Category Archives: Population solutions

Impeding ecological sustainability through selective moral disengagement

Update: As an extra, here is a link to a video in which Dr. Bandura discusses the development and use of serial dramas, originated by Miguel Sabido and used by organizations such as the Population Media Center.

Editor’s note: It is my honor to feature an article by Albert Bandura. Dr. Bandura is one of the most influential psychologists of our time. Long a professor in the psychology department of Stanford University, he conducted landmark studies on social modeling, transforming the behaviorally based social learning theory to one in which cognition played a central role. This challenged the behaviorists’ view that human development was a one way process, dictated solely by reward and punishment deriving from external influences. In time, he developed a “social cognitive theory” of human functioning which emphasizes the reciprocal interaction of behavioral, personal, and environmental factors. I remember well being impressed, in my graduate studies some years ago, by the clarity and incisiveness of Dr. Bandura’s work. For much more information see this website maintained by Emory University psychologist, Frank Pajares.

Bandura has received many awards for his work and is a former president of the American Psychological Association.

Presenting his ideas with precise logic, Bandura continues today to refine and find applications for his theory. The article below is not his first venture into ecological sustainability-related subjects. He has written, for instance (PDF), on the effects on population growth of the kinds of serial dramatizations originated by Miguel Sabido and used by the Population Media Center on whose program advisory board Bandura sits. Such dramatizations, a crucial component of today’s work to address population growth, rest on a foundation of social cognitive theory.

In the article below, Bandura details an array of mechanisms used by those engaged in environmentally destructive practices to avoid the moral self-censure which would otherwise govern their behavior. From considerations of social and moral justification to our uses of euphemistic language to disguise the truth of our actions, it is a remarkably insightful examination of many facets of environmental politics including the games played by climate change and population deniers. Regarding the latter, Bandura writes, “High consumption lifestyles wreaking havoc on the environment and harming other people’s lives is a moral issue of commission. Evasion of the influential role of population growth in environmental degradation is a moral issue of omission.”

“We must make it difficult to disengage moral sanctions from ecologically destructive practices,” writes Bandura. After all, “A sustainable future is not achievable while disregarding the key contributors to ecological degradation – population growth and high consumptive lifestyles.”

This is a long article for a blog posting, but is well worth reading to the end. I suspect most readers here will find themselves increasingly fascinated as they progress through it.

This article appeared originally in the International Journal of Innovation and Sustainable Development (IJISD). It can be found in Volume 2, Issue 1, 2007, published by Inderscience Publishers which retains the copyright. My sincere thanks to Dr. Bandura and Inderscience for permission to reprint it here

Included at the end of the article is Inderscience’s press release which serves as a nice summary of the content. — JF

Albert Bandura
By Albert Bandura:

Abstract: The present paper documents the influential role played by selective moral disengagement for social practices that cause widespread human harm and degrade the environment. Disengagement of moral self-sanctions enables people to pursue detrimental practices freed from the restraint of self-censure. This is achieved by investing ecologically harmful practices with worthy purposes through social, national, and economic justifications; enlisting exonerative comparisons that render the practices righteous; use of sanitising and convoluting language that disguises what is being done; reducing accountability by displacement and diffusion of responsibility; ignoring, minimising, and disputing harmful effects; and dehumanising and blaming the victims and derogating the messengers of ecologically bad news. These psychosocial mechanisms operate at both the individual and social systems levels.

Keywords: consumptive lifestyles; collective efficacy; environmental ethics; moral agency; moral disengagement; population growth; psychosocial change; self-efficacy; token gestures.

Reference to this paper should be made as follows: Bandura, A. (2007) ‘Impeding ecological sustainability through selective moral disengagement’, Int. J. Innovation and Sustainable Development, Vol. 2, No. 1, pp. 8–35.

Biographical notes: Albert Bandura is David Starr Jordan Professor of Social Science in Psychology at Stanford University. He is a proponent of social cognitive theory, which is rooted in an agentic perspective. His landmark book, Social Foundations of Thought and Action: a Social Cognitive Theory, provides the conceptual framework for this theory. In his book, Self-Efficacy: The Exercise of Control, he presents the definitive exposition of the centrality of people’s beliefs in their personal and collective efficacy in exercising some measure of control over their self-development, adaptation and change. He was elected to the presidency of the American Psychological Association and to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences.

1 Introduction

The present paper examines the selective disengagement of moral self-sanctions as an impediment to collective action designed to stabilise and reverse the ecological degradation. Human conduct can be distinguished in terms of whether it falls in the realm of social custom or morality. This distinction is based, in large part, on the gravity of the social consequences of the conduct. Harming others by one’s practices becomes a matter of morality. The harm to the earth is largely the product of human activity. Societies, therefore, have a moral obligation to preserve the environment so that future generations have a habitable planet.

We are witnessing hazardous global changes of mounting ecological consequence. They include widespread deforestation, expanding desertification, rising earth’s temperature, ice sheet and glacial melting, flooding of low-lying coastal regions, severe weather events, topsoil erosion and sinking water tables in the major food-producing regions, increasing loss of fertile farmland, depletion of fish stocks, loss of biodiversity, and degradation of other aspects of the earth’s life support systems. As the unrivalled ruling species atop the food chain, humans are wiping out species and the ecosystems that support life at an accelerating pace (Wilson, 2006).

