Monthly Archives: August 2012

Taking the Long View: An Interview with Gro Harlem Brundtland by Seana Lowe Steffen

Her Excellency Gro Harlem Brundtland, founding chair of the world commission that launched the concept of sustainable development onto the center of the global stage in 1987 (The Brundtland Report), recently shared her thoughts with the Restorative Leadership Institute. Her perspectives on the state of the world and sustainability issues are still extremely relevant today.

If the state of the world is a reflection of the state of our leadership, twentieth century leaders failed to adequately address the risks to sustainability and human civilization. As the world’s population balloons past 7 billion, there is mounting evidence that we have exceeded what a collection of international scientists known as ‘The Club of Rome’ first predicted to be the limits to growth in 1972.

Global production and consumption patterns are considered the key contributors to climate disruption and resource depletion. 2011 was the second warmest on record; this spring has been the hottest, and extreme weather events in general are threatening food security worldwide. Biologists have dubbed the scale of Earth’s biodiversity loss the Sixth Great Extinction.

In a rare interview, Gro Harlem Brundtland urged a global shift toward a sustainable future and suggests that it is our personal leadership that will get us there:

“Leadership always means taking the long view, inspired by our common needs and a clear sense of shared responsibility for taking the necessary action. In our time it means thinking even further ahead than leaders had to do one or two generations ago. Now we have the evidence to show us that that our human activities, the footsteps of our own time, will affect negatively the lives and choices we leave to future generations—in a potentially disastrous way—due to our own overstepping of planetary boundaries. We face a moral challenge to act in time to protect Planet Earth and the livelihood of new generations.”

In 1987, the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) chaired by Gro Harlem Brundtland released a report titled, Our Common Future: A Global Agenda for Change. In doing so, Dr. Brundtland and the WCED launched the concept of sustainable development to the center of the global stage, linking economic, social and ecological systems and calling for unprecedented international cooperation.

Now, in 2012, Dr. Brundtland expressed her concern that, “many are still not really ready to take seriously the mounting evidence of how humanity is affecting her own future.” She advises, “We are all in this together, every human being. We all need to realize that time is running out, and that the only answer is to take commonly-based actions, and take seriously our shared and combined responsibilities.”

“The tensions, controversies and gridlocks between development and environment will persist until our leadership respects the notion of sustainability,” says the new Brundtland Report: A 20 Years Update.

With ecosystems flashing warning signs throughout the world, Dr. Brundtland urges restorative leadership practices that prioritize the wellbeing of all humanity and elevate the quality of life for future generations. The question becomes, what does that take? According to Dr. Brundtland: “A key factor is to realize that we all are responsible as we affect our common future through our own action or inaction. It will never be sufficient for us as global, national and local citizens to leave every decision to our leaders and expect them alone to take responsibility. We must all feel responsible to support and select the kind of leaders that will pursue the right policy, and be willing to do our part in a vibrant, participatory democratic society that holds a holistic, global view of the future.”

 Source: Restorative Leadership blog written on June 6, 2012. Restorative Leadership Institute

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On Population, U.S. Remains in Full Denial Mode by Craig Gurian

How dense can we get? U.S. crowd by S. Anderson/Flickr/cc

Of all the fantasies indulged in by a society speeding toward self-destruction, none is as consequential as the idea that continuing growth—both in size of population and size of economy—has a happy-ever-after ending. Yet, when overpopulation is discussed at all, it is discussed as a problem limited to the developing world. Indeed, a growing chorus of “pro-natalist” or population growth ideologues insists that, in the U.S. and other parts of the developed world, population stability or decline represents a demographic crisis that needs to be reversed.

In order to ignore the patently obvious fact that unlimited population growth is neither environmentally or socially sustainable, one would have to be prepared to explain how a resource-gobbling U.S. of 500 million or 700 million people would work. (If you’re not prepared to do so, you’ve already accepted the reality that some limits exist and that the only question is what those limits should be.) If, though, you really believe that predictions of overpopulation-induced catastrophe have been overblown, there are still two critical questions to be addressed, both of which are currently verboten as a matter of public debate.

