Sunday, March 30, 2008

A Plea: How Do We Help Poor Nations?

Demographers at the United Nations and the US Census Bureau project that the world's population will reach a peak of over nine billion by about 2050. That's an increase of about three billion, or 50%, over the present population.

The situation looks grim. Peak oil is at hand and oil prices are over $100 per barrel. Grain production has not met grain consumption in seven of the last eight years, and now will fall even shorter as it is diverted for ethanol-fuel manufacture. If we're having trouble now, how will we possibly cope with another three billion people?

The nub of the problem is that almost all of this growth will come in the developing world. Their growth rates are much higher than those of developed, industrial countries, who are near to stabilizing their populations. This is a recipe for international disaster. Poor countries, especially in Africa, are already struggling. How can they possibly survive with massive population increases?

As Lester Brown says, "failing states are a sign of failing society." Tensions between rich and poor nations will escalate. Terrorism will become rampant. There is a desperate need for programs to help poor nations, not only with family planning programs but also to lift them out of the quagmire of poverty.

Yet the world is a topsy-turvy place. The United States has imposed a "global gag" rule that prevents the US from providing family planning programs to poor countries, and also pressures other nations to follow suit. It encourages population growth in countries that cannot offer their young people a decent future. No better policy could be invented to promote future terrorism and societal breakdown.

We need to completely rethink how foreign aid is disbursed. We need to think and act outside the box. How can we devise programs that work in partnership with and are welcomed by the receiving countries? That are effective in empowering and educating women? That effectively but humanely lower birth rates?

I welcome your ideas.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Population, the Economy and the Ruin of the World

If there is one thing all politicians, whether capitalists or communists, Republicans or Democrats, agree upon, it is that economic growth is necessary, vital, and the proper goal for all human activity. If the GDP doesn't grow by at least 2% annually it's bad news. Stagnation and recession are "evil" and central banks and economists do everything possible to stimulate the economy to avoid them.

Economic growth is the basic driving force of prosperity — providing jobs, security and an ever increasing standard of living. It is the dogma of policy makers: economic growth in itself is essential. It is vital to the health of society.

But a growing economy doesn't happen by itself. An essential partner is a growing population, which provides more consumers and more workers to purchase and produce the material goods we crave. Thus, a growing economy and a growing population are inextricably tied to each other. They are like two oxen yoked to the same cart, pulling, heaving together.

Economic growth just continues and continues. We have no control. Politicians do not want to slow it. The economy is the god our society worships.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Population Growth = Economic Growth

. . . And vice versa. This is why, despite growing eco-awareness and myriad new ecoproducts on the market, the environment is wilting. These two juggernauts — human population and the economy — go hand in hand.

Last year in my province, the population grew 1.4 per cent while the gross domestic product (GDP) roared ahead at over 6 per cent. Our new arrivals need homes, schools, jobs, food, transportation and energy. And everyone wants a higher standard of living.

Population and economic growth are steamrolling over green improvements, yet no politician dares curtail them. The two juggernauts will continue to steam ahead until we understand the vicious circle.

The graphs below (from show just how in sync global population growth and global economic growth have been for the last 140 years, since the industrial revolution really began impacting the world.

According to William Rees, a University of British Columbia professor who co-developed the ecological footprint concept, "Almost everything we are willing to do is aimed at keeping our SUVs on the road."

"We protect economic growth at all costs,"
he says.

His research, which is supported by United Nations analyses and other studies, shows that human consumption far exceeds what the planet can sustainably support. As Rees says, we need to "face the beast in the lair." Drastic measures are needed.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

A Plague of Two-Legged Locusts

Locust plagues were feared even back in Biblical times. As described in Exodus, Moses beseeched the Pharaoh to release the Hebrews, and when he didn't a plague of locusts came with the east wind and "covered the face of the whole earth ... and they did eat every herb of the land, and all the fruit of the trees ... through all the land of Egypt."

Locust plagues continue to be a major problem in Africa, Australia and the Middle East. They propagate extremely quickly and then immense swarms can travel long distances (over 100 kilometres a day), consuming, consuming, consuming everything in their path.