Environmental degradation of human origin stems from three major sources: population size, the level of consumption; and the damage to the ecosystem caused by the technologies used to supply the consumable products and to support a given lifestyle (Ehrlich et al., 1995). A comprehensive approach to environmental sustainability must address all three resources of impact on ecological systems and quality of life. There are limits to the number of people the earth can support sustainably. The world’s population was 3 billion in 1950, more than doubled to 6.5 billion in the next 50 years, and is increasing by about a billion every 15 years toward a rise of over 9 billion in the year 2050. Adding billions of consumers will take a heavy toll on the earth’s finite resources and ecological system. The diverse forms of environmental degradation suggest that we have already exceeded the size of the human population the earth can sustain. Clean, green technologies, renewable sources of energy, and adoption of less consumptive lifestyles will help. But adding billions more consumers will offset the benefits of these other remedies. Lifestyle changes must, therefore, be coupled with reduction of population growth.

2 Mechanisms of moral disengagement

In the development of moral agency, individuals construct standards of right and wrong that serve as guides and deterrents for harmful practices. They do things that give them satisfaction and a sense of self-worth, and refrain from behaving in ways that violate their moral standard because such conduct will bring self-condemnation. It is through the ongoing exercise of evaluative self-sanctions that moral conduct is motivated and regulated. Adoption of moral standards is only half of the story and, in many respects, the less challenging half. Moral standards do not create an immutable internal moral control system. The self-regulatory mechanisms governing moral conduct do not operate unless they are activated and there are many psychosocial manoeuvres by which moral self-sanctions can be selectively disengaged from harmful practices (Bandura, 1999). Indeed, large-scale inhumanities are often perpetrated by people who can be considerate and compassionate in other areas of their lives. They act in the name of religious, political, social, and economic doctrines (Bandura, 2004; Reich, 1990; Zimbardo, 2007). Moreover, people can be ruthless and humane simultaneously toward different individuals depending on whom they exclude from their category of humanity.
Continue reading . . .

Russell Hopfenberg on food supply, carrying capacity, and population: follow-up responses to readers’ comments

Administrator’s note: Several months ago GIM was lucky enough to be able to arrange for Dr. Russell Hopfenberg to respond to readers’ comments and questions concerning his important work on the links between food supply, carrying capacity, and population growth. My own summary of that work and its background, along with initial reader comments, is here. Additionally, since I wrote that post, Russ has developed an informative slideshow featuring his ideas. Russ’s responses to those initial comments, and readers’ subsequent questions and comments, are here. If you’re not familiar with the ideas involved and the prior discussion here, those links will help you get up to speed.

Now I’m pleased to post Russ’s follow-up responses to that second batch of reader comments linked to above. To my knowledge, GIM is the only website to have had the chance to present a dialog on this work between Russ and interested readers. The content which has emerged has helped readers better understand these underappreciated ideas. My thanks to Russ for his generosity in participating in this illuminating process! — JF

By Russell Hopfenberg: Farmland

I’d like, once again, to extend my thanks to John Feeney and Steve Salmony for their help with this discussion. Also, thanks to those who participated in this process by either asking questions, responding to my answers, or reading and integrating this information.

Trinifar: For decades the world population growth rate has been declining — see for example here. As Russ says, “… the declining birth rate occurs in countries that have traversed the DT.” It would be interesting to know how much of that decline is due to DT traversal and how much (if at all) to food supply limits.

RH: Regarding the growth rate, this is absolutely true. Now, let’s take a moment to analyze this reality. A growth rate of 3% per year with a population of 2 billion makes the population 2.06 billion the following year — an additional 60 million people. A growth rate of 2% per year, a 1/3 reduction in the growth rate, with a population of 6 billion makes the population 6.12 billion – an additional 120 million people. That’s twice as many additional people as with the higher growth rate!! At some point, our population size will hit the tipping point of ecological disaster and the growth rate won’t matter. As for the DT itself, the DT is a dependent variable. This means that it is a function of something else. That something else is, among other things, food availability. Also, according to the Brundtland Report, it would take more than ten planet earths to usher a population of 6 billion people through to stage 4 of the DT.

Trinifar: Yet it occurs in DT stages 3 and 4 (as Russ notes above) and that includes the US, Canada, Europe, and Japan — a good portion of the world. Is Russ only talking about the parts of the world in DT stages 1 & 2?

Continue Reading…

Jane Goodall on overpopulation

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.

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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


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.


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


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.


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…)

Just when you thought the cornucopians had all gone away, Redditors channel the spirit of Julian Simon

Recently I submitted a link to an article on Trinifar to Reddit, one of the most active in a category loosely known as “social bookmarking” sites. These are sites where you can share with others links to websites or articles of interest. On Reddit, submissions are voted up or down. If one gets enough up-votes it moves to their front page and can send a lot of traffic to the site. [1] That happened with this one, driving a barrage of visits to Trinifar’s post. That was good as the article had a message concerning population and limits to growth which needs to be seen by as many people as possible.Reddit

But that’s not the end of it. On Reddit, users also comment on the links submitted. This one triggered a large and divided discussion on the question of limits to growth. Among the comments were some I found thoughtful and incisive. But there was also a range of arguments representing the “cornucopian” view popularized by the late economist Julian Simon. (Note: the Wikipedia entry is written, in large part, by devotees of Simon.) (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…)