First, even if ever-increasing population were survivable, is it really desirable? Second, are we really so inflexible that we can’t figure out any adaptations (beyond permanent crowding and permanent austerity for most citizens, that is) to enable a society that is becoming older to be economically and socially robust?

In fact, more isn’t better, and there are both market-driven and state-driven alternatives to be pursued.

Smaller has its advantages

In a well-reported and chilling article on Nigeria’s population explosion two weeks ago, Elisabeth Rosenthal quoted a Nigerian demographer: “If you don’t take care of population, schools can’t cope, hospitals can’t cope, there’s not enough housing—there’s nothing you can do to have economic development.”

U.S. society doesn’t face imminent collapse, but aren’t many similar considerations at play? For example, due to rapid growth, demands on infrastructure—transportation, water, schools—have already reached or passed a breaking point in some parts of the U.S. As anyone who is old enough to recall the 1960s or 1970s can attest, there just aren’t spots available like there used to be. Spots in schools that used to be merely competitive are now virtually impossible to get into. Spots in secure, well-paying jobs are no longer available except to an increasingly small minority.

The population of the U.S.—currently estimated at 313 million—was 179 million in 1960 and 203 million in 1970. Does anyone think those were periods when the country was “too small” or economically weak?

Adapting to the demographic shift

Most of the hysteria that is generated against consideration of the advantages of stable or falling populations concerns the phenomenon of aging populations. As people live longer, a greater percentage of the population is older, and there are, relatively speaking, fewer young “productive workers” to support everyone else. Just this month, the cries of alarm have included one op-ed piece asserting that, “Population decline poses a danger to the developed world,” and another describing Japan’s declining population as creating “grim consequences for an already-stagnant economy and an already-strained safety net.”

(Japan, by the way, is the poster child for those who want to sell the idea that only a growing country can be prosperous. Conveniently left out of the picture is Germany, whose economy is currently the envy of Europe, and whose demographics include a fertility rate of 1.4 children per mother, one of the lowest in the world; a death rate that, since the 1970s has continuously exceeded the birth rate; and a population projected to shrink to 65 or 70 million from the current 82 million.)

If one steps back from the panic, what comes most clearly into focus is the fact that the pro-natalists’ assumptions proceed from the basic premise that all economies and all societies always need to be organized in the same way. Once one begins to imagine alternatives, a future where fewer people are forced to engage in fierce, dog-eat-dog competition becomes very desirable indeed.

The pro-natalist concern, in truth, is not that there won’t be sufficient young people to do the work, or that “there are just some jobs that Americans won’t do.” Rather, it is that with labor in greater demand, the work won’t be able to be had cheaply. There is nothing “natural” about someone in a parasitic profession (like much of investment banking) earning a lot of money and someone doing necessary but menial work (like garbage collection) earning much less. Where a society is really forced to “incentivize” the latter, the market will dictate a lower-than-current value for the derivatives trader and a higher-than-current value for the sanitation worker. That revaluation may make some people uneasy, but their complaint isn’t really that such a change is unworkable; it is that they find the prospect of different people than usual having to adapt outrageous.

The nature of work, too, would likely be reorganized. Once, six-day work weeks were routine, as were 10 to 12 hour work days. Pressure from labor caused the developed world to adapt. If, by the middle or latter part of this century, workers who perform hard manual labor can only be secured by offering shorter-than-eight-hour days, we’ll have to adapt again. Jobs designed in lockstep at a time when households most typically had one, full-time (male) wage earner might have to become more flexible (something that is already overdue) to facilitate the part-time participation of older workers in the labor market not as an act of desperation but rather in a way that, consistent with any age-based constraints, facilitates participation in productive activity.

And, yes, it would cost more as a society to support those who are not working. (News bulletin: it will cost more in any scenario, even if we insist on punishing more older people with decades of life not much better than subsistence level). The question will be the old one, and one that should be easy to answer for a society that, unlike most others, remains remarkably wealthy: Is maintaining massive inequality of wealth on an individual level more important than trying to maximize the quality of life for most citizens?

