Study is First to Measure Global Population-Energy Relationship

If you’ve lived between the year 1560 and the present day, more power to you. Literally.

That’s one of several conclusions reached by University of Nebraska-Lincoln ecologist John DeLong, who has co-authored the first study to quantify the relationship between human population growth and energy use on an international scale.

The study compiled several centuries’ worth of data from Great Britain, the United States and Sweden to profile the dynamics between a skyrocketing population and its consumption of energy from fossil fuels and renewable sources.

The data showed that energy use has generally outpaced population growth over the last few hundred years.

The data showed that energy use has generally outpaced population growth over the last few hundred years.


The data showed that energy use has generally outpaced population growth over the last few hundred years. Each generation has thus produced and used more energy per person than its predecessor even as world population has climbed from about 500 million to more than 7 billion in the 450 years analyzed by the authors.

This increasing per capita energy supply has also hiked up Earth’s carrying capacity — the number of people it can sustain  — and allowed the population to grow at an ever-faster, or exponential, rate.

“Broadly speaking, no one’s really quantified this,” said DeLong, assistant professor of biological sciences. “But it was important, because there are studies going back decades that assume this kind of positive feedback loop: We grow, we expand our capacity to extract energy, and then we grow some more.”

However, DeLong and colleague Oskar Burger also found that this dynamic has shifted in the decades following 1963, when the world’s population was growing faster than ever before or since. During the subsequent half-century, the ratio between energy increases and population growth has narrowed, with the former now aligning more closely to the latter. A 1:1 ratio would theoretically limit the planet’s population to a linear rather than exponential growth rate.

“I do think this should challenge our assumptions about future population growth,” DeLong said. “The study supports conventional wisdom to a degree, but it also reminds us that (abundant energy) is maybe not something that we can count on.

”Our study sort of plays into a deep cultural philosophy that we have the creativity and ability to solve whatever problem comes our way. The evidence shows that, from an energy point of view, we’ve done that a lot. But maybe that’s not a guarantee.”

DeLong said the study’s insights might also help inform and refine population projections. The United Nations currently projects that Earth’s population in the year 2100 will sit between 9 billion and 13 billion people. Past projections have been notoriously inaccurate, usually underestimating the growth rates and numbers.

“In the back of our minds, it definitely is a goal to make better, more mechanistic forecasts,” said DeLong. “What we’re saying is: Every other population on the planet depends on energy to fuel their activities and maintain their bodies. Ours must, too.”

Source: and Burger, a biological anthropologist at the England-based Kent University, published their study in June. The paper appeared in the open-access journal PLOS ONE.

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Family planning: A major environmental emphasis

CORVALLIS, Oregon – People who are serious about wanting to reduce their “carbon footprint” on the Earth have one choice available to them that may yield a large long-term benefit—have one less child.

A study by statisticians at Oregon State University concluded that in the United States, the carbon legacy and greenhouse gas impact of an extra child is almost 20 times more important than some of the other environmentally sensitive practices people might employ their entire lives—things like driving a high mileage car, recycling, or using energy-efficient appliances and light bulbs.

The research also makes it clear that potential carbon impacts vary dramatically across countries. The average long-term carbon impact of a child born in the U.S.—along with all of its descendants—is more than 160 times the impact of a child born in Bangladesh.

“In discussions about climate change, we tend to focus on the carbon emissions of an individual over his or her lifetime,” said Paul Murtaugh, an OSU professor of statistics. “Those are important issues and it’s essential that they should be considered. But an added challenge facing us is continuing population growth and increasing global consumption of resources.”

In this debate, very little attention has been given to the overwhelming importance of reproductive choice, Murtaugh said. When an individual produces a child—and that child potentially produces more descendants in the future—the effect on the environment can be many times the impact produced by a person during their lifetime.

Under current conditions in the U.S., for instance, each child ultimately adds about 9,441 metric tons of carbon dioxide to the carbon legacy of an average parent—about 5.7 times the lifetime emissions for which, on average, a person is responsible.

And even though some developing nations have much higher populations and rates of population growth than the U.S., their overall impact on the global equation is often reduced by shorter life spans and less consumption. The long-term impact of a child born to a family in China is less than one fifth the impact of a child born in the U.S., the study found.

As the developing world increases both its population and consumption levels, this may change.

“China and India right now are steadily increasing their carbon emissions and industrial development, and other developing nations may also continue to increase as they seek higher standards of living,” Murtaugh said.

The study examined several scenarios of changing emission rates, the most aggressive of which was an 85 percent reduction in global carbon emissions between now and 2100. But emissions in Africa, which includes 34 of the 50 least developed countries in the world, are already more than twice that level.

The researchers make it clear they are not advocating government controls or intervention on population issues, but say they simply want to make people aware of the environmental consequences of their reproductive choices. “Many people are unaware of the power of exponential population growth,” Murtaugh said. “Future growth amplifies the consequences of people’s reproductive choices today, the same way that compound interest amplifies a bank balance.”

