Sunday, December 23, 2007

The third rail of world politics

Subway stations post stern warnings about getting near the tracks not only because one might get run over, but also because those tracks often include an exposed, electrified third rail that powers the subway trains. That fact has given birth to a common metaphor in the United States where it is often said that the U. S. Social Security system is the third rail of American politics; touch it and you die. Politically, that is.

But there is another broader issue that seems to have become the third rail of world politics: overpopulation. This week in an astounding piece in USA Today, the newspaper told us that U. S. fertility rates had returned to the replacement value of 2.1 (that is, 2.1 births per woman on average) after being below replacement since 1971. This was deemed good because "[a] high fertility rate is important to industrialized nations. When birthrates are low, there are fewer people to fill jobs and support the elderly." Ergo, the low fertility rates of Italy, Germany, Japan, Russia, and South Korea (all mentioned in the article) must be bad. These countries were said to be "struggling with low birthrates and aging populations." In fact, some of these low fertility countries are now providing government incentives for larger families.

Within the narrow measures of economic competitiveness and public pension support for the elderly the labels of good and bad might be applicable. But what about the environmental degradation and resource depletion that are resulting from overpopulation in these very same countries? Not a single word!

Is there any explanation for this glaring omission? Probably, there are many. But one explanation is sticking in my mind. The explanation comes courtesy of Albert Barlett, the retired University of Colorado physics professor who has spent his retirement warning the world about the dangers of exponential growth. Barlett reminds us in a recently published essay included in an anthology entitled The Future of Sustainability that carrying capacity can be imported from other countries. That means that the damage resulting from overpopulation in the countries mentioned in the article is not always visible within those countries. Only Russia, for example, is self-sufficient in energy. And, Russia, Japan and South Korea must import considerable amounts of food. Much of the raw material for the factories in all the countries mentioned is imported from other countries, mostly so-called developing countries, from their mines, their fields, their fisheries and their forests.

So it is no wonder that the reporters at USA Today didn't notice the deleterious effects of overpopulation on these so-called industrialized nations. As those countries import carrying capacity, they also export environmental degradation and resource depletion. Everything looks fine to most people in the importing nations. For example, while Japanese consumers are helping to strip the world of its remaining forests, the country preserves its own forests and enjoys a forest cover of around 67 percent.

The damage does, however, show up on the evening news as a conflict in some distant, dusty country where forests are being leveled and rivers are being drained. The conflict is usually put down to some ethnic or religious rivalry. Often a quick recap of the last few centuries of history in such places is provided for the sole purpose of proving that "these people have never gotten along."

Even if some politicians, policymakers and reporters in wealthy countries can see beyond the daily mirage of plenty to the overpopulation problem, they do not want to touch it. Those who advocate for measures to reduce population often find themselves accused of one or more of the following motivations: 1) a desire to kill the old and the infirm, 2) a desire to force people to have abortions, 3) a desire to prevent poor countries from achieving political and military power, 4) a genocidal mania aimed at reducing the population of certain minorities, and 5) a pathological attachment to animals and nature coupled with a desire to preserve the world for nonhumans. I can tell you from personal experience that it doesn't really matter how many times you say the word "voluntary" in front of the words "family planning," you will still be under suspicion.

Of course, those wishing to avoid all taint of unsavory or paranoid accusations will simply call you "anti-growth." This automatically makes you an enemy of the poor who will have no hope of bettering themselves under your plan for population reduction. If you answer this charge by suggesting that perhaps we should redistribute the world's wealth more equitably while simultaneously reducing population, they will call you a "socialist" if they're trying to be polite or a "communist" if they're not.

One thing you can be sure of. No defensible ecological argument will be made to refute you.

It is not obvious to me how to change the discourse on population. I usually avoid it in my initial discussions with people about our ecological predicament. If someone asks about population during a question and answer session, I respond as well as I can. Sometimes a well-informed questioner surmises that I simply must understand the connection between overpopulation and our environmental and resource problems. Such a questioner will phrase his or her query this way: "How come you didn't talk about overpopulation? That's at the root of all our problems."

