If I’m right, do I win a Nobel Prize?

Nobel Medal

It’s not easy trying to spread the word about population growth. Part of the trouble is that others, sometimes highly respected in their fields, spread contrary information. Nobel prize winners go around telling people population growth is a good thing; bring it on! George W. Bush regretted saying such a thing and said so. But the population growth cheerleaders haven’t yet expressed any remorse about their destructive pronouncements. One can only hope that in the end the truth will out.

Gary, we need to talk

While we’re waiting for the truth to win the day, let’s take a quick look at one attempt to convince us we should welcome continued population growth. On The Becker-Posner Blog, University of Chicago professors Gary Becker, a Nobel prize winning economist, and Richard Posner, a federal circuit judge, blog and debate issues of interest.

Last October, they considered the question, “Should we worry about overpopulation?,” with Posner suggesting we should and Becker arguing the opposing view. [1] Becker’s comments are tempered but in line with the views of many mainstream economists. Most of his post is spent asserting economic advantages of faster population growth rates and larger populations. Here’s a sampling:

With the present system of financing social security and medical care of the elderly, faster population growth helps since it increases the number of working individuals relative to the number of retired persons…. The greater the population, the larger the market for new products… The larger is the level of population, the greater the scope for the division of labor…

I find these economic justifications for population growth akin to a doctor telling an obese patient that food is life and health preserving, so eat up, the more the better. Past some point, either food or population growth causes far more harm than good.

Okay, so what about the important stuff?

Becker does go on to mention the population-environment issue, but instantly dismisses it by invoking the “environmental Kuznets curve,” (EKC) a concept suggesting that in a given country environmental degradation first rises then falls as a function of economic growth and rising per capita income. The idea is that, once a certain point of wealth is achieved, the richer a country gets the healthier its environment gets.

This is a weak foundation on which to rest one’s entire dismissal of the problem of population growth. First, to apply the EKC to the question of population, Becker had to assume population growth would mean greater per capita income. The idea is that if we grow the population and therefore per capita income around the world, our environmental worries will be minimal, thanks to the EKC. Unfortunately, the notion that population growth leads to greater per capita income is far from a given. Second, the EKC is of questionable validity to begin with (see here and here and here and here [pdf]), but definitely does not apply to some major sources of environmental damage such as CO2. Finally, even without those problems for the EKC, population growth and economic growth are two different things. Even if the latter did lead reliably to improved environmental conditions, it does not prevent the former from working in the opposite direction. In the end, it takes only common sense to see that no EKC phenomenon can be expected to save us from environmental degradation no matter the level of economic growth around the world. If it could, then we would see wonderful environmental conditions today in the most developed countries. We don’t.

Can technology work magic?

The only other element to Becker’s argument is his assertion that technology will always save us because “technologies progress rapidly in the modern world, and more rapidly as population is larger or per capita incomes are larger.” This notion is common among mainstream economists. But it doesn’t pass the common sense test. Has technology bailed us out so far? Clearly not. We face a long list of profound ecological problems (e.g., climate change, species extinctions rates believed to be as much as 1000 times normal, extreme overfishing, deforestation, massive “dead zones” in the oceans, the global spread of chemical toxins, and projections of serious water shortages to come) with tremendous damage already done. (Consider, for instance, the irreversibility of extinction.) Technology has helped in places, but has not saved us. Moreover, the mere fact that technology has helped in the past is no guarantee it will help enough to avoid catastrophe in a future of growing population, continued pressure for economic growth, and accelerating declines in many ecological subsystems.

I was at first surprised to see Becker offer so little to support for his argument in favor of population growth. On reflection, though, I don’t believe he had much choice. There are not many good points to be made in favor of such a position. It is far easier to argue the view that further population growth is harmful. The facts speak for themselves.
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[1] Posner makes some good points but, in my view, misses opportunities to make his argument much stronger.
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Image source: ereneta, posted on flickr under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 license

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42 responses to “If I’m right, do I win a Nobel Prize?

  1. “Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius – and a lot of courage – to move in the opposite direction.”

    – Albert Einstein

  2. Gary Becker starts with this statement: “I will argue that at this time, in the United States and most other parts of the world, greater population has greater benefits than costs.”

    Like most people, he’s looking at the near term and just part of the world. The entire question is how long can we sustain population growth on the Earth — not just a part of it.

