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. 
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.
Roberts recognizes the importance of stabilizing population and ultimately reducing global population size. He recognizes that this is best achieved through attention to women’s issues and economic factors. Yet he acknowledges that he never talks about population growth. Why? Because he believes:
talking about population as such alienates a large swathe of the general public. It carries vague connotations of totalitarianism and misanthropy and eugenics. It has been used quite effectively to slander and marginalize the environmental movement. It is political poison.
From what I’ve seen, Roberts’s view is not at all unusual among environmental writers and organizations. Reading it, I had to comment on his blog, though others had already offered worthwhile observations. (They include “Schach” and the tactful “biodiversivist” ) My comment is here.
What’s better, truth or avoidance?
I have no doubt Roberts is well meaning. But to elaborate on the comment I left on Grist, I don’t believe the subject of population is, in fact, the “political poison” he thinks it is. Though it’s covered too infrequently, organizations such as the UN and the AAAS, a variety of groups such as Population Action International, the Population Reference Bureau, and the Izaak Walton League, environmentalists such as Lester Brown, and periodicals such as Science, Scientific American, the Boston Globe, the Guardian/Observer, and the Christian Science Monitor do grapple with it. There is no evidence their work has set back the environmental cause. They talk about population because it’s the truth, and they know bringing people the truth is productive while avoiding it is ultimately damaging.
That some people jump to erroneous conclusions about “totalitarianism and misanthropy and eugenics” when they hear about reducing population growth (in part, perhaps, as a result of problems stemming from China’s one-child policy) is no reason to avoid the topic; it’s reason to clarify and inform. Addressing population growth means taking humane measures to assist with the social and economic issues which drive it. (As indicated in the Jeffrey Sachs column already cited. Or see the Trinifar article on Iran’s success with this challenge.) Those issues are, of course, important in their own rights, and all the more important due to their links to population growth.
Is silly, agenda-driven slander a reason to avoid the truth?
Roberts is right that some have used the population topic to try to slander and marginalize the environmental movement. He’s wrong in saying they’ve been effective. These groups presenting irrational arguments from such vantage points as the Christian right and the libertarian right have had, at best, a marginal impact, and their attacks are best dealt with head on, exposing their agenda-driven illogic. That elements of these groups’ arguments have been embraced by a small subset of the political left is unfortunate. (See, for instance some of the comments under this article on Alternet.) In the US, however, after seven years of the Bush Administration’s decimation of environmental laws, to blame any part of the environmental movement’s struggles on the handling of the population issue is more than a stretch. The UN and Science and the Boston Globe are not wrong to continue dealing in truth.
Consider as well that few who do not scour the Web for such niche groups’ writings have ever heard of any negative connotations associated with the population cause. I frequently raise the population issue with people in “real life,” and cannot recall an instance in which anyone has mentioned the connotations which concern Roberts. On the contrary, I’ve encountered almost universal recognition that population is, in itself, a problem needing more attention. I have to wonder if many environmental writers have turned away from population simply because they’ve heard that’s what good environmentalists are supposed to do. Roberts’s negative connotations are scarce among the general populace.
Incidentally, if we took Roberts’s argument seriously, given the importance of the population issue, the bizarre conclusion would be that environmental writers should talk constantly about women’s issues and economics topics with no mention of their connections to population and the environment. But they don’t do that either. Perhaps it’s because they would then no longer be environmental writers; they’d have to reinvent themselves as social or political writers, but not environmentalists. Could this dilemma be one more reason why population has received too little attention in recent decades?
Time to correct a damaging strategy
What has been the result of this inattention? The only conclusion can be that the silence on population in recent decades has been a serious setback to the environmental movement. It has only hastened the looming global ecological collapse we now face. In my comment on Grist, I quoted from the Science article I linked to above: “The loss of attention to population has created formidable problems for the future. Some countries are undergoing explosive and possibly unsustainable population growth…” Indeed, how could this inattention not have created problems? It has meant a loss of attention to one of the key driving forces behind our ecological decline.
We need to correct this. I hope David Roberts and other environmental writers who have avoided the subject of population will rethink their stance. We need to embrace truth, not avoidance.
 At that point one can quibble about whether population itself is a root cause of environmental problems or whether the root cause is better seen as the social issues which influence population growth. I would contend this question is of limited significance as understanding and effective action have to involve open acknowledgment of the relationship between these factors.
Image source: jumurawski, posted on flickr under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 license
In the 60’s or maybe before there was a phrase called population explosion which perhaps led to only bad thoughts. Take a country like the US with it s intense consumerism then try imagine all 7 or 8 billion humans living the same lifestyle. Planet wouldn’t last a day.
Perhaps numbers are not too significant if everyone agrees to live as simply as possible. That isn’t likely to happen so, yes, we are ridiculously overpopulated, especially in sustainability terms.
Neath you’re right up to a point but if we take a long term view, even dramatic reductions in consumption will still need to go hand in hand with a levelling out (or reduction) of the global human population.
Yea, seems to be no way around it.
yep, Club of Rome has been on this since perhaps the 40s or 50s and are well worth checking out.
Figure this though – environmental writers are questioned and challenged, even slandered, if they seem to be too concerned about the disappearance of old growth forests, or the diversion of food crops to biofuels which haven’t yet been proven significantly better for anybody except soy and sugar producers. People writing about the importance of biodiversity are met with blank expressions, and while some twats have lost the plot and point to climate change as the source of everything, the same people – like our Prime Sinister John Howard – who have only just stopped denying it get away with saying that starting a nuclear industry from scratch is the only intelligent response – AND he’s allowed to get away with it by most press.
Western readers, governments and media still haven’t even come to terms with the concept of peak oil. How long is an environment writer pointing out that 4 billion less people than are alive now would be a great idea going to get taken seriously?
Yeah, if we brought down consumption enough, it would allow for more people, but only up to a point, as you guys seem to agree. One effect of population growth that isn’t as easy to quantify, but which I do think is significant, is in areas other than pure resource consumption. (well, it can be seen as a different sort of resource consumption) The spread of urban sprawl and its impact on habitat/species is an example. Perhaps the global spread of toxins such as pesticides is another.
I think we humans need to consider that at some point our numbers are enough. No need to test the upper limits — which unfortunately we may already be doing.
Western readers, governments and media still haven’t even come to terms with the concept of peak oil. How long is an environment writer pointing out that 4 billion less people than are alive now would be a great idea going to get taken seriously?
I hear you. But I do think this sort of challenge is surmountable. Here are a few thoughts:
1) Many people would take such a thought seriously. Many do. Of those that don’t, a good percentage just need to be informed. Another percentage will resist because they think it threatens their economic growth or something else they hold to. The first two groups are less politically powerful, but bigger. We need to focus mostly on them for now, I think. Still, even some from the latter groups can change their thinking. We need a sea change in how we humans think about our place in the ecosystem. It won’t happen by staying mum on such a key topic.
2) We need to start with population stabilization anyway, so that should be the emphasis for now. I see nothing wrong with being clear as well about the ultimate likely need for population reduction. But it’s a matter of emphasis. But in either case, we need to be very clear that none of this means anything inhumane. Again, though, since the first step is stabilization, that’s probably the best emphasis for now. (And that should probably be put in the context of limits to growth.)
I mean, if we’ve passed the earth’s limits to growth (and much of the evidence points to that), well, we can’t hide the truth. Otherwise, we end up continuing with growth and the consequences are far worse than the results of any political wrangling our discussions might spark.
3) Just as a thought experiment, what would it be like if all the environmental writers worldwide got together in a coordinated effort to spread the word about the problem of continued population growth? It might be hard to dismiss the whole lot of them, eh? 🙂
In addition to what I wrote in the article above, I believe there are other strategic and pragmatic reasons why staying mum on population may be a bad move for environmentalists. Having been thinking more about it, that may be the subject of a follow up article.
