Impeding ecological sustainability through selective moral disengagement

Update: As an extra, here is a link to a video in which Dr. Bandura discusses the development and use of serial dramas, originated by Miguel Sabido and used by organizations such as the Population Media Center.

Editor’s note: It is my honor to feature an article by Albert Bandura. Dr. Bandura is one of the most influential psychologists of our time. Long a professor in the psychology department of Stanford University, he conducted landmark studies on social modeling, transforming the behaviorally based social learning theory to one in which cognition played a central role. This challenged the behaviorists’ view that human development was a one way process, dictated solely by reward and punishment deriving from external influences. In time, he developed a “social cognitive theory” of human functioning which emphasizes the reciprocal interaction of behavioral, personal, and environmental factors. I remember well being impressed, in my graduate studies some years ago, by the clarity and incisiveness of Dr. Bandura’s work. For much more information see this website maintained by Emory University psychologist, Frank Pajares.

Bandura has received many awards for his work and is a former president of the American Psychological Association.

Presenting his ideas with precise logic, Bandura continues today to refine and find applications for his theory. The article below is not his first venture into ecological sustainability-related subjects. He has written, for instance (PDF), on the effects on population growth of the kinds of serial dramatizations originated by Miguel Sabido and used by the Population Media Center on whose program advisory board Bandura sits. Such dramatizations, a crucial component of today’s work to address population growth, rest on a foundation of social cognitive theory.

In the article below, Bandura details an array of mechanisms used by those engaged in environmentally destructive practices to avoid the moral self-censure which would otherwise govern their behavior. From considerations of social and moral justification to our uses of euphemistic language to disguise the truth of our actions, it is a remarkably insightful examination of many facets of environmental politics including the games played by climate change and population deniers. Regarding the latter, Bandura writes, “High consumption lifestyles wreaking havoc on the environment and harming other people’s lives is a moral issue of commission. Evasion of the influential role of population growth in environmental degradation is a moral issue of omission.”

“We must make it difficult to disengage moral sanctions from ecologically destructive practices,” writes Bandura. After all, “A sustainable future is not achievable while disregarding the key contributors to ecological degradation – population growth and high consumptive lifestyles.”

This is a long article for a blog posting, but is well worth reading to the end. I suspect most readers here will find themselves increasingly fascinated as they progress through it.

This article appeared originally in the International Journal of Innovation and Sustainable Development (IJISD). It can be found in Volume 2, Issue 1, 2007, published by Inderscience Publishers which retains the copyright. My sincere thanks to Dr. Bandura and Inderscience for permission to reprint it here

Included at the end of the article is Inderscience’s press release which serves as a nice summary of the content. — JF

Albert Bandura
By Albert Bandura:

Abstract: The present paper documents the influential role played by selective moral disengagement for social practices that cause widespread human harm and degrade the environment. Disengagement of moral self-sanctions enables people to pursue detrimental practices freed from the restraint of self-censure. This is achieved by investing ecologically harmful practices with worthy purposes through social, national, and economic justifications; enlisting exonerative comparisons that render the practices righteous; use of sanitising and convoluting language that disguises what is being done; reducing accountability by displacement and diffusion of responsibility; ignoring, minimising, and disputing harmful effects; and dehumanising and blaming the victims and derogating the messengers of ecologically bad news. These psychosocial mechanisms operate at both the individual and social systems levels.

Keywords: consumptive lifestyles; collective efficacy; environmental ethics; moral agency; moral disengagement; population growth; psychosocial change; self-efficacy; token gestures.

Reference to this paper should be made as follows: Bandura, A. (2007) ‘Impeding ecological sustainability through selective moral disengagement’, Int. J. Innovation and Sustainable Development, Vol. 2, No. 1, pp. 8–35.

Biographical notes: Albert Bandura is David Starr Jordan Professor of Social Science in Psychology at Stanford University. He is a proponent of social cognitive theory, which is rooted in an agentic perspective. His landmark book, Social Foundations of Thought and Action: a Social Cognitive Theory, provides the conceptual framework for this theory. In his book, Self-Efficacy: The Exercise of Control, he presents the definitive exposition of the centrality of people’s beliefs in their personal and collective efficacy in exercising some measure of control over their self-development, adaptation and change. He was elected to the presidency of the American Psychological Association and to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences.

1 Introduction

The present paper examines the selective disengagement of moral self-sanctions as an impediment to collective action designed to stabilise and reverse the ecological degradation. Human conduct can be distinguished in terms of whether it falls in the realm of social custom or morality. This distinction is based, in large part, on the gravity of the social consequences of the conduct. Harming others by one’s practices becomes a matter of morality. The harm to the earth is largely the product of human activity. Societies, therefore, have a moral obligation to preserve the environment so that future generations have a habitable planet.

We are witnessing hazardous global changes of mounting ecological consequence. They include widespread deforestation, expanding desertification, rising earth’s temperature, ice sheet and glacial melting, flooding of low-lying coastal regions, severe weather events, topsoil erosion and sinking water tables in the major food-producing regions, increasing loss of fertile farmland, depletion of fish stocks, loss of biodiversity, and degradation of other aspects of the earth’s life support systems. As the unrivalled ruling species atop the food chain, humans are wiping out species and the ecosystems that support life at an accelerating pace (Wilson, 2006).

Environmental degradation of human origin stems from three major sources: population size, the level of consumption; and the damage to the ecosystem caused by the technologies used to supply the consumable products and to support a given lifestyle (Ehrlich et al., 1995). A comprehensive approach to environmental sustainability must address all three resources of impact on ecological systems and quality of life. There are limits to the number of people the earth can support sustainably. The world’s population was 3 billion in 1950, more than doubled to 6.5 billion in the next 50 years, and is increasing by about a billion every 15 years toward a rise of over 9 billion in the year 2050. Adding billions of consumers will take a heavy toll on the earth’s finite resources and ecological system. The diverse forms of environmental degradation suggest that we have already exceeded the size of the human population the earth can sustain. Clean, green technologies, renewable sources of energy, and adoption of less consumptive lifestyles will help. But adding billions more consumers will offset the benefits of these other remedies. Lifestyle changes must, therefore, be coupled with reduction of population growth.

2 Mechanisms of moral disengagement

In the development of moral agency, individuals construct standards of right and wrong that serve as guides and deterrents for harmful practices. They do things that give them satisfaction and a sense of self-worth, and refrain from behaving in ways that violate their moral standard because such conduct will bring self-condemnation. It is through the ongoing exercise of evaluative self-sanctions that moral conduct is motivated and regulated. Adoption of moral standards is only half of the story and, in many respects, the less challenging half. Moral standards do not create an immutable internal moral control system. The self-regulatory mechanisms governing moral conduct do not operate unless they are activated and there are many psychosocial manoeuvres by which moral self-sanctions can be selectively disengaged from harmful practices (Bandura, 1999). Indeed, large-scale inhumanities are often perpetrated by people who can be considerate and compassionate in other areas of their lives. They act in the name of religious, political, social, and economic doctrines (Bandura, 2004; Reich, 1990; Zimbardo, 2007). Moreover, people can be ruthless and humane simultaneously toward different individuals depending on whom they exclude from their category of humanity.

There are a variety of conditions, some of which are documented by Wenk (1979), that foster a foreshortened perspective when it comes to environmental practices. Bountiful immediate rewards of consumptive lifestyles can easily override distant adverse effects, especially if slowly cumulative. Many of those effects are often unanticipated and, to make matters worse, some are irreversible. The incentive systems of business organisations are strongly oriented toward practices that bring profits in the short term. Intense competition for natural resources and a good share of the market in the global marketplace create further pressure to do whatever is needed to succeed. To ensure their political survival, politicians cater to parochial interests and lobby for local projects that are not always environmentally friendly. The media tend to focus on crises of the day rather than on policy initiatives designed to avert future trouble. A foreshortened perspective in a disastrous course calls to mind Collins’ (2007) apocryphal story of the person who jumps off the Empire State Building. As he passes the 68th floor he thinks to himself, ‘So far, so good’.

People often find themselves in moral predicaments when they pursue activities that serve their self-interests but violate their moral standards by inflicting human and environmental harm. All too often, moral considerations yield to strong social forces favouring environmentally detrimental activities. People can rid themselves of the moral problem, however, by selectively disengaging their moral self-sanctions from detrimental social policies and practices. This enables them to engage in the detrimental activities with freedom from the restraint of self-censure.

Figure 1 presents a schematisation of moral exclusion, the eight psychosocial mechanisms by which moral sanctions can be disengaged from detrimental practices, and the particular points in the process where they undermine and neutralise moral control. In three of the mechanisms, that operate at the behaviour locus, people transform harmful practices into worthy ones through social and moral justification, exonerative social comparison, and sanitising language. This is the most effective set of disengagement practices. Investing harmful activities with worthy purposes not only eliminates self-censure, but engages self-approval in the service of the detrimental environmental activities. Functionaries work hard to become proficient in the activities and take pride in their accomplishments.

Figure 1

Psychosocial mechanisms through which moral self-sanctions are selectively disengaged from detrimental practices at different points in the exercise of moral agency

Figure 1

Source: Bandura (1986)

In two of the mechanisms operating at the agency locus, people are absolved of a sense of personal accountability for harmful practices by displacement and diffusion of responsibility. At the outcome locus, the harmful effects of the practices are disregarded, minimised, or disputed. In the two remaining mechanisms operating at the recipient locus, the victims who bear the brunt of worsening ecological conditions are marginalised and depersonalised and blamed for their plight. The messengers of harmful effects and those working toward ecological sustainability also are derogated and discredited. The sections that follow analyse in some detail how each of these eight mechanisms of moral disengagement are enlisted in the service of unsustainable environmental practices. These various mechanisms usually operate in concert rather than isolatedly at both the individual and social systems level.

There is no disembodied group mind doing the moral disengaging. Rather it is people acting together on shared beliefs. However, moral disengagement at the social systems level is not simply the aggregation of the moral beliefs of individual members. It is an emergent group phenomenon arising from the interactive, coordinative, and synergistic dynamics both within and between social systems. Collective moral disengagement requires a network of participants vindicating harmful practices that take a heavy toll on the environment and the quality of human life (Bandura, 1999). Groups, of course, operate through the behaviour of its members.

The exercise of moral agency is part of the broader social cognitive theory (Bandura, 1986, 2006a). In this transactional view of self and society, psychosocial functioning is the product of a dynamic interplay between intrapersonal influences, in the form of cognitive, affective and biological determinants; the behavioural practices engaged in; and environmental influences Personal agency operates within a broad network of sociostructural influences. These social systems are devised to organise, guide, and regulate human affairs (Giddens, 1984). Social systems do not arise by immaculate conception. Social cognitive theory rejects a duality of human agency and a social structure as a reified entity disembodied from individuals. Social systems are the product of human activity. The rules and practices of social systems, in turn, influence human development and functioning.

Consider, by way of example, the enormous environmental resources, human investment, and industrial production activities it takes to grow, manufacture, transport, and market tobacco products that take the lives of over 400,000 people annually in the USA. Moreover, tobacco products account for a sizable share of the soaring health costs in societies requiring a lot of economic activity to fund. High smoking rates worldwide will usher in a global cancer epidemic. Promotion of this deadly product depends heavily on a vast network of otherwise considerate people engaged in a bewildering array of occupational pursuits. It includes: Agriculturalists defending their livelihood. Tobacco executives disputing that nicotine is addictive and that smoking is a major contributor to lung cancer. Chemists discovering ammonia as a means to increase the nicotine ‘kick’ by speeding the body’s absorption of nicotine. Biotech researchers genetically engineering a tobacco seed that doubles the addictive nicotine content of tobacco plants. Movie actors agreeing to smoke in their movies for a hefty fee. Funded scientists disputing evidence of harmful effects, and even historians sanitising the history of the tobacco industry. Advertisers targeting youth with merchandising and advertising schemes depicting smoking as a sign of youthful hipness, modernity, freedom and women’s liberation. Investors and shareholders seeking profits from this deadly product: Lawyers fending off liability suits against the tobacco industry. Legislators with bountiful campaign contributions not only exempting nicotine from the drug legislation even though it is the most addictive substance, but passing pre-emption laws that block States from regulating tobacco products and their advertising. Department of Agriculture essentially banning low-nicotine tobacco by making farmers ineligible for government price supports if they grow low-nicotine varieties. President Carter firing his head of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare for refusing to back off on the regulation of tobacco products. Trade representatives threatening sanctions against countries that erect barriers against the importation of US cigarettes. Tobacco companies dumping huge quantities of cigarettes in the tiny Caribbean island, Aruba, that serves as the distribution point for drug lords who launder their narcotics money through control of cigarette sales in Latin
America. US Government opposing a worldwide ban on cigarette advertising and sponsorship of entertainment and sports events even with exemptions for countries with constitutional protection of such activities. This is a remarkably vast array of environmental resources and talents recruited in the service of a deadly product that sickens and kills people when used as intended. It is an extraordinary feat of moral sanitisation of a highly destructive product.

Analysis of the internal documents of the tobacco industry testifies to the extensive use of the various mechanisms of moral disengagement (White et al., 2007). By these exonerative means, employees of the tobacco industry see themselves as victimised defenders of human rights, fighting off zealous health posses, bent on depriving people of the pleasures of smoking. As shown in this example, moral disengagement is not just a matter of intrapsychic machinations operating at a subterranean level. It is rooted in a lot of social machinations by a huge cast of moral disengagers pursuing their livelihood in a diverse array of social systems. By diffusing responsibility through subdivision of the tobacco business, the contributors see themselves as decent legitimate practitioners of their trade rather than as parties to a deadly operation.

3 Social and moral justification

Social and moral justifications sanctify harmful practices by investing them with worthy purposes. This enables people to preserve a sense of self-worth while causing harm by their activities. The justifications take a variety of forms. They may include economic advantages in the competitive global marketplace, societal benefits, strengthening national security, protecting the free enterprise system, and curbing intrusive government. National, constitutional and economic justifications also do heavy duty in promoting products and industrial production processes that are hazardous to the environment and human health (White et al., 2007). Their depicted wondrous benefits are usually accompanied by dire warnings of costs to human well-being were the products to be withdrawn or subjected to governmental regulation.

Unlike the other mechanisms of moral disengagement, which serve mainly to free harmful practices from moral consequences, social and moral justifications serve a dual function. Sanctifying detrimental practices as serving worthy purposes enlists moral engagement in the activity. Belief in the worthiness of an enterprise not only eliminates self-censure from its harmful aspects, but engages self-approval and brings social recognition and economic rewards for being successful at it.

In conservative environmentalism, as Lakoff (2002) succinctly describes it, human domination over nature is the natural order. Nature is a resource that can be owned and used by the owners in pursuit of personal interests and how they choose to live their lives. Viewed from this environmental ethic, transactions concerning natural resources should be governed by free-market principles without governmental intrusion. Regulators are seen as meddlesome bureaucrats masquerading under the guise of protecting the public against harmful products and practices. They are charged with hassling innovative, hard-working people who have achieved their success through self-reliant dedication. In the words of Gingrich (1995), a leading conservative spokesman, “To get the best ecosystem for our buck, we should use decentralised and entrepreneurial strategies, rather than command-and-control bureaucratic effort”. The products of unfettered pursuit of self-interested activities within legal bounds, are said to contribute to the welfare of others. In this business ethic, the intrusion of broader social considerations in the market process is viewed as a ‘taxation’ that hampers productivity and profitability (Friedman, 1993).

Under market-driven incentives, technological ingenuity will supposedly provide solutions for environmental problems. As noted earlier, the human ecological impact is a product of per capita resource consumption and population size. Faith in technological remedies faces the inhospitable reality that we do not have much time left to change our ways. With the rising earth’s temperature unleashing uncontrollable heating processes that feed on each other, our irreversible ecological damage may take us to the point of no return before technology could save us. Without curbing population growth and lifestyle changes to stabilise and reduce the ecological damage already caused, adaptation to progressively aversive life conditions is likely to become the order of the day. It is easier to safeguard political careers and enlist public support for protective adaptation to environmental threats than for mitigation of threats requiring changes in lifestyle practices that degrade the environment.

An alternative form of environmentalism, grounded in a contrasting ecological ethos, views human well-being as inextricably linked to the health of the ecological systems. Natural resources must, therefore, be used in a sustainable way to preserve a habitable planet for future generations. These diverse conceptions of nature also differ markedly in the importance of preserving biodiversity. In the latter environmental ethic, diversity of species is essential for sustaining the ecological supports of life. Because of the intricate interdependence of the ecosystems, humans need the other species. The conservative environmental ethic favours a more anthropocentric view that humans are an exclusive species on this planet and many of the so-called lowly species are of little or no consequence in the large scheme of things.

The notion of nature as an economic commodity is in no way confined to a conservative ethic, however. It comes in all types of ideological stripes. As the locus of influences goes increasingly mega-corporate and transnational, nature is widely viewed in terms of market value rather than its inherent value in the local milieus. Even some of the most basic necessities of life are now being treated as commodities priced in terms of supply and demand. For example, the growing scarcity of fresh water is a looming crisis, especially in developing countries with teeming populations, limited water resources, and inadequate delivery systems. Sinking water tables, receding glaciers that feed rivers, and heavy pollution of rivers that render the water undrinkable and hazardous to health foreshadow dwindling water supplies. Faced with a large populace and lacking the infrastructures to deliver fresh water, some developing countries are outsourcing this function to outsiders who are there to make a profit on their investment (Mann, 2007). The poor may be priced out of a vital ‘commodity’ they cannot forgo.

In times past, people were highly dependent on their immediate habitat for their livelihood. It was, therefore, in their self-interest to conserve their environment. These efforts were often backed up with normative and ethical sanctions. In contemporary societies, most of the peoples of the world live under congested urbanised conditions where they are harmonising more with their constructed concrete environment than with their natural environment. They are fed, clothed, provided with water supplies, countless labour-saving devices, and the energy needed to power a high-tech lifestyle. The necessities of life are produced by faceless workers in far off places. As long as consumers’ daily needs are met, they have little incentive to examine the humaneness of the working conditions, the level of pollution by the production processes, and the costs exacted on the environment to produce, ship, and market the profusion of goods and dispose the wastes. Under these modernised conditions, lifestyle practices are disconnected in time and place from the very ecological systems that provide the basis for them. Environmental conservation becomes an abstraction rather than an experienced necessity. Ecological destructions by high consumptive lifestyles makes this type of consumerism an ethical issue. There is much to be said for a less congested and polluted planet with an inclusive sustainable way of living in harmony with the environment.

Pursuit of unfettered self-interest and affluent lifestyles was of lesser concern when there were fewer people, consuming less luxuriantly, and only a limited number of countries enjoyed privileged control over bountiful resources in their own milieu, through territorial expansion, or exploitive extraction from weak countries. Their low-level technologies could not do much ecological harm. Any detrimental environmental effects were, for the most part, locally situated. It is a different story in the current era with teeming populations seeking a life beyond mere subsistence level. A host of developing countries with the means to adopt high consuming standards of living are now competing vigorously for declining natural resources, and wielding powerful technologies of global ecological impact that affect everyone in one way or another.

Consider an example of environmental devastation of potentially major global consequence. The earth has two sizable ‘lungs’ that absorb a goodly amount of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. They include the Amazon rainforest and the dipterocarp forest in Indonesia. Given the billions of tons of heat-trapping gases that humans discharge into the air, they can ill-afford to destroy these vital restorative resources. Nevertheless, they are being treated as a resource to be used in ways that are destroying them.

