Category Archives: Environment

Climate Change: Pacific Ocean Acidity Dissolving Shells of Key Species by Paul Rogers 

What many people do not realize is that nearly a third of carbon dioxide emitted by humans is dissolved in the oceans. Some of that forms carbonic acid, which makes the ocean more corrosive.

What many people do not realize is that nearly a third of carbon dioxide emitted by humans is dissolved in the oceans. Some of that forms carbonic acid, which makes the ocean more corrosive.

In a troubling new discovery, scientists studying ocean waters off California, Oregon and Washington have found the first evidence that increasing acidity in the ocean is dissolving the shells of a key species of tiny sea creature at the base of the food chain. The animals, a type of free-floating marine snail known as pteropods, are an important food source for salmon, herring, mackerel and other fish in the Pacific Ocean. Those fish are eaten not only by millions of people every year, but also by a wide variety of other sea creatures, from whales to dolphins to sea lions.

If the trend continues, climate change scientists say, it will imperil the entire ocean environment.

“These are alarm bells,” said Nina Bednarsek, a scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Seattle who helped lead the research. “This study makes us understand that we have made an impact on the ocean environment to the extent where we can actually see the shells dissolving right now.”

Scientists from NOAA and Oregon State University found that in waters near the West Coast shoreline, 53 percent of the tiny floating snails had shells that were severely dissolving—double the estimate from 200 years ago. Until now, the impact on marine species from increasing ocean acidity because of climate change has been something that was tested in tanks in labs, but which was not considered an immediate concern such as forest fires and droughts.

The new study, published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, a scientific journal based in England, changes that. “The pteropods are like the canary in the coal mine. If this is affecting them, it is affecting everything in the ocean at some level,” said one of the nation’s top marine biologists, Steve Palumbi, director of Stanford University’s Hopkins Marine Station in Pacific Grove.

The vast majority of the world’s scientists—including those at NOAA, NASA, the National Academy of Sciences and the World Meteorological Organization—say the Earth’s temperature is rising because of humans burning fossil fuels like oil and coal.

But what many people do not realize is that nearly a third of carbon dioxide emitted by humans is dissolved in the oceans. Some of that forms carbonic acid, which makes the ocean more corrosive.

Over the past 200 years, the ocean’s acidity has risen by roughly 30 percent. At the present rate, it is on track to rise by 70 percent by 2050 from preindustrial levels. More acidic water can harm oysters, clams, corals and other species that have calcium carbonate shells. Generally speaking, increasing the acidity by 50 percent from current levels is enough to kill some marine species, tests in labs have shown.

If people reduce emissions of fossil fuels, cutting carbon dioxide levels in the decades ahead, the damage to the oceans can still be limited. “But if we keep on the emissions profile we have now, by 2100 the oceans will be so harmed it’s hard to imagine them coming back from that in anything less than thousands of years,” Palumbi said.

“We are in a century of choice,” he said. “We can choose the way we want it to go.”

Source: http://www.mercurynews.com/science/ci_25664175/climate-change-pacific-ocean-acidity-dissolving-shells-key

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One Less Car on the Road by Jim Tull

Drivers—and their passengers—drive because the flow of our systems (a torrent really) compels us to drive.

Drivers—and their passengers—drive because the flow of our systems (a torrent really) compels us to drive.

She knew it would fit. And she knew me as well as anyone did. In big letters on the back, the T-shirt read ‘ONE LESS CAR ON THE ROAD’. A crusading environmentalist biking alone past hundreds of motor vehicles stuck in traffic, a moving billboard: ‘ONE LESS CAR ON THE ROAD’. With politeness and gratitude for the thought, I declined the gift.

I passed on the prospect of being hollered and honked at, or worse. Just adds to the peril. Deeper, though, the shirt and message presents a distorted picture of both the problem and the solution in the too-many-cars department. The underlying assumption is that individual behaviors are the problem, and that individual behavioral change is the solution. This assumption is okay, on one level, but of very limited use. Clearly and more specifically, the message implies that the environmental crisis is reducible to:
(a) the ignorance and/or insensitivity of car drivers (the problem); and
(b) “why don’t you park your SUV and get on a bike like me, nooneyhead?” (the solution).

I bike for many reasons. It supports good health, I’m out in the open, freer to experience the environment (sometimes ugly, sometimes beautiful) and wave to friends, who can see me. Parking is convenient. Biking is very energy efficient and very clean. It is also less expensive—or quicker—than car driving, depending on the unit of measurement: time or money. This rationale needs elaboration. I average around 12 miles per hour in the city. On average, a typical, single car owner travels somewhere between 4 and 9 mph on average when all the purchase and maintenance expenses associated with the car are converted to the owner’s time working a job to get the money. Then actually driving the car takes more time (and money and then more time). Pretty slow, all totaled.

And then there’s huge pollution and resource depletion costs, collectively incurred. Car driving isolates people. Roads divide communities, plaster the Earth, allow toxic water to run right into rivers. Over 30,000 Americans die each year from car accidents. Even wars and military preparedness expenses should be factored in (to protect precious oil). Very hazardous. If all car owners had to absorb all the collective costs as well as their personal car expenses, they’d find themselves driving in reverse most of the time. Though a good bicycle is expensive, the cost in money, converted to hours, to support my bike habit doesn’t even slow me down to 11 mph.

Despite all the good reasons to bike rather than drive, it’s wholly inadequate and dangerously beside the point to blame or lecture the drivers (especially since many cyclists like me drive plenty as well!). Our culture relentlessly conditions us to notice and prioritize individuals and institutions and to assume that the isolated behavior of these agents can explain our problems in full. Systems thinking, in contrast, looks between and around individuals, institutions and events for patterns of systemic behavior. Seeing and understanding systems and the power they have to shape and drive what we do can make individual behavior much more understandable and predictable. And also forgivable, if and when forgiveness is necessary or appropriate.

Drivers—and their passengers—drive because the flow of our systems (a torrent really) compels us to drive. Our economic system, structures and patterns require car driving in all but a few places. The shortage of reliable mass transit is part of this pressure, but the incentives to drive run much deeper: government subsidies to oil, infrastructure, and car companies; where we (have to) work; the work we do; the location of houses (especially suburbs) and the location of stores, especially food stores. The forces of globalization, though permitting many to work from home, also lure many to move unbikable distances. In the U.S. in particular, self-contained communities, walkable and bikable, are relics of a slower past.

By all powers, go ahead and bike. It’s better, on balance. The personal and collective benefits of one more cyclist on the road accrue with each convert. Good. But campaigning to get individuals to buck the systemic flow is an insufficient solution to our environmental or social crises. Changing the flow is a more promising alternative. We start with the reality that the vast, vast, vast majority of us more or less do what the other people around us are doing. Nearly every one of us are good at adding our bodies neatly to the end of a line of other lined-up people, even when it just seems to be heading in the direction we want. We herd well, go with the flow. Humans are often chided for our sheepishness. “If only we can break people out of the driving habit (and bike seventeen miles down a highway to work everyday), we’re so lazy!” OK, on one level, we are lazy and, it appears, becoming lazier. But there’s no changing people in this regard in any direct or immediate fashion. Maybe one or two, usually for short time periods. It’s not the laziness we have to account for as much as the conformity.

The brighter side of the conformity coin is that we are all just as likely to adopt positive habits as long as the systemic flow is with us and enough people have adopted. Create systems and structures that make walking and biking (or mass transit) the paths of least resistance for getting round, and ordinary people with the usual mix of virtues and vices will stop driving. Something close to this describes cities like Boston and New York, still choked with car traffic, but also filled with residents who don’t drive, for reasons of convenience more than holiness.