    It’s telling that the first thing he talks about is the aging population of the USA and the need to have lots of young people to support them. Yet, he says that’s not a ponzi scheme because “it could continue for many, many generations if there are enough younger persons with the incomes to be taxed.” Huh?

    What I’ve never seen from an economist is an economic model for a closed system: one with a stable population, a fixed set of physical resources, and where the only meaningful variable is technological and scientific advancement. In other words, what are the viable economic systems for a sustainable Earth without a growing population? Perhaps it is the inability to imagine how the economy of a sustainable Earth would work that leads a guy like Becker to defend population growth.

  3. To throw one more thing into the mix, inter-relating population dynamics and economic systems dynamics, consider Geoffrey McNicoll’s “Population and Sustainability”, Working Paper No. 205 (2005), The Population Council. [PDF].

    I have been looking at too much stuff lately, and am not sure whether or not I got this from you, John. If I did, ignore it. If I did not, and you or others have not seen it, enjoy it.

  4. Dave,

    Thanks for that link. I don’t think I’d seen it, and it does look worthwhile.

  5. Trinifar,

    “The entire question is how long can we sustain population growth on the Earth — not just a part of it.”

    Quite right. I think he’s off base even for just the U.S., but yeah, the big question is what sort of population makes sense for the earth. This is a good, brief read on carrying capacity:

    http://www.ilea.org/leaf/richard2002.html

    One especially good aspect of that article is that she accounts not just for absolute (biophysical) carrying capacity, but also “social carrying capacity.” The latter considers quality of life, standard of living, etc. That leads to lower, and clearly more realistic estimates.

    “What I’ve never seen from an economist is an economic model for a closed system: one with a stable population, a fixed set of physical resources, and where the only meaningful variable is technological and scientific advancement.”

    Yep, that’s key, I think. The only thing I’ve seen like that is the idea of the steady state economy:

    http://www.steadystate.org/

    Maybe I’ve missed some other stuff out there, but it’s amazing there is so little discussion of the idea of sustaining a healthy economy in the context of a non-growing population and without economic growth of the “physical throughput” variety. (i.e., extraction of resources, turning them into goods etc., and disposing of the resulting wastes, all increasing and beyond sustainable levels) Maybe Dave or Rob or someone with more economics background could tell us if they’ve seen other models competing with the steady state economy idea.

  6. Hello.

    http://www.npg.org/china.html

    There are a few links on the bottom of the page here, dealing with the question you just raised.

  7. Thanks Magne. I’ll be interested to see how different people are thinking about the steady state economy.

    Oh, and thanks for that Einstein quote. I should be able to find some uses around here for that one. 🙂

  8. Of course the Negative Population Growth group and the Ecological Economics group are inter-related. Just look at the literature cites at the end of Magne’s hyperlink above.

    When I used to closely follow the NPG literature they were advocating for something akin to 2 billion people on the planet (down from 6+) and, as I recall, 200 million here in the US (down from what is now about 300) as stretch goals 200 years or so hence. They set their sights that far in the future so as not to scare anyone other than the neoCons and the religious right. After 200 years, they would re-evaluate.

    To show you how far away I’ve been from this pop problem stuff I’ve been lately I just realized that Zero Population Growth changed their name To “Population Connection” way back in 2002.
    http://www.zpg.org/

    PS.. I use the Einstein quote regularly when dealing with my Forest Service colleagues and their penchant to “over-complexify every thing they touch.” The stuff of my Forestry blogs! Bureaucracies are always marvelous curiosities.

  9. John and Magne, thanks for the excellent links. I read a couple of the papers on the NPG site which provided the overview I was looking for. I’ll pursue both sites as time allows.

    Facing the reality of a difficult situation is always hard. The natural reaction is to turn away from it. I saw in the NPG articles reference to 2 billion (or less) being the sustainable population of our planet — a figure I’ve seen elsewhere and one that makes intuitive sense to me. For most people this leads to one of those “Oh, shit!” moments. The need for reducing the world’s population to less than a third of the current size is either too extreme for them to face or just too unbelievable.

    Not only do we need models of steady state economies, we need models of how to reduce the population dramatically. Considering how economists are rewarded, I’d be surprised to find a single one in academia pursuing this line of thought.

    Love your blog, John. Eagerly awaiting your next post.

  10. Magne Karlsen

    Trinifar,

    You can forget about population reduction. It is not something that is easily done. – To the very least: it is in no way a humanistic approach to assessing the problem of overpopulation. And believe me: stabilizing the population at about 6 – 9 billion is going to prove to be a task in itself. A very, very difficult one, as that.

