After a “lost decade,” experts call for renewed focus on population growth

Womens Health Clinic - East AfricaBy John Feeney:

To many, it’s obvious population growth is a key factor, arguably the key factor, in environmental degradation and resource depletion, contributing heavily as well to poverty and human conflict. Unfortunately, some environmental groups and writers, and some fighting for social justice, deny or consciously avoid the obvious. Often they realize population growth is a fundamental driver of ecological and social problems, but choose deliberately to avoid the topic. Their reasons vary, but fit generally under the heading, “politics.”

There are, for instance, women’s groups with whose concerns I sympathize, but which have decided the population issue distracts from their work promoting the rights of women. There are environmental writers who carefully skirt the topic of population growth in the belief that the notion of “population control” has become associated with totalitarian or eugenic measures, making any environmentalist who utters the word “population” vulnerable to easy criticism.

In both instances, activists or writers have opted to play politics rather than speaking the truth. It comes down to this: Credible research and respected scientists tell us human numbers are closely linked to environmental degradation. That is the truth as science sees it. To avoid discussing population as a problem, then, is to hide the truth. People trying otherwise to help with our ecological challenges, arguably the greatest challenges in human history, are putting politics ahead of the truth.

Major report highlights the results of a decade of neglect

What’s been the result? A report from earlier this year speaks to that question. Issued by the UK’s All Party Parliamentary Group on Population, Development, and Reproductive Health, it was Titled Return of the Population Growth Factor: Its Impact upon the Millennium Development Goals. This spring, Science featured an article on the report.

The report presents the findings of a call “for empirical evidence from professional, academic and institutional sources worldwide, asking whether growing populations were affecting achievement of the [UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs)].”

A long list of experts supplied evidence. To offer a small sampling, they included Dr Ndola Prata, School of Public Health, University of California, Berkeley; Dr Hassan Yousif, UN Economic Commission for Africa; Gareth Thomas MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State; Dr. Martha Campbell, School of Public Health, University of California, Berkeley; Prof. John Cleland, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine; Dr Alex Ezeh, The African Population and Health Research Center; Dr Paul Van Look, Director, Department of Reproductive Health and Research, World Health Organization; Prof. Michael Lipton, Poverty Research Unit, University of Sussex; Prof. Joseph Speidel, Bixby Center for Reproductive Health Research and Policy, University of California, San Francisco; Prof. Chris Rapley, British Antarctic Survey; Prof. Aubrey Manning, School of Biological Sciences, The University of Edinburgh; and organizations such as the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs; the UN Environment Programme; the World Health Organization; the UK Department for International Development; The Global Fund to fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria; Population Action International; Gramin Vikas Trust, India and Overseas Development Institute; African Foundation for Population and Development, Nigeria; UN Economic Commission for Africa; and Homeless International.

Good intentions, tragically flawed strategy

The authors precede their findings with an informative section titled “The Lost Decade,” referring to the last ten years of neglect of the population problem. This neglect has roots in the 1994 United Nations International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo. There, at the urging of women’s and human rights groups, was initiated a new emphasis:

No longer was population to be discussed in terms of national population figures, but instead the world would concentrate on the rights of the individual and particularly women, to decide when, how many and how often to have children – recognising that women and girls in many developing countries are often marginalised by having less education than males, and fewer opportunities to participate in civic matters and the political process…. A strategy for implementing this bold plan to empower women, was to move attention away from numbers of people, population growth and family planning and the coercion that these terms were seen to imply, to the more comprehensive language of reproductive health.

The report argues that the association of family planning with coercion was unfair. In the 1970s and 1980s “nearly all national family planning programmes in developing countries were voluntary and extremely popular.” Unfortunately, at the same time, China and parts of India implemented draconian measures to control population growth. The latter drew the bulk of the attention and the rest of the world has since paid for two countries’ (albeit the two with the largest populations) poor decisions. “Far less attention,” write the report’s authors, “was drawn to the negative health and economic impacts on women who are compelled to bear many children for lack of contraceptive options – this is continued suffering on a very large scale.”

Thus, though well intended, this shift of attention away from population and numbers of people (instead of simply directing additional attention and resources to the rights and welfare of women) was, in retrospect, a tragically flawed decision.

A major setback

The authors emphasize that the resulting lack of funding for and attention to family planning services, particularly in the poorest nations, has been a major social and environmental setback which must be reversed if we are to have any hope of meeting the UN’s MDGs. (They focus on family planning services, though it should be mentioned there are, of course, additional humane approaches to addressing population. One example is the use of entertainment media to communicate the advantages of smaller families. These are tragically underfunded as well.)

Woman, children, poverty in India

Results of the neglect of population have included severe reductions in family planning budgets, a slowing or stalling of contraceptive use, especially in Africa where use today is greater than 10% in only two countries, and a shift of attention, promoted by the conservative media, away from tragically high population growth rates in the world’s poorest nations, to the declining birthrates in Europe and Japan. Additionally, experts cited in the report link the lack of attention to population to the increasing disparity between rich and poor.

