Category Archives: Environment

Earth Needs Renewed Attention to Human Population Growth

Note: The article below, which appeared recently in a number of online publications, was written for a general audience. It should nevertheless be of interest to GIM readers as an effort to spread awareness of the population issue and to dispel a couple of the many erroneous notions surrounding this controversial topic. This version contains a small revision or two but is largely the same as the version which first appeared at Online Journal.

Continued study of our global ecological challenge has meant for me a gradual evolution in my thinking about its dynamics. Population stabilization and reduction are arguably the single most powerful and cost effective means of moving toward ecological sustainability. Yet in just the few months since I wrote this article I’ve become increasingly concerned about the possibility that we’ve missed our chance to avert collapse. (See, for example, in my introduction to Ken Smail’s article on population reduction, Ken’s comment concerning the “temporal problem” with which we’re faced. Or for a detailed discussion, see Paul Chefurka’s analysis of the relationship between energy depletion and population. [10/21/07 – Edit: Note, however, Paul’s reassessment of some of the basis of his analysis.] Or see Jason Godesky’s argument that collapse is inevitable.) If so, reducing fertility rates would serve not as a solution per se, but as a means of softening the landing by sparing future lives. It remains, in any event, the most effective, sensible, humane response to our ecological crisis. — JF

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Concern over US population sizeBy John Feeney:

There’s a simple theme in today’s environmental writing. It shows up in titles like “Cut Your Consumption by Switching to Fluorescent Light Bulbs,” “Lawmakers Developing Fuel Economy Plan,” and “Is Wind Power Right for You?”

The trend is to promote reduced personal resource consumption. And it’s a crucial part of the solution to our energy and ecological woes.

But it’s only half the solution. The other half has faded from prominence in recent years. It’s the need to end global population growth. At a time when scientists tell us we’ve outgrown our earth, it deserves our renewed attention.

Population growth received a good deal of press in the 1960s and 1970s, but since then it’s become a taboo subject. China’s draconian one child policy and political pressure from social justice groups who saw the population issue as a distraction from their preferred causes saw to that. Indeed, some writers today even question the contribution of population growth to ecological degradation. (more…)

Global warming: the great equaliser

Administrator’s note: It’s increasingly obvious that despite the gravity of the global ecological crisis, few governments are undertaking anything approaching the actions that might prevent catastrophe. In this article, Adam Parsons makes clear the gap between the form and level of economic change needed to address climate change and the reality of the inaction we see today. Yet he sounds a hopeful note in observing the potential for global warming to become the issue which finally prompts a new examination and restructuring of the global, market based economic system.

Adam is the editor of London based Share the World’s Resources (STWR), an NGO campaigning for global economic and social justice based upon the principle of sharing. He can be reached at: editor [at] stwr [dot] net. — JF
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Global warming mapBy Adam W. Parsons:

As the latest summit to discuss a post-Kyoto treaty continues in New York this week, the single most revealing statement has already been spoken: “We need to climate-proof economic growth”. These few words, told to reporters by the UN’s top climate official, Yvo de Boer, during the recent Vienna round of talks, define the blinded establishment approach to tackling climate change.[1] Only if continued trade liberalisation and corporate profits are kept sacrosanct, remains the assumption, is it possible to consider even a broad agreement on future cuts in greenhouse-gas emissions.

With dire weather events and studies being reported on an almost daily basis, fewer sceptics are able to dismiss the reality of dangerous climate change. In the same week as around 1,000 diplomats, scientists, business leaders and environmental activists from 158 countries attended the U.N.’s Vienna Climate Change Talks, a top security think-tank stated that climate change could have global security implications “on a par with nuclear war unless urgent action is taken”,[2] whilst leading scientists warned of a looming “global food crisis” that will require more food to be produced over the next 50 years than has been produced during the past 10,000 years combined.[3]

The rapidity of these dystopian predictions has grown to Faustian proportions; the year 2007 already has the dubious accolade of witnessing the most extreme weather events on record,[4] as characterised by the millions of Africans just hit by some of the worst floods in a generation in which villagers were “wiped off the map”.[5] This summer, the collapse of the Arctic ice cap (losing a third of its ice since measurements began 30 years ago and “stunning” experts)[6] was topped off by the latest UN study from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) who now believe that the tipping point for widespread catastrophe – involving a two degrees rise in global temperatures – is “very unlikely” to be avoided.[7] (more…)

We are so very distracted

DistractedBy John Feeney:

This screenshot is from a talk I’ll be giving at A Renaissance of Local in Lyons, Colorado. It concerns the media’s consistent failure to recognize the most important news story in human history.