It’s difficult to overstate how disposed the people of our culture are to pick out individuals and institutions to blame for social problems—and also to solve them. The CEO of one of the biggest banks reportedly confessed in the wake of the ’08 crash that he was well aware that his bank’s reckless investment frenzy was pushing the economy to the brink, but that he couldn’t help participating in and thereby reinforcing the frenzy. His competitors were in it full tilt, his bank was raking in the green and anyway he would quickly be replaced if he applied the brakes. No excuse? Yes, on a personal level, no excuse. There is a box within which personal accountability is very real and very meaningful. But outside the box of personal ethics, the CEO—and the rest of us—were pawns of a systemic tragedy. Clearly, our economic system selects for greed, so acquisitive types are rewarded and rise to positions of power and wealth. Our economic system also must grow simply to maintain itself. Put these systemic features together and bubbles such as we experience (bigger these days, and more frequent) are highly predictable. The exponential growth of our money supply begged for all the accumulated dough to get busy somewhere, somehow, anywhere, anyhow. This systemic necessity compelled the invention of impenetrably complex and risky investment tools, lending money to anyone in any manner.

The “too much greed” chorus doesn’t cut very deeply into the crisis, looked at this way. Only slightly more systemic-minded are those who blame lax oversight and regulation. But given the pressure to grow and invest, the laxity itself was predictable. In a system, the parts self-organize, or dance with each other, to serve the aim of the system (like growth), and generally the parts choreograph themselves with remarkably little awareness of the total effect. Certainly, tighter oversight of investment practices and regulating policies would manage the frenzy some. But the fact is, as of this writing, the Federal Reserve is lending 2.8 billion each day of fresh new dollars into the economy to keep a recession from dropping down into depression. This suggests that solving the crisis will require more than policy change and firmer oversight.

****

The world is deeply indebted to Mahatma Gandhi for demonstrating the power of nonviolent resistance in overthrowing British rule in India. But his greater contribution to the social and ecological crises of both his day and ours is arguably his “Constructive Program”—his insistence on creating sustainable, local, very small scale economies. Many thinkers and doers since Gandhi (and before him) have developed theoretical frameworks and practical tools for redirecting the systemic flow that has been flushing us all into greater inequality, insecurity, and ecological ruin on a global level.

Clearly, failure to adequately redirect the current flow could spell the end of humanity in the near term, but the promise of the global ‘relocalization’ movement lies primarily in its systemic orientation. More precisely, this movement is more radical than prior liberation and libertarian movements because of how it contextualizes the essential roles large scale political and economic institutions play in sustaining the global industrial growth system. Yet relocalization is not ideological in any traditional sense. Old-fashioned, ancient, and indigenous wisdom and life skills are being worked into a variety of new experiments in community economics: small groups of people, bound to each other as equals and to their local geography, supporting each other to meet basic needs before selling their ‘comparative advantage’ surplus to the wider community or a network of communities.

For obvious reasons, relocalization is anything but a global, centralized movement. There is, for example, no unified rejection of large institutions or political regimes that might continue in some capacity to serve small communities and networks of communities. But the primary unit is the community, not the state or corporation. It does translate into a dramatic systemic shift in how we structure our lives. It will mean travelling less in general, and travelling shorter distances. And less driving.

Systems scientist Donella Meadows emphasized that the prime mover in systemic change is not the action itself of creating change, but the mindset, or paradigm, that powers and informs it. There is no way around changing minds to change systems. Public policy mandates forcing top down behavioral change that lasts can be effective mostly to the extent to which the coerced behavior becomes habit-forming and changes thinking over time. Upon seizing power in 1949, the communist regime in China outlawed the foot binding of women, among many other cultural practices deemed abusively archaic. Indeed, foot binding has stopped. States in the U.S. mandated recycling. Recycling is now considered de rigueur. Political revolutions and policy reforms change thinking through changing behavior, relying on coercion and good citizenship. Propaganda campaigns that accompany coercion, such as the DUI initiative in the U.S., reflect the need to change thinking to change behavior. It can work, but effective policy can never get too far ahead of popular culture, as the pathetic results of so many legal mandates such as alcohol and drug use prohibition demonstrate (In these instances, a culture of addiction pushes addictive behavior, the reality of personal decision-making and responsibility notwithstanding).

More deeply, the massive shift to relocalize is simply not likely to unfold in this way. And so far it hasn’t. Local government initiatives (notably in cities such as Copenhagen, San Francisco, Curitiba, Brazil, and Ogawamachi, Japan) have shown that government can play a vital role in re-empowering local, sustainable economies. Otherwise, thousands of conversations, starting with two people, have spawned thousands of promising alternatives to globalization worldwide that center on creating local, community-based economies. In my state of Rhode Island, there is a rapidly growing local food production and distribution system. Internationally, small groups of people have created over a thousand ‘Transition Initiatives’ to reclaim their own labor and local resources. In Auroville, India; Faoune, Senegal and many other communities around the world, communitarian eco-villages have experimented with localized alternatives to the global economy.

Relocalizing our personal and economic lives is an example of a systems thinking departure from the tendency to rely on comparatively unrealistic aspirations for either individual betterment at one end and government policy solutions at the other. Learning to see, understand and respect the power of systemic behavioral patterns and traps (once established, systems tend to generate their own behavior) amounts itself to a mindset change that enables structural innovations, including relocalization efforts. Additionally, relocalization recognizes that the global, industrial growth economy now with us is unreliable and unsustainable and must be displaced. Viable alternatives must answer to our deep human need to belong in community and connect to our land base. Our culture’s individualism is a bloated caricature of authentic individuality. Through relocalization we are connected to, not separate from or above, each other and the Earth.

As author Daniel Quinn insists, a change in cultural vision this deep has the power and know-how to transform systems, structures and behavior without programs, as we’ve come to know and rely on them. Still, most adopters of this change can and may grow into the evolving cultural vision as they settle into new living patterns carved out by others. Activists leading change need to recognize and appreciate that there is no shortcut around this deep complexity in building a just and sustainable world, but also that this ‘long haul’ approach may produce surprisingly quick results. In a world addicted to solitary motoring to get around, converting drivers one by one into cyclists will take much more time than we have.

Jim Tull is a teacher and social activist with 37 years of experience in confronting local, national and international social problems. For 15 years, including 12 as co-director, he worked at Amos House, a Catholic Worker-inspired hospitality house offering meals, shelter and social services to the poor and homeless in Providence. Since leaving Amos House in 1995, he has taught courses in Community Service and Social Change, Peace, Environmental and Global Studies and Philosophy at Providence College and the Community College of Rhode Island. He facilitates workshops and retreats on community building, cultural transformation and deep ecology.

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The Downfall of the Plastic Bag by Janet Larsen and Savina Venkova 

plastics

Cattle dine in an illegal dump site.

Worldwide, a trillion single-use plastic bags are used each year, nearly 2 million each minute. Usage varies widely among countries, from over 400 a year for many East Europeans, to just four a year for people in Denmark and Finland. Plastic bags, made of depletable natural gas or petroleum resources, are often used only for a matter of minutes. Yet they last in the environment for hundreds of years, shredding into ever-smaller pieces but never fully breaking down.

Over the last century, plastic has taken over the planet. On the one hand, plastic seems a miracle material, with beneficial uses ranging from medical devices to making vehicles lighter and more fuel-efficient. On the other hand, it is a curse, allowing for the seemingly cheap mass production of disposable materials that fill up landfills, cloud the oceans, choke wildlife, and sully vistas. Filled with additives that lack a safety record, plastics have been linked with a slew of health concerns, including certain types of cancer and infertility. While plastics can be used and recycled wisely, the majority of those produced are neither. Perhaps no other item symbolizes the problems of our throwaway culture more than the single-use plastic bag.

Given the multitude of problems associated with plastic bags, many communities around the world have attempted to free themselves from their addictions by implementing bag bans or fees. The oldest existing bag tax is in Denmark. Passed in 1993, this regulation affected plastic bag makers who paid a tax based on the bag’s weight. Stores were allowed to pass the cost on to consumers either in bag charges or absorbed into the prices of other items. The initial effect of this system was an impressive 60 percent drop in plastic bag use.

One of the most well-known bag measures is Ireland’s national bag tax, adopted in 2002. It was the first to charge consumers directly, starting at a rate of 15 euro cents (20ȼ) per bag. Within five months of the measure’s introduction, bag usage fell by over 90 percent. Litter was greatly reduced as well. Over the years, bag use started to creep up, however, so in 2007 the charge was increased to 22 euro cents, and in 2011 the law was amended with the aim of keeping annual bag use at or below 21 bags per person. Frank Convery of University College Dublin calls Ireland’s plastic bag levy “the most popular tax in Europe” and believes that it would be politically damaging to remove it.

