Climate change is just a symptom

Administrator’s note: Time for another article from a guest contributor. Jerry West describes himself as “editor/publisher/janitor” for The Record, an independent, progressive newspaper in Gold River, British Columbia. He’s a columnist, as well, for the well known Canadian progressive news site, rabble.ca.

A number of his articles would fit well with the content on GIM. But this one stood out during a week when I’ve been preoccupied with the stubborn tendency of both policy makers and mainstream environmentalists to turn a blind eye to the fundamental drivers of our ecological crisis. It’s a constant problem in coverage of climate change. Well meaning environmental writers, their thinking apparently numbed by the peer pressure of groupthink, tell us we can solve climate change — which they see as an isolated environmental problem — with routine economic tweaks or perhaps a switch to fluorescent bulbs.

Jerry is a writer who sees past that superficiality, and this article, which originally appeared in The Record, is one result. My thanks to Jerry for his permission to post it. – JF
______________________________________________________

Jerry WestBy Jerry West:

The BC government has committed itself to reduce BC’s greenhouse gas emissions by 33 per cent by the year 2020. The questions remain — is it enough, and will they have the fortitude to take the actions necessary and to provide the funds to do it.

In Britain Parliament is considering reducing the UK’s emissions by 50 per cent by the year 2050 and some argue that 80 per cent is a more reasonable figure. One thing is certain, climate change has come front and centre as a political issue, and governments of all stripes are scrambling to find ways to make it look like they are dealing with it. One suspects that “make it look like” is the main purpose for them.

Climate change is an issue for us, but it is only a symptom of a much bigger problem. Humans are stripping the resources of the planet faster than they can be replenished; like aggressive cancer cells we are consuming our host. Since the amount of resources are limited the only cure for this is to consume less of them.

There are two ways to do this: one is individually which means quality of life for most of us in developed countries goes down considerably, and continues to go down as populations increase. Or, we can do it collectively by reducing population to a level that there is more than enough for everybody.

Some have argued that populations in developed countries are already declining and that in countries such as Canada we do not need to control them. They also argue that as other countries become more economically advanced their populations, too, will decline.

The problem with this argument is that world population overall is increasing, and that as countries industrialize, even if their population growth slows or declines, their resource consumption goes up to meet the increased demands of an industrial economy.

If one of our goals is a fair and equitable global society then the way to achieve that is to take the total amount of renewable resources that can be sustainably produced by a fully functioning and diverse ecosystem, and calculate the amount of these resources needed per person to provide the lifestyle that we want, then divide the former by the latter and it will give us the maximum allowable population.

If we do not do this, although we may work hard to alleviate many of the symptoms of our environmental problem, we are not addressing its root.

The chief obstacles to doing this are public attitudes towards reproduction and an economic system based on growth and profit generation and its spinoff, the measuring of worth by accumulated wealth — an economic system, furthermore, that dominates the dissemination of information and shaping of attitudes via news, entertainment and education.

As long as we are taught and believe that we have the right to reproduce without restrictions, and a right to accumulate wealth regardless of the consequences to society, then we will be unable to clean up the mess that we have made.

Our species has been on this planet for tens of thousands of years, and currently we number about 6.5 billion. For most of that time there were three million or fewer of us. Then we began to increase rapidly from the 16th century, reaching our first billion about 1800. By 1950, the human population went over 2.5 billion and over six billion in 2000. The forecast is for almost nine billion by 2050.

During the same period the number of fish in the sea has dropped, forests have shrunk, there is less clean air and clean water per capita, and now even grain supplies are dropping while demand is increasing. The fact that we have altered the atmosphere and contributed to climatic changes that may be difficult to adapt to is but the tip of the iceberg. And even that may be more than we have the will to deal with.

Reducing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere quite frankly means reducing consumption, it means changing transportation and recreation habits, and it means tightly controlling growth. It will mean increased taxes on fuel and energy to finance alternative sources. Whether this is politically feasible is questionable, and even if it is it is only a band aid on a sucking chest wound.