The stories making headlines are mostly important. They do need good coverage. There’s no question about that. But their importance pales in comparison with that of our ecological plight. No question about that either.

Ecological issues should be the headlines everyday. Ironically, the stories which do make the front page often have ecological bases which go unrecognized.

Many will disagree with my assessment. Understandably, they feel passionately about issues like the Iraq war. They can’t imagine any other story is as relevant as long as people in Iraq are dying. Yet I believe this reflects a simple lack of ecological awareness. Once one grasps the numbers of lives at risk as a result of looming ecological crises, one’s perspective shifts. Consideration of the potential impacts on global food supplies of climate change as well as the depletion of oil, natural gas, and aquifers is enough to make this clear. Factor in additional problems such as the mass extinction of species now playing out, and it’s impossible to retain any doubt about the media’s ecological blindness. (more…)

When environmental writers are part of the problem

Note: The article below has appeared in several online publications. Though its roots were in an earlier GIM piece, it’s a rather different essay. I hope GIM readers who haven’t previously navigated to it through the link in the Off-site Articles section will find it worth a read.

In recent months there have been signs that some concerned about global sustainability are beginning to recognize once again that population size and growth must have a central place in any discussion of our ecological dilemma. Avoidance of the topic continues, though, among environmentalists who might otherwise raise awareness of the nature of the environmental challenges ahead. With that in mind, here’s a look at how environmental writers are sometimes part of the problem. — JF

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Avoiding the truth

By John Feeney:

Something’s missing in today’s environmental discussion. When talking about causes and proposed solutions for our ecological plight, few environmental writers are telling us more than half the story. Al Bartlett, physics professor emeritus at the University of Colorado and long time sustainability activist calls it “the silent lie.” It’s the near universal tendency to focus on the importance of cutting fossil fuel use while staying mum on the topic of population growth.

John Holdren, last year’s president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, told us the whole story over a decade ago in an article titled, “Population and the Energy Problem.” In it, he observed that the total energy consumption for a country or the world, is the product of population size multiplied by the average per capita energy use. Today, the developers of the “ecological footprint” measure, William Rees and Mathis Wackernagle, echo Holdren when they explain:

[The ecological footprint] for the world as a whole is the product of population times per capita consumption, and reflects both the level of consumption and the efficiency with which resources are turned into consumption products.

(more…)

Can we grow our way to an environmentally sustainable world?¹

Administrator’s note: I’m honored to feature on GIM an essay by Herman Daly. Dr. Daly teaches at the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland. Previously, he was a Senior Economist in the Environment Department at the World Bank where he helped develop policy guidelines pertaining to sustainable development. He is a co-founder of the journal, Ecological Economics, and author of many books including Steady-State Economics, Valuing the Earth, and Beyond Growth. He’s received numerous awards including an Honorary Right Livelihood Award, commonly known as the “Alternative Nobel Prize.”

Dr. Daly has often been called the “founding father of ecological economics.” And rightly so.

The following essay is a preview from his forthcoming book, Ecological Economics and Sustainable Development: Selected Essays of Herman Daly. It appears in the section of the book titled, “Issues with the World Bank.” My thanks to Dr. Daly for his permission to post it here on GIM. — JF
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Ecological Economics and Sustainable DevelopmentBy Herman Daly:

I have a short answer and a long answer.

Short answer: My short answer is “No.”

But suppose some of you think the short answer should be “Yes.” My question to you then would be—After you grow your way to an environmentally sustainable world, then what? Would you then be willing to stop growing? Or would you want to keep on growing? Is it a state of the world, or the process of economic growth, that you want to sustain? I think the World Bank wants to sustain growth—that is, a process, not a state of the world. I would like to sustain that subsystem of the world called the “economy” in a state compatible with human well-being. I contend that the attempt to sustain growth will be inimical to that end.