The Amazon rainforest is being clear cut and burned at a fast pace to create farmland. This valuable ecological resource is being converted from a carbon absorber to a carbon emitter. International environmental groups have made efforts to save the rainforest by funding the creation of protected natural reserves. These conservation projects have aroused vigorous opposition by powerful business and political groups (Rohter, 2007). Business interests want to open up the rainforest to mining, logging, and agricultural projects supported by a network of highways, dams, and ports. Political extremists branded the conservation effort as a new form of colonialism organised by a ‘Green Mafia’. In the fight for public opinion, they claim that the environmental problem is a pretext for a foreign plot to seize the Amazon with military designs in the region. A major share of the general public, having been convinced that the environmental initiative by outsiders is a threat to their sovereignty, side with the opposition forces. In this inhospitable political climate, the market approach of payment for halting deforestation and reducing carbon emissions is regarded as suspect.

China has signed a multi-billion dollar deal with the Indonesian government to clearcut over four million acres of its forest for lumber and to replace it with plantations for palm oil used in cooking, detergents, soaps, and lipstick (Perlez, 2006). A clan elder explained that his people love their trees but the logging will bring jobs and modernise their life. As he put it succinctly, ‘Wood is gold’. Vast areas of mangrove forests in this region have already been converted to cropland as well as urban and commercial uses.

These vital earth’s lungs are falling victim to the ethic of nature as property for human exploitation. The massive deforestation will further fuel the earth’s temperature rise. Waiting until the effects of massive deforestation become locally aversive before taking action will most likely launch a vicious feedback cycle of progressive ecological degradation that is irreversible.

Some of the social and moral justifications are aimed at dispelling concern over the population growth problem. As shown in Figure 2, population growth is soaring globally. Developed nations are stabilising their population, but developing ones, where most of the growth is occurring, are rapidly doubling their populations. A large share of the population in these countries is under 20 years of age, entering the reproductive years. Many of these countries have quadrupled their populations since 1950.

Figure 2

Population growth in developed and less developed countries

Figure 2

Source: Population Reference Bureau (1998 )

Droughts produced by climate change have fuelled fights over scarce water and arable land in heavily populated Sub-Saharan Africa. Under these pressures, the fragile environment is becoming increasingly uninhabitable for millions of people. Masses of displaced refugees in squalid camps fighting for basic necessities of life is but a small preview of things to come. Even with the present population, millions of people are living in hovels in mega-cities. They are struggling to survive with scarcities of food, fresh water, basic sanitation, medical services, and other necessities of life. Almost half of the earth’s population is living in severe poverty on less than $2 a day (Madrick, 2003). Swelling populations are creating a humanitarian crisis.

The fertility rates in developed countries are slightly below the replacement level at 2.1 children per woman. Fearing a declining population will stifle economic and consumption growth, some of these countries have launched campaigns with generous incentives to get women to produce more babies. These incentives include cash payments for each childbirth, lengthy maternity leaves, good childcare, compensation for lost wages, more flexible work arraignments, and even pension supplements.

A few of the European countries have witnessed a recent slight rise in birthrate. The German minister of Family Affairs reports that the baby boomlet has “filled me with delight” (Stinson, 2007). The basis for her joy is puzzling to say the least. It takes many years, continuing familial costs and hard work, and extensive societal resources to grow babies into adult workers. Not all of them turn out well. To achieve continual economic growth, industries need workers now not 20 years hence. So they have to import them rather than wait for the homegrown ones to mature. Production of goods can be outsourced to places providing cheap labour. However, countries seek the educated and skilled from abroad and use migrants from disadvantaged countries to provide cheap labour for menial jobs that their homegrown ones would not do.

In some countries, the pressure on women to boost their childbearing include punitive threats as well (McAvory, 2003). The former prime minister of Japan, Yoshiro Mori, suggested that women who bore no children should be barred from receiving pensions,

“It is truly strange to say we have to use tax money to take care of women who don’t even give birth once, who grow old living their lives selfishly and singing the praises of freedom.”

In this campaign for more babies, childbearing is reduced to a means for economic growth. A Japanese politician expressed this instrumental view in stark dehumanising terms when he characterised women as disobedient “baby-making machines” (Pollitt, 2007). Cannon (2007), editor of the Deseret Morning News, reminds his readers that God commanded humankind to “multiply and replenish the Earth”. In Cannon’s view, it is not only ‘selfishness’ but reverence of ‘self actualisation’ and ‘secularism’ that are to blame for the impending ‘empty cradle’. Emancipation from the pressures of market demands to produce young workers is the new challenge to the protection of women’s reproductive rights, which is part of the larger issue of human rights.

Social, economic, political, and religious justifications are offered for the seemingly paradoxical practice of raising birthrates in the midst of an escalating global population that already exceeds the planet’s carrying capacity. The proponents for a more prolific fertility argue that an expanded young workforce is needed to support an aging population. This remedy may provide some short-term benefits but at the cost of worsening the environmental problem in the long-term. Enlarging a young cohort creates a new wave of population growth that, in turn, requires an even larger growth in population to support them in their old age. Population promoters do not explain how societies should fund the growing pension and health costs incurred by the progressively expanding populations when they age. Adding more people will increase a workforce but is troublesome in the long-term for society that has to care for them through old age. The societal problem is compounded because the free-market fundamentalists, who want women to bear more babies, fight against taxes to cover the costs of raising them, and caring for them when they become elderly, on the grounds that taxes are bad for business. Producing more babies to fund pensions and elder care many years later is an ill-conceived and highly costly remedy.

Developed countries with a lowered birthrate also justify enlargement of their population to forestall a prophesied troubled future of societies in decline. Howe and Jackson (2007) foresee dire consequences for countries with a falling birthrate – economic stagnation, huge fiscal deficits, slashed budgets for national development, a demoralised populace, and loss of geopolitical power. The ‘cornucopians’ view the planet as providing bountiful natural resources that permit virtually limitless growth (Simon, 1981). Increasing numbers of workers and consumers are needed to fuel continual economic growth. Moreover, growing populations require expanding industrial activity to provide employment for them. Failure to do so spells social trouble.

The ethics of extravagant and wasteful consumerism, rooted in a market-driven model, also warrants comment. This type of lifestyle degrades ecological systems with massive extinction of species. It is promoted by striving for perpetual economic growth with exemption from the environmental costs. Booming economic activities and hard-driving competitiveness raise value issues concerning the purposes to which human talent, advanced technologies, and resources are put. Much of the intense market activities promote lavish consumption that neither uses our finite resources wisely nor leads to a better quality of life. Many of these practices may be profitable in the short run but, as previously noted, they are unsustainable in the long-term. This becomes an issue of growing importance as powerful market forces from abroad shape local economic activities that have significant impact on the ecological systems and natural resources on which those activities depend. Such practices are likely to take a heavier toll on the environment if the transnational forces operate on an ethic of unbridled economic self-interest aimed at maximising profits with little regard for the ecological costs they incur.

4 Exonerative comparison

How lifestyle and industrial practices are viewed is coloured by what they are compared against. By exploiting the contrast principle, detrimental practices can be made righteous. If used skillfully, framing the issue by advantageous comparison can not only make the lesser of two evils socially acceptable, but even morally right. The disputes over the Kyoto Protocol illustrate how, through exonerative comparison, both sides of the controversy feel righteous about their high output of greenhouse gases.

Developed countries were required to cut their national emission of heat trapping gases depending on their per capita output. But developing countries were exempted because they were minor contributors to the global climate problem. The USA and Australia rejected the Protocol on the grounds that it would hamstring their economies and place their nations at a competitive disadvantage in the global marketplace. It was further argued that the Protocol was unfair because large developing countries, like China and India, are surging ahead as competitive economic powers free of any limits. With their booming economies raising consumption levels in huge populations they will be major contributors to greenhouse gases.

Developing countries rejected caps on their countries’ greenhouse gas emissions on the grounds that global warming is a problem the rich industrialised countries created so they should be the ones to cut their emissions. They asked why should countries striving to modernise stifle their economic and industrial growth for a problem they did not create? Viewed from their perspective, they argued that they have the same right to modernise their society and raise the standard of living for their people as did the rich industrialised countries. They, too, want to live prosperously. This usually involves modelling the ‘good life’ of Western consumerism.

To lessen concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere requires substantial reductions in emissions in the immediate future. This calls for absolute reduction of emissions not just slowing the growth rate. Through comparative exoneration, the contending parties freed themselves of restraint over their polluting practices.

5 Euphemistic language

Language shapes perceptions and thought processes on which actions are based. Activities can, therefore, take on quite different appearances depending on what they are called. Moral self-sanctions can be reduced by cloaking harmful activities in sanitised, convoluted and innocuous language. Doublespeak renders them benign and socially acceptable (Lutz, 1996). For example, the acid rain that is killing lakes and forests is disguised as “transit particle deposition from an unidentifiable source” (Quarterly Review of Doublespeak, 1988). The convoluted form of Doublespeak disguises by piling on inflated words that do not add meaning (Lutz, 1987). In his book, Telling It Like It Isn’t, Rothwell (1982) characterises the sanitising form of euphemisms as ‘linguistic novocain’ that numbs us to unpleasant and harmful realities; and the convoluted form as ‘semantic fog’ that obscures and conceals detrimental practices.

The US Environmental Protection Agency sanitised its lexicon to neutralise public perception of environmental hazards (Herald, 1981). In this linguistic cleansing operation a senior official at the agency banished the word ‘hazard’ because it is “a trigger word that excites the American public needlessly”. An EPA press aide further explained that “Health hazards aren’t going to be mentioned”. The justification for keeping people uninformed about carcinogens and other toxic chemicals in their environment was to spare them unnecessary uneasiness. The linguistic detoxification was extended to titles of the agency’s offices as well. The Office of Hazardous Emergency Response was renamed the “Office of Emergency and Remedial Action”. Even the regulatory personnel were sanitised. The ‘enforcement personnel’ were renamed ‘compliance assistance officers’ in the likeness of helpmates rather than enforcers of environmental laws.

In President George W. Bush’s linguistic ecological camouflaging (Salant, 2003), distant vision of the hydrogen ‘Freedom Car’ powered by ‘Freedom Fuel’ served to deflect the public’s attention from the need to reduce carbon emissions by increasing auto fuel efficiency in the here and now. The decision to revise the Clean Air Act that spared the power industry from upgrading their plants to reduce the level of polluting emissions was called ‘Clear Skies’. An initiative that favoured the timber industry with liberal logging privileges in national forests was dubbed ‘Healthy Forests’.

The nuclear power industry devised a unique lexicon for sanitising nuclear mishaps. An explosion is an ‘energetic disassembly’; a fire is ‘rapid oxidation’; a reactor accident is a ‘normal aberration’ or a ‘plant transferent’; and plutonium contamination is ‘infiltration’ or “plutonium has taken up residence” (NCTE Doublespeak Award, 2006). What to do with radioactive waste from nuclear power plants is a daunting challenge. The Nuclear Regulatory Agency solved a good part of it linguistically by redefining what is radioactive waste material (Lutz, 1996). About a third of it was classified as BRC, ‘Below Regulatory Concerns’. This allowed the nuclear power industry to dispose of it any way they wish. A uranium processing plant was called “Feed Materials Processing Center”, suggestive of an animal feed processing plant. Its radioactive waste contaminated the ground water.

Linguistic camouflaging of the detrimental effects of social policies and practices is a flourishing morally neutralising strategy (Bolinger, 1980; Lakoff, 2002; Lutz, 1987; Rothwell, 1982). Sanitising language is not just a word game, however. It shapes people’s perception of reality and increases their willingness to engage in detrimental activities (Bandura, 1999).

There is much loose talk, as well documented by Bartlett (1994), about ‘sustainable development’. He questions whether the term is oxymoronic in that one cannot have eternal economic growth without increased consumption of non-renewable resources. The linguistic remedy eliminates the conflict between growth and sustainability in resources that get depleted. All too often, the term ‘sustainable’ is appended to development as a camouflage in promoting ever-rising consumptive growth. This style of living cannot be continued indefinitely, especially with unsustainable population growth.

Advocates for environmental preservation sometimes manage to undermine their mission with languid metaphors. Rather than portraying the harmful effects of human practices in vivid, concrete terms they are characterised as leaving an ‘ecological footprint’. We are beginning to witness footprint creep. We now have a ‘carbon footprint’, ‘decision footprint’, Global Footprints Network and ‘consumption footprint’. The footprint has invaded other ecological domains as well. We now have a ‘water footprint’. There may be more types of footprints in the offing. Deforestation does not leave a static trace. The altered ecology becomes an active carbon emitter. When carbon dioxide is deposited in the atmosphere it remains there for ages as an active agent trapping heat. The public is energised to collective action by aversive life conditions and forethought of worsening crises, not by visions of a metaphoric footprint. The term ‘global warming’ conveys the image of a mildly pleasant condition. It may be warming in the northern regions of the planet, but parching in regions near the equator.

6 Displacement and diffusion of responsibility

Moral control operates most strongly when people acknowledge that they are contributors to harmful outcomes. They are spared self-disapproving reactions by shifting the responsibility to others or to situational circumstances. This absolves them of personal responsibility for the harm they are causing. The exercise of moral control is also weakened when personal agency is obscured by diffusing responsibility for detrimental behaviour. This is achieved by division of labour in which the subdivided activities seem harmless in themselves. Group decision making is another common practice for reducing a sense of personal accountability. Collective action, which makes one’s contribution seem trivial, is yet another form of self-exoneration for aggregate harmful effects. Global effects are the cumulative products of local actions. The adage, ‘Think globally, act locally’ is an effort to restore a sense of personal accountability for the environmental harm produced collectively.

Displacement and diffusion of responsibility are not just cognitive machinations. They are built into the very structure of social systems to obscure personal accountability. Insulating structural arrangements are created that provide authorities with protection from social criticism and spares them loss of self-respect for authorising harmful practices. After all, they have to live with themselves. In surreptitious sanctioning systems, authorises remain intentionally uninformed and create schemes of deniability that leave them blameless. Most enterprises require the services of many people, each performing subdivided jobs that seem harmless in themselves. After activities become routinised as detached subfunctions, people shift their attention from the morality of what they are doing to the operational details and efficiency of their specific job (Kelman and Hamilton, 1989).

Displacement of responsibility is often enlisted in industrial disasters. Corporate vindication is achieved by shifting the blame. For example, the world’s worst industrial disaster occurred in Bhopal, India where 40 tons of methyl isocyanate gas escaped from the Union Carbide pesticide production plant. Thousands of people were killed, seriously injured, or partially disabled and nearly 200,000 were severely affected in other ways (Weir, 1987). The US parent company displaced responsibility by blaming the Indian government for its failure to regulate the plant and for allowing people to live nearby (Bandura et al., 2002). Some of the worst affected communities existed before the factory opened in the middle of Bhopal near the train station for convenient shipping. Union Carbide also blamed the explosion on sabotage, an assertion rejected by environmental groups.

Critics of conservationists blame global warming on natural cyclic changes in climate. Making the planet the doer absolves consumptive lifestyles and population growth of any responsibility for the earth’s rising temperatures. As will be shown later, exoneration of the human connection is at odds with a mounting body of scientific evidence documenting a human contribution. Disappearing forests by clear cutting, pollution of water supplies by discharges of industrial and agricultural wastes and raw sewage, depletion of fish stocks by over fishing with vast nets, and alarming extinctions of species through destruction of their habitats are but a few examples of environmental degradation that abound. These effects are plain to see, are quantifiable, and unquestionably of human doing.

It is in the climate change arena where the vigorous battles are now being fought. This is because the stakes are very high, everyone is a contributor to it, and it affects everyone in one way of another. Judging severity of the global threat for collective action requires prediction from scientific knowledge, which always contains some uncertainties, making it ripe for challenges. Moreover, there is urgency for corrective measures given the limited time before the temperature rise may become irreversible. At that point, there is no turning back.

Naysayers argue that climate changes simply reflect the natural historical cycle of frigid and scorching climates. We just happen to be in a hot phase. Viewed from this perspective, there is nothing to get morally excited about. However, the vast body of scientific evidence, analysed by the world’s leading climate experts (IPCC, 2007), shows that humans are driving up the earth’s temperature over and above natural cyclical changes. There is no longer any serious scientific dispute over this verdict. Moreover, the expert analysts report that the earth’s temperature will rise faster and be more devastating than previously predicted. The global ecological problem is too serious and the time for corrective action is too short to continue to play the skeptic game.

At the global level, the earth’s temperature rise is linked to the number of people (Meyerson, 1998). However, in some quarters and media accounts, which thrive on controversy, the emerging alarm over the rise in heat-trapping emissions is peculiarly disembodied from the growing multitude of consumers as a problem requiring attention. More people consuming more resources, produce more environmental damage, and generate more greenhouse gas emissions. This relation underscores the influential role played by population growth in climate change.

Another commonly used displacement strategy is to disguise responsibility for subverting public policies designed to protect the environment. This is achieved be creating front organisations that masquerade under benevolent names and conceal their real purpose (Lutz, 1996). Industry financed ‘scientific skeptics’ add further credibility to the deceptive schemes (Gelbspan, 1997). The scenario typically portrays a concerned citizenry fighting Big Government with its voracious appetite for laws and regulations that work against the public interest. If front organisations are cloaked in a seemingly grass-roots campaign, they gain an even greater sense of independence and credibility.

Lutz (1996) provides a rich catalogue of creative masquerading of lobbying efforts to shape laws and weaken regulations in ways that work against protection of the environment. Timber industries fight restrictions on cutting forests under the cloak of the ‘Forest Protection Association’. Corporations masquerade under “Citizens for Sensible Control of Acid Rain” to defeat bills to curb acid rain. Utility companies and other organisations created the “Endangered Species Reform Coalition” to eviscerate the endangered species law. A host of polluters joined forces under the benevolently labelled “Clean Air Working Group” to gut the Clean Air Act. Real estate and gas and oil companies formed the seemingly environmentally-friendly organisation, ‘National Wetlands Coalition’, to open up the wetlands for commercial development. The fishing industry cloaked themselves in the ‘Sea Lion Defense Fund’, not to save the endangered sea lions, but to remove limits on fishing the sea lion’s favourite foods.

7 Disregarding, minimising, and disputing detrimental effect

When people pursue activities that serve their interests but produce detrimental effects they avoid facing the harm they cause, or they minimise it. If minimisation does not work, the scientific evidence of harm can be discredited. In this way doubt and controversy is created despite substantial evidence to the contrary. As long as the harmful results of one’s conduct are ignored, minimised, or the evidence is discredited, there is little reason for self-censure to be activated, or any need to change behavioural practices.

Causality is difficult to gauge when the outcomes of behavioural practices are slowly cumulative and widely separated in time. Moreover, outcomes are the product of multiple determinates operating in concert. Codetermination provides fertile ground for disputes about the true causes of detrimental outcomes. Demanding complete scientific certitude serves as a handy justification for inaction. Evasion only makes the challenge more difficult. To further complicate assessment of effects, minor changes can set in motion cyclic processes that feed on each other in ways that eventually result in large-scale changes. For example, global warming thaws vast arctic regions of permafrost releasing methane and carbon dioxide trapped in the frozen soil for thousands of years (Walter et al., 2006). Methane is more powerful than carbon dioxide in trapping heat in the atmosphere. The trapped heat thaws more permafrost which, in turn, further raises the earth’s temperature in a vicious positive feedback cycle. The rate of methane release is much faster than expected, and the amount of carbon dioxide released vastly exceeded the amount emitted annually by burning fossil fuels. These are massive unforeseen effects on the world’s atmosphere. Gambling with environmental interventions with little forethought of their consequences and disputing their human origin when they occur, is a highly risky business.

Sound theoretical knowledge on how human lifestyle practices affect the interdependent ecological systems, and reliable proximal markers of long-range outcomes aid risk assessment. The ability to extrapolate future outcomes of different courses of action based on established knowledge enables people to take corrective action to avert possible disastrous futures. The prospective focus is especially critical in environmental protection because some of the detrimental changes that human practices unleash may turn out to be irreversible.