Murtaugh noted that their calculations are relevant to other environmental impacts besides carbon emissions—for example, the consumption of fresh water, which many feel is already in short supply.

Reproduction and the carbon legacies of individuals by Paul A. Murtaugh and Michael G. Schlax (PDF file)


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Save Lives—and Money! by Richard Grossman MD

Can you think of any state-funded program that can save seven dollars for every dollar spent? Voluntary family planning programs for teens and young women offer that wide a margin of benefit!

Indeed, family planning can do much more than just save money. It has the ability to change the prospects for people, especially young women. By postponing parenthood, people have the opportunity to mature emotionally, complete their education and improve job skills. An experiment, the Colorado Family Planning Initiative (subsidized by a generous grant) has shown the benefit of making effective contraception available to all women.

OK, I have to admit, women bear an unjust proportion of responsibility for family planning. That is the way it is now; I hope that the future will hold more in the way of birth control for men other than just condoms and vasectomy.

An anonymous donor (reported to be the Susan Thompson Buffet Foundation) gave money to fund contraception for women who otherwise couldn’t afford it. This program started in 2009 and finished this summer (2015). It paid about $5 million each year for more than 36,000 women to receive contraceptive information, services and supplies.

Fortunately, during this interval the need for funding decreased because the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) picked up perhaps 25,000 Colorado women who didn’t have prior coverage. Unfortunately there are still many people who don’t have any insurance coverage and cannot afford contraception. They are especially unable to pay for Long-Acting Reversible Contraceptive (LARC) methods that are so effective, but have an initial cost of about $1,000. LARCs include four IntraUterine Devices (IUDs) and one hormonal implant.

How did this program save money? If they had gotten pregnant, many of these women would have been on Medicaid or other state-supported programs. Their children would also likely be on taxpayer-funded programs, including children of undocumented women who are citizens as soon as they are born in the USA. The estimate of the amount of money the grant saved just for obstetrical services is $79 million.

The most important savings is in the decrease in the teen pregnancy rate. It is true that all over the country fewer teens became pregnant during the past few years, so not all of the decrease in our state is due to the Initiative. However, Colorado’s teen pregnancy rate dropped an outstanding 40% from 2009 to 2013, largely because of this Initiative.

Colorado's Teen Birth Rate

No one is in favor of unintended pregnancies. This Initiative illustrates what we have known all along: the best way to prevent abortion is with good contraception—and this has been proven over the past 5 years. From 2009 to 2013 the abortion rate for Colorado teens fell 42%, and for women aged 20 to 24 it also dropped significantly.

Good things come to an end, and the Initiative’s grant ended in July. Don Coram, a Republican state representative from Montrose, tried to garner support to continue the program—but unfortunately failed. Fortunately, private foundations stepped in to assure that funding is available.

So far 12 foundations have collaborated to pay $2 million during the next year to continue the Initiative. It remains to be seen whether this will be enough to provide services to all who need them, but it is hoped that more funding will follow. Optimistically the State Legislature will see that this program is saving money and empowering young women to become healthier, more productive citizens and will finally fund this program. And maybe other states will then get on the bandwagon to follow Colorado’s lead by funding similar programs.

Dr. Eve Espey is chair of the department of OB-GYN in Albuquerque where I trained many years ago. Her paper “Feminism and the Moral Imperative for Contraception” documents the importance of contraception in the modern world. Not only does family planning provide social benefits to individuals and to their societies, but also it saves lives. Spacing the births of babies promotes healthier children and decreases infant deaths. “It is estimated that, in 2008,” she writes “44% (272,040) of maternal deaths were prevented in 172 developing countries owing to use of contraceptives….”

Not only does contraception save money; globally it saves a quarter million women’s lives yearly!

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Solving the Human Predicament by Gerald Addy

Entrenched human behavior tendencies have blocked action toward a sustainable future. 

Despite over 50 years of effort by scientists and environmentalists, the future of the human endeavor can no longer be taken for granted.  This is due primarily to our nature.  We have failed to realize our own behavior patterns are the root cause of our predicament and have mistakenly believed that mountains of evidence would make the difference.  For decades scientists have produced evidence describing the serious environmental threats we face.  Their work has failed to ignite a significant public response because our message has not been delivered in a manner that addresses the drivers of human behavior.

We now understand humans are confronted with subconscious behavior tendencies that served us well at an earlier period, but still remain in our incomplete evolutionary development.  At our present stage of intellectual development, lingering malignant social constructs, especially capitalism and economic growth, impede our ability to move forward on environmental issues.

Humans have the most highly developed brain of all living species.  The cognitive part of the brain is responsible for our remarkable progress in technology and science.  By contrast, when human relationships induce conflict or stress, the limbic and reptilian parts of the brain dominate, overriding rational cognitive thought processes.  The innate survival instincts so essential in the past still tend to overwhelm our unique reasoning capacity.  Emotional factors such as fear and anger hamper rational thinking.  We overestimate the human intellectual capacity when the cognitive process is undermined by our regression to subconscious influences.