Population and the UN’s MDGs

The UN’s MDGs are:

  1. Eradicate Extreme Poverty and Hunger
  2. Achieve Universal Primary Education
  3. Promote Gender Equality and Empower Women
  4. Reduce Child Mortality
  5. Improve Maternal Health
  6. Combat HIV/AIDS, Malaria and other Diseases
  7. Ensure Environmental Sustainability
  8. Develop a Global Partnership for Development

Because the MGDs were developed in 2000, during the “lost decade,” perhaps it’s not surprising they failed to take into account the influence of population on the attainment of their stated goals. The report’s authors are clear about the resulting problem: “The evidence is overwhelming: the MDGs are difficult or impossible to achieve with the current levels of population growth in the least developed countries and regions.”

The Science article on the report summarizes why the MGDs will be unmet without renewed attention to population growth. Some examples:

  • MDG 1: Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger. It will be almost impossible to reach the target of halving the number of people living on less than $1 a day by 2015 without a large-scale recommitment to family planning. In sub-Saharan Africa, partly as a result of rapid population growth, the number of people living in extreme poverty rose from 231 million in 1990 to 318 million in 2001…
  • MDG 2: Achieve universal primary education. Voluntary limitation of family size is also essential… Children in large families, especially girls, are less likely to enter school, more likely to drop out, and are sick and hungry more often than children from small families… In the poorest countries as a whole, two million additional schoolteachers are required each year to keep up with population growth…
  • MDG 4: Reduce child mortality. Given the same level of health care, a child born less than 18 months after an older sibling has a death rate two to four times that of a baby born after a 36-month interval…
  • MDG 7: Ensure environmental sustainability. The roots of environmental degradation are found in consumption patterns among the world’s economic powerhouses and rising demands of growing local populations…. Sir David King noted that, “the massive growth in the human population through the 20th century has had more impact on biodiversity than any other single factor.”

And from the report, concerning MDG7: “Today, 1.1 billion people lack access to safe drinking water. As population grows, the UN estimates two thirds of the world’s population will face moderate to high water shortages by 2025.”

There’s a great deal of information in the report on the relationship between population and each of the MGDs.

Little hope without renewed attention to population

In sum, the report asserts:

Without addressing the issue of population growth and high fertility in the poorest regions of the world, these regions have little chance of achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Rapid population growth has a detrimental effect on the MDGs. It is also often a factor causing civil conflict and migration. Except for a few oil rich states, no country has pulled itself out of poverty while maintaining high fertility.

The authors conclude:

Urgent action must be taken to ensure family planning provision becomes an integral part of all efforts to reduce poverty, improve mothers’ and children’s survival and health, and to forestall further damage to the natural environment. The large and well-documented unmet need for family planning must be addressed.

They end the report with a number of specific recommendations such as to increase funding for and eliminate barriers to family planning.

Thus the All Parlimentary Group’s report represents an call by scientists and institutions worldwide for a renewed international focus on population growth. Here’s the concluding statement from the authors of the Science article:

Between 2005 and 2050, the world population is projected to grow by 2.6 billion–a number roughly equal to the total global population in 1950 (2.5 billion). Decisions made now can influence the growth rate. If the rates are not altered, hundreds of millions of families will suffer from poverty, hunger, inadequate education, and lack of employment opportunities, all of which might otherwise have been avoided.

One hopes the report will make its way to those environmental writers and groups as well as political leaders who actively avoid the subject of population growth.
Image sources: advencap, posted on flickr under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license, focus2capture, posted on flickr under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 license

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36 responses to “After a “lost decade,” experts call for renewed focus on population growth

  1. This is a very good article, John. You deserve all sorts of credit for a job well done. – Once again, I might add.

    – —

    John: – Unfortunately, some environmental groups and writers, and some fighting for social justice, deny or consciously avoid the obvious. Often they realize population growth is a fundamental driver of ecological and social problems, but choose deliberately to avoid the topic. Their reasons vary, but fit generally under the heading, “politics.”

    – —

    There’s that term again: “deliberately avoiding” or “deliberately ignoring” … I think this form of reasoning is boud to become more fashionable as mroe and more people will continue to search for the truth, the whole truth, so help me …

    There are so many issues here. The big question is: “WHY IS THIS HAPPENING?”

    On the big population issue, it seems as if we’re just going to have to accept that all sorts of religious, spiritual, social and philosophical dogmas are probably the root cause of the deliberate avoidance / ignorance. As we all know — no matter what might be our faith or religion or personal viewpoint — “every child is a blessing”, “life is sacred” and “childbirth is a fundamental human right”. You won’t have to be a Catholic, a Muslim or a Hindu in order to be opposed to a one-child policy or a two-births-per-women point of view. And the thing is: the problematic nature of the population discussion runs very deep. It touches the heart and soul of individual people, as well as social groups, clans, families, clans, nations, states. It’s not only a philosophical or religious dilemma; it is also a question of economics and politics, of course.