Indeed, many communities looking at plastic bag reduction measures hope to emulate the Irish success. Other European countries where consumers pay for plastic shopping bags—either through law or voluntary initiatives—include Belgium, Bulgaria, France, Germany, Latvia, and the Netherlands. Throughout the European Union, member states will soon be required to take measures to reduce plastic bag use 80 percent by 2019.

Reducing the amount of plastics in the marine environment has been a major driver of bag regulations in Europe and elsewhere. In a memo on its bag reduction proposal, the European Commission notes that “in the North Sea, the stomachs of 94 percent of all birds contain plastic. Plastic bags have been found in stomachs of endangered marine species: green turtles, loggerhead turtles, leatherback turtles, black footed albatrosses, and harbour porpoises.” In sum, “at least 267 different species are known to have suffered from entanglement or ingestion of marine litter.” The desire to protect the whales that migrate off the coast of Tasmania led to Australia’s first local plastic bag ban in 2003. Now half of Australian states and territories ban plastic bags.

Beyond the seas, the reasons for taking action against plastic bags vary from malaria outbreaks associated with bags collecting water in Kenya to sewers clogged with plastic bags exacerbating flooding in Bangladesh, Cameroon, and the Philippines. Cattle choking on plastic bags gave impetus for bag regulations in Texas ranch country and in Indian communities concerned about the sacred cow. In the capital of Mauritania, an estimated 70 percent of cattle and sheep deaths are from plastic bag ingestion; in the United Arab Emirates, the concern is for camels. (Additional details on anti-plastic bag initiatives around the world are at http://www.earth-policy.org.)

In South Africa, where plastic bags caught in bushes and trees had become so common that they were called the national flower, a ban on the very thin non-biodegradable bags that tear readily and easily blow away went into effect in 2003. Thicker bags are taxed. Botswana’s plastic bag fee, which began in 2007, is credited with cutting bag use in half at major retailers. All told, at least 16 African countries have announced bans on certain types of plastic bags, to varying levels of effectiveness.

In China, where plastic bag pollution was widespread, a few cities and provinces tried to introduce policies to limit bag use in the 1990s, but poor enforcement led to limited success. Before Beijing hosted the 2008 Olympic Games, a national law went into effect banning extra thin bags and requiring stores to charge a fee for thicker bags. The Chinese government reported that bag use has dropped by more than two thirds, although compliance appears to be spotty. A number of cities in Southeast Asia, the source of many of the world’s plastic bag exports, have come up with legislation to reduce bag use.

In the United States, 133 city- or county-wide anti-plastic bag regulations have been passed. Bag bans cover one of every three Californians and virtually all Hawaiians. Chicago’s city council voted for a bag ban in April 2014. Dallas and Washington, D.C., are among the handful of jurisdictions that charge 5-10ȼ for each plastic or paper bag; in both cities, charges were instituted to reduce the number of bags in local rivers. In Canada, much of the anti-bag action is voluntary, with a number of retailers participating. The provinces of Ontario and Quebec have each halved their plastic bag use through a variety of measures, including store incentives for using reusable bags and retailer-imposed fees. Liquor stores in Manitoba, Quebec, and Nova Scotia have tossed out the plastic bag for good.

Latin America also hosts a number of initiatives to reduce plastic bag litter and waste, including bans in the Chilean cities of Pucón and Punta Arenas and in the states of Buenos Aires and Mendoza in Argentina, to name a few. Carryout bags in a couple of Brazilian states are required to be biodegradable. São Paulo state banned free single-use plastic bags starting in January 2012, allowing heavy reusable or biodegradable bags to be sold for 10ȼ, but the measure was removed by an industry-supported court injunction, despite the backing of the supermarket trade association. Similarly, Mexico City banned plastic shopping bags in 2009, but, under pressure from plastics manufacturers, the measure was replaced before enforcement began with a recycling initiative—a common tactic used by industry groups around the world against stricter bans or fees.

Plastic bags clearly have a cost to society, one that is not yet fully paid. Reducing disposable bag use is one small part of the move from a throwaway economy to one based on the prudent use of resources, where materials are reused rather than designed for rapid obsolescence.

From our friends at Earth Policy Institute. Additional information, including a timeline of the plastic bag and a collection of international plastic bag initiatives is available at www.earth-policy.org

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Overpopulation and the Collapse of Civilization By Paul Ehrlich

Perpetual growth is unsustainable and will lead to collapse.  Photo by Chris Wevers.

Perpetual growth is unsustainable and will lead to collapse. Photo by Chris Wevers.

A major shared goal of the Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere (MAHB) and Sustainability Central is 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, increasing depletion of important resources, 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 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 5o C 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 both the United States and Australia. 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, and in Australia even advertise on prime-time TV to have more kids.

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 the USNews “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 (or 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” – mahb.stanford.edu), goals now also a major mission of the University of Technology, Sydney.

Source: http://mahb.stanford.edu/blog/overpopulation-and-the-collapse-of-civilization/

 

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Crowded Planet: A conversation with Alan Weisman by Andrew D. Blechman

Alan Weisman

Alan Weisman

Over the course of the past one hundred years, we humans have grown in population at a rate rarely seen outside of a petri dish. Alan Weisman, author of the best-selling The World Without Us, spent two years traveling to twenty nations to investigate what this population explosion means for our species as well as those we share the planet with—and, most importantly, what we can do about it. His latest book is Countdown: Our Last, Best Hope for a Future on Earth? Orion magazine editor Andrew D. Blechman met with Alan at his home in rural Massachusetts, amid birdsong and the patter of rainfall, to discuss some of the most serious issues ever to face the human species.

Andrew Blechman: Population is perhaps the monumental topic of our time, and yet the title of your book ends in a question mark. Why is that?

Alan Weisman: I’m a journalist, not an activist. I don’t make statements, but I try to find the answers to big, burning questions. This is the big one to me, because it addresses whether we’ll be able to continue as a species, given all the things that we have been doing to our home.

Andrew: The human population stayed relatively stable, or grew at a manageable rate, for tens of thousands of years but exploded in the past century. What happened? How did we humans come to dominate the planet so quickly?

Alan: The explosion began during the Industrial Revolution. Jobs were suddenly in cities rather than on farms. People were living in tight quarters, and that became an incentive for doctors to begin dealing with diseases that were starting to spread much more easily. Beginning with the nineteenth century, medical advances, such as the smallpox vaccination, were either eradicating diseases or controlling the pests that spread diseases. Suddenly, people were living longer, fewer infants were dying.

7 billion people and rising (click for full size graphic).  Courtesy of Infographic List: http://infographiclist.com/2012/03/21/7-billion-people-and-still-growing-infographic/

7 billion people and rising (click for full size graphic). Courtesy of Infographic List: http://infographiclist.com/2012/03/21/7-billion-people-and-still-growing-infographic/

Andrew: Before that, we were basically at a replacement rate?

Alan: Pretty much. Women would have seven or eight kids, and if they were lucky, two survived. Two is replacement rate. If a male and female have two kids, then they have essentially replaced themselves. Population remained stable because as many people were dying as were being born.

The other thing was that suddenly we learned how to produce far more food than nature could ever do on its own. Nature’s ability to produce plant life has always been limited by the amount of nitrogen that bacteria could pull out of the air and provide as food for plants. In the twentieth century, we discovered how to pull nitrogen out of the air artificially. As a result, we suddenly came up with artificial fertilizer that could produce much more plant life on this planet than had ever existed before. We were at about 2 billion in 1930 when we started using artificial nitrogen extensively. Today we’re at 7 billion. Between 40 and 50 percent of us would not be alive without artificial nitrogen fertilizer. It nearly doubled the food supply.

Andrew: They say that, in some ways, too much abundance isn’t actually good for a population, that it can actually stress it because it leads to overpopulation. For example, if you overfeed city pigeons, they have more babies and the population starts maxing out, whereas if you don’t overfeed them, the population keeps itself in check.