Human behavior is strongly influenced by well-established norms.  Ideas extending beyond broadly accepted patterns are frequently rejected because they do not conform to preconceived beliefs that, once established, are extremely difficult to dislodge.  Once locked in place, they are obstacles to change.  A striking example of this aspect of human behavior is the never-ending debate on gun control in the United States.  Any time the topic on the availability of guns occurs, the National Rifle Association (NRA) vehemently rejects any type of constraint on gun ownership, claiming “the right to bear arms” as an unalienable right that cannot be taken away.  The right to bear arms became part of the United States constitution in 1791 and remains there to this day despite the evolution from muskets to AK-47s and despite abundant evidence that gun ownership fails to enhance security and creates an added public hazard.

Human behavior contains a strong element of competitiveness, a natural occurrence in past times when survival was a daily struggle.  Humans operated in a context where obtaining food and shelter were the key factors of living.  Hardships bred a short-term view of life with little regard for the future.  In today’s society the same characteristics can be seen in our seemingly insatiable consumption of resources and in our tendency to discount the future.  These predispositions are displayed by our destructive treatment of the natural world, all in the name of unsustainable economic growth.  We are caught in the trap of immediate self-gratification at the expense of our own life-support system.

The unique reasoning ability of humans has brought many benefits, but has also provided us with a problem with which we must cope.  We are equipped with certain abstract knowledge unlikely to be possessed by most other animal species.  Humans have a sense of self-awareness and are aware of their own mortality.  We are constantly reminded by daily events around us that we are not immutable.  By necessity, we have learned to deal with this knowledge by creating a number of defensive structures.  We have subconsciously learned to deny reality.  The denial may take the form of refuting or ignoring painful information that helps us avoid facing the issue.  Denial often employs rationalization as an escape mechanism by finding reasons to discredit the information.  Humans are capable of denial most frequently when the issue in question has a controversial aspect, but also occurs even when the information is widely accepted.  The melting of the Arctic sea ice is a powerful example.  It is recognized there is an urgent need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  Despite this, oil companies and some governments are actively laying claim to areas believed to contain oil or gas reserves.  The risk of potential global warming disaster is denied.  Greed and vested interests prevail.

If we expect to move forward on environmental issues we will need to frame our message in a way that reaches the real drivers of human behavior and removes the obstacles blocking change.  Predicting disaster is not a driver because creating fear produces denial and paralysis.  Providing more scientific evidence is helpful, but is not a driver because it has been tested for decades and found to be ineffective.  At present a plan does not exist, but we now have an understanding of the elements influencing human behavior that could be utilized in developing a blueprint for action.  These elements would focus on the many positive attributes of human nature such as our proven ability to co-operate, our innate desire to protect our children, and our empathy for other creatures that share the Earth with us.

We have the intellectual capacity to create a plan using these and other human qualities.  It is our moral responsibility to do so.  The question is: “Are we brave enough to do it?”

Gerald Addy is a retired elementary school principal from North Vancouver with thirty-six years of service in education and currently serves as one of the directors of the Qualicum Institute.

Response from Graeme Bowman

I’m intrigued that in this essay there is no mention of the ‘p’ word. Maybe this is because, if you are raised within a patriarchal system, (as I’d suggest most of us have been) patriarchy is invisible to you, in the same way that male privilege can be invisible to men, and white privilege can be invisible to white people.

Before anyone here thinks I’m having an unfair go at men, (I’m one myself) let me assure you it’s not men in general who are at fault, it’s mainly what are called “men behaving badly”, where badly means having a damaging effect on people and planet in the areas of social, economic and environmental sustainability. Let me also add that patriarchy has no gender; while it arose from the rules of men, it is now an overarching set of systems in which many women willingly participate as well. Such systems can reward women well – if they are prepared to play the game – which explains why some women leaders appear more ruthless than their male counterparts; they had to adopt that style to get noticed and be accepted.

Gerald rightly says above, “Fixed human behavior tendencies have blocked action toward a sustainable future”.  However, the most obstructionist of these tendencies don’t reflect some ‘fixed genetic’ or universal core of humanity; they stem from a specific, archaic worldview and primitive level of consciousness; an aberrant, unbalanced way of functioning that is now totally at odds with our current reality. Good news is, as it’s not genetic, it’s not beyond our control to do something about it.

If you dig and think deeply enough, you can’t help but conclude that the root cause of global problems is a range of toxic beliefs and behaviors associated with the patriarchal systems that underpin the world’s dominant economies, business entities, governments, societies, cultures and religions. If you’d ever wondered if there was some common link between the slaughtering of indigenous people so miners could access their land … systemic sexual abuse within religious institutions … and the GFC notion of ‘too big too fail’, you will find that common link embedded within the ideals of patriarchy, which has – and this is the worst bit – progressively become institutionalized, and now globalized, to the point where no single person or entity controls it.

The failure to adequately address global problems reflects, within many men in positions of immense power, the patriarchal suppression of nurturing human values such as empathy, humility and collaboration, coupled with the cultivation of beliefs and behaviors around competition, adversarial thinking, domination, entitlement, greed, command and control, divide and conquer, and win-at-all-costs.