Well, now I can refer those questioners to this piece.


Bytesmiths said...

Thanks for another fine missive, Kurt!

There are many ways we could go about de-populating, but as you note, all of them fraught with peril.

So perhaps the first thing that must happen is that the ethic must change. Only then can real change take place.

I was dismayed over the exchange I had with one prominent environmental writer/speaker recently. She has four kids. I politely asked her how she reconciled her environmentalism with her having had four children, and she basically said, "None of your business. It happened."

Not that I wanted to make someone feel bad, but this sort of attitude needs to change. I had expected something like, "I've learned a lot since then," or "That was before I understood the problem." I had hoped for something I could take away, an inspiring, pithy statement I could use with my young friends who are starting families. Her youngest is just two, and for all I know from her response, there may be more coming.

Residents of western industrial nations have always viewed population as a third-world problem. But as Donella Meadows noted, I = P * A * T, or Impact equals Population times Affluence (energy use) times Technology. Westerners have the affluence and technology, so even minor changes in population can have a profound impact.

One provocative solution (after achieving a popular ethic change, itself a monumental task) would be a lottery. This could have an unforeseen benefit, as foreseen by science fiction writer Larry Niven in his Ringworld series: the "luck" of future generations may be better, as Darwinian forces select for those who can win lotteries. Don't underestimate the importance of this; future generations are going to need all the luck they can get!

Kurt Cobb said...

A reader named Phil emailed this thought-experiment:

Suppose you're living on a group of islands, much like the British Isles ... but there is no coal or other fossil fuel. Life is good, population is stable or slowly increasing ... but forest cover has gone down from 90% 200 years ago to 40% today and is continuing to drop 1% each year. Are the islands overpopulated? Which problem would you rather have in 40 years' time: a shortage of young workers or a complete absence of firewood?

Kiashu said...

You're the first person talking about overpopulation I've seen who is talking about First World overpopulation.

More commonly, what happens is that some white middle-classed person who has no children hears about the hundreds of millions of Asians and Africans who are, like us, quite keen to eat burgers and SUVs, and this person then realises... well, there's not enough for everyone. Solution? "Well, maybe if there were less darkies in the world we could all eat burgers and drive SUVs! Yay! Everyone can be rich and wasteful after all! I can continue to eat burgers and drives SUVs without guilt, I won't even have to throw money at some carbon offset scam company to make myself feel better! Hooray!"

The hostility comes because the traditional root of supposed concerns about population is racism and classism. We can have babies, but not those dark-skinned and poor people, they should all be sterilised and go clean the streets or something.

The important part of your equation is "affluence". The thing about population is that it's not how big it is, it's what you do with it.

G2 said...

Excellent essay, enough so to get me reading through other articles on your blog. And I fully agree with you and with Kiashu, that population reduction must be on the agenda of the affluent world as well as "everywhere else." (In fact, even more so, due to our disproportionate impact.)

I too have recently had "an interesting experience." I discovered that some people, who are otherwise highly intelligent and fully aware of the climate crisis and related issues, go absolutely balllistic when any mention is made of doing something about overpopulation. In one case, a physics PhD said that he would sooner see the world plunged into dieoff (resource wars, famines, pandemics) than accept a mandatory "one baby per family" policy or similar solution.

The overt denialists can be counted on to go ballistic over any suggestion of mandatory measures to reduce consumption. This phenomenon is well known. But the fact that some people who are committed to sustainability hit the ceiling when population reduction comes up, is a new and interesting discovery that it seems a number of us have made at about the same time.

What I think is going on here is very simple: reason has taken the back seat to animal instinct, perhaps augmented further by the base human desire to see one's own tribe dominate other tribes.

Here's another thought experiment for you: ask someone, "Would you die if you didn't have a baby?" Clearly the answer is "no." Thus, clearly, having babies is not a subsistence need in the same sense as having clean water and food.

