Category Archives: Natural Resources

Population Growth Increases Climate Fear by Carolyn Lochhead

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“What many of us really worry about is that there will be this crash landing, from a planet with 9 billion, rapidly down to 5 or so,” said ecologist Harte.

What many of us really worry about is that there will be a crash landing.

California has 157 endangered or threatened species, looming water shortages, eight of the 10 most air-polluted cities in the country and 725 metric tons of trash washing up on its coast each year. California also has 38 million people, up 10% in the last decade, including 10 million immigrants. They own 32 million registered vehicles and 14 million houses. By 2050, projections show 51 million people living in the state, more than twice as many as in 1980.

In the public arena, almost no one connects these plainly visible dots.

For various reasons, linking the world’s rapid population growth to its deepening environmental crisis, including climate change, is politically taboo. In the United States, Europe and Japan, there has been public hand wringing over falling birthrates and government policies to encourage childbearing.

But those declining birthrates mask explosive growth elsewhere in the world. In less than a lifetime, the world population has tripled, to 7.1+ billion, and continues to climb by more than 1.5 million people a week.

A consensus statement issued by scientists at Stanford University and signed by more than 1,000 scientists warned, “Earth is reaching a tipping point.” An array of events under way—including what scientists have identified as the sixth mass extinction in the earth’s 540 million-year history—suggest that human activity already exceeds Earth’s capacity.

Climate change is but one of many signs of environmental stress. “The big connector is how many people are on Earth,” said Anthony Barnosky, a UC Berkeley integrative biologist. The world population is expected to reach 9.6 billion by mid-century. The addition alone will be greater than the global population of 1950. “The combination of climate change and 9 billion people to me is one that is just fraught with potential catastrophes,” said John Harte, a UC Berkeley ecosystem scientist.

The United States is expected to grow from 313 million people to 400 million. Economies have expanded many times faster, vastly increasing consumption of goods and services in rich and developing countries.

“We’re changing the ability of the planet to provide food and water,” Harte said.

Even scientists who doubt ecological collapse, such as Michele Marvier, chair of environmental studies at Santa Clara University, acknowledge, “humans dominate every flux and cycle of the planet’s ecology and geochemistry.”

Population Momentum

Plummeting fertility rates, from 4.9 births per woman in the 1960s to the current 2.6, led to the belief that worries about population were overblown. The drop surprised demographers. Half the world—including Japan and Western Europe but also China, Vietnam, Brazil and other emerging economies—is below the 2.1 fertility rate needed for zero growth. The United States, the world’s third-largest country behind China and India, and the only rich country still growing rapidly, recently saw its birth rate fall to 1.9. [US growth is mainly due to high levels of immigration.]

But population momentum ensures that absolute numbers will keep rising for decades despite falling birth rates. That’s because the exponential growth that took just 12 years to add the last billion in 2011—and will take just 14 more years to add the next billion—means growth is building from a large base of children and teenagers, many intering their child-bearing years.

Falling birth rates have lulled people into complacency, said Joseph Speidel, a professor at UCSF’s Bixby Center on Global Reproductive Health. “The annual increment is rising quite dramatically,” he said. “We are still adding about 84 million people a year to the planet.” 

Unintended Births

More than 40% of the world’s 208 million pregnancies each year are unplanned, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a family planning research group. Half of U.S. pregnancies, about 3 million a year, are unintended, according to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, a Washington advocacy group. About half of them end in abortion.

Across cultures, from Iran to Thailand to California, voluntary access to contraception has slashed fertility rates, Speidel said. But discussion of population growth remains taboo in the US. “Many young people on university campuses have been taught over the past 15 years that the connection between population growth and the environment is not an acceptable subject for discussion,” said Martha Campbell, director of International Population Dialogue at UC Berkeley’s School of Public Health, in a recent essay. Campbell argued that voluntary contraception is not coercive, but blocking women from controlling how many children they have is coercive. When given a chance, she said, women across cultures choose to provide a better life for fewer children.

The Guttmacher Institute said it would cost an extra $4.1 billion a year, little more than a rounding error in the $3.8 trillion U.S. budget, to provide birth control to all 222 million women in the world who want to limit their pregnancies but lack access to contraception.

“What many of us really worry about is that there will be this crash landing, from a planet with 9 billion, rapidly down to 5 or so,” said ecologist Harte. “The landing will result from methods of population reduction that none of us want to see, like famine, disease and war,” he added. “I don’t think anybody has described a workable trajectory that gets us up to 9 and then softly back down to 5.”