The suppression of the nurturing values also reinforces an anthropocentric – and within that, a male-centric – ‘operating system’ across humankind. Although these ‘men behaving badly’ may be genuinely smart and sophisticated in lots of ways, when it comes to a mental framework suited to continued human existence, they are running on empty. And as we are seeing, it’s terribly dangerous when combined with a lizard brain and advanced technology that can exponentially amplify the resulting dysfunctionality.

Interestingly, Carol Gilligan’s research demonstrated that, when confronted with a moral dilemma, men generally operate out of an ethic of justice, whereas women tend to operate out of an ethic of care. This means men will often sacrifice a relationship in order to comply with the rules, while women are more likely to bend the rules to preserve the relationship.

As a way to run a planet, the ethic of justice favored by men really falls down when what is legal differs markedly from what is moral or ethical. That’s when we have a situation that is on a collision course with the needs of both humanity and planet. In its most extreme form, the psychologically immature patriarchal mind sees itself as superior to, and dominant over all else, and therefore entitled to take whatever it wants. We desperately need an ethic of care, one that views sustainability as a continuum from cellular to planetary.

Solving aspects of major problems without trying to loosen the grip of patriarchy is like upgrading your prison cell – you’re a bit more comfortable, but you’re still trapped and controlled by others. Ignoring the root cause of a problem means it will manifest itself in the same or a different way in the future. You can give cleaner water or better shoes to slaves, generation after generation, but they are still slaves. If you don’t tackle their slavery, what have you actually achieved?

Across all of humanity, the most widespread and discriminatory manifestation of patriarchy is the suppression and exploitation of women and girls. Because of this suppression, I believe Earth’s greatest source of renewable energy is the untapped potential of a billion mothers, daughters, sisters and grandmothers. If humanity is able to turn this spaceship around, it will have more to do with a feminine ethic of care emanating from countless women, than it will from the mediaeval bleating about “the right to bear arms”.

This has lead me to conclude that a critical prerequisite for reducing the damaging aspects of patriarchy on both people and planet is to strengthen the support of women who are currently disengaged from the efforts to improve the state of our world. Which is why my wife and I are establishing the entity, “Wise Women Will Save the World”. Engaging disengaged women is central to our purpose, because, apart from any other form of activism, we need to catalyze a simultaneous, worldwide, granular approach to eroding patriarchy at every level, and it would be really handy if all the men and women who are not on the ‘behaving badly’ team, were prepared to play their part.

May I conclude by urging you to do one thing in the next day or so – raise the topic of patriarchy during a conversation with people, and see where it leads. It’s a conversation our planet needs us to have.

From our friends at The MAHB. Go to for more excellent articles and conversations. 

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If Pope Francis Really Wanted to Fight Climate Change, He’d Be a Feminist by Katha Pollitt

The world will never be healed of its ecological ills as long as women cannot control their fertility. Doesn’t meeting a desire that women already have seem a strategy more likely to succeed than turning the world into vegetarians or keeping the new middle classes in China and India from buying cars and taking vacations?

If the world consisted only of straight men, Pope Francis would be the world’s greatest voice for everything progressives believe in. He’s against inequality, racism, poverty, bigotry and, as his recent encyclical Laudato Si’ made eloquently clear, the rampant capitalism and “self-centred culture of instant gratification” —including excessive meat eating—that fuel climate change and may well destroy the planet. He has a gift for adding warmth to harsh and inflexible dogma, as with his famous comment on gays: “Who am I to judge?” As I write, he has just announced a special year in which any priest may absolve a woman for having an abortion, as long as she is “contrite.” No wonder leftists and liberals and even secular humanists love him. Naomi Klein seemed positively starstruck in her New Yorker piece about her recent visit to the Vatican, where she spoke at a press conference and symposium about the encyclical. Indeed, she was so impressed with the pope’s “theology of interconnection” and “evangelism of ecology,” she forgot to mention that he had nothing to say about the gender inequality that undergirds and promotes our onrushing disaster.

I know I risk being the feminist killjoy at the vegan love feast, but, unlike Vatican City, the world is half women. It will never be healed of its economic, social, and ecological ills as long as women cannot control their fertility or the timing of their children; are married off in childhood or early adolescence; are barred from education and decent jobs; have very little socioeconomic or political power or human rights; and are basically under the control—often the violent control—of men.

For example, consider population growth. Because of its association with coercion, racism, and doomsday predictions that failed to materialize, it’s hard for progressives to talk about overpopulation. But we must: There are 7.2 billion people on the planet—since 2000, we’ve added around 1.2 billion, roughly equivalent to the entire population of North America and Europe. At the current rates of increase, there will be 9.6 billion people by around 2050. Population density affects everything: climate change, species loss, pollution, deforestation, the struggle for clean water, housing, work, and sufficient food. How can we take the pope seriously if he refuses to face these facts?