Beck (2007) has categorised the various stages of denial of adverse climate affects. The first stage is outright denial or treating it as nothing new. It also happened centuries ago so its just part of a natural change. Global climate change must be evaluated in terms of trends. Naysayers select a specific time or place that may provide contradictory evidence to challenge the predictions. The next stage of negation acknowledges that the earth may be warming but we do not know why it is happening and, besides, predictions of what’s to come are unreliable. The prediction models are alleged to be faulty, global systems are herently chaotic so they are unpredictable, and scientific consensus is really collusion. Moreover, critics claim there is no proof that CO2 causes global warming. It is water vapour or the sun that is doing it.

In the next stage, one acknowledges a climate change but can still neutralise any moral concerns by trivialising the change or even ascribing benefits to it through selective inattention to adverse effects. Warmer weather is said to make life more pleasant in cooler northern regions. This may be personally comforting as long as one disregards the millions of people living near the equator whose lives are impaired and dislocated by rises in the earth’s temperature produced elsewhere. Arguments in the final stage claim that the earth’s temperature is uncontrollable by human action, and, regulatory policies to curb carbon emissions will be economically disastrous. If nothing new is happening climatically, and it is not of human origin or mitigatable by human action, there is no need to change lifestyle practices. Nor is there anything to get morally exercised about. Polluting behaviour is freed from the restraint of moral self-sanctions.

Derogation of those working toward ecological preservation is a common tactic for neutralising moral concern over lifestyle practices that impair the ecological supports of life. The proponents are disparaged as ‘doomsayers’, ‘scaremongers’, ‘environmental wackos’, ‘tree huggers’, and the like. Bloggers who target deniers that environmental problems are of human doing are called ‘kooks’. The critics christened Al Gore, the indefatigable environmentalist, as ‘ozone man’. The British press labelled Prince Charles, who called for a sustainable stewardship of the environment, as a “loony eccentric prince who talked to plants” (Shnayerson, 2007).

The so-called doomsayers gave the ‘doomslayers’ an easy victory with a short time frame for projected price rises of a few metals that did not happen. This event is heralded as evidence that human ingenuity will find solutions to resource scarcity (Myers and Simon, 1994). We are only now witnessing regions in which surging population growth is outstripping food and water supplies. Considering how our detrimental environmental practices are spinning out of control, Malthus may very well have the last tragic laugh.

Scientists come in for especially harsh treatment because they are the bearers of disturbing news about what is happening to our battered planet (White et al., 2007). They are ascribed nefarious motives and disparaged as ‘self-appointed guardians’, ‘hysterical crusaders’, and ‘misguided zealots’. Their research is discredited as ‘junk science’, and their findings are trivialised. If scientists are regarded as untrustworthy and their science is dismissed as faulty, there is no need for people to bring self-sanctions to bear on their detrimental practices.

Moral disengagement by indifference to harmful realities extends beyond disregarding, minimising, or disputing their occurrence. It includes ignoring escalating population – the root cause of environmental degradation. A view, currently in vogue, contends that population growth is no longer an ecological problem. This erroneous view arises from failure to consider the differential pattern of population growth across regions of the planet and the changing shift of populations. The population growth problem must be addressed globally not dismissed as a myth by selective focus on some industrialised countries with declining birthrates. As shown in Figure 2, the soaring population growth is occurring mainly in developing countries with high rates of unplanned childbearing.

Compare the claim that the population bomb has ‘fizzled’ with population growth trends. China has a population of 1.3 billion and is adding about 7 million people annually. India has passed the 1 billion mark, and is on the brink of surpassing China as the most populous nation in the world. At its current fertility rate their population will double to a staggering 2 billion in 44 years. Africa has a population of 944 million and, at its present growth rate, will swell to 2 billion in 35 years. The population in the Middle East and North Africa is about 400 million and is projected to surpass 700 million in 50 years. The USA has the highest rate of population growth among industrialised countries. Although the rate of population growth globally has slowed somewhat, it is still at a pace to add about 1 billion people every 15 years. Dismissal of global population growth cannot go on indefinitely. Mounting aversive consequences of environmental degradation will eventually force the international community to address the population problem.

There is also mass migration of people from heavily populated poor countries to more habitable or prosperous ones. Some of the people are migrating in search of a better life. Others are seeking a safe haven from internal ethnic atrocities. And still others are ‘environmental refugees’ subjected to forced migrations because of the growing inhabitability of their environment as their fertile land turns into desert through prolonged drought and loss of water resources. Poor regions are especially vulnerable to temperature rises, because if their crops fail or their water sources shrink, they have no reserves to draw on. The oft-repeated scenes of hordes of emaciated people struggling to survive under squalid conditions in refugee camps is more likely to depersonalise and dehumanise them than raise social compassion. The large-scale international migration, which will swell with increasing environmental destruction, is changing the face of national populations. It is becoming the source of major regional upheavals that breed sectarian violence.

As Dyer (2007) reminds us, the population bomb is rapidly ticking away, but is being ignored as a major contributor to climate change and ecological destruction. Population growth is an escalating global problem not a disappearing one. In an attentional sleight of hand, soaring population growth disappears as a problem and population decline is elevated to an alarming one that ‘haunts our future’ (Howe and Jackson, 2007). Even some of the leading environmental conservation organisations, which morphed from active grass-roots environmentalists to cautious bureaucracies accommodating to political forces, disembodied ecological damage from population growth, a major contributor to the problem (Foreman, 2007; Kolankiewicz and Beck 2001; Ryerson, 1998/1999). The population of the USA was 150 million in 1950 that grew to 300 million in 2006 and is heading to 420 million in the next 45 years. Most of this increase stems from migration. After a grueling internal fight over the role of immigration in population growth for fear of its racial implications, the Sierra Club jettisoned domestic population growth from their agenda as an environmental conservation issue.

Fear of alienating donors, criticism from the progressive left, and disparagement by conservative vested interests claiming that overpopulation is a ‘myth’, served as further incentives to cast off the rising global population as a factor in environmental degradation. Population growth vanished from the agendas of other mainstream environmental organisations that previously regarded escalating numbers as a major environmental threat (Nicholson, 2007). Greenpeace announced that population “is not an issue for us”. Friends of the Earth declared that, “it is unhelpful to enter into a debate about numbers”. The common justification for the retreat is that it is consumption not human numbers that is creating environmental problems, despite evidence that more people produce more ecological damage. To construe ecological woes as due to consumption and dismiss the number of consumers as of minor consequence overtaxes credibility. The ecological and social strains of population growth and geographic mobility of environmental refugees and those seeking a life beyond mere subsistence call for humane solutions not evasions. This will require helping developing countries to preserve a habitable environment, providing them with the means and enablement for planned childbearing, and promoting sustainable development that improves their livelihood.

David Brower, the inspiring founder of the Sierra Club, would have probably viewed this retreat for political reasons as a tragic irony. He put it well when he once said, “You don’t have a conservation policy unless you have a population policy”. The escalating global population is now a much more serious ecological threat. Noting that the current global population exceeds the earth’s carrying capacity, some prominent scientists have taken bold steps in the inhospitable political-correctness climate to break the stranglehold of the population taboo. Christopher Rapley, Director of the British Science Museum, argues that stabilising the population at an ecologically unsustainable level is not much of a solution. In his view, we need fewer people to curb global warming (Clover, 2007). High consumption lifestyles wreaking havoc on the environment and harming other people’s lives is a moral issue of commission. Evasion of the influential role of population growth in environmental degradation is a moral issue of omission. A few columnists and commentators are also beginning to give voice to the global consequences of willful indifference to the population part of the global problem (Bunting, 2007; Feeney, 2007; Pallitt, 2007). Mounting ecological degradation will force renewed attention to population growth.

Population growth has become politically incorrect for a variety of reasons. About two-thirds of the greenhouse gases are produced by the richest industrialised countries with high consumption lifestyles, but only about 3% by Africa, the poorest continent. To target poor countries that suffer the ecological harm of extravagant lifestyles spewing pollutants elsewhere is analogous to blaming the victim. Ironically, ignoring poor people’s need for help with planned childbearing and social supports that enable them to achieve it is victimisation by benign neglect.

Immigration is a minefield in political life. On the one hand, industrial, agricultural, and service industries want cheap labour and workers to perform the dirty and toilsome manual jobs that their own citizens will not do. They rely heavily on migrant workers regardless of whether they come in legally or illegally. Using economic justification, the industries also argue that they need cheap labour to stay competitive in the global market place. They use their political clout to secure their labour needs. On the other hand, the migrant groups are marginalised, denied adequate services, human rights and, in some countries, even stripped of a national identity if their offspring born in the host country are denied citizenship. The families that are better off are not about to groom their own offspring for toilsome menial jobs with paltry wages and lowly social status. So industrialised countries import or, by discriminatory practices, produce a disadvantaged ethnic underclass that remains largely unassimilated and is resented for its intrusion on the prevailing cultural norms, traditions, and practices.

To complicate matters further, immigration is an emotionally charged issue with deeply-engrained prejudices, favouritism toward certain ethnicities and occupational stratums, and indignation over illegal entries. These conflicting forces have spawned political correctness in both the political right and political left. Some people exploit this contentious issue for political purposes, but most do not want to talk about population growth for fear of rousing the controversial spectre of immigration and being branded a racist.

Burgeoning populations also fuel civil strife with devastating humanitarian consequences. In many underdeveloped countries a major share of the population is under 20 years of age. As previously noted, in many developing countries their populations will double in 20–30 years. The added stress of deteriorating life conditions facilitates the collapse of weak states and the rule of law. Many of the recent violent conflicts are in countries with young populations, living in poverty, under autocratic rulers often plagued by corruption (Leahy, 2007). The age structure, intense competition for sparse resources, and widespread social discontent makes young men ripe for recruitment for civil wars and terrorist activities. Large youth populations living under repressive and poverty-ridden conditions will be a growing threat to international security. To worsen this problem, water sources are being rapidly depleted as the demand by soaring human numbers outstrips the supply. The looming water crisis will spawn growing regional conflicts over the allocation of water from sources crossing national borders (Brown, 2007). Water will be the major global issue over which people fight.

Religious opposition to contraception also diverts attention away from the ecological effects of population growth (Collins, 2007; Ryerson, 1998/1999). The Catholic hierarchy forbids contraceptives on the grounds that sex should not be dissociated from procreation. Family planning also got tainted with abortion politics. Religious fundamentalists and other religious groups formed an opposition alliance. However, a heated dispute has recently erupted among Christian groups over whether global warming is a moral issue that should be featured in their agenda (Goodstein, 2007). A coalition of prominent evangelical leaders, representing millions of followers, declared that they are stewards of God’s creation. As such, they bear moral responsibility to curb the earth’s rising temperatures to save it from further degradation. This call to action drew heavy fire from leaders of conservative Christian groups, who argued that global warming has not been proven to be of human origin. Nor, in their view, is it reducible by human action. They told the evangelicals to remove global warming from their agenda and restore priory to sexual morality, which requires targeting abortion, homosexuality, same-sex marriage, and teaching sexual abstinence to youth. They further warned the evangelical environmentalists against associating with those ‘liberal crusaders’, who are bent on limiting free enterprise as well as population growth.

Unlike the Christian fundamentalists, a number of Muslim countries are adopting the Pakistan model that uses religious texts and clerics to promote family planning and distributes contraceptives in mosques. Pope Benedict XVI recently issued a green message urging young Catholics at a massive religious youth rally to save the planet from environmentally unsustainable development (Winfield, 2007). His proposed remedies included use of biodegradable packaging, recycling, installation of solar panels, and enrollment in carbon offsetting projects for reforestation. Because of the Vatican opposition to contraception, family planning to curb global population growth was conspicuously absent from his agenda for environmental salvation. Rather, his view on this issue exacerbates the environmental problem with forewarnings that low birthrates “cause enormous difficulties for social cohesion” (Stinson, 2007). Contrary to this claim, we saw earlier that throngs of people competing for basic necessities of life breed social discord not social cohesion. Growing more consumers means more pollutants that can overwhelm any gains from the prescribed mitigating practices.

Coercive and mandatory birth control schemes further tainted family planning. Libertarians, feminists, and human rights groups joined the ranks of opponents to it. Reports in periodicals and magazines on population and its impact on the environment dropped sharply in the late 1970s and remained cast off thereafter (Henson, 1994). By the third population conference, the UN shifted its focus from the population problem to the empowerment of women and human rights issues (Foreman, 2007; Kolankiewicz and Beck, 2001). Writing from a feminist perspective, Pollitt (2007) comments on the irony of some of the developed countries doing the right thing in providing supportive aid to working mothers but for the wrong reason, i.e., to produce more babies. Pollitt suggests that societies should develop the talents of the countless millions they already have but write off, rather than embark on national fertility campaigns to enlarge their population.

In this electronic era, promoting educational development will contribute more to innovation and economic growth than merely breeding more people. They are expensive to raise, require a lot of costly societal services and, if inadequately educated and marginalised, they become social and economic burdens on society. Adding more people is not a reliable route to economic growth (Ryerson, 1995). The quickest way for countries to enhance their social capital is to remove gender inequality and educate their women. The moral issue, here, concerns the harm caused by social exclusion from the opportunity structures of a society.

The need to fund pensions and health costs of an aging population are used as economic justifications for increasing the size of the population. These justifications and the media portrayals they spawn, are infused with pejorative stereotyping of the elderly as idle simpletons leading barren lives (Signorielli, 1985), and draining precious societal resources but having little to contribute to the life of a society. The people of today are aging more successfully than those of yesteryear (Baltes and Baltes, 1990; Bandura, 1997; Rowe and Kahn, 1998). They are healthier, more knowledgeable, more intellectually agile, and able to work longer productively. In the current realities of late adulthood, life is characterised more by a shift in pursuits and personal renewal than by withdrawal from an active life (Bandura, 1997). But societal structures and practices lag behind the capability of the elderly so their skills and knowledge go untapped (Riley et al., 1994).

The elderly often get blamed for problems created by societal structural impediments to the continuance of productive lives. China, which is easing is family planning laws to produce more workers, is a good case in point. The problem is partly a product of an early mandatory retirement policy that retires blue-colour workers at age 55, and professionals and government workers at age 60. Women are required to retire even earlier (French, 2007). Allowing people to keep their jobs longer if they are good at it and derive satisfaction and other benefits from it would relieve the pressure on the pension system. However, the structural solution is politically unpalatable because raising the retirement age may spark some social protest. Moreover, extending employment for older workers can increase unemployment of younger ones, which risks political unrest. The workforce problem, arising partly from governmental policies, is displaced to population decline with proposed fertility remedies that only worsens the social and environmental problems down the line. Jeffery Sachs advocates policies that provide incentives for workers to save more toward their retirement as another way of easing the pension problem (Peters, 2007), rather than using population growth as the remedy.

In patriarchally-oriented societies, male resistance to contraception and viewing offspring as symbols of male virility adds to the family count. Relegating women to a subservient role in which they have little say about family matters and restricting their educational opportunities confines them to a life of early and frequent childbearing. In many of the countries with high fertility rates, after women have had several children they do not want any more. Frequent childbearing compromises the kind of lives that they can lead and the standard of living they can provide for their children.

Unless people see family planning as improving their welfare, they have little incentive to adopt it. Indeed, adoption of contraceptive methods tends to be low even with full knowledge and ready access to them (Ryerson, 1995). Providing contraceptive services alone is not enough. Nor are fleeting media campaigns, exhortations, moral appeals for responsible parenthood, and motivational slogans are not of much help. Failure to address the psychological determinants of human behaviour is often the weakest link in social policy initiatives. Along with providing family planning services, stemming the population growth requires changing social norms and removing the psychological impediments to contraception in spousal relationships rather than just placing the burden on women. Promoting psychosocial conditions conducive to planned childbearing supports women’s reproductive rights rather than infringe on them. Cleland et al. (2006), a leading population expert, builds a strong case for revitalising family planning in the world’s poor countries. He regards promotion of family planning as especially important because of the unusually broad scope of its benefits. It reduces the cycle of poverty, decreases maternal and child mortality, liberates women for personal development by relieving the burden of excessive childbearing, enables universal primary education, and aids environmental sustainability by stabilising the world’s population.

Reducing unplanned childbearing is the fastest and most cost-effective way of curbing the accelerating ecological destruction. Moreover, its benefits are immediate. Trying to change the ways of a populous is a tough undertaking. It is costly, vulnerable to the vagaries of competing influences, may have unintended adverse consequences, and usually involves long time lags before any benefits are realised.

Some of the applications of social cognitive theory are aimed at reducing the soaring population growth, especially in developing countries with high fertility rates. They double their population in a short time (Bandura, 2002; 2006b; Singhal et al., 2004). Long running serialised dramas serve as the means to alleviate widespread problems and improve the quality of people’s lives. These dramatic productions are not just fanciful stories. The engrossing plotlines bring to life people’s everyday struggles, the impediments they face, and the effects of different social practices. They help people to see a better life and inform, enable, and guide them to take the steps to realise it. Hundreds of episodes, over several years, allow viewers (or listeners in the case of radio dramas) to form bonds to the models, who evolve in their thinking and behaviour at a believable pace. Audience members are inspired and enabled by them to improve their lives.

These productions are not ‘family planning’ programs foisted by outsiders on the women of poor countries. They are created only by invitation from countries seeking help with their societal problems. The media personnel in the host countries are provided with the resources and training to create serials that are tailored to their culture and address their needs. The programs are grounded in the internationally endorsed values codified in United Nations covenants and resolutions. These values embody respect for human dignity, equality of opportunity, and support of human aspirations.

The plotlines address, among other matters, the problem of mounting population numbers and possible solutions in broader human terms. In many societies women are marginalised, disallowed aspirations, denied access to education, forced into prearranged marriages, granted little say in their reproductive lives, and denied their liberty and dignity. Such violations of human rights are typically justified in terms of the values and sovereignty of the country. By including intersecting plotlines, this psychosocial approach addresses different aspects of people’s lives at both the individual and social structural level rather than focuses on just a single issue. The plotlines include improving the status of women so they can have more say in their lives, portraying the benefits of planned childbearing, increasing educational opportunities for girls, depicting the detrimental effects of the dowry system, injustice of forced marriage, risks of early childbearing, genital mutilation, snatching brides by abduction and rape, and prevention of AIDS.

This psychosocial approach fosters personal and social change by enlightenment and enablement rather than by coercion (Bandura, 1997). In the case of the population issue, it is not a matter of restricting people’s choice to procreate, but rather enabling them to choose their preferred family size informatively and planfully. Many worldwide applications of this approach in Asia, Africa, and Latin America are raising the status of women, enhancing people’s beliefs in their efficacy to control their family size by planned childbearing, and increasing adoption of contraception (Bandura, 2002; 2006a, 2006b; Rogers et al., 1999). These changes are achieved by improving diverse interrelated aspects of people’s lives not by just targeting contraception.

Tanzania provided a unique opportunity for an experimental evaluation of the effectiveness of this method for personal and social change. The current population of Tanzania is 39 million with an annual per capita income of $ 200. The fertility rate is 5.4 children per woman. The projected population at this rate is 57 million by 2025, and 88 million by 2050. Such huge population growth would overwhelm efforts at economic development.

The program was broadcast in one large region of the country and the remaining region, which did not receive the program, provided the basis for evaluating its effectiveness. The program raised people’s belief in their efficacy to control their family size. Prior to the program, many believed that God ordained the number of children they will have or their husbands decreed it. The greater the exposure to the program, the more the marital partners discussed the need to take control over the number, timing, and spacing of their children. The broadcast area had a substantial increase in the number of new families adopting contraceptive methods compared the control region (Figure 3). Adoption of contraceptive methods also increased when the program was later broadcast in the control area. Plotlines addressing the AIDS problem quickly debunked false beliefs about how the virus is transmitted and raised adoption of safer sex practices to curb the spreading AIDS epidemic (Vaughan et al., 2000).