Alan: That’s the paradox of food production—it can ultimately undermine the viability of a population. At a certain point, it expands beyond its resource base, and then it crashes. Wildlife managers, for example, well know that if we don’t keep population in balance with food, a species can run into serious problems. They know that they can either relax controls on natural predators, or issue more permits to hunters—that is, human predators.

Andrew: What does it mean for the Earth to be full? For example, 350 parts per million has been identified as the concentration of carbon in the atmosphere beyond which we set in motion changes that will threaten the future of life as we know it. Is there a comparable figure for global population numbers?

Alan: That was one of the big questions that I set out to answer, or to try to see if it’s possible to answer: how many people can fit on the planet without tipping it over? It’s completely related to what we are doing. If we all lived an agrarian life, self-limitations would set in and our numbers wouldn’t grow much beyond our ability to grow our own food. However, if we are force-feeding our crops through chemistry, we can produce a lot more food, and a lot more of us, too. At a certain point, a downside kicks in to that.

But the answer to your question isn’t really known because we’re finding it out right now. We’re all part of a big experiment to see how many of us can live on this planet without doing something to it that is going to destabilize it so much that our own future is in jeopardy.

Andrew: Isn’t it almost impossible to predict the future, given how variables change? What if the population problem is self-correcting? After all, we’re no longer doubling, and many developed nations are experiencing population decline.

Alan: Some argue that population is in fact self-correcting, and that the correction is already underway. But it’s a little like saying a house fire is self-correcting, because it will eventually put itself out. Unfortunately the damage is done. One way or another, when a species exceeds its resource base, the population will come down. Nature does that in 100% of the cases in the history of biology. The question that I keep coming back to is, how soon is that going to happen?

Andrew: And will it be in time?

Alan: Exactly. If our population is coming down because nature is going to do it for us, well, it’s going to be, frankly, unpleasant to watch. When nature does in a horde of locusts because they eat themselves out of sustenance, it’s interesting for us to observe. When it happens to our own species, it’s not going to be very pretty.

So Many new consumers in Shanghai. Photo by Austronesian.

So Many new consumers in Shanghai. Photo by Austronesian.

Andrew: Is it the sheer number of people or is it the amount that we consume that matters, particularly in the so-called developed nations. Or is it simply that we live too long?

Alan: The answer to all of that is yes. All of those things are involved. I’m always curious about what people are thinking when they say, “It’s not population; it’s consumption.” Who do they think is doing all the consuming? The more consumers there are, consuming too much, the more consumption.

Andrew: And, as you mention in your book, there’s no condom for consumption.

Alan: I think, in the twentieth century, when our population quadrupled, we got to the point where we kind of redefined original sin. Just by being born, we’re part of the problem. There’s also no question that the most overpopulated country on Earth is actually the United States, because we consume at such a ferocious rate. We may not be as numerous as China or as India, but our total impact is huge.

That doesn’t mean that poor people in developing nations don’t have a severe impact on the environment. I was in Niger, which has the highest fertility rate on the planet now. Its average is around eight children per fertile female. In every village, I heard, “Had you been here twenty-five years ago, you couldn’t have seen that house over there for all the trees that we used to have.” Where did the trees go? Well, they needed them for firewood, and then the climate began changing and there’s less rain now. They’re not responsible for the industrial pollution that has gunked up the atmosphere, but when you take down trees, things change. You graze too many animals, and things really change. They’re now in chronic drought. In every village, hundreds of children have died.

What will ultimately carry the day in Niger is the dawning realization that they don’t have the luxury of continuing life as they used to live it, where men had multiple wives and wives had many children. And it’s not just in Niger, but many countries on the planet. Education seems to be the key. Any time you start to educate people, they start to put these things together, particularly if you educate women. Education is the best contraceptive of all.

The more you educate women, the faster the birth rate drops. Photo courtesy of Development Diaries: http://developmentdiaries.com/ethiopia-angola-double-number-of-girls-in-school-in-10-years/

The more you educate women, the faster the birth rate drops. Photo courtesy of Development Diaries: http://developmentdiaries.com/ethiopia-angola-double-number-of-girls-in-school-in-10-years/

Andrew: That’s what I gather from your bookthe more you educate women, the faster the birth rate drops, and the quicker a population adopts a family-planning mentality.

Alan: It was one of the wonderful things about doing this book, which could otherwise have been very grim and sobering. I went to so many countries, twenty-one including all my travels around the United States. I saw human beings confronting some of the most difficult questions in our history. How are we going to survive? What are we doing to ourselves? Yet one of the easiest things that we can do that can make such a huge difference is one of these blessed win-win situations. You educate women, and give women rights that are equal to anybody else’s on this planet, and they generally choose to have fewer children, because they have another way to contribute to society that would be difficult if they had seven kids to care for.

Every place where you’ve got really educated women, you’ve got a society that is more and more livable. The more women decision makers we have, the better our chances. All we have to do is offer fair, equal opportunity to half the human race, the female half. This problem will start taking care of itself really, really quickly. A whole lot of environmental problems, within a couple generations, will also ease up because there’ll be a lot more space on this planet for other species.

Andrew: It’s amazing how flexible we can be as a species. Humans seem to adapt to having large families, and they seem to adapt just as easily to having very small families, even single children.

Alan: There’s a moment in the book with four hundred brilliant, animated students at Guangzhou University in China. Their parents or grandparents had been denied education in the Cultural Revolution and led limited lives. But these Chinese kids believe the twenty-first century is theirs. They’ve got education and incredible opportunities to do interesting work. The sky is the limit for them—but also literally, because they know that Guangzhou’s factory pollution hangs over their lives, and that it would be even worse if China hadn’t curbed its population.

Something occurred to me out of the blue. I asked my translator, a young woman in her twenties, “Hey, are they all only children?” She said, “Sure. We all are.”

Many people appalled by China’s one-child policy think it must be so unnatural not to have siblings. I asked these kids whether they missed having siblings. They admitted that yes, they did. But then they said, “On the other hand, our cousins have become our siblings. Sometimes our best friends have. We’ve reinvented the family.”

That, to me, was yet another example of the great flexibility of the human race, that we can make adjustments when we need to.

Andrew: Now that it’s entered its fourth decade, what other lessons can we learn from China’s massive social experiment with the one-child policy?

Alan: In one sense, the one-child policy has been successful—there would be 400 million more Chinese otherwise. And we’ve learned valuable lessons about population management, like the threat of discrimination, even lethal, against female babies.

We’ve also learned that while a draconian edict may have worked in one place, it’s not going to work everywhere. We have to take the culture of a country, a nation, a political system, a religious system, into account if we’re going to talk about managing population, which I think we have to do. Look, if we manage populations of predators and prey in parks because they have limits, we need to realize that we’ve now come to the limits of our planet. We occupy the whole thing—in a sense the Earth is now a park, it’s parkland. We live in it, and we have to manage it ourselves. There’s no way around that. Sure, maybe we can learn to consume less. But frankly, if we try to attack consumption to solve all of our problems, by the time we change human nature enough so that people consume a lot less, I think the Earth will be trashed in the meantime. So I think there are other things we have to do.

Andrew: It seems like contraception is a lot easier to encourage.

Alan: Yes, and it’s improving enormously. We’re no longer overloading women with estrogen the way that we used to. Even better, there are several male contraceptives that are becoming available that involve much simpler chemistry.

Andrew: As you’ve said, restricting the size of families through legislation is usually viewed with disdain. After all, for many, children represent hope, the future incarnate, and reproduction a fundamental human right, even a biological imperative. But can we really tackle global population without resorting to this sort of intervention?

Alan: I don’t think we need to legislate population management. What we need to do is make it very attractive to people, and let them manage their own population. I’ve got several examples in this book, big examples, of where this has worked brilliantly. There are a couple of Muslim nations that I refer to that have brought their populations down to replacement levels without draconian controls from above, without any edicts. They’ve done it through making family planning available, and making it available for free in one case, and also opening up the universities to women and encouraging them to get educated.

Andrew: Like Iran.

Alan: Like Iran, yes. Iran is the place that has had the most successful family-planning program in the history of the planet. They got down to replacement rate a year faster than China, and it was completely voluntary. The only thing that was obligatory in Iran was premarital counseling, which is actually a very nice idea. You could go to a mosque, or you could just go to a health center. They would talk about things to get you prepared for getting married, including what it costs to have a child, to raise a child, to educate a child.