Pope Francis places the blame for the sorry state of the planet only on excess consumption by the privileged and says that international campaigns for “reproductive health” (scare quotes his) are really all about population control and the imposition of foreign values on the developing world—as if the church itself was not a foreign power using its might to restrict reproductive rights in those same places. But why is it an either/or question? Why not: There are billions of people who want a modern standard of living, which makes a lot of sense compared to the alternative—backbreaking farm labor in a poor village with no electricity or running water—and those desires can only be satisfied if people have fewer children, which happens to be what they want anyway.

True, Pope Francis did say that Catholics needn’t breed “like rabbits,” but he waved away the need for “artificial” birth control. If only those rabbits would use natural family planning! Interestingly, he made that comment as he was leaving the Philippines, a largely Catholic country where the powerful church hierarchy has fought tooth and nail against realistic sex education and government funding of contraception. Not coincidentally, the Philippines has the highest fertility rate among the 10 countries in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

According to a recent report from the Bixby Center for Global Reproductive Health at the University of California, San Francisco, providing family planning to the 225 million women around the world who want it but can’t get it could meet 16 to 29 percent of the necessary decrease in greenhouse-gas emissions. Doesn’t meeting a desire that women already have seem a strategy more likely to succeed than turning the world vegetarian or keeping the new middle classes in China and India from buying cars and taking vacations? Educating girls, keeping women in the workforce, and providing good healthcare for women and children are crucial human-rights goals that also reduce the number of children a woman has.

It’s remarkable that the pope didn’t address a single sentence of his encyclical to these issues, especially since it otherwise deals so intelligently with the interconnection of so many disparate phenomena. Francis has often said that men and women have different gifts and “complementary” roles. He has spoken sweetly of motherhood and femininity and derided the movement for women’s equality as “female machismo.” Yet in Laudato Si’, the word “women” appears only in the phrase “men and women”—that is, people. Don’t women have anything special to contribute to solving climate change beyond serving their too-numerous children less fast food?

As climate disruption heats up, it’s women who will bear the brunt of it, because they are the majority of the world’s poor. Especially in the developing world, they’ll be contending with drought, food shortages, flooding, and forced migration, along with increases in the usual brutalities like rape, violence, trafficking, and war. Under such circumstances, to deny them the ability to control how many kids they bring into the world is to condemn millions of women to the hardscrabble desperation that the pope says he wants to prevent.

There is a great deal of research on how women’s rights, including reproductive rights, can ameliorate a range of global ills, including poverty and ecological disaster. The pope prefers to elide the whole issue, except when it comes to abortion, which he sees as close to the root of the problem: “Since everything is interrelated, concern for the protection of nature is also incompatible with the justification of abortion. How can we genuinely teach the importance of concern for other vulnerable beings, however troublesome or inconvenient they may be, if we fail to protect a human embryo, even when its presence is uncomfortable and creates difficulties?” Given that the church is such a latecomer to concern for the Earth—until recently, the standard theological view held that God put Nature here for Humans to use—there’s a certain chutzpah in using this last-minute conversion to push the same old forced-birth agenda.

Never mind the 47,000 women who die every year in illegal abortions, and the even greater number who are injured: Abortion causes glaciers to melt and species to vanish. From Eden to ecology, it’s always women’s fault.

Source: The Nation online


The annual increase in global population (86.6 million more births than deaths each year) is the most rapid in the history of human kind. A business as usual scenario for the second half of the 21st century suggests the possibility of massive starvation and the certainty of unprecedented migration. In the Sahel the food supply is growing arithmetically the population increasing geometrically. Add in climate change and the possibility of a Malthusian disaster seem possible, unless urgent, large scale policy changes and financial investments in family planning and girls education are made immediately.

Malcolm Potts.

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The Pope and the Planet by Bill McKibben

Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common HomepastedGraphic.png an encyclical letter by Pope Francis, Vatican Press, available at

On a sprawling, multicultural, fractious planet, no person can be heard by everyone. But Pope Francis comes closer than anyone. He has 1.2 billion people in his flock, but even (maybe especially) outside the precincts of Catholicism his talent for the telling gesture has earned him the respect and affection of huge numbers of people. From his seat in Rome he addresses the developed world, much of which descended from the Christendom he represents; from his Argentine roots he speaks to the developing world, with firsthand knowledge of the poverty that is the fate of most on our planet.

Thus he considers the first truly planetary question we’ve ever faced: the rapid heating of the Earth from the consumption of fossil fuels. Scientists have done a remarkable job of getting the climate message out, reaching a workable consensus on the problem in relatively short order. But political leaders, beholden to the fossil fuel industry, have been timid at best—Barack Obama, for instance, barely mentioned the question during the 2012 election campaign. Since Pope Francis first announced plans for an encyclical on climate change, many have eagerly awaited his words.

Laudato Si’ does not disappoint. It does indeed accomplish all the things that the extensive news coverage highlighted: insist that climate change is the fault of man; call for rapid conversion of our economies from coal, oil, and gas to renewable energy; and remind us that the first victims of the environmental crisis are the poor. (It also does Americans the service of putting climate-denier politicians—a fairly rare species in the rest of the world—in a difficult place. Jeb Bush, for example, was reduced to saying that in the case of climate the pope should butt out, leaving the issue to politicians. “I think religion ought to be about making us better as people,” he said, in words that may come back to haunt him.)