    Now. As populations keep exploding, and the modernization of societies / countries keep doing the same — explode! — rapidly rising energy demands make politicians and industry leaders choose to ignore the CO2 factor inherent in the problem of energy supply.

    What else do the leaders of our modern societies choose to ignore? The fact that an exploding population of rapidly modernized humans are bound to want to own a perfectly normal car? And new roads, highways and superhighways need to be built; never mind the long-term or even short-term environmental costs?

    Oh, there’s a lot of big issues to be deliberately avoided or ignored. As a matter of fact, it seems as if all things that might be viewed as a problem among the average voting consumerist — on whom every political party depends — needs to be avoided or ignored, and quote deliberately so. Simply in order to remain in power or stand a chamce of attracting followers.

    As I said: I believe “the deliberately choosing to avoid or ignore-thing” is going to be the next big issue.

    If I’m absolutely right about that, then please: Go Ahead and Call Me a Prohet.

    Just kiddin’

  2. Who knows, perhaps 2007 will be remembered as the year the masters of the universe in my not-so-great generation acknowledge that our feet are made of clay by God and, by so doing, begin to focus upon the all-too-obvious global challenges that are looming ominously before humanity on the far horizon.

    During my lifetime, many people have been able but unwilling to speak about an emerging reality: in 1950 humanity faced a 2.9 billion people challenge and in 2050 UN projections indicate that humankind will likely have to address the potentiality of daunting global challenges derived from 9.2 billion human beings on Earth.

    The failure of my generation of elders to focus necessary attention and energy on approaching threats to life as we know it and to the integrity of Earth that appear as a result of the unbridled character of economic globalization, the unrestrained and increasing per human consumption of limited resources, and the unregulated growth of absolute global human population numbers could be tantamount to the greatest dereliction of duty by one generation in human history.

    As many are pointing out now, the last ten years may indeed be a lost decade; however, nowhere in history can I find an example of a generation so “lost” as mine; so self-absorbed and fatuous; so blind, deaf and electively mute; and so unconcerned with regard to the future of our children and coming generations.

    We can do better, and I trust we will, by taking the full measure of the problems before us and then finding solutions that are consonant with universally shared values.

  3. Pingback: Catch o’ the day « Verdurous

  4. Steve,

    I’m 36. That is to say I’m in my thirtees, and part of a generation which doesn’t seem too eager to doing anything at all about its lifestyle, to the betterment of the ecological order of the day, to which great many people are able to respond, but only by manner of intellect. I do not believe that my generation will prove able to “do” much about the lifestyle crisis we’re in, except perhaps admit that we should have been able to do something more than simply adapting to the ecological crisis; ie. learn how to live with it, without actually doing much in order to make a change to the better. — Why? Because serious action means making serious lifestyle choices. — And my generation (also known as the dessert generation) just loves Ice Cream.

  5. John: – Credible research and respected scientists tell us human numbers are closely linked to environmental degradation. That is the truth as science sees it. To avoid discussing population as a problem, then, is to hide the truth. People trying otherwise to help with our ecological challenges, arguably the greatest challenges in human history, are choosing politics over the truth.

    – —

    We’ve been through this discussion before, both here on GIM and on Trinifar. But a good thing can always be repeated. The thing is: we’re going to have to accept the apparent fact that there can be no stopping the world’s population from growing; not until it has reached more than 8.5 billion, and probably as many as 9.2 billion. As far as I can understand it, we’ve reached some kind of understanding here; that this is the cruel and brutal fact. —

    Now, here’s the deal: We’re actually allowing both political / economic leaders and a long range of scientific bureaus to disregard this basic fact of population explosion, even as they make promises and make plans for the future — plans and promises which are telling the masses of voters and consumers that CO2 emissions are going to be reduced by as much as 20 – 30% in the next thirteen years, and by 50 – 80% by the year 2050. I hope you’re all familiar with these numbers. There must be at least one-thousand different internet sources to choose from, where these “percent reduction goals” can be verified.

    What beats me, is the question: HOW ARE WE GOING TO BE ABLE to reduce emissions, even as populations are exploding and the whole wide world is trying desperately to achieve Western standards of living?

    I wonder! Can a climate celebrity like Al Gore, for instance, respond to such a simple question? Or is it too naive, too childish or basically too beautifully put?

    A math genius like Trinifar, for examle, could quite easily make a diagram here? One which can show how much additional CO2 cuts must be expected from each and every one of us, as the world’s population keeps growing, and we are still expected to look forward to cutting our CO2-emissions by 20%, 50% or even 80% by such-and-such time.