Better now than later

For a long time, India, whose population now exceeds 1.2 billion people, did not act. Its population is estimated to grow to somewhere between 1.5 billion and 1.9 billion people in coming decades. An article on recent Indian attempts to control its birthrate pointed out, “Indian leaders recognize that [those massive growth scenarios] must be avoided.” The article quoted a demographer who said, “It’s already late…It’s definitely high time for India to act.”

The U.S. has the opportunity to be a lot more prescient, but we will have no chance to be unless we begin to discuss all of the consequences of being a country that continues to grow, and until we allow ourselves to imagine the potential benefits of alternative futures.

Craig Gurian is the editor of Remapping Debate.  He is also Executive Director of the Anti-Discrimination Center and an Adjunct Professor of Law at Fordham Law School.

Source:  Remapping Debate website <,0 > May 2, 2012. Reprinted with permission. Craig Gurian is the editor of Remapping Debate. He received his undergraduate degree from Columbia College, his law degree from Columbia Law School, and a master’s degree in United States history from the Columbia Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. He is also Executive Director of the Anti-Discrimination Center and an Adjunct Professor of Law at Fordham Law School.

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Pollyannas of Population Growth: Fooled by the Culture Gap by Anne H. Ehrlich and Paul R. Ehrlich

Casting doubt on the seriousness of climate disruption is now a major front in the Republican war on science. It is grounded in an ideology that opposes regulation of industries that might limit the growth of profits, even if society adopts regulations in order to avert possible future disasters. Those who try to mislead the public about the science of climate change are financed in large part by the fossil fuel industry and supported by propaganda from a fleet of conservative think tanks. The anti-regulation ideology has been promulgated by a shameless group of pundits, some of whose careers trace back to being flacks for the tobacco industry, trying to persuade the public that evidence of smoking being harmful was “equivocal”.

But there is another equally serious assault on science and humanity—the systematic claiming that population growth is either beneficial or at least not seriously harmful.   

There is a major difference between the two assaults, however, in that those who think the population can and should grow forever are not united by greed or even ideology, but by a lack of understanding of basic science.

Roman Catholic bishops fight contraception (and abortion) to protect their ideological base—to do otherwise would be to lose more power by admitting the Protestants were right all along. In so doing, their main damage has been to cripple U.S. government efforts to spread family planning overseas by misleading and intimidating politicians of other persuasions. Their actions have tragically condemned millions of women to injury and death in unsafe abortions and helped to perpetuate poverty in developing nations. If the bishops understood human sexuality and the unrecognized perfect storm of problems civilization now faces, one would hope that if they were moral men they would quickly see through the Church’s antique and immoral notions and desert from the trenches of its war on women. It is noteworthy that Catholic laypeople generally use contraception and abortion at about the same level as non-Catholics in the same nations. Indeed, mainly Catholic nations in Europe are among those with some of the lowest birth rates on the planet.

Moreover, many of those unfazed by the population explosion are not Catholic, including multitudes of businessmen and economists who imagine that ever-increasing numbers of people are necessary for economic prosperity (yes, greed is one element along with doctrine!).

To a large extent, refusal to recognize that continued population growth is a serious threat to the future of civilization can be blamed on the failure of educational systems to bridge key parts of the culture gap, the growing chasm between what we each know as individuals and all of the knowledge society possesses corporately. That gap leaves many well-educated people ignorant of today’s crucial environmental problems.

What do people need to know to build the necessary bridges? First, population growth is one of three major drivers of the deterioration of human life-support systems. This is hardly rocket science; the pressures that a population places on the environment are a product of the number of people, multiplied by average per-capita consumption, multiplied in turn by how efficiently that consumption is serviced.