Andrew: It’s interesting to hear about such a program being embraced by a theocracy. Do the world’s major religions generally differ when it comes to family planning, or do they share similar beliefs?

Alan: The Catholic Church is somewhat unique in its adamant opposition to birth control. Unless it’s the rhythm method, so-called natural methods of determining when to have sex that might lead to procreation or not, it’s simply unacceptable.

I went to the Vatican for my book. It’s a very curious place. It’s the smallest country on Earth, only 110 acres, and populated by just 1,000 people, virtually all of them old men. They’re making these rules that many Catholics outside its walls are paying no attention to. Italy and Spain, for example, have two of the lowest birth rates on the planet. That’s because women are using contraception.

Other religions argue within themselves on these issues. You find conflicting opinions in all three of the major monotheistic religions. In Evangelical Christianity in the United States, there has been an anti-abortion, even anti-contraception movement that’s very strident, restricting women’s access to the birth control of their choice. Yet I interviewed an Evangelical leader who absolutely supports contraception and campaigns hard for it. They’re citing the same Bible.

Andrew: When it comes to protecting species, how many can we save? Are we at the “Sophie’s Choice” moment of being forced to choose?

Alan: We really don’t know. We know that the extinction rate is accelerating very fast as our presence on this planet pushes other species off the edge. At a certain point, potentially, we could push something off the planet that we won’t know that we needed until it’s too late. There is a terrible dilemma for ecologists, particularly conservation biologists, who are trying to conserve enough biology to keep ecosystems viable, and that includes viable for Homo sapiens. We’re just another species in that ecosystem. It’s hard for them to know which ones to save. How do we decide? Could we even control it if we knew which ones?

Say there is a species out there that we depend on; let’s say for food. Everything we eat is the sum total of everything that it ate, and all the things that these things ate before they were eaten. We use the phrase “food chain” but that’s not really descriptive. Pretty much every animal species on land has to consume ten times its weight of other terrestrial species, including plant life, because only about 10% of what we consume converts to body mass. That means that everything that we eat has eaten ten times its weight. We’re at the apex of a very large pyramid. When you lose a species, or more than one, the whole pyramid starts to crumble.

For this book, I wanted to see how we might establish a more harmonious relationship with our species and the rest of nature, as opposed to the mortal combat that we find ourselves in. I wanted to know what the happy medium is, if there is one, a happy medium between a world without us and the one with us, which we’re currently overwhelming. When I started to look at what we are doing—the numbers were so boggling. I did some long division to make it more understandable. It came down to every four to four-and-a-half days, there’s a million more of us on the planet. That just doesn’t seem like a sustainable figure, and that’s pretty much where we are unless we start to do something about it.

Interestingly, some wildlife ecologists have started taking family planning into their own hands. In Uganda, for example, the country’s fabulous biodiversity, such as its gorillas, which tourists are willing to spend a lot of money to see, is getting chipped away by an unmitigated human population explosion. The ecologists began to realize that in order to preserve the wildlife, as well as the tourist-related income for the people who live in these areas, they needed to convince residents to have fewer children.

Andrew: What about the other side of the population coin? If you look at the European democracies, their birthrates are so low that they’ve resorted to paying their citizens to have children. For them, among other concerns, it’s about economics. How are economies such as theirs going to cope with shrinking populations? It seems like calibrating or recalibrating such a thing—trying to mesh just the right amount of people with just the right amount of economy—is a tough thing to do.

Alan: It’s a tremendously tough thing to do. We’ve never had to do it before. We’ve always had room to expand, or thought we had room to expand, until it turns out we were encroaching on other things that were really important to us. China kept expanding by just knocking down more and more forests, and then suddenly, they lost all their flood control. Now they’re trying to put the forests back.

We’ve never had to manage our population before, and our economies were always a reflection of our natural increase. All of our conventional determining factors for the health of the economy regard whether it’s growing. Bill Clinton even turned economic growth into a transitive verbWe have to ‘grow’ the economyas if we were planting seeds and watering them.

It turns out that population growth and economic growth is inextricable. For an economy to keep growing, you have to have growing populations, because you need more laborers to produce more products, and then you need more consumers for those products.

If we have to start limiting our population, then we’re going to have to come up with a way to redefine prosperity that doesn’t involve perpetual growth. A shrinking population or a stable population can’t be a perpetual-growth society.

Andrew: How will countries with declining populations care for all of their elderly?

Alan: It’s an oft-repeated fear that circulates in the business and economic world out there that an aging population is terrible for the world, because there’ll be all these unproductive people and there won’t be enough productive young people paying into the social welfare coffers to take care of them.

Yes, some countries have shrinking populations. But they’re not looking at a situation that goes on into perpetuity, in which they have far more older people than younger people. They’re looking at a generation or so of a bubble where they’re going to have more older people, and then, as that generation dies off, the number of older people and younger people are going to balance out again, and it’s not going to be a problem.

How do they economically get through those bubble years? As an American, I can think of an awful lot of things that my government is spending money on right now that if it dedicated those monies to taking care of a generation of older people until our population evened out, we’d be a much better society.

Andrew: I was really surprised by the fact that the future of the planet, in many ways, rests on whether women on average have a half child more or a half child less.

Alan: Those are pretty shocking numbers, and I got them from a couple of different demographers. By the middle of the century, our population will be nearly 10 billion. But that assumes that all the family planning programs we have in place will remain in place. And it’s a pretty fragile network, dependent on a few donor countries, the most important one being the United States. Had the last presidential election gone differently, the United States may well have withdrawn a great deal of its support for family planning programs all over the world.

If family planning does not keep up with our population growth, or, if suddenly, for whatever reason, the supply lines break down and birth control pills or whatever contraception they’re using is not available to women in a lot of places around the world, a half a child more per fertile woman means that by the end of the century we’re going to increase to 16 billion people. A half a child less per woman means that we’re going to be back down to 6 billion really quickly. Then we can decide at that point if we want to bring it down further. But the difference is, on average, half a child either way.

Andrew: As a species, we seem somehow hard-wired to have difficulty seeing beyond our immediate surroundings or thinking beyond the short term. If that’s the case, what do you think motivates humans to change their ways? What do you think is going to work in this instance? How do you convince a species to rein itself in?

Alan: If we could convince people that it’s in their own best interest to limit the number of children they haveto limit the size of their familiesthen we’ve got a fighting chance.

It turns out that having fewer kids helps virtually every family. You see billboards in countries all over the world—they’re kind of clichés at this point—with a woman surrounded by thirteen ragged children. Then you see a couple with only two kids, and they’re all dressed well. Everybody looks healthy. People get that message pretty quickly.

Andrew: After researching this topic so intensely, what gives you the most hope?

Alan: The fact that there is something so sensible, so wonderful, and with so many benefits that can alleviate the pressures that we human beings put on this planet and improve our own existence as humans-and that’s simply educating women.

If we give women all the opportunities that they deserve, they’re going to take care of this problem, and frankly, we’d have a much better society all the way around. That goes for any religion. That goes for any culture that I’ve ever visited. Any place where you run into women who are empowered, things improve. Everybody lives better, males and females. Women who are educated are going to have fewer children, and that gives me a great deal of hope.

In addition to that, making birth control available on a global level is also very doable. We’re not there yet in terms of distribution—nearly a quarter of a billion women who might use contraception don’t have access to it. However, it would only take about $8-9 billion a year to ensure that everybody did. It’s just not a lot of money on this planet, and it would have such a wonderful, multifaceted impact. We’d have fewer unwanted children. We’d have fewer abortions. We’d have happier people.

Best of all, none of this involves high technology. This does not involve coming up with renewable energygiven all of our best efforts, we still don’t know how to power all of our vehicles and all of our industries with just the sun or wind. This is technology that we already have. In fact, the education part of it employs the best of human technologyour own brainsto convey information and wisdom to our children. Those young brains can absorb it all, and get very creative with it, and do amazing things, as human beings are capable of doing.

