Category Archives: Environment

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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Thoughts on Pope Francis’ Laudato Si by Herman Daly

The big ideas of the encyclical are Creation care and justice, and the failure of our technocratic growth economy to provide either justice or care for Creation.

The big ideas of the encyclical are Creation care and justice, and the failure of our technocratic growth economy to provide either justice or care for Creation.

As a Protestant Christian my devotion to the Catholic Church has been rather minimal, based largely on respect for early church history, and for love of an aunt who was a nun. In recent times the Catholic Church’s opposition to birth control, plus the pedophile and cover-up scandals, further alienated me. Like many others I first viewed Pope Francis as perhaps a breath of fresh air, but little more. After reading his encyclical on environment and justice, dare I hope that what I considered merely “fresh air” could actually be the wind of Pentecost filling the Church anew with the Spirit? Maybe. At a minimum he has given us a more truthful, informed, and courageous analysis of the environmental and moral crisis than have our secular political leaders.

True, the important question of population was conspicuous by its near absence. In an earlier offhand remark, however, Francis said that Catholics don’t need to breed “like rabbits,” and pointed to the Church’s doctrine of responsible parenthood. Perhaps he will follow up on that in a future encyclical. In any case, most lay Catholics have for some time stopped listening to Popes on contraception. The popular attitude is expressed in a cartoon showing an Italian mamma wagging her finger at the Pontiff and saying, “You no playa da game; you no maka da rules.” Discussing population would not have changed realities, and would have aroused official opposition and distracted attention from the major points of the encyclical. So I will follow Francis’ politic example and put the population question aside, but with a reference to historian John T. Noonan, Jr.’s classic book, Contraception* which sorts out the history of doctrine on this issue.

The big ideas of the encyclical are Creation care and justice, and the failure of our technocratic growth economy to provide either justice or care for Creation. Also discussed was the integration of science and religion as necessary, though different, avenues to truth. And yes, the Pope supports the scientific consensus on the reality of climate change, but, media monomania to the contrary, the encyclical is about far more than that.

Francis’ voice is of course not the first to come from Christians in defense of Creation. In addition to his ancient namesake from Assisi, Francis also recognized Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of the Eastern Orthodox Church, who has for two decades now been organizing conferences and speaking out in defense of rivers and oceans, including the Black Sea. The Orthodox Church lost a generation of believers to Communistic atheism, but is gaining back many young people attracted to the theology of Creation and the actions it inspires. Liberal mainline Protestant Christians, and more recently, conservative Evangelicals, have also found their ecological conscience. So Francis’ encyclical would seem to be a capstone that unifies the main divisions of Christianity on at least the fundamental recognition that we have a shamefully neglected duty to care for the Earth out of which we evolved, and to share the Earth’s life support more equitably with each other, with the future, and with other creatures. Many atheists also agree, while claiming that their agreement owes nothing to Judeo-Christian tradition.

This theology of Creation should not be confused with the evolution-denying, anti-science views of some Christian biblical literalists (confusingly called “Creationists” rather than “literalists”). Mankind’s duty to care for Creation, through which humans have evolved to reflect at least the faint image of their Creator, conflicts headlong with the current dominant idolatry of growthism and technological Gnosticism. Creation care is also incompatible with the big lie that sharing the Earth’s limited resources is unnecessary because economic growth will make us all rich. Francis calls this magical thinking. He skates fairly close to the idea of steady-state economics, of qualitative development without quantitative growth, although this concept is not specifically considered. Consider his paragraph 193:

“In any event, if in some cases sustainable development were to involve new forms of growth, then in other cases, given the insatiable and irresponsible growth produced over many decades, we need also to think of containing growth by setting some reasonable limits and even retracing our steps before it is too late. We know how unsustainable is the behaviour of those who constantly consume and destroy, while others are not yet able to live in a way worthy of their human dignity. That is why the time has come to accept degrowth in some parts of the world, in order to provide resources for other places to experience healthy growth.”

