economic growth and total consumption in his fourth paragraph.
Continue reading . . .

Humanity is the greatest challenge

The article quoted and linked to below came out of an idea I submitted to the BBC News’s Green Room. I was lucky enough to contact a wonderfully helpful and supportive editor (Thanks, MK!) and the piece was posted last night. It’s exciting to be able to present the ideas we discuss here and around the Web to the BBC’s worldwide audience! — JF
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The growth in human population and rising consumption have exceeded the planet’s ability to support us, argues John Feeney. In this week’s Green Room, he says it is time to ring the alarm bells and take radical action in order to avert unspeakable consequences.

We humans face two problems of desperate importance. The first is our global ecological plight. The second is our difficulty acknowledging the first.

Despite increasing climate change coverage, environmental writers remain reluctant to discuss the full scope and severity of the global dilemma we’ve created. Many fear sounding alarmist, but there is an alarm to sound and the time for reticence is over.

Read the rest…


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Global warming: the great equaliser

Administrator’s note: It’s increasingly obvious that despite the gravity of the global ecological crisis, few governments are undertaking anything approaching the actions that might prevent catastrophe. In this article, Adam Parsons makes clear the gap between the form and level of economic change needed to address climate change and the reality of the inaction we see today. Yet he sounds a hopeful note in observing the potential for global warming to become the issue which finally prompts a new examination and restructuring of the global, market based economic system.

Adam is the editor of London based Share the World’s Resources (STWR), an NGO campaigning for global economic and social justice based upon the principle of sharing. He can be reached at: editor [at] stwr [dot] net. — JF
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Global warming mapBy Adam W. Parsons:

As the latest summit to discuss a post-Kyoto treaty continues in New York this week, the single most revealing statement has already been spoken: “We need to climate-proof economic growth”. These few words, told to reporters by the UN’s top climate official, Yvo de Boer, during the recent Vienna round of talks, define the blinded establishment approach to tackling climate change.[1] Only if continued trade liberalisation and corporate profits are kept sacrosanct, remains the assumption, is it possible to consider even a broad agreement on future cuts in greenhouse-gas emissions.

With dire weather events and studies being reported on an almost daily basis, fewer sceptics are able to dismiss the reality of dangerous climate change. In the same week as around 1,000 diplomats, scientists, business leaders and environmental activists from 158 countries attended the U.N.’s Vienna Climate Change Talks, a top security think-tank stated that climate change could have global security implications “on a par with nuclear war unless urgent action is taken”,[2] whilst leading scientists warned of a looming “global food crisis” that will require more food to be produced over the next 50 years than has been produced during the past 10,000 years combined.[3]

The rapidity of these dystopian predictions has grown to Faustian proportions; the year 2007 already has the dubious accolade of witnessing the most extreme weather events on record,[4] as characterised by the millions of Africans just hit by some of the worst floods in a generation in which villagers were “wiped off the map”.[5] This summer, the collapse of the Arctic ice cap (losing a third of its ice since measurements began 30 years ago and “stunning” experts)[6] was topped off by the latest UN study from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) who now believe that the tipping point for widespread catastrophe – involving a two degrees rise in global temperatures – is “very unlikely” to be avoided.[7] (more…)

Is it enough to “solve” energy?

Some comments under Kent Welton’s Growthism essay raise a subject of profound importance. There’s a widespread notion that if we could just make the transition to completely clean and renewable energy – which we certainly need to do – our ecological problems would be over. Unfortunately it’s not that simple.Historically, there’s been a striking correlation between increases in energy consumption and population growth. It seems increasing access to energy has actually been a major driver of population growth, perhaps in large part because of the associated increase in food production. William Catton shows this so clearly in his book, Overshoot, that it knocks you over the head with new awareness.
Read the rest…

Brief note: behind the scenes at GIM

Behind the scenesLately, I’ve been busy behind the scenes preparing and submitting articles for publication beyond this site. My reasoning is that while GIM’s readership is growing slowly but steadily, that’s not enough. The issues we discuss here are too urgent to sit patiently, waiting for the site slowly to grow. The aim, therefore, is to reach out not only through GIM, but also other media channels to encourage awareness of the need to confront our overshoot of Earth’s limits.