Source: Orion magazine <http://www.orionmagazine.org/index.php/articles/article/7694> Reprinted with permission. Orion is an award-winning, non-profit, and ad-free publication. Anyone can request a free copy by going to <www.orionmagazine.org/freetrial>. Or you may subscribe for just $19 for 6 issues, nearly half off. An audio recording of the complete interview of Alan Weisman by Andrew Blechman is available at <www.orionmagazine.org/audio-video>.

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Ocean Damage ‘Is Worse Than Thought’ by Alex Kirby

Are we willing to give up fossil fuels to ensure live coral?

Are we willing to give up fossil fuels to ensure live coral?

A new report says the world’s oceans are changing faster than previously thought, which could have dire consequences for both human and marine life.

Marine scientists say the state of the world’s oceans is deteriorating more rapidly than anyone had realized, and is worse than that described in last month’s UN climate report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). They say the rate, speed and impacts of ocean change are greater, faster and more imminent than previously thought—and they expect summertime Arctic sea ice cover will have disappeared in around 25 years.

Their review, produced by the International Programme on the State of the Ocean (IPSO) and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and published in the journal Marine Pollution Bulletin, agrees with the IPCC that the oceans are absorbing much of the warming caused by carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases caused by human activity. But it says the impact of this warming, when combined with other stresses, is far graver than previous estimates. The stresses include decreasing oxygen levels caused by climate change and nitrogen run-off, other forms of chemical pollution, and serious overfishing.

Professor Alex Rogers of the University of Oxford, IPSO’s scientific director, says: “The health of the ocean is spiraling downwards far more rapidly than we had thought. We are seeing greater change, happening faster, and the effects are more imminent than previously anticipated.”

The IUCN’s Professor Dan Laffoley says: “What these latest reports make absolutely clear is that deferring action will increase costs in the future and lead to even greater, perhaps irreversible, losses.”

Or do we want only dead corals?

Or do we want only dead corals?

Damaged Mollusks Found

The review says there is growing evidence that the oceans are losing oxygen. Predictions for ocean oxygen content suggest a decline of between 1% and 7% by 2100. The loss is occurring in two ways: through the broad trend of decreasing oxygen levels in tropical oceans and areas of the North Pacific over the last 50 years, and because of the “dramatic” increase in coastal hypoxia (low oxygen) associated with eutrophication, when excessive nutrient levels cause blooms of algae and plankton. The first is caused by global warming, the second by increased nutrient runoff from agriculture and sewage. Both are a direct result of human numbers and activities.

The authors are also concerned about the growing acidity of the oceans, which means “extremely serious consequences for ocean life, and in turn for food and coastal protection”. The Global Ocean Commission reported recently that acidification would make up to half of the Arctic Ocean uninhabitable for shelled animals by 2050.

Professor Rogers told the Climate News Network: “At high latitudes pH levels are decreasing faster than anywhere else because water temperatures are lower, and the water is becoming more acidic. Last year, for the first time, molluscs called sea butterflies were caught with corroded shells.”

When atmospheric CO2 concentrations reach 450-500 parts per million (ppm) coral reefs will be eroded faster than they can grow, and some species will become extinct. Projections are for concentrations to reach that level by 2030-2050: in May they passed 400 ppm for the first time since measurements began in 1958.

Methane A Concern

With the ocean bearing the brunt of warming in the climate system, the review says, the impacts of continued warming until 2050 include reduced seasonal ice zones and increasing stratification of ocean layers, leading to oxygen depletion. It also expects increased releases from the Arctic seabed of methane, a greenhouse gas at least 20 times more effective than carbon dioxide in trapping heat in the atmosphere (the releases were not considered by the IPCC); and more low oxygen problems.

Another stress identified is overfishing. Contrary to claims, the review says, and despite some improvements, fisheries management is still failing to halt the decline of key species and damage to ecosystems. In 2012 the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization said 70% of world fish populations were unsustainably exploited.

The scientists say world governments must urgently reduce global CO2 emissions to limit temperature rise to under 2°C—something which would mean limiting all greenhouse gas emissions to 450 ppm. They say current targets for carbon emission reductions are not enough to ensure coral reef survival and to counter other biological effects of acidification, especially as there is a time lag of several decades between atmospheric CO2 emissions and the detection of dissolved oceanic CO2.

Potential knock-on effects of climate change, such as methane release from melting permafrost, and coral dieback, mean the consequences for human and ocean life could be even worse than presently calculated. The scientists also urge better fisheries management and an effective global infrastructure for high seas governance

Source: Climate News Network: http://www.climatenewsnetwork.net/2013/10/ocean-damage-is-worse-than-thought/

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Don’t Worry–Be Resilient by Charles Hugh Smith

Family fun. Photo by Keith Brofsky/Artville

Family fun. Photo by Keith Brofsky/Artville

At some point, absorbing more information about the unsustainability of modern society yields diminishing returns. It becomes emotionally draining and thus counterproductive. Part of this exhaustion results from recognizing our powerlessness within the Status Quo, where independent thinking and structural innovation are intentionally winnowed out as threats to existing institutions and industries. Another part arises from the burden of knowing that the supposedly permanent Status Quo is far more vulnerable than generally believed.

A related factor that is never publicly discussed is the negative impact on our mental health of all the propaganda that we are force-fed by the Mainstream Media.  When truth is incrementally undermined by massaged data and behind-the-façade manipulation, we lose faith in key State and media institutions and suffer from a propaganda-induced disconnect between what we see and what is reported as fact.

These “burdens of knowing” can diminish the small but real joys of the present: work we like, a home-cooked meal, and time spent with our friends and family. As a result, many smart, well-informed people consciously refuse to dwell on our systemic problems because doing so “is a downer.” These folks hold the perspective that anxiety about the future should not get in the way of the simple pleasures of living.

This attitude can be described as “don’t worry ~ be happy.” And it certainly makes sense when life is still comfortable and enjoyable.

But the philosophy of “thinking about the future is a downer, so I live in the present” ultimately rests on a false confidence that the future will take care of itself, regardless of what happens to the large-scale systems of State, finance, and resources. It overlooks the reality that not all responses to instability or devolution are equally successful. Those who are totally dependent on the Central State and speculation-based markets will have a much more difficult time maintaining their “happy” view if the systems they depend on erode or fail.

Perhaps the wiser response is “don’t worry ~ be resilient.”  The resilient household can be happy not only in the present surplus of energy, entitlements, goods, and services, but can also thrive in a future where the current surplus of cash, credit, and speculative gains has dried up.

Life will out. Photo by RayinLA/Flickr/cc

Life will out. Photo by RayinLA/Flickr/cc

What is Resilience?

What is resilience?  A dictionary definition is “an ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change.” In other words, it is on the other end of the response spectrum from fragility, brittleness, and vulnerability.

In terms of individual psychology, resilience can be characterized as being able to roll with the punches, maintaining a positive attitude through difficult times, and focusing on developing successful responses to misfortunes and challenges. American culture extols individual resilience, and we are taught to think that the individual can overcome anything and everything with the right attitude. But if the Status Quo is vulnerable to disruption on a systemic level, then it is prudent to think of resilience in a systemic way as well.

One way to describe the difference between systemic vulnerability and resilience is to conduct a thought experiment:

  • What if it didn’t matter to you and your household if the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA on the NY Stock Exchange) was 14,000 or 4,000? Or if gasoline cost $3.50 or $7.50 per gallon?
  • What if it didn’t matter to you and your household if Central State [government] entitlements were slashed by half, or vanished altogether?
  • What if it didn’t matter to you and your household if your land and house were worth $1 million or $100,000?

In other words, what if the machinations of Wall Street, the Federal Reserve, the Central State and, indeed, all of Central Planning’s promises and speculation-boosting had little effect on your life or well-being? Would this make your household more resilient or more vulnerable? Clearly, the less we are dependent on systemically brittle Central Planning systems, the fewer adjustments we will have to make should these large-scale systems devolve or fail.

The important point being made here about resilience is that it does not require a sacrifice of present happiness. Nor does it profit from the devolution or failure of Central Planning. The resilient household is able to enjoy the present surplus of energy, credit, State entitlements, and consumerist abundance, but it doesn’t rely on it.