Hi. I found your blog somehow on a link from another site and have been reading for a while but this is my first comment. I’ve been interested in population issues for a while now, since about 7th grade when I first saw the graph of human population through history. I remember thinking wait a minute, that can’t be right -or if it is we’re in trouble. I was a very astute teenager. At any rate, I’m as interested in the causes of overpopulation as much as the solution, because I think the cause of a problem is important to coming up with a workable way to fix it.
I’ll approach the issue from a feminist/sociological/psychological viewpoint. (I’m a grad student in psych, btw.) Let’s start with a bit of historical perspective in the first world. Until about 100-150 years ago large families were just as common here as in the developing world. There’s a reason for this: when most children don’t live to adulthood, there’s an incentive to have many of them. Back then that was the case. There also were no family planning services back then (save for abortion, which has been around since the ancient days but which wasn’t always available). As nutrition and sanitation improved and modern medicine came along, more children gradually reached adulthood. Over time women started having fewer as well. Education and job opportunities started opening up for women around this time as well, and many women started consciously choosing to have less children. The development of contraceptives and other methods to prevent conception helped slow population growth even further, so that its at replacement level or below in many Western countries (with the notable exception of the U.S., but the reason for this is mainly immigration).
Okay, what about the third world? Modern medicine, nutrition, and sanitation got imported there all at once. Suddenly, a family that had 12 children saw all or most of them make it to adulthood. Then those kids each had large families. And there kids are now having large families. There was no adjustment period in that case, and there was also corresponding women’s liberation (in most places) to help them decide to have less kids. The Green Revolution was the primary driver of all this; without the food, it wouldn’t have been possible.
But, you also have to look at the issue of family planning. Birth contro.l. Almost no where was birth control imported along with all these miraculous advances. It is still unavialable throughout much of the developing world. Nor has any other family planning service been introducted on anything like the scale necessary.
Ostensibly, the reasons for this were and are religious or logistical. However, I think that there are much darker reasons than this. Reasons that have to do with sociology and politics. The more children a family has, the more likely they are to live in poverty. The more people in a country, the thinner resources have to be spread. The higher the poverty rate the easier it is for outsiders or corrupt elites to control a population. Poverty has long been one of the primary tools used to oppress people. If you study oppression in any detail at all, you will quickly find this idea. It occured in the fuedal system in the dark ages, in slavery and Jim Crow in the U.S., and in numerous other cases. The more poverty there is, the easier it is to exploit the poor. And the more people there are in poverty, the more workers there are to exploit. In other words, it’s in the interests of the U.S. and other industrialized nations to encourage population growth in the developing world.
This is one of the reasons that I am not optimistic that the population issue will gain ground.
I’m glad you commented. You make some very insightful points. I agree that we need to look at causes. I’ve been thinking lately about how the biggest cheerleaders of population growth are certain categories of economists and corporate capitalism/free-trade promoters. I’ve read some about how they work to take the value out of labor, employing workers for next to nothing. (globalization)
The more poverty there is, the easier it is to exploit the poor. And the more people there are in poverty, the more workers there are to exploit. In other words, it’s in the interests of the U.S. and other industrialized nations to encourage population growth in the developing world.
Well said. So they have to want those workers to be as poor as possible so they can get away with paying them so little. So, yeah, the more population growth, the more poverty, and the better it is for corporate globalizationists. There’s not only more demand for certain products but, as you explain, the maintenance of the impoverished conditions that allow them to be made for maximum profit.
I had mainly only been making the connection to demand, so I’m glad you spelled this out. From the general ability to exploit, to the specifics of keeping labor costs to a minimum, it all fits and makes sense of the corporate population cheerleading.
Now, some pessimism as a result of this is certainly rational. I tend to fall back, though, on the thought that while things will definitely get worse for some time, any dents we can make, perhaps contributing to an awareness that eventually leads to population stabilization just a little sooner, will make a real difference. Maybe, just maybe, even some corporate types will at some point wake up to the fact that if population growth continues too far, nature will stabilize it in ways that even the wealthiest may not escape. Thoughts?
[Edit] Oh, and if you have any references handy (online or otherwise) which touch on the topic of promoting population growth to promote poverty, enabling further exploitation, etc., I’d be most interested. 🙂
Consider that skyrocketing absolute global human population numbers AND increasing per capita consumption of limited resources AND expanding production capabilities worldwide are occurring synergistically in our time on the surface of Earth. At the current scale and anticipated growth rate of these distinctly human, global overgrowth activities, how much longer do you think the relatively small planet we inhabit can sustain the unbridled and maximal increase of human enterprise? That raises the question, HOW MUCH (MORE) HUMAN GROWTH ACTIVITY CAN THE EARTH SUPPORT?
I don’t think the world can support any more growth than it already has endured. But I know that Humankind expects it to do so anyway. Just look at the growth that takes place in India, China, Indonesia, Nigeria, Brazil, Chile, Mexico. And then: don’t forget about the continued growth in the US, in Australia, Norway, Russia, Italy, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and so on. Thew fact is: Humankind (as a whole) simply does not want to listen to your argument! As you can see for yourself: The Growth Culture is a global phenomena. And all peoples of this world – including all the Malaysians and Canadians of this world – wants it. And will work to acheieve it. No matter what you and I may believe might be the natural outcome of it.
I’m sorry. It’s how reality looks like. And that’s the way the world works.
There is no doubt in my mind about what you report. I am in agreement with all of it.
Having said that, please note that change is in the offing. The “unbridled global growth culture” is going to change EITHER AS A RESULT of human behavior change OR AS A CONSEQUENCE of the immutable forces in the natural world we inhabit. One way or the other, I suppose, the world will change.
My preference is for conscious and careful human behavior change that is in keeping with universally shared values.
PS: On October 14, 2004 I was pleased to join a discussion of the new book, Limits to Growth: The 30 Year Update. We met with the books author, Dr. Dennis Meadows, at the Woodrow Wilson Center in the Ronald Reagan Building, Washington, DC. The vigorous exchange of ideas followed the Meadows presentation. One thing Dennis said then is worth repeating now.
Simply put, if life on Earth is like the game of baseball, which is played over 9 innings, in the bottom of the 9th inning, NATURE GETS TO BAT LAST. Humans can play baseball as they will; but at the end of the game, when all is said and done, NATURE ALWAYS RULES.
Someone just told me that awareness is followed by avoidance, ie.: people did not want to be aware of what they had come to be aware of, so they were quite able to just forget about their awareness, and go on with their lives, as if they’d heard or read nothing of any substance afterall. – She even called it “a basic fact of human nature.”
As I’m seeing no willingness to make even the slightest change of lifestyles, I’m ready to accept her point.
While I understand what you have been told, I do not agree with it. I am not familiar with a “law” of human nature regarding a relationship between awareness and avoidance.
In many situations it is the case that what you report, about people denying what could be somehow real, is occurring; but to suggest “that awareness is followed by avoidance” is “a basic fact of human nature” strikes me unjustified and mistaken.
I would like to humbly point out that it is doubtful the human species could have survived to this point in space-time if the human beings functioned in the way suggested above.
Let me add that I do believe something could be useful here. It is a term of art from psychology: psychological resistance. Perhaps that is what is being identified. Awareness and avoidance are parts of psychological resistance, but that is not whole story. There is simply more to it.
Thanks for your comments.
When it comes to the obvious problem of rapid population growth, I believe the only possible solution is that the basic fact of population explosion comes to seep into the collective psyche; especially among the young. A natural process is what I have in mind here; one that is based on knowledge and – more importantly – understanding. I am thinking of a psycho-social phenomena of some sort. I actually believe that it is a process that is happening. At least here in Norway. From what I actually hear young people talk about.
Yes: I’ve got this little piece of good news here: quite a few young people (of both sexes) have actually told me, straight out, that they are worried about the population explosion, and have a clear understanding of the two-children-per-woman maths.
Which doesn’t mean that the problem isn’t a problematic issue. From a spiritual point of view, I mean: this is serious shit! It is a taboo topic of sorts. – You’d better believe just that.