Then ask them, "would you give up your car in order to have a baby? ...would you give up eating meat in order to have a baby? ...would you give up living in a nice big house and move into a cramped apartment in order to have a baby? ...give up indoor plumbing?...electricity?..." and so on. Then ask, "what would you be unwilling to give up in order to have a baby?" I would be very very interested to hear the outcome of this type of line of questioning, for a decent sample across the political spectrum.

This posting is getting too long so I'll wrap up by saying that yes, I'm in favor of a baby lottery.

It turns out that even one child per family does not lead to a rapid enough population decline to avoid the high probability of the present state of overshoot leading to a population collapse via rapid dieoff. The reduction has to happen more rapidly, and long story short, the correct number is probably in the range of one baby per every three or four families.

If humans were truly rational creatures whose actions were based upon free will rather than driven by blind instincts (such as reproduction and consumption), we would agree and proceed until we were down to 2 billion, at which point we could resume having two children per family. The generations that made the necessary sacrifices would be held in high esteem by their descendants in a sustainable world.

But this has about as much probability of occurring as an extraterrestrial space craft landing on the White House Lawn.

So long as blind instinct is in the driver's seat, the rest of us had better prepare for the inevitable crash.

Anonymous said...

We should have made an effort to acculturate a pattern of global full year sabbaticals from having babies. Tradition tells us to rest every 7 days. Our species needs rest at least every 7 years. Such observance was common in small "primitive" societies where pregnancies were intentionally clustered between long periods of rest. They could see what they were doing and coordinate it. We may have learned this lesson too late... it takes a full lifetime for a reduction in births to lower population levels.

daggett said...

Hi Kurt,

(Merry Christmas, if it's still Christmas in the US. It's Boxing day here in Australia)

You may be interested to know that you were quoted in a discussion we are having in response to an article "Is it reactionary to oppose immigration?" on Margo Kingston's webdiary (also published here).

Kiashu said...

As I said, the danger with the focus on population is that it's an excuse for inaction. "Well I don't have babies so I can keep driving my SUV and eating burgers, why doesn't the government do something about all those people having babies?"

As I point out here, you and I can reduce our personal resource consumption and pollution impact by two-thirds, tomorrow, without significant effort or suffering, and while saving money.

Whereas short of genocide, population won't be reduced by two-thirds even in thirty years.

Who has more impact on the environment, the hippy family of four on their bicycles eating organic lentils, or the yuppie single childless person in their SUV on holiday overseas skiing?

Our wasteful lifestyle is to blame for resource depletion and pollution, not the absolute number of the people in the world. Lifestyle is easy to change, population is slow to change without genocide.

If I = P x A x T, why focus on the slow to change one when we can focus on the (relatively) quick and easy to change one? Why, because the person suggesting we focus on the slow to change one doesn't want any change in the quick one. Rich Westerners would rather tell other people not to have children than themselves to take the bus.

I certainly plan to have children. Anyone who wishes to criticise me on the basis of I = PAT, well when their AT=25% of Western average like mine, then they can criticise. Until then, they can bugger off.

"Please don't have children, so I can continue my wasteful luxurious lifestyle without guilt."

G2 said...

To quote Aldous Huxley out of context, "Nothing less than everything is fully sufficient."

At present we have to reduce both population and consumption levels each by about 60% in order to achieve sustainability. Otherwise nature will do it for us.

Regardless of anything else, every single human requires X gallons of clean water per day, Y calories of food per day, and Z square feet of space in which to sleep per day, along with Q quantity of sewage disposed of per day.

If a person typically needs an absolute minimum of 1.5 gallons of water per day for drinking, cooking, and washing; and 2,000 calories per day; and lives 65 years, then: during their lifetime they will consume close to 36,000 gallons of water, and about 47.5 million calories of food; and producing that food in turn will require yet more water.

There is no single action any person can take that has anywhere near the ecological impact of making a baby.


