Category Archives: Sustainability

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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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…

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…)

Brief note: behind the scenes at GIM

Behind the scenesLately, I’ve been busy behind the scenes preparing and submitting articles for publication beyond this site. My reasoning is that while GIM’s readership is growing slowly but steadily, that’s not enough. The issues we discuss here are too urgent to sit patiently, waiting for the site slowly to grow. The aim, therefore, is to reach out not only through GIM, but also other media channels to encourage awareness of the need to confront our overshoot of Earth’s limits.

I’ve had time to work on this in part because of some great guest articles helping to keep GIM rolling. My thanks to Jim Lydecker and Ken Smail for making available their thought provoking work. Another guest essay will appear soon, and I’m waiting on permission from the journal publisher to post another of Ken’s articles. (more…)

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…)

My world without oil

For this post, I’m happy to feature another guest article by Jim Lydecker. I’ve been slow to cover peak oil here more than in passing, not because it isn’t terribly important (It is.) but because I’ve had my hands full researching and writing about population and economic issues. Jim’s essay begins to fill that void. Peak oil links closely with the main themes here, and this piece brings to life its potential impact on our day to day lives.

For a primer on peak oil, try this.

Thanks, Jim.

–JF
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By Jim Lydecker:

Napa, California
June 19, 2007

Abandoned gas station I woke up this morning to the sound I fell asleep to last night: The whooshing of cars going north and south on Rt. 29.

Actually, the whooshing is being replaced by a huge sucking sound… It is the sound of crude oil being sucked out of the ground to allow those cars to go flying by.

In America, unlike the rest of the world, over 1/2 of the oil we use goes to the production of gasoline. Each day, the world uses over 80 million of barrels of oil. The United States, with 7% of the world’s population, uses over 25% of that 80+ million. That’ll happen when a nation of 320 million has almost as many cars and trucks as people.

I lay in bed thinking of all the other things oil and its cousin, natural gas, are used for and how today would go if they were non-existent. This little exercise has been done before and everyone should think about it.

Living in Northern California, we have a fair amount of electricity generated by hydro, but not enough to keep all of us out of the dark all the time. Since it is 6:30 and still dark, I roll over, turn on my light and hope my section of the grid is not blacked out.

The light, in a fixture circa 1890, lit. I noticed the wire from the light needed attention as the fabric covering it was coming frayed… remember, no oil means no rubber insulation.
(more…)

Coming up on GIM

For the next ten days I’ll be taking a summer break. GIM will be less active, but look for another guest article by Jim Lydecker. I’ll post that in a few days.

Soon I anticipate receiving Russ Hopfenberg’s responses to readers’ questions and comments following his first set of remarks. If all goes as planned, watch for a post announcing those later this month or in July.

I’m working on an overdue article concerning evidence and expert opinion that the past decade’s neglect of the population issue has been a major setback to both environmental and social causes. That should appear in early July.

As a prelude to that you might try these looks at population politics:

— John

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