When the economy grows it does not grow into the void, displacing nothing and incurring no opportunity costs. Rather it grows into the finite, non-growing ecosystem and incurs the opportunity cost of displaced natural capital and ecological services. Beyond some point growth in production and population will begin to increase social and environmental costs faster than it increases production benefits, thereby ushering in an era of uneconomic growth—growth that on balance makes us poorer rather than richer, that increases “illth” faster than wealth, and that is likely to be ecologically unsustainable. There is evidence that the US has already reached such a point.

That is my short answer. But it would be more productive to debate the longer, more nuanced, answer. (more…)

Funny but true

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 …
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Climate change is just a symptom

Administrator’s note: Time for another article from a guest contributor. Jerry West describes himself as “editor/publisher/janitor” for The Record, an independent, progressive newspaper in Gold River, British Columbia. He’s a columnist, as well, for the well known Canadian progressive news site, rabble.ca.

A number of his articles would fit well with the content on GIM. But this one stood out during a week when I’ve been preoccupied with the stubborn tendency of both policy makers and mainstream environmentalists to turn a blind eye to the fundamental drivers of our ecological crisis. It’s a constant problem in coverage of climate change. Well meaning environmental writers, their thinking apparently numbed by the peer pressure of groupthink, tell us we can solve climate change — which they see as an isolated environmental problem — with routine economic tweaks or perhaps a switch to fluorescent bulbs.

Jerry is a writer who sees past that superficiality, and this article, which originally appeared in The Record, is one result. My thanks to Jerry for his permission to post it. – JF
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Jerry WestBy Jerry West:

The BC government has committed itself to reduce BC’s greenhouse gas emissions by 33 per cent by the year 2020. The questions remain — is it enough, and will they have the fortitude to take the actions necessary and to provide the funds to do it.

In Britain Parliament is considering reducing the UK’s emissions by 50 per cent by the year 2050 and some argue that 80 per cent is a more reasonable figure. One thing is certain, climate change has come front and centre as a political issue, and governments of all stripes are scrambling to find ways to make it look like they are dealing with it. One suspects that “make it look like” is the main purpose for them.

Climate change is an issue for us, but it is only a symptom of a much bigger problem. Humans are stripping the resources of the planet faster than they can be replenished; like aggressive cancer cells we are consuming our host. Since the amount of resources are limited the only cure for this is to consume less of them.

There are two ways to do this: one is individually which means quality of life for most of us in developed countries goes down considerably, and continues to go down as populations increase. Or, we can do it collectively by reducing population to a level that there is more than enough for everybody. (more…)

Is it enough to “solve” energy?

Some comments under Kent Welton’s Growthism essay raise a subject of profound importance. There’s a widespread notion that if we could just make the transition to completely clean and renewable energy – which we certainly need to do – our ecological problems would be over. Unfortunately it’s not that simple.Historically, there’s been a striking correlation between increases in energy consumption and population growth. It seems increasing access to energy has actually been a major driver of population growth, perhaps in large part because of the associated increase in food production. William Catton shows this so clearly in his book, Overshoot, that it knocks you over the head with new awareness.
Read the rest…

Impressions of The 11th Hour

The 11th HourBy John Feeney:

I had the chance last night to see an advance screening of Leonardo DiCaprio’s new film, The 11th Hour, a documentary about our environmental crisis and what we can do about it. I had the good fortune of going with Dave Gardner, founder of Save The Springs, one of the most progressive urban growth control groups in the US. Dave is also a film maker by profession, and is working on his own related documentary, Choking on Growth: Our Misguided Quest for Prosperity.

Not great, but…

The 11th Hour uses snippets of interviews with a variety of experts to highlight several of the key facets of the ecological decline with which we’re faced. It also provides a vision of an ideal, waste free, renewable energy future, and some consideration of the mindset which got us into this mess.