    Anyone out there? Who is up for the task?

    – — 8)

  6. Much to talk about here. A few points stand out to me:

    1) “I believe ‘the deliberately choosing to avoid or ignore-thing’ is going to be the next big issue.”

    I keep raising it because to me it seems just wrong. People are playing politics with the planet and all its life.

    2) You may be right, Magne, that “all sorts of religious, spiritual, social and philosophical dogmas are probably the root cause of the deliberate avoidance / ignorance.” But those are added to by the change of strategy coming out the the Cairo conference mentioned in the report as well as the reactions to China’s and India’s policies.

    There are of course other causes as well. Sometime I’ll try to get together a lot of info on how the population topic became taboo. Here’s a recent piece (PDF) from Dave Foreman (whom I’m glad to see speaking out on population these days):

    Click to access campfirejuly07.pdf

    3) I’m not sure we have to completely accept that population will reach the levels of the UN’s and others’ projections. If awareness and concern increases enough we just might see some policy decisions which would help us peak at a lower number. I mean, even 8 billion would be a good deal better than 9.2 or whatever. (After than we can talk about a decline to some sane level. 🙂 )

    4) Steve, you’ve mentioned the “dereliction of duty” of your generation. And Magne, you’ve mentioned your generation’s apathy and unwillingness to act. (I’m in between the two of you, reaching the half-century mark soon. 😯 )

    Clearly, history has shown that Steve’s generation helped create this mess. Magne’s may still have a bit of time to redeem istself. (And I’ll leave mine out of this for now, thank you very much. 😛 )

    But here are some observations which may mean little as they’re based on a small, non-random sample, but…

    My impression has been the a surprisingly large percentage of those concerned about population growth are in the 50 and over age range. I’ve assumed that is because they have some concern left over from the ’70s when Ehrlich and others were featured prominently in the media.

    The most vehement arguments I’ve seen against the idea that population is a problem have come from younger people on the Web. Now, maybe it’s just that the Web is skewed toward the young. And much of their argument is the cornucopian one from Julian Simon who was of an older generation. But I wonder if, at 6.6 billion and climbing, the population issue seems more hopeless to young people today than it did to those who were in their 20s when world population was around 3.5 billion, leading them to embrace a comforting, cornucopian view. Thoughts?

    5) Magne, your comments just above are very much in line with what Al Bartlett has written:

    I’d really like to see the the math of factoring in population. It’s hard to believe someone hasn’t done it.

  7. Magne Karlsen: Credible research and respected scientists tell us human numbers are closely linked to environmental degradation. That is the truth as science sees it.

    It’s also the basic truth of numbers which I think — if it is possible to get the word out — can be understood by anyone with a decent education. John is doing the right thing here in repeating the formula that the media is increasingly echoing: 1 person x 1 amount of western energy x number of people in the world. One is stuck saying some people should never use the amount of energy we in the west use or that energy availability will grow as needed. I think more of us are beginning to see the problem.

    A math genius like Trinifar, for examle, could quite easily make a diagram here? One which can show how much additional CO2 cuts must be expected from each and every one of us, as the world’s population keeps growing, and we are still expected to look forward to cutting our CO2-emissions by 20%, 50% or even 80% by such-and-such time.

    LOL, Magne. It hardly takes “a math genius” like myself to show we are up against a wall built by our own expectations for a future equal to that of our parents. 😉 Seriously — and I know you are serious — that’s what this is about. The current generation thinks they will have a life style similar to their parents — and in that they are sadly mistaken. Their parents have use up their childrens’ “credits” and more. That is precisely what it means to consume fossil fuels; you consume the energy that might have been available to future generations. We didn’t know this in 1950 but the people of 2050 will really be pissed off.

  8. John,

    My impression has been the a surprisingly large percentage of those concerned about population growth are in the 50 and over age range. I’ve assumed that is because they have some concern left over from the ’70s when Ehrlich and others were featured prominently in the media.

    I’m in this group but don’t think my beliefs are driven by the media of the 1970’s. It may (and I grant this may be wishful thinking) have more to do with being of the New Math generation. That is, I was in second grade when the national educational curriculum became focused on science and math in response to Sputnik. My generation was steeped in science and engineering as a way to win the Cold War.

    No one anticipated the Flower Children, dodging the Draft, Bob Dylan, the Beetles, the Viet Nam War, etc. Still, many of us retained the science and engineering focus of “show me the evidence for your position.” We are the opposite of faith-based. Thank God. 😉 Jimmy Carter with his background in nuclear engineering was our great hope when he took the White House; we saw him as one of our own, an engineer holding the highest seat of power.

    But I wonder if, at 6.6 billion and climbing, the population issue seems more hopeless to young people today than it did to those who were in their 20s when world population was around 3.5 billion, leading them to embrace a comforting, cornucopian view. Thoughts?