Others, from the Dalai Lama to Anglican archbishop Desmond Tutu, have spoken eloquently on this issue. Still, Francis’s words fall as a rock in this pond, not a pebble; they help greatly to consolidate the current momentum toward some kind of global agreement. He has, in effect, said that all people of good conscience need to do as he has done and give the question the priority it requires. The power of celebrity is the power to set the agenda, and his timing has been impeccable. On those grounds alone, Laudato Si’ stands as one of the most influential documents of recent times.

It is, therefore, remarkable to actually read the whole document and realize that it turns out to be nothing less than a sweeping, radical, and highly persuasive critique of how we inhabit this planet—an ecological critique, yes, but also a moral, social, economic, and spiritual commentary. In scope and tone it reminded me instantly of E.F. Schumacher’s Small Is Beautiful (1973), and of the essays of the great American writer Wendell Berry.

The ecological problems we face are not, in their origin, technological, says Francis. Instead, “a certain way of understanding human life and activity has gone awry, to the serious detriment of the world around us.” He is no Luddite (“who can deny the beauty of an aircraft or a skyscraper?”) but he insists that we have succumbed to a “technocratic paradigm,” which leads us to believe that “every increase in power means ‘an increase of “progress” itself’…as if reality, goodness and truth automatically flow from technological and economic power as such.” Men and women, he writes, have from the start intervened in nature, but for a long time this meant being in tune with and respecting the possibilities offered by nature. It was a matter of receiving what nature itself allowed, as if from its own hand.

In our world, however, “human beings and material objects no longer extend a friendly hand to one another; the relationship has become confrontational.” With the great power that technology has afforded us, it has become easy to accept the idea of infinite or unlimited growth, which proves so attractive to economists, financiers and experts in technology. It is based on the lie that there is an infinite supply of Earth’s goods, and this leads to the planet being squeezed dry beyond every limit.

The pope is determined to imagine a world where technology has been liberated to serve the poor, the rest of creation, and indeed the rest of us who pay our own price even amid our temporary prosperity. The present ecological crisis is “one small sign of the ethical, cultural and spiritual crisis of modernity,” he says, dangerous to the dignity of us all.

The pope is at his most rigorous when he insists that we must prefer the common good to individual advancement. The world we currently inhabit really began with Ronald Reagan’s and Margaret Thatcher’s insistence on the opposite. (It was Thatcher who said, memorably, “there’s no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families,” and that’s that.) In particular, the pope insists “intergenerational solidarity is not optional, but rather a basic question of justice, since the world we have received also belongs to those who will follow us.”

Think of the limitations that really believing that would place on our current activities. And think too what it would mean if we kept not only “the poor of the future in mind, but also today’s poor, whose life on this Earth is brief and who cannot keep on waiting.” We literally would have to stop doing much of what we’re currently doing; with poor people living on the margins firmly in mind, and weighing the interests of dozens of future generations, would someone like to write a brief favoring, say, this summer’s expansion by Shell (with permission from President Obama) of oil drilling into the newly melted waters of the Arctic? Again the only applicable word for this pope is “radical.”

It’s quite possible—probable, even—that the pope will lose this fight. He has united science and spirit, but that league still must do battle with money and corporations. The week the encyclical was released, Congress approved, in bipartisan fashion, fast-track trade legislation, a huge victory for the forces of homogenization, technocracy, finance, and what the encyclical calls “rapidification.”

It’s not that markets shouldn’t play a part in environmental solutions: everyone who’s studied the problem believes that the fossil fuel industry should pay a price for the damage carbon does in the atmosphere—and that that price, if set high enough, would speed up the transition to renewable energy. But the climate movement has largely united behind plans that would take that money from the Exxons of the world and return it to all citizens, which would have the effect of giving poor and middle-class people, who generally use less fossil fuel, a substantial net gain. The new fast-track agreements, by contrast, apparently explicitly forbid new climate agreements as a part of trade negotiations.

The extent of the damage we’ve already done to the climate means we no longer have room for slightly less damaging fossil fuels. We have to make the leap to renewable power. And the good news is that that’s entirely possible. Thanks to the engineers whose creativity the pope celebrates, we’ve watched the price of solar panels fall 75 percent in the last six years alone. They’re now cheap enough that a vast effort could ensure that within ten years there would hardly be a hut or hovel that lacked access to energy, something that the fossil fuel status quo has failed to achieve in two hundred years. Such a change would be carried out by small-scale entrepreneurs of just the sort the pope has in mind when he describes the dignity of work.

It would mean a very different world. It would require, for instance, a world much like the one the pope envisions, where concern for the poor counts as much as the “low motivations of people as they actually are.”

Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher summoned the worst in us and assumed that will eventually solve our problems—to repeat their sad phrase, we should rely on the “low motivations of people as they actually are.” Pope Francis, in a moment of great crisis, speaks instead to who we could be individually and more importantly as a species.  As the data suggest, this may be the only option we have left.