If the Status Quo is indeed as permanent as it is presented, the resilient household has the same measure of happiness as the household that is totally dependent on Central Planning promises and boundless credit. The difference between fragility and resilience is how much security and happiness will be available to the two households should the Status Quo credit-based consumption and speculative wealth turn out to be decidedly impermanent.

Debt, Fragility and Vulnerability

The easiest way to increase resilience is to reduce fragility and vulnerability. We can understand the dynamics of what we might call anti-resilience—debt, fragility, and vulnerability—with another thought experiment:

Household A’s gross income is $5,000 a month and their net income (less Federal, state and local payroll and income taxes) is $4,200 a month.  The mortgage is $2,000 per month, both wage earners have substantial monthly payments on student loans, and the household also has an auto loan. The household’s healthcare insurance is partly paid by payroll deductions, and the household remains responsible for a percentage of any major medical costs.  Basic living expenses eat up the rest of the net income; the household saves nothing and has minimal savings.

Household A hopes housing valuations keep rising, as they plan to borrow money off this resurgent home equity to fund a vacation, something they haven’t had for four years.

This household’s financial situation is precarious because its expenses equal its income, and most of these expenses are debt-related and cannot be trimmed. This greatly increases their fragility to financial misfortune; any reduction in take-home pay or any increase in expenses will push this household into default.  To increase consumption, they plan to borrow more money once their only collateral—their home equity—increases enough to support more debt.

Household A has a high and inflexible cost-basis. Any significant reduction in income cannot be offset with equivalent cuts in spending.

Household B owns their land and home free and clear; the only housing-related payments are property taxes and property insurance.  (Recall that 30% of all homes are owned free and clear in the U.S., so this is not as unusual as you might imagine.)

One wage-earner paid off her modest student loans within a few years; the other never took on student loans in the first place. They own two older vehicles free and clear. They are debt-free. Their gross income is $4,000 and their net income is $3,200. Since they have no mortgage interest deduction, their income taxes are higher as a percentage of income than Household A. Their living expenses total $1,500 per month, so they save 50% of their net income.  If one of the wage earners loses their job, the household can maintain its current budget without sacrifice. Their substantial savings protect them from unforeseen medical expenses not covered by healthcare insurance, and they can pay for vacations with cash, not credit.

Let’s say that one wage earner in each household loses their job and must take a job that pays 20% less. Household A cannot cover its expenses and must default on one of their debts. Household B’s monthly savings decline, but they are still saving a substantial portion of their income.

Which household is vulnerable to even modest financial misfortune?  Clearly Household A. Will a positive attitude be enough to save the family from insolvency?  It will help it transition into and hopefully through bankruptcy, but a positive attitude alone is no substitute for financial resilience.

Though Keynesian economists argue that nations are not like households, in truth debt/financial fragility is scale-invariant, meaning that rising debt, a high cost basis, and zero savings/investment lead to fragility in households, enterprises, communities, and nations alike.

Conclusion

The United States of America shares a lot in common with Household A: It has a high and inflexible cost-basis, and it is dependent on borrowing to fund future consumption and on speculation to create collateral. It is also tied into spending a significant share of its income-servicing debt. History offers few examples of major nations that prospered by borrowing vast sums for consumption.

Charles Hugh Smith writes the ‘Of Two Minds’ blog <www.oftwominds.com/blog.html> which covers an eclectic range of timely topics: finance, housing, Asia, energy, long term trends, social issues, health/diet/fitness and sustainability. Smith’s books include “Weblogs and New Media: Marketing in Crisis” (2008) and “Survival+: Structuring Prosperity for Yourself and the Nation” (2009). He is currently completing “An Unconventional Guide to Investing in Troubled Times” (June 2011). Published on ‘Peak Prosperity’  <http://www.peakprosperity.com, February 12, 2013. Reprinted with permission.

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Filed under Consumption, Culture, Ecological Footprint, Economy, Energy, Environment, Ethics, Natural Resources, Sustainability

U.S. Census Report Finds Increases in Coastal Population Growth Put More People at Risk of Extreme Weather by NOAA & U.S. Census Bureau

Wreckage from Hurricane Sandy. Photo by Spleeness/Flickr/cc

Wreckage from Hurricane Sandy. Photo by Spleeness/Flickr/cc

If current population trends continue, the already crowded U.S. coast will see population grow from 123 million people to nearly 134 million people by 2020, putting more people at increased risk from extreme coastal storms like Sandy and Isaac, which severely damaged infrastructure and property last year. The projection comes from a new report from NOAA, The National Coastal Population Report: Population Trends from 1970 to 2020, issued in partnership with the U.S. Census Bureau.

According to the report, which analyzed data from the 2010 census, 39% of the U.S. population is concentrated in counties directly on the shoreline—less than 10% of the total U.S. land area excluding Alaska.  Also 52% of the total population lives in counties that drain to coastal watersheds, less than 20% of U.S. land area, excluding Alaska. A coastal watershed is an area in which water, sediments, and dissolved material drain to a common coastal outlet, like a bay or the ocean.

“People who live near the shore, and managers of these coastal communities, should be aware of how this population growth may affect their coastal areas over time,” said Holly Bamford, Ph.D., assistant NOAA administrator for the National Ocean Service. “As more people move to the coast, county managers will see a dual challenge—protecting a growing population from coastal hazards, as well as protecting coastal ecosystems from a growing population.”

For the first time, this report offers coastal managers and other users two perspectives on population growth along the U.S. coast:

1) the traditional perspective that looks at status and trends throughout counties that drain to coastal watersheds, called Coastal Watershed Counties, and

2) a newer focus that examines only those counties that directly border the coast, including the Great Lakes.

“Understanding the demographic context of coastal areas is vital for our nation and helps us to meet the challenges of tomorrow. To help inform policymakers and the public through this report, the Census Bureau developed a new measure of coastal populations,” said James Fitzsimmons, assistant chief of the Census Bureau’s population division.

Coastal population statistics in the overall total of 769 ‘Coastal Watershed Counties’ provide context for coastal water quality and coastal ecosystem health-related issues. Data from the 452 of those counties that lie directly on the shoreline, called ‘Coastal Shoreline Counties’, can be used to talk about coastal resilience, coastal hazards, and other ocean resource dependent issues.

“Whether you’re talking about watershed counties or shoreline counties, the coast is substantially more crowded than the U.S. as a whole,” said report editor Kristen Crossett of NOAA’s National Ocean Service. “Population density in shoreline counties is more than six times greater than the corresponding inland counties. And the projected growth in coastal areas will increase population density at a faster rate than the country as a whole.”

The report also found that from 1970 to 2010, Coastal Shoreline Counties population increased by 39%, and Coastal Watershed Counties population increased by 45%.

The report is available on NOAA’s ‘State of the Coast’ website, which provides quick facts and more detailed statistics through interactive maps, case studies, and management success stories that highlight what is known about coastal communities, coastal ecosystems, and the coastal economy and about how climate change might impact the coast.

Source: NOAA press release <http://www.noaanews.noaa.gov/stories2013/20130325_coastalpopulation.html>

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Stick to Humor, Dr. Black by Dr. Richard Grossman

 “…the first essential component of social justice is adequate food for all mankind.”
Norman Borlaug, in his 1970 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech

Dr Black and his beloved horse, Blue. Photo by Gary Gainer.

Dr Black and his beloved horse, Blue. Photo by Gary Gainer.

I used to love to listen to Dr. Baxter Black* on the radio. I admired his sense of humor and his human insight. Then I read an article he wrote.

“What is Sustainable Ag?” appeared in the March 2013 issue of Western Farmer-Stockman magazine. I am writing this as a response to my friend Al, who clipped the article for me. Al is a wise man and an experienced farmer. He wrote: “I thought this was a good article on sustainable agriculture. I hope you find it interesting.”

Indeed, it is interesting—not for what it contains, but for what Dr. Black left out. First, let me summarize the article.

Dr. Black writes that most agriculturalists think that “sustainable farming” is a joke, and derides those who want to return to pre-1950 farming methods. He makes fun of “hobby farmers” who have a garden and a few animals since they don’t produce enough food to feed their families for even two weeks.