It’s a good, but not great documentary, in part because it lacks the intellectual honesty to touch more than momentarily on population growth despite the scientific consensus concerning its central role in our ecological plight. This is no surprise; it’s in line with most environmental discussion in today’s media. (more…)

GROWTHISM & the ruin of everywhere

Administrator’s note: For this post, I’m pleased to feature on GIM a guest article by Kent Welton. Kent maintains a number of websites featuring incisive commentary on key social and political issues. One, growthism.com, overlaps amazingly closely with the ideas here on GIM.

This essay very nearly says it all, and says it extraordinarily well. In fact, had I written it myself, I’d no doubt have used it as a sort of foundational essay for the whole site. But Kent wrote it, and it’s filled with cogent statements on the problem of the growth religion which has come to dominate our culture, and which could destroy it if awareness of these issues does not take hold soon. Fortunately, there are signs of increased awareness. And this essay can only help in that regard.

The essay is from the chapter on “Growthism” in Kent’s book, Cap-Com, The Economics Of Balance.

–JF
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By Kent Welton:

The root of our problems with the environment comes from a lack of constraint on the growth of population… it has grown to over six billion, which is wholly unsustainable in the present state of Gaia.. we have to make our own constraints on growth and make them strong and make them now. — James Lovelock, The Revenge of Gaia Reclaim the world

Human activity is putting such strain on the natural functions of Earth that the ability of the planet’s ecosystems to sustain future generations can no longer be taken for granted…the harmful consequences of this degradation could grow significantly worse in the next 50 years. — Millenium Ecosystem Assessment

The dominant philosophy and motivating social force of our era is clearly economic. No other values so determine our fate today as do capital-defined notions of growth, profit, and efficiency. Under these narrow and material rubrics we are to appraise and measure virtually all human activity, relationship, and end purpose.

Worship of an ill-measured “growth” has naturally lead to an ideology of growthism – within which we now devalue and subordinate every other reason for living and being. No other rationale so prevails and undermines consideration of other elements and purposes of life, and nature’s own equations, as does the goal of “economic growth.”

In effect, economists and politicians seem to know no other objective, and no other ideation comes close to “growth” in demanding a social supremacy and utilitarian right to define and order our lives.

In any case, what is referred to as “economic growth” consists of two elements – i.e., one part productivity increase and one part population increase. However, only productivity and technological advance may constitute real growth, whereas population expansion means a perpetual decline of our per-capita earthly space. (more…)

Kudos to Chris Rapley!

Chris Rapley, head of the British Antarctic Survey and now the new head of Britain’s Science Museum, has lately been one of the leading voices calling for action to halt population growth. He’s raised the issue in discussions of climate change. A quick article in the Guardian has his latest comments. This stands out:

The crucial point is that to achieve this goal [of lowering birthrates to halt population growth sooner than it might otherwise stabilize] you would only have to spend a fraction of the money that will be needed to bring about technological fixes, new nuclear power plants or renewable energy plants. However, everyone has decided, quietly, to ignore the issue.

Rapley is a big enough name that he’s able to get the population issue into the news and has done so repeatedly. I first spotted him calling attention to it in an article on the BBC website in January of ’06. Later, I heard he’d pushed the topic in a talk about climate change. Then came another article a month ago, and now the one above.

I can’t think of another public figure as prominent as Rapley who’s been as persistent of late on the subject of population. He deserves the most positive recognition for that. Hats off to Chris Rapley!
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Global population reduction: confronting the inevitable

Update (6/22/08): Since posting Ken’s article, I’ve noticed in site stats that it’s been linked to by a couple of people offering it as evidence of some nefarious conspiracy to exterminate much of humanity. With the array of benign, voluntary, humane approaches to lowering fertility rates discussed and promoted on this site and elsewhere, such an assumption is mind boggling. I won’t speculate on what such a fantasy suggests about the psyches of its adherents. But it definitely indicates an incredible unwillingness to do the slightest research into ways of addressing population. Let us hope those readers of this essay who have jumped to such wildly erroneous conclusions are few in number. It would be difficult otherwise to hold out much hope for our species. — JF

Administrator’s note: It’s my pleasure to feature on GIM a guest article from Dr. J. Kenneth Smail, Professor of Anthropology, Emeritus, at Kenyon College. Ken Smail’s articles on population have appeared in a variety of professional journals including American Journal of Physical Anthropology; Politics and the Life Sciences; Environment, Development and Sustainability; and World Watch Magazine. This article appeared originally in World Watch Magazine. Many thanks to Ken for his permission to reprint it here.