At the end of the day, if we are to have an equitable and sustainable society, we are going to have to decide what level of consumption individuals in that society should be entitled to, then adjust population to ensure that we can sustain that level.
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24 responses to “Climate change is just a symptom

  1. stevenearlsalmony

    For the very first time in my relatively long life, but too limited experience, I have this idea that we are beginning, just beginning, to meaningfully get hold of a predicament more simple and more complex than any I have ever imagined.

    As for the importance of this endeavor, I cannot find words. My words literally get stuck in the threshold of language itself.

    Thanks to all,

    Steve

  2. Steve,

    That’s an interesting speech from Naomi Klein. It does contain some important insights, such as this:

    “the Bush administration used the dislocation of 9/11 to pursue the very same pre-9/11 radical capitalist project, now with a furious vengeance, under the cover of war and natural disasters”

    I don’t want to discount the value of such observations. But I can’t help but agree with the commenter under the article, Stilba, who says:

    “Not to be a downer, but little of this matters if our planetary life support system is kaput. I can’t even look at this “a better world is possible” stuff any more without thinking about that the whole way through. Sort of like a super-sized version of what Gandhi said about sanitation being more important than independence.”

    In other words, Klein lists some examples of what she sees as concerns or wishes from her perspective on the left:

    “the alternatives that we deserve and long for and that the world needs so desperately, like a healthcare system that doesn’t sicken us when we see it portrayed on film, like the ability to rebuild New Orleans without treating a massive human tragedy like an opportunity for rapid profit-making for politically connected contractors, the right to have bridges that don’t collapse and subways that don’t flood when it rains.”

    Now, I identify far more strongly with the left than the right, so I hesitate to be too critical here, but I think this is an important problem on the left today. Isn’t she a bit preoccupied with the wrong things? Isn’t she ignoring that our most serious problems are ecological rather than political? (Sure, solving them will require political decision making, but she’s not even talking about solving them.) And isn’t she ignoring that we don’t have much time to deal decisively with them?

    I’m not suggesting the issues she cites are not important, just that many on the left are preoccupied with them while seemingly oblivious to an ecological crisis with the real potential to claim unimaginably more lives than any of the standard left/right ideological issues.

    I should emphasize further, that I mostly support the ideas of the left over those on the right. And they need support if we are to solve our ecological dilemma. But that dilemma ought to preoccupy many on the left far more than it does. In fact, I think we should consider that many problems we think are political or idealogical in nature may in fact be ecological at their base.

    So, in a way, I see her speech as in sharp contrast with Jerry’s article. Jerry cuts right to the chase, tackling a major environmental issue, exposing core issues most writers miss. But Naomi, spends a great deal of time on issues which, while directly relevant to social justice and human welfare, will be dwarfed by environmental consequences not far down the road. Here’s what George Monbiot says of just one aspect of the ecological crisis (food shortages seen as possible results of climate change):

    “It is beyond my powers of description to tell you what a world of 9 billion people in net food deficit would look like. It makes all previous human crises … acts of genocide, famines, plagues, look like sideshows at the circus of human suffering.”

    I think Naomi and many others better get thinking about this. Don’t we have a moral imperative to do so?

    I guess this is why I catch hell from folks on both the right and the left. 🙄

  3. Dear John,

    Keep going………………….great work.

    Steve

  4. John wrote:

    I think we should consider that many problems we think are political or idealogical in nature may in fact be ecological at their base.

    JW:

    I would say that problems that might have started out as ideological have made things so bad that merely changing the ideology won’t solve them. Greed and the ideas that growth is only good are ideological and have lead us into the current mess. Changing those ideas are imperative for building a better future, but changing them alone at this point still leaves us overpopulated and thus overtaxing the ecosystem. We need to accept the idea that what is good now is a population and consumption recession along with the other socially progressive ideas that are required to make the world a more equitable place.

  5. Jerry,

    Yes, I certainly agree with that.

    I would only add that there may also be some issues which get framed as ideological out of missing their ecological foundations. This is something I’ve only recently begun thinking about as a result of William Catton’s book, Overshoot.

    He points to things like the notion that the freedoms and progress enjoyed in the US for its first 150 or 200 years were the result of great ideas. He argues that we tend to overlook the contribution of the continent having had a huge surplus of carrying capacity. For instance, we were able to grow for a long while without a lot of competition and conflict (the genocide of the American Indian notwithstanding) because there was just so much land and so many resources that no one needed to compete for them.