Steve: “While I understand what you have been told, I do not agree with it. I am not familiar with a “law” of human nature regarding a relationship between awareness and avoidance.”
I’m especially thinking of that problematic shift between what’s possible for individuals to take in, and what – on the other hand – is possible for societies of people (social systems) to respond to. And here’s where the avoidance part becomes relevant, I think. The individual understands that society can’t change. Because of traditions, culture, old habits, and what have you. – So: “Forget what you know. That’s wiser.” 🙂
Hi again Magne,
Wonderful discussion, thanks to you and John Feeney.
I think we see may be understanding human nature in slightly different ways. From what I can see, individuals AND societies can change. Despite the traditions, customs, mores of cultures, it appears that change is possible. Of course, the responsible and able exercise of “political will” by both individuals and societies necessary to make changes, ones consonant with the requirements of practical reality, is certainly a challenge.
Here why environmental writers can’t do population.
Environmentalism is based on the premise that “Things aren’t right. We have to Do Something!” The underlying assumption is that we broke it (whatever it is – global warming, deforestation, pollution) and that it’s our responsibility to fix it. The premise that “since we broke it in the first place of course we can fix it” is implicit. Without that bedrock assumption the whole notion of “environmentalism” simply can’t work. We must be able to fix what we broke.
Enter the population problem. It’s enormous, and anyone who looks at it objectively understands that human population growth is the source of all the other damage, and is not sustainable in any way, shape or form. So to an environmentalist the reflex question becomes, “How do we fix it?”
That question is a trap. It assumes that “we” can fix it through some human agency. So the search for solutions begins. As environmentalists, and thus humane to the core, we look first for humane solutions. Economic growth, social programs to reduce poverty, the education and empowerment of women, better access to birth control and abortions.
Then someone who is handy with Excel comes along and says that won’t be enough, and the fun starts. The only severe approach that environmentalists are capable of considering is one-child legislation, and then only if they are feeling dangerously draconian.
When the shit-disturber with the spreadsheet responds that even that will not be enough, the ugly suspicions begin to mount. Remember, we have to solve the problem though our action. And if totalitarian measures like one-child families won’t be enough, well that means that … that … that the jerk with the spreadsheet must be suggesting we kill people! Us, humane environmentalists all, a party to murder? To eugenics? To genocide???? Never! String him up!!! Or at the very least make him stop talking about it and we must never, ever, speak of it ourselves. We are environmentalists – we do life, not death.
But of course the jerk with the spreadsheet wasn’t suggesting any such thing. He was suggesting that some problems don’t have solutions, at least not solutions springing from human agency. Now such a realization is anathema to the very concept of environmentalism. It is branded as fatalism, hopelessness, and the worst of all the Seven Deadly Sins, Despair. “We must never give up hope!” is the battle cry, and as a result any recognition of hopelessness must be ruthlessly suppressed.
That’s why environmental writers may not, can not, must not mention the elephant in the room.
Please note that a powerful commentator has joined this discussion. Thanks, Paul.
Thanks, that’s a very intriguing argument. You’ve sent me scurrying a bit to see where you’re coming from. 🙂 For those who don’t want to bother, let me clarify that Paul is coming from the perspective of someone who has studied the peak oil issue in depth. His website’s page on population is here:
A summary is here:
(Paul, as I’m new to DU, I want to ask why I’m only able to find the thread above through your link to it in the more recent thread in which I posted. Scrolling through the recent pages of posts on DU it’s not showing up at all. Even if I sort by author [the author of that thread being tex-wyo-dem] it doesn’t show up.)
So when you say, “someone who is handy with Excel comes along and says that won’t be enough,” I assume you’re talking about, well, you. 🙂 Your model, argues that our use of oil has vastly increased carrying capacity such that once oil becomes more or less unavailable (which you put at about 75 years from now), to be back at a sustainable population size, we’ll need to be back at a population level similar to that before we began our industrial age use of oil — so roughly 1 billion. You point out that no humane measure will be enough to reduce population that drastically, that soon. Am I misinterpreting anything there?
I can’t agree or disagree with that at this point. First, I’d be interested to know who, if anyone, else has submitted such models saying no humane measure will be enough. (Consensus counts for something, eh? 🙂 If it’s only you, then surely that can’t be the reason why environmental writers don’t mention population. Am I missing some well known analyses that show that no known humane measures to lower fertility rates can save humanity from absolute catastrophe? It’s entirely possible I am. If not, I’m inclined just to take David Roberts’s word for it on why he avoids it.
Then there are a lot of assumptions to which I can’t really respond, but which I think you agree create a good deal of uncertainty. e.g., you don’t put much stock in the likelihood of our developing alternative, non-fossil-fuel based transportation options before 2082. Maybe you’re right, but maybe you’re underestimating there. I don’t know. Of course there are the questions of the precise timing of the peak and the nature of the far side of the curve, which you’ve certainly studied in far more depth than I, but which I know is all somewhat debatable.
It seems to me there may be some risk, as well, in attributing all, or nearly all, of the increase in human carrying capacity to our increased use of oil. Others seem to attribute it more direclty to the “green revolution’ in agriculture. I realize the two are linked; You say on your website:
But is it clear the loss of oil will really drop food production back to pre-oil levels?
Anyway, those questions aside, my thought is that even if your model is quite accurate, those things we can do to lower fertility rates will help soften the blow. This is in line with things I’ve said here before. Things will get worse, for sure. But if we can reduce fertility rates sooner, possibly stabilize population growth somewhat sooner, that will mean a great deal. Just arithmetically, the less we add to our numbers the less they’ll have to drop (i.e., deaths) in overshoot to reach a sustainable population. And there is a massive gap between what we’re doing now and what we could be doing in the way of humane measures. Consider the US’s military budget which exceeds those of Russia, China, and the EU combined. How much could we provide to places like India, Africa, and the Middle East in helping them create social, educational, and health care programs with, say, 25% of that budget?
That’s not to mention the Hopfenberg/Pimentel idea of simply stopping the increase in food production, which they argue is not inhumane.
I should note that it’s not clear that some of the lesser draconian solutions, such as a one child policy, are actually as effective as actions which empower women, improve childhood survival, etc. That’s based only on bits and pieces I’ve read. I’ve only recently begun looking for any peer reviewed work comparing methods of lowering fertility rates, or simply assessing the effectiveness of a single method. (If anyone has such references, could you please let me know?) But there is some convincing anecdotal evidence that certain humane measures are as effective [perhaps more so] as a one child policy. As we’ve seen in China, the latter also creates unwanted side effects such as selective abortion and child abandonment in the effort to have male children.
So even if it’s not possible cleanly to “fix” the problem, we are obligated to do whatever is possible to soften the blow. And that is why environmental writers damn well better start talking about the elephant in the room. 🙂
Do you agree?
John (and Paul),
As I indicated above, I am beginning to hear ordinary (young) people expressing their concern about the problem. And not only that, but their clear understanding of the problem. – That’s a little piece of good news, isn’t it?
I usually access the threads on DU through the individual topic boards, where threads with the most recent replies are moved to the top. The Energy/Environment board this thread is on is at http://www.democraticunderground.com/discuss/duboard.php?az=show_topics&forum=115
Yes, you have understood my argument correctly: petroleum was the primary factor in raising the earth’s carrying capacity over the last 100 years, and as oil supplies decline our expanded population will find itself driving deeper and deeper into overshoot, with the usual consequences. My position is that humane measures will not reduce the population to match the earth’s oil-free carrying capacity. This will require a frank reduction in population in a short time that will far exceed the current natural death rate. I’ll go so far as to say that even inhumane measures such as nuclear war will probably not suffice, because one-time death tolls in the tens or even hundreds of millions will not be sufficiently corrective. IMO, only the traditional natural remedies of famine and disease will have enough power.
I put the sustainable population at a billion and the time frame at 75 years in my model. Even if I’m off by 100%, and the number turns out to be two billion and the time frame is 100 years, it really doesn’t alter the essential drama all that much.
