By John Feeney:
Update #1: See Brishen Hoff’s, Paul Chefurka’s, and Graham Strouts’s critiques of the Monbiot article as well.
Update #2: For a correct, non-deceptive comparison of population growth and consumption growth, click here for a recent example from former AAAS president, John Holdren.
Sometimes I read something, such as a recent article by George Monbiot (whose work I’ve often admired, by the way), and realize the basics bear repeating.
Environmental and other writers speak often about resource consumption. On occasion they write something about population growth. Once in a while they tackle the whole package – population and consumption. When they do, they often make a simple error and come to the wrong conclusion.
Typically, it goes something like this: “Yes, population growth is a problem. But growth in consumption is occurring faster, so it’s an even bigger problem.”
Usually, they’re talking about total consumption of one or another or a combination of resources. And the comparison is an error.
Total resource consumption (of one or all resources) is the product of population size and average per person consumption. Naturally, we would expect the growth of the product to exceed that of either of two growing factors driving it! As an example, 2*2=4 and 4*4=16. Here the factors have increased by the same amount; they’ve doubled. But the product has quadrupled. A factor and the product are not comparable elements.
The more appropriate comparison is between the factors, population and per person consumption. There the data tell us the differences are not so pronounced, and it’s clear we cannot prioritize and say it is more urgent to address one than the other.
It’s the same error if you see a comparison suggesting economic growth far outweighs population growth as an environmental problem. Economic growth can, after all, be understood (PDF) as closely overlapping total consumption. It’s held to be driven by population multiplied by per person consumption. George Monbiot certainly sees it that way as he equates economic growth and total consumption in his fourth paragraph.
Continue reading . . .
I’m busy working on a difficult article which I hope to get published somewhere. In the meantime, I’ve come across several intriguing items on the Web, either in researching the article, or just poking around. Take a look:
[UPDATE: Take a look, as well, at this ongoing roundtable discussion of the question of population and climate change. In my view, Fred Meyerson, John Guillebaud, and Martin Desvaux’s comments have so far been on the money. I note that Guillebaud and Desvaux’s response to Betsy Hartmann is quite in line with my own past comments on her work.]
Cool book discovery
A book I’m amazed I hadn’t come upon until a week ago is Jeffrey K. McKee’s Sparing Nature: The Conflict Between Human Population Growth and Earth’s Biodiversity. Having just received it yesterday, I’ve only scanned it so far. But I learned elsewhere that Mckee, a physical anthropologist at Ohio State University, argues that no matter how much we lower per person consumption levels, we cannot end the current mass extinction crisis without addressing population size and growth. That’s a refreshing change from the usual insistence, “It’s all about (per capita) consumption,” so prevalent today among environmentalists. For some of McKee’s thoughts online, try this pdf.
Food for thought from Anthropik
At the Anthropik Network, rewilding advocate Jason Godesky, whose work you should know, responds to an article in The Economist which tries to debunk the “myth” that early hunter-gatherer cultures were in many ways fairly benign and livable compared to today’s civilization. Not surprisingly, Jason debunks the debunker quite handily.
The heart of rewilding from Urban Scout
Urban Scout gets to the heart of the “rewilding” movement in a video on his blog. Rewilders such as Scout and Godesky have a better handle on our ecological dilemma than just about anyone. Don’t overlook what they’re doing!
Danny Bloom’s bloomin’ polar cities
Danny Bloom, who’s commented here a few times, is trying to get people to think. It seems he’s trying to nudge us to consider how serious climate change just might be by imagining a possible future need for special communities in the polar regions for those who survive global warming. Environmental writer Stephen Leahy reports on Danny and his polar cities idea. In email, Danny told me he’s serious, but on some level is also “kidding, in a kind of guerilla theater public awareness wake-up call kind of way.” His idea is sometimes dubbed “quixotic,” but if it fosters discussion that can only be good.