    He goes on to point to the “energy crisis” of the early ‘7os and how our politicians tended to blame Middle Eastern countries for “blackmailing” us, when in fact the real culprit was our blind reliance for energy on a nonrenewable resource.

    Well, I don’t put it nearly as well as Catton, but (I hope) that’s the general idea. It has me starting to think about what issues today we might see as political or idealogical in nature when in fact there may be strong ecological underpinnings.

    I don’t want to push it too far, though, because I do strongly agree with your assessment that our greed-fueled economic system has been a major contributor to the mess in which we now find ourselves. Certainly it continues to drive the problem today. Maybe it’s fair to say that at one point such ideologies (unfortunately) thrived due to certain ecological conditions, while now they continue despite changed conditions, and will cause catastrophe soon if we don’t use our abilities, as the most “intelligent” of the great apes, to see where we’ve been and what we’re doing, and to make major changes of the sort you describe.

  6. For your careful consideration: an apparently unforeseen technical solution to the global human overpopulation problem from Jack Alpert .

    …………… I have found a behavior (that if implemented) would be powerful enough to prevent extinction of the human experiment. I have even come to a plan for implementing it. (that reflects the delays of implementation and response of the present global system.

    It follows this line of reasoning.

    1) Maulthus’s argument holds true with important additions.
    a) technology can put an upward slope on carrying capacity,
    (overload can put a downward slope on carrying capacity.)
    b) it’s not total population but total human footprint (population times per capita footprint)
    that is constrained by carrying capacity.
    c) when these two curves come together, starving to death is not as serious a problem as
    loses of well being of a class of individuals who do not die because they live above subsistence.
    d) these losers create what I have called “and ever increasing crisis of conflict.”
    e) This conflict brings down civilizations (turns Londons into Baghdads)
    wasting the wealth of a civilization and the earth to deal with these kinds of crisis
    sends populations back to being camel jockeys or worse.
    f) The next back sliding will not be regional but global. It will not be serial but simultaneous.
    These differences between the crisis we have faced and what we are facing are caused by
    everyone sharing (at least in the next 30 years)
    common resourvors of resources and common sinks for our wastes.

    2) Since these changes in the Malthaus argument now make the collision depend on the product of two variables, population and per capita footprint, (and I accept as a given “ever increasing per-capita footprint,”) the solution space becomes one of varying degrees of human population decline.

    3) Certainly if there are no more children born starting today, then the human population would reduce on average by 63 million a year and in one hundred years humans would be gone from the earth. That would be the end of the human experiment.

    4) we also know that if we capped population (nominally 2 kid per family behaviors) the total human footprint which is already too big would continue growing because of per capita increases.

    5) We would have total human footprint increases even if we put an additional cap on the max footprint of each individual of the 6.3 billion. Just letting the have nots catch up with what ever cap we make, (e.g. the haves of middle america) would require at least 4x increase in total global human footprint.

    6) Now the question is, What number between 0 and 2 will allow per capita foot print to rise and the total human footprint fall enough to avoid
    a) the personal loss of well being that creates the crisis of ever expanding social conflict, and
    b) allow the environment to repair and balance.

    7) I came to an estimate of this number:
    a) rapid population decline, probably at a rate greater than that created by
    universal one child per family behaviors was a minimum requirement to
    ensure the viability of the human experiment. The rate of decline
    would have to be greater if f Ray Kurtzweil’s longevity predictions are correct.
    b) this rate of decline would have to be in place at least for 300 years
    if not longer. Leaving a global population of well under 100 million
    c) All of the economic and social disruptions caused by such rapid population decline
    (aging of pop, changes in family structure, diminishment of the powers of existing groups
    (national, regional, religious, race, sex, ethnicity) are small
    relative to the benefits that accrue to the people in the future.
    (Yes it requires a deep discount of some of the faith based benefits.)

    8) Finally I have formulated a plan to implement universal one child per family behaviors in the next 3-5 years…………

    Comments are invited and sure to be appreciated.