I think that we will strive mightily to produce alternative energy sources to maintain the carrying capacity, but I am convinced we will ultimately fail. This is due to issues of scale (no alternatives we have come up with so far come within an order of magnitude of the energy required), issues of utility (oil is so multi-talented that it would take a large number of products and processes to fully replace it), issues of unintended consequences (as is currently being recognized with biofuels) and issues of human behaviour (a lack of international cooperation is predicted by The Prisoner’s Dilemma, and comfort-seeking, competition for personal advantage and a hyperbolic discount function are planted deep in the human genome as explained in Reg Morrison’s “The Spirit in the Gene” and in my article at http://www.paulchefurka.ca/Hyperbolic%20Discount%20Functions.html).
While there are not many of us out here sounding the dieoff alarm just yet, I am by no means alone. Jay Hanson is a well-known proponent, and his site http://www.dieoff .org has accumulated an impressive number of papers by such luminaries as Albert Bartlett, Garrett Hardin and David Pimentel. Rather than try to précis this impressive body of work, I’ll commend to you one page that addresses most of the same issues I do: http://dieoff.org/page171.htm. The rest of that site is invaluable for considering the population problem from a variety of perspectives.
On the question of whether fertility reductions alone can achieve a sufficiently soft landing, I’m not aware of any papers that would directly support my pessimistic conclusion. This is primarily because the analysts I’ve read have failed to grasp a key set of fundamentals: first, the link between petroleum and carrying capacity; second, the imminence of Peak Oil; third, the possibility of a rapid decline in post-peak oil supply (starting at 2% per year and ramping up to 10-20% per year over the course of twenty years), fourth, industrial agribusiness’ utter dependence on petroleum for yield maintenance. The failure to put this puzzle together has lulled most population commentators into a false sense of security regarding time frame and carrying capacity, and has hobbled their analysis. IMNSHO, of course.
The “Green Revolution” which is held out as the mitigator of this dire trajectory is a chimera. First off, let’s drop that greenwashing naming pretense, and call it what it is: industrial agribusiness. This travesty is supported by the tripod of mechanization, pesticides/fertilizers and genetic engineering. Of those three legs, the first two are directly dependent on petroleum. Genetic engineering generally has four goals: drought resistance, insect resistance, pesticide resistance and yield enhancement. That last factor invariably requires mechanical irrigation, which again depends on oil.
Ironically, industrial agribusiness may provide one mechanism for a much-needed fertility reduction. This is coming about because of the unholy stew of pesticides, fertilizers and industrial chemicals (not to mention traces of pharmaceuticals) in which we are marinating ourselves. The mutagenic, teratogenic, carcinogenic, endocrine-disruptive and especially fertility-disruptive effects of these chemicals, alone and in combinations are just now being urgently recognized. As the “Green Revolution” is pushed into Africa by well-meaning but clueless idiots like Bill and Melinda Gates we can expect these unintended consequences to follow obediently along.
Balancing this effect and in my opinion much more significant is the fact that the much of the Muslim world has an extremely young population. One estimate I just read was that in the Arab oil-producing world fully half of the population is under the age of 15. There can be no starker illustration of the collision of population and Peak Oil than that. I doubt that family planning will penetrate very far into these ultra-religious nations. The only thing that may constrain their future fertility is if Virginia Abernethy was right, and that people do restrain their fertility as their economic opportunities contract.
I do agree that we must do what we can to soften the blow. Mainly that involves reducing the incentive to reproduce by whatever means are available. Taking this position to its logical conclusion, though, can lead to such interesting outcomes as opposing micro-credit – that shibboleth of liberal multicultural empathy – on the grounds that it encourages reproduction among those who will be at first risk in the coming collapse. That’s an antinomious conflict between head and heart if ever there was one.
My main reason for supporting efforts to soften the blow comes from my understanding of the idea of adaptive cycles. While we share characteristics with yeast (we overshoot and die off) we are also a bit like cockroaches – you can’t kill us all. There will eventually be a resurgence of some form of society from the rubble of this one, and it’s our duty to make sure they have the knowledge, resources and opportunity to survive and enjoy what remains of the world.
Talking about the elephant is the first, crucial step.
Sorry, that link above for Virginia Abernethy should go to her Wikipedia entry .
[Administrator’s note: Fixed it]
That is good news. Any noticeable increase in awareness is a very good sign. I think I sense something similar. I frequently look at the comments under environmental articles on Common Dreams and Alternet, and find the commenters talking about population and related issues more and more. Or so it seems. (It’s hard to know whether to trust my impression, since my own thinking about it so much might simply make me more sensitive to noticing when it’s mentioned. But that’s my impression. I think perhaps the increased coverage of climate change, in particular is helping other environmental issues like population and peak oil to emerge more in the media — or at least among those commenting on the media. I hope the environmental writers will catch up soon.
Fascinating, frightening stuff. I really appreciate your posting it. The whole peak oil topic is one I’d looked into a little a couple of years ago, but had not followed closely since then. Reading your stuff, I can see that regardless of how well the future actually matches your assumptions, when we add the oil issue to everything else with which population connects (various aspects of ecological degradation, etc.), placing it at the appropriate level of importance, it adds a whole level of additional urgency to the issue. Your model and your explanation of it is clear and seems logically cohesive. Of course I hope some of your assumptions turn out to be far off the mark, but as you point out, even that would not much alter the basic message. I can see I need to add the oil issue to my ever-expanding reading list.
If the effects of serious overshoot do kick in as quickly as you suggest they might, one surprising conclusion is that the corporate promotion of population growth, as detailed by Rebecca above, will likely become a moot point. Nature will totally overpower any coroporate influence, swinging human numbers in the other direction. Still, any success anyone has in countering that corporate influence (assuming it continues in some form down the road) will be a factor in softening the blow.
Yeah, the Dieoff site is a good one. I’ve read a number of the population articles there and need to get up to speed on the energy/oil material. I suppose this is why Al Bartlett, one of my favorite population/sustainability thinkers, has long grappled with the oil issue as well.
The “Green Revolution” which is held out as the mitigator of this dire trajectory is a chimera.
Absolutely. I hope I didn’t sound like I thought it was a good thing. It clearly played a central role in getting us into this mess and will have to be deconstructed and transformed in some way to achieve any sustainability in the future. Your comments on DU concerning re-localization of agriculture certainly make sense. That should be a major factor in softening the blow.
It’s frustrating to think about the kinds of things we’d need to do to soften the blow as much as possible. Some of the human traits Magne often talks about here get in the way. It seems we’d need a great deal of international cooperation, the ability to shift military budgets (or at least the ridiculously inflasted US budget) to things like a massive worldwide Manhattan Project for alternative energy and international programs, on a scale never tried before, aimed at addressing the causes of population growth. Just fantasizing about the most we could possibly do under ideal conditions, we as a species could really prevent a lot of suffering. But in the real world we may have to settle for just doing what we can. I hope that will be closer to the ideal than my cynical side fears.
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Thank you very much!
When I read your first comment yesterday, I found myself having a good laugh. Not that anything of what you said is laughing matter. I simply have to confess that my sense of humour is a bit wierd, that’s all.
Today, as I have read your second comment, I realize that I’ve recieved one hell of a lecture.
Thanks again. 🙂
Quote: “Here is the most exciting concept. That is, the idea that every citizen be given a carbon credit,” [former NSW premier, Bob Carr] …
John, as you said above, it is very true that I’m worried about all those psycho-social human factors that seems to be working against all possible dreams of a change to the better. The urgent need for thourough lifestyle changes, for example, is in reality absolutely impossible, simply because of a multitude of curses belonging to the realms of human nature.
To those who do not know: I’m a social anthropologist by education.
About the idea of issuing all human beings with individual quotas (different sorts of substances and rights, I might add): I do believe that it’s our one and only solution. This is also a human nature issue: Noone wants to do anything unless everyone is forced to do their bit. It seems to me like this is a most basic fact of human nature.