I’ve had time to work on this in part because of some great guest articles helping to keep GIM rolling. My thanks to Jim Lydecker and Ken Smail for making available their thought provoking work. Another guest essay will appear soon, and I’m waiting on permission from the journal publisher to post another of Ken’s articles. (more…)

Are environmental writers choosing avoidance over truth?

See no evil

It is indisputable that population size and growth are among the fundamental drivers of today’s ecological crisis. There’s no getting around the math that population size multiplies with per capita consumption to determine total resource consumption. Additional links between our numbers and ecological degradation are impossible to dismiss. Once one accounts for population, consumption rates, and corporate economic growth, one is hard pressed to identify any equally powerful contributors to environmental destruction. [1]

What are environmental writers thinking?

You may wonder, therefore, why the topic of population does not appear in nearly all media coverage of environmental problems. The population topic is, in fact, actively avoided by many environmental writers. The history of how it’s become a taboo subject is worth a few future posts, but Grist staff writer, David Roberts, recently summed up the thinking of some current writers. (more…)

Population and consumption: both major players

Growing footprint Consider this a working paper of sorts. It adds to the last post here which discussed the relationship between population and consumption. But it’s only a snapshot of an initial bit of online and library research. I hope to flesh out the topic more fully in the future.

At the end of that post I mentioned two issues I had barely touched on, which deserved more attention. They were (a) the question of whether, even hypothetically, we could ignore population growth and count solely on advances in clean energy technologies to escape ecological catastrophe, and (b) the implications of the observation that over the last century global energy consumption has increased more than population numbers. In my view, the former question is the simpler one, and I’ll get to in the near future. In this post I’ll provide some of what I’ve found concerning the latter issue.

The consumption argument

It’s a common observation that, over the last half century or more, resource consumption rates have increased at a faster pace than population size. I’ve seen this observation used to support the view that population growth isn’t as serious an environmental problem as our growing rates of consumption. Sometimes a proponent of this argument presents data showing that the magnitude of growth of total world energy consumption, or of total consumption of a specific resource, is considerably larger than that of population. (more…)

An unholy matrimony

[The follow-up to this essay is found here.]

The chicken knows
“Overpopulation is a serious problem getting worse every year.”

“Overpopulation is a myth.”

“There is no population problem.”

“There’s overconsumption, … but not overpopulation.”

“[The problem is] overpopulation in the South and overconsumption in the North.”

That’s just a sampling of the kinds of conflicting statements about population growth you can find on the Web and elsewhere. Is it any wonder the topic confuses people? Readers here should have little doubt which of the first three views I share. I would suggest, as well, that statements dismissing the population issue are often disingenuous and politically motivated.

Good question

But what about about the population versus consumption question? (more…)

Welcome to Growth is Madness!

Our finite Earth from space.Our earth is in trouble. And that means we’re in trouble. It’s no exaggeration today to say we face a looming global ecological collapse. Scientists have warned us of this for more than a decade. The warnings, from individual experts, and organizations grow more urgent.

Yet, most people’s attention is on other news. There is little awareness of the gravity of the environmental problem we face and the likely consequences if it is not vigorously addressed.

There is even less awareness of the root causes of our environmental plight. This is not too surprising as their role in creating the problems we face has been suppressed by those with vested interests in shielding us from the truth.

Simple truth

Let’s start with some truth right now. The root causes of the ecological collapse of which scientists are warning are:

  1. Global population growth to levels beyond the earth’s carrying capacity for humans.
  2. Excessive and growing per capita resource consumption rates.
  3. Economic growth (the product of #1 and #2), as defined by Herman Daly, in the form of increased physical throughput, from the extraction of raw materials, through their manufacture into commodities, to their output as wastes.
  4. Our reliance on nonrenewable resources such as fossil energy.