    I believe that, in basic terms of food and water supplies, the Earth can manage a population of 9 billion.

    But not if this contemporary insane, crazy and mad growth culture is going to continue to be nurtured and kept in place, like it is being done today.

    That simply won’t do.

  11. Magne,

    I could be missing something, so let me know. But while I agree population reduction isn’t easily done, I don’t see why it would have to involve anything harsh or inhumane. (I could be wrong, which is why I’m not specifically advocating it at this point, but am just exploring.) We talked here some about various actions that should lower fertility rates without coercion or interference with rights.

    Certainly it isn’t easy though. “Demographic momentum” alone will make sure it doesn’t happen very quickly, but looking ahead to the end of the century and beyond, I think it could be a possibility. Following stabilization, it would just mean a bit greater decrease in fertility rates to achieve a reduction, no?

    There might be a solid argument, though, that nothing short of more draconian, forced measures would be able to effect more than stabilization. I’m not sure. I would think it’s all speculation at this time. At any rate, there are a lot of humane kinds of programs which need serious attention and implementation. If they lead to stabilization prior to really profound levels of ecological damage (some would argue we’ve already seen those, but…) that will be a good thing. If they lead as well to some level of reduction over time, that would be better still. You know?

    But I completely agree that even if we stabilize at some number like 8 or 9 billion, or whatever, we’ll have major problems if we don’t also transform our culture of growth.

    [Edit] There’s a bit of info here about scenarios ranging from growth to stabilization to reduction:

    http://zebu.uoregon.edu/2003/es202/lec07.html

  12. Dave,

    Interesting you should mention ZPG. I read somewhere that their name change was the result of of caving into political pressures. I think it had to do with the ZPG name sounding too “extreme.” I’ll see if I can find what I read and add it to this comment or a new one.

    Also interesting you should mention NPG. I do think there’s some good info on that site. I’ve been reluctant to feature it as a link on the front page here, though, because of something I read when researching its roots. I need to find more verification, because things are murky, and I don’t recall where I read it. But it was something suggesting it’s founder (Donald Mann) used to have close ties to a guy (John Tanton, I think… the founder of FAIR) who is held to have a somewhat racist agenda in his pushing for immigration reduction in the US. I’m not sure, however, that any past ties means there’s any such agenda for NPG. (Tanton’s agenda may not have been know at the time.) There’s a bit about it here:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Immigration_reduction

    But it was somewhere else that it really spelled out the ties between Mann and Tanton. I’ll need to track it down.

    It gets messy because there are certainly immigration reduction groups with racist agendas, while there are other groups advocating immigration reduction on purely environmental grounds. And I think people like Al Bartlett push for more discussion of it on environmental grounds and simply because avoiding the topic is intellectually dishonest. Personally, I agree it should be on the table. There have always, after all, been legal limits on immigration numbers, so adjusting them or debating what they should be shouldn’t be a big deal. But my concern it that stricter immigration laws don’t really get to the root of the problem. I lean toward the notion that helping Mexico improve its economy would help more. If the average Mexican worker could earn even half as much in Mexico as they can here, I think the immigration issue would fade. On the other hand, do we have time for that approach?

    Well. we’ve hit population reduction and immigration reduction — two big hot button issues — in this one set of comments. Yikes. :-0

    [Edit] Okay, Here was one place where I read a bit about ZPG’s name change.

  13. Magne Karlsen

    John,

    I strongly believe that a population stabilization debate is more fruitful, – both from a social, a cultural, and a psychological perspective. And that: considering the nature of “the people” – as well as the person doing the thinking. ^^ 😉

    I am suggesting that concentrating one’s mind-power on advocating, or dreaming about, population reduction (which isn’t stupid in itself — ie. “misunderstand me correctly”), is a nerve-wrecking excersise that can only lead to feelings of hopelessness and despair. You see: there are too many natural instincts involved.

    And the most basic fact remains a most basic fact: making people understand that a woman (no matter where she lives and which culture she belongs to) cannot allow herself to give birth to more than two children … hey! that’s not going to be easy! … oh, not at all! …

    And what about the men? Who are often used to thinking of themselves as family fathers – even clan leaders – first and foremost…? The cultural, social and psychological drama involved in this topic, is, to say the least, far-reaching.