But I’m just dreaming. Z-z-z-z-z – Dreaming.
Rationing seems inevitable, and I agree that it’s the only solution that has a chance of working, at least in the short to medium term.
On the other hand, if implemented on a global scale, the distortions rationing introduces could be harmful to the civilization as a whole. The reason I wonder about this is that rationing will ideally force a uniform reduction in consumption by all individuals. This (again ideally) precludes those with the means from gathering proportionally more than those without – in other words it prevents hoarding. This has an intuitive appeal due to its egalitarian nature.
However, if we accept that a massive population correction is going to occur, such a system may prevent the creation of relatively well-resourced refuges that would provide greater opportunities for pockets of civilization to make it through the bottleneck. In a rationed environment such refuges would have to be created by decree, while they would (or at least might) occur naturally under a free market.
I’m not necessarily arguing in favour of maintaining a free market for carbon in the face of oil depletion and global warming, but the potential need for highly-resourced pockets of
humanity should be examined, along with the mechanisms that would create them. Would the creation of such privileged enclaves be more difficult in a rationed world, or would the natural human tendency to establish them be sufficient to ensure their existence?
One more thing – on the issue of individual climate quotas, and why I believe – from a “human nature” point of view – it might come as a necessity in order to make any real changes in terms of environmental action.
As the saying goes: “We’re all in the same boat.” – That’s another way of saying that, in times of crisis, we’re all equals. But hey: don’t we all know that this is a lie? There is no such thing as equality. Yet, at the same time, in terms of “doing something” about the problems concerning the environment at large – locally, regionally and globally so – it is becoming very clear to me that the impoverished masses of this world – wherever they live (east, west, north and south) really can see no reason why they should be bothered about anything that has anything to do with “the business of environmentalism”. So long as their TV-sets and newspapers are stuffed with all these stories of the ways the affluent few just keep the party going, not inviting any “ordinary person” in.
Please: Give any slum-citizen or ghetto-dweller one good reason to join in the big struggle against climate change, for one?!
Someone who has never even owned a car or flown a single mile. Someone who has never even seen a computer! No. Forget. It can’t be done.
Western environmentalists are soon going to have to take a good long look at the face staring back at them from their bathroom mirror. Unless we start discussing the old, and extremely ugly, topic of inequality … hey? we’ll be liars and cheats, all of us! …
Remember: I’m discussing human nature here. As seen from the perspective of the majority of the world’s population, which is the lower end of the social pyramid, or the platform of the poor. Those who do not own even one square meter of land! Who all know, far too well, how their domestic and the international corporate business class of dollar millionairs are nothing but a bunch of corrupt polluters, wasters, and war-mongers, white-washing and green-washing in corridors of secrecy or all over the press, as it suits them best.
I’m telling you: in the slums of Nairobi, of Sao Paolo and Manila, of Dehli, Istanbul and Marseille environmentalism is a joke, and laughing matter.
Until some sense of equity is achieved here on Earth, I’m telling you: nothing will be done. Nothing. –
We must always remember that “we’re all in different boats.”
Your last comment just popped up here while I was writing my own. We posted at the same time. 🙂
Paul: “Would the creation of such privileged enclaves be more difficult in a rationed world, or would the natural human tendency to establish them be sufficient to ensure their existence?”
The idea of individual rations / quotas is very new to all of us. In fact: I only first heard about it no more than a year ago.
I believe that the introduction of such an individual quota system would, in essence, be like introducing a new currency. And not only that, but a whole new way of economic thinking.
As I’m becoming ever more aware of the catastrophic consequences of the present cyber-capitalist globalisation project of our times, I’d be the first person to welcome any possible change, any day!
But remember: “Rome wasn’t built in one day.” We’re talking about social processes here. They take years and decades, that’s the nature of the game. Problem is (as Al Gore, among others, have concluded for a while now): time is running short.
We’ve got to act. And we’ve got to act now.
What seems to be missing in every discussion, with regard the looming predicament in which humanity appears to find itself now, is the absence of a sense of urgency in the face of clear and present danger. Perhaps humanity is not yet aware of our distinctly human predicament; but, I dare say, there are plenty of people who at least have awareness of daunting global challenges in the offing. Unfortunately for life as we know it on Earth, most economic globalization powerbrokers, politicians and their minions in the mass media see no perturbations, hear of no problems and speak of no approaching dangers. Willful blindness, hysterical deafness and elective mutism mark the behavioral repertoire of many too many leaders in our time.
Steve, add to your litany of willful apathy the steep discount function that most people apply to future problems. This discounting is what makes it possible for our leaders to continue as they do without provoking a massive outcry. Since that discount function is genetic (i.e. part of our physical wiring) it’s likely that only a major crisis will ever be accorded its true value in our adrenal glands, and thus prompt some action.
By then, of course, it will be too late.
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I think the reason that people don’t bring it up is because if you live in the US, how can you?
If you are a scientist, that’s different, but if you’re a writer in the US with all of the consumerism going on, well as a writer a person who is a writer at their core (that would be me, my activism is actually writing, that’s what I do and get paid for, very little but…) you bring up what you think you can change. You bring up what is your duty to change. I may be able to guilt someone into not spending as much money (ok or at least think about it), I don’t know what I can write to make someone in a developing nation not have kids.
I don’t know why more environmental writers don’t write about consumerism, but then I remember one of the many writing jobs I got fired from.
I have a tendency to mock advertisers, hey they are there and usually they are such bullshit. I know I should learn, but when it’s so easy, how can I let it go?
Anyways I made fun of an advertiser. I thought this time it was a rather funny little piece. The advertiser didn’t think so and I got canned, yet again.
My editor said, “You can’t do that. They pay good money and we don’t want you making fun of our advertisers. On your blog or in your column…”
Then I remember something about me saying, “How about you bite me?” Then he said something about me not being mature about the situation…
Possibly the population thing is probably connected to money also.
In the science field yes you can talk about it. In bioethics I felt completely ok talking about it in a hypothetical manner.
If I lived in Norway, I’d be completely comfortable talking about it. If I lived in Nigeria I would be also, but for a US writer who is only a writer, talking about population well, how can an American say anything about the environment in regards to another country?
It would be like Hitler telling Mussolini he’s being unreasonable.
For a writer, who is an environmental writer, which means they are probably on the left…if they started speaking about population control, it would be over. It would be political poison, throw in if they happen to be white and a guy, oh god, they’d never recover. If you were a person of color and went there everyone would just think you were a tool.
You’d be stuck in some odd limbo land, where would you go from there? Your audience in general would consist of scientist and PhD types who are actually objective and thinking about the issues and the far right scary people, because you know there are people like that within this movement. Unless you wrote a book and got a radio show you’d be done for and that can only happen to one or two people, after that well…
That’s what I think most writers are thinking, if you can convince them that they won’t starve to death and people won’t call them Nazi’s…yeah if you want that to be written about more you are going to have to start some kind of, “you won’t starve to death fellowship fund,” because that’s the only way it’s going to get talked about slightly more.
I’m being kind of funny, but you know I’m kind of serious.
[Updated April 27, 07]
You raise a whole slew (as my mom used to say 🙂 ) of important issues. I don’t think I’ll even get to all of them tonight, so I’ll probably come back to this comment and add to it tomorrow. But here’s a start:
Well, probably the easiest way to respond is point by point, so…
Well, I just try to raise awareness, do my little part to create some sort of groundswell, figuring that as enough people talk about it there will be a sort of “tickle up” effect 🙂 whereby word and pressure will get to policy makers who can do something about funneling funds to programs aimed at helping developing nations with the the social and economic issues which influence population growth.
Heh, but good for you that you did it. Keep up your writing on consumerism. It’s good stuff!
Oh yeah. See Rebecca’s comment above for that. Not sure it’s connected in the way that talk about it would get you fired from a typical company, but it’s connected alright.