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The Anthropocene and Ozymandias by Dave Foreman

Much has been made lately of the so-called Anthropocene—the idea that Homo sapiens has so taken over and modified Earth that we need a new name for our geological age instead of the outmoded Holocene. One remorseless Anthropoceniac writes, ‘Nature is gone… You are living on a used planet. If this bothers you, get over it. We now live in the Anthropocene—a geological era in which Earth’s atmosphere, lithosphere, and biosphere are shaped primarily by human forces.’

One of the reasons given today for renaming the Anthropocene is that we have so impacted all ecosystems on Earth that there is no ‘wilderness’ left. Some behave as though their claim about wilderness being snuffed is a new insight of their own. In truth, we wilderness conservationists have been speaking out about how Homo sapiens has been wrecking wilderness worldwide for at least one hundred years. Bob Marshall, a founder of the Wilderness Society, warned eighty years ago that the last wilderness of the Rocky Mountains was ‘disappearing like a snowbank on a south-facing slope on a warm June day.’

Congress said in the 1964 Wilderness Act that the country had to act then due to ‘increasing population, accompanied by expanding settlement and growing mechanization’ or we would leave no lands in a natural condition for future generations. My book Rewilding North America documents in gut-wrenching detail how Man has been wreaking a mass extinction for the last 50,000 years or so.

Anthropoceniacs do not seem to understand that when we wilderness conservationists talk about Wilderness Areas we are not playing a mind-game of believing that these are pristine landscapes where the hand of Man has never set foot. Although wilderness holds one end of the human-impact spectrum, it is not a single point but rather a sweep of mostly wild landscapes. Over seventy years ago, Aldo Leopold, the father of the Wilderness Area Idea, wisely wrote, “in any practical program, the unit areas to be preserved must vary greatly in size and in degree of wildness”.

In the sense of the US Wilderness Act (with over seven hundred areas totaling over 109 million acres) and like wilderness systems in other lands worldwide, there is, indeed, wilderness. Moreover, some 25% of Earth’s land is lightly or seldom touched by Man.

But the Anthropoceniacs are really saying that there is no wilderness in its ideal pristine meaning. To answer this assertion, I think we need to put Homo sapiens in better perspective.

Life first wriggled on Earth some 3.5 billion years ago. That is a long time. So, let’s take an easier timeline and only go back to the unfolding of complex animal life—the Cambrian Explosion of 545 million years ago. Make that a book of 545 pages with each page being one million years. With 250 words per page, a word would be four thousand years.

Where are we? Well, if the last sentence on the last page of the book is a long one of some thirteen to fifteen words, we behaviorally modern Homo sapiens left Africa at the beginning of that sentence. We began to ransack biodiversity then. As we spread, we killed the biggest wildlife as we came into new lands. In the middle of the third-to-last word, some of our kind began farming—remaking ecosystems to suit us. In the middle of the second-to-last word, civilizations began.

The very last word in this book of 545 pages takes in the time from 2000 BCE to today. Nearly the whole world met the strictest definition of wilderness until well into the last sentence. Through almost all of that last sentence the share of Earth’s biomass held in our bodies grew very slowly. Much of Earth was untrodden by us for thousands of years. Other than the Overkill of the ‘Big Hairies’, the wounds we inflicted on the Tree of Life only slowly grew. Not until the last hundred years with our exploding population and systemic pollution of Earth with radioactive fallout, antibiotics, artificial biocides, and greenhouse gases, have we finally gotten to the day where we are having an impact everywhere. That is an impact, not total control, not even leaving no lands or seas where Man does not dominate the landscape. When I was nearly run down and stomped by a woolly bully of a musk ox bull in a 16-million-acre Wilderness Area in Alaska a few years ago, I swear to you that Man did not dominate that landscape.

Call the last hundred years the period at the end of the last sentence on the last page of the book of the history of complex animal life. Do you now have a feeling for how long the Tree of Life and Wilderness have been without any harm from a ground ape self-named sapiens?

I’ve taken this twisty path to get to my main damnation of the Anthropoceniacs. Though one can hammer them for major mistakes in history and science as many of my friends have done, my beef is with their view of Man’s place in evolution and on Earth. It is the ethics of the Anthropoceniacs that gives me shudders.

My anger with the Anthropoceniacs is not that they see how Man has taken over Earth (though they overstate greatly). No, my wrath is for the outlook many Anthropoceniacs have toward the ghastly, grisly slaughter of so many wild things. Where is the grief? Where is the shame? Where is the passion to save what’s left? Where is the outrage? Where is the sadness for the loss of so many of our neighbours?

Instead, I see many making merry over the coming of the Anthropocene. ‘We’ve done it!’ they seem to say while high­fiving one another. ‘Man has finally taken over!’ In the writings I’ve read, they seem blissful, even gleeful. ‘Now we are gods!’