    Always with thanks,

    Steve

  7. I’m in the process of rethinking my position on the genetic underpinnings of human consumption, competition and reproduction. For the last year or so I’ve been of the opinion (informed by the writings of Jay Hanson and Reg Morrison) that humanity’s genetic inheritance was the primary driver of growth, as manifested in these three aspects of human behaviour.

    Recently I’ve been softening my position as a result of being reminded of the existence of potlatch and gift economies, and the widespread evidence of altruism around the world. The widespread existence of altruism-based social institutions has made me realize that more is going on in our civilization than just the bald influence of genetics on behaviour.

    It now appears to me that the feedback between our biological predispositions and our institutions is a critical determinant of human societies. In societies where institutions support the altruistic (oxytocin-driven?) aspects of our biological makeup we find gift economies. In societies where institutions support the competitive (dopamine-driven?) side of our nature, barter or market economies are the rule. In turn, the support of those aspects of our nature receives causes us to strengthen the supporting institutions.

    One of the interesting comments in the Wikipedia article on gift economies is this: “Marshall Sahlins writes that Stone Age gift economies were, by their nature as gift economies, economies of abundance, not scarcity, despite their typical status of objective poverty.” The implication is that our modern market economy, with all its institutions promoting the ethics of growth, competition and zero-sum, is a response to perceived scarcity even in the face of objective abundance. If that is true, then a couple implications spring to mind.

    The first is that as we move into a time of actual scarcity, the social grip of our current economic religion will be strengthened rather than relaxed. Events will “prove” to our power-holders that their perceptions and responses are correct, even axiomatic. That conviction will translate into ever more corporate support for the educating institutions – including schools, think-tanks and media – that promote this worldview. We are likely to see a rapid devolution into authoritarian and repressive regimes that can legitimately be characterized as fascist in the original sense of the term as used by Mussolini – the control of the state by corporations. These corporations and their support systems will fight to the death to preserve the status quo.

    The second implication is that the only real hope humanity has of shaking off the shackles that bind our nature to our institutions is if the institutions themselves disappear. Fortunately for the ecosphere, since they are all predicated on the existence of the growth economy, anything that brings about a disruption of that economy will disrupt their structure at the same time. If, as I expect, the convergence of peak oil, climate change and ecological collapse results in a permanent reversal of global economic growth, such disruptions will be inevitable.

    This, then, is the tarnished silver lining inside the dark cloud of economic collapse and human die-off. We can only regain our balance with nature if global consumption is reduced. Having fewer people would accomplish that, and die-off would guarantee it. We can only hope to establish a truly sustainable civilization on the far side of the bottleneck if the values emblematic of gift economies can find room to flourish. The collapse of the present market and growth economy would provide the needed social room. This collapse is virtually guaranteed in the face of the permanent economic reversals brought on by increasing resource scarcity and declining net energy.

    If we can embed the required values and preserve enough knowledge through the coming involuntary interregnum, humanity will have a chance.

  8. Steve,

    I like Jack’s way of presenting his thoughts. A topic like population is so conducive to faulty assumptions and misinterpretations, I think there’s much to be said for a very clear, sequential approach.

    I would of course love to know the details of his plan to implement his one-child-family idea.

    There is, of course, the issue of the “temporal problem” we’ve discussed here before. (Centuries to bring down human population to sustainable levels, but only decades to somehow adapt to accelerating climate change, oil depletion, etc.) I’d be interested in Jack’s comment on that problem.

    I still fully intend to get in touch with Jack, BTW, as I see great value in what he’s doing. It’s been a busy time, but I’ll email him soon.

    What is the source of what you posted?

  9. Paul,

    Thanks for that look into your evolving thought.

    “It now appears to me that the feedback between our biological predispositions and our institutions is a critical determinant of human societies.”

    Yeah, I think this does have to be a closer approximation of how things work.

    “In societies where institutions support the altruistic (oxytocin-driven?) aspects of our biological makeup we find gift economies. In societies where institutions support the competitive (dopamine-driven?) side of our nature, barter or market economies are the rule.”

    There’s a little more room there for hope or optimism. That’s good; I’m looking for that these days.

    Do you think a heavy push toward, say, relocalization (or something else?) might enable the present economy to collapse in a way that would prevent chaos?