Sources for statistics: United Nations; Stuart Basten, Wolfgang Lutz, Sergei Scherbov, “Very long range global population scenarios to 2300 and the implications of sustained low fertility” in Demographic Research, Vol. 28, Article 39, May 30.

Carolyn Lochhead is the Washington correspondent for the San Francisco Chronicle. This article first appeared September 2, 2013, see: <http://www.sfgate.com/science/article/Population-growth-increases-climate-fear-4781833.php>.

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Filed under Climate, Natural Resources, Population, Sustainability

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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Filed under Culture, Ecological Footprint, Environment, Natural Resources, Population, Sustainability, Wildlife

Holy Icebergs! The Future is Thirsty by Stephanie Feldstein

Capture icebergs? Or lower emissions?

Capture icebergs? Or lower emissions? Photo by Angela Sevin, used under Creative Commons license.

If you’ve spent days this winter battling the polar vortex, it might be hard to wrap your head around the idea that the freezing weather was actually caused by warming temperatures. But wait, there’s more: The same global warming that sent arctic weather our way will also lead to massive water shortages in the not-so-distant future.

A group of researchers from 12 countries recently released a report predicting that an increase of just 2 degrees Celsius in global temperatures above present levels could leave one-fifth of the world’s population thirsty. On the list of the most at-risk regions for severe water scarcity: the southern United States.

A couple days ago, The New York Times published an article on the Colorado River that started with the sobering statistic that the once-mighty river of the Southwest has suffered “14 years of drought nearly unrivaled in 1,250 years.”

Seven states rely on the Colorado River for water. An Interior Department report released in 2012 projected that the population served by the Colorado could nearly double in the next 50 years, from 40 million to 76.5 million people. With rising temperatures and demand already exceeding supply, the river won’t be able to keep up. Facing the reality of water shortage scenarios, Nevada official John Entsminger told The New York Times, “It sure looks like in the 21st century, we’re all going to have to use less water.”

The Colorado River isn’t the only stressed watershed in the region. Southern California’s Santa Ana River Watershed was the topic of a 2013 Interior Department report. According to the agency, the future’s looking a bit dry there, too, as human population, agricultural and industry demands keep growing at the same time climate change is diminishing the supply side. A river just can’t catch a break these days.

Back to that 2 degree increase that’ll cause water shortages for one-fifth of the world. Based on our current track record, it could happen as soon as mid-century — around the same time the global population is pushing nearly 10 billion people.

So, how do we stop this?

Suggestions from the Interior Department’s 2012 Colorado River Basin Water Supply and Demand Study included “wrapping large water bags around icebergs in the Alaska region and using tug boats to transport the frozen water to a port along the coast of Southern California.”

Icebergs.

Or we could focus on reducing emissions, conserving water and stabilizing population growth so we can have a healthier planet where people and wildlife thrive.

Climate change, overconsumption and population growth need to be more than just bullet points buried in policy reports. These issues need to be the policies.

We need to drastically cut back on water and energy intensive systems, like raising livestock for food. And instead of continuing the trend of unprecedented attacks on reproductive rights in the U.S., we need to increase access to contraception and family planning. Watershed management plans should go beyond simply meeting the needs of ever-growing human populations to actually enhance the watershed’s habitat and provide a healthier ecosystem for the people and wildlife relying on it.

And maybe, if we place our bets on confronting global warming and population growth, we can give rivers, wildlife and us a chance.

Stephanie Feldstein is Population and Sustainability Director at the Center for Biological Diversity.

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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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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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Tribute to Dr. Albert A. Bartlett

Dr Albert A. Bartlett explains the important difference between arithmetic growth and exponential growth.

Dr Albert A. Bartlett explains the important difference between arithmetic growth and exponential growth.

From Marilyn Hempel, Editor of the Population Press

Recently my friend Al Bartlett wrote that his cancer has returned and he has only a few weeks to live. This is a sad day for the entire population and sustainability movement. The Population Press wishes to honor the life and work of Dr. Albert A. Bartlett, Professor Emeritus in Nuclear Physics, University of Colorado at Boulder. His relentless drive to help people understand population and sustainability issues is an inspiration to us all. Perhaps his most famous work is a lecture titled “Arithmetic, Population and Energy: Sustainability 101″. You can find it online, on a YouTube video that has been viewed over 4.9 million times. If you have not already seen it (and if you have a computer) we suggest you watch it and share it with others.