In case this gets into details of personal lifestyle, I offer the following:

Miles driven per month, about 400 in total. Down from about 1,200 a few years ago via putting my clients' systems on remote-access so I can service them from my desk at home. Of the total miles driven, the majority are for work requirements (client site visits that are not serviceable remotely) and the small minority are for personal trips.

Electricity consumption per month: 109 KWH as of last electric bill. Down by about 83 KWH per month compared to previous levels, via building my own refrigerator/freezer system from off the shelf parts, as well as taking all the usual conservation measures.

Water consumption: "Purge water" (the cold water before the hot water comes up in the shower) diverted to storage tank, used as input to laundry. Output from laundry (graywater) stored in second tank and used as input to toilet. Household water usage reduced approx. 25% in this way compared to normal; and there is also no outdoor watering, which saves another approx. 40% compared to normal.

I'm also the guy who developed the telecommuter feature for PBXs (office telephone systems) that automatically routes calls from your downtown office to your home office without need of expensive VOIP (internet telephony) equipment. This was adopted by the leading manufacturer of PBXs in the line size 20 to 40 extensions, making the feature available to small and medium sized businesses (and it works better than the one Jet Blue uses to route calls to their employees' home offices). The point of this exercise being that every telecommuter is one less car making two needless trips per day: so the thing I designed is helping take cars off the road everywhere it is deployed.

I walk my talk. Therefore I have standing to criticize unsustainable behaviors in general. Including excessive consumption, and, as per the point of this column, excessive reproduction.


The point of my "would you give up (this, that, or the other thing) to have a baby" thought-experiment was to illustrate that for most humans most of the time, the desire to have babies is more powerful than the desire for almost any material comfort you can name: and in some places, that includes adequate food and water.

The fact that people will sooner starve than stop making babies, is proof positive that making babies is driven not by any rational thought process but primarily by instinct. You don't need to make a baby in order to live. You do need clean water and adequate food. Making a baby in order to have a personal caretaker when you're older, is as selfish or more so than buying a Lincoln Navigator.

Babies born in affluent cultures, who grow up with a mentality of entitlement to further material excess, are effectively taking food and water from the mouths of babies born in the third world. However, babies born in the third world are also effectively taking food and water from each others' mouths. When population has overshot carrying capacity, the result is a zero-sum game: every single baby is competing for resources against every other baby.


As for the relative ease of changing lifestyles vs. changing reproductive behaviors, consider this:

At present, sustainability in a world of 6.5 billion humans translates to the material standard of living in Cuba. And while I'm no fan of communism, they do have clean drinking water, sufficient food, education and medical care that are the envy of much of the world. They survived their own oil crash with few or no fatalities. Those are the empirical facts.

In Cuba private automobiles are virtually unknown, a point that many sustainability advocates would applaud.

However, in Cuba, rural electricity supply means a community solar system that provides a one-hundred watt circuit to every house. That's enough for a couple of lights and either a radio, or in US terms, a laptop or a small black and white TV. The refrigerator is communal, the washing machine is communal, and forget about a toaster (800 watts).

A single 100-watt circuit to your house means a maximum power consumption of 72 KWH / month, though realistically it means about 60% to 70% of that level due to the intermittency of sunlight and the inability to provide full battery backup.

Try living on about 50 KWH per month, with a maximum usage of 100 watts at any given time. Say goodbye to your refrigerator and you might be about halfway there. Say goodbye to every appliance that has a heating element (toaster, coffee pot, etc.). You might be able to do without most of those, but the fridge is the big one: now figure out how you're going to prepare your meals.

You see, it's not as easy as it seems. Yes, it's easy to give up the obvious sources of waste such as SUVs, commuting by car, bigscreen TVs, etc. But to truly achieve sustainability, to change lifestyle to a sufficient degree, you will have to figure out how to prepare meals without need of refrigeration or devices that use electricity to heat food (and using natural gas or propane is cheating).

It's a hell of a lot simpler to take the pill or put on one of those latex things.

Yes, they have it all figured out in Cuba, but the entire society is on a hardcore sustainable footing, 300-passenger city buses and urban agriculture on every bit of open land included.