  10. John,

    I haven’t seen anything yet that would give me any hope for reducing the chaos and pain of the collapse. Relocalization may help, uh, locally, but I don’t think it will have much global impact. I still look on relocalization movements etc. as lifeboats and post-collapse seed stock. I’m keeping my eyes peeled for better news, though.

  11. By the way John,

    There’s a new article on the correlation of per capita energy, per capita food and population growth on my web site at http://www.paulchefurka.ca/PopulationFoodEnergy.html

  12. That’s a revealing graph, Paul. The correlation between energy and population would seem to be, in part, accounted for by the link between energy and food. But since the energy-pop correlation is stronger than that for food-pop, there must be something else behind it as well.

    Well, I guess it could be a combination of a number of smaller variables like medicine, sanitation, etc., all connected strongly to energy. Is that your impression as well?

    [update:] Oops, yeah, I guess that’s kind of what you suggest in the latter part of the essay. I should have replied right after reading it rather than waiting a day. It’s age; the memory fails …. 😳

  13. Good points. We are seeing symptoms, but the underlying problem appears to be, to put it simply, too many people being too greedy.

  14. Dear Friends,

    At least for me, a new perspective…………..

    US News and World Report

    In Praise of Mother Nature

    By Bret Schulte

    Posted 7/15/07

    EXCERPTS FOLLOW >>>>

    Science writers generally don’t do whimsy, particularly those who have witnessed the aftermath of Chernobyl or the plundering of Latin America’s resources. But in his provocative new book, The World Without Us, Alan Weisman adds a dash of fiction to his science to address a despairing problem: the planet’s health. Weisman wonders how Earth would fare if people simply disappeared. With help from experts, Weisman discovered that, untended, humanity’s achievements would stand little chance against Mother Nature, even in her weakened state. Sans electric pumps, the New York subway would flood within days. Pretty flowers would quickly crack sidewalks. And the life span of your house? About 50 years. Weisman spoke to U.S. News.

    Environmental books are often depressing reads. Does framing a message around a hypothetical make it more approachable?

    I would say so. I was looking for some way to seduce readers to keep following along so they could see what is going on in the world and how it all connects. Ultimately, once we take humans out of the picture we see how the rest of nature could flourish……………..

    …………………………I wasn’t really expecting to realize the history of architecture is kind of like a bell-shaped curve. Our first dwellings were caves, then we started making caves-houses out of rock-and as we got more refined, our buildings grew higher and less permanent. Engineers tell me that our oldest buildings will outlast the newer ones…because we don’t make them the way we used to, out of material from the Earth. The World Trade Center collapsed and St. Paul’s Chapel, which is made out of Manhattan schist, is still standing. Other buildings around the World Trade Center that did not get hit by the airplanes collapsed anyhow…………………………….

    Is this book a cold splash of water for humanity’s many triumphs?

    In some ways it’s a wake-up call, but at the same time humans have done some beautiful things, things you have to admire. One of the surprises for me is coming away with so much respect for the people who maintain our infrastructure. If it wasn’t for these guys keeping the bridges from rusting, or who keep our subway tunnels pumped, or who show up every day at our nuclear plants, stuff would start to disassemble rapidly. We live on the backs of some unsung heroes who are keeping it all together……………….

    Your book ends on a controversial note.

    I ask: What if we tried one child per family for everyone? I don’t want to deprive people of siblings, but I don’t want to deprive people of species that are wonderful and part of our life. We can’t live without them. If we could bring our numbers down, that would buy us some time to clean up our act.

    -end-

    With thanks to all,

    Steve

  15. Hi Jeremy,

    That sums it up simply but quite accurately. (Too many people being too greedy) = (excessive population size * excessive per capita consumption) (which equals excessive total consumption) 😎

  16. Steve,

    Yes, I’ve been seeing some mentions of that book. (A careful searcher can also turn up an article in New Scientist from, say, 5 months ago, by another author, I think, on the same topic.) But what I hadn’t seen mentioned is his one-child recommendation.

    I had been concerned too about the prospect of the great majority of kids growing up as only children. But a friend made the excellent point that such a policy/custom/whatever could easily coincide with shifts in living styles such that lots of kids might grow up in more multi-family settings, with other kids playing central roles in their lives, much like siblings. That really allayed my concerns about that.