Those four elements are of course closely linked, with one affecting another. It takes only simple thought experiments to recognize their impacts. Imagine, for instance, that there were only one quarter as many human beings on earth as there are today (about equal to the global population of 1900!). Clearly, there would be be far less environmental degradation. We could quibble over whether or not it would be exactly one quarter the current amount. (We might speculate that the variables listed should interact differently at different levels.) But the basic idea is clear. Think similarly about the other factors, and their importance comes to light.

Room for hope!

But before you close this site in dismay at what, up to here, seems a profoundly pessimistic message, I’ll point out there is room for much hope! Experts who study the global ecological problem are clear in their assessments (pdf) that there are effective actions we can take to avert disaster or, at the least, to soften the landing. It will take serious commitments from many nations, intergovernmental cooperation, corporate and individual efforts. Part of those efforts needs to be the spreading of accurate information to inspire others to help, whether they encourage their elected representatives to take action, or they take action themselves.

Enter GIM

Thus, I launch Growth is Madness! (GIM) to help fill a void I can hardly believe exists. Relative to other issues in the news, there is a terrible dearth of information, readily available to the public, on the nature and causes of the most important problem of our time, the global environmental crisis. As far as I know, this is the only weblog currently devoted expressly to addressing the fundamental causes of this crisis. [1] In this unique role, GIM will provide key information, investigating and elaborating on the ideas mentioned above, examining counterarguments, and more.

Because they are especially ignored by the mainstream press, the population and economic growth will figure prominently here. We will, however, touch as well on other relevant topics including peak oil, per capita consumption, the political and social factors driving the areas of growth in question, various ecological topics, and actions which might ameliorate the problem. We need much more awareness, after all, of the ecological “big picture.”

In a way, I wish someone else were doing this. Though trained as a social scientist in the “scientist-practitioner” model, my academic background is in psychology. Here, I’m forced to grapple with topics from the natural sciences, economics, sociology, and anthropology among other disciplines. Others would have immediately at hand more technical knowledge. But they’re not doing this.

Starting, then, with the information I’ve gathered, I’ll continue to research as I go. And I invite you to join me, to participate in the discussion under every entry. I’m more than willing, as well, to post guest articles relevant to the site.

Finally, to anyone reading GIM, I make this pledge: I’ll always make the effort to seek the truth, to back my arguments with sound logic, and to source my information well. In addition, I want readers to feel comfortable commenting here, to know I’ll reply civilly. On the other hand, I hope the title of this weblog makes clear that I won’t mince words when it comes to stating the truth as I see it about the topics I discuss. Growth really is madness.

Welcome to GIM!
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[1] Update: Greater familiarity with the available resources requires me now to qualify that statement. As a class, the sites which come closest to sharing the themes here are those focused on peak oil. While they specialize in oil depletion, often touching on related ecological issues such as population, GIM specializes in those other ecological issues, increasingly touching on peak oil.

Since writing this post, a small number of other blogs sharing GIM’s concerns have come online. Some appear in the blogroll here.

Also overlapping somewhat with GIM’s themes are a few sites which promote a return to primitivism. These folks, as well as some of those studying oil depletion, have concluded that, owing to the interactions of issues such as population overshoot and peak oil, society is headed for collapse and it’s too late to stop it. If current trends continue, I agree collapse is inevitable. I part with these analysts only in that I believe it’s premature to conclude there is no possibility we can change course soon enough and substantially enough to avert complete collapse. I would concede, though, there may be less time remaining to do so than most of us would like to believe.

Even if my assessment is too optimistic, it’s worth noting that even those convinced of the inevitability of collapse would agree there are a number of positive actions we can take now to soften the landing. Much of the content of GIM is consistent with that thought. We need to increase awareness to avert collapse, or at least to soften the landing.

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Updated: 8/24/07, 10/9/07
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