    If the landscape doesn’t suit your imagination, making changes to the map won’t do. –

    And I think it’s important that we – the thinkers – realize that this is the case. If we refuse to do just that, we’re becoming nothing but windmill-attackers.

    As I see it: population stabilization can become a sellable argument. Population reduction can’t. – Not only because that’s a wee bit too depressing, but hey: that’s also a valid point.

  14. Magne, I understand your point about the viability of selling the idea of not just stablizing the world’s population but reducing it. You’re right, the first problem is hard enough so why make it harder. Still, I can’t see anyway to honestly and rationally talk about population issues without addressing the human carrying capacity of our planet.

    One positive thing can be said about depression: it is, at least, an acknowledgement that you have a problem.

  15. This is from a 10 year old article:

    At ZPG, Director of Communications Sharon Pickett admits that her group “has lost members to NPG because we haven’t taken a strong enough stand on immigration. We do want to stabilize population growth, and we hope that people will voluntarily limit themselves to two children.”

    I wonder how that stands today. In my perusal of the web I did see that Mann of NPG is against any form of amnesty for illegal immigrants. To me, that’ s over the top.

  16. Oh, for completeness, the quote is from http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m1594/is_n6_v7/ai_19022368/pg_2 and the bit about Mann was from a recent mainstream news article.

  17. JF: “…I don’t recall where I read it. But it was something suggesting it’s founder (Donald Mann) used to have close ties to a guy (John Tanton, I think… the founder of FAIR) who is held to have a somewhat racist agenda in his pushing for immigration reduction in the US….”

    I never saw that NPG had any racial biases, although I’m sure they’ve been accused of such. I do know that NPG had (and likely has) strong opinions as to the immigration problem… They were shrill way back when things should have been done (or at least discussed) about the problem.

    Of course, on the other side of the coin we could argue that the US stole lands from Mexico to begin with. Then again, the Spanish influence on Mexico is strong, and both countries are easily maligned for dominant cultures’ stealing the lands from Native Americans. We could all go to Jared Diamond’s “Gun, Germs, and Steel” for more on this.

    What I wanted to do here was to introduce folks who don’t know to Carrying Capacity Network, another group with strong ties to Ecol Econ. and another group with strong feelings as to the “immigration problem.”

    Here is CCN’s weblink: http://www.carryingcapacity.org/

    Here is CNN’s about page, with “Immigration Reduction” as the third of five policy goals.

    Note that Ecol. Econ. notables Robert Costanza and Herman Daly are listed on CNN’s board of advisors.

  18. Thanks for the link, Dave. I’m collecting them for an annotated reference page.

  19. Magne,

    You make a good point that there are a lot of good reasons to focus on stabilization at this point. Fortunately, even for those who yearn for reduction, the steps toward each should probably be about the same. And if we ever can reach stabilization (not through a crash, one hopes) who knows what the general attitudes toward the whole topic will be?

  20. Dave,

    Yeah, my general impression has been that groups like NPG and CCN are accused of things that probably aren’t warranted. You do see people on their boards or with articles on their sites who *clearly* have no racist intent. I think it just gets messy because people with strong views easily misinterpret their intentions. (though, as Trinifar points out, sometimes they may go a bit over the top… it’s all grist for debate, I guess)

    And you’re quite right about the complexity, going back to our taking land from Mexico, etc. Sometimes I think it would be nice if we could rewind history (just thinking US history here, but…) and start over. I mean, how can any sort of justice ever come of what we (well, people here before us) did to Native Americans?

  21. It’s interesting that, even back in 1972, there was official recognition that population growth was of no benefit. The Rockefeller Commission reported this to Congress and to the President:

    “There is hardly any social problem confronting this nation whose solution would be easier if our population were larger. Even now, the dreams of too many Americans are not being realized; others are being fulfilled at too high a cost. Accordingly, this Commission has concluded that our country can no longer afford the uncritical acceptance of the population growth ethic that “more is better.” And beyond that, after two years of concentrated effort, we have concluded that no substantial benefits would result from continued growth of the nation’s population.”

    Yet, to date, those who propose population control are often labelled as lunatics, fascists, or worse. The idea is obviously a hard sell, but I believe that we are finally approaching a sufficient critical mass of proponents globally so that change can be effected.

  22. Magne Karlsen

    Rick said: “… those who propose population control are often labelled as lunatics, fascists, or worse.”

    Oh, yes!