Figure 3

Mean number of new family planning adopters per clinic in the Ministry of Health clinics in the broadcast region and those in the control region. The values left of the dotted line are adoption levels prior to the broadcast; the values between the dotted lines are adoption levels when the serial was aired in the broadcast region but not in the control region; the values to the right of the dotted line are the adoption levels when the serial was aired in both the broadcast region and previous control region

Figure 3

Source: Drawn from data in Rogers et al. (1999)

8 Dehumanisation and disparagement

The strength of moral self-censure for harmful practices also depends on how those who suffer the consequences are regarded. To perceive another as a sentient human being with the same basic needs as ones’ own arouses empathic reactions through a sense of common humanity (Bandura, 1992). The joys and suffering of those with whom one has a sense of kinship are more vicariously arousing than are those of strangers or those divested of human qualities. It is difficult to inflict suffering on humanised persons without risking self-condemnation. But it is easy to do so if they are viewed as subhuman objects. Many conditions of contemporary life are conducive to impersonalisation and dehumanisation. Bureaucratisation, automation, urbanisation, and high mobility lead people to relate to each other in anonymous, impersonal ways. Strangers can be more easily dehumanised than can acquaintances. In addition, social and political practices that divide people into ingroup and outgroup members create human estrangement that fosters dehumanisation. People group, divide, devalue, and dehumanise those they disfavour. Their well-being is easy to discount when they are in far-off places.

It is also easy to remove other species from moral consideration and to destroy their habitats when they conflict with self-interests. Such species are regarded as lowly pests that stand in the way of economic development and destroy people’s livelihoods. Opponents single out an endangered bird, rodent, or reptile to ridicule legislative protections and disparage those who promote them. Given the intricate interdependence of species, humans can ill-afford to be wiping out species on which they must depend. The recent alarm over the surprising decline of honeybees worldwide, for whatever reasons, underscores the grave risks of messing with the ecosystem. Without honeybees pollinating our major fruits, nuts, and vegetable crops, the disappearance of this lowly insect can drive the ecological life-support system into a crisis affecting food supplies. The changing ocean ecology is another example of human activity threatening the intricate interdependences of ecological systems. Carbon emissions are increasing the ocean’s acidity, threatening destruction of organisms at the base of the marine food chain that supports the fish food supply (Kleypas et al., 2006). Such developments are making interdependent environmentalism a lived reality, not just an abstract ethos. There are undoubtedly other crises in the making through rapid extinction of species lower in the food chain.

Moral self-sanctions can be disengaged or blunted by depersonalising people or stripping them of human qualities. The infliction of human suffering at the global level is, in large part, by indirection rather than done directly. We saw earlier that the world’s wealthiest countries are producing most of the heat-trapping gas emissions that are raising the global temperature. It is the people living in poor, developing countries in sub-Saharan Africa and Central Asia who are bearing the brunt of the adverse climate shift. As the receding glaciers in mountain ranges are further melted by the rising earth’s temperature, the rivers they feed will provide declining water for personal, agricultural, and industrial use. Water shortages, crop failures, and expanding desertification are forcing mass migration of people who lack the resources and means to protect themselves against the degradation of their environment by the climate change. Displacement of millions of people is creating a growing humanitarian crisis. Their meager livelihood contributes little to the temperature rise, but they suffer the adverse consequences of it.

Ebell (2006) has been extolling the benefits of global warming. He argues that it makes life more pleasant for folks in the northern regions. Moreover, cold spells kill more people than do heat waves. A bit of global warming is, therefore, not only life-saving but makes life more pleasant. As he explains it,

“Given our obvious preference for living in warmer climates as long as we have air-conditioning, I doubt that we’re going to go on the energy diet that the global warming doomsters urge us to take.”

The rich energy diet is making life more burdensome for those of lesser means who bear the brunt of the adverse effects of lavish lifestyles of wealthy countries. A sense of common humanity arouses empathy and compassion for the plight of the needy and the most vulnerable. Such sentiments motivate efforts to improve their life conditions (Bandura, 2004). Ebell seems to exclude from his category of humanity those who are the most adversely affected by the climate change resulting from polluting lifestyles elsewhere.

Some of the technological remedies for the earth’s rising temperature create new moral predicaments through unintended harm to needy people. Efforts to address the growing energy problem, for example, focus on a supply fix to the neglect of demand reduction through conservation. Biofuels are being heralded as a partial solution for the heavy dependence on fossil fuels. The diversion of corn from food supplies to biofuel is raising the cost of corn. The poor, especially those in countries where corn is their staple food, suffer the unintended hardship on their livelihood. Because livestock are fed corn, the biofuel diversion is also raising the price of milk and other dairy products, as well as a wide variety of foods in which they are ingredients. The diversion of land use from food production is not confined to corn. Food prices are also driven up by converting cropland used for other basic foods for production of ethanol. As food prices soar, foreign food-aid money can feed fewer hungry people (Dugger, 2007). Some analysts (Grain, 2007) report that the rush to agrofuels will cause huge environmental and social damage as forests and small-scale food farming are converted by agrobusiness to large-scale cultivation of plants for biofuels. To feed the voracious appetite for energy to fuel high consumptive lifestyles, the poor are being priced out of basic necessities of life. Expanding world hunger by placing staple foods in competition with biofuels for high-energy lifestyles is a matter of humanitarian concern.

9 Concluding remarks

Were Darwin writing today, he would be documenting the overwhelming human domination of the environment. Many of the species in our degrading planet have no evolutionary future. Humans are wiping out other species and the ecosystems that support life at an accelerating pace (Wilson, 2006). Unlike former mass extinctions by meteoric disasters, the current mass extinction is largely the product of human behaviour. By wielding powerful technologies that amplify control over the environment, humans are producing hazardous global changes of huge magnitude.

We are witnessing the growing primacy of human agency in the co-evolutionary process (Bandura, 2006a). Through genetic engineering, humans are creating transgenic biological natures, for better or for worse, rather than waiting for the slow process of natural evolution. They are now changing the genetic makeup of plants and animals. Unique native plants that have evolved over eons are disappearing as commercial horticulturists are supplanting them with genetically uniform hybrids and clones. Not only are humans cutting and splicing nature’s genetic material but, through synthetic biology, they are also creating new types of genomes.

Expanding economies fuelling consumptive growth by billions of people is intensifying competition for the earth’s vital resources and overwhelming efforts to secure an environmentally and economically sustainable future. Powerful parochial interests create tough impediments to improving living standards globally through sustainable ecodevelopment in which economic growth preserves the environmental basis for it. Through collective practices driven by a foreshortened perspective, humans may be well on the road to outsmarting themselves into an irreversible ecological crisis.

People are beginning to express concern over catastrophic climate change, advocate environmental conservation in the abstract, but resist curbing their behavioural practices that degrade and destroy the life of the planet. Under troublesome life conditions people generally seek quick fixes that require no significant changes in lifestyle. Once they get wedded to rewarding lifestyles that exact a toll on the environment they devise schemes that enable them to stick with their behavioural practices without feeling bad about their adverse effects. They make cosmetic changes in their energy and resource use that make them feel like conservationists. On average, Americans consume more energy in a week than an inhabitant in India does in an entire year. Environmental conservation calls for more fundamental lifestyle changes than switching to more efficient light bulbs and doing a bit of recycling. People remain faithful to their driving habits but seek to power them with supposedly environmentally-friendly fuel that inflicts hardships on the less advantaged. They create marketplace systems that enable them to continue their consumptive ways but grant them forgiveness for their ecological sins through the purchase of carbon offsets for green projects. Going green through ecologically degrading behaviour is an odd way of saving the planet. Through carbon cap and trade schemes, industries can spew greenhouse gases but buy carbon credits from more efficient companies with unused allowances rather than clean up their act.

As in the case of token remedies at the individual level, tinkering with environmentally and economically unsustainable systems aggressively promoting ever rising consumption rates with polluting technologies will not beget a green future. Substitutes for genuine behaviour change usually accomplish too little too slowly. If we are to preserve a habitable planet it will not be by token gestures and schemes for buying one’s way out of wasteful and polluting practices. Rather, it will be by major lifestyle changes with commitment to shared values linked to incentive systems that make environmentally responsible behaviour normative and personally worthy. A sustainable future is not achievable while disregarding the key contributors to ecological degradation – population growth and high consumptive lifestyles.

Ecological systems are intricately interdependent. Global-level changes affect everyone regardless of the source of the degradation. Because of this interconnectedness, lifestyle practices are a matter of morality not just environmental sustainability. Most of the current human practices work against a less populated planet with its inhabitants living sustainably in balance with natural resources. Given the growing human destruction of the earth’s environment, Watson (2007) may not have been too far off the mark when he characterised the human species as an “Arrogant primate that is out of control”. One should add morally disengaged to the characterisation as well. If we are to be responsible stewards of our environment for future generations, we must make it difficult to disengage moral sanctions from ecologically destructive practices.


I wish to express my appreciation to Bill Ryerson for his helpful comments on a draft of this paper and to Tommy Tobin and Michael Sexton for assistance in the preparation of the manuscript for publication.


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Disguising environmental harm

Albert Bandura of the Department of Psychology at Stanford University argues that we can disguise environmentally harmful practices and dress them up in words to help ease our consciences, but such practices will have a negative impact on the planet and the quality of life of future generations, no matter how we label them. Writing in a forthcoming issue of the Inderscience publication the International Journal of Innovation and Sustainable Development, he explains that we must stop attempting to disguise our actions and switch on our environmental conscience to save the world.

As consumers we are repeatedly bombarded with messages telling us to consider the environment and to save energy in the face of global climate change. However, much has been made recently of the fact that personal economic savings on energy consumption might be offset by increased consumption of goods and services. What may at first appear to reduce the level of ecological harm that we cause, may in effect be cancelled out and possibly lead to even greater harm.

Moreover, many of us pursue practices that are detrimental to the environment but which we justify by a kind of moral disengagement. This frees us from the constraints of self-censure and we defend our actions on the basis that such practices are somehow fulfilling worthy social, national, or economic causes and, as such, offset their harmful effects on the future of our planet.

Moral disengagement equates to switching off one’s conscience and there is nothing like self righteousness to exonerate and sanitize malpractice in the name of worthy causes. Convoluted language helps disguise what is being done and reduces accountability, and also ignores and disputes harmful effects. Learning about moral disengagement shines the light not only on the malpractices of others but on ourselves, argues Bandura, after all morally disengaged or not the conscience will still prick.

Bandura, in his paper, hopes to bring some clarity to the environmental dilemmas we face. He highlights how we can be selective about acknowledging the global consequences of our behaviour and points out that harmful practices, thinly disguised as worthy causes, could cause widespread human harm and degrade the environment nevertheless. “We are witnessing hazardous global changes of mounting ecological consequence,” he says, “they include deforestation, expanding desertification, global warming, ice sheet and glacial melting, flooding of lowlying coastal regions, severe weather events, topsoil erosion and sinking water tables in the major food-producing regions, depletion of fish stocks, loss of biodiversity, and degradation of other aspects of the earth’s life-support systems. As the unrivaled ruling species atop the food chain, humans are wiping out species and the ecosystems that support life at an accelerating pace.”

Bandura also points to soaring population growth as a major source of environmental degradation and believes that mounting numbers will wipe out the benefit of clean, green technologies. He adds that, “If we are to be responsible stewards of our environment for future generations, we must make it difficult to disengage moral sanctions from ecologically destructive practices.”
Image used with permission of Dr. Bandura

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59 responses to “Impeding ecological sustainability through selective moral disengagement

  1. Wow. I haven’t had time to read all of that, but what I did was great.

  2. Best thing I’ve read in a long time. A real tour de force of sustainability issues and the mechanisms used to avoid them. A powerful piece that I think needs to be distilled for a wider audience.

  3. Yes. Excellent article about

    The “bullies’ bullshit” that
    controls the world through
    enabling lies and coercions,
    to maintain fraud & robbery
    that disguises itself very well.

    For me, it all comes down to the
    two laws of thermodynamics …

    Energy exists and is conserved, &

    Entropy is constantly increasing.

    Everything that is alive and aware
    is due to recycling all energy more.

    But, any energy takes all ways to
    go with its own entropic flows …

    Organizing resistance,
    to try to change what
    path least resistance
    will be in the future?

    The most extreme problems
    all come from having to try
    to solve problems within
    the increase of entropy.

    Every short-term benefit
    is taken advantage of by
    those who have no way
    to prevent themselves
    from doing that then.

    Every short-term benefit
    reinforces those doing it.

    Human beings were able
    to build brains that may
    anticipate consequences.

    However, mostly our
    civilizations run on
    deliberately being
    able to ignore the
    things they want
    to ignore most.

    The systems that SHOULD
    care about the future, ARE
    the most crazy corruptions.

    Our governments, instead of
    being intelligent protectors
    of the total commonwealth
    are the worst of offenders.

    This article says:

    “Considering how our detrimental environmental practices are spinning out of control, Malthus may very well have the last tragic laugh.”

    Malthus is turning out to have
    been an short-sighted optimist.

    One of the things that that article
    above does not emphasize enough
    is the role of violence in being able
    to back up indulgence in huge lies.

    Social paths of least resistance
    are the paths of least morality.

    Organizing resistance to try
    to change what the future
    path of least resistance is
    has to face the paradox
    of enforcement issue.

    Fraud only persists when
    it still can be backed up.

    All of the biggest frauds
    and self-deceptions are
    being backed up by
    our governments.

    The biggest self-deception
    & immorality of them all
    is done by governments.

    Governments are by far the best at
    the selective moral disengagement.

    Any real solutions to the problems
    due to the increase of entropy have
    yet got to be developed inside of an
    overall increase in total entropy …

    That is why all real solutions
    to social problems must be
    inherently paradoxical.

    It takes evil to resist evil.

    It takes entropy to
    run any entropic
    pumping …

    Sovereignty is based on
    the power to rob, and
    especially on their
    power to kill …

    Any real solutions
    have to work in
    that context.

    Indeed, everybody who uses
    any resources to state their
    opinion is already inside
    a military ethics where
    they only have power
    to communicate by
    virtue of already
    being inside
    systems of

    The entire scholarly article above
    is about the bullies’ bullshit that
    dominates all our social stories.

    The paradoxical problems we face
    are that every genuine solution is
    going to become the new system
    of lies and coercions that might
    be able to survive in the future.

    Any way to organize resistance
    to change the least resistance
    path in the future has to be
    an entropic way to cope
    with the entropic flow.

    It necessarily has to be
    an evil solution to evil.

    But, “education entertainment”
    is not likely to want to see that.

    Yet nevertheless, I beat a drum
    that every kind of real solution
    must necessarily become some
    new systems of death control.

    It is what the bullies really DO!

    It is what has to be changed,
    and is that which can only
    be changed inside of the
    reality that already IS.

    The most important aspect
    of the bullies’ bullshit is its
    ability to persuade people
    to not face the facts that
    they have to be bullies.

    The most important reality
    is that the bullies’ systems
    have all gone quite insane
    since the social habits &
    tools used by the bullies
    are getting very widely
    separated from truth.

    Making governments work better,
    more than anything else, requires
    that we face the fundamental fact
    of what governments really do …

    Governments are the groups
    that attempt to monopolize
    death control in societies.

    Those powers are now all used
    inside of the bullies’ bullshit
    world view that disengages
    from the truth about what
    they are really doing, and
    thus is also disengaged
    from what they really
    need to do in future.

    All of the old systems of lies
    and coercions that control
    the world have to become
    new systems of the same.

    As long as we are attempting
    to solve our problems inside
    of the bullies’ bullshit view,
    then we are trapped in a
    dead end of huge lies,
    backed up with force,
    that refuses to admit
    the truth about self.

    Bullies’ bullshit is indeed about
    “sanitising and convoluting language
    that disguises what is being done” …

    What is really being DONE
    is the use of force to engage
    in the robberies we need to
    be able to survive, and thus
    any real solutions must be
    changing the real robbery,
    and that must also mean
    new systems of lies that
    shall be some new ways
    bullies’ bullshit works.

    Facing the paradoxical nature
    of the bullies’ bullshit, and the
    way any solutions to entropy
    are still yet inside of entropy,
    are the kinds of consciousness
    that we are going to need most.
    A problem with most of the
    successful educational
    entertainment is that
    it will have to work
    inside of those lies
    that are popular.

    In the end, I think that only
    real, radical, revolution is
    going to be enough …

    Staying within the denial
    of the law of entropy is
    not going to work.

    A wealthy elite already
    controls the real world
    by using a knowledge
    about how to run the
    real death controls
    and debt controls.

    The real ways that could work
    have to expand membership
    in the powerful elites that
    use real death controls.

    As long as people who are
    attempting to make some
    “better” world are still
    in the bullies’ bullshit
    world view, then they
    are not doing what
    really need doing.

    The paradox is that more people
    have to be real bullies, which is
    something that could be done
    by going beyond all of the old
    bullies’ bullshit perceptions.

    We are now at the tail end
    of the old established ways
    that bullies’ bullshit works.

    We are approaching a point
    where collapse and chaos is
    going to drive real, radical,
    revolution, during a time
    when radical truth shall
    appear for while, until
    the changes are made,

    and then, society will return
    to a new system of normal
    hypocrisy about itself …

    We are rapidly approaching
    the atypical times when the
    old systems will breakdown,
    and during that transition,
    before some new systems
    are enabled to emerge,
    more social truth will
    have a temporary way
    to emerge in society.

    That degree of real social truth
    will probably only last for some
    relatively short period of time.

    Most of what will become
    real sustainability will be
    what can survive despite
    the collapse and chaos.

    The paradoxes of going beyond
    false fundamental dichotomies
    is that we do not get a split of
    the lies from the truth, but a
    split between the old lies &
    the replacing new lies …

    There will evolve a new elite,
    as the old elite breaks down.

    During that process, social truth
    will have windows of opportunity.

    However, I doubt those windows
    will remain open for very long …

    Keeping those windows open
    for more fresh air to flow in,
    will take more radical ways
    of facing the social facts
    that human must be
    robbers, and that
    not lying about it
    is the best way to
    make that work
    “better” …

  4. I’m not finished reading here. It’s a very long article, but a good read so far.

    Now: Blair: please tell me, because I want to know: could it possibly be that there is no such thing as a death control policy in large parts of the third (developing) world, simply because it is virtually impossible for a poor African, a poor Latin American, and a poor South Asian to get a bank loan (debt control is most often not a real issue)…?

  5. Bandura: “Along with providing family planning services, stemming the population growth requires changing social norms and removing the psychological impediments to contraception in spousal relationships rather than just placing the burden on women. Promoting psychosocial conditions conducive to planned childbearing supports women’s reproductive rights rather than infringe on them. Cleland et al. (2006), a leading population expert, builds a strong case for revitalising family planning in the world’s poor countries. He regards promotion of family planning as especially important because of the unusually broad scope of its benefits. It reduces the cycle of poverty, decreases maternal and child mortality, liberates women for personal development by relieving the burden of excessive childbearing, enables universal primary education, and aids environmental sustainability by stabilising the world’s population.”

    – —

    Between 1996 – 2002, I spent half of my time in Nigeria and the other half of my time in Norway. This was the nomadic period of my life, during which I discovered that I couldn’t find a job here in Norway, and that I could find a job in Nigeria, but not get hold of an official work permit. Hard times, you might say. And only just about to get even harder.

    Now, there is one obnoctious thing I want to say about the population explosion in Africa. A thing that cannot be forgotten about. It is the social, cultural and indeed also political fact that every poor old man and woman have no other social security option than making sure that the woman gives birth to as many children as she possibly can, because every household or nuclear family is in need of a certain amount of sons, simply in order to have food on the table when you get old.