Posted in Biodiversity, Climate change, Collapse, Ecological collapse, Ecology, Environment, Extinction, Global warming, Overpopulation, Population, Population growth, Rewilding, Sustainability
Tagged Danny Bloom, Jason Godesky, Jeffrey K. McKee, Urban Scout
Editor’s note: Abdul Basit is an Indian expatriate living in Kuwait. In this essay he calls on the leaders at the Bali climate talks to put aside the tendency to emphasize narrow national interests, to serve instead the greater needs of humanity as we face a climate change crisis which could threaten our very future. In that context, he observes that wars fought over national interests impede our progress in addressing larger environmental issues such as climate change. We must realize we humans share one earth and that “peace is the most important component in the fight against climate change.”
I regret that I was unable to post this piece earlier in the Bali talks, but it’s message must live on long after these talks and into those to come. Many thanks to Abdul for submitting this important essay. — JF
By Abdul Basit:
This is an appeal to world leaders and the scientific community gathered in Bali, Indonesia for the United Nations Climate Change Conference.
While the global community in general and certain scientists in particular are greatly concerned about the consequences of global warming and climate change in relation to the existence of humanity and habitability of earth, a few nations, like the USA, Israel and some other countries are pursuing the war agenda and preparing for a new round of encounters.
As the world nations and the UN are seriously considering new regulations and policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and are preparing comprehensive measures to counter climate change in the UN Climate Change Summit being held in Bali, the world’s sole superpower and its allies are pondering about enforcing new sanctions against Iran and are openly discussing the prospects of World War III.
What we see in the international arena are the two extremes. On the one hand, we see the ever-increasing signs of climate change like floods, hurricanes, forest fires, inundation of coastal areas due to rising sea-levels, melting glaciers, growing poverty due to mounting climate refugees and reduced agricultural output, threat to extinction of species and biodiversity — all of which are proving a serious challenge to existence. On the other hand, as if these problems and crises are not enough, the major discussions in the international forums and among the media are about the methods to counter the threats of Iran from attaining nuclear expertise.
It’s always worth bringing attention to another respected voice calling for action to address population. This brief video is a section of a broader October, 2007 interview with Jane Goodall:
Notice, at the 1:20 mark in the video, Dr. Goodall’s mention of the appreciation villagers showed for a family planning team sent to assist them. This is consistent with what I’ve gleaned from articles on population concerns in African, Indian, and other newspapers.
There are some who hesitate to condone action to address population growth in developing countries on the grounds that it means imposing the values of those in the First World on other cultures. It’s an understandable concern, but is no justification for doing nothing. Dr. Goodall’s remarks suggest we need to distinguish between “imposing our values” and providing needed, wanted assistance.
Posted in Biodiversity, Deforestation, Ecology, Economics, Environment, Jane Goodall, Overpopulation, Population, Population growth, Population solutions, Sustainability
We spend a lot of time here on topics far from laughable. Time for a brief break from that – at least from the “far from laughable” part. A while back, George Meyer, a writer for The Simpsons TV show, produced the following piece for the BBC’s Green Room. It’s the only article I can remember reading which zeros in accurately on aspects of our global environmental plight and makes me laugh. It also calls for everyone, even crazy Michael Chricton, to become an environmentalist. Enjoy:
Welcoming Homer the tree-hugger
Are you a hypocrite? Because I certainly am.
I’m an animal lover who wears leather shoes; a vegetarian who can’t resist smoked salmon. I badger my friends to see the Al Gore movie, but I also fly on fuel-gulping jets.
Great clouds of hypocrisy swirl around me.
Read the rest …
A few weeks ago I reported on conservation and other groups adopting official positions on the fundamental conflict between economic growth and environmental protection. I mentioned that Brian Czech and the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy have been instrumental in helping to bring about this awareness and activism.