    The world pop was at about 3 billion when I first learned of the concept (in the 1960’s). You have to start there, at the point when a person first considers how many people might be on the planet. Lot’s of people never bring that fact to mind.

    I think cornucopian views come from a misconception of what fossil fuels are all about and a lack of understanding about how they drive EVERYTHING in our society. It’s a nasty feedback loop. The less one knows/understands about energy and physics the easier it is to convince them that all is A OKAY.

    But those of us (now in our 50’s) subjected to the Cold War science and engineering regiments requiring evidence for one’s positions have a hard time looking the oher way when the government manipulates data. The approach we were taught put men on the Moon so we had some reason to be cautious about changing our methods.

  9. Hi to all,

    The following article may not belong here in this discussion; however, it is sufficiently related to this and other valued commentaries, thanks to John F., and strikes me as extremely significant not only for its content but for who is saying such things.


    Start article

    A Sudden Change of State

    A new paper suggests we have been greatly underestimating the impacts of climate change – and the size of the necessary response.

    By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 3rd July 2007

    Reading a scientific paper on the train this weekend, I found, to my amazement, that my hands were shaking. This has never happened to me before, but nor have I ever read anything like it. Published by a team led by James Hansen at Nasa, it suggests that the grim reports issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change could be absurdly optimistic(1).

    The IPCC predicts that sea levels could rise by as much as 59cm this century(2). Hansen’s paper argues that the slow melting of ice sheets the panel expects doesn’t fit the data. The geological record suggests that ice at the poles does not melt in a gradual and linear fashion, but flips suddenly from one state to another. When temperatures increased to 2-3 degrees above today’s level 3.5 million years ago, sea levels rose not by 59 centimetres but by 25 metres. The ice responded immediately to changes in temperature(3).

    Read the rest here.

  10. Thank you, all. This is indeed a very interesting discussion. A few remarks of my own:

    The age dimension has been of great interest to me for a very long time: It’s interesting how people seem to become more concerned about the state of the environments as they grow older. It is something I see all the time. Another point is: I understand that, the younger people are, the more often they think in the lines of “I want everything to be like it is, right now.” – Now, when I want to assess this argument philosophically, I suspect (and fear) that most young people in their teems can sense that the future is not looking good, and that all things can only get worse; ie. that all things are changing, and as a matter of fact changing to the worse — hence the idea that everything should be like they are, right now.

    Let’s face it. The children and the young of this planet are bound to grow up knowing that the very ecosystem which is our planet is about to crumble, sort of. Well, to the very least: young people need to learn to live with the fact that ecological degradation has become the order of our days, the sign of our times, and (as they often say): “Whatever.” Unfortunately, they all know that there’s nothing much they can do, as they’re not old enough to wield any power what-so-ever. To paraphrase the famous rock’n’rap group Rage Against The Machine: the youths are “caught between the culture and the system” and all the while, nature itself seems to be telling us a story of its own. It’s not easy. It was never supposed to be easy, I guess.

  11. Magne,

    I think young people today, those in western countries with a “good” lifestyle, are in for a shock. Some of them know it, the rest are more interested in Paris Hilton or whatever the media is feeding them.

    I hope they find that they do have power, lots of it, just like the young people did in the 1960’s. It’s time to take to the streets and demand change, make the politicians listen. If only we can get the message into the iPods and iPhones ….

  12. Hi again,

    Thanks for all the comments.

    We are close, very close to some kind of tipping point, I believe. People like Al Gore are talking about promoting a “tipping point” and encouraging that outcome soon through events like the LIVE EARTH concerts and House Parties on 7/7/07. I have become involved in this particular effort and can report that more than 4000 “House Parties” have been organized in more than 80 countries. Two billion people worldwide are expected to be exposed to the message regarding threats to humanity and life as we know it from global warming.

    Trinifar, I hope the iPods, the iPhones, the Blogs will shortly be filled with word of the daunting challenges before us. It will be a relief to be able to at least begin helping in the effort to take the measure and then to address the global problems that are visible, even now, on the far horizon.

    Always, with thanks,


    PS: To Magne at 36 (and John, almost 50). I will be 63 next year. My birth year is 1945. If I could have one wish granted, it would be that the human overpopulation challenge NOW was the 2.9 billion people problem it was in 1945 and not the expected 9.2 billion people problem we anticipate in 2045.

  13. It’s like we’re pushing ourselves up against a big, dark wall here. I’m finding it harder and harder to believe that we are somehow going to “come to our senses” and stop doing all the bad things we’re doing to the planet’s atmosphere. As it is: this modern civilization is completely oil, gas, and coal dependent, and “the good news” is: the coal reserves will not be depleted anytime soon, there are new oil fields to be found beneath the soon-to-be-melted North Pole, and rather than doing anything about the fossil-fuels addiction, we can try to catch and capture the CO2 … new technologies are going to save us, and that’s for sure … the world’s presidents, prime ministers and other heads of state have said so …

    Then there’s the carbon credits trade option. It’s really something for the political and economic gamblers out there. A good solution, they say.

