Category Archives: Consumption

Overpopulation: partying as the iceberg looms

I’m pleased to feature on GIM a guest article by Jim Lydecker. Jim researches and writes about such issues as peak oil, resource depletion, global warming and population. This article, which originally appeared as a guest opinion in the Napa Valley Register, shows succinctly how our leaders avoid the topic of population growth and spells out the consequences this invites. I think it conveys remarkably well the gravity of the crisis we face. My thanks to Jim for permission to reprint it here.

— JF
By Jim Lydecker:

The iceberg looms America’s a lot like the Titanic making her way through an ocean of danger. Any number of icebergs threaten to do damage and several are large enough to sink us. The captain warns us of the smaller ones, yet assures us our voyage is safe.

Most passengers believe the captain. Others figure there is nothing they can do, so why worry?

Some, however, notice concerned looks on the crew’s faces. Rumors are heard about one berg so big that there is no getting by regardless of the course plotted. It is connected to others making the situation more problematic. We’re on a direct collision course unless the damn thing melts and gets much smaller.

The giant iceberg’s given a name: Overpopulation. Some of the ones connected to it are known as resource depletion, climate change, disease, hunger and economic collapse. With no warning from the captain, the icebergs are closer than ever. The passengers party on.

Like this allegory, politicians and leaders focus our attention on issues easier addressed than those that really matter. Terrorism is an example.

Since 9/11, billions have been invested on what is a relatively small threat. Consider this: 3,000 died in New York on that fateful day in September 2001; 25,000 die every day in the world from contaminated water alone. Each year, 35 million children are mentally impaired by malnourishment. Each year, an area of prime farmland greater than Scotland is lost to erosion and urban sprawl. These are problems connected with overpopulation, problems that will get worse before they, if ever, get better. (more…)

Are environmental writers choosing avoidance over truth?

See no evil

It is indisputable that population size and growth are among the fundamental drivers of today’s ecological crisis. There’s no getting around the math that population size multiplies with per capita consumption to determine total resource consumption. Additional links between our numbers and ecological degradation are impossible to dismiss. Once one accounts for population, consumption rates, and corporate economic growth, one is hard pressed to identify any equally powerful contributors to environmental destruction. [1]

What are environmental writers thinking?

You may wonder, therefore, why the topic of population does not appear in nearly all media coverage of environmental problems. The population topic is, in fact, actively avoided by many environmental writers. The history of how it’s become a taboo subject is worth a few future posts, but Grist staff writer, David Roberts, recently summed up the thinking of some current writers. (more…)

Now that growth is killing us…

It really doesn't buy happiness. The article I discussed last time, by New Zealander Allen Cookson, was a brief gem with an emphasis on population growth and some mention of the flaws, as well, in our economic model of continual growth. The same day I came across it, occasional GIM commenter, Tim Delaney, sent me a link to an article in Mother Jones by Bill McKibben. Reversal of Fortune, drawn from McKibben’s new book, Deep Economy gives us a more thorough look at the problems with our growth-based economy. McKibben suggests that while a focus on growth did serve us well for some time, now “growth is bumping up against physical limits so profound—like climate change and peak oil—that trying to keep expanding the economy may be not just impossible but also dangerous.” It’s an important article. Here are the Cliff’s Notes plus a little commentary:

It wasn’t always this way

The growth which most of us have come to assume to be necessary and good has its earliest roots in the industrial revolution, but really got cranking in the middle of the 20th century, in the post war boom. Prior to that, Mckibben tells us, “even FDR routinely spoke of America’s economy as mature, with no further expansion anticipated.” (more…)

A voice of sanity in New Zealand

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

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

Kiwi surprise

My most recent surprise of this sort comes from the New Zealand Herald. There, Allen Cookson, a retired science teacher, offers a guest column which reads like a condensed version of The Growth is Madness! Story. (more…)

Admit it Betsy, we agree: part 2

In Part 1 of this essay, I began to examine Betsy Hartmann’s argument that population growth is not a serious problem, and that it distracts us from real problems of women’s rights, racism, and class bias. Assessing her critique of 1994’s International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo, I touched on her arguments concerning poverty and environmental degradation. For neither does she readily accept population growth as playing an important causal role. I acknowledged her valid points, but disagreed with certain assertions, particularly concerning the environmental issue. Now let’s turn to the question of women’s issues and how they relate to population growth.

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Does a focus on population work against women’s rights?

Those who study population know there is a negative correlation between fertility rates and the provision of educational, work, and other opportunities for girls and women. (more…)

Admit it Betsy, we agree: part 1

Feminism in conflict with concerns over population growth?Readers here know there are those who argue world population growth is not a problem. Most prominent are groups with certain political axes to grind, usually from a right wing economic perspective, often advocating free market capitalism and opposed to government intervention in environmental matters. Some libertarian “think tanks” typify this group. They tout the party line with regard to the current dominant economic model. I disagree strongly with those groups, have touched briefly on that disagreement in previous essays, and will do so in more depth in the future.

A bit less prominent among critics of the environmental perspective on population is a subset of academics writing from a feminist perspective. They argue any focus on population is a distraction from the real issues, works against women’s rights, and promotes racism and class bias. One of the best known authors from this camp is Betsy Hartmann, director of the Population and Development Program at Hampshire College.

Reading some of her online writings, I set out to examine where she and I disagreed. (more…)

Learning from Lester Brown

Lester Brown We can learn a lot from Lester Brown. By way of introduction, he is an environmentalist with some 50 books to his credit, including Eco-Economy: Building an Economy for the Earth and Plan B 2.0: Rescuing a Planet Under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble. He founded the Worldwatch Institute and the Earth Policy Institute, and is the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship and the 1989 United Nations Environment Prize.

In the video linked to below, he touches briefly on the relationship between the economy and the environment at its broadest level, an issue we’ve examined here before. (more…)

Population and consumption: both major players

Growing footprint Consider this a working paper of sorts. It adds to the last post here which discussed the relationship between population and consumption. But it’s only a snapshot of an initial bit of online and library research. I hope to flesh out the topic more fully in the future.

At the end of that post I mentioned two issues I had barely touched on, which deserved more attention. They were (a) the question of whether, even hypothetically, we could ignore population growth and count solely on advances in clean energy technologies to escape ecological catastrophe, and (b) the implications of the observation that over the last century global energy consumption has increased more than population numbers. In my view, the former question is the simpler one, and I’ll get to in the near future. In this post I’ll provide some of what I’ve found concerning the latter issue.

The consumption argument

It’s a common observation that, over the last half century or more, resource consumption rates have increased at a faster pace than population size. I’ve seen this observation used to support the view that population growth isn’t as serious an environmental problem as our growing rates of consumption. Sometimes a proponent of this argument presents data showing that the magnitude of growth of total world energy consumption, or of total consumption of a specific resource, is considerably larger than that of population. (more…)

An unholy matrimony

[The follow-up to this essay is found here.]

The chicken knows
“Overpopulation is a serious problem getting worse every year.”

“Overpopulation is a myth.”

“There is no population problem.”

“There’s overconsumption, … but not overpopulation.”

“[The problem is] overpopulation in the South and overconsumption in the North.”

That’s just a sampling of the kinds of conflicting statements about population growth you can find on the Web and elsewhere. Is it any wonder the topic confuses people? Readers here should have little doubt which of the first three views I share. I would suggest, as well, that statements dismissing the population issue are often disingenuous and politically motivated.

Good question

But what about about the population versus consumption question? (more…)