Category Archives: Ecology

Brian Czech and the logic of the steady state economy

Steady state Our physical growth will have to stop. It’s unsustainable. The earth is finite after all. That’s indisputable, isn’t it? Listen to Brian Czech talk about it in this radio interview. (You’ll need either to download it as an mp3, or to listen to it as a RealAudio file. For the latter, if you don’t have the RealOne player, just download Media Player Classic which is less problematic anyway and plays the same files.) Czech is the president of the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy and author of Shoveling Fuel for a Runaway Train. He has established himself as an important figure in ecological economics, taking on the neoclassical economic model and macroeconomic theorists and their propaganda advocating limitless economic growth. (more…)


Special guest: Dr. Russell Hopfenberg on food supply, carrying capacity, and population

It’s my pleasure to welcome Dr. Russ Hopfenberg to GIM. During the preceding weeks we’ve summarized and had the chance to discuss his work on the links between food supply, carrying capacity, and population growth, and to comment and ask questions. In this post, Russ generously responds to our questions and comments. Feel free to post additional comments and questions below, and Russ will return later in the month (update: make that next month) for one more round of follow-up comments (Update: here is the link to those comments). Thanks so much, Russ!

— John


By Russell Hopfenberg:

Wheat field

I’d like to extend my thanks to John Feeney and Steve Salmony for inviting me to participate in this forum. I’d also like to express my appreciation to them for hand-holding me through the blogging process.

Question 1. The observation that individual countries’ food supplies don’t seem to correlate with their fertility rates as described by your hypothesis: I’ve read that one criticism of your work involves the observation that the countries with the lowest fertility rates tend to be the developed countries, and those with the highest tend to be those more deprived of food. (which would seem to contradict your hypothesis that more food means more population growth).

Response 1 – This is a very important question. It speaks to the complexity of understanding our global population difficulties. It seems that, in order to fully address the food-population issue, your question requires a thorough answer.

First, there is a biological fantasy imbedded in this question. The end of the question states “those with the highest (fertility rates) tend to be those more deprived of food.” I don’t think that this is biologically or physically possible as people are made from nothing but food. This kind of statement reveals the deeply held cultural position that humans are not subject to the same biological laws as the rest of the living community. I don’t think the questioner would ever make such a statement about another species’ population. If news came out that armadillos at the zoo had an elevated birth rate and now thousands were starving, I think the questioner would understand without hesitation that food supplies had first been elevated and then cut off. If the armadillo fertility rate continued to remain high, the questioner would understand that more food was being supplied. (more…)

We interrupt this programming for a moment of faddish blogosphere stuff: Thinking Blogger Award and Why I Blog

On Thursday, the Russ Hopfenberg post will be featured.

Thinking Blogger Bling

In the meantime, there are these things called “memes” going around the blogosphere. “Meme” is a real word, though it shouldn’t be. It refers to a “unit of cultural information” which can spread from person to person or generation to generation. Spreading little themes and calling them “memes” has become a kind of blogosphere fad. (more…)

Environmental writers, what does the opposition want you to do?

Checkmate In the previous article here, I called environmental writers to task for actively ignoring the subject of population growth. I responded to David Roberts who, in a piece on Grist, provided his own reasons for avoiding the subject. A fair number of other environmental writers seem to share those reasons. They’re afraid people associate responding to population growth with such things as eugenics and various draconian and totalitarian measures. They believe critics have effectively marginalized environmentalists by drawing such associations.

I rebutted that argument, I hope convincingly, and suggested the avoidance strategy had been a setback to the environmental movement. I urged environmental writers to embrace truth rather than avoidance. It should go without saying that truth is the more effective option, clearly superior to the alternative, now usually pursued, of creating an impression that florescent light bulbs, ethanol, or the latest green building material, deserves more attention than one of the fundamental drivers of our ecological crisis.

Two secondary but still important considerations are worth another quick post. (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…)

Coming May 3rd: Discussion with Russell Hopfenberg

Special Event

On Thursday, May 3rd, we will have Dr. Russell Hopfenberg here to discuss his work on the links between food supply, carrying capacity, and population growth. In two peer reviewed journal articles, one coauthored by David Pimentel, Russ has analyzed and investigated the relationship between between human population and food supply. His conclusion is that global food supply is the variable which best accounts for human carrying capacity, and that human population will continue to grow as long as food supply increases.

The first of those articles is available here, the second here. (update 10/04/07, the latter became unavailable online, except for the abstract. I’ll try to provide a PDF in the future. As an alternative, see the slideshow here.)

A different feminist take on population

A couple of days ago I spotted something rare — an article from the mainstream press looking squarely at the population issue. Reprinted on Alternet with the title, It’s Time to Fight Population Growth, Which Exacerbates Global Warming and Sprawl, Katha Pollitt’s piece appeared originally in The Nation, as Europeans do it Better.

Paris likes equality

Pollitt’s feminist perspective on population growth competes with, and arguably trumps that of Betsy Hartmann. Hartmann is so concerned that a focus on population will distract from such problems as women’s rights and class bias that she mostly refuses even to acknowledge that population growth is a problem. Pollitt though, judging from her article, chooses simply to see each set of problems for what it is. There are women’s and other social issues and there is population growth. Yes, they interact in important ways, but each must be acknowledged and examined in its own right to understand and approach it effectively.

Pollitt’s piece is important in part because it has a feminist writer bringing to a wider audience the recognition that the traditional drivers of population growth are disempowering to women. (That is why the need to address population growth should rightly be seen, in part, as a feminist cause.)

Isn’t it weird?

She explains that some European governments, concerned about the prospects of declining populations, have instituted policies aimed at increasing fertility rates. (more…)

No comfort from the UN

UN buildingIt’s not uncommon on the Web or in the popular press to see authors referring to United Nations population projections in arguing population growth isn’t a problem. Blogger Michael Kruse, writing from a particular Christian perspective, suggests the projections mean we will likely top out at a population which is “hardly a catastrophic number.” Writers such as neo-con, Ben Wattenberg, are similarly dismissive of any population problem and go on to fret over possible population declines in Western countries.

Projections, not predictions

Almost three months ago I posted an essay on the UN’s 2004 report, World Population to 2300 (large pdf). In it, I showed that the UN’s population projections are widely misinterpreted as predictions when in fact they are merely illustrative scenarios. That is one reason we cannot take much comfort in the UN’s projections; they don’t even pretend to be predictions we can count on. (more…)

Ecocide for a quick buck

Anti-globalizationThe push for continual economic growth is a serious problem. Such growth, as we know it, is unsustainable. In large part that’s because it has a physical component. From the extraction of substances from the earth, to the production of goods, through their disposal as waste, there is a depletion of resources, emission of pollutants, a build-up of “stuff,” and an accumulation of waste. When these activities are carried out at rates faster than the earth’s capacity to regenerate and absorb, they gradually destroy the ecosystem, our life support system. [1]

As if that weren’t bad enough, evidence suggests economic growth no longer correlates with much real progress or makes most citizens any happier. Why then, do our leaders continue to push for economic growth? Why do they continue to promote the illusion of endless growth as a good thing? (more…)

You’re an ape, okay?

One of us.

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…)

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…)