A voice of sanity in New Zealand

The economic growth imperative, based in greed, must end. Those of us concerned about population growth and economic growth on a finite earth often feel we’re in a small, lonely minority. This feeling is intensified by the discussion of climate change. We hear plenty in that context about the need to reduce consumption. That tackling climate change will necessitate also stopping growth — both population growth and economic growth as we’ve come to know it — is the elephant in the room. It’s the huge topic we can’t avoid, but which, for now, the mainstream media hesitate to touch.

One cannot think about this without being troubled. It means the mainstream media, and in fact most of the alternative media as well, are avoiding coverage of the most destructive activity in which humans are now engaged. (No, I’m not discounting the destruction or tragedy of war at all.) So it’s always a pleasant surprise to come across an exception to this unofficial media ban on these topics.

Kiwi surprise

My most recent surprise of this sort comes from the New Zealand Herald. There, Allen Cookson, a retired science teacher, offers a guest column which reads like a condensed version of The Growth is Madness! Story. It’s a short, quick read, highly unusual in acknowledging both the problem of population growth and that of economic growth. Here are a few quotes with my own responses:

“[Population] is the crucial factor in pollution, resource depletion, global warming and loss of biodiversity, all issues central to Green politics.”

Well, consumption rates are key too, but population and economic growth are certainly the most crucial of the factors we hear too little about. And Cookson does acknowledge the latter as well.

“People must acknowledge that the Earth is, for practical purposes, finite in area and natural resources.”

That’s the gist. Amazingly, there are people who try to dispute that. They do it for financial gain, by the way. Many of them even have children and still do it. That’s just sad.

“If women are liberated from oppression, and education and health are improved, birth rates drop.”

Here we see the overlap between the view of environmentalists concerned with population growth and those, such as Betsy Hartmann, whose concern is directly for the women mentioned, to the point that population growth is seen as a mere distraction. In both cases the interventions should be similar.

“Our economic system… is unable to function without continued economic growth. Yet curbing greenhouse emissions requires cessation of growth other than that resulting from improved technology and efficiency.”

Bravo to Allen Cookson for standing up and shining the light on both population growth and the problem of ongoing economic growth. I feel a little less alone today.

Here again is the link to the article: Click here.
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Image source: Gregsdumbflickr, posted on flickr under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 License

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18 responses to “A voice of sanity in New Zealand

  1. Nice find.

    The economic paradigm we have today is in direct conflict with a sustainable ecosystem. We simply need to talk about the problems of our economic and political logic before we can tackle the issue of change on the macro-scale.

    But having said this it is more important to get the individuals to hold this attitude and work at a manageable local level rather than at anything larger. Autonomy is important (which is something I want to write about soon on std).

    Ironically New Zealand is a country who knows how lucky they are. I have been told that NZ’s energy production is completely hydro-electric, having an abundance of mountains to create this. Fair enough since the country only has 4 million people.

    They have the honour of being the first nation to give women the vote. I hope they will now try to take the honour of being the first developed country nation to be self-sufficient and sustainable. Because we need examples of sustainable models before people will believe it is possible.

  2. “But having said this it is more important to get the individuals to hold this attitude and work at a manageable local level rather than at anything larger. Autonomy is important”

    Along those lines, there is a group in the Maryland area working on getting steady state economies implemented in local areas. I haven’t heard much detail, but I know one person involved. I will ask him to fill me in soon and see if I can gather enough info to post something about it here.

    “Because we need examples of sustainable models before people will believe it is possible.”

    Yes, good point. It’s unfortunate that in the US, the Bush admin has set us back so far that we’ll have a lot of catching up to do once he’s gone just to get our environmental policies back to where they were before they stated decimating them.

  3. I wish op-eds like Allen Cookson’s would/could contain links/references for their supporting data.

    Yet curbing greenhouse emissions requires cessation of growth other than that resulting from improved technology and efficiency. Economists are aware of this fatal flaw in the modern monetary system but those we hear in the news are usually bank employees whose vested interest in debt-funded growth is only too obvious.

    These two sentences cry out for supporting evidence. I belive them, but to make the case for a wider audience we need to be very clear about why and with what scienctific support we believe what we do.

    I’d love to see Kiwi-land be a leader in living sustainably.

  4. Trinifar,

    I agree that references for statements like that would be a real plus. I don’t know how easy it is to quantify a statement like the one you quoted with regard to economic growth in a general sense. But I do think it should be more or less quantifiable with regard to certain specifics. I think I’ve seen analyses out there looking at the growth of emissions of various countries (which reflects economic growth) and comparing them to estimates of the kinds of reductions scientists say we need to avert the most serious consequences of climate change. Offhand, I can’t recall where though.

