Category Archives: Ecosystem

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…)

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…)

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…)

The specter of mass extinction

One of our companions, for now

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…)

Economists can’t take (quite) all the blame

Suzuki In the previous article here, I reiterated a fundamental problem with mainstream economics. It fails to recognize that all economic activity is a part of, and as dependent on the ecosystem as any other aspect of human activity or the activities of other species. I urged mainstream economists not to let debates about the details of theory distract them from shifting their view to one in which the economy is viewed in its true relationship with nature. If they can do that, they can truly help to save the world by rethinking our approach to economic growth which, as it stands, is degrading the ecosystem and pushing us toward environmental collapse.

It’s not all the fault of the economists 🙂

But it’s not just mainstream economics which has lost sight of it’s connectedness to the ecosystem. The problem with economics is, in part, likely a reflection of a broader societal phenomenon. Recently, I came across a couple of David Suzuki articles which highlight the seriousness of the problem. (more…)

Can ecological economists save us from the mainstreamers?

Killing the earthMainstream economists are trying to kill us. They don’t think of it that way, but they should. The standard policies promoting endless economic growth of the conventional sort are destroying the ecosystem. And ecocide, should we follow through with it sufficiently, could easily mean the loss of many millions of human lives. When those economists promoting and shaping policy continue to push ecocidal policies when they could instead play a central role in protecting the ecosystem, how is that not homicide? [1] (more…)

The Texas argument

Texas is bigSome people deny the problem of population. They insist that neither the present world population size nor its continuing growth is a problem. Some of these folks are influenced by certain writers, often far to the right politically, and typically focused on mainstream economics, who espouse this sort of population denial. (We’ll look at some of those writers in the future.) Others are merely drawing conclusions from their everyday observations. From neither contingent have I seen a very substantive argument, but a common argument from the second group is especially silly.

Texas is great, but this is ridiculous

Usually, it goes something like this: “There’s no population problem. It’s a myth. You could fit every human being on earth inside the state of Texas with plenty of room for everyone.” You can see an example of this in comments on Anderson Cooper’s blog on the CNN site. (Search the page for the phrase “state of Texas” – without the quotes.) [1] (more…)

Removing vast forests

Deforestation is an ongoing, serious problem for many developing countries. It’s impact is global, however, as the loss of forests and the benefits they provide the ecosystem are felt.

In some parts of the world, local population growth is the major culprit. In the Amazon, while it is self evident that broader population growth creates demands which play an important role, locally most of the guilt goes to classic examples of conventional, unsustainable economic growth. Agricultural giant, Cargill, for example, has been a major player in the deforestation process.

In the Amazon it’s a vicious cycle, with humans clearing the rainforest, contributing to climate change, while climate change causes drying and fires which further destroy the rainforest. Here’s a brief video: (more…)

While you were living…

World population growth

While I toil away on a more substantive article (!), I thought I’d point you to an informative, even fun site concerning population issues. It’s a couple of pages of online course material on world population from a biology class at Western Kentucky University. They include a number of links which are well worth following. One, for instance, goes to a PBS site for a Nova program, circa 2000 I believe, on world population, containing lots of fascinating interactive elements, interviews, even sample posters from various country’s campaigns to lower their fertility rates.

Especially telling is the interactive tool (near the top of the page) in which you click the dot to enter your age. It shows you what the earth’s human population was when you were born and how much it has grown since. The amount of growth might shock you, no matter your age. But the older one gets, the shorter one realizes a lifetime is. And I think the older the reader of this post, the more astounding it will be to see how much world population has grown in such a short time.

Please pass the link to this post along to anyone who might be interested to see how much world population has grown in their lifetime.

Note that a few statistics in the materials, including the tool in the image above, appear to be a few years out of date. Still, the general ideas come through clearly.
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Image source: Sustainable Scale Project

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Did someone say, “steady state economy”?

EcoEconTo some extent, I’d like the early posts here to be sequential in laying out a case for the site’s basic arguments. But timely items from around the Web and elsewhere are part of the plan as well. With that in mind, I bumped into a piece on Alternet by Stephan Harding. It’s about the idea of implementing “Tradable Energy Quotas” (TEQs) as a way of promoting a “steady state economy.”

Previously, I’ve mentioned the importance of the idea of the steady state economy. Any thoughtful examination of the current pervasive growth imperative, leads to the conclusion that endless economic growth — with its growth in physical throughput — is unsustainable. Our ecosytem has limits. And such growth is leading quickly to its collapse. A move to a steady state economy would be a key step toward putting on the brakes and taking the ecosystem fully into account in our economic policies. (more…)

Al Bartlett exposes “the silent lie”

Al BartlettIn mainstream circles, serious acknowledgment of the problem of population growth has, for some years, been more or less taboo. Mentions are made, the occasional article appears, but extended, prominent discussion is rare. A case in point was a recent issue of Scientific American. Al Bartlett, one scientist who does raise the issue of population growth, and whom I mentioned in the previous entry here, reviewed it in the last issue of the The Physics Teacher. The review is now available online at Culture Change.

Conspicuous omission

As I mentioned previously, Dr. Bartlett, physics professor emeritus at the University of Colorado and former national president of the American Association of Physics Teachers, is one of my favorite thinkers on sustainability, population growth, and related issues. He’s been speaking on the topic of population and energy since 1969, and has written some of the clearest, most incisive articles you will find on sustainability-related topics. His review of the Scientific American issue is no exception. (more…)

How do they face their children?

Corporate profits versus the earthHaving touched on population growth in the last entry, it’s time for a quick look at how economic growth has become a serious threat to the global ecosystem. This is a large topic which has filled a good number of books. But on its most basic level its logic is simple. The key point is that neoclassical economics, the dominant economic model for much of recent history, is based in large part on an assumption that the economy, as a whole, can and should continue growing forever. A major part of such growth is its physical dimension, which is well reflected in increasing “throughput,” defined by Herman Daly as “the flow beginning with raw material inputs, followed by their conversion into commodities, and finally into waste products.” (p. 28 ) The neoclassical view promotes unending physical growth and throughput

The problem with forever

When confronted with the prospect of depleted natural resources as a result of ongoing growth, the neoclassical economist’s answer is that human capital in the form of technical innovation will always make up for lost natural capital (natural resources), or even that we will always find new ways to extract ever more resources. (An article by the late economist, Julian Simon, provides a particularly striking example of this thinking.) The flaw in this model is self evident. It fails to acknowledge that the earth and its resources, as well as its absorptive and regenerative capacities, are finite. Indeed, it contrasts sharply with the newer “ecological economics” model which starts from the assumption that the economy is a part of the finite ecosystem and so should strive to respect its limits, lest it damage it. (more…)