Thus the amount of greenhouse gases that flow into the environment from energy use are a product of how many people there are, multiplied by the average energy use per person, in turn times a “technology” factor that measures the greenhouse gas yield of the energy-mobilizing system used (solar vs. coal or oil, carbon captured or not, Hummer vs. Prius, commuting by car vs. mass transit, etc.).

And people need to know that it’s all tied together: the more people there are, the more food society needs, and the agricultural system is a major emitter of greenhouse gases from fossil fuel use, land use practices, livestock production, and other factors. Thus agriculture is a contributor to climate change, which in turn is a serious threat to food production. With temperature and precipitation patterns now committed to more than a millennium of change, including increasingly severe storms, droughts and floods, maintaining—let alone expanding—food production will be ever more difficult. Agriculture itself is a leading cause of losses of biodiversity and the critical ecosystem services that biodiversity supplies to agriculture and other human enterprises. Indeed, the human-caused hemorrhage of life-forms now underway, the sixth great extinction event in Earth’s 4.6 billion-year-long history, is likely to be accelerated by climate change and rivals climate disruption as a deadly danger to civilization.

Misunderstanding of how demographic and environmental connections interact is common even among people who are interested in population problems. For instance, environmental reporter Fred Pearce is convinced that overconsumption is a much larger contributor to environmental deterioration than overpopulation. This is roughly like being convinced that the length of a rectangle is a much larger contributor to its area than its width.

History has shown that rapid population growth in most circumstances largely prevents the successful “development” of societies and retards increasing per-capita consumption. What typically happens is that a nation’s population grows rapidly for a period, followed by a period of slackening population growth and rising growth of per capita consumption. That rapid growth of population and consumption do not occur simultaneously is small consolation, however, since the end result is a gigantic amount of consumption and the destroying of our life-support systems.

China is the most obvious recent example of this as its previously skyrocketing population growth combined with its current skyrocketing growth in per capita consumption make it a champion in wrecking the environment on local, regional, and global levels. Yet, China’s population growth is slated to end and even reverse by mid-century. India, on the other hand, is projected to add almost 500 million people by then and seems bent on following the super-consumption path. Similarly, an additional 100 million Americans by 2050 will enormously add to the already huge U.S. assault on human life-support systems.

By contrast, consider the situation in sub-Saharan Africa where more than 1.1 billion people are expected to be added to the present 900 million by 2050, more than doubling the population. As Africans struggle to increase their inadequate levels of consumption, they will greatly increase the damage to the natural capital and ecosystems they utterly depend upon.

This entire situation is made worse by “non-linearities” in the population-consumption growth picture. Being clever, human beings use the easiest, most accessible resources first. This means that the richest farmland was plowed first and the richest ores mined first. Now each additional person must be fed from more marginal land and use metals won from poorer ores. Thus, on average, each person added to the population disproportionately increases the destruction of environmental systems.

The non-linearities involved in resource extraction were dramatically underlined by the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon blowout disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. The first commercial oil well in the United States was drilled in Pennsylvania in 1859. It started at the ground surface and struck oil at 69.5 feet. The Deepwater Horizon drill rig, 150 years later, started a well for BP in the Macondo concession in the Gulf of Mexico. Drilling began under almost a mile of water and had penetrated almost three miles below the sea floor when the explosion occurred. The difference between the Pennsylvania and Gulf wells is just one sign of the diminishing returns that Joseph Tainter suggested is one of the main harbingers of societal collapse. Such diminishing returns are now evident everywhere, affecting virtually all the resources civilization needs to persist.

In addition, as the population grows, efforts to keep people supplied with consumer goods release more toxic compounds into the global environment. The toxification of Earth may be an even more dangerous trend than climate disruption or the extinction crisis, but it is increasingly clear that the scientific community has not even begun to address it properly.

People also should understand that population size is a major factor in the deterioration of the human epidemiological environment. The larger the human population (and the more hungry and thus immune-compromised people there are), the greater the chance of vast epidemics. And as people struggle for resources in a deteriorating environment, the odds of a nuclear resource war increase, although even a “small” one between India and Pakistan would likely end civilization.

