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Saturday, April 18, 2009

Overpopulation number one problem?

(Photo credit: Ollie Crafoord's photo stream Flickr)

The population issue has recently raised its ugly head again. There are 6.7 billion people, thanks in part to the efforts of the Catholic Church and other anti-choice religionists. On the other hand, considering that there are roughly 40 million pregnancy termination procedures performed annually around the world, and given Italy's low fertility rate, some argue that the Vatican has had less influence than claimed.

A lot of water has gone under the bridge and at this point the entire overpopulation argument has boiled down to providing women with the education and means to voluntarily plan family size and timing. Obama's removal of Reagan's gag rule may have done more to protect the planet and improve the lives of poor women and children than all the Priuses and solar panels in the world. Roughly half of all pregnancies in the richest country in the world, where birth control and sex education are ubiquitous, are unplanned. Extrapolate that to the rest of the planet.

There were three articles in particular that caught my eye. The Times On Line ran a story about David Attenborough's decision to became a patron of Optimum Population Trust. It's your classic newspaper article with opposing viewpoints and the journalist's personal bias being expressed in a deceptive manner. Much of it talks about the oversimplified theories of some obscure, deeply religious reverend by the name of Malthus, who nobody has ever heard of before…

Some architect by the name of Austin Williams, author of a recent book called The Enemies of Progress: The Dangers of Sustainability called Attenborough stupid, which IMHO makes Williams an idiot (being hierarchical social primates, we engineers elicit endorphin releases when we mock architects).

Umbra Fisk, best described as an on-line advice columnist for people too lazy to do their own Google searches, threw in her two cents. It is about giving women the ability (choice) to choose family size and timing. Which, in a nutshell is all the overpopulation issue has finally boiled down to. My right eyebrow raised precipitously when, in an attempt to rationalize the fact that she has seven children, or possibly to sooth a guilty conscious, she told us that all seven work for Environmental Defense--call it a carbon offset writ large.

Turns out, she was being sarcastic (i.e. she doesn't have seven kids) and was counting on the idea being so preposterous that the sarcasm would be obvious. I know from experience that sarcasm can be hard to parse from generic stupidity when expressed in print, having been on the receiving and giving end more than once.

We all do selfish things. It's a matter of degree. I could, and sometimes do make excuses for them. Having seven American kids would make a person with seven Hummers look tame. In fact, having just one American child makes owning seven Hummers look tame (I have two… kids that is).

Finally, there was this strawman argument in Yale's Environment 360 by Fred Pearce, which I parse out below:

This is a terribly convenient argument — “over-consumers” in rich countries can blame “over-breeders” in distant lands for the state of the planet.

… It is the height of hubris to downgrade the culpability of the rich world’s environmental footprint.

That "convenient argument" does not exist. I have never heard anyone "blame only" the poor people in Africa and India and Asia for obliterating the biosphere. It is universally recognized in environmental circles that every one of us does our share of damage, including the poor subsistence farmer, but especially wealthy Americans. And nobody "blames" the poor farmer for trying to feed his family.

Even if we could today achieve zero population growth, that would barely touch the climate problem.

The effort required to slow the degradation of our biosphere is greatly exacerbated by the sheer numbers of people competing for resources. Having said that, however, I may have to eat my words if we can't put the biofuel Jeanie back in its bottle:

…carbon dioxide will likely rise in poor countries for some time yet, even in optimistic scenarios. But that is an issue of consumption, not population.

…Overpopulation is not driving environmental destruction at the global level…

Wrong: (consumption per person) X (# of people) = (total consumption). You have two variables and because they are both growing, you have an exponential result as opposed to an arithmetic one.

By almost any measure, a small proportion of the world’s people take the majority of the world’s resources and produce the majority of its pollution…

Give hominid social primates enough wealth and they will use it to display their status. Given the opportunity, a poor subsistence farmer would own a mansion, a few extra vacation homes, and a stable of SUVs (not to mention a harem). He does not have that opportunity so he instead grows his cattle herd as large as he can. Livestock is a status symbol for pastoralists all around the planet and have been for many millennia. To protect that herd he has to kill predators.

This dog-eared mantra from the seventies that the expression of status via display of material possessions is a uniquely American cultural phenomenon is utter bullshit. The main difference between an American and an African pastoralist on this count is the amount of wealth at their disposal.

In my book (and that is not a plug) I propose we find ways to express that instinct in environmentally benign ways, rather than continue to deny its existence. As we have found ways to express sexual urges without creating a baby with every act, we need to find ways to display status without putting trophy heads on our walls. Works of art meet that definition, as does the high mileage of the Prius, and on and on. It is our responsibility to blaze the trail, to show the world how to live sustainably. We certainly can't ask the poor of the world who are just trying to stay fed to do that research.

Americans gobble up more than 120 kilograms of meat a year per person, compared to just 6 kilos in India, for instance.

The above is a good example of what I'm talking about. Meat consumption in China and everywhere else people can now afford it is going ballistic.

I do not deny that fast-rising populations can create serious local environmental crises through overgrazing, destructive farming and fishing, and deforestation. My argument here is that viewed at the global scale, it is overconsumption that has been driving humanity’s impacts on the planet’s vital life-support systems during at least the past century.