Laudato Si is already receiving both strong support and resistance. The resistance testifies to the radical nature of Francis’ renewal of the basic doctrine of the Earth and cosmos as God’s Creation. Pope Francis will be known by the enemies this encyclical makes for him, and these enemies may well be his strength. So far in the US they are not an impressive lot: the Heartland Institute, Jeb Bush, Senator James Inhofe, Rush Limbaugh, Rick Santorum, and others. Unfortunately they represent billions in special-interest money, and have a big corporate media megaphone. They believe in letting The Market set policy and behavior. The encyclical calls out the opponents and forces them to defend themselves. Neither The Market nor technology created us, or the Earth that sustains us. Thanks to Francis for making that very clear when so many are denying it, either explicitly or implicitly.

* John T. Noonan, Jr., Contraception: A History of its Treatment by the Catholic Theologians and Canonists, Belknap Press, 1986. Noonan demonstrates the lack of a biblical basis for opposition to contraception, as well as the origins of church doctrine in secular Roman law, which was absorbed into canon law. The ancient Roman meaning of “proletariat” was “the lowest class, poor and exempt from taxes, and useful to the republic mainly for the procreation of children.” Clearly contraception was not indicated for them, although tolerated for patricians. This literal meaning of proletariat as the prolific class was lost when Marx redefined the word to mean “non owners of the means of production.” But the Malthusian connection with overpopulation and cheap labor has remained real, even if downplayed by Marxists as well as Catholics.

Source: The Daly News, 23 Jun 2015. <;

Also see: <Pope>

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Microbes, biodiversity and the benefits of getting dirty by David Suzuki

People responding to David Suzuki Foundation surveys after our annual 30X30 Nature Challenge report significant mood improvements, more vitality and energy, and increases in nature-specific emotions like awe, curiosity and fascination.

People responding to David Suzuki Foundation surveys after our annual 30X30 Nature Challenge report significant mood improvements, more vitality and energy, and increases in nature-specific emotions like awe, curiosity and fascination.

We’re surrounded by life, but Earth’s most plentiful living things are invisible to the naked eye. Microbes are not only around us, they live on and in us. Although some mocrobes cause maladies ranging from food poisoning to smallpox, there are many more we couldn’t live without.

Beneficial microbes break down food and produce vitamins in our guts. They coat our skin, protecting us from attacks by harmful microbes. Outside our bodies, they decompose organic waste, fix nitrogen and produce half the world’s oxygen.

Scientists refer to the microbial communities on and in our bodies as “microbiomes”. Every one of us hosts as many as 100 trillion microbes — our guts alone are home to 500 to 1,000 different bacteria species!

Just as human activity is harming the diversity of visible life, it’s also diminishing microbial diversity. As researchers learn more about the profound ways good microbes keep people healthy, they’re also seeing how our urbanized, indoor lifestyles have transformed our microbiomes, increasing the risk of disease.

Just as we pollute the environment outside us, we can also pollute and upset the “normal flora” of our bodies by what we eat and do. Effects range from indigestion to deadly disease. One modern consequence of our lack of understanding about the necessity of healthy microbiomes is seen in our use of antibiotics. Despite their benefits, decades of overuse for personal sanitation, minor maladies and to promote growth in livestock has led to new illnesses and infections as sometimes-harmful bacteria evolve to resist antibiotics and our own microbial defences.

According to Alan Logan, author of Your Brain on Nature, diet and where we live and play have a tremendous influence on the microbial ecosystems on our skin and in our noses, mouths and intestines. Logan and experts from a range of disciplines at the Natural Environments Initiative workshop at Harvard School of Public Health found people who live in areas with rich plant diversity have more diverse microbiomes. The air we breathe, the soil we dig and the outdoor plants we come into contact with include a variety of microbes that may be absent in indoor and built environments.

Researchers have even found digging in dirt, whether gardening or playing, can benefit our physical and mental health. A microbe common to mud and wet soils, Mycobacterium vaccae, has been shown to influence brain neurotransmitters to reduce anxiety and improve cognitive functioning. Another microbe encountered in natural environments, Acinetobacter lwoffii, has been shown to benefit the human immune system, preventing asthma, hay fever and other ailments in children who have been exposed to it — although it can also cause infections and gastric problems for people with compromised immune systems.

