Sunday, June 29, 2008

The Ever-Accelerating Treadmill

What makes me despair is that society faces a formidable double whammy, the growing population and the growing economy. We don't seem capable of slowing either. It's like an ever-accelerating treadmill. No matter how fast we run, we keep falling behind. Take the car, for example, a wonderful invention that greatly enhances our productivity and enjoyment of life. Over the past three decades there have been enormous strides in making them cleaner and more efficient. Yet deadly domes of smog hover over all major cities of the world, exacting a huge toll in deaths and health care.

The reason is simple: there are far more cars on the road than 30 years ago, and they are being driven further. In spite of the enormous technological improvements in cars, air pollution has worsened. The fundamental reason is that the population has grown, and because the standard of living (read economy) has improved, we can afford more and bigger cars.

This argument applies to virtually all technical improvements. Television technology has greatly reduced energy consumption, but now we buy bigger and bigger giant-screen TVs. Where is the savings? And so it will be with hybrid cars and other energy-efficient products. With an expanding economy, the savings we make on some items will simply be spent to buy more or bigger other items. And with the population continuing to grow, there will be more of us doing it.

This treadmill is unstoppable unless we tackle the fundamental forces driving it. How do we do that? I don't pose this question rhetorically. I'd like to hear your ideas. How do we tackle the treadmill of increasing population and economic growth?

Sunday, June 22, 2008

The Conservation Conundrum

When skimming the websites of environmental organizations, I see virtually no mention of curbing population growth. These groups don't see population as a contributing factor to the world's ailments. The solution, so these environmental websites expound, is conservation: compact fluorescent light bulbs, bicycling, less packaging, bring your own bag when shopping, turn thermostats down.

Sadly, this only buys time; it does not solve the problem. You don't need to be an Einstein to calculate that if we all pitch in and cut energy consumption by, say, 10% per capita, this robust savings will be wiped out as soon as the population grows 10%, which will take about 7 years in the United States. Then energy demand will rise to new records again.

To make matters worse, people don't normally leave their home countries to emigrate to developed nations in order to become "conservers." Many have been attracted by the promise of unlimited everything, including energy.

To make meaningful progress - that is, to actually decrease energy consumption permanently - we must stop population growth. Why aren't we dealing with this issue? If well-intentioned environmental organizations don't recognize this, what hope is there for (short-sighted) politicians?

Conservation is not the answer. But it is important, very important, for it can buy us time to tackle the real issue of population.

How much time will that take? How much time do we have? What's your take?

Sunday, June 15, 2008

"We’ll Save the Planet Only If..."

A 15 February 2008 article in the UK's Independent and reprinted at, We’ll Save the Planet Only if We’re Forced To, by Johann Hari, doesn't mention "population" but certainly inspired a discussion of overpopulation as "the single biggest aspect of the problem."

Here's a summary of what some CommonDream responders had to say about runaway human population:

•Let’s quit avoiding the single biggest aspect of the problem and the hard solution to it: Global human overpopulation, and mandated population reduction. Pretty much everything else is coincidental to this, and will improve with the population reduction.
•Just as the author says that forcing people to make other changes will help climate change, forcing people not to procreate will produce the biggest changes of all. The Earth cannot sustain 6.6+ billion people, let alone projections of 10 billion or more.

•[E]vents will force a reduction in World population by Draconian means - war, famine, plague, and pestilence - if we do nothing to do it as fairly and rationally as possible.

•The hard truth is that unless we reduce World population to under 2 billion before mid-Century we will most certainly suffer a population crash that will take us there tragically. I want everyone under 25 or so reading this to look around at their friends and family of the same generation and ask themselves which 80% of them they want to lose prematurely? Probably even yourself! Those are the stakes we face. Unless you are among the fortunate 1% living in wealth in a gated community with private security forces, you face this fate as much as anyone living in Bangladesh.

•Overpopulation, not mentioned. How can we be so blind to the No. 1 threat? Sure, we all need to consume less and aim for sustainability. But as long as human population keeps growing, we should expect catastrophical, unwanted population reduction.