  17. Hi John,

    No one, at least no one in my experience, has thought so deeply about ONE CHILD PER FAMILY as has JACK ALPERT.

    I keep coming back to Jack’s work because it could provide a real way for humanity to move forward that reasonably and sensibly addresses the human population predicament, the primary global problem looming ominously before humanity, the one being ignored and assiduously avoided these days by almost every politician, economist, demographer, and top rank scientist in our planetary home.

    Where is our leadership?

    A 30 to 40 trillion dollar economy has been built on Earth. Where is all that money going? Why is so little wealth devoted to maintaining the health of global ecosystems, wilderness spaces, original wildlife habitats and biodiversity?

    If human economies depend upon the resources of Earth for existence, would common sense not suggest that the planet would be protected as adamantly and relentlessly as the self-proclamined masters of the universe among us are protecting the activities of BIG BUSINESS?

    Everywhere we see the efforts made by today’s leaders to grow big business worldwide. In that process, Earth’s resources are recklessly dissipated and plowed into more of the same unbridled, business-as-usual (and soon to become patently unsustainable) growth activities. When we keep doing what we are now doing, then we will keep getting what we are now getting, will we not?

    And what of this ravaging of the Earth? Is it not now fancifully treated like an eternally providing teat, a cornucopia made available to humankind to meet every human wish and desire?

    Is Earth relatively small, finite and frangible? Are its resources limited? Does Mother Nature function as an endless supplier of goods and services for human benefit?

    What are captains of the economic globalization, their bought-and-paid-for politicians and their minions in the mass media thinking and doing?

    At least in my humble opinion, today’s leaders are directing humanity down a primrose path, one that threatens both life as we know it and the integrity of the world God has blessed us to inhabit ……… and to steward, so I have been told.

    Sincerely,

    Steve

  18. I won’t be here to discuss for 3 weeks, so it may be not the best time to ask questions like these, but I find them pressing:
    Has anyone of you read about “green anarchism” or “anarcho primitivism”? I found by accident these Wikipedia pages (and followed the links) and saw, that most problems have already been discussed at length and conclusions been drawn.

    One particulary link I wanted to share is the site, I put as my website (it is not), especially objection number 5.
    I, too, think that societies will collapse and that therefore 99% of humanity will die. It’s such a horrible outlook for me that I hesistate to prepare myself for it.

    Does anyone of you learn for example how to survive outside, or do you have hope to make a difference, to stop a collapse from happening?

  19. S,

    I have only a partial familiarity with the argument around which the Anthropik Network site revolves. I do think it’s one of the better sources of information on that view.

    I believe there is a legitimate argument to be made in that direction, though it seems to me there is a certain range of views that is within reason. So, while I hope things don’t progress to the point that a return to hunting/gathering becomes necessary or an attractive choice given the alternatives – and at the moment I hold out real hope that they won’t [1] – I don’t dismiss that possibility.

    Clearly, if things progress in a way which makes societal collapse appear increasingly unavoidable, developing outdoor survival skills will be a wise move. And of course they need to go well beyond the kinds of skills most people develop for hiking, camping, or even surviving for a few days if lost. We’re talking about spending a lifetime in the wild.

    One concern I’d have about attempting to live 100% off the land in a place like the US (heh, which by then would not be the US anymore, but…) is that I’ve heard our biodiversity here has declined to the point that this is now very difficult to do. I suppose it varies by area though.

    [1] And that is one reason I direct a lot of my energy to efforts aimed at averting such catastrophe.

  20. MORE FROM NAOMI KLEIN……….

    This time in an Amy Goodman interview of Ms. Klein and Alan Greenspan,

    http://www.alternet.org/story/63480/

  21. EVEN MORE FROM NAOMI KLEIN…………..

  22. In the link that follows, please note that you have already been referred, in a link above, to the WORK OF NAOMI KLEIN.

    Please now consider the equally sound and revealing WORK OF DAVID SUZUKI.

    http://www.youtube.com/profile_videos?user=policyalternatives&p;=r

    If time does not permit the viewing of the entire presentation by David Suzuki and you have not more several minutes to view a single part, let me tentatively say that the part I find most helpful can be found in Part 5 of the six-part series.