The mass extinction of other Earthlings seems not to bring them a tear. Witness the words of Peter Kareiva, the chief scientist for the Nature Conservancy, ‘In many circumstances, the demise of formerly abundant species can be inconsequential to ecosystem function… The passenger pigeon, once so abundant that its flocks darkened the sky, went extinct, along with countless other species from the Steller’s sea cow to the dodo, with no catastrophic or even measurable effects.’ Field biologists and others have shown that this claim is so much biological balderdash—there have been big upsets. However, the true harm, the wound, the loss, the sin was the extinction of the passenger pigeon and the ongoing extinctions of countless other Earthlings who have just as much right to their evolutionary adventure as we have to ours. Maybe more, because they are not screwing up things for others. To say the ‘passenger pigeon… went extinct’ is akin to a mass murderer saying his victims ‘became dead.’ The passenger pigeon did not go extinct; we slaughtered them in a spree of giddy gore in little more than a score of years!

How can anyone who works for something called the Nature Conservancy not feel woe and emptiness at the extinction of the passenger pigeon and all those others we’ve wrought and are causing today and tomorrow to make way for our Brave New World—or is it our Brave New Conservation?

Such uncaring, careless, carefree brushing away of all other Earthlings but for the ecosystem services they give the last surviving ground ape is—how can I say this—WICKED. It is washed in sin, it is treason to life, to Earth, and to all other Earthlings.

The late Stephen Jay Gould was unsparing on this conceit, “[T]he worst and most harmful of all our conventional mistakes about the history of our planet [is] the arrogant notion that evolution has a predictable direction leading toward human life.”

Man is not the unerring outcome or endpoint of hundreds of millions of years of life’s descent with modification, but is, rather, a happy or unhappy (hinging on what kind of Earthling you are) happenstance. We were not ‘meant to be’. Nor is anything Man has done in its flicker of time been meant to be. We happened to become, just as did the curve-billed thrasher getting a drink right now from the birdbath outside my window.

We only happened to be.

It is Homo sapiens’ arrogance that blinds us to our fate. We think that we, unlike every other species, will live forever. It’s not a Thousand­Year Reich we celebrate but an eternal Kingdom of Man Triumphant, of Man over all (über alles) other Earthlings. It is we and we alone who decide who lives and who dies, who offers ecosystem services and therefore gets to stay, and who is mere waste biomass. Some may soothe their conscience by making believe this blood-bath, like us, was meant to be. But it is not so. It is our choice to strip off one third of the limbs of the Tree of Life. We do it willingly, even gleefully, all by our own free will.

The first sentence in Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac spells out much of the moral conflict between wilderness and wildlife conservationists and the Anthropoceniacs and their so-called New Conservation (which is truly only the latest version of Gifford Pinchot’s resource conservation). Leopold wrote:

There are some who can live without wild things, and some who cannot.

We who fight for wilderness and all wild Earthlings cannot live without wild things. We believe wild things are good-in-themselves and need offer no services to Man to be of great worth.

Those who blithely welcome the Anthropocene and can live without wild things see worth in Nature only in what it offers us as ecosystem services.

The Anthropoceniacs seem to believe that not only is Man running evolution now but that all the lessons scientists have learned about how evolution has worked for billions of years have been thrown out for Man in the Brave New Anthropocene geological era.

One who understood this mindset well, this will to power over Earth, was Percy Bysshe Shelley. Some two hundred years ago he wrote:

I met a traveller 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.

Yes, we can read our tale as the steadily growing sway over Earth by Lord Man. But the Anthropocene technocrats who prattle about grabbing the rudder of evolution and making Earth better are the wanton heirs of a Pharaoh’s hubris. Their lovely human garden will stand unclothed as either a barnyard or Dr Frankenstein’s lab for other Earthlings. Three ­and­a­half billion years of life becomes a short overture before Man in all his Wagnerian glory strides singing onto the set. Does our madness have no end? Have we no humility?

For six thousand years, each coming age has puffed out its chest. As each Ozymandias falls to the lone and level sands, a greater and more prideful Ozymandias takes his stead. Goodness is overridden more and more by might and the will to power.

Wilderness Areas are our meek acknowledgement that we are not gods.

Essay adapted from the forthcoming book True Wilderness: Deconstructing Wilderness Deconstruction.

Dave Foreman has worked as a wilderness conservationist since 1971. From 1982 to 1988, he was editor of the Earth First! Journal and one of the outfit’s most visible leaders. He speaks widely on conservation issues and is author of The Lobo Outback Funeral Home (a novel), Confessions of an Eco-Warrior, and The Big Outside (with Howie Wolke). His book on conservation biology and continental-scale conservation, Rewilding North America was published in 2004. His latest books are Man Swarm: How Overpopulation is Killing the Wild World and The Great Conservation Divide, a history of the 20th-century battle between grassroots conservationists and the resourcists in the Forest Service and other agencies over the future of the last wilderness in the United States. He was named by Audubon magazine in 1998 as one of the 100 Champions of Conservation of the 20th Century. For more information see

Source: The Dark Mountain Project, 26th August, 2015

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