The bottom line is, there is no substitute for a significant reduction in population. At 6.5 billion, what is required is a complete revolution in our energy usage and everything that goes along with; but at 9 billion humans even Cuban-level austerity is over the line by about 40%.

Sorry to be the bearer of bad news. We can't "build our way out of this," whether with technological miracles such as nuclear fusion or with mundane measures such as bicycles and vegetarian diets. Or rather, we can't do it that way alone. What it takes is all of those measures, and to stop having babies like there's no tomorrow. Or there will truly be no tomorrow.

Anonymous said...

´The generations that made the necessary sacrifices would be held in high esteem by their descendants in a sustainable world.´

There´s a quote somewhere that points out that `Celibacy isn´t a hereditary trait.´ On this same vein, I would offer that there exists a certain irony in the above comment by g2. But I´m merely being glib.

- Nick

fat_tail_rider said...

One of the posters over at The Oil Drum has the tagline "Are humans smarter than yeast?" as part of his signature. Sadly, the answer appears to be "No."

Anonymous said...

A good post but you miss the main point about rebounding 'Western' birth rates. Immigration.

Where information is available you will find that the rebound in birth rates in the West is due to immigrants or their children having more children than the indigenous populations.

According to the BNP (British National Party) in the UK, the average white indigenous British woman has around 1.4 children but a female British resident of Pakistani origin has around 4 children on average.

Kiashu, what is happening is that first work countries are acting as pressure valves for uncontrolled third world population explosions. Any good that efficiencies and future energy conservation in developed countries will be offset by huge immigration gains. I read reports on the Telegraph website that the UK population is projected to be 70 - 90 million by 2050.

Kiashu, in your country, Australia, there seems to be a consensus that the country is above carrying capacity yet you still allow 100,000 migrants in annually. Why?

Kiashu said...

We let migrants in because we're not racists with a history of wanting to betray the country to foreign powers, like the BNP you quote.

The Australian continent is a delicate one. Having even one million people living as we do would eventually destroy the land. The problem isn't whether we have ten times or twenty times as many people as the land can support in our lifestyle, it's our lifestyle.

Consider that Australia and the US combined have 5% the world's population, but generate 25% its greenhouse gases. The recent IPCC report concludes that to avoid "catastrophic climate change" - by which they mean an eventual rise of 2C in temperature worldwide - the world must reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 85% on year 2000 levels.

If the entire world except for the US and Australia were to disappear between now and 2050, the population reduction would be 95%, but the greenhouse gas emission reduction would be only 75%. That is, the US and Australia alone could cause catastrophic climate change.

Alternately, the world could reduce population to 321 million and that remaining population live like the US and Australia, and we'd still get catastrophic climate change.

The most important factor is our lifestyle. g2 was kind enough to calculate some lifetime consumption figures for us. However, what's important isn't the actual volume of consumption, but consumption relative to capacity. If I have $1 million in the bank earning $50,000 interest annually, but spend $100,000, I'm eating into my principal, and will eventually run out of money and have no income. If I spend $50,000 then I'm "sustainable", and if I spend less then the principal will go up.

So what's important is not whether we have some child who'll consume X litres of water and Y calories of food in their lifetime, but how that water and food were got, and whether they drew on the principal of the Earth. The principal and interest of the Earth, its "carrying capacity" are difficult to calculate directly. It's easier to look at results; we may not know exactly what the interest rate is, but we can see when the principal is rising, holding steady or falling.

Since we're causing climate change, it's obvious we're drawing on our principal. We're spending more than we earn. That way leads to bankruptcy. And that could happen to the Earth even with a 95% reduction in the world's population, if we continue to live as we do.

Again, I can reduce by two-thirds my personal impact on the world; overnight reduction of world population by two-thirds is not possible without genocide.

The general rule is that as education and income rise, birth rate drops, but they're not related in a linear way. That is, imagine there's a Kenyan family with three kids, two parents and a grandparent on $2,000, and a New Hampshire couple with one child on $100,000; the New Hampshire family has one-half as many members, but consumes and pollutes more than twice as much.