Research by Ilkka Hanski and colleagues at the University of Helsinki found microbe diversity reduced the incidence of allergies. They compared adolescents living in houses surrounded by biodiverse natural areas to those living in landscapes of lawns and concrete. From skin swabs, they learned that higher native-plant diversity appears to be associated with greater and more diverse microbial composition on the participants’ skin, which led to lower risk of a range of allergies.

It’s likely that, as we learn more about the microbial world, we’ll find other beneficial microbes in nature. The research also highlights the importance of overall biodiversity to human health. A good solution to protecting biodiversity, from the smallest microbe to the largest animal, and to keeping ourselves healthy, is for all of us to spend more time outside.

According to the American Public Health Association, “People of all ages and abilities enjoy higher levels of health and well-being when they have nature nearby in parks, gardens, greenways, naturalized schoolyards and playgrounds, and natural landscaping around homes and workplaces.”

People responding to David Suzuki Foundation surveys after our annual 30X30 Nature Challenge report significant mood improvements, more vitality and energy, and increases in nature-specific emotions like awe, curiosity and fascination. Research has also shown people who develop deeper connections with nature are more likely to care for and protect it, a phenomenon renowned biologist E.O. Wilson called “biophilia.”

As this year’s 30X30 Nature Challenge wraps up, consider it an inspiration to get outside at least 30 minutes every day of the year. It’s good for your health, mood and microbiome — and nature!

Written with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation Senior Editor Ian Hanington.  The David Suzuki Foundation is a registered charity in both Canada (BN 127756716RR0001) and the United States (94-3204049). We are located at 219-2211 West 4th Avenue, Vancouver, B.C., V6K 4S2.

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Milkweed is a monarch’s best defense — You can help by David Suzuki

What can you do to help? Plant Milkweed and Don’t Use Roundup!

What can you do to help? Plant Milkweed and Don’t Use Roundup!

The monarch butterfly is a wonderful creature with an amazing story. In late summer, monarchs in southern Canada and the U.S. northeast take flight, travelling over 5,000 kilometres to alpine forests in central Mexico. The overwintering butterflies cling to fir trees there in masses so dense that branches bow under their weight.

The monarch’s multigenerational journey northward is every bit as remarkable as the epic southern migration. Three or four successive generations fly to breeding grounds, lay eggs and perish. The resulting caterpillars transform into butterflies and then take on the next leg of the trip. Monarchs arriving in Canada in late summer are often fourth or fifth generation descendants of butterflies that flew south the previous year.

What may be the monarch’s most striking quirk is its caterpillars’ reliance on milkweed as its sole food source, a phenomenon called “monophagy”. Milkweed plants contain small traces of cardenolides, bitter chemicals monarchs store in their bodies to discourage predators, which associate the butterflies’ distinctive coloration with bad taste. But relying on a single type of plant for survival is a risky strategy that has put monarchs in grave danger.

In the mid-1990s, the eastern monarch population was more than one billion. In winter 2013, the population had dropped by more than 95 per cent to 35 million, with a modest increase to 56.5 million this past winter. As University of Guelph postdoctoral research fellow Tyler Flockhart notes, a single severe storm could extinguish the entire monarch population. A 2002 snowstorm wiped out 80 million butterflies. A similar trend has been occurring west of the Rockies, where the western population overwinters in California and migrates as far north as central B.C.

Roundup Kills Butterflies

Much of the monarch butterfly decline has been pinned on virtual eradication of its critical food source throughout much of its migration path by profligate use of a glyphosate-based weed killer called Roundup, which corn and soybean crops have been genetically modified to tolerate. Blanketing fields with the herbicide kills plants like milkweed. As a result, several U.S. Midwest states — the heart of monarch breeding territory — have lost most of their native milkweed, causing monarch reproductive rates to drop by more than 80 per cent.