The article below, “Close the Fire Department!” is the last one Al wrote for the Population Press.  In it his typical insights and humor shine through. Thank you Al! We will miss you. We are comforted by the fact that your work will live on in your writings and films.

“Can you think of any problem in any area of human endeavor on any scale, from microscopic to global, whose long-term solution is in any demonstrable way aided, assisted, or advanced by further increases in population, locally, nationally, or globally?” —Dr. Albert A. Bartlett

 

CLOSE THE FIRE DEPARTMENT!

By Dr. Albert A. Bartlett

In February of 2013 I attended the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).  This Association publishes Science magazine which is one of the world’s leading scientific journals. The Association’s big annual meeting this year was held in meeting rooms spread through the enormous Hynes Convention Center in downtown Boston, Massachusetts. The meeting consisted of plenary addresses by prominent scientists and dozens of symposia often consisting of four speakers presenting papers on different aspects of a single topic. The meeting was scientifically comprehensive and strongly interdisciplinary. There were topics for every taste.

Many symposia at the AAAS meeting seemed to be devoted to or related to the vital topic of sustainability. This interest in sustainability is understandable because it’s clear that if humans can’t make a transition to real sustainability then we, as a society, face a very grim future. The importance of ‘limits’ and ‘sustainable living’ was projected in the book titled Limits to Growth as early as 1972.  The idea that there might be limits was rarely mentioned in the AAAS symposia even though real sustainability implies a society that depends solely on solar energy with no dependence on finite reserves of fossil fuels.

I attended as many of these symposia as I could and I was struck by common threads. A frequent preface to these discussions was the fact that projections show world population will most likely continue its growth and increase by another two or three billion people by mid-century. For most speakers, this projected population growth was taken as a given. To most of the speakers it seemed to follow then that our society has to meet the food, water and resource challenge that this growth presents. Some of the symposia reported on exercises in thinking about the complex planning that the future will require. It was my impression that scientists love to plan, especially in an atmosphere largely devoid of reality.

Almost without exception, the various plans that were presented never mentioned the fact that reducing overpopulation is a necessary, but not a sufficient, condition for achieving sustainability.

In the discussion period following one symposium I asked the panelists why the obvious benefits of reducing our present overpopulation were never mentioned. One of the panelists responded with a “picture perfect” recitation of the standard answer that is so often given to annoying inquiries such as mine. With a smile and with suitable restraint, the respondent patiently explained that the United Nations figures show that the growth rate of world population is declining and world population growth is expected to stop on its own later in this century.  So the population problem is under control and there is no need to worry ourselves about it at this time.

I responded by inviting the panelist to come with me to City Hall where we would seek to convince the city government that the city does not need a Fire Department.  It is an established fact that, if left to themselves, all fires, residential, industrial or in the forest, will ultimately go out.  Why rush to put out fires if all fires will ultimately go out on their own?

There was no response. In the meantime, we fiddle while Rome continues to burn.

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A New Dream Built on Resilience by Asher Miller

A new way of seeing our place within the web of life.

A new way of seeing our place within the web of life.

If you’re a lazy pessimist, times are good. After all, you don’t have to look far to see evidence that things are tough and poised to get tougher.

There’s a growing wealth chasm between the rich and, well, everyone else. Significant changes to our climate are already underway and are now largely unavoidable. Our industrial food system is having a malignant influence on people’s health and our politicians. And we are going to increasingly desperate lengths to feed our fossil fuel energy addiction. The list goes on.

And while national and international leadership are key to navigating the bumpy road ahead, thus far, that leadership is sadly wanting.

I’ll be honest—in the face of all this, I’d probably count myself among the lazy pessimists. But having kids ruined both the laziness and the pessimism. I’m sure many of you can relate.

But that doesn’t mean that we can ignore the painful reality that’s just outside the window. And if you’re anything like me, you’re wondering what can be done. One approach is to build resilient communities:

  • Resilient – because the complex economic, energy, and environmental challenges we face not only require solutions to make problems go away, but responses that recognize our vulnerabilities, build our capacities, and enable us to adapt to an increasingly unpredictable future.
  • Communities – because the future is grounded in local relationships—relationships with the ecological resources that feed and sustain us, among families and neighbors, and through the institutions we use to govern ourselves.