    ON the other hand, we have the problem of all these cultural and social norms: there can hardly be any such thing as a problem invoilved in being pregnant for the ninth time in a lifetime. In the minds of the people, if all these children grow up, this can only mean that the mother in question is seriously blessed with good luck.

    All these different cultures of this world pose as big obstacles here. There can be no doubt that all these different local traditions and ethnic social systems override the simple biological / natural fact that an average of no more than three child births per woman inevitably leads to population explosion. But try to tell that to an average South African village woman! She won’t be able to see the sense in this, even if you give her this simple mathematic message for her own inspection. I’m thinking of my simple population growth model; the one that I developed as a twelve-year-old and is referring to again and again and again, — much like the “Challenge of Informed Humanity” from the Club of Rome 2004.

    The problem is: humanity is hardly informed! I mean: whoever would be teaching African girls about the problem of giving birth to more than two children, so long as she lives!?

    In the African girl’s mind, that would be a sign of absolute and unfettered madness.


  6. Bandura: “People often find themselves in moral predicaments when they pursue activities that serve their self-interests but violate their moral standards by inflicting human and environmental harm. All too often, moral considerations yield to strong social forces favouring environmentally detrimental activities. People can rid themselves of the moral problem, however, by selectively disengaging their moral self-sanctions from detrimental social policies and practices. This enables them to engage in the detrimental activities with freedom from the restraint of self-censure.”

    – —

    Hey, this article is a scoop! Allow me to wonder why I have hardly even heard of Bandura before you published this magnificent job on your web site, John. 😀

    Okay, I want to saysomething in reference to the above quote. It is a very important issue, this. It is so in particular in relation to the instances in which environmentally destructive practices are being done as a job, and paid for by an employer. I know that I am now — as usual, I might add — moving into taboo territory. For example: those mountain top removal sites around the world? What are they good for? And how much does a variety of energy and mining companies pay their workers for doing this job? Week in and week out in the service of society, a job well done you might say.

    But okay: here I am in taboo territory. Because it is safe to say that people need to fight for their jobs in order to remain safe and sound out there, in the realms of the living billions. But of course it is equally safe to say that some job activities should be banned. That a whole lot of factories should be shut down. That a whole lot of morally and socially acceptable practices that work to undermine the life support systems must at some point become forbidden. But will it ever? So long as people’s need of good salaries puts them in a position in which they need to secure their work places. For now and for the foreseeable future. It is a delicate question indeed.

  7. Bandura: “Naysayers argue that climate changes simply reflect the natural historical cycle of frigid and scorching climates. We just happen to be in a hot phase. Viewed from this perspective, there is nothing to get morally excited about. However, the vast body of scientific evidence, analysed by the world’s leading climate experts (IPCC, 2007), shows that humans are driving up the earth’s temperature over and above natural cyclical changes. There is no longer any serious scientific dispute over this verdict.”

    – —

    Hm. There is a lot of good things to say about this article. As for now, I think I shall call it one of the best descriptive efforts on this vexing human drama which is global warming, climate change, and environmental degradation in general that I have ever read.

    You know yesterday evening I was watching a dabate on Norwegian TV2, in which “naysayers” got a lot of time and room in order to throw a bad light on the scientific resuts of the IPPC as well as Al Gore’s movie “An Inconvenient Truth.” I am asking myself: what is it going to take to have all the official media channels of this planet get in line with a scientific consensus agreed upon by the United Nations??! I am not far from thinking that this media bahaviour ought to be regarded as criminal. And I’m not only joking. I mean: the official media channels of this world should see it as their objective and natural responsibility to tell their readers, listeners and viewers about the scientific findings of a United Nations panel of climate scientists, and not … I mean, this is about to become a total disgrace … oh shit …

  8. Bandura: “Noting that the current global population exceeds the earth’s carrying capacity, some prominent scientists have taken bold steps in the inhospitable political-correctness climate to break the stranglehold of the population taboo.”

    Hm. Yes. this was a very long article. And this will be my fifth conmsequtive comment to this post; I’d better exert self-restrain now, don’t I?

    I just wanted to take the time to remember that, in relation to this quote from Albert Bandura, I talked to a fellow Social Anthropologist a couple of years ago, and said that I would have liked to study the social, cultural, and natural effects of the population explosion more closely. But the man looked at me rather sheepishly, saying that he would not recommend my doing so. What we got here is intellectual dishonesty. And it’s got to stop, but it won’t. — Not so long as the power that be shall have it their way.

  9. Pingback: Sustainability & Moral Disengagement « Some Maintenance Required

  10. Magne,

    Allow me to wonder why I have hardly even heard of Bandura before you published this magnificent job on your web site, John.

    My guess is that it’s just that few, if any, living psychologists are widely known outside the field. (The same could be said of, say, anthopologists, I think. I can name a handful of them only because I’ve crossed paths with them in my ecological research.) But Bandura is probably the best known, and even more probably the most influential, living psychologist. To those in the field he is, of course, a “household word.” 🙂

    I talked to a fellow Social Anthropologist a couple of years ago, and said that I would have liked to study the social, cultural, and natural effects of the population explosion more closely. But the man looked at me rather sheepishly, saying that he would not recommend my doing so. What we got here is intellectual dishonesty. And it’s got to stop, but it won’t. — Not so long as the power that be shall have it their way.

    I hear you. But I’ll tell you what I think could stop it. If every environmentalist and environmental writer and concerned scientist who truly recognizes the gravity and urgency of the population problem, and its centrality to the ecological crisis, were to quit playing games of political correctness and start talking up the population issue at every turn, it would remain a taboo topic for about two weeks. At the same time, those who dismiss it need to educate themselves on it. That would then add many more voices.

    It is also terribly important that anyone who truly grasps the urgency and gravity of the population issue not become an apologist for those making misguided and destructive comments such as those coming recently from George Monbiot who suggested, absurdly, that population is “an important issue, but nowhere near the top of the list.” Otherwise we support the forces perpetuating the problem, and we become part of the problem.

    Untold numbers of lives are at stake, and addressing population growth as forthrightly as possible is one of the greatest humanitarian measure we can take. As I’ve said before, the avoidance and dismissals of the population topic will go down as one of the most destructive cases of intellectual dishonesty in history.

    “Given that population growth continues for 20-30 years after birthrates have been reduced to replacement level, it is imperative that programs designed to limit population growth be initiated very quickly.” — paleoecologist, Mark Bush

  11. Pingback: Selective engagements with the world « Contradiction

  12. What a brilliant piece of analysis. The section about employing a psychosocial approach to promote population stabilization through use of long running serialised dramas was both illuminating and encouraging. Furthermore, I pleased to see Dr. Bandura note the absurd efforts of policy makers in industrialzed countries (where zero or even negative growth is occuring) to implement policy to encourage women to have more children in the name of economic growth. Along the same lines I’m glad he pointed out how major environmental groups have dropped the ball on the issue overpopulation for fear of offending people.

    I often wonder why some realize the direness of our predicament while others appear blissfully unconcerned. Further, why is it that the issue of overpopulation has actually receded from public consciousness since the 70’s? Here’s an oddball (and only half-serious) theory– the lessoning of the population issue has corresponded with the widespread use of antidepressants in the late 80’s and early 90’s.

    Don’t get me wrong — sometimes the use of these drugs is highly warranted. However, in some cases they may be overprsecribed, allowing a drug to take the place of changes in lifestyle and outlook.

    Could it be that, in some cases, anxiety and depression are a natural response to an awarness that things aren’t right. Just a thought.

  13. Pingback: Dissecting group psychological and socio-moral mechanisms implicit to ecologically unwise behaviour « Mulig


    Alex: “Could it be that, in some cases, anxiety and depression are a natural response to an awarness that things aren’t right. Just a thought.”

    Hell yeah! This is just another way of stating the most important working hypothesis of my blog, that “people in general are way too afraid of the probable end result of global warming and manmade climate change to even contemplate the idea of actually trying to do something about it. It is my most basic argument that many people are extremely worried that the world ought to be saved.”

  15. I thought the extra of the video that was linked in the original heading to this article was worth watching.

    It provided visual answers to how to popularize the ideas in the article.

    I am not going to try to give an adequate answer to Mulig’s question.

    Africa is bigger and more diverse than North America.

    I can only sketch a few hints towards an answer.

    Individual Africans may not be able to secure loans, but their governments have done so.

    Africa is mostly locked inside the debt engine cycles whereby the people as a whole are enslaved by their own bullies benefiting from the systems built by the bigger global bullies.

    For every dollar given in aid, many more dollars are taken as interest payments on debts. The debt engines of fractional reserve banking are marcoeconomic policies of economic imperialism that enslave entire populations as a group.

    The same thing happens in North America, with the entire population of taxpayers being enslaved to pay off the national debts, that originally started because their governments gave away the power to make new money out of nothing as a debt to privately owned banks.

    The whole world is now trapped inside of that vicious cycle of exponentiall growing debts.

    Africa has even less ability to cope with that. Thus, the consequences of that are starker in Africa than in North America.

    The global fascist plutocracy is a sophisticated system of slavery, and Africans are at the bottom of the global pyramid.

    Africans were the most robbed by the global pirates. Most of the African’s own leaders have become their own worst local pirates.

    Overall, Africans are at the bottom of the pile of the people whose ancestors were most robbed, and are still being robbed the most.

    In that context, Africans suffer under the worst forms of death control.

    Mulig profoundly misunderstands my conception of “death control” if he thinks it is not present in Africa.

    Abstractly, “death control” is merely the total set of conditions in the environmental ecology that determines the rates and manner of deaths.

    The more human beings live inside of an artificial environment, the more that the death controls become an artificial selection determined by human behavior. (The bullies’ bullshit is about ways to avoid facing the social facts about how the death controls really are working.)

    In large parts of Africa, their artificial environment is not as significant as in the more developed parts of the world. Thus there still is more death control done by natural selection, than by artificial selection.

    (For instance, there is the simple artificial environment of a mosquito netting around the bed, that changes the natural selection rates caused by malaria.)

    The relative uniqueness of human beings is that our intelligence has internalized natural selection, as an artificial selection that takes place inside of the artificial environments that we live inside of.

    The essence of the bullies’ bullshit is to practice artificial selection in ways that denies and suppresses the social facts about doing that. That bullies’ bullshit is extremely significant because it is all of the dominant social stories that people are told about where they came from, and therefore how they should behave.

    Focusing on the lives of individual Africans is misleading, since the main factors which determine how they live and die are due to the overwhelming effects of the European invasions during the previous five hundred years.

    Those European invasions
    were the extreme forms of death control in the past which set up the overall conditions for the death controls in the present.

    Those European invasions evolved to become the economic imperialisms that control Africa now.

    The European bullies’ bullshit was transplanted into Africa in ways that had less checks and balances than the ways that bullshit worked in the lands that it originally evolved in.

    In every way, the death and debt controls that exist now in Africa are much worse than in the developed countries. The ordinary people were always less able to defend themselves, from the invaders, and still less able to defend themselves from their own bullies, that learned from the European bullies.

    The African bullies are far less restrained, because they learned to behave in the ways that the Europeans really treated them, while the African people did not learn any effective ways to resist being robbed.

    Africa has great natural resources, and probably the greatest potential human resources of any place on the planet. However, they are at the bottom of the global pryamid, and repressed by the history of that total system on top of them.

    As is the typical paradox, nobody else needs more to repudiate and move beyond the bullies’ bullshit world view than Africans, while nobody else will find that
    more difficult to do.

    One can find “slave societies” everywhere in the world. There are lots of third world countries that have a history of slavery and racism, and lots of third world-like communities inside of the most developed countries.

    In a typical psychological paradox, the people who were the most oppressed by bullies have tended to believe in the bullies’ bullshit the most.

    I read the entire article that started this as being an extremely intelligent and insightful analysis of how the bullies’ bullshit works.

    I found the video to be an interesting demonstration of how effective educational entertainment could be.

    Advertising works.

    However, advertizing is almost totally devoted to making thing worse for everybody else by the few bullies who profit in the short-term from other people believing in lies.

    On of the greatest ironic paradoxes is that, in the long-term, it is bad even for the bullies to believe in their own bullshit.

    There is enormous potential in effective educational enterainment changing the way people behave.

    Everything that is now working to drive people in one direct could be used to drive people in different directions.

    I love paradoxical political experiments, and “educational entertainment” surely seems to be one of those kinds of oxymorons.

    For instance, the extreme nature of the AIDS epidemic is driving educational enterainment to go places that it otherwise would have never dared to go.

    In the future, as the real consequences of many other kinds of human caused tragedies accumulate, we can expect there to manifest the motivation for much more radical eductional entertainment programs.

  16. Blair: “The global fascist plutocracy is a sophisticated system of slavery, and Africans are at the bottom of the global pyramid. / Africans were the most robbed by the global pirates. Most of the African’s own leaders have become their own worst local pirates. / Overall, Africans are at the bottom of the pile of the people whose ancestors were most robbed, and are still being robbed the most. / In that context, Africans suffer under the worst forms of death control.”

    Thank you. I understand what you mean, and as a Social Anthropologist with a background from social research in Nigeria, West Africa, all I can do is agree wholeheartedly with your views as concerns the (globalized) political situation of Africa and Africans in general.

    Blair: “Mulig profoundly misunderstands my conception of “death control” if he thinks it is not present in Africa.”

    I was thinking as much! As a matter of fact, after I put my question up, I was thinking exactly the same as you do: that there must be something I do not quite seem to grasp here. But the fact is the fact: if there really is a death control system at work in Africa, it is my belief that it can only come as a result as lessons learnt by the colonial authorities of the past.

    I can’t see that there are any real death control systems at work in the traditional African frame of mind. The thing is: I think the most important social fact of most every African woman’s life, is the fact that society has her conceived as a birth machine. Five children is often not enough, as the African woman needs to give birth to quite a few sons in order to be seen as a success story. If death control systems are at work in Africa, it is only on the global level, you might say. The fact that such a little amount of research on working medicines for typical tropical diseases is taking place is one of the examples I’m thinking of.

    P.S.: “Mulig” is the name of my blog. 🙂 — This is a Norwegian word translating to “possible.”

  17. Dear Friends,

    It appears to me that the family of humanity beginning to come face to face with a growing myriad of global challenges — air pollution, sea and land contamination, global warming, peak oil, diminishing global supplies of grain, overfishing, the dissipation of Earth’s scarce resources, desertification, deforestation, urban sprawl and autoban congestion are examples — the sum of which could soon become unsustainable given a finite planet with the relatively small size and make-up of Earth. What people generally appear not yet to see clearly enough is that these looming threats to human wellbeing and environmental health can be directly related to the current huge scale and anticipated growth of skyrocketing absolute global human population numbers.

    That is to say, the unrestrained increase of per-capita consumption of limited resources, the unbridled global expansion of human production/distribution capabilities, and the rapid rise of numbers of Homo sapiens worldwide are occurring synergistically and could be fast approaching a point in history when these distinctly human, global “over-growth” activities are patently unsustainable.

    What do you think about this view of the ominous, human-forced predicament that is looming on the far horizon? What additions, deletions other changes would you make to this admittedly brief and general description of humankind’s forbidding global circumstances?



  18. I hope to respond to some of the other comments later, but wanted to mention one small item.

    I liked the bit in the Bandura article which called attention to the fact that even the language of environmentalists is often watered down to where it lacks impact — the term “ecological footprint” being a prime example.

    Maybe the Footprint Network guys should consider a term change to something like “Ecological Destruction Score.”

  19. Magne wrote that:

    “If death control systems are at work in Africa, it is only on the global level, you might say.”

    In Africa, a large degree of the real death controls are not under human control. Most of the death control measures that are under human control were not set up by Africans for Africans.

    Most of Africa is still shell shocked from being invaded by the Europeans that set up the governing political and business systems. Governments are supposed to be the Sovereign units of death control, but lots of African countries were expedient fabrications of the colonial powers, and many of them are becoming failed states.

    Therefore, a lot of Africa already has a disorganized robbery system, which is arguably worse than any organized robbery system.

    The death controls in Africa are mostly either not controlled by Africans, or else controlled by Africans inside failed states, where their death control systems have already gone through substantial collapse into chaos.

    When bigger bullies like the United Nations come in with their bullshit, they typically come with impossible ideals that could not make things truly better.

    The European invasion came with a gun in one hand and a Bible in the other. Together those formed the main components of their bulling and their bullshitting.

    Europeans had more than a thousand years to practise their hypocrisy, in order to make their real systems be able to work, with a nod and a wink.

    The conquered Africans had their heads cut off and new heads grafted on. A
    delicate historical balance of forces has had little chance to develop.

    Africa can still not evolve any new internal human ecology without the overwhelming interference of the rest of the world.

    Europeans mastered the delicate skill of being robbers that rationalized their robbery. That skill was not transferred very well onto the Africa that was being robbed, and for whom that robbery was not being rationalized to benefit them.

    North America has news media that are controlled by a tiny elite, that interlocked with the global elite. North America has a very well-organized system of robbery, with a very well-developed bullshit story about what it is doing.

    We use mostly meaningless transcendental poetry about our “free and democratic society.” Most people either believe in that bullshit, or nod and wink when they say it. We know how to be sophisticated hypocrites. We actually benefit from living inside our own organized systems of fraud and robbery that serve our interests.

    That system is gradually getting more polarized, but the benefits are still widely distributed.

    Africans are struggling to try to be functioning hypocrites inside of social systems that can barely be justified as actually serving their real interests. The African social polarization is the most extreme, because, as whole, they already were at the short end of the stick.

    Steve asked:

    “What do you think about this view of the ominous, human-forced predicament that is looming on the far horizon?”

    I think that the failed states in Africa are an indication of what will happen elsewhere if we continue to try to resolve our real problems within the frame of reference of the bullies’ bullshit.

    Every time we temporarily prevent the outbreak of genocides, in ways that do nothing to address the root causes, we build the potential for even worse genocides to finally erupt in the future, when it gets so bad that there are no other options left.

    Steve asked questions about:

    “What additions, deletions other changes would you make to this admittedly brief and general description of humankind’s forbidding global circumstances?”

    What I would delete, as much as possible, is depending upon impossible ideals that have no existing structural reality, but only are empty words employed by bullies to hide what is real.

    Dr. Bandura’s article is a list of ways that the bullies’ bullshit works to control the world through huge lies, backed up with violence.


    2 Mechanisms of moral disengagement

    3 Social and moral justification

    4 Exonerative comparison

    5 Euphemistic language

    6 Displacement and diffusion of responsibility

    7 Disregarding, minimising, and disputing detrimental effect

    8 Dehumanisation and disparagement

    Those are the ways that the bullies’ bullshit rationalizes and justifies running its systems of organized robbery and fraud.

    Human beings live like robbers and rapists that are running amok. The bullies’ bullshit was developed to be able to justify doing that.

    The real truth is that we must necessarily live like robbers in our environment. Human culture can only build on that natural foundation. Human culture has mostly tried to build on that fundamental foundation with bullshit social stories that deny it exists, and must necessarily exist.

    Instead, of recognizing the real rates of robbery, and working to balance the rates of real robbery, we do everything possible to deny that robbery is robbery, which prevents us from seeing the reality we are creating.

    Human beings must kill to live, and always have the potential to reproduce at an unsustainable rate. These chronic political problems are being resolved by our civilization, but, in public, the bullies’ bullshit stories about what is happening dominates all debates.

    Bandura’s list of ways to bullshit ourselves are the main ways we accept that we are allowed to talk to each other in public.

    Meanwhile, the real world is running real systems of robbery, and doing real death control to support its fraudulent debt controls.

    The main places that these real things get discussed is inside of the various secret societies that knowingly use dishonesty and violence to achieve their objectives.