Okay, this is where I’ll pick up tomorrow…
[EDIT: BTW, Lo, I know you already know a lot of what I say below. I’m just trying to lay out what I think an environmental writers’ arguments should be to get past the kinds of concerns you raise.]
Though David Roberts at Grist didn’t mention this issue, it’s one that does come up. If I’m hearing you correctly, the main concern there involves the US’s per capita consumption rates which are hugely higher than those of most other countries. So how can we say anything to other countries about the environment? My short answer is that we have to say it to the world, including ourselves:
First, some say, with a lot of merit, that the US has the worst population growth problem of all. (See Al Bartlett’s writings, for instance.) That’s because, with our high per capita consumption rates, each person added here is like adding, say, ten in some country with lower consumption levels. So we can and should point a finger at ourselves as much or more than other countries. Of course addressing population growth here raises very messy issues of immigration. And, as you know, some anti-immigration groups which are pretty clearly racist, have coopted the population issue for their own purposes, pretending to be concerned about the environment as a smokescreen for their racism. There, I think we simply have to expose those groups’ agendas for what they are. It’s not the first time a group with reprehensible motives has coopted a worthwhile cause. (Consider the pro-corporate-globalizationists’ and free-marketeers’ claims to be working to fight poverty.) We can deal with it with information and truth.
I have sometimes pointed out, as well, that the US could actually stabilize its population without changes to immigration policy. Edwinn Stennett has shown that we could leave immigration policy as it is and stabilize the US population by bringing fertility rates down from the current ~2.05 to about 1.8 (children per woman of child bearing age). So while immigration is a big part of the math of it, and so I think should not be off limits in the discussion, we really don’t have to be anti-immigration to be pro-population-stabilization. To me, the important thing at this stage is simply increasing awareness that we have to do something.
So that’s how I address the “them, not us” part. Then we have to add that we simply can’t ignore either population or per capita consumption in any part of the world. This goes back to the equation that total consumption is the product of population size times per capita consumption. In the US, there may be more room for improvement in the consumption area, but in line with what I said above, we can’t ignore population either. In places like India and China, per capita consumption levels are rising steadily. (I provided some links on that in some article or other. Just use the search feature to search for “china.”) Combine that with their very large and growing populations, and the equation (pop size x per capita consumption) again shows we have to address both factors. Note that China has actually surpassed the US in total consumption of some resources (meat, steel, coal), and will do so with others, due to their sheer numbers. Presumably, the same problematic combination of increasing consumption and growing population will be growing in the near future in a range of developing countries.
White guy raising hand. :^] Okay, this brings in the perception of racism etc. in saying, “You countries (of people of color) need to stop your population growth.” But what if we frame it as “Can we help with the social and economic issues which are not only causing your population growth, but are adding to your poverty and the suppression of women and death of children in your countries?” By improving educational and professional opportunities for girls and women, improving health care, (including of course reproductive health care), improving childhood survival rates, and helping with certain economic elements, we address many of the factors which drive up fertility rates and exacerbate poverty. (See an early post here for a summary.) EDIT: And of course those social/economic issues are important to address in their own rights. That’s where, say, Betsy Hartmann and I agree. We disagree on whether its okay to emphasize that helping in those areas also happens to help with population growth, and to give that a similar status.
That is, addressing population is, to a large extent, providing assistance for social issues which most people will agree need addressing. In that way, it’s almost the opposite of racism, I think.
But I want to add another hugely important point. A lot of evidence suggests we’re already at or beyond the earth’s carrying capacity. We will inevitably continue beyond it to one degree or another for some period of time. (See Paul Cherfuka’s comments above for how that carrying capacity itself will likely come way down as oil becomes more scarce.) There will be suffering and deaths as a result. We need to emphasize that not addressing population it is to invite the maximum in suffering and deaths. Addressing it is one key way we can hold those to a minimum. (To the extent Paul’s view turns out to be correct, even the minimum may be pretty massive. But, hey, if addressing population now would save 100 million lives or whatever, that’s still pretty important.) So when environmental writers avoid the topic, or someone says it’s somehow racist, they’re tacitly condoning the deaths of millions, maybe hundreds of millions or more people.
(That is a key point surrounding Russ Hopfenberg’s findings as well, I think. He would contend stopping the growth of the global food supply wouldn’t cause more people to starve. [and I’m beginning to think that’s correct] But even if it did increase starvation by, say, 5% or something for a few years, the alternative of letting nature take care of stopping population growth is much, much worse. It’s a bind, but if Russ’s hypothesis is valid, then the “correct” option seems clear.)
So while I understand what you’re saying, Lo, about writers wanting to keep their jobs, I think they’d better think through the population issue, and get their arguments together to be able to discuss it while dispelling all the misconceptions and unnecessary connotations around it. They’re writers, after all. They should be able to express themselves effectively.
All that said, though, I think you may be right about why a lot of writers don’t mention it. I’m thinking of those you point to who are employed by magazines and such, and may fear losing their jobs. As I think about it, many (most?) of the writers who do talk about it are people who are either not paid to do so (Al Bartlett etc.), or who are pretty much self-sustaining (e.g., Lester Brown). Still, there are some who brave it. Katha Pollitt did in The Nation. I think others can. It’s too important not to. Hey, how about talking about it in freelanced articles under pen names? I mean, there has to be a way around the “job security versus the world” bind. 🙂
Well, I fear I just wrote a big, disorganized jumble. But those are important issues, so I’ll come back later to see it it needs a little editing.
Lo: “If I lived in Norway, I’d be completely comfortable talking about it. If I lived in Nigeria I would be also,”
Ok. I’m laughing here. I’ve been thinking that, maybe if I lived in the USA, I would feel free to talk about the population issue. Although I believe that’s me being naïve.
Here in Norway, there’s virtually no talk on the population issue going on. Reason? If ever there was a taboo topic, this is it. – Again, I think I have to run down that old human nature track. ‘Cause think about it. What’s at stake here? The woman’s God-given reproductive skills, for one. And the sexual urges and needs, and hardly something anyone’s likely to receive extra popularity points for bringing to the table.
Hm. And talking about population issues in Nigeria. Hey, Lo. You should go there, and try that. Don’t be amazed if some brutish-looking sex machine picks up a matchet and starts chasing you.
Remember: this is a taboo issue of sorts. I think this will be the case EVERYWHERE.
Lo: “… but for a US writer who is only a writer, talking about population well, how can an American say anything about the environment in regards to another country?”
Good question. Any thoughts? John?
Let me add that your thoughts on the consumerism / advertising issues are highly relevant. I’ve highlighted this point before, somewhere else on this blog, but I don’t mind doing so again.
Here we go: https://growthmadness.org/2007/03/31/ecocide-for-a-quick-buck/
Quote: “The mass media is just another money-making machine, really. It is run by corporations, it is owned by share holders who demand that the various TV channels, radio stations, newspapers and magazines generate a profit.”
It’s a paradox, really. On the one hand, it is becoming ever more important to make sure that the problematic side-effects of the consumerist lifestyles of our times get to be adressed in the media. But at the same time, consumerism is the exact factor which makes media publications be a thriving business. So: being too critical here, is like “biting the hand that feeds.”
So, as you indicated, based on your own experience, you’re stuck at the crossroads where “honesty” and “loyalty” meets. You want to be honest and truthful, of course, in dealing with real lifestyle problems (ie. consumerism) that effect the environment of this world. You want to be serious, you want to take a bite of the heart of the matter. But then, hey: reality comes sneaking up from behind, and bites back, if you know what I mean? The publication (magazine or newspaper) depends on the money which stems from advertisement. And what’s advertisement doing, really, if not making sure that the consumerist culture remains alive and well. I think you can see the paradox?
If you want to be taken a seriously as an environmentalist writer, you’ve got to be conserned about the consumerist culture. But if you want to be taken seriously as an editor of printed publications, you’ve got to make sure that advertisement moneys keep rolling in.