    Based purely on my personal experience, I can assure you: you are telling the truth. And when you say “or worse” – I believe that something somewhat demonic must be implied? Anyway: over the past few years I’ve grown used to being treated like some monster.

    I know – very well – that it has mostly to do with the population factor inherent in my various thesises on the environmental crisis we are faced with. People just can’t cope with that.

    It’s instinct.

  23. Magne Karlsen

    But hey!

    Not to worry. I believe it is just a phase. As it is: when people tend to respond like they do, quite frankly in a very negative way, and start to hate you because of your ideas, it can only mean that they are taking you seriously anyway.

    Hmmm. 😉

    Well, everybody knows that people with psycho-social (logical) problems often tend to explain things by saying “you” much rather than “I” or “me” … never mind …

  24. Magne Karlsen

    “Why do people hate me? Why do they persecute me?”

    – Jean-Jacques Rousseau

    😦

    No cause for embarrassment intended. But hey: what I know?

  25. As the Lion said in the Wizard of Oz, “It takes courage!”

    Rick, the CRCP website is quiet interesting to say the least. I was stunned to see that “The Town of Okotoks has become a world leader in sustainability by setting a maximum population beyond which the city cannot grow based on its carrying capacity as it relates to water supply. ” http://www.okotoks.ca/sustainable/overview.asp It’s invigorating to see an entire community catching on.

    And finally, I was in high school when the Rockefeller Commission report came out. Now, 35 years later, we have 50% more people in the US and still no end to growth in sight.

  26. Trinifar, yeah, the group Rick is with in Kelowna, is a true voice of sustainability going up against the always powerful and entrenched “growth machine.” That is indeed great news about Okotoks. There are only a handful of communities in all of North America which have done anything serious regarding growth caps, population caps, and the like. And for them to base it on an estimate of carrying capacity is a step ahead of just about everyone.

    Another group working on something similar is this one in Virginia:

    http://www.stopgrowthasap.org/

    I think individual communities taking these actions is one way of sending out little shock waves about sustainability and population growth. If enough jump on the wagon, eventually the message will be heard.

    I’ll be doing some posts, and I hope we can talk in the future about urban growth issues. There is a lot of fascinating information out there on things like the “growth myths” spread by the growth industry (home developers etc). Some of it is there on Rick’s site.

    _______

    Magne, you are apparently well versed in being called a lunatic! 😉

  27. Thanks, John, for those comments, and thanks to everyone else here. I feel quite at home in the ideas and discussion.

    For the record, the CRCP and the site were originally started by John Zeger here in Kelowna. I was invited to join the group somewhat after the fact, when we became aware of each other’s efforts.

    The associated discussion forum was orginally hijacked by some of the growth machine apologists here, but we managed to regain control by implementing strict participant requirements. I suspect that that scenario has been repeated many times in other places.

    And no, we are not looking for a Nobel prize either. The prize we seek is the survival of a sane human race, and we’re doing our best to send out shock waves in a rapidly-growing community. Kelowna is currently growing at more than three times the Canadian national rate.

    Thanks to everyone here for working toward similar goals.

  28. Looking at the Stop Growth ASAP link I came across the The Tragedy of the Commons yet again. I’m still amazed that now almost 40 years later it rings so true, and will certainly startle people seeing it for the first time.

  29. “The associated discussion forum was orginally hijacked by some of the growth machine apologists here, but we managed to regain control by implementing strict participant requirements.”

    Interesting, Rick. It’s funny, when I was actively maintaining my previous blog about growth in two small towns in Iowa, I actually *tried* to get some of the growth machine folks to debate me on it. But they wouldn’t do it, perhaps because it was *such* a small town that they knew they’d be totally under the magnifying glass. Just as well, probably, as it enabled me to generate more posts and get more information out — which I think did at least a little good there.

  30. “If I’m right, do I win a Nobel Prize?”

    possibly

    http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/16920923/

  31. Wacki,

    Heh, maybe if I could produce “Growth is Madness: The Movie,” and take it on the road… 🙂

  32. The idea of the songwriter, John Mayer, may not be sufficient. It may not be adaptive or even make good sense to be found “waiting for the world to change.”

    On the other hand we could surely benefit from looking carefully at the words and actions of one of our greatest leaders. And, yes, it pleases me so that he is one of my generation of elders. He is not like most of us, however, the ones who have fallen into fatuous complacency, mortgaged our children’s future to promote our patently unsustainable lifestyles et cetera. This great human being understands the value and signiticance of cultural change when that becomes necessary. He is a 1990 Nobel Laureate and his name is Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev.