Many people think that the population can be kept growing by improving the “technology” factor (which includes socio-political issues of how consumption is supported and allocated). There is, of course, much room for improvement in both efficiency and equity. For instance, largely abandoning personal vehicles for commuting, and manipulating the economic system to reduce inequities (especially in food distribution) could greatly improve the human prospect. But the history of claims that technological innovation will save us is instructive.  When “The Population Bomb” was published, the global population was 3.5 billion people, and we were assured that technological innovation would allow society to give rich, fulfilling lives to 5 billion or more people. They would be fed by algae grown on sewage, whales herded in atolls, leaf protein, or the production from nuclear agro-industrial complexes.

That, of course, never happened. The population now exceeds 7 billion, and the number of hungry and malnourished people today is roughly equivalent to Earth’s entire human population when we were born in the 1930s.  As we did after the “Bomb,” we challenge the population growth enthusiasts to arrange to properly care for all extant human beings before providing more estimates of how easy it will be to feed, house, educate, and provide health services to billions more.

How do those demographic growth enthusiasts view the catastrophic expansion of human numbers?  With the culture gap wide open, they celebrated the U.S. population rocketing through 300 million people—well over double the number that could provide a safe and secure nation.  They bragged about the global human population size passing through 7 billion, even though careful analysis estimated this to be about 50% more people than could be supported permanently, even with today’s level of misery for billions, and 7 billion people would require several more Earths if everyone were to live like citizens of industrial nations (see .

David Brooks, generally viewed as one of the more thoughtful conservative pundits and holder of a degree in history from the university of Chicago, could be a poster boy for the culture gap. He recently published a column on “the fertility implosion”, joining a number of clueless European politicians, demographers, and pundits worried about a trend that could lead in a salutary population direction. They fear the aging of the population that inevitably occurs when population growth ends. All of Brooks’ arguments have long been exposed as spherically senseless—uninformed from every viewpoint. But all one really needs to appreciate the silliness of fearing an aging population is realizing that the only way to avoid it is to keep the population growing forever.

Of course, not only conservatives are relaxed about continuing population growth. Many liberals also suffer from the culture gap separating them from the realities of the world. Betsy Hartmann, a professor at Hampshire College and director of its population and development program, has many valid concerns about racism and the treatment of women in connection with population issues. But her writings also clearly show that nothing in her education has allowed her to bridge the culture gap. She has degrees in Asian and development studies, disciplines traditionally isolated from the basics of the constraints of nature. Brooks and Hartmann share their ignorance of how the world works with the majority of “educated” people, a problem partly traceable to the educational failure of environmental science.  But one might expect them to learn a little before publishing misinformation.

This is not to say that there are no hopeful signs and programs. We have strong evidence that giving women real equal rights and opportunities everywhere (they have them nowhere yet), and giving every sexually active person access to modern contraception and back-up abortion, would mostly solve the problem of fast population growth and perhaps even set human numbers into the needed global pattern of gradual decline.  We know that consumption patterns can be changed virtually overnight when urgency requires it and the political will exists.  There are many hopeful small-scale efforts to deal with important parts of the human predicament, such as the Natural Capital Project ( to protect biodiversity and ecosystem services, deployment of renewable energy systems in many countries, and work to unite academics and civil society in developing the necessary foresight intelligence, as in the Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere (MAHB –  Bottom-up efforts such as Occupy Wall Street (, the Movement to Solve the Climate Crisis (, and many other civil society groups are gaining some traction.

Happily, there are now efforts to counter the utter and complete failure of the media and the political system to deal with the perfect storm of environmental problems facing humanity. Perhaps the bravest of these is embodied in the movie “GrowthBusters” (, which actually had the nerve to point out that the emperor is indeed stark, staring naked—that physical growth of the economy is the disease, not the cure.  But all of these are still too fragmentary and small-scale to get the job done; paradoxically they need to grow exponentially if the human enterprise as a whole is to undergo the necessary careful and humane shrinkage. And for public support for that rescaling to persist for a century or more, steps like the production of GrowthBusters must be taken to close key parts of the culture gap in every society.