It’s not funny. Not at all. But still. – I can’t help myself. 🙂
I’ve got to laugh.
Good points about writing about consumerism. Maybe the place to write about it is in Consumer Reports, which takes no advertising. 🙂 But seriously, I guess there would be a real problem of getting the word out on that in mainstream publications. Perhaps population is even tougher, because of the connotations of racism, “us vs them,” and draconian measures which some associate with it. i.e., even without advertisers some editors may not want to deal with such dicey issues. But to the extent that environmental writers are activists, they must tackle it.
On a different, but related tack: Consider Rebecca’s comments above concerning the corporate globalizationist’s desire for more population growth in order to promote poverty and to be able to continue exploiting people for profit. I wonder how high up you have to go up the ranks of business people before you get to those who are well aware of that idea. I mean, I doubt most smaller company heads — even if they have do have manufacturing done in developing countries — are really thinking about that. (am I wrong?) But I’ll bet the big guys are well aware of it. I just wonder at about what company size that awareness starts.
I also think most economists in any sort of position of influence in government have to be aware of it. I guess I’d like to be a fly on the wall at the Wold Bank or some other such organization to see how explicitly that’s discussed. Just wondering…
[BTW, I added a lot of additional comments to my reply to Lo above.]
I don’t believe rich people actively talk about their exploitation of the poor; not that I know this for certain. 😉
However: I do know that corporate heads talk a lot about the urgent need to keep populations growing, in order to ensure continued growth. And this is also the argument the same people are selling on to national politicians and other officials; and they do get to be listened to, and heard. It’s the economic criterion for rationality again: the one and only criterion that matters to policy-makers, these days.
About the “racist” problem adressed here. It is among those problems that I do not want to think about. I know the problem too well. I have lived in “free-breeding” Africa, where it is every married woman’s duty to produce as many sons as possible for her husband and husband’s family or clan. These are facts of culture, and can’t simply be ignored.
But – funny thing – my stating the bleedin’ obvious, that these are facts of culture (or sociology), well many Africans will say that I’m a racist for saying so, and that I should be more respectful than that.
In Africa (among other regions, of course), I believe there can be only solution to the problem of population explosion, and it’s fairly and squarely to raise awareness. It’s all about learning. And surely: there can be no limits to learning, can there?
Education is the answer. And after that: political policy problems. Administrative problems. Social welfare and pensions schemes. Making sure that the heads of African nationstates become a little less corrupt, while actually starting to take the interest of their citizens into account, as they prepare for policy-making.
Hm. It’ ain’t easy.
To Paul Chefurka,
Paul, when time permits, please explain the following comment. I want to make sure I undestand your point.
“………….This discounting is what makes it possible for our leaders to continue as they do without provoking a massive outcry. Since that discount function is genetic (i.e. part of our physical wiring)……………..”
The following is plagiarized from my own web site:
Why is it so difficult to generate concern for events that are seen as belonging to the future even though their consequences may be dire?
This happens, apparently, because of the way we’re wired. It is the result of many millennia of mutation, genetic drift and natural selection – selection that favoured people who responded immediately to threats or rewards. Those individuals that did not respond immediately (perhaps they didn’t run from the tiger or eat the food that was in front of them) were more likely to be “selected out” of the gene pool. They were the original Darwin Award winners. This selection reinforced our responses to immediate and clearly understood rewards or dangers. In fact, the further away in time the reward or danger was, the lower our response to it became, because its influence on our survival was correspondingly less. Even if we waited to run until the tiger got closer, the chances were good that we would escape anyway, so there was no need to leave our meal just yet. This idea is known as the “discount rate”. It’s the same concept used by banks, where the present value of a future event is discounted depending on how far in the future it is.
While banks use a linear discount rate (expressed as a percentage), there is strong evidence that human beings use a more complex function that comes from different parts of our brain. The more primitive parts (the brain stem and limbic system) are concerned with immediate survival and emotional responses. They are much less capable of long-term evaluation, but provoke the strongest reactions to pleasure or fear. The neocortex, on the other hand, is our thinking brain. It analyzes, predicts and plans for the future, but has more limited access to our emotional triggers.
As a result, immediate threats or rewards that require no deep analysis tend to activate the “earlier” portions of our brain and prompt very strong responses. More abstract threats and rewards identified through the analytical capability of our neocortex don’t activate our limbic system, and so usually prompt a much less intense reaction. In addition, emotions easily override the intellect, so you get reactions like, “Yes, I think Global Warming is important, but I have a date tonight with the hottest guy on the face of the planet!” That’s not a lack of concern for the future, it’s a direct result of the way we are constructed. It’s because of our hard-wired “hyperbolic discount function”. Immediate and concrete concerns always strongly outweigh the distant and abstract; it’s the reason we got this far as a species. The discount function is called “hyperbolic” because it falls off rapidly at first, then flattens out as time passes. Events that are very near term evoke a sense of urgency that falls off steeply as the time horizon passes from the domain of the limbic system to the domain of the neocortex, resulting in the characteristic shape of a hyperbolic curve.
So basically, people are genetically wired to respond to immediate threats and to ignore distant ones. This is the source of the inertia that is the bane of environmental activists. On the other hand, it works in favour of politicians who are largely concerned with satisfying the powerful members of their constituency. The interest of these members tends to be the accumulation of power and wealth, a short-term objective. Legislation or policy that works in favour of those objectives, but may not be in the long term interest of the general population, risks generating opposition. Fortunately for politicians and their patrons, the fact that the risks are long-term means that the rest of the population can be easily persuaded to apply their steep discount function to them. As a result they don’t get upset and aren’t inclined to protest, even though the short term benefits that will accrue to them will be small while the long term risk is large.
Well, this topic (holding back from talking about the problem of population growth) is why I’ve spent so much time with the framing science debate on my blog and elsewhere. Certainly it is wrong to avoid it, but how to talk about it, how to frame it, and in what forums are the questions on my mind. That’s why I think John is doing such a good job here at GIM. He is direct, doesn’t hold back, yet doesn’t come off as alarmist. He connects the issue to other important issues which pulls more people into the population dicussion. And rather than making extreme claims based on speculative assumptions, he is careful to express thoughts about the future with qualifiers which lends him and his arguments credibility.
Paul Chefurka’s population essay (linked above) is a different approach, one that I appreciate if used carefully. It’s about shocking people to garner attention for the subject. Steve also favors this approach.
It’s going to take a mix. Personally I want more thoughtful discussion about solutions and better descriptions of the precise nature of the problem. The shock approach is only useful if, once you have gotten attention, you can offer meaningful action otherwise you become discounted as an alarmist nut. So I’d like to know much more about organizations working effectively to coordinate activists and/or providing concrete action plans to lay people like me.
Luckily most of things being proposed to mitigated population growth are also effective in other areas which are now getting higher visibility (e.g. climate change, peak oil, water issues, human rights).
Much to think about. More later.
In regards to this topic you have to bring up race, because if you don’t, you’re being a little bit bs. Everyone is thinking it, so you have to address it before someone else brings it up. In sports the best defense is a good offense.
In the Art of War
“Attack is the secret of defense; defense
is the planning of an attack.”
In America there is no way you can have this conversation and pretend like the race thing doesn’t exist, if you do no one is going to take you seriously. That is the number one reason no one is going to talk about this issue, so unless you can over come that, this cause will be lost.
I think the internet is an awesome tool. If you are able to market what you do online as legit and be consistent, you can gain a following. Growth is doing a good job talking about this issue. John you’re the point person on this issue. You need to make your self an authority and jump on anything that seems even a little bit eugenics. If you keep it going and everyone sees that your forum is not filled with crazies, hey people like money, they aren’t going to risk it if they think people aren’t going to be into it. You should make Growth the guinea pig site.