In introducing the article, it’s worth noting, with permission, a comment from Ken’s cover letter to me:

Let me just mention at the outset that I have recently been giving a lot of thought to the “temporal problem” I elaborate on [in the letter] — at least two or more centuries needed for global population stabilization and subsequent reduction vs. only a few decades remaining for dealing effectively with the troubling issues (or rapidly emerging “truths”) of post-peak oil and global climate change.

We do indeed face a serious dilemma. I’m glad there are a few thinkers, like Ken Smail, who are willing to grapple openly with it. — JF

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By J. Kenneth Smail (2004):
Numbers and consumption

Looking past the near-term concerns that have plagued population policy at the political level, it is increasingly apparent that the long-term sustainability of civilization will require not just a leveling-off of human numbers as projected over the coming half-century, but a colossal reduction in both population and consumption.

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It has become increasingly apparent over the past half-century that there is a growing tension between two seemingly irreconcilable trends. On one hand, moderate to conservative demographic projections indicate that global human numbers will almost certainly reach 9 billion, perhaps more, by mid-21st century. On the other, prudent and increasingly reliable scientific estimates suggest that the Earth’s long-term sustainable human carrying capacity, at what might be defined as an “adequate” to “moderately comfortable” developed-world standard of living, may not be much greater than 2 to 3 billion. It may be considerably less, particularly if the normative lifestyle (level of consumption) aspired to is anywhere close to that of the United States.

As a consequence of this modern-day “Malthusian dilemma,” it is past time to think boldly about the midrange future and to consider alternatives that go beyond merely slowing or stopping the growth of global population. The human species must develop and quickly implement a well-conceived, clearly articulated, flexible, equitable, and internationally coordinated program focused on bringing about a very significant reduction in human numbers over the next two or more centuries. This effort will likely require a global population shrinkage of at least two-thirds to threefourths, from a probable mid-to-late 21st century peak in the 9 to 10 billion range to a future (23rd century and beyond) “population optimum” of not more than 2 to 3 billion. (more…)

The steady state revolution

Brian Czech

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…)

After a “lost decade,” experts call for renewed focus on population growth

Womens Health Clinic - East AfricaBy John Feeney:

To many, it’s obvious population growth is a key factor, arguably the key factor, in environmental degradation and resource depletion, contributing heavily as well to poverty and human conflict. Unfortunately, some environmental groups and writers, and some fighting for social justice, deny or consciously avoid the obvious. Often they realize population growth is a fundamental driver of ecological and social problems, but choose deliberately to avoid the topic. Their reasons vary, but fit generally under the heading, “politics.”

There are, for instance, women’s groups with whose concerns I sympathize, but which have decided the population issue distracts from their work promoting the rights of women. There are environmental writers who carefully skirt the topic of population growth in the belief that the notion of “population control” has become associated with totalitarian or eugenic measures, making any environmentalist who utters the word “population” vulnerable to easy criticism.

In both instances, activists or writers have opted to play politics rather than speaking the truth. (more…)

Note on peak oil and population

As as follow-up to Jim Lydecker’s essay, My World Without Oil, I wanted to remind readers of an essay by occasional GIM commenter, Paul Chefurka. Titled Peak Oil, Carrying Capacity and Overshoot: Population, the Elephant in the Room, it makes the case that our use of oil dramatically increased the earth’s carrying capacity for humans. Paul argues that therefore, post-peak-oil, we will be in serious overshoot of that carrying capacity: “The decline in oil supply will reduce the planet’s carrying capacity, thus forcing humanity into overshoot with the inevitable consequence of a population decline.”

You may have noticed in Jim’s essay his comment, “But it is not going to be a pretty scene as hydrocarbons are depleted. We are talking social strife, mass migration, starvation, epidemics and worse.” Paul’s essay outlines carefully the population dynamics such a scene could involve. (more…)