    Outside of that context, all public debates are based on impossible ideals which are extremely hypocritical, because they are impossible to ever exist in the real world. The real purpose of the bullies’ bullshit it to hide the truth from other people. As the generations pass, many of the people who inherent social power from the bullies actually start to believe in their own bullshit. The established bullies who believe in their own bullshit are even worse than the bullies who consciously know they are lying, since the former are further out of touch with reality than the latter.

    The bullies’ bullshit world view is dominant throughout all of our educational systems and mass media. Most people are brainwashed to believe in bullshit, and therefore, everything they try to do backfires badly.

    Attempting to build things using impossible ideals must make things worse in the real world, because the things being built according to impossible ideals must necessarily collapse in the real world.

    So what I would delete, as much as possible, is the bullies’ bullshit world view.

    What I would add, as much as possible, is facing the fundamental physical, biological and social facts.

    I would recommend we do not teach young people to believe in fairy tales, and we should not be proud of teaching them to believe in those huge lies.

    I have nothing against entertaining fictions, as long as we know they are fictions. However, way too many people in an advanced artificial world no longer recognize the difference between fact and fiction.

    Artificial environments are always still going to be inside the context of infinitely bigger natural environments. Artificial selection is always going to be inside the context of infinitely bigger natural selection.

    We are the Environment. That Environment is God.

    We have to play at being God when we create an artificial world to live within. However, our artificial selection should always remember and respect the natural selection that it is inside of, and from which it came.

    I would recommend that we teach young people to understand that they must necessarily live as real robbers in their environment, and that their society must necessarily be some system of organized robbery.

    I would teach them the truth that they are already part of that system, and that they need to try to take responsibility for it all.

    I would delete all attempts to promote reactionary revolutions that are supposed to make impossible ideals become real. I would promote ideals about peace as something that only actually exists as a dynamic equilibrium of war.

    I would add more efforts towards scientific revolution to understand what already actually exists, and how to make it work.

    I would recycle, as much as possible, old-fashioned religions and ideologies, to provide raw materials for more scientific method developing a post-modernizing morality.

    I would look for the deeper moral principles and ethical parables that are still valid ways to guide us to survive in the future.

    I would delete all specific moral commandments that happened to work in the past, unless they could be scientifically justified as conducive to long-term survival of the biggest units of survival.

    I would reach back to ancient animism and mysticism, to grasp those to then go forward to synthesize those with post-modernizing sciences and technology.

    I would attempt to go back to understand the world before Neolithic Civilization, to try to have a foundation to go forward towards a Translithic Civilization.

  20. John,

    As a matter of fact, I also found that part of the article interesting. I mean we’re dealing with so much “doublespeak”. In this respect I can only say that I feel “happy” about the reference to human activity evident in the term “manmade climate change.”

    Not that I’m HAPPY about the same manmade climate change, of course. But then: I know how easy it is for people to misinterpret everything I have to say. Uh. 😳 You certainly know what I mean by that. By the way: I quite “like” the new term Ecological Destruction Score.

    To Steve I would like to say: The one thing that needs to be said in addition to what you have said so far, is (most probably): We’re in urgent need of political leaders who are perfectly HONEST about the situation we find ourselves in. As it is, Blair is correct about everything he has to say about the bullies’ bullshit. International politics, as seen in context of the scientific consensus of the IPCC, is an utter farce.

  21. Blair: “The European invasion came with a gun in one hand and a Bible in the other. Together those formed the main components of their bulling and their bullshitting.”

    That’s true. And as a matter of fact, when I was in Nigeria I remember reading a sociology report on the advent of christianity and the effect it had on the number of childbirths taking place in a woman’s life. The sociologist behind this report (name long forgotten) showed and explained that the number of childbirths per woman grew quite massively as the new family structure became one of one husband, one wife — and not, as it used to be, one husband, several wives. Now, the findings of this report corresponds with findings from East Africa as well, where reports have concluded that women living in polygamous marriages (one husband, several wives) are giving birth more seldomly than women living in christian (one man, one woman) marriages do. In effect, one might say that polygamy is good news to those of us who seek to reduce the average female number of child births.

    – —

    Blair: “I would reach back to ancient animism and mysticism, to grasp those to then go forward to synthesize those with post-modernizing sciences and technology.”

    Agreed. That’s what I do anyway. Right now I’ve reached the point in which I can do nothing than treat humans as mammals.

  22. 😉

    Another thing:

    Carbon sequestration: SEE QUEST: RATION. 😉

    I mean: why are we not discussing the original idea of issuing every individual person with a ration of carbon dioxide emissions, and allow for some trading going on between individuals?

  23. Dear Friends,

    This particular thread is turning into what looks like an extremely significant discussion. There are some ideas that have been incubating in my mind for quite a long time that I am going to try and communicate in a reasonable and sensible way in the next two days. Please bear with me.

    Also, thanks to Blair and Magne for your always helpful comments. Thoughts on what I hope to bring forth are invited from everyone in this astonishingly aware and courageous community.

    When I was a child, I learned two lessons:

    1. Those who can do; those who cannot teach.

    2. Science is for sissies.



  24. fyi, I tried to summarize the Bandura paper in this post. Since it is so long and academic in tone, I hope a distillation will encourage more people to read the whole thing, … and maybe my version of his diagram of moral disengagement will shed some light. 😉 I found his difficult.

    Now I’ll try to catch up on the dicussion here.

  25. Trinifar, you have a talent for diagrams!

    I wish you could work with animators
    to make cartoon versions of such info.

    However, that would take a team,
    and more resources that we have.

    But nevertheless, I think that
    Bandura’s own video examples
    indicate the directions that may
    show educational entertainment.

    I have daydreamed about something
    I would call spiritual/scientific opera.

    Opera is a wedding of music & drama.

    For example, imagine something like
    Fantasia, but to dramatize problems.

    Of course, I have no real way to do that.

    However, I feel your talent
    with graphs & diagrams is
    begging to be animated …

  26. Blair,

    Thanks for the compliment. Sadly it usually takes me a long time (hours) to make just one diagram/chart/graph with which I’m happy — which probably explains why I see so many that can be improved. Their authors didn’t have or wouldn’t take that sort of time, which I understand. We do what we can with the skills and resources at hand and time is one of those.

    Animation intrigues me, but then I think of the time it would take to do it well or even just good enough. And that explains why there are so few great animations out there in this space (sustainability). The easy ones have all been done (doubling time, for example). The more interesting ones are devilishly complex and, as you say, require a team to be produced well — a team or one individual with a lot of time, skill, and knowledge.

    Still, I share your vision of a Fantasia-like science/opera of sustainability. I’ve done some engineering simulation work and it’s sort of quilty pleasure. “Guilty” because it’s never been in a space that really mattered other than to produce dollars for a large corporation, but a pleasure becuase it’s just so rewarding to make things come alive. Immediate feedback is addictive, hence the plethora of simulation-based games. Producing a sustainability game that captures the popular imagination without compromising real data and science is one of my most cherised fantasies.

  27. Steve,

    I look forward to reading about “the ideas that have been incubating in your mind for quite a long time.” But before you start, please spend a little while thinking about the result of some of my googling here.

    Searching for the English term “environment” I got about 420.000.000 hits. For the French term “environnement” I got about 42.300.000 hits. For the German term “umwelt” I got about 41.200.000 hits. For the Spanish term “ambiente” I got about 98.200.000 hits.

    I dod this only to illustrate how massive the number of environmentally minded people around. And yet nothing good as concerns the environemnt at large seems to be happening.

    All this goes to say that I just do not believe there is a real need for awareness campaigns no more. I believe the time has come for motivating people to take action based on the awareness they’ve already got. It is not going to be easy though. ‘Cause nobody in his/her right mind can say that they’re aware of things that are pleasing to the mind. And that’s the same challenge that has been racing in my mind since 2004: it is yet again the challenge of informed humanity: how do we motivate the people of this world to act upon the awareness that has been developed in them over some time?

    I wish I knew the answer.

  28. Steve,

    What do you think about this view of the ominous, human-forced predicament that is looming on the far horizon? What additions, deletions other changes would you make to this admittedly brief and general description of humankind’s forbidding global circumstances?

    To the description you gave, I’d add Bandura’s eight mechanisms of moral disengagement, because those mechanisms enable us to continue business-as-usual. In his conconclusion he wrote, “_If we are to be responsible stewards of our environment for future generations, we must make it difficult to disengage moral sanctions from ecologically destructive practices._”

    How do we do that?

    My thoughts are turning more and more to civil disobedience. It worked in the civil rights and Viet Nam war eras in the United States. It worked in India during the drive toward that countries independence. Some of our congressional representatives haven’t forgotten how to do it. From the April 28, 2006 San Francisco Chronicle:

    Five members of Congress, including Rep. Tom Lantos (D-San Mateo) were arrested today when they blocked the front entrance at the Embassy of Sudan in Washington, D.C. Their protest and civil disobedience was designed to embarrass the military dictatorship’s ongoing genocide of its non-Arab citizens.

    (Lantos, who recently died, was 78 at the time.)

    It would be a way to get media attention and in fact news outlets would be a good primary target as they are shirking their public duty. Although awareness has spread, I disagree with Magne that it’s sufficiently acknowledged. Bandura agrues quite ably why that’s so. We need to push awareness to a tipping point after which our elected representatives will have no choice but to attend to our most vital concerns.

  29. Trinifar,

    You’ve got me there. I do believe that a shady kind of climate change awareness is already in place, but that we have what might be a relatively long way to go when it comes to the general acknowledgement part of the drama. And this will surely be a drama! Believe me: there are so many social, psychological, economic, political, et., etc., etc. forces yet to conquer and overcome.

    But me: I’m not ready to accept that I shall have to think of the awareness bit no more. What will become important (godspeed!) eventually, is the issue of climate change resolve. You could say I am jumping tracks here, and getting prepared for the inevitable; which would certainly have to do with a general acknowledgement of whole sets of ecological problems at hand.

    Believe me: we are getting there. — Somehow and some time. I need to know that. If I do not get to know that, I’ll be going insane. 😉

  30. Dear Friends,

    I am going ramble a bit now.

    The questions and ‘answers’ (ha!) that keep coming to mind are these:

    1. Where is the beginning?

    It appears global challenges and threats like climate change and resource depletion are direct results of the huge scale and unbridled growth of human over-consumption, overproduction and overpopulation activities worldwide, which are occurring synergistically and at an accelerating rate everywhere on the surface of the Earth. We have to begin to see the ways human beings colossally interfere in the workings of the natural world. But of all the ways human interference occurs in the world we inhabit, such interference BEGINS with the propagation of the human species. I would like to submit to you that more people equals more interference; less people equals less interference; and, in any case, no people means no human interference.

    2. How has it been possible for there to be a six-fold increase in absolute global human population numbers in the past 150 years?

    We have learned from the good science of Hopfenberg and Pimentel something simple and straightforward: human population numbers are a function of food supply and the population dynamics of Homo sapiens are essentially similar to, not different from, the population dynamics of other species. Therefore, from a global population perspective, more food equals more people; less food equals less people and no food means no people. The spectacular improvements of food production and distribution capabilities in the 20th century alone have unexpectedly given rise to the skyrocketing human numbers we see overspreading the Earth today.

    3. How is the near-exponential growth of human population numbers supposed to stop?

    According to Hopfenberg and Pimentel, the human population will grow as long as food is made available to the species and will not level off in the middle of this century as has been projected ubiquitously by the normal science of human population dynamics. Normal science has no sensible explanation for how the stabilization of population numbers of the human species on Earth in the year 2050 will automatically occur, given the fully anticipated young age distribution of a global population of 9+/- billion people at that time. Normal science has nothing reasonable to say about how billions of fertile young people, who are expected to be capable of reproducing in 2050, will be doing with their sexual instincts and drives other than what human beings have been doing during the past several thousand years.

    4. If we can so clearly see the nearly exponential increase of absolute global human population numbers, can we not to begin now to acknowledge that what goes up can (must) also come down?

    If human numbers have increased rapidly, per Hopfenberg and Pimentel, then the human species can choose to take responsibility for decreasing its numbers just as quickly. According to good scientific evidence produced slowly and incrementally over the past 30 to 40 years by Dr. Jack Alpert, but not yet reasonably and sensibly examined either here or elsewhere, the implementation of a “one child per family” policy would result in a rapid decline in the global human population. Jack is advocating the formation of a constituency large enough to persuade people of child-bearing age that having one child per family is the most powerful, reasonable and sensible way to protect the future for their children and to preserve the Earth for coming generations. This is not to say that all the responsibility for saving life as we know it and the integrity of Earth falls upon this group of people. Of course not. Every human being will have a role to play in mitigating the damage being done now as human beings ravage and threaten to overrun the Earth. For example, people who over-consume will be given incentives to consume less; people who produce goods and deplete resources in ecologically unsound ways will be prohibited from engaging in unsustainable business practices.

    Perhaps here is a good place to stop, at least for the moment.



  31. I am in favour of civil disobedience as one of the tools to work towards change.

    All resistance is assistance.

    However, I do not think that anything we could do even gets remotely close to the real problems of how crazy and corrupt our political systems already are.

    Huge lies, backed up with violence, already ARE triumphant.

    There already IS a global debt engine system running full speed, creating more and more debt, which is enslaving more people more deeply all the time, making them have to run faster and faster on the treadmill to try to keep up.

    The most extremely wealthy and powerful people already got to be that way by being the best at dishonesty and violence.

    Their system has already been built, and they already used their power and wealth to buy control over at least 95% of the mass media.

    The main reason why we are still allowed freedom of expression on the Internet is that it provides a trivial token of freedom, inside of a real context where it simply does not matter much.

    Any gesture of civil disobedience is swamped and drowned out by the overwhelming information overload bombarding people.

    For ever effort to product some good educational entertainment, there are orders of magnitude more being done to make “profits” inside of the established systems of huge lies.

    As far as I know, there is NOTHING that will work, except maybe when things get bad enough to force more people to become radicalized.

    Right now, attempting to influence practical politicians has to face the facts that they care about getting elected, and they know that they can not do that unless they both are actually backed by the wealthy and powerful, as well as are able to fool enough of the other people enough of the time to vote for them.

    Look into the details of the history of the monetary systems, and you will see how dishonesty and violence have prevailed.

    Try to change anything about the way human beings behave, and you have to change the money systems that have become the main thing that controls their lives.

    However, try to change the monetary system and you should hope to fail to become significant, because, if you did become significant, then there is an extremely high probability that you will be assassinated.

    The people who control the world now with money and power did not get there through civil disobedience.

    They got there from ruthless lies and coercions.

    We are allowed to “protest” because we are practically insignificant in the bigger picture of the propaganda wars.

    My view is that democracy is already so completely corrupted that it is terminally ill, and is going to die, with some hope to become reborn.

    What I predict will happen is that the established systems will spin out of control, because they are being controlled by huge lies that are inevitably getting further and further away from reality.

    That can not be stopped by promoting the truth, because violence will short-circuit any rising truth telling.

    Instead, what will happen is that things will get way, way worse, as the huge lies that control society become more insanely out of touch with the real world.

    That will radicalize more people. Eventually, I predict that some new elite from the scientific community will emerge that will use new systems of lies and coercions to effectively fight against and defeat the old systems.

    The transnational community of scientists, engineers, and technicians are already inside of all the real systems, and actually make them work. They are not the absentee owners. They are the living components.

    The growing gap between the huge lies that control people and the real world will eventually be bridged by the emergence of a transnational scientific community that will develop instruments of selection to fight against and defeat the old elites.

    They will more come from inside of the established systems, than from outside, but they will be forced to break out of the old established systems, like being hatched from an egg.

    Most of the most important things will happen secretly. After those mostly secret conflicts work themselves through, then there might come some future point where a new kind of fake democracy ratifies those changes.

    The established fascist plutocracy already controls our fake democracy by having overwhelming control over the means of communication. All symbolic protests are already inside of that context, and are only controlled oppositions that provide some illusion that there is some opposition.

    The real world is controlled by dishonesty backed up with violence, and that is what will change to control the new world that emerges after the old world dies.

    IF, IF, IF, there ever were a series of political miracles to make civil disobedience work to energize real democracy, to start a real revolution against the established fascist plutocracy, then that would soon be required to become radical to try to survive the backlash from the fascist plutocracy.

    Even IF an emerging real democracy could gain enough popular support to do anything significant, it would then have to fight for its life against those who would not respect the ideals of democracy when attempting to kill that movement.

    IF, IF, IF, civil disobedience was ever successful enough to begin to legalize a democratic revolution, then that would precipitate a backlash that would not hesitate to use violence to back up their lies.

    It is impossible to have any sane environmental movement as long as we have fundamentally fraudulent financial accounting systems making all of our economic decisions be made inside of that irrational frame of reference.

    The banksters are the biggest group in the private property parties that control most governments.

    Any attempt to change their power is like attempting to fight organized crime on an astronomically large scale.

    They enjoy their debt control due to the history of the their death control.

    Any real effort to change their systems of organized fraud and robbery inevitably has to use death controls too, because that is the crucial path of least resistance, and most variability, that already does control civilization.

    This actually is one of the fundamental principles of general systems theory, that applies to human civilizations.

    Most of the real governments are secret governments. Most of the public politics is a show put on by the private parties.

    Most probably, nothing can really stop the big established systems, but their own eventual internal failures.

    Living our lives according to belief in huge lies shall eventually cause civilization to collapse into chaos. No effort to promote more truth can be successful without the paradoxical resolution of the social facts regarding death controls.

    That is why I predict that there will be a new elite, emerging out of the transnational scientific community, that is radicalized by having their truth continue to be ignored, that will secretly develop instruments of selection, that can do more death control, to actually resist those doing the death controls now.

    At the present time, we are still living in the relative calm before the storm.

    We are only near the peak of peak oil, and peak everything else.

    We are not yet riding down hill.

    We are only beginning to see run-away climate change.

    We are not yet being overwhelmed by the consequences of climate change.

    When those social storms break wide open and are really roaring, then I expect the transnational scientific community to be forced to become more effective, and to do what is necessary to defeat the old elites that control the world with their old systems of lies and coercions at present.

    Civil disobedience only makes symbolic sense inside of our present moment in history, as a way for a club of friends to have fun enjoying their sense of solidarity, while they try to do something worthwhile.

    I am not against that, but I think we should put it in proper perspective.

    Democracy is never going to work unless enough citizens became enlightened enough to democratize their death control, which would make it possible to democratize their debt controls, which would make the rest of the transformations possible to be integrated systematically into a viable system of alternatives.

    There is no reason to believe that is remotely possible to actually do without real events beyond human control forcing people to change, and thereby radicalizing them.

    The real world is already controlled by dishonesty backed up with violence, and that fundamentally can not be changed.

    The only way we can do anything real is to try to make a greater use of information inside of new systems of lies and coercions, to build and maintain new systems of fraud and robbery.

    That new reality will emerge not because it “should” happen, but because it shall happen when the social storms force things to change.

    It is not about who should control in order that the group will survive, as much as it is who will control in the group that does survive.

    There are already significant secret societies that provide the secret governments behind the public governments.

    Those secret societies can expect to have secret revolutions occur within them.

    Those secret revolutions will change the secret societies, which in turn will change the public governments.

    At the same time as things get bad enough to require more martial law, the military itself will fragment, and I expect that there will be a transnational scientific community within those fragments that will take over.

    At the present time, I see hints that some of the biggest old established crime gangs are being taken over by their accountants.

    That is part of the pattern of information becoming more important than physical power.

    As long as human beings are not destroyed so badly as to be totally wiped out, then our intelligence is still going to flourish and struggle to survive.

    Eventually, the biggest old crime gangs will be transformed from within, and/or defeated from without, by new kinds of crime gangs, and they will eventually provide the new elites that will provide the new governments.

    IF, IF, IF, it were possible to get more people to understand this, then we could have more democratization of these changes. However, civil disobedience that does not understand this is not going to be enough. Civil disobedience based on impossible ideals is merely another eccentric social club, which may well be fun for its members, but can not truly change things.