    Somewhat related, Al Bartlett has provided some calculations concerning population growth and the depletion of oil and coal. Some of those are in his famous talk.

    Otherwise, I think in his writings somewhere he may have some calculations concerning population and the problem of its overwhelming efforts to deal with climate change. I’ll poke around a bit and see if I can find anything like that.

    It should be possible to work out some rough math regarding population and GHGs using the formula I mentioned in a couple of previous posts. Yeah, I’m going to look around to see what others have done in that regard. I have Holdren’s article in which he introduced that formula, and may be forgetting something he provided right there.

  5. The Al Bartlett talk is a masterpiece which I hope to be writing about soon. I found listening to the mp3 version with the transcript in front me to be really useful.

    I don’t know how easy it is to quantify a statement like the one you quoted with regard to economic growth in a general sense. But I do think it should be more or less quantifiable with regard to certain specifics.

    Nailing down some of the specifics is good enough for me. As you note, you’ve already done some of that work. And I’ve tried to as well — thinking about my post on AEO2007 which says 85% of the USA’s current energy consumption is from fossil-fuels and projects that in 2030 it will be 87% with total energy consumption up 31%. That’s not [explitive deleted 🙂 ] sensible. It’s rather like someone with terminal cancer putting on weight and having all the doctors say “look how healthy you are becoming!”

  6. Pingback: Now that growth is killing us... « Growth is Madness!

  7. “The Al Bartlett talk is a masterpiece”

    It’s a classic. I was lucky enough to hear him give it in person about a year ago. Great stuff.

    There is the question of whether world population is still growing exponentially. I believe (based on an article I tracked down) Al would say its not. (just as Magne said in a comment) But I corresponded with a couple of experts a few months ago who maintained that despite the decline in the rate of growth in recent decades it’s still exponential in nature. This is the same thing the authors of the Limits to Growth book say. I ended up concluding that it’s debatable. 🙂 In any event, the growth is still vigorous at a time when we’re likely already beyond the earth’s carrying capacity.

    That’s right about the cancer patient. It’s like our species has cancer and the powers that be just keep applauding the exterior growth.

  8. You’re right not to quibble about the expotential or not question. The problem is total population is constantly increasing, full stop.

    In what decade in all of recorded history did it ever decrease? Even the bubonic plague was a mere blip. Russia’s and China’s mass starvations of the 20th century only slowed it down a tiny bit.

  9. Yes, and I think the illustrations Bartlett uses of exponential growth are still essentially valid until we have some really, really clear indication that the growth is slowing to a crawl. BTW, just FYI, the guys who told me it’s still exponential are these three:

    http://zebu.uoregon.edu/2003/es202/lec06.html

    http://www.cs.toronto.edu/%7Ewayne/

    http://members.optusnet.com.au/exponentialist/

    The third one is basically an “amateur.” But he’s though a great deal about exponential growth and has hit on the idea that it makes logical sense for exponential growth to be possible with a variable rate. I’m not entirely sure what to make of his work. But he does quote Peter Turchin from the department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Connecticut as saying “that exponential growth with a variable rate has been extensively studied by theoretical population ecologists, and that almost all ecological models have the form of an exponential equation with a variable rate.”

    http://members.optusnet.com.au/exponentialist/Turchin.htm

    What Wayne Hayes suggested was that in the math involved you put a lower bound on the growth rate, and as long as it remains above that you can then take your best estimate of the current growth rate (say, X = 1.1%) and say, for instance that the population is growing exponentially at some chosen rate below that. Your confidence in saying that increases the smaller you make X. Well, that’s sort of it anyway, I think. I got the sense from him that you could set that lower bound very low, much lower than where we are today, and be mathematically correct then in labeling growth above it as exponential.

    But ultimately, yeah, it’s just quibbling over terminology.

    (Let me know if I got it wrong in changing the bolding in your comment above.)

  10. Evidently, leaders in my not-so-great generations of elders have set aside concerns like long-term human wellbeing, biodiversity preservation and the integrity of “this tiny planet” we are blessed to inhabit because these noble achievements are somehow at odds with a more important concern: the success of the global political economy, a system apparently based upon unrestricted consumption, unrestrained production and unbridled propagation by the human species .