    Not so long ago he called for a shift………for cultural change. The words he used to describe the needed behavior change among the people he represented were GLASNOST and PERESTROIKA.

    Perhaps a shift in human behaviors among those in today’s predominant culture has at least something to do with the kinds of change proclaimed by Mr. Gorbachev. At least to me, this great man called for changes in human behavior that he realized were maladaptive and destructive of the community he served. For people to choose to ex-change unsustainable behaviors for ones that are sustainable would plainly and transparently lead to greater adaptability and survivability of the human community, I suppose.

    I would like to invoke now the words of another great person and, also, and outstanding scientist by the name of Dr. Russell Hopfenberg. “GIVEN THE PSYCHOLOGICAL, SOCIAL, BIOLOGICAL AND ENVIRONMENTAL PROBLEMS THAT OUR ‘INCREASE CULTURE’ HAS PRODUCED, IT SEEMS A CULTURAL SHIFT WOULD AMELIORATE THESE CONDITIONS.”

  33. Steven,

    You are quite right about the need for a change from unsustainable to sustainable behaviors, for a cultural shift. In fact, your mention of Gorbachev reminded me of some comments on him posted recently by Verdurous, one of the regular commenters here:

    http://greenie.wordpress.com/2007/01/03/red-on-the-outside-green-on-the-inside/

    I’ve read with interest your comments on the Ecological Economics blog. It is frustrating indeed that the works of people like Pimentel and Hopfenberg (whose article on carrying capacity and food production I have sitting on my desk 🙂 goes largely ignored. It’s as if the mainstream scientific and political powers that be say, “Yeah, sure, interesting. Now where were we?” If you warn of impending ecological collapse and the potential for millions of lives to be lost, you get called an “alarmist.” If you say much less than that, you’re ignored. It’s a tough sell, the whole population issue as well as the economic issues to which its linked. But I do get the sense people are talking a little more. And that’s a good sign.

    Hope to see more of you here. I appreciate your input!

  34. Magne Karlsen

    John: “I actually *tried* to get some of the growth machine folks to debate me on it. But they wouldn’t do it.”

    http://www.physorg.com/news89046553.html

    Quote: “Fox, a behavioral decision theorist, said the study confirms previous research showing that people are more turned off by losses than they are turned on by gains and it provides, for the first time, neural evidence to support this pattern. “We found for the first time that the neural response to potential losses is larger than the neural response to potential gains,” Fox said.”

    Harr harr. 🙂 … yeah: I know you’re supposed to know a few things about gambling. 😮

  35. Magne Karlsen

    What I’m trying to say by this, is: the prospect of a future of economic decline (ie. the lack of economic growth) gives rise to a general feeling of despair. Modern society has grown addicted to the increase culture that is noted above, by Steven E. Salmony. I believe the psychological and social problems Dr. Hopfenberg refers to, is the “increase culture” itself. The prospect of being forced to do without it, gives rise to the greatest fear of all: the fear that we, as ordinary humans, would no longer know how to live.

    It’s been said that in order to save this planet, a whole new human species must be invented … well, so speak …

    😉

  36. Magne,

    Well said. The topics we’ve been discussing in comments lately — denial, the cultural structures which hold us back from seeing, much less acting, the strong tendency toward greed and immediate gratification, and the fear you wrote of just above — currently have me thinking this over and seeing my thoughts evolve and shift one way or the other from day to day. It’s a fascinating, frightening topic, and I just don’t know what my view of it will be just a short time down the road.

    We surely are dealing with some powerful human tendencies woven completely into the fabric of our culture(s). “A whole new human species…,” a “cultural shift,” maybe a taking apart of culture and putting it back together — something of these sorts may be required.

    Okay, do you have a wrench handy? 😉

  37. Magne Karlsen

    John,

    I’ve said this before, now I’m going to say it again: I truly love the simple fact that I have found a small community of population-and-ecology bloggers, who also take an interest in the economical side of human life.

    Our combined intellectual efforts makes it easy for all of us to learn more from each other, and expand on our knowledge and understanding.

    Hopefully, the work we are actually doing here, together (and free of charge) is going to make a real difference. As more and more people start to think for themselves as they are reading “all this shit” and continue to blog on, elsewhere.

    The internet is a very powerful medium. Call it a wrench handy, if you like.