    Making way for actual emissions cuts seem to be out of the question. Too many jobs are at stake, I guess. Too many lifestyle consequences to be considered. And a new election coming up some time soon; a year from now, two years from now or four years from now: every politician needs to think ahead, of course. And not make any too radical decisions: old voters are lost that way.

    We’re pushing ourselves up against a big, dark wall here. I feel as if I’m among those who’ve gone through a crack in this wall, and reached the other side. Now I’m waiting, expectantly, for the rest of humanity to join me here.

    Tipping point? Well, I guess it’s NOW.

  14. Dear Magne,

    Your words, every one of them, have a ring of truth about them. Thanks for these comments.

    A growing number of people are with you, having “reached the other side.” Please remember the highest mountain — beyond the cracked “big, dark wall” — looks truly formidable, when viewed from its base; however, once the ascent of so gigantic a formation has begun, it immediately looks not quite so awesome. And with a commitment to take every step toward the summit, that which is forbidding looks smaller and somehow like something one can surmount after all. The highest mountain formation appears remarkably surmountable when viewed from its summit.


  15. A while back, my friend and occasional commenter here, Tim Delaney, suggested I download the Roger Waters song, “Amused to Death.” Maybe it should be the one pre-loaded into all IPods. Here are some of the lyrics:

    We watched the tragedy unfold
    We did as we were told
    We bought and sold
    It was the greatest show on earth
    But then it was over
    We oohed and aahed
    We drove our racing cars
    We ate our last few jars of caviar
    And somewhere out there in the stars
    A keen-eyed look-out
    Spied a flickering light
    Our last hurrah
    And when they found our shadows
    Groups ’round the TV sets
    They ran down every lead
    They repeated every test
    They checked out all the data in their lists
    And then the alien anthropologists
    Admitted they were still perplexed
    But on eliminating every other reason
    For our sad demise
    They logged the only explanation left
    This species has amused itself to death
    No tears to cry
    No feelings left
    This species has amused itself to death
    Amused itself to death

  16. I see the Sustainable Population blog is currently featuring an article from the Bixby Center for Reproductive Health Research & Policy. It’s theme is similar to that of the report I summarized in the post above. i.e., that population has dropped off the map as an environmental topic and needs renewed attention.

    Here’s the blog:

    Go have a look and leave a comment. That blog is one of the very, VERY few with regular coverage of the population issue. We need more like it, so let people know about it!


    Children are innocent
    A teenager’s fucked up in the head
    Adults are even more fucked up
    And elderlies are like children

    Will there be another race
    To come along and take over for us?
    Maybe martians could do
    Better than we’ve done

    We’ll make great pets!
    We’ll make great pets!
    We’ll make great pets!

    My friend says we’re like the dinosaurs
    Only we are doing ourselves in
    Much faster than they
    Ever did

    We’ll make great pets!
    We’ll make great pets!
    We will make great pets
    We’ll make great pets!
    We’ll make great pets!

    ~ vocals and lyrics: Mr. Perry Farrell … and if ever we’re going to talk about 1990s prophets, here’s one to watch 😉

  18. Let me just make a quick remark here. Back in January 2006, I posted these ironic mid-90s lyrics on the environment site discussion board. It produced a tremendous roar! Some of the forum users felt my posting the lyrics was quite out of line. I had to apologize to the site boss, but pointed out to him – and the members of the discussion board – that there was a lot of pop-rock lyrics of this nature to be found across the world-wide web.

    I actually find this interesting. And that’s me telling the truth about this. Like Eminem stated in a song, back in 2004: society has become too sensitive. I believe it is because far too many of us actually believe that we’re pushing at natural and cultural limits here. — As a species. And as societies.

  19. Complexity and complicity. Bad information of the saddest kind. Information overload. What’s the natural response to all this?

    I was actually preparing myself for making a few remarks on these things; these aspects of human life today. I believe that most people feel they’re expected to know too much. And it is too much. Definitely.

    I’m thinking: What might be the most natural response when (and not if) information overload of bad & sad information becomes too much to handle?

    Simplicity, I guess, is the rendezvous.

  20. I’m actually feeling sorry about this. I know too much about all “bad” forms of irony which used to be the order of the day among young people (and song-writers) during the 1990s. – Just look into the words coming out of Seattle’s “grunge scene”; you’ll soon realize that I have a point: I belonged to a depressing sort of youth culture, I dare say.