A recent study suggests glyphosate is merely the first of a one-two toxic punch from industrial agricultural operations. The second is neonicotinoids, the controversial nicotine-based insecticides that have been identified as a chief culprit in the decline of honeybees, along with a host of birds, bees and butterflies. It appears that even at one part per billion, these chemicals can affect monarch caterpillar development, delivering a potential knockout blow for the imperiled insects.

The good news is that many jurisdictions are catching up with the science. Ontario’s government has proposed regulations to reduce neonic use by 80 per cent over the next couple of years. In early April, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued a moratorium on new applications to use neonicotinoids. I hope this marks the turning of the toxic tide, but time is running out.

What can you do to help? Plant Milkweed and Don’t Use Roundup!

While government agencies in Mexico, the U.S. and Canada are scrambling to hatch plans to save monarchs, the scientific community has been clear: A lot of milkweed must be planted over the next few years. One great opportunity is the many thousands of kilometres of linear corridors — rail, road and hydro rights-of-way — that run throughout the migratory landscape and can be modified to grow milkweed and other pollinator-friendly plants.

Yards, school grounds and parks are also perfect for butterfly gardens and milkweed patches, and planting milkweed in your backyard or balcony garden is a great way to help. Be sure to call your local garden center or nursery to ensure they stock native milkweed plants and seeds this spring.

Find out more about milkweed and information about how to bring monarchs back from the brink at the David Suzuki Foundation’s Got Milkweed campaign website. You can also donate to support Foundation volunteers planting milkweed in the Greater Toronto Area.

Planting milkweed may seem small, but the combined actions of thousands of concerned Canadians and Americans stitching together parks and yards with schools and rights-of-way into a glorious tapestry of butterfly corridors could usher in a new, hopeful era for monarch butterflies.

From our friends at the David Suzuki Foundation. Written by David Suzuki with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation Communications Specialist Jode Roberts.

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Scientists: Earth Endangered by New Strain of Fact-Resistant Humans by Andy Borowitz

earthMINNEAPOLIS (The Borowitz Report) – Scientists have discovered a powerful new strain of fact-resistant humans who are threatening the ability of Earth to sustain life, a sobering new study reports.

The research, conducted by the University of Minnesota, identifies a virulent strain of humans who are virtually immune to any form of verifiable knowledge, leaving scientists at a loss as to how to combat them.

“These humans appear to have all the faculties necessary to receive and process information,” Davis Logsdon, one of the scientists who contributed to the study, said. “And yet, somehow, they have developed defenses that, for all intents and purposes, have rendered those faculties totally inactive.”

More worryingly, Logsdon said, “As facts have multiplied, their defenses against those facts have only grown more powerful.”

While scientists have no clear understanding of the mechanisms that prevent the fact-resistant humans from absorbing data, they theorize that the strain may have developed the ability to intercept and discard information en route from the auditory nerve to the brain. “The normal functions of human consciousness have been completely nullified,” Logsdon said.

While reaffirming the gloomy assessments of the study, Logsdon held out hope that the threat of fact-resistant humans could be mitigated in the future. “Our research is very preliminary, but it’s possible that they will become more receptive to facts once they are in an environment without food, water, or oxygen,” he said.


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Optimism abounds despite grim data on climate change, overpopulation, oil depletion, and economy by Charlie Smith

"I confess that I'm troubled by all the optimism I encounter from leading thinkers on inequality, climate change, overpopulation, and oil depletion." -Charlie Smith

“I confess that I’m troubled by all the optimism I encounter from leading thinkers on inequality, climate change, overpopulation, and oil depletion.” -Charlie Smith

It’s not cool to be pessimistic.

This is my conclusion after interviewing scores of thoughtful people who’ve wrapped their minds around the most vexing challenges facing humanity.

Economist Robert Reich, who focuses on growing inequality, says he remains optimistic even though the top one percent of income earners are enjoying 95 percent of the gains in the U.S since the last recession.

Author Alan Weisman, who has studied the world’s explosive population growth, says he’s optimistic while acknowledging there’s little prospect of another Green Revolution sharply increasing food production.