•Even if you manage (how?) to stop procreation, what good does that do the climate with the lifestyles we’re leading? Bringing procreation to a halt (how?!) will stop the already-greatly-worse global warming that is in existence once we’re all dead and gone, I suppose. But when people write that the “only” way to stop global warming is to stop having kids, I think maybe what is really being said is, “I’d like a far-off solution that involves me not at all, and lets me do what I want, while feeling virtuous.” Kind of like the population version of carbon offsets. How long until the last human dies, once you’ve managed to halt procreation (HOW?!) and what will the climate, being put through everything we put it through in the meantime, be like?

•The best contraceptive on a mass scale is female literacy. Once women become educated they begin to deny men control of their bodies. The developed world’s problem is not overpopulation; it’s that the population we have keeps increasing its energy and land use. Europe and Japan have leveled off in their population and may decline over the next 50-75 years. America continues to grow mainly because of immigration from Mexico and other poor countries. It could comfortably house and feed 1 billion people if we weren’t all so determined to live the lawn fertilizer, two-car garage suburban lifestyle.

•[P]opulation control begins with literate and educated women. Support organizations that work in this field.

•You say over-population is the problem and population control is the cure. But how would YOU institute such a control? Apply for permission to breed? Prove yourself worthy of procreation? By what standard would you choose? Imagine the political and societal upheaval over those topics! Your “solution” could well be far worse than that which you attempt to “cure,” no?

•Overpopulation is a huge problem - but when is the last time (hell, how about the FIRST time) you saw an article specifically talking about it?

Want to continue the discussion? Send me your comments.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

How to Transform Our Violent Dark Side?

Aggression and violence are basic human characteristics, which, having been developed over millions of years of evolution, are difficult to modify. They are always present, simmering below our veneer of civilization. When the going gets tough we instinctively resort to primal behaviour, especially if defending our families or "tribes." That explains the atrocities besetting Africa, witness Darfur and Rwanda, where violence rages and civil order has crumpled.

Our violent behaviour not only inflicts huge human misery, but the related corruption, marauding gangs and bribery prevent other nations from providing assistance. It seems hopeless.

How can we change this dark side of human nature? There is no quick solution. I suggest that universities and think tanks divert significant funding from technological research onto issues that will improve our social skills. The world doesn't need more hi-tech gadgets, rather we desperately need to replace materialism and aggression with social skills including how to live peacefully, how to share, how to be happy, how to erase poverty, how to govern in a fair and equitable manner and more.

Sadly, I don't think this will happen soon enough. Instead, with human population continuing to grow ever further beyond what the planet can support, I believe that society will soon suffer a meltdown. We will likely enter a dark age with great loss of life and suffering. Pockets of civilization will survive but in a much simpler fashion. When humans flourish again, hopefully we will have learned a lesson and will be wiser and less violent. Who knows, it may take several collapses and rebirths before Homo sapiens develops the character that allows us to live in equilibrium and peace with each other and the natural world.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Erasing Poverty?

A solution commonly proposed to solve the world's overpopulation and related pollution and resource shortages is to eradicate poverty in the so-called non-developed nations. Once these people achieve good lifestyles, goes the thinking, they will not want large families and their economies will be able to afford pollution controls. We'll all live happily afterwards.

Noble as this goal might be, it is completely and totally unachievable. There are two reasons. Throughout history a gap has existed between the rich and the poor, the haves and the have-nots, the lords and the peasants, the wealthy and the working class. There is not a shred of evidence that this unfortunate but basic part of the human drive will change. Humans will always fight hard to climb the ladder of success and if some have to be trampled en route, tough luck. Sorry, but poverty in the form of poor nations—and a poor stratum even in wealthy nations—will be with us for the foreseeable future.

Even more important is that the Earth simply does not contain enough resources to lift two billion people out of poverty. As the United Nations and other organizations point out, we are already living far beyond the carrying capacity of the globe. Additional refrigerators, cars, televisions, roads, houses and the energy to power these goods cannot be supplied to the poor without ruining the world. In short, the rich and comfortable are already living beyond the world's capacity; there simply is no room at the party for more. The poor nations, which also have the greatest population growths, are condemned to lives of poverty. There is no escape.

Do you agree? Do you think that technology can overcome the impending crises of oil, food and water? How can we save the poor? I don't think we can, but I want to hear from you.