Paul Ehrlich is an entomologist and the Bing Professor of Population Studies in the department of Biological Sciences at Stanford University. Anne Ehrlich is the associate director and policy coordinator of the Center for Conservation Biology at Stanford University. Together they have written numerous books on population and resource issues. Perhaps the most famous is “The Population Bomb”.

Source: This article was originally posted at

If you’re concerned about the prospects for a ‘growth-forever’ civilization please consider taking the Think Small pledge at <>   Reprinted 

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The Myth of Smart Growth by Eben Fodor

“Smart growth” (SG) is an urban growth management strategy that applies planning and design principles conceived more than 40 years ago towards mitigating the impacts of continued growth. If properly applied, these principles represent a positive contribution to new urban development. However, SG advocates have taken this formula too far by claiming their medicine is a cure for the ailments of growth.

SG advocates tell us that we can continue to accommodate growth indefinitely if we follow their program. Growth is not the problem, they say, it’s just how we grow that needs to be addressed. SG has a recipe for growth and, if followed closely, advocates promise it will keep us on the path of growth without sacrificing our environment, eroding our quality of life, or losing the amenities and attributes that we care about in our communities.

The gospel of SG is certainly seductive: we can keep on doing what we’ve been doing, and with a few fairly easy changes protect all that we care about. But can we really just keep on growing while protecting the environment, our natural resources, and the quality of the community for current and future generations?

The SG approach fails to recognize that even the smartest growth places a heavy burden on our environment and our communities, and creates significant impacts, most of which cannot be fully mitigated. An expanding local population requires more land, more food production, more roads and other expensive infrastructure, more services, more energy, water, and natural resources, more waste production, and more greenhouse gas emissions.

SG proponents are making an implied tradeoff – they are concluding that the benefits from continued growth are greater than the costs, as long as their SG formula is applied. But what precisely are these benefits from growth? Where are they documented? And how do they compare with the costs? None of this sort of objective accounting is ever performed by SG proponents.

SG is a pro-growth strategy that is ultimately about accommodating and facilitating more growth. While sprawling development is viewed as undesirable, non-sprawling development is viewed as beneficial and desirable. Thus, SG proponents believe that growth, if done properly, can be transformed from a costly blight on the landscape into an attractive development with predominantly positive impacts on the community. From the SG perspective, it’s okay to keep developing rural lands as long as it’s done properly in an orderly and efficient manner.

The myth of SG is that it represents the complete and ultimate solution to our growth-related problems. At best, SG is a partial and temporary solution that has the potential to mitigate some of the impacts of continued growth on environmental quality, natural resources, the fiscal condition of local governments, transportation systems, and livability.

The moral dilemma with SG is that it provides a rationale for allowing us to make the problem bigger. To the extent that SG serves to perpetuate growth by commandeering the public dialogue about managing growth and by misleading citizens into believing it is the complete solution to growth-related problems, it serves to delay real problem-solving while allowing the problem to grow.

Given the historically-unprecedented magnitude of growth and change we have been witnessing nationally and globally, it’s hard to comprehend the optimism surrounding SG. Globally, more people were added to the population in the past 50 years than in all prior history. We’ve passed the 7 billion mark and added the latest billion people in just the last 12 years. With more than half of these people living in severe poverty and one billion of them in hunger, it is hard to see how more growth could be “smart.”

We must distinguish between solutions that fix the problem, and those that buy us more time to fix the problem. SG buys us a little more time by reducing the per-capita impacts of growth. But if the SG movement fails to recognize the rest of the solution, then any extra time is wasted while the problem grows bigger.


Eben Fodor is a sustainable community planning consultant at Fodor & Associates and is the author of the book Better, Not Bigger: How to Take Control of Urban Growth and Improve Your Community, as well as recent research examining the Relationship Between Growth and Prosperity (published in Economic Development Quarterly, August 2012). See the full commentary on smart growth.

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