Thankfully, a small but growing movement of engaged citizens, community groups, businesses, and local elected officials is leading the way. These early actors have worked to reduce unbridled consumption, produce local food and energy, invest in local economies, and preserve local ecosystems. While diverse, the essence of these efforts is the same: a recognition that the world is changing and the old way of doing things no longer works.

A few months ago, my organization, Post Carbon Institute, launched a new website called ‘resilience.org’ to provide connections for concerned folks just like you and me: connections to timely information and thought-provoking essays; connections to like-minded grassroots groups and nonprofit organizations that are working to build robust, thriving communities; and connections to innovative resources and models that help us individually and collectively face these challenges head on.

Here are just few recent examples of articles and resources you can find at resilience.org:

•  A conversation with Mark Lakeman of City Repair: On the development of sustainable public places.

As part of this task we’re also publishing a series of Community Resilience Guides to capture some of the most promising and replicable of these efforts: investing in the local economy, producing community-owned renewable energy, and growing local food security.

These are uncertain, challenging times. But they are also full of opportunity. And so if you’re like me (and the thousands of other folks who visit resilience.org regularly) and feel compelled to take action, I hope you’ll get engaged in the necessary, daunting, and rewarding task of building resilience at home and in your community. It’s all-hands-on-deck!

Asher Miller is the Executive Director of Post Carbon Institute and on the board of Transition US. Visit <resilience.org> to find a resilience group near you. Source: Center for a New American Dream, March 7, 2013. <http://www.newdream.org/blog/a-new-dream-built-on-resilience&gt;

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What Kind of Economy Says OK to Tar Sands Oil? by Brent Blackwelder

On Sunday, February 17, I marched in the largest climate change protest in U.S. history. About 35,000 people gathered on the Washington Monument grounds for a rally and then marched past the White House, calling on President Obama to deny permission for the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline that would transport oil from Canada’s tar sands through the heart of the U.S. to the Gulf Coast.

Native Americans protest tar sands mining that destroyed their land.

Native Americans protest tar sands mining that destroyed their land.

Two of the victims of tar sands development in Alberta, Chief Jackie Thomas of the Saik’uz First Nation and Crystal Lameman of the Beaver Lake Cree First Nation, spoke of the contamination of their lands and people. Even without the pipeline, the gigantic oil extraction operation is already causing plenty of harm.

If carried to completion during the next several decades, over the objections of the indigenous people who have been stewards of this land, tar sands mining will have transformed an area the size of Florida or Wisconsin. A land teeming with fish and wildlife will have been turned into a grotesque zone of toxicity where the lakes will act as predators as they entice unsuspecting waterfowl to land in their polluted waters.

What kind of economy would find such an activity acceptable? At the very least, the economy must be making some perverse calculations to justify such devastation.

As if the direct devastation of the land and water were not enough, the utilization of tar sands oil by the U.S. and other countries means “game over” for the global climate, according to NASA scientist James Hansen. In other words, the energy-intensive extraction followed by the burning of tar sands oil will put so much carbon pollution into the atmosphere that we will enter an era of radical climate destabilization.

The exploitation is proceeding on Cree lands against their consent and in violation of the Canadian Constitution. It represents a blatant refusal to abide by Article 32 of the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples that says: “States shall consult and cooperate in good faith with the indigenous peoples… in order to obtain their free and informed consent prior to the approval of any project affecting their lands particularly in connection with the development, utilization or exploitation of mineral, water or other resources.”

President Obama appears poised to give permission to build the pipeline and contribute to this industrial nightmare. So what can we do in the aftermath of the big protest?

The time has come to reject the premises of today’s economy, because it is not a true-cost economy, and it undermines good governance. It is an economy set up for cheaters and gamblers. It is also an economy that exploits those lacking political clout and that disrespects international law, except when it comes to trade agreements that enable polluters to enter special secret courts (see the Chevron trade case against Ecuador for one recent example).

A true-cost, sustainable economy would not countenance commercial activities like tar sands mining that are tantamount to an all-out war against the natural environment and a form of industrial genocide. The genocide is underway not because of racial hatred, but because tribal people have stood in the way of a major money-making venture. Furthermore, the indigenous people lacked political power to stop the transnational corporations from ruining their lands.

Protests of the Keystone XL pipeline should blossom into protests of our unsustainable economy.