Scientist Tim Flannery, who has written extensively on climate disruption, has an optimistic view of how things might turn out for the world. This depends on Gaia protecting herself from the havoc being wreaked by her most intelligent species.

Similarly, environmentalist David Suzuki speaks bravely of humanity’s chance of survival in the face of rising greenhouse gas emissions. What is required is more sensible decisions about the use of fossil fuels. He’s also optimistic that the Fukushima nuclear disaster won’t cause serious health problems for people who eat fish from the Pacific Ocean.

Gwynne Dyer has written hopefully about geo-engineering rolling back the climate crisis. All it will require is seeding the skies in certain ways to reflect some of the sunlight back into outer space.

Conservationist Tzeporah Berman seems to think if we work with well-intentioned corporate executives and elect climate-friendly governments, there’s a chance of turning things around before some sort of environmental Armageddon.

Then there’s economist Jeff Rubin, who has chronicled the depletion of conventional oil supplies. He often expresses optimism about how people will make do in a world with slow-to-no economic growth for the foreseeable future. He also believes international trade will plummet as energy costs increase, but hey, we’ll adapt.

Meanwhile, media and entertainment executives maintain a cheery disposition even as they acknowledge how the Internet is eviscerating their businesses.

I spent a fair amount of my Saturday at a workshop with some brilliant young people seeking to enter the media. I’m guessing that they have taken on substantial debts to become educated in ways that I can only envy. Some spoke several foreign languages. I’m not optimistic about all of them ending up in their chosen field.

Later that day, I attended the Amnesty International Film Festival, which featured a movie about brave Mexican journalists killed covering the war on drugs. Mexico used to be such a peaceful country, but not any more. It’s hard to feel good about Mexico’s future in the face of all of this violence.

I confess that I’m troubled by all the optimism I encounter from leading thinkers on inequality, climate change, overpopulation, and oil depletion. Adding up all the variables, I’ve concluded that more global food shortages and increased famine are inevitable. Despite this, our Canadian Premier plans to build a new bridge to Delta that will result in the loss of some of Canada’s finest farmland.

Having a cheery disposition may make someone sound more pleasant in radio and television interviews. It might even enhance a person’s likelihood of obtaining book contracts, becoming a media or entertainment executive, or getting elected to high public office. But it has a way of sugar-coating problems, diminishing the sense of urgency that we should all be feeling about these crises.

I’m not falsely optimistic.


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Overpopulation and the Collapse of Civilization by Paul R. Ehrlich

All of the interconnected problems are caused in part by overpopulation, in part by overconsumption by the already rich.

All of the interconnected problems are caused in part by overpopulation, in part by overconsumption by the already rich.

A major goal of the Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere (MAHB) ais reducing the odds that the “perfect storm” of environmental problems that threaten humanity will lead to a collapse of civilization.  Those threats include:

  • climate disruption,
  • loss of biodiversity (and thus ecosystem services),
  • land-use change and resulting degradation,
  • global toxification,
  • ocean acidification,
  • decay of the epidemiological environment (plagues),
  • increasing depletion of important resources (think water) and resource wars (which could go nuclear).

This is not just a list of problems, it is an interconnected complex resulting from interactions within and between what can be thought of as two gigantic complex adaptive systems: the biosphere system and the human socio-economic system.  The manifestations of this interaction are often referred to as “the human predicament.”  That predicament is getting continually and rapidly worse, driven by overpopulation, overconsumption among the rich, and the use of environmentally malign technologies and socio-economic-political arrangements to service the consumption.

All of the interconnected problems are caused in part by overpopulation, in part by overconsumption by the already rich.  One would think that most educated people now understand that the larger the size of a human population, ceteris paribus, the more destructive its impact on the environment.  The degree of overpopulation is best indicated (conservatively) by ecological footprint analysis, which shows that to support today’s population sustainably at current patterns of consumption would require roughly another half a planet, and to do so at the U.S. level would take four to five more Earths.