    The most difficult dilemma for the scientific community is to go through the necessary paradigm shift in political science, to face the ultimately paradoxical truth that society is controlled by lies.

    Those lies can only fly because they were thrown by force, and kept going with force.

    In the end, it is the grand oroboris, the classic snake that swallows its tail, transcending its reality.

    The path of least resistance and least morality in human society inevitably makes its control be done by lies and coercions.

    Civil disobedience only works relatively within a context of conflict where one’s opponents are still going to be civil.

    Any real effort to really change things must eventually deal directly with the social facts that those who are in control now are there because of their history of being abused, and thus learning to become the best at being dishonest and violent.

    It will be in the coming crucible of collapse and chaos that people will be forced to cope with change.

    As I have said in previous posts, the real solutions are all going to be some form of death control, and facing the social facts about genocides is the only way to maybe make them become not as bad as they otherwise would become.

    Everything we can do is due to the existence of energy and its increasing entropy.

    Increasing entropy is, by definition, increasing evil.

    The real future will go through an overall increase in entropy, and the surviving systems will be entropic pumps.

    A new elite may emerge to be able to organize new systems of fraud and robbery.

    That new elite will come from the transformations, or the seeds, of the old elites, and their systems of lies and coercions running their systems of organized frauds and robberies.

    Endless growth IS absolute madness because it is IMPOSSIBLE.

    Some systems of conserving energy in non-linear functions have to evolve, and will become the new kinds of human and industrial ecology, that integrate what must be integrated from the natural ecology.

    Although most people will be tiny components within those systems, that cooperate with others, the overall system itself will be organized robbery.

    We will see some kinds of ecological succession, whereby the kinds of frauds and robberies that worked best before are gradually replaced by new systems of lies and coercions that operate more efficient systems of frauds and robberies in those new conditions.

    If educational entertainment to change belief in the bullies’ bullshit was to truly become more effective, then it would broaden the base of the elite to democratize the death and debt controls, to make more people responsible members of that elite.

    The irony would be that the greatest use of information and higher consciousness would make everyone members of the secret societies that controlled governments.

    That grand spiral would make as many people as possible participate in the death and debt control decisions.

    That transformation would be resisted by the tiny elite that is doing so now, and is doing everything it can to kept other people too ignorant and afraid to understand and participate.

    Civil disobedience is merely a protest technique.

    Anyone who seriously wants their protest to become effective has to take responsibility for actually becoming the government.

    To actually become the government means that group takes over the already established social systems of frauds and robberies, and changes them.

    As I say, I love paradoxical political experiments, and none would be more so than educational entertainment to enable more people to understand and participate in the death controls that rule their lives.

  32. Would it be possible that our common future might come to be one of ecological degradation acceptance? That would be grouse. But I don’t think it is absolutely impossible, though. It’s just that if “ecological degradation acceptance” will be the real deal, then … please! …

    Sorry, but I can’t just discard this disasterous possibility, though. As absolutely nothing is happening in the area of emissions reductions, no matter what all sorts of politicians are saying. It’s just way too costly, eh?

  33. Magne, I think we (society at large) have come to accept ecological degradation and did so long ago. We’ve taken the lead out of gasoline and much of the soot from the skies, but we still happily cut down forests, pollute water, and allow urban sprawl and have been doing so for a couple of hundred years as the human population has become more dense.

  34. True.

    But I’m thinking about the sanity of too many people here — millions of people — who have invested a lot of their time thinking and writing about global warming, manmade climate change and a whole lot of other problems. I mean: sorry. This is turning out to be a bit too 1984 for my liking. If such an enormous lot of people are going to start dealing with the fact that they just have to cope with all the terribly bad knowledge they’ve got now, concerning the VERY SLOW but extremely certain destruction of all the life support systems of this … heh! … I know that I am going to go crazy, I can tell you that much …

    This whole thing might be just too “1984” for me to handle much longer. I mean: if I shall have to become forgetful in order for me to be “normal” in a society where ignorance truly is strength. I wonder. I wonder. I’m twisting and turning and shaking my head in bewilderment.

    “Slow biosphere destruction acceptance.” Heh?! Where’s my lifeboat?

  35. Steve,

    I too have wondered about those projections for the population leveling off at 9 billion or so near the middle of the century.

    Normal science has nothing reasonable to say about how billions of fertile young people, who are expected to be capable of reproducing in 2050, will be doing with their sexual instincts and drives other than what human beings have been doing during the past several thousand years.

    My guess is the projections assume higher death rates in those areas with a large portion of young people — a grim prospect indeed. It begars belief to think that in the next 40 years all regions will suddenly achieve a 2.1 FTR or less through equal rights for women, universal education, and economic development. Sadly, though, it’s quite easy to believe that the food production industry will not be able to keep up with the growing population in the face of land degradation, water shortages, and producing more fuel from crops. Paul’s essay on Africa is not extreme in my view. Every region with high population growth faces the same fate.

  36. Time is relative. There’s nothing more relative than time. Now, I’m thinking of a hypothetical situation in which there is no real breakthrough in the negotiations of emissions reductions in 2009, and everything remains just business-as-usual, status quo, and a common realization that we’re going to destroy this planet’s life support systems now, slowly but certainly, over the next couple of hundred years, perhaps. Although we can’t know how much time it is going to take us to make this planet virtually uninhabitable, we’re sure going to do so. It’s only a question of when. Of course everyone will dread the thought of a final countdown, so they just take an ignorance pill every morning before they go to work and a nightmare destructible sleep motivation pill in the evening before they go to bed?

    No. I can’t believe that we are going to allow this to be the new deal. Now, surely! We can’t be that dumb. Or can we?! I know Paul Chefurka would say it could actually end this way. —

  37. Blair,

    As far as I know, there is NOTHING that will work, except maybe when things get bad enough to force more people to become radicalized.

    Well, things will be getting bad pretty fast, so I don’t think we’ll be short of motivators. The question will be our response. Will we react postivitely by changing the way the economy works and our lifestyles — or will we sit back and watch Pakistan and India exchange missiles tipped with nuclear warheads, or watch Africa implode, or any number of other dire scenarios playout?

  38. – — 8)

    Who got the giggles?
    You got the giggles, they got the giggles
    Everybody got the giggles
    Who got the giggles?
    You got the giggles, they got the giggles
    Everybody got the giggles

  39. Dear Magne,

    You report above that if “there is no real breakthrough in the negotiations of emissions reductions in 2009, and everything remains just business-as-usual, status quo, and a common realization that we’re going to destroy this planet’s life support systems now, slowly but certainly, over the next couple of hundred years, perhaps.”

    A large part of what is worrying me is this: the family of humanity appears not to have “a couple of hundred years” to make necessary changes in its over-consumption lifestyles, in the unsustainable overproduction practices of big-business enterprises, and the overpopulation activities of those who are fed enough to exist in squalor. Humankind may not be able to protect life as we know it and the integrity of Earth for even two more decades.

    If we project the fully anticipated growth of increasing and unbridled per-capita consumption, of rampantly expanding economic globalization and of propagating 75 million newborns per annum, will someone please explain to me how our seemingly endless growth civilization proceeds beyond the end of year 2012.

    According to my admittedly simple estimations, if humankind keeps doing just as it is doing now, without doing whatsoever is necessary to begin modifying the business-as-usual course of our endless-growth-oriented civilization, then the Earth could sustain life as we know it for a time period of about 5 more years.

    It appears to me that all the happy talk of a benign path through a ‘bottleneck’ to population stabilization, and to good times ahead in 2050, is not more than wishful and magical thinking.

    Even top rank scientists have not found a way to communicate to humanity what people somehow need to hear and see: the reckless dissipation of Earth’s limited resources, the relentless degradation of Earth’s frangible environment, and the destruction of the Earth as a fit place for human habitation by the human species, when taken together, appear to be proceeding toward the precipitation of a catastrophic ecological wreckage of some sort unless, of course, the world’s gigantic, artificially designed, manmade global economy continues to speed headlong toward the point of its unsustainability and collapses first.



  40. Thank you for posting this incredible article. I’ve put a link to it page on my website: Orangutan Outreach —

    While people continue to tell themselves it’s ok to destroy the environment, some of our closest cousins are being pushed to the brink of extinction.

    Orangutan are peaceful red apes living only on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra. Their forest home is being razed to the ground in order to make room for oil palm plantations. While Brazil gets a fair share of media coverage, Indonesia barely gets a nod.

    We need to stop the destruction before it’s too late. The orangutans are suffering an unimaginably cruel fate and desperately need our help!

    Learn more about orangutans and how you can help protect them at the Orangutan Outreach website:

    Thanks again for such a wonderful article!

    Richard Zimmerman
    Director, Orangutan Outreach
    Reach out and save the orangutans!

  41. An essential point about


    is that it accelerates FAST,

    after it finally gets going …

    You probably have all heard the story about the lily pad growing at a rate that it will take 30 days until it covers the whole pond … on the 28th day, only one quarter is covered, but on the 29th day, it is half covered, while on the 30th day, it has reached its limit of covering the whole pond. Earlier on, everything seems O.K., but towards the end, things got covered over at a rapidly crazy rate.

    Exponential growth seems great, at the beginning, but becomes extremely bad during the last couple of doubling times.

    The question is, where are we at right now?

    My guess is that we are close to the limits of the possible growth of the human population.

    It seems clearly impossible to keep on doubling every few decades for a few hundred years, and it is absolutely impossible to keep on doing that for thousands of years.

    The question is how close are we now to the most important turning point in human history, which is the point at which our mad exponential growth stops?

    Along with many other people who have seriously looked at this, I find it hard to believe that the human population could double even one more time.

    With extraordinary changes in our industrial ecology, then we might keep on doubling for a while longer.

    However, anything that could achieve those extraordinary changes in industrial ecology would also make it possible to do what would be better, which is stop the madness of endless exponential growth with better human ecology.

    I think that what Web sites like this are all about is the attempt to prepare to understand what is going to happen, to be able to facilitate other people understanding it, when it finally becomes more obvious to all in the real world.

    In the real world today, everything is almost totally business as normal, and there is no significant change in our industrial or human ecologies. They are still growing fast, on a one way express trip to hell, which is indicated by the facts that we continue to destroy our natural ecologies.

    Nobody in the developed world is really yet being forced to change much.

    We are not yet being radicalized by hitting the real limits to growth, but only being radicalized by imagining how fast we are accelerating towards hitting those possible limits in the foreseeable future.

    It is like attempting to imagine the coming hurricane, when one is still sitting comfortably on the beach, sipping a cool drink.

    At what point do we roll up our towel and head to higher ground?

    I think we are already seeing the storm clouds on the horizon now. We no longer need satellite photos to tell us which way the wind is blowing.

    Obviously, I agree with Trinifar, and almost everybody else that seriously studies these issues that:

    ” …things will be getting bad pretty fast, so I don’t think we’ll be short of motivators.”

    Even hundreds of years ago, at the beginning of the industrial revolution,
    anybody with a sufficiently brilliant imagination could see this was eventually going to happen.

    Certainly, ever since the early 1970s, there has been solid scientific basis to KNOW there were going to be real limits to exponential growth, and that we SHOULD change.

    However, all the entrenched systems reacted to that knowledge by redoubling their efforts to keep their systems going.

    By and large, that is the business as usual all over the world, with lies and coercions driving frauds and robberies to continue to turn natural resources into people and pollution as fast as possible, while pretending there is nothing wrong with doing that, and that we should keep on doing it more and more, forever and forever …

    Since the most wealthy and powerful people are those who were the best at being dishonest, and backing that up with violence, the real morality of people is the morality of robbers and rapists running amok.

    Most ordinary decent people do not recognize that they are doing that, but nevertheless, they are inside of a system that does it. They take for granted that they are making money, but very, very few of them really understand how the monetary systems work, which is that they are
    debt engines designed to have to drive at exponentially growing rates.

    It clearly is on the verge of ceasing to be possible to continue to do that mad growth, and yet, every system is built to do that, and those systems have nothing in place to change themselves, but collapse into chaos as their alternative.

    The factional reserve banking systems are the best example of this problematique.

    We have debt engines that make new money out of nothing except the borrower’s promise to repay. That exponentially growing debt load is financing the strip-mining of the planet. However, since almost all money is based on debt, if we paid off the debts, then there would be no money supply, and all economic activity would collapse into chaos, since there would be no money to pay for anything, and thus this entire accounting system would grind to a halt, if the debt engines stopping constantly making more and more new debts.

    The international banksters who made that fraudulent financial accounting system achieved that through a long history of the triumph of every kind of possible deceit and destruction.

    That fascist plutocracy is entrenched with many trillions of dollars of assets under their control, including the best mercenaries, and effective control of most governments’ armed forces.

    That fascist plutocracy effectively controls an overwhelming amount of the total means of communication.

    Thus, in that context, how are we going to actually do anything?

    As I said, I do not think we can do anything until real forces beyond human control assist us by forcing most people to become radicalized.

    The role we might hope for is to prepare for the future, by attempting to understand what is happening, so that we might be able to facilitate more people understanding these things, when they are finally forced to face the facts that they have been brainwashed to ignore before.

    That is why I keep on returning to the real facts about death and debt controls, because those are the things that explain why the situation is like it is now, and those are the things that will change, and should be changed.

    I think we are headed faster and faster towards the real limits to growth of the established systems.

    I do not think we are far away from hitting the real limits to the continued growth of the established systems, because we are approaching those limits at an exponentially accelerating rate.

    More than anything else, to make the changes in our industrial ecology, we have to change the financial accounting system from being an exponentially growth debt engine driving everything else to have to go the same way.

    Stopping that happening can NOT be done by any kind of tinkering reform within the mainstream.

    It MUST necessarily be a real, radical, revolution.

    To do that real, radical, revolution requires we face the facts that it was the death controls that made and maintained those debt engines to begin with.

    It is already integrated, and it should be changed as an integrated system of alternatives.

    The keystone is the death controls in the human ecology. Radical changes in that could hold together a radically different design for the shape of human society. Any real attempt to change the debt controls will inevitably require changing the death controls anyway, since we will be attempting to change the biggest gangs of criminals, that operate their system to control other people now, and some of them will surely fight back in the same ways they always used to do, which is try to kill any alternatives that they do not like.

    Indeed, any successful revolution requires that some of the ruling class and some of the military join it.

    A lot of what is happening is that the ruling class can also see they are trapped inside of their own debt engines too, and some of the military are also aware that the traditional death control capacities have become a lethal trap for them too.

    The lynch pin to this train of changes is the funding of the political process, because that is what made the corruption of the governments possible, in order to legalize the lies that made and maintain the debt engines.

    Another aspect of this problematique is that a lot of the political process is now the ways that the mass media promote their propaganda of endless growth, etc., and support the politicians that serve the interests of the fascist plutocracy, that are addicted to keeping their own lusts for power going and growing.

    Changing the outcomes in the political process will require Bandura’s kind of effective educational entertainment to reach a lot of people, who might become more susceptible to those messages after more real things around them radicalize them to think, instead of cruise with their brainwashed autopilots, relying on the morbid social habits in the herd around them.

    For several decades, I have been anticipating that people working in various corporations might become motivated to want more than their paycheck, to be able to be consumers.

    I have been hoping that more of the workers that make things happen might start to demand more meaning from their work.

    However, that greater meaning has to be radical and revolutionary, or else it is pathetically inadequate.

    I think that a lot of deep discontent is present already.

    However, it is still mostly disorganized, and people are still too trapped inside the religion of money to be able to demand more than wages for doing their jobs.

    At some point, I hope that the radicalization of more people will facilitate more of them finally understanding the kinds of radical changes that they have to demand and make happen.

    What we are playing at in Web sites like this one, and literally millions of other similar groups around the world, are ways to try to understand what is happening and what we could do about it.

    I do not think we will be able to continue business as usual for too much longer, even if we wanted to.

    I think there will be plenty of real things to force people to become radicalized, and that we could catalyse those changes with organizing information that would assist people to understand their situations.

    I dislike what I call the reactionary revolutionaries, who do a good analysis of the problems, but then offer bullshit solutions based on going backwards to some old-fashioned religions or ideologies.

    We have to go forward, and we are going to be forced to go forwards faster and faster in the foreseeable future.

    Eventually, the means of production and the means of communication will have to be commandeered to be used to face the changed circumstances.

    The real systems are based on real robbery, and changing the rates of robbery is the only thing which is sufficient to solve the real problems.

    No lesser changes that stay within the mainstream of the established systems is going to be enough. These systems must be radicalized and go through paradigm shifts. There have to be radically different systems of death and debt control and nothing less could ever be enough to systematically work.

    Certainly, nothing that lets the established fractional reserve banking system continue could actually solve any other problems without also solving that.

    Effective educational entertainments are going to be steps along the way to enable more people to understand and be motivated to do what they need to do.

    The laws can be changed from the legalized lies that run the debt engines now, to some new systems of lies, that will run different sets of debt controls.

    I emphasize again that it is impossible to reconcile human activity with the natural environment as long as we continue running a fundamentally fraudulent financial accounting system, that can not be reconciled with the real world, except through its hidden aspects, which depended upon forces to back up its frauds.

    Human beings can not make energy out of nothing, and when we appear to make money out of nothing, what is really happening is a huge fraud perpetrated by an elite upon everyone else.

    That huge fraud drives all of the rest of the social polarization and the destruction of the natural world.

    Since even the death control has to be paid for, and the funding of the political process, and the power to communicate with people, made and maintains the legalized lies that control the world now, it is most crucial to continue to try to change the way politics is funded.

    The power to communicate could be changed, so that people could become informed of more radical truth, and demand more real, radical, revolution in their monetary systems, which is what they need most.

    However, since doing that necessarily returns to the reality of the death controls that made those debt controls in the first place, the full spiral of scientific revolution through political paradigm shifting must be revealed through that overall process.

    Hitting the real limits to growth of the established systems in the foreseeable future is what is going to force these changes to become realized, in one way or another, sooner or later.

    When we work on attempting to understand this situation now, and speculate upon what we might do about that, we are doing artificial selection, that came from natural selection, and will continue to be driven and directed by the overall natural selection pressures on us in the future.

    In the longer term, what is most important is that anything we do now is going to direct human evolution in the future.

  42. Blair: “You probably have all heard the story about the lily pad growing at a rate that it will take 30 days until it covers the whole pond … on the 28th day, only one quarter is covered, but on the 29th day, it is half covered, while on the 30th day, it has reached its limit of covering the whole pond. Earlier on, everything seems O.K., but towards the end, things got covered over at a rapidly crazy rate.”

    Thanks a lot, mate. You have just come up with a most wanted way of illustrating the nature of the population explosion by means of words and not simple maths.

    Now: here’s my good old mathematical example of the same effect: a simple model that I worked out at the age of twelve. What’s interesting here is what is happening at the bottom of the paper:

    16. — 1.039.998.104
    17. — 1.559.997.000
    18. — 2.339.000.000
    19. — 3.500.000.000
    20. — 5.300.000.000
    21. — 7.900.000.000
    22. — 11.800.000.000
    23. — 17.800.000.000

  43. Steve: “What is worrying me is this: the family of humanity appears not to have “a couple of hundred years” to make necessary changes in its over-consumption lifestyles, … the Earth could sustain life as we know it for a time period of about 5 more years.”

    Blair: “We are not yet being radicalized by hitting the real limits to growth, but only being radicalized by imagining how fast we are accelerating towards hitting those possible limits in the foreseeable future.”

    — –

    Steve, I think you are absolutely right in saying that humanity can’t afford to wait things out for much longer. Social changes need to take place as soon as possible. Life as we know it is simply not worth fighting for preserving. We need to allow for life as we do not know it to finally be put in place.