    Could it be the ‘requirements’ of this economic structure that include unlimited per capita consumption, maximal expansion of human production and unbridled increase of human numbers support a patently unsustainable global pyramid scheme? That is simply to say, the way the current international economic system appears to be organized and operated, wealth can be seen rising pyramidally to a small minority near the top of economic pyramid while rapidly increasing numbers comprising the great majority of humanity at the ever-widening and -deepening base of the pyramid work hard, but have little wealth to show for their efforts.

    In the 1980s, this pyramid-like financial structure was called a “trickle down” economy. Most of the wealth flows upward to the few people near the top of the pyramid structure while what little remains trickles down to the many-too-many people near the bottom of the economic pyramid.

    Note that more impoverished people are living on less than two dollars per day in 2007 than comprised the whole world’s human population in 1950. Over 2 million children die per year as a result of poor basic provisions for living. Millions upon millions more children go without the nutrition needed for normal growth and development.

    Without doubts the predominant, artificially designed world economy is widely known to be imperfect precisely because it has been constructed by human beings. That this distinctly human construction can be changed for the betterment of more people is evident. Reorganizing the predominant world economy for the substantive benefit of a majority of people can be appreciated precisely such changes to economic globalization are in keeping with democratic principles.

    As things stand now, economic globalization is overwhelming democratic principles and practices. The global economy has been made the object of absolute exaltation by the leaders of the predominant culture. Perhaps the principles of democracy should govern the economic development in the future.

    The self-proclaimed masters of the universe may believe they can live without having to accept “limits to growth” of 1) the world’s expanding human economy, 2) per human consumption of limited resources and 3) increasing global human numbers; their wishes may be infinite and desires insatiable; they may choose to say anything; but, Earth exists in space-time, is finite and has limited resources upon which the survival of humanity and other life depends.

    Whatsoever is is, is it not?

  11. Steve,

    Excellent comments. Your points about globalization are on the money (heh, so to speak). And that is a topic I want to cover more often here. In fact, the next post will likely be a little cartoon which spells out some of the ABCs of globalization very simply. I think it’s a topic which confuses a lot of people. (I know it still does me.) So I hope that will help put it in an understandable framework.

    Your comments about limits to growth are the bottom line, really. People can quibble about certain details, but when they start denying that the planet is finite, and that there are limits to growth, well, it seems that is where credible analysis ends and pure propaganda for the sake of the corporate bottom line begins.

  12. Many thanks to John Feeney!

    For your consideration, John, and others who participate in the discussion:

    According to new and apparently unforeseen research of Russell Hopfenberg and David Pimentel, microorganisms and human organisms have common dynamics governing population size. Emerging evidence contradicts consensually validated ‘scientific’ thinking and prevailing popular beliefs regarding human population dynamics, and indicates absolute global numbers of the human species increase primarily as a function of food supply.

    Contradictory data concerning human population growth suggest a scope of observation problem. That is to say, the choice of a scope of observation is forced, like having to choose to examine either the forest or the trees, either human propagation data or human reproduction data. When looking at population data, the ‘forest’ data and the ‘tree’ data appear to point toward different population growth estimates. The geographically localized, ‘tree’ data need not blind us to the fact that the propagation of global human numbers, ‘forest’ data, are increasing precipitously. “Not being able to see the forest for the trees” may help explain why forecasts of population growth vary widely. Some forecasting data indicate an end to human population growth in the middle of Century XXI. Other data suggest the continuous, skyrocketing increase of absolute global human population numbers. The United Nations Population Fund recently re-determined that world population is to level off at 9.2 billion people in the middle of this century.

    During the 20th century, despite two World Wars, ubiquitous local conflicts, disease, famine, pestilence and poverty, the human population worldwide grew from less than 2 billion to 6 billion people. Recent data indicate that world population continues to increase at an average annual rate of approximately 75,000,000.

    On the other hand, abundant research provides contraindications to this population growth trend. Countries like Australia, Canada, Italy and Tunisia, among many others, show a declining trend in their rates of human population growth.

    Human population numbers have been regarded as a sort of preternatural phenomenon. Possible reasons for human population growth have been curiously thought of as unimportant, obscure, numerous, complex or even unknowable so that finding a strategy to address potential global challenges posed by rapidly increasing human numbers has been thought to be all but impossible.

    Recently, unexpected population data appeared that indicate the governing dynamics of human population is a natural phenomenon. The new data provide an empirical presentation of a non-recursive biological problem which is independent of ethical, social, legal, religious and cultural considerations. This means that world human population growth is a rapidly cycling positive feedback loop, a relationship between food and population in which food availability drives population growth, and population growth fuels the MISTAKEN IMPRESSION or MISPERCEPTION that food production needs to be increased ever more to keep up with a growing population. The data indicate that as we increase food production every year, the number of people goes up, too.