The seriousness of the situation can be seen in the prospects of Homo sapiens’ most important activity: producing and procuring food.  Today, at least two billion people are hungry or badly in need of better diets, and most analysts think doubling food production would be required to feed a 35% bigger and still growing human population adequately by 2050.  For any chance of success, humanity will need to stop expanding land area for agriculture (to preserve ecosystem services); raise yields where possible; increase efficiency in use of fertilizers, water, and energy; become more vegetarian; reduce food wastage; stop wrecking the oceans; significantly increase investment in sustainable agricultural research; and move feeding everyone to the very top of the policy agenda.

All of these tasks will require changes in human behavior long recommended but thus far elusive. Perhaps more critical, there may be insurmountable biophysical barriers to increasing yields – indeed, to avoiding reductions in yields – in the face of climate disruption.

Most people fail to realize the urgency of the food situation because they don’t understand the agricultural system and its complex, non-linear connections to the drivers of environmental deterioration.  The system itself, for example, is a major emitter of greenhouse gases and thus is an important driver of the climate disruption that seriously threatens food production.  More than a millennium of change in temperature and precipitation patterns is now already entrained, with the prospect of more crop-threatening severe storms, droughts, heat waves, and floods— all of which are already evident.  Thus maintaining – let alone expanding – food production will be ever more difficult in decades ahead.

Furthermore, agriculture is a leading cause of losses of biodiversity and the critical ecosystem services supplied to agriculture itself and other human enterprises, as well as a major source of global toxification, both of which pose additional risks to food production.  The threat to food production of climate disruption alone means that  humanity’s entire system for mobilizing energy needs to be rapidly transformed in an effort to hold atmospheric warming well below a lethal 5 degrees Centigrade rise in global average temperature.  It also means we must alter much of our water-handling infrastructure to provide the necessary flexibility to bring water to crops in an environment of constantly changing precipitation patterns.

Food is just the most obvious area where overpopulation tends to darken the human future – virtually every other human problem from air pollution and brute overcrowding to resource shortages and declining democracy is exacerbated by further population growth.  And, of course, one of our most serious problems is the failure of leadership on the population issue, in the United States and most nations. The situation is worst in the U.S. where the government never mentions population because of fear of the Catholic hierarchy specifically and the religious right in general, and the media keep publishing ignorant pro-natalist articles.

A prime example was a ludicrous 2010 New York Times screed by David Brooks, calling on Americans to cheer up because  “Over the next 40 years, the U.S. population will surge by an additional 100 million people, to 400 million.”  Equal total ignorance of the population-resource-environment situation was shown in 2012 by an article also in the New York Times by one Ross Douthat “More Babies, Please” and one by a Rick Newman in US News “Why a falling birth rate is a big problem,” both additional signs of the utter failure of the US educational system.

A popular movement is needed to correct that failure and direct cultural evolution toward providing the “foresight intelligence” and the agricultural, environmental, and demographic planning that markets cannot supply.  Then analysts (and society) might stop treating population growth as a “given” and consider the nutritional and health benefits of humanely ending growth well below 9 billion and starting a slow decline.  In my view, the best way to accelerate the move toward such population shrinkage is to give full rights, education, and job opportunities to women everywhere, and provide all sexually active human beings with modern contraception and backup abortion.  The degree to which that would reduce fertility rates is controversial, but it would be a win-win for society.  Yet the critical importance of increasing the inadequate current action on the demographic driver can be seen in the decades required to change the size of the population humanely and sensibly.  In contrast we know from such things as the World War II mobilizations that consumption patterns can be altered dramatically in less than a year, given appropriate incentives.

The movement should also highlight the consequences of such crazy ideas as growing an economy at 3-5% per year over decades – forever! — as most innumerate economists and politicians believe possible.  Most “educated” people do not realize that in the real world a short history of exponential growth does not imply a long future of such growth.  Developing foresight intelligence and mobilizing civil society for sustainability are central goals of the Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere (“the MAHB” –

Questions should be directed to Paul R. Ehrlich is the Bing Professor of Population Studies in the department of Biological Sciences at Stanford University and president of Stanford’s Center for Conservation Biology. He is the author of The Population Bomb, as well as hundreds of articles.

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