“The publication (magazine or newspaper) depends on the money which stems from advertisement. And what’s advertisement doing, really, if not making sure that the consumerist culture remains alive and well. I think you can see the paradox? ” Magne
I realize that I am very screwed. I read All the Presidents Men and stayed up late watching the Killing Fields and thought that journalism had integrity or something…if I had known I was going to spend half my time writing fluffy stories about art openings and the other half writing about bars…
Anyways that’s why I do my blog. I need to be connected with truth without concern for people’s feelings. I know that in print, connected to a larger entity I am never going to get to write about what I want to write about the way I want to write about it. Yes there is a “market” for what I write about low-impact living, environmental issues, and veganism, but I don’t have sprinkled throughout my writings things you can buy. Editors do not like that.
I agree Paul’s essay shocks. That can be problematic in winning people over. On the other hand, it has going for it some very solid reasoning, which makes it hard to dismiss. It may be a bit of a worst case scenario, but it’s a well constructed one. I think if you’re going to go out on a limb with fairly dire predictions, your argument better be very solid. Paul’s seems to be. 🙂
Thanks for the ideas and words of support. I think you’re right that the best defense is a good offense when it comes to the race issue. And yeah, I do think it will help to jump on anything smacking of eugenics. (Though I don’t want to spend much time reading the sites of racist groups. But anything that comes up in the media, yeah…)
Believe it or not, I’m getting criticism from other quarters that my simulation is too optimistic.
I’m not sure if I would characterize my motives for writing it as trying to win people over to my point of view. The concept of human dieoff is simply too outrageous for most people to accept on someone else’s assurance, no matter how well reasoned. Most people arrive at that conclusion on their own, usually from following a chain of reasoning that starts from other points well distant from the goal.
My hope is that people who read it will use the possibility of such an endpoint to help them tease out significance and connections between otherwise unconnected dots in the world around them. Also, the idea is so extreme that it will stick in peoples’ minds even if they do nothing else with it. Then as the decline begins to unfold they may say, “Oh crap, I understand what’s happening here!” and take some action that is just enough ahead of the curve to give them some personal advantage.
As I said, I agree there is great value in putting the shocking reality in front of people. It is of course very necessary to state the problem clearly and even starkly. Paul’s essay does that quite well.
But let me come out of the closet:
I think the end result 25, 50, 100 years from now is a world that is vastly different than the one we now inhabit. Assuming the best, most proactive steps are taken with respect to population (humane ethical approaches to reducing global population), technology (total commitment to renewables, no use of fossil fuels), and economy (some kind of libertarian/egalitarian socialism) we could be living sustainably in a world with high life expectancy, low infant mortality, and a decent standard of living for all. But it would be a very different world.
This best of all possible futures does not include cars that go from 0 to 60 in three seconds or easy access to perishable goods from far away, because the cost of energy will be very high. That is the price we pay for sustainability. It may be that owning a personal car that you can drive anywhere you want on roadways that go pretty much everywhere will be looked back on as a quaint and foolishly short-sighted idea. Similarly for shipping, flying, and trucking vast quantities of products and resources all around the globe. Localization is a necessary part of high-living-standard sustainability.
With the best of all possible futures being a really hard sell today, the less optimal and more likely scenarios — involving thirst, hunger, resource wars, higher level of climate change leading to a much lower standard of living in a much more degraded environment — become increasing frightening.
I’m searching for ways to better describe, support, and where necessary modify this vision of the best possible future to provide a positive goal in the midst of the scary alternatives. As I said above, it takes a mix of approaches to get attention and motivate action.
If the crowded theater is on fire we need to shout “Fire!” It’s also rather beneficial to point to the emergency exit and try to get people out of danger without them trampling each other.
Re: Paul Chefurka’s comment, I am paraphrasing…the problem is in how we’re wired.
I am surprised that no one specifically commented on that observation. I have read a number books on evolution, as well as books on how the human brain has evolved. Paul has done a excellent nice job of summarizing what many evolutionists and cognitive psychologists have written on the subject. Believe me, their writings aren’t easy to summarize.
For anyone who wants to solve the problem of getting people to take action on seemingly distant, but serious problems, instead dealing exclusively with short term problems, check out the following resources. It will give you a much better idea of what we’re up against.
Consciousness Explained, Daniel Dennett
Evolution of Consciousness, Robert Ornstein
The Illusion of Conscious Will, Daniel Wegner
A Mind of It’s Own, Cordelia Fine
Fine’s and Ornstein’s books are written for a general audience. However, Dennett and Wegner’s books; depending upon your background, can be long and difficult to read. Both authors were writing for their peers. That said, I believe they all expose the root of our problem.
It will be difficult to get people to take action on long term problems without understanding the underlying workings of the human brain. As you might guess, the findings of these authors are completely at odds with the popular notion of how the human brain works. Simply stated, people don’t like having their fragile world-view challenged. Also, be advised, these books might cause you to rethink your notions of self. In deed, that may be the crux of the problem.
Believe it or not, I’m getting criticism from other quarters that my simulation is too optimistic.
Well, you run in a pretty tough crowd. :*)
Interesting comments. I still hope some of your assumptions turn out to be too pessimistic, and that some unaccounted for positive elements turn out to have a lot of influence. But interesting…
Thanks for the references. And you and Paul are right that that’s an important point about how our brains have evolved, enabling us to have survived as hunter-gatherers, dealing with immediate threats, but tending not to want to be bothered with long-term threats.
We’ve had discussion here before about our collective “denial” of the realities facing us. These comments about how the brain evolved flesh those out.
Do you know if anyone has made an effort to outline ways by which we might overcome this in dealing with the ecological/human crisis we face? That would, to some extent, address Trinifar’s concern. We need to generate the motivation to act to avert as much of the crisis as possible.
I’m not sure Paul holds out a lot of hope for anything more than some limited damage control, but perhaps with a real groundswell of change on something approaching a global level, we might approach Trinifar’s ideal scenario.
On Paul’s site he mentions the kind of media saturation climate change has had doing the trick to spur change. I think we’re going to need that for the whole “world problematique.” But for now, articles and reports in the mainstream press do a terrible job of making the links between all the interrelated aspects of the problem. (Mostly we just hear about climate change, consumption levels, and technology.) That said, one key, I think, is that in this short attention span age we need to keep the message simple. Simple but accurate summaries, models, and explanations people can grasp and remember stand out to me as perhaps an obvious, but important requirement for getting large numbers of people talking about this stuff.
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Paul: – “We must never give up hope!” is the battle cry, and as a result any recognition of hopelessness must be ruthlessly suppressed.
Steve: – What seems to be missing in every discussion, with regard the looming predicament in which humanity appears to find itself now, is the absence of a sense of urgency in the face of clear and present danger.
Trinifar: – As I said, I agree there is great value in putting the shocking reality in front of people. It is of course very necessary to state the problem clearly and even starkly.
John: – We need to generate the motivation to act to avert as much of the crisis as possible.
You know what. I believe the time must come, pretty soon (as soon as possible), when human beings (societies, countries, continents, etc.) must start to adapt to a situation which can be known as “A State of Collective Desperation” – a psychological / mental tipping point must be reached; a point when all humans accept the basics of the climate change / global warming science.
If there’s one fear I am hoping can become a part of the collective psyche, it must be the fear of fossil-fuels. Such a fear would hardly be irrational at all. To the contrary.
We’re getting undisputable proof that there is a clear connection between items like the use of fossil-fuels, enhanced greenhouse effect, global warming, and climate change. But for some odd reason, people (individuals and societies) seem to fear the idea of turning our backs of coal, gas, and oil.
We should be able to call this a lesson of history: the age of fossil-fuels must come to an end, and a new age of solar energy, wind energy, wave energy, and possibly also nuclear energy, must commence. – Now. Not later. Now. Not in 10 or 20 years time. Why wait?
A collective sense of self-preservation, based on science and hard natural evidence, should make way for such a development.
But okay: like Al Gore said (quoting someone in his film, and referring to a political energy advisor turned Exxon-boss): “You can’t teach a man something if his salary depends on his not knowing about it.”
And the proper way of saying “Two-thousand-and-seven”, would be: “1984”
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