    :-]

  38. Magne,

    Damn you, I was about to go to bed and then I read this and had to respond. 😉

    The prospect of being forced to do without it, gives rise to the greatest fear of all: the fear that we, as ordinary humans, would no longer know how to live.

    Years ago when I lived in the San Francisco area, I started sitting once a week with a Buddhist group, just doing simple, silent meditation. Later I attended a few residential retreats, the longest one was 10 days. 10 days of nothing but getting up in the early morning when it was still dark then alternating periods of sitting and walking meditation until you went to bed. No talking, no reading, no writing. Meals were eaten in silence. I found the experience both challenging, surprising, and quite wonderful.

    Later when friends asked me about it, most of them expressed shock as if I had done something like walking to the North Pole alone in the middle of winter. I think that is akin to having a fear that we “no longer know how to live” as you so eloquently put it.

    Then I found out that a friend of mine, the one who had encouraged me to attend my first long retreat, well, she worked as a consultant and could organize her own time as she pleased. And what she did was put as many 30 day free periods in her schedule as she could afford and used the time to do 30 day silent retreats. At first, on learning of this I felt that fear and shock. How could she do that 30 whole days at a time? As time passed I began to envy her. Envy, good Buddhist response!

    Anyway, you raise a really good point. I live in a remote place and we lose power frequently — usually trees falling on powerlines. My first thought is now what do I do without electricity to fuel my addictions? It takes me a while to remember that I actually like silence and just being with my own mind, but it did take a lot of practice to enjoy being “off the grid” in all possible ways.

    Strange beasts we humans are.

  39. While much about economics is simply beyond my grasp, there is something that I hope you can discuss here, something I see that is troubling about the global political economy.

    If you will, please consider that the organization and operation of the global economy is remarkably like a pyramid scheme. That is to say, economic globalization looks as if it is a gigantic, artificially and pyramidally designed structure, based upon endless economic growth in a relatively small, limited physical world.

    When I was a boy, the object of many adults was to become a millionaire. At the same time, millions of people were poor.

    Now there are 2.5 million millionaires in the US and an additional 5.5 million millionaires worldwide.

    When I was a boy, there were no billionaires, and few millionaires.

    Now there are 4 billionaires in the State of North Carolina, a few hundred more billionaires in the US, and a sprinkling of billionaires worldwide. At the same time, billions of people are now impoverished.

    Do you see where we are headed?

    If the global economy does not remind you of a pyramid scheme, how does it look to you and how, pray tell me, can economic globalization, with its ever enlarging size, expanding scope and growth rate, remain sustainable even through the first half of Century XXI?

    Are we not rapidly approaching a point in human history when a gargantuan, man-made global economy becomes patently unsustainable in the small, finite world in which we live ?

    Thanks for your consideration and comments.

    Always,

    Steve

  40. Steve,

    I don’t know enough economics to say if our world economy is really analogous to a pyramid scheme, but I certainly agree it has that look to it.

    I believe the percentage of people living in poverty has declined over recent decades, but I also believe you’re right that the absolute numbers have increased. It seems a serious problem remains then. Here’s a blogger in India talking about that:

    http://www.deeshaa.org/2004/08/02/numbers-5-2/

    And there were those numbers in the news recently concerning the tiny percentage of the population which controls the great majority of the wealth. I believe that ratio has progressed farther in the troubling direction.

    What always strikes me is the physical component of economic growth, the “throughput” from extraction of resources to production of goods, to disposal as waste (or recycling). Its growth is so obviously unsustainable. Numbers can continue to grow, but in a finite world physical “stuff” cannot. (including that physical stuff called “human beings.”)

  41. Dear John,

    If at least some of the vital ideas and strategies being discussed in these necessary blogs do not get mainstreamed by the mass media soon, it may be that already looming global challenges are going to senselessly be allowed to grow larger and more difficult for humanity to address and overcome.

    Somehow the global gag rules, the dynamic silence, the willful blindness, the hysterical deafness, the elective muteness, the attention to whatsoever is politically convenient and economically expedient, the adamant pursuit of wealth, power and other fools’ errands, and other pernicious strategies that serve to ignore and marginalize communication about the real global challenges of our time are going to be surmounted in the near future.

    When that time comes, hopefully there will enough time available for imaginative and courageous people to respond ably to challenges that my not-so-great generation of elders are loathe to acknowledge much less sensibly examine.

    Keep up this uncommon effort. Thanks for all you are doing.

    As ever,

    Steve