    Now, I think Blair has an excellent point here. I am also foreseeing a future in which people are going insane with this crazy question ringing in their heads: “How much time can possibly be left until it’s all over?” And it will all come down to every individual’s personal impression whether thsy think the ecological collapse will occur in the 5 years, 20 years, 100 years, 500 years, or 1000 years. — Some people will insist that it’s not going to happen anytime soon. Not in a million year, that is. These people will be ignorant, but strong, and probably also the rulers of the next business-as-usual world civilization which could be all about destroying the ecosystems of this planet as fast as possible, in the belief that human beings do not need a nature in order to lead a good life: humanity is only in need of corn fields, rice, wheat, and cattle farms, and the so-called problem of global warming is a thing that only paranoid people are worried about.

    – —

    Now, I want to return to Blair’s post. That last post is extraordinary. You’re a brilliant thinker, Blair, if I might say so; and your knowledge base as concerns the political systems of this world is very wide and equally very deep. I even think you might be one of those people who have the works of Antonio Gramsci under your hat? For those who don’t: Gramsci’s “Prison Diaries” are known as among the most thorough descriptions of social revolutions, the changing of political hegemonies, and paradigm shifts.

    About the topic of revolutions. All revolutions start off with a general realization that a change for the better is required. Now, this time around, the changes that are required are intensely felt.

    On the one hand we have natural systems that are about to scare the hell out of us before they slowly but finally collapses. This is a very scary realization, indeed.

    On the other hand we are all very aware of the social and economic inequality measures of the world. The situation can only be described as grotesque.

    We can all understand that in order to save the planet from eventual ecological collapse, we are truly in need of reducing poverty. Otherwise, we can not expect that everyone will be at all ready to take part in the required cutting of CO2 and methane emissions, the saving of rainforests all over the tropics, and the attempted halt of large scale desertification to the north and south of the tropics. For example! Because there’s such a lot that needs to be done.

    I think for the most part the realization that we are in need of radical change has already been put in place. This was what I will call the mental revolution. Now,k what we’re going to need is a social and economic revolution, too. And in this respect we are in need of the mass media to take part, and also (like you are saying) the unfailing cooperation of the military and at least some of the people who belongs to the ruling class of our times. But most of all we will be in need of a lot of courage. And that, I think, can be produced here on the internet.

  44. Trinifar,

    Not to reopen old wounds, but this is also why (I think) Monbiot says population is not near the top of the list of immediate concerns.

    That is clearly not the case. Despite having written about a variety of environmental, social and other issues, Monbiot has virtually never written about population. This is good evidence that he just doesn’t get it. Besides, he’s a good enough writer that if the reason you suggest were his reason for saying it’s “nowhere near the top of the list,” he would be fully capable of saying so. He didn’t.

    Of course it is a incredibly serious concern,

    Monbiot called it “nowhere near the top of the list.”

    “Incredibly serious” ≠ “nowhere near the top of the list.”

    but the time scale in which it plays out is greater than 5 years.

    No, that’s wrong. It plays out over 5 years. And longer. That’s the reason an ecologist such as Mark Bush writes:

    Given that population growth continues for 20-30 years after birthrates have been reduced to replacement level, it is imperative that programs designed to limit population growth be initiated very quickly.

    Were we not deeply into overshoot now, there might be time to wait on population. But since we are, we have no time whatsoever to delay. Delay will cost untold numbers of lives in the coming decades. As analyses such as Paul Chefurka’s indicate, it’s possible the lives saved by addressing population would be merely a softening of the blow of collapse in places like Africa. But addressing population now is central to softening that blow.

    If the world population started a downward trend today (or even 10 years ago), “the relentless degradation of Earth’s frangible environment” would still occur.

    Can’t you see that that every birth prevented today is going to save lives in both the very near and longer term future?

    Moreover, your statement holds true for addressing climate as well.

    Also, there is likely to be a point of no return on population just as there is on climate.

    Another point is that the current mass extinction is just as big a threat to life on Earth as climate change. And it is directly tied to population, as is climate change.

    We need to get out of the mindset that (a) we can reduce emissions effectively over any meaningful time frame without tackling population (which means we have to start now), (b) that there are not other extremely dire consequences associated with every additional year we attend insufficiently to population, and (c) that we can in any way prioritize between several fundamental issues (population vs per capita consumption… ) on which we may already have waited too long to act effectively.

    At any rate, there is no evidence in Monbiot’s article that your idea concerning the question of urgency was his point anyway. He’s simply always avoided the population issue, and sought in that article to rationalize it. He is, in that way, not unlike many writers on the left who put political correctness ahead of human lives. (Which is not to excuse a differently motivated dismissal of population from those on the right who put profits ahead of human lives.)

    Excusing (and even supporting!) Monbiot’s dismissal of the importance of population is just playing right into the forces which will be responsible for an unprecedented loss of life if they are allowed to continue to dominate the discussion.

    That is especially so in today’s climate of widespread population denial. Promotion of the population issue needs every speck of help it can get. Supporting statements like Monbiot’s works against that.

  45. Steve,

    According to my admittedly simple estimations, if humankind keeps doing just as it is doing now, without doing whatsoever is necessary to begin modifying the business-as-usual course of our endless-growth-oriented civilization, then the Earth could sustain life as we know it for a time period of about 5 more years.

    It appears to me that all the happy talk of a benign path through a ‘bottleneck’ to population stabilization, and to good times ahead in 2050, is not more than wishful and magical thinking.

    I see the next 5 years as the period in which we need to see significant action reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the developed world which can only happen if we decouple politicians from business lobbies and recouple them with science and their duty to serve the people who vote. Without serious action beginning in the next handful of years we risk climate change effects that can not be reversed for hundreds or thousands of years, loss of species, rising seas, etc. At least this is how I understand the IPCC.

    (Not to reopen old wounds, but this is also why (I think) Monbiot says population is not near the top of the list of immediate concerns. Of course it is a incredibly serious concern, but the time scale in which it plays out is greater than 5 years. If the world population started a downward trend today (or even 10 years ago), “the relentless degradation of Earth’s frangible environment” would still occur. Our level of consumption is that great.)

    To reduce our damage to the environment quickly means taking on the core principles of the modern economy: (1) the endless quest for growth in profits to the exclusion of the well-being of the people who the economy is supposed to serve, and (2) allowing, even approving of, the concentration of wealth and the power it brings in the hands of a few. I only see one way to change such deeply embedded guiding principles quickly enough.

    We want our rights and we don’t care how /
    We want our revolution now

    [from “Homage to Marat” in Marat/Sade]

    I’m not hopefull we’ll get our revolution in time to avoid serious damage. Surely this is a case where things must get much worse in the day-to-day lives of Americans to prompt action. Thinking that honest, critical reasoning will carry the day is — and I cringe to say this — naive.


    “describes the efforts to promote family planning as “a drop in the ocean” and goes on to explain the reasons to do with culture, religion and lack of education which have created a big divide between the high birth rate among India’s poor families and the much lower birth rate for middle class women.”

  47. UPDATED 2/26


    I’ll quote ecologist Mark Bush yet again since people seem not to be appreciating this point:

    Given that population growth continues for 20-30 years after birthrates have been reduced to replacement level, it is imperative that programs designed to limit population growth be initiated very quickly.

    Imperative. Very quickly.

    From Magne:

    The population problem can only be solved in the long run

    As I indicated, the long run begins now. Again, because it takes time to influence population numbers, it’s imperative we begin as soon as possible.

    I say reductions in emissions are more important, right now, than the big issue of population explosion will ever be.

    And do you not see the connection between human numbers and emissions? Do you realize we’re seeing a convergence of several problems, some of which may be just as serious as climate change? Is it clear to you that the combination of these problems is far more serious than climate change alone, and that there is no larger or more ignored cause of the whole mess, including climate change, than population (enabled of course by such things as agriculture and the industrial revolution and today’s civilization itself)? Do you see that overshoot tends to be followed by die-off even if in the absence of climate change? And how many millions of species do you want us to eliminate while we under-attend to population? (See the Ehrlich quote I provide below.)



    If I have multiple injuries I hope the EMT takes care of the cut in the femoral artery before tending to my broken arm. If there are two EMT’s around, they can attend to both.

    What if you have a cut in the femoral artery as well as another equally urgent injury? And in the case of population and emissions, we do of course have “two EMT’s.” What we lack, among other things, is awareness or acknowledgment of the gravity of either problem and the will to do much about them.

    I’m familiar, BTW, with that interview with Ehrlich from 9 years ago. I don’t think he’s making that “not anymore” comment these days. He may have shifted his emphasis for a time when signs of a slowdown in birthrates became apparent. And sure, he does talk about how per person consumption (not “consumption,” per person consumption) has emerged as a new critical issue. But since that interview the indications and recognition that we’re in overshoot have increased, including the Footprint Network data and the Redefining Progress data. From what I can see, Ehrlich now again speaks decisively about population – which is hard not to do when you consider the consequences of being, already, far into overshoot. Here’s an interview with Ehrlich from last year where you will hear him speak once again more forcefully on population. A couple of quotes relevant to the things you and Magne are saying:

    Many people don’t seem to understand, climate may not be the most serious of our environmental problems. [emphasis added] It is a very serious one, but there’s others connected to it which may turn out to be much [emphasis in the original] more serious: Land use change, the deterioration of our epidemiological environment that is our continuing population related vulnerability to brand new epidemics of the AIDS sort, the loss of biodiversity which are the working parts of our life support systems without which we would have no economy and basically no humanity. And that of course is partially connected to climate change, but land use change is just as large. The toxification of the planet…

    People don’t realize what getting “green” really has to mean… It’s not everybody buying a Prius, it’s, first of all, gradually reducing the size of our population, [emphasis added] because most of us can’t see, with anything like the consumption patterns that people seem to desire, keeping even 6.5 billion people going for long.

    Note that “land use” is tied directly to population.

    In the same interview Ehrlich says he still stands by the World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity, in which the section on population contains the statement:

    No more than one or a few decades remain before the chance to avert the threats we now confront will be lost and the prospects for humanity immeasurably diminished.

    That was 1.5 decades ago.

    From Trinifar:

    Ehrlich’s advice is to attend to both

    Which has been my advice the whole time (!), while you’ve claimed an ability to prioritize between absolutely fundamental and equally deadly issues, putting emissions (and even things like “decoupling government from big business” ) ahead of population due to a notion that, despite being deeply into overshoot, population can wait. And all the while you have supported, and refused to reject, Monbiot’s advice to put population somewhere way down the list while attending to other things (which he doesn’t even realize are fueled by population).

    This is also what George Mobus has been trying to say. There is no room for prioritizing when we may have already waited too long to intervene on a number of these issues, each in itself enough to cause collapse and the end of life as we know it. If it’s too late, then the best we can do is soften the blow. And clearly limiting population growth is central to that. But if there’s any chance it isn’t too late, then certainly it’s close and there’s no room to fool ourselves into thinking we have time to prioritize. Did you read George’s comment (which he linked to) about where population might reasonably be in 2100 with a birthrate of zero? (I can’t get his model working in my spreadsheet software, but just what he posted is enough to give the hint.) Still likely unsustainable. He’s right that we need radical action, not waiting around on one thing while we focus on another.

    How soon do you guys think we need to start getting really serious about population if we want to achieve even the UN’s low variant of 7.8 billion by 2050, which is just further growth, not low enough to prevent collapse (let alone George’s “Plan Z” mid-century population size of something under 5 billion – which would be hugely better for our long term prospects, if we do in fact have any)?

    And again, in the scenarios which see collapse as inevitable, births prevented now will prevent not only the suffering of children born into such a world, they will will save the lives of others with whom those children would have had to compete for sustenance. Note for instance the conclusion Paul Chefurka came to about an Africa in collapse (prior to removing all conclusions from his essay). It was essentially that our best action would be to ‘blanket the continent with condoms and schools to educate girls’ (if I recall the details correctly).

    My sense is that you may fail to appreciate the implication of the fact that we are now and have for some time been in overshoot, and it may even be too late to prevent some serious level of collapse. Whatever shred of a chance there may be that it’s not too late tells us prioritizing, as you are doing, is suicidal. Population can no more wait than can emissions. I fear, though, they will both be under-attended to, in part because of this sort of notion that only one issue could really be serious enough to be deemed a dire emergency or even to have perhaps sealed our fate already. At best, we’re dealing with multiple interacting emergencies. Just as likely, maybe more so, is the possibility that we have in fact have passed the point of no return.

    THE GIST: Most of the above is secondary. This started with Monbiot’s blatantly erroneous math (comparing a factor with a product), applied in an effort to diminish the importance of population, and his assertion and erroneous attempt to demonstrate that population is “nowhere near the top of the list.” I’m sorry, but your continued support of and refusal to repudiate his article is disappointing and astounding. It’s as though he said, “Day is night and pigs fly,” and for some mysterious reason you can’t bring yourself to say he was grossly wrong. Any support of such an article is not only logically wrong, but fuels the avoidance of a fundamental issue with the potential to cost untold numbers of lives.

  48. John,

    As I see it, the most important thing right now, and in the next few years as well, is the question of whether or not we are going to start reducing emissions satisfactorily or not. If we do not get started on making large scale emissions cuts, I am afraid to say that the population problem is of no real interest at all. It is the combination of overpopulation and industrialism which is the problem. The population problem can only be solved in the long run, while the pollution from industries, private homes, cars and air travel (among other sources of emissions) had better be solved as quickly as possible. I say we need to teach people about the population explosion while at the same time push on for reductions in emissions, and I say reductions in emissions are more important, right now, than the big issue of population explosion will ever be.

  49. John,

    Okay, the old wound is reopened, but that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. I’d like to find a way of expressing this issue that we could both agree is fair to all.

    A Talk with Dr. Paul Ehrlich by Kathy Ricketts Reitinger, July 1999:

    Zegrahm News recently traveled to Stanford University to discuss with Dr. Ehrlich his current feelings about the world’s population and his predictions about our future on the planet.

    Ricketts: You introduced the equation, I=PAT, which illustrates the impact of any human group upon the environment: Impact = Population x Affluence (consumption) x Technology. When you first proposed this equation, you felt that “P” was the most critical in controlling and reducing human impact on the Earth. Do you still think that population growth is the most critical problem facing us today?

    Ehrlich: Not anymore. Although the world is still vastly overpopulated, the past 30 years have shown that population can be controlled. People can be convinced that it may be in their best interest to produce smaller families. However, no one has any idea of how to convince humanity that it is in their best interest to consume less, instead of more. Even if ‘P’ is reduced, the steady rise of ‘A’ in the Impact Equation means that our crushing impact on the Earth will continue to increase.”

    I like the way Ehrlich puts it. Rather than pouring salt in the wound like Monbiot does with his “not even near the top of the list” phrase, Ehrlich just notes we have seen progress on population* but none at all on consumption. If I have multiple injuries I hope the EMT takes care of the cut in the femoral artery before tending to my broken arm. If there are two EMT’s around, they can attend to both.

    Ehrlich’s advice is to attend to both:

    Don’t have families with more than one or two children. Encourage religious institutions to support birth control and family planning; encourage politicians to support the same. Reduce consumption. …In a nutshell, do as much as you can, in whatever arena you can.

    *Progress on population: world pop growth rate has been declining for 40 years. Several large countries now have zero or negative native growth rates.

  50. There is a discussion of population going on on Dot Earth (Steve knows) that caught my eye. I am amazed at the number of opinions out there, pro/con/don’t care, about this issue and they are mostly based on guesses and ideologies. So I posted a comment that included a very simplified population growth model for a spreadsheet. This model would allow people to start to grasp the magnitude of the problem and as well play around with some ‘what-if’ kinds of questions.

    The model is overly simplistic (e.g. I do not include things like age and gender cohorts) but can at least provide a picture of what the dynamics entail.

    Of particular interest, I model what I call Plan Z, a draconian, yet humane (meaning it doesn’t increase the death rate) measure to reduce the birth rate to zero! The point being that that represents a boundary condition. Seeing how long it takes to reduce the population at this rate will (should) start people thinking about how the population size plays into any impact model (footprint).

    I submit that until you play around with this kind of model you really can’t have much of an opinion on what needs to be done regarding the IPAT formulation. You have to see these things in action to begin to appreciate the significance of reducing consumption or reducing population (or increasing technology for that matter).

    You can find the post at:

    Mine is #61.

    You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to play with these simple, boundary-establishing models. But you do need to play with them if you want to form some kind of policy opinion.

    George Mobus

  51. Thanks Rick. I wholeheartedly agree.

    Now, this debate is taking up entirely too much time for me as I have a writing project to attend to. It is also a distraction from Albert Bandura’s excellent article. Yet I cannot leave unanswered on my own blog what is, without question, an erroneous assessment of a highly destructive Monbiot article and comments which only add fuel to the fantasy that population isn’t really an urgent or very important issue. I am therefore going to turn comments off for now to give myself time to focus elsewhere.

    Perhaps they’ll go back on when I finish, though the plan is to slow this blog down anyway to free up time for writing, so who knows. Such a move is a first for me, but I have to put my time where I think it will have the most impact, which is not in long debates here.

  52. As to the issue of how humans can self-justify or rationalize away their moral sense when it is convenient…

    I raise again my assertion that the problem is an imbalance int the brain architecture between intelligence/creativity capacity (cleverness) and sapience (judgment – the mental construct basis of wisdom). As a species we have excelled at clever problem solving, including the ability to rationalize our own emotions. What we have failed to evolve in is the capacity to make wise decisions and have a more realistic view of the world. Sapience is the capacity to view the world strategically as well as systemically. And it involves the ability to view the world as it is rather than as we would wish it to be. It is a-ideological.

    These capacities are very weak in the vast majority of human beings (as evidenced by the state of the world today). Real sapience involves an ability to look at the whole picture and not just one part or a limited part. It involves the ability to model the whole and think forward in time to recognize consequences of current decisions in that future.

    I maintain that humans lack this ability generally (except for a few in the rightmost tail end of the distribution) and that is exactly why we find ourselves in this predicament.

    The only way out is via the same way we got here – evolution. Wisdom has to be selected for strongly enough that we begin to see a shift in the proportion of the population that develops larger (or more complex) prefrontal cortices (the master organizer for sapient consciousness). The big question is how shall that selection be done? It seems to me there are only two choices. Either we let nature take its course, which several here realize could lead to extinction of Homo in a massive die-off. Or we could enter into the evolutionary process and effectively engineer an evolutionary bottleneck.

    I fully realize the latter is viewed with abhorrence by many. But that is because of historical thinking along with a rationalization of what the future will be like – more of like today. Most people operate under the assumption that Homo sapiens sapiens is an end product of evolution (that is if they even understand evolution) rather than just a step along the way. But the future will not be the same in profound ways. We cannot simply use history as a guide when the phenomena of interest are global in scale. We have to think differently than we ever have before. Otherwise, thinking, on this planet, may come to a screeching halt.

    Also, there is no guarantee that evolution will produce a ‘better’ model of the genus. That there has been something like improvement in information processing ability and adaptability is explained by the increasing complexity of the world as it comes into dynamic equilibrium with the solar flux. Evolution is not under any plan to improve the world, only adapt to growing complexity when needed. So a future human species could be a regression rather than a progression (toward wiser folk).


  53. I am in no way comforted by the idea that the rate of population growth is slowing, or by claims that “population can be controlled.” The failures of many past civilizations demonstrate quite clearly that humans really are incapable of dealing with consumption issues, even if the very viability of a civilization is threatened (Ronald Wright comes to mind as a source here). I have to wonder if we are actually capable of dealing with population issues, even though the very viability of our own civilization is at risk, but I have to hope that we can. It is quite clear though that now is the time, not 2050, and not even in 10 years.

    Population growth and consumption go hand in hand, historically and now. For a supposedly intelligent person like Monbiot to say that population growth is somewhere down on a list of disasters facing us is, in my opinion, disingenuous, and smacks of opportunism.

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