As an update, on June 9th, at their annual meeting, the American Society of Mammalogists adopted a similar resolution. From the press release:
The ASM described a “fundamental conflict between economic growth and the conservation of ecosystems” based upon scientifically established principles. The ASM noted that an economy has an “optimal size” and that growth beyond the optimum reduces human welfare in addition to threatening other species…. (more…)
This press release came to me via email:
British Columbia Field Ornithologists take a position on the fundamental conflict between economic growth and biodiversity conservation
At their Annual General Meeting in Lillooet on 26 May 2007, the BC Field Ornithologists (BCFO) adopted a position on the fundamental conflict between economic growth and biodiversity conservation. The BCFO addresses the study and enjoyment of wild birds in British Columbia through research and conservation efforts to preserve birds and their habitats.
The timing of the vote was opportune as Birdlife International announced the previous week that 22% of the planet’s birds are now at increased risk of extinction. A total of 1,221 bird species are presently considered threatened with extinction and an additional 812 species are considered Near Threatened, an increase of 28 species from last year….
The British Columbia Field Ornithologists group is one of a growing number of conservation groups, ecological economics groups, and others which have adopted official positions stating that economic growth is fundamentally incompatible with environmental protection. They include the United States Society for Ecological Economics and the Society for Conservation Biology, North America Section. (more…)
The future: determined by ecological awareness or complacency and denial?
By John Feeney:
It is essential to see the profound peril in continued flagrant misperception of the very nature of the human situation. — William R. Catton, Jr.
I write often about specific topics within the categories, “population growth” and “corporate economic growth” as they link to to environmental degradation. It seems, however, the larger message concerning the broad impacts of these kinds of growth has yet to gain much traction in the media. It’s time, therefore, to consider what’s at stake if we do not address forthrightly the growth of the human population and our unceasing push for corporate economic growth. I hope to make clear that humanity’s most urgent challenge has little to do with the topics currently making headlines. It is, instead, clearly ecological in nature. Of this we need much more awareness if we hope to achieve solutions.
Know this: Population growth and corporate economic growth, in conjunction with excessive and growing per capita consumption rates, are driving ecological deterioration of unprecedented proportions, pushing us ever closer to global ecological collapse. Remember that term. Barring decisive corrective action, you will be hearing more and more about ecological collapse in the coming years.
The most important issues receive little coverage
If you haven’t heard much about it previously, that’s understandable. It hovers in the background of the news, mentioned occasionally, but has so far received little of the attention it warrants. I’ve been critical of environmental writers’ avoidance of the subject of population growth, but it goes further than that. By and large, they seem squeamish about discussing the extent of global environmental decline the possibility of widespread ecological collapse. (more…)
Posted in Biodiversity, Climate change, Corporatization, Deforestation, Ecological collapse, Ecology, Economic growth, Economics, Ecosystem, Environment, Extinction, Glen Barry, Jeffrey Sachs, Overpopulation, Peak oil, Population, Population growth, William Catton
For my own clarity of thought, I like to find ideas which are both simple and have lot of explanatory power. The notion of the trio of interacting problems, population growth, per capita consumption growth, and economic growth, is an example. It’s a relatively concise construct which helps us understand the causes of the ecological crisis we face. (Perhaps that is to galmorize what is merely a list of three exceptionally important, related phenomena. Still, it’s an important list.)
An idea to guide our actions?
Are there any similarly simple yet powerful ideas which can help us find ways to overcome the ecological mess we’re in? (more…)
If current trends continue, one half of all species of life on Earth will be extinct in 100 years. — E.O. Wilson
What will people do?
After the garden is gone. — Neil Young
Something terrible is happening. Does anyone notice? A few do. In developed countries, only the more observant see it. From time to time, though, we hear about it in the media. We’re destroying the global ecosystem, our life support system.
Too easy to deny
So what? We don’t have to listen to that. Nothing’s happening here. Sure, there’s not as much open land, we hear about companies cutting down something called “old growth forests,” some animals have disappeared. Big deal, our lives go on about the same. (more…)
Posted in Biodiversity, Climate change, Deforestation, Ecological collapse, Ecology, Economic growth, Ecosystem, Environment, Extinction, Global warming, Overpopulation, Population, Population growth, Population-environnment