Humans are similar. Our population has grown incredibly quickly, from about one billion in 1800 to almost seven billion today. It's the same rapid population explosion as for locusts, just on a different time scale. Humans also consume, consume, consume.

Natural barriers such as lakes eventually halt locust swarms. We humans also take action against them (spraying pesticides). In contrast, there are no natural barriers or limitations to halt the runaway human population, and furthermore we ignore the problem.

The human population explosion is unprecedented in history, and is extremely frightening. Nothing like this has ever happened before. How will it end?

The Bible talks about locust swarms as not just a natural event but rather as a punishment, an expression of Heaven's displeasure with human behaviour. The ultimate irony is that we are being punished by a plague of ourselves, the most powerful, devastating species imaginable.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Signs that the Human Population is Too Large

Several organizations, including the United Nations, have scientifically calculated that human beings have exceeded the carrying capacity of this good planet—that we are now using (considerably) more resources than the Earth is creating. In other words, since about 1980, we have not been living off the interest, we have been drawing down the bank balance. This is definitely not sustainable.

I also look at this issue from an emotional (qualitative) view. Here are some images and experiences that are not proof, but vivid signs or symbols to me that the population is simply too large.
  • A crowded swimming pool in China (click on photo to enlarge it). Is this really a fun way to spend a sunny day?
  • Gridlock across all 16 lanes of Highway 401 across the top of Toronto every rush hour.
  • The ozone hole over the poles. This was the first major environmental problem on a global scale. It was caused by too many people using spray cans and air-conditioning.
  • Professional "pushers" shoving people into a crowded Tokyo subway car (photo thanks to Scott-5x5)
  • Haze ruining the view at the Grand Canyon. This shouldn't happen in a remote area far from factories and cities.
  • That almost all commercial fisheries will be wiped out by 2050. We are ransacking a huge larder of self-replenishing protein.
  • Oil is $100 per barrel or more.
  • Global warming and our inability (or unwillingness) to deal with it.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

The Mathusian Devil is Knocking

Thomas Malthus was a demographer who in 1800 predicted that human population was increasing so rapidly it would outstrip the Earth's resources. Famine and catastrophe would inevitably follow. But the calamity that Malthus predicted never arrived. Remarkably, the production of food—not to mention a cornucopia of consumer goods—has kept pace with population growth. And the standard of living, on average, has improved significantly.

So why was Malthus wrong? First, he did not count on the ability of new-world frontiers like North and South America to absorb people and provide resources. More crucially, Malthus vastly underestimated the power of human ingenuity, namely science and technology. Plant genetics, fertilizers and pesticides have increased crop yields enormously; synthetic materials have led to mass-produced clothes; and automated production lines have manufactured countless consumer goods.

But there is an ominous chill in the air, for the Devil is finally knocking. He didn't come in through the front door, for the world is not suffering for lack of resources, as was predicted. Furthermore, human ingenuity will continue to find ways of making do. Take energy, for example. When oil reserves become short, they will be replaced by solar, wind, nuclear, hydrogen, clean coal, and—if we are desperate enough—even dirty coal.

Instead, the Devil has snuck in the back door. He is quietly and surely contaminating our environment and destroying the natural ecosystems on which life depends. We humans are incredibly motivated to produce the necessities (not to mention our luxuries), but there is no motivation to clean up behind us. It's an inconvenience.

That's why everywhere we look, there is pollution. And now there is global warming, which we are incapable of stopping. With pollution and environmental degradation having reached global scale, the outlook is grim, especially since the number of pollution-creators continues to grow robustly.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Runaway Human Population — My First Post

Over the years, I have come to realize that the fundamental cause of virtually all the planet's many woes, is, simply, too many humans. In my lifetime, global population has increased by over four billion people!

To make things even worse, the environmental footprint of each person has also grown.

Beaches and woods where I played as a boy are now pavement and houses. The price of oil has soared to $100 per barrel, and now grain prices are skyrocketing. My wife and I left southern Ontario because of air pollution and incredible traffic gridlock, both directly caused by too many people.

The tipping point that Thomas Malthus and Paul Ehrlich warned us about is finally lurking just around the corner. Yet no one talks about it. We studiously ignore the ever-growing population ... while the freight train steams ever faster toward the cliff.

[Photo courtesy of AntyDiluvian]