With the exception of global warming, all overpopulation issues start out "local." Think of the Earth as a giant peach. A mold spot appears, then another, they merge, and before long your peach is rotten. Visualize the world today with 6.7 billion people on it, all living the life of an African subsistence farmer. Would the world be better off? It just isn't that simple. First, there would not be 6.7 billion people. Without the industrial revolution, childhood mortality, warfare, pestilence, and starvation would still rule population growth. And if there were 6.7 billion subsistence farmers, there wouldn't be a tree or elephant left on the planet. The elephants would have been eaten and the wood burned as fuel. The bushmeat trade, tiger, rhino, and elephant poaching have poured gas on the extinction event. It all adds up. The planet is bleeding to death from 6.7 billion cuts.

This blame game does not work for me. All human beings are driven by the same instincts, subconscious urges.

According to a report issued by the FAO last year, livestock (much of it owned by the poor) accounts for roughly 18% of global warming. This chart shows how that impact is distributed, which is driven mostly by land use changes. Soot accounts for about 18% of global warming. Here is a recent article in the New York Times discussing where much of that soot is coming from. Deforestation accounts for about a third of global warming, which is being driven by demand for meat and wood by people rising up out of poverty as well as biofuels. Who is more to blame? The poor person logging the lumber or the rich person he is selling it to (and both would do the same if their role switched)?

In my book I use an analogy called prosperity osmosis. Think of nations, which tend to have amoeba shaped arbitrarily defined borders, as cells with membranes. Canada, the United States and Mexico represent three cells that bump up against each other. The highest pressure against the membrane is at the border with largest wealth gradient.

He didn't touch on the topic of immigration so I will. Russia, France, Italy, Japan, and just about every developed nation that has a population growing top heavy with older people (the result of a population growth rate that was too high for too long) have programs to cajole their blond-haired blue-eyed or black-haired brown-eyed women as the case may be, to have more Russian, Japanese, French (or whatever) babies to pump up the work force.

Racism and nationalism prevent them from tapping the rich resource that surrounds them--motivated, smart, hard working immigrants. There is no better tool for global poverty reduction than properly regulated immigration into already thriving economies that need labor, given that nobody seems to know how to create thriving economies in all countries.

If they want them to be fluent in their language and culture fine, set the standard but use it. Stop with the attempts to breed more Frenchmen. It is not well-understood how a Mexican citizen, or any number of citizens from other impoverished countries, can simply cross an arbitrary boundary and suddenly become a hard working upwardly mobile member of a growing economy and by crossing back suddenly find himself immersed in poverty again.

I realized many years ago that when it comes to saving the planet, the best bang for my charitable buck is Planned Parenthood and The Nature Conservancy.

And so ended a long article all built upon a strawman.

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  1. Trevor Burrowes10:25 AM

    Thanks for this. Although some of it is over my head, I sense a certain common thread between our efforts.I'm having one hell of a time figuring how to make my blog work (technically), but I hope you can take a look (link below) at the current page.

  2. Taking Umbra as an example, we must assume that only on average will informed women with full reproductive rights tend to halt the continued rise of human population.

    Now that you linked to her column, and I read it, I remember why I sropped reading her years ago,hehey.

    She was certainly telegenic on that indecipherable earth day video though. Based on that, one can see how she had 7 kids in 5 years. And they already work for environmental defense?

    Come to think of it, almost everything on the new improved grist is indecipherable! At least it's consistent. Really aneomic and infrequent comments I see.

    That new green-tech guy Todd Woody seems to know about as much about technology as DR. More consistency,hehey.

    Anyway keep up the great work. I will continue to promote it via my blog and my new twitter personna, as well as promoting grist.

    Why promote grist? Maybe it will change back? No chance. I can hardly stand waiting for the new site to go through it's 5 very slow page refreshes to get from original article to actually posting a comment. Yow. I'm used to twitter now.

  3. amazingdrx7:03 AM

    Well, attempting to inset a URL in a grist comment resulted in yet another computer crash.

    Is grist worth the effort anymore? Highly doubtful.

  4. Recent article in American Scientist suggesting we may have hit our limits to growth:

  5. Anonymous7:16 PM

    Hey Russ, suggest that you read Death of the West by Pat Buchanan or The Empty Cradle if you want the real take on population "explosion." There isn't any! Surprise? All women of western European stock are having less than 2.1 babies, most countries in Europe less than 1.5, and as a result the distinction of the European, and even the European-American species, on earth is about to happen. Japan is so far gone with women having about 1.1 babies it can't recover from its peoples extinction in the next century. Obviously, it takes 2.1 babes per woman to keep a population from declining, and just staying even. The UN projects maximum population of the earth to hit in about 25 years and then a big decline. So people will solve the problem themselves, simply stop having so many babies.

    Ken in Oregon

  6. Anonymous10:33 PM

    How did I do that? You would think a graduate college educated professional would not confuse distinction with extinction but must have been half asleep before dinner. Obviously, I meant extension above, twice, in my posting. It is . . .extinction of the European . . .above that was meant. Please do read the books, you will have a whole new understanding of brave new world and who will inhabit it in the future.

    Ken in Orgeon


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