Monthly Archives: October 2015

Study is First to Measure Global Population-Energy Relationship

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Source: http://news.unl.edu/newsrooms/unltoday/article/study-is-first-to-measure-global-population-energy-relationship/DeLong and Burger, a biological anthropologist at the England-based Kent University, published their study in June. The paper appeared in the open-access journal PLOS ONE.

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Filed under Energy, Population

Family planning: A major environmental emphasis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Source: http://oregonstate.edu/ua/ncs/archives/2009/jul/family-planning-major-environmental-emphasis

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Filed under Ecological Footprint, Environment, Family Planning

Save Lives—and Money! by Richard Grossman MD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Colorado's Teen Birth Rate

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

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

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

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

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

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Filed under Economy, Family Planning, Women's Rights

Solving the Human Predicament by Gerald Addy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Response from Graeme Bowman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From our friends at The MAHB. Go to http://mahb.stanford.edu for more excellent articles and conversations. 

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