A true-cost economy would exemplify resilience. It would be less susceptible to disruptions from speculation, violent weather events, and terrorism. Such an economy would not pursue activities that generate or are likely to generate irreversible pollution. No one has to worry about a “solar spill” or a “wind spill” ruining their drinking water.

Today’s economy, on the other hand, is permitting all sorts of damaging activities that violate the criterion of reversibility and bequeath a legacy of poison. Consider the contrast between renewable energy projects and coal mining.

If a wind farm or solar rooftop array is causing problems, it can easily be removed without leaving centuries of pollution behind. The roof or the land can be returned to other uses. In fact, wind farms are fully compatible with agricultural production around the wind turbines. One wind farm I visited near Dodge City, Kansas, consisted of 150 turbines in a 20-square-mile area, and the land requirements were just seven acres.

In contrast, coal mining in West Virginia through mountain-top removal is converting biologically diverse, forested mountains into a Martian landscape. In the words of former Congressman Ken Heckler, reclamation amounts to “putting lipstick on a corpse.” Such mining projects violate the principle of reversibility, just like tar sands oil extraction. What will be available to people in the future who want to live in and explore places like West Virginia’s formerly bountiful mountains and valleys?

Whenever concerns are raised over the destructive impacts of big extractive projects, the predicament of joblessness always comes up. But joblessness cannot be solved with the current economic strategy that allows temporary construction jobs to destroy permanent jobs and livelihoods. Big extraction projects cannot create the volume of jobs that can be had by pursuing renewable energy. In fact, the oil industry generates the fewest jobs of almost any industry in the federal government’s database.

It is time to start demanding a true-cost economy that will create diverse jobs without creating no-go zones of carcinogenic and mutagenic wastes.

Brent Blackwelder is the emeritus president of Friends of the Earth. Brent was a founder and first chairman of the board of American Rivers, our nation’s leading river conservation organization. He was also one of the founders of the Environmental Policy Institute, which merged with Friends of the Earth in 1989. He has testified in front of Congress on pressing environmental issues more than 100 times. As a leader in the effort to save rivers, Brent helped expand the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System from eight rivers in 1973 to over 250 today. He also worked to eliminate over 200 dams and other water projects that would have destroyed rivers, wetlands, wildlife and areas of special scientific value. Brent initiated campaigns to reform the World Bank and succeeded in getting Congress to enact a series of significant reforms directing the Bank and other multilateral lending institutions to pay more attention to the environment. He graduated summa cum laude from Duke University and received an M.A. in mathematics from Yale, and a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Maryland.

Source: Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy  <http://steadystate.org > Posted: 25 Feb 2013. Reprinted with permission.

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New Poll Finds Americans Do Care About Runaway Population Growth by Jerry Karnas

Earth’s human population could hit 10 billion by 2050. A national poll by the Center for Biological Diversity finds a majority of Americans believe the growth is causing species to go extinct, is making climate disruption worse, and that we have a moral obligation to address the problem.

There’s a price for screwing around like we are. And Americans know it.

Every day, we add 200,000 more people to the planet—that’s like adding a city the size of Phoenix every week. We’ve already tipped the 7 billion mark, and we’re on pace for 10 billion by 2050, perhaps 14 billion by 2100.

Think of what it takes to accommodate that many more people: the roads, the pollution, the strip malls, the fresh water, the oil, the land to grow food, the ungodly amount of electronic gadgets and gizmos that have become practically intertwined in our DNA.

And all of these come at a price. The more people we add, the more fossil fuels we dig up, the more wild land we log and pave and mine, the worse the climate gets, the more pesticides we use, the more land we take from wildlife, the more species that are put on an accelerated ride toward utter extinction.

But there is some good news. The American people understand. They’re connecting the dots. They get that we can’t keep growing our human population as if there’s never a price to be paid.

A new national poll commissioned by the Center for Biological Diversity (where I work) and conducted by über-pollsters Public Policy Polling finds that 60% of Americans believe the world’s growing human population is driving wildlife species toward extinction. 57% believe that population growth is making climate change worse. Respondents also said addressing the human population—which topped 7 billion in 2011—is an important environmental issue (59%).

But wait, you might be saying, didn’t I just read a slew of recent news pieces sounding the alarm about how the U.S. is a facing a population catastrophe, that we aren’t breeding enough?