Black then rightly recaps the history after World War II, when world population soared and people worried about food shortages. Mega-corporations and scientists were able to increase food production remarkably, despite the creep of cities taking over productive agricultural land. He doesn’t mention the “green revolution” of Dr. Norman Borlaug and others, which is credited with saving over a billion lives by developing highly productive strains of crops.

This modern, industrial model of agriculture is sustainable according to Black, because it can sustain so many people. Great grandpa’s old-fashioned ways of producing food are laughable in today’s context, he writes. He would prefer the term “subsistence-level farming”.

Although I understand Al’s and Dr. Black’s viewpoint, I cannot agree. My concern is that, along with its good, the “green revolution” has had several dreadful unintended consequences.

Growing highly productive plants and animals requires the use of many chemicals that are made from limited resources, and are toxic. The chemicals include fertilizers, insecticides, fungicides and herbicides. They are all derived from fossil fuels, and all transported with fossil fuel. Unfortunately, supplies of carbon-based fuels are limited. We have probably already maximized the production of petroleum and soon will see its decline—and a rapid increase in prices.

Honey bee. Photo by Danny Perez/Flickr/cc

Honey bee. Photo by Danny Perez/Flickr/cc

We are starting to realize the subtle toxicity of many of the agricultural chemicals. The wonder insecticide of my childhood, DDT (which I was told was entirely safe) turned out to be an ecological disaster and now is banned in most countries. An amazing group of insecticides, neonicatinoids, is probably responsible for the die-off of our honeybees—‘colony collapse disorder’. Since bees pollinate so many crops, this is an agricultural disaster.

We now realize that many agricultural chemicals have endocrine effects, even in minuscule concentrations. Just a pinch in all the water in an Olympic swimming pool can cause harm! Insecticide residues may decrease sperm counts. One common agrichemical, atrazine, has been shown to cause feminization of male frogs and has been implicated in reproductive cancers.

The seeds of highly productive plant strains must be bought from corporations that control their prices. In the past, seed grain was carefully preserved from the prior crop, but now farmers need cash—or credit—in order to buy seeds. This expense, along with the cost of the chemicals, has broken many farmers. In a good year they can make a living, but in a bad year their suicide rate climbs.

Finally, modern agriculture depletes our soil. The use of chemicals exhausts many components that help plants grow.

There is a subtle chicken-and-egg situation here. Modern agriculture has increased food supply, which allowed our population to swell. Borlaug outwitted Malthus, who predicted that human population would be limited by starvation from lack of food.

Here is the quandary: does modern agriculture only provide a short-term gain? As we deplete petroleum and as crop growing conditions worsen from climate change and drought, can the amazing technology of modern agriculture be sustained? Indeed, some scientists have a terrible vision of severe food shortages with bloodshed and more deaths than Borlaug’s green revolution saved.

In his Nobel Prize speech quoted above, Borlaug also said: “Most people still fail to comprehend the magnitude and menace of the Population Monster.” Only time will tell if Dr. Black is correct about sustainable agriculture, or if he should go back to being a humorist.

Richard Grossman MD became concerned about human population while in high school, over 50 years ago. He chose the path of obstetrics and gynecology to help women, and he is an abortion provider for women who need that option for an unplanned pregnancy.  Because it is possible to reach more people through media, he has been writing a column for the Durango Herald – “Population Matters!” – for over 18 years. It may be the longest regularly appearing column focused on population issues in the world.  If you would like to receive it monthly via email, please contact Dr. Grossman at Richard@population-matters.org  Richard has been an unwaivering supporter of the Population Press since 1994. This article first appeared in the Durango (Colorado) Herald. Reprinted with permission.


*Dr. Baxter Black, DVM, is a former animal veterinarian turned poet-entertainer. According to the Washington Post, “He could make a dead man sit up and laugh.”  Everything about Baxter is cowboy. He doesn’t own a television or a cell phone, admires his parents and wants to be remembered “as someone who didn’t embarrass his friends.”

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The Ecology of Population Growth by Lester R. Brown

The Rio Blanco river in Texas during the drought of 2011. Photo by Earl McGehee/Flickr/cc

The Rio Blanco river in Texas during the drought of 2011. Photo by Earl McGehee/Flickr/cc

Throughout most of human existence, population growth has been so slow as to be imperceptible within a single generation. Reaching a global population of 1 billion in 1804 required the entire time since modern humans appeared on the scene. To add the second billion, it took until 1927, just over a century. Thirty-three years later, in 1960, world population reached 3 billion. Then the pace sped up, as we added another billion every 13 years or so. We hit 7 billion in late 2011, and have kept right on growing. One of the consequences of this explosive growth in human numbers is that human demands have outrun the carrying capacity of the economy’s natural support systems—its forests, fisheries, grasslands, aquifers, and soils. Once demand exceeds the sustainable yield of these natural systems, additional demand can only be satisfied by consuming the resource base itself. We call this overcutting, overfishing, overgrazing, overpumping, and overplowing.

The most recent U.N. demographic projections show world population growing to 9.3 billion by 2050, an addition of 2.3 billion people. Most people think these demographic projections, like most of those made over the last half-century, will in fact materialize. But this is unlikely, given the difficulties in expanding the food supply, such as those posed by spreading water shortages and global warming. We are fast outgrowing the Earth’s capacity to sustain our increasing numbers.

As human numbers multiply, we need more and more irrigation water. As a result, half of the world’s people now live in countries that are depleting their aquifers by overpumping. Overpumping is by definition a short-term phenomenon.

As human populations grow, so typically do livestock populations, particularly in those parts of the world where herding cattle, sheep, and goats is a way of life. This is most evident in Africa, where the explosion in human numbers from 294 million in 1961 to just over 1 billion in 2010 was accompanied by growth in the livestock population from 352 million to 894 million.

With livestock numbers growing beyond the sustainable yield of grasslands, these ecosystems are deteriorating. The loss of vegetation leaves the land vulnerable to soil erosion. At some point, the grassland turns to desert, depriving local people of their livelihood and food supply, as is now happening in parts of Africa, the Middle East, central Asia, and northern China.

Growing populations also increase the demand for firewood, lumber, and paper. The result is that demand for wood is exceeding the regenerative capacity of forests. The world’s forests, which have been shrinking for several decades, are currently losing a net 5.6 million hectares per year. In the absence of a more responsible population policy, forested area will continue to shrink. Some countries—Mauritania is one example—have lost nearly all their forest and are now essentially treeless. Without trees to protect the soil and to reduce runoff, the entire ecosystem suffers, making it more difficult to produce enough food.

Continuous population growth eventually leads to overplowing—the breaking of ground that is highly erodible and should not be plowed at all. We are seeing this in Africa, the Middle East, and much of Asia. Plowing marginal land leads to soil erosion and eventually to cropland abandonment. Land that would otherwise sustain grass and trees is lost as it is converted into cropland and then turns into wasteland.

In summary, we have ignored the Earth’s environmental stop signs. Faced with falling water tables, not a single country has mobilized to reduce water use so that it would not exceed the sustainable yield of an aquifer. Unless we can stop willfully ignoring the threats and wake up to the risks we are taking, we will join the earlier civilizations that failed to reverse the environmental trends that undermined their food economies.

If world population growth does not slow dramatically, the number of people trapped in hydrological poverty and hunger will almost certainly grow, threatening food security, economic progress, and political stability. The only humane option is to move quickly to replacement-level fertility of two children per couple and to stabilize world population as soon as possible.

Lester R. Brown is one of the world’s most influential thinkers. He started his career as a farmer, growing tomatoes in New Jersey with his brother. After earning a degree in Agricultural Science from Rutgers University, he spent six months in rural India, an experience that changed his life and career. Brown founded the World Watch Institute and then the Earth Policy Institute, where he now serves as President. The purpose of the Earth Policy Institute is to provide a vision of an environmentally sustainable economy, a roadmap of how to get from here to there—as well as an ongoing assessment of progress. Brown has authored many books. This article is from his latest book Full Planet, Empty Plates: The New Geopolitics of Food Scarcity. Supporting data, video, and slideshows are available for free download at www.earth-policy.org/books/fpep.

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