    Now, these days we need to take a whole lot of apocalyptic forms of natural science seriously. And I think it is good that you bring the United Nation’s Millennium Development Goals to our attention here. These goals are truly setting the standard for all of those who want to think that the world can actually be saved from humanity itself. I can only hope that a new political and economic organization of this world — one which takes all these goals seriously — can be developed. And that: as soon as possible.

  21. Perhaps Al Gore will lead humanity toward something new and better…..because whatsoever is to come has got to be sustainable.

    The gigantic scale and anticipated growth rate of the endlessly expanding political economy on the small, finite planet we inhabit could soon become patently unsustainable.

  22. Steve,

    That scale of growth is already patently unsustainable — as I’m sure you agree, actually.


    No problem with the lyrics.

    As for information overload, it’s there, I think. And the bad part, IMO, is that the information with which we’re overloaded is, for the most part, not the important stuff. Some is fluff, much is propaganda, and some is any of a variety of current problems that people are lulled into thinking are the most important news.

    I too hope a new political and economic organization will develop. Something’s got to give, eh?

  23. Great site and good discussion…i just came across it. I have to spend some time catching up reading the GIM posts…keep it up.

    It seems just in the last couple years there is much more “chatter” about our culture of infinite growth and how that is inconsistent with a finite planet. Let’s hope it doesn’t take a full generation to really sink in.


    “DFID has produced a set of key sheets that examine the impact of climate change on poverty and the Millennium Development Goals. They also explore action that can be taken at country and international levels to manage the impacts of climate change on the achievement and sustainability of the Millennium Development Goals.”

    – —

    I think it remains crucial that everyone (not only politicians, economists, diplomats and scientists) stops and thinks about the effects of poverty on environmental issues. This threat is complex, and very real. I don’t know much about social economics, but I think it’s fair to say that the poor masses of this world are being actively expluded from economic activity of any use. Opening the markets for poor people to join in must be among the first things to do, in order to fight poverty and to raise standards of living.

    Then comes the issue of education, which might lead to a reduction of child-births.

    And I will not forget about the revolutionary idea of issuing people with individual quotas. From a technological point of view, it’s not impossible. I know that it’s a tall order, but I also know that a few other intellectuals are sharing this dream. And not only George Monbiot.

    The date is 07.07.07.

    Let’s dream.

  25. Despite what my brain tells me and my eyes show me, I believe with every “fiber of my being” that there is no way God intended for a species, gifted as Homo sapiens is, to inadvertently destroy itself and likely much of the world as we know it……by its own ‘clay’ Hand.

  26. The Norwegian National Broadcasting Service, NRK, today, is all about two major events: the Wimbledon tennis championship (congratulations to Venus Williams) and the Live Earth world music championship (congratulations to Al Gore, among others; I wish he would decide to run for President of the USA; he’s actually TRYING to do something good around here, I believe). 🙂

    I really hope the world is more interested in the music event today, than they are in Wimbledon and Tour de France. I don’t know that for sure. I think people might be more interested in sports events that do not force them to think about environmental degradation of almost every conceivable kind, manmade climate change, global warmin, melting ice caps, jungle stress and the rest of it.

    And from where I’m standing, on top of little Norway’s soil … one among the worst polluting nations of Western Europe, largely due to oil, gas, shipping, and filthy industry … I’m thinking: we will not allow ourselves to think of global warming, because of all the industrial dollars that keep flowing in …

    We’re not serious here. Our politicians are not serious at all, as they’re allowing all those nasty corporations to keep polluting like they do. It’s tragic, really. Sad. Silly.

    Do we really need to get seriously afraid of CO2 and actually start to panic before we get able to respond?!!

    I think so. — But then, I also think that societies of people can actually get used to hearing about climate change, and choose to opt for the simple option of ignoring all messages anyway; bacause there’s too much money at stake, too many jobs at stake, too many lifestyle inconveniences in the offing, etc. I think societies of people may be quite ready to start facing the End of the World, smilingly, laughingly and saying: “What will be, will be. There’s nothing to do about that. So let’s party.”

    As a matter of fact: I don’t think we’re going to do anything about the CO2 pollution, unless the vast majority of people get seriously afraid of the stuff. And the word in the street start going in the lines of: “Fossil-fuels are crazy. Insane. I don’t take it anymore. Won’t use it.”

    It’s going to take years. But I’m sure it’s going to happen. A year from now. Five years from now. Ten years from now. Time is Relative. In fact: there’s nothing more relative than time.”

    We’ll be going sane again. But it’s going to take a lot of courge. We’re going to have to get able to conclude that the modern industry-based world civilization is insane. Only then will we start to go sane, I think.

  27. Hi Brian,

    Welcome. Yeah, I think you’re right that there’s more talk recently about the problem of the push for endless growth on our finite planet. It’s hard to tell sometimes because I’m so close to it, but it does seem that way. I just hope the trend grows.

    Very nice science blog you have there!