Didn’t I just read how hordes of city slickers are choosing childless lives and about a book titled What to Expect When No One’s Expecting? Didn’t Joel KotkinMegan McArdle, and Justin Green all write pieces about how the real problem is not population growth but population decline?

What’s going on here?

Well, seems there are a few media-savvy Growth Boosters who like the allure of a narrative that says, “Nope, the problem isn’t too many people, it’s that we’re not producing humans fast enough.” These folks have a worldview where population growth is all wisdom and no vice. Grow or die, they say. The bad news is that these folks have a habit of generating a lot of press. The good news is that the American people aren’t buying it.

Do Americans feel that growth is just too fast? You bet they do. Our poll found 50% said the world’s population is growing too fast. Only 4% said too slow. The belief in the tooth fairy would poll higher than that.

The U.S. adds 5,000 people a day to the population ranks. That’s like adding a city of Philadelphia every year. And we certainly take a toll on the planet. Americans consume 18.8 million barrels of oil per day—more than the next four highest oil consumers combined. The same is pretty much true for meat, grains, water, coal, natural gas, and a host of other resources.

The Gunnison sage grouse merits endangered-species protection in part because the human population has doubled in its habitat and will double again in the next 20 years.

The Gunnison sage grouse merits endangered-species protection in part because the human population has doubled in its habitat and will double again in the next 20 years.

Are Americans aware of our disproportionate levels of consumption? Yes, they are. Are Americans OK with these levels of consumption? 48% of the poll respondents said the average American consumes too many natural resources. Only 17% said we consume too few.

Are Americans concerned about the rate that wildlife is disappearing? Absolutely. 61% were concerned about vanishing plants and animals.

Here’s the key question. Do the American people believe population growth is impacting the disappearance of wildlife? Yes: 57% said population growth was a significant cause of plant and animal extinctions. Asked another way, 60% agreed with the following statement: “Human population growth is driving other animal species to extinction.”

We also asked about future growth and its impacts. Our poll found 64% of Americans believe a 10 billion–person planet would result in adverse effects. Only 8% thought this population level would be beneficial.

What about climate disruption? Do Americans connect the cooking of the planet to making babies willy-nilly? Without a doubt: 57% of those polled said population growth was making climate change harder to solve.

Do Americans think stabilizing population will help protect the environment? 54% believe stabilization will.

Florida panthers experienced the second year in a row of record-breaking road-kill deaths due to increased traffic and development in panther habitat.

Florida panthers experienced the second year in a row of record-breaking road-kill deaths due to increased traffic and development in panther habitat.

Nothing on Earth happens in a vacuum. It’s a closed system that begins to buckle under the sheer weight of human demands. Scientists are increasingly linking population growth and overconsumption to our environmental challenges. In just the past few months scientists have found:

  • The Colorado River system is under assault by a growing population, and there are serious doubts it can meet the West’s demand for water in the coming decades.
  • Florida’s aquifer, the water supply for 19 million people, is experiencing saltwater intrusion because of overpumping.
  • The United States will lose 36 million acres of forest to urban sprawl by 2050.
  • Sixty-six species of coral should be classified as endangered—population and consumption of resources are a driving factor in the threats corals face.
  • The Gunnison sage grouse merits endangered-species protection in part because the human population has doubled in its habitat and will double again in the next 20 years.
  • Florida panthers experienced the second year in a row of record-breaking road-kill deaths due to increased traffic and development in panther habitat.

What is most heartening about our poll is that the American people get it. There is no disconnect between what the scientists are measuring and finding and what Americans are perceiving and experiencing. They aren’t freaking out about population declines. They are increasingly of the view that the world’s population and consumption levels are seriously out of whack with the ecological safety net the Earth provides free of charge to us all.

And finally it comes to this: We asked, if mass extinctions of plants and animals were unavoidable due to population growth, do we have a moral responsibility to address the problem? Sixty percent said yes.

In the end that is the most important conclusion. Americans believe we should do the right thing. The right thing is to start a real conversation about what’s happening to life on Earth. If we don’t, in the end we will only be injuring ourselves.

 

Jerry Karnas is the population campaign director for the Center for Biological Diversity. To learn more about their population campaign, and to sign up to help, go to <http://www.biologicaldiversity.org/campaigns/overpopulation/7_billion_and_counting/index.html >  This article first appeared in The Daily Beast, February 28, 2013. Reprinted with permission.

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