    Perhaps a new biological understanding is emergent. It is simply this: Earth’s carrying capacity for human organisms, like that for other organisms, is determined by food availability. More food equals more people; less food equals less people; and, in any case, no food equals no people.

    Human population growth is a huge problem; but, we can take the measure of this problem and find a remedy that is consonant with universally shared human values.

  13. Steve,

    You cite some important research. I have Hopfenberg’s article on carrying capacity and food supply, but have only had he chance to skim it. I will put it higher on my list and actually read it very soon.

    Any ideas for ways of breaking through what seems to be a collective denial or avoidance of the population issue as well as various related ecological issues? (One ray of hope there: See the link, provided by Magne Karlsen in the comments under the “Unholy Matrimony” essay, to an article in the UK paper, the Guardian, on the population issue. It tackles the topic much better than we usually see in the mainstream press.)

  14. Dear John and Friends,

    Please be assured of one thing. The research from Hopfenberg and Pimentel will NOT disappoint. Unfortunately, their evidence appears forbidding and, without doubt, unwelcome.

    The “breakthrough” of the collective denial of which you speak is occurring here and now, thanks to people like you, Dave Iverson, Magne, Deborah Byrd of the Earth & Sky community, Eric Bushnell of Sustainability Southeast. Org, Catherine Budgett-Meakins of the Population ans Sustainability Network, John Guillebaud of the Optimum Population Trust and a growing number of other organizations and a cadre of great scientists who are not willing to be quiet, and unwilling to adopt strategies of wilfull blindness, hysterical deafness and elective muteness in the face of new and apparently unforeseen scientific data regarding the potentially profound implications of the human overpopulation of Earth in these early years of Century XXI.

    Keep going, and thanks to all of you who are involved in this discussion of the” Madness of the Unbridled Growth of Per Human Consumption, the Seemingly Endless Expansion of Economic Globalization and the Unregulated Increase of Absolute Global Human Population Numbers” in the small, finite planetary home God has blessed us to inhabit,

    Steve

  15. Magne Karlsen

    Steve,

    Thank you very much! But please: remember: your own name will not be omitted from the list of contributors to the discussion.

    I’m worried though. Because I’m not blind, nor deaf or dumb. It is very easy for me to see, and otherwise understand, that the society of people of which I “belong” is quite ready – as a matter of free will – to commit ecocide. There is no reason to believe otherwise. Modern human societies are doing the exact opposite of what SHOULD HAVE BEEN DONE. And there seems to be no stopping this trend.

    Why? For economic reasons. Of course. We’re plain crazy. Insane.

  16. Dear Magne,

    Please understand that I am of advanced age, married but once to a long-suffering spouse, with three grown children, two of whom are now married.

    That my name is associated with my thoughts and actions is vital. Afterall, we have been challenged by many people like Mohandas Gandhi, for example, who has encouraged us to “be the change we want to see in the world.”

    Please expect that there are going to be people like me who are going to follow the good examples of people like you, Dave I., John F., Albert A. Bartlett (USA), Joseph Baker (AU), Jan Juffermans (NETH), Seti Shastrapradja (INDO), Raoul Weiler (BEL), David Wasdell, (UK), Ernst Weizsaecker (GER), E.O. Wilson (USA), Pentti Malaska (FIN), John McRuer (CA), Jane Goodall (UK), Jack Alpert (USA), Reiel Folven (NOR), John Bermingham (USA), Peter Salonius (CA), Sally Jeanrenaud (SWITZ), Humam Ghgassib (JOR) and many, many others who are speaking out clearly for good science, humanity and Earth rather than remaining enthralled by the power and wealth derived from a falsely exalted global political economy.

    Always,

    Steve

  17. For Alex,

    The Idols of Environmentalism

    Do environmentalists conspire against their own interests?

    First in a two-part series by Curtis White.
    Published in the March/April 2007 issue of Orion magazine

    For part two of this two-part series, see The Ecology of Work.

    ENVIRONMENTAL DESTRUCTION proceeds apace in spite of all the warnings, the good science, the 501(c)3 organizations with their memberships in the millions, the poll results, and the martyrs perched high in the branches of sequoias or shot dead in the Amazon. This is so not because of a power, a strength out there that we must resist. It is because we are weak and fearful. Only a weak and fearful society could invest so much desperate energy in protecting activities that are the equivalent of suicide.”

    Read the rest here: http://www.orionmagazine.org/index.php/articles/article/233