Westerners like to talk about the problems of population because it distracts from talking about the problems of overconsumption and pollution. "Alright, I just won't have any kids," is a lot easier than "I'll change my affluent lifestyle."

Again, if population and affluence are equally important in the equation, does it make more sense to focus on the one that's physically easy to change, but socially difficult (affluence), or the one that's both socially and physically difficult to change (population)? Naturally, we Westerners prefer to focus on the one that means the least effort for us.

Grow some balls. Reduce your consumption and pollution. No amount of handing out condoms is going to let you keep driving your SUV and eating burgers without any effect.

bertrand russell said...

"You don't need to make a baby in order to live. You do need clean water and adequate food. Making a baby in order to have a personal caretaker when you're older, is as selfish or more so than buying a Lincoln Navigator."

The fact is that being voluntarily childless is a form of suicide. We are all going to die, but to die without any descendants is a much more final form of death, because it means that your dna disappears. You may or may not agree with this logic, but I guarantee that if you go to my age, 63, without children, you will regret it.

Anonymous said...

Kiashu. Please explain how the BNP and other 'racists' have a history of betraying the UK to foreign powers. Which foreign powers?

You fail to appreciate my point in the red mist that appeared when I mentioned the BNP. People are moving to the US and Australia for a lifestyle that is more CO2 emitting . The best thing for western countries to do is stop concentrating on economic expansion brought about by high levels of immigration and instead think about energy conservation.

On a personal level. I don't own a car but a bicycle, walk to the supermarket, don't run my air con at all, don't take international holidays etc. According to one website I found I emit the same CO2 as an average Indian, I am pleased to announce. I wish others would do the same. I also wish they would vote for anti-immigration parties but hey! one thing at a time is good enough.

Have a good think about it. You can use your economic resources in Australia housing, feeding and schooling 10,000 refugees and 90,000 immigrants every year or you could start building concentrating solar stations in the outback to provide renewable non-CO2 producing electricity.

And don't forget to tell me how the BNP people have a history of betraying the UK to foreign powers and which ones.

Kiashu said...

The British Union of Fascists under Mosley in 1939 onwards wanted Britain to have a negotiated peace with Germany which would involve a German occupation of Britain. Many BUF members spied for the Nazis during the war.

After the war, the BUF became the Union Movement, then the Action Party, the League of St George and the National Front, the latter of which evolved into the modern BNP.

When asked in 1993 if the BNP was racist, its deputy leader Richard Edmonds said, "We are 100 per cent racist, yes". Founder John Tyndall proclaimed that "Mein Kampf is my bible."

Murderous racism and treason are the heart of the BNP, the heart of its philosophy, its ideological and membership history.

The BNP supports a reduction of Britain's population - at least the dark-skinned kind.

Australia need not choose between having migrants and building renewable energy. It's like those idiots who say that if we build trains we must have less hospitals. We're a wealthy country. We can do both.

Fascism is vile enough as a political ideology. The desperation of the fascists to have some sort of popular influence is show by their recent appropriation of ecological themes. I am not an ecofascist, nor is it an ideology (if it can be graced with the name "ideology") I can recommend to anyone else.

The North Coast said...

Population control has to begin with women, and women's rights.

Does any woman WANT to spend a major part of her life being pregnant?

Does any mother WANT to see her kids go without the decencies of life because she had 6 kids, but could have provided easily for one or two?

If it isn't good for the poor families on the other side of the tracks to have 6 kids they can't support, how can it be good for a world where 70% of the population is mired in poverty, to increase when they can't eat as it is?

Simple logic- if you can't support yourself, you can't raise kids who will support you in old age. You will only breed more and deeper poverty and misery.

As for supporting oldsters- the notion that we need an ever-expanding population to support our swelling population of elderly only shows that most country's old-age support systems are Ponzi schemes. What we see is that we don't need more young people nearly so much as we need sustainable retirement programs and savings from early youth. =