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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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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Conservation groups speak out on problem of economic growth, and you can too!

Carried away with economic growth
This press release came to me via email:

British Columbia Field Ornithologists take a position on the fundamental conflict between economic growth and biodiversity conservation

At their Annual General Meeting in Lillooet on 26 May 2007, the BC Field Ornithologists (BCFO) adopted a position on the fundamental conflict between economic growth and biodiversity conservation. The BCFO addresses the study and enjoyment of wild birds in British Columbia through research and conservation efforts to preserve birds and their habitats.

The timing of the vote was opportune as Birdlife International announced the previous week that 22% of the planet’s birds are now at increased risk of extinction. A total of 1,221 bird species are presently considered threatened with extinction and an additional 812 species are considered Near Threatened, an increase of 28 species from last year….

The British Columbia Field Ornithologists group is one of a growing number of conservation groups, ecological economics groups, and others which have adopted official positions stating that economic growth is fundamentally incompatible with environmental protection. They include the United States Society for Ecological Economics and the Society for Conservation Biology, North America Section. (more…)

Local breakthrough in addressing population and urban growth

ASAP LogoI received word last night from Bob Fireovid who maintains the site, Controlling Growth in Our Communities, that a group in the Charlottesville, Virginia area has had set aside by their county board of supervisors $25,000 in funding, with preliminary approval that it be applied toward a study to determine an optimal sustainable population for their community.

Though they have more steps to complete to secure this and more funding, this is a breakthrough with regard to urban growth control and the the need to recognize limits to growth. The group, Advocates for a Sustainable Albemarle Population (ASAP), one of the most active and forward thinking local groups addressing urban growth, has been working toward this for some time.

According to the email forwarded to me, this may be the first time a local government in the US has voted to approve funds for such research.

In my view, other communities should follow ASAP’s and Albemarle County’s lead on this. And communities which have in place other measures to limit growth, might do well to add a population cap based on such research. (more…)

Waking up to humanity’s most urgent challenge

One possible future. Another possible future?
The future: determined by ecological awareness or complacency and denial?

By John Feeney:

It is essential to see the profound peril in continued flagrant misperception of the very nature of the human situation.William R. Catton, Jr.

I write often about specific topics within the categories, “population growth” and “corporate economic growth” as they link to to environmental degradation. It seems, however, the larger message concerning the broad impacts of these kinds of growth has yet to gain much traction in the media. It’s time, therefore, to consider what’s at stake if we do not address forthrightly the growth of the human population and our unceasing push for corporate economic growth. I hope to make clear that humanity’s most urgent challenge has little to do with the topics currently making headlines. It is, instead, clearly ecological in nature. Of this we need much more awareness if we hope to achieve solutions.

Know this: Population growth and corporate economic growth, in conjunction with excessive and growing per capita consumption rates, are driving ecological deterioration of unprecedented proportions, pushing us ever closer to global ecological collapse. Remember that term. Barring decisive corrective action, you will be hearing more and more about ecological collapse in the coming years.

The most important issues receive little coverage

If you haven’t heard much about it previously, that’s understandable. It hovers in the background of the news, mentioned occasionally, but has so far received little of the attention it warrants. I’ve been critical of environmental writers’ avoidance of the subject of population growth, but it goes further than that. By and large, they seem squeamish about discussing the extent of global environmental decline the possibility of widespread ecological collapse. (more…)

We must lose our arrogance

A familiar poem, nearly 200 years old, may provide the theme for our future if we, as one among millions of species, do not soon let go of our sense of privilege, and grasp what “sustainability” means.

Ozymandias

by: Percy Bysshe Shelly, 1818

I met a traveler from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear —
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”


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Overpopulation: partying as the iceberg looms

I’m pleased to feature on GIM a guest article by Jim Lydecker. Jim researches and writes about such issues as peak oil, resource depletion, global warming and population. This article, which originally appeared as a guest opinion in the Napa Valley Register, shows succinctly how our leaders avoid the topic of population growth and spells out the consequences this invites. I think it conveys remarkably well the gravity of the crisis we face. My thanks to Jim for permission to reprint it here.

— JF
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By Jim Lydecker:

The iceberg looms America’s a lot like the Titanic making her way through an ocean of danger. Any number of icebergs threaten to do damage and several are large enough to sink us. The captain warns us of the smaller ones, yet assures us our voyage is safe.

Most passengers believe the captain. Others figure there is nothing they can do, so why worry?

Some, however, notice concerned looks on the crew’s faces. Rumors are heard about one berg so big that there is no getting by regardless of the course plotted. It is connected to others making the situation more problematic. We’re on a direct collision course unless the damn thing melts and gets much smaller.

The giant iceberg’s given a name: Overpopulation. Some of the ones connected to it are known as resource depletion, climate change, disease, hunger and economic collapse. With no warning from the captain, the icebergs are closer than ever. The passengers party on.

Like this allegory, politicians and leaders focus our attention on issues easier addressed than those that really matter. Terrorism is an example.

Since 9/11, billions have been invested on what is a relatively small threat. Consider this: 3,000 died in New York on that fateful day in September 2001; 25,000 die every day in the world from contaminated water alone. Each year, 35 million children are mentally impaired by malnourishment. Each year, an area of prime farmland greater than Scotland is lost to erosion and urban sprawl. These are problems connected with overpopulation, problems that will get worse before they, if ever, get better. (more…)