  28. Magne: “Do we really need to get seriously afraid of CO2 and actually start to panic before we get able to respond?!!…

    As a matter of fact: I don’t think we’re going to do anything about the CO2 pollution, unless the vast majority of people get seriously afraid of the stuff.”

    Yep, at that point, people will do something. The problem is, things could be so bad at that point that the “something” they do may be the kind of thing we’d hope for from our vantage point today.

    Hard to tell what the chance is of effective action before that. If we can get people talking about this stuff enough before that, then maybe there’s some real chance of something happening prior before the “too late” stage.

    Well, as it’s 7/7/07, I should go look at the news and see what’s happening with the concerts and such. Yeah, Gore is a plus, but when he says things like “Climate change is humanity’s greatest challenge, I’d just like him to substitute something like “our ecological plight” for “climate change,” which is, after all, just one piece — albeit a big one — of the problem.

  29. There was a clip in between concerts which really made me stop and think. A group of children (aged 6 – 9) who was asked to say a few things about what to do about climate changes. I listened to them, and I looked at their faces. The psychological side-effects of what they were asked to think and say something about, were highly visible. I saw all sorts of grimàces. I saw all sorts of eye-movements. I saw mouths going sour as they spoke about recycling and saving electricity, among other things. Now I wonder: what’s it like to be a child today? Curious — like children always are — of what the world’s all about, the first thing which is brought to their attention is greenhouse effect, global warming, manmade climate change. Uh uh? What a life?

  30. Uh uh? What a life?!!

    You know, what saddens me the most, is the blatantly upsetting fact that the toxic rain, the greenhouse effect, and the large arsenals of nuclear weapons were among the first things that were brought to my attention when I was a small boy myself, back in the late 1970s and early 1980s. I also came to hear about the population explosion. Now, I was curious about many things as a child; then, in my youth I grew ironic about it. Today, an adult, I’m something else. I’m afraid and I’m angry. The wisest thing for me to be, seems to be sarcastic. Because the truth is: the world belongs to big corporations and extremely well organized diplomats from around the planet. These people / organisations are very well protected by laws, rules and big armies of well-paid underlings, both in uniforms and without, wearing suits and ties and funny titles to their names. These people, and all these powerful business corporations and political or diplomatic institutions are not into change, of course. They’re going to try to force humanity to opt for Status Quo. And the fact is: they’re obviously going to succeed. So we’re off to the Moon again. And then, after that, Mars. As I’ve said before: Stephen Hawking says our common future lies among the stars. And there is where the ruling class is heading.

  31. Pingback: your shrinking carbon dioxide allotment « Trinifar

  32. Whoaaah! I’m actually afraid my understanding of what is in fact taking place in this world is out of line with all those people and institutions that should be able to provide me with a job ..! Yeah, I’m thinking: my understanding of what seems to be going on inside the political-economic and social organization which is the modern, global civilization of my times, is going to make me go unemployed and homeless forever after. ‘Cause I can sense this: my understanding of what is in fact going on here, is TOO MUCH. As I feel that we’re — as ordinary humans and social/cultural creatures — knowingly and willingly continue to promote a way opf life which is going to prove unsustainable. And I know that I can’t be a liar like that, even when it is expected of everyone to just go with the flow, and never show any sign of being worried.

  33. I only wish mankind would have started to accept the science of global warming (greenhouse effect) sometime back in the 1970s, when I was still a child. I can’t help thinking about the facial expressions of the children I watched on TV the other day, during the Live Earth television show (noted on John’s site, GIM). I mean: poor souls! Being asked to tell the camera men that they knew about the greenhouse effect, the global warming and the climate changes, and probably thinking to themselves: “Fucking Hell! This is too damn crazy! I wish it wasn’t true!”

    As I said on GIM: this clip really made me stop and think. The psychological reactions among those children — approximately 6 – 9 years of age — were too obvious to see.

    Now, I can only hope that we’re actually going to do what one of the people on stage actually cared to say (I think it was the conferansier in London): “We must prepare ourselves for a future without coal and oil.”

    Because that’s exactly what we must do. I think the group of little children — quite knowledgeable, too — have understood that much. But will we ever learn?

    – —

    (some problems over at Trinifar; impossible to submit a comment there, I’m sorry if I double-posted this).

  34. “some problems over at Trinifar; impossible to submit a comment there, I’m sorry if I double-posted this”


    I suspect it was just stopped by the spam filter and Trinifar had to let it through. The spam filter on WordPress blogs will often stop posts with any profanity in them as that is one trademark of the many porn spams that it stops every day. Links and profanity seem to trigger the filter more than anything else. I occasionally have to approve my own comments when they contain links. 🙄

    And I feel for the kids as well.

  35. It appears that humankind is running short of time to address and overcome the distinctly human predicament looming before humanity; however, perhaps there is enough time to find appropriate reasons for taking action…. thanks to yet another of many emerging thought experiments.