Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Demographic Fairy Tales

Never has mankind's future been so uncertain. There are powerful forces at work today and we have only the vaguest notion of how they'll play out individually much less collectively in either the short-range or medium-range.

One is the combined effect of global warming and climate change. That's the big nasty. There are also two related phenomenon, tightly interwoven with global warming and climate change - overpopulation and over-consumption. Each of the three has a wide range of permutations. Combined, as they inevitably are, they manifest in a powerful synergy that is much greater than the sum of their parts.

One of the great failures of climate change advocates is the persistent refusal to address the companion challenges of overpopulation and over-consumption in formulating recommended responses. That's a self-defeating omission. There is no effective response to global warming and climate change that does not incorporate measures to address overpopulation and over-consumption. Focusing our attention, our efforts and our resources on one while ignoring the others is to work at cross purposes. To me it's akin to fighting a house fire in the kitchen but ignoring the blaze spreading through the livingroom and into the sleeping quarters.

A recent article in Foreign Policy seeks to explore the changes in global demographics the world will see by 2050.

First problem, 2050. The further ahead you seek to look the greater the chance you're casting bones and reading entrails. It's the difference between a wild-assed guess and a silly wild-assed guess. Here's why. A decade ago we were warned that, unless we kept global warming under 2 degrees Celsius, the Arctic could just possibly be ice free by the turn of the century. It seems we got that wrong by a staggering 80 years out of what was a 90-year projection. If only we knew then what we know now... you get the idea. That is the peril inherent in navigating uncharted waters.

Nothing better exemplifies "uncharted waters" than human population growth. To get a sense of how surreal this is consider this line from the article: "In the 35 years from 2015 to 2050, the world’s population is expected to rise by only 32 percent. During the 20th century, it nearly quadrupled."

"Only 32 percent" over the course of just 35 years. A global population that "nearly quadrupled" in just one century.

Now, consider this:

This means that in 2050 there will be around 3.5 times more Africans (2.5 billion) than Europeans (707 million). In 1950, there were nearly twice as many Europeans as Africans. Demography is a drama in slow motion. But tick by tock, it transforms the world.
The staggering reversal of population fortunes is largely the result of the huge continental differences in birthrates — 1.6 children per woman in Europe today versus 4.7 children per woman in Africa.

Reading the article it's hard to tell if the author simply made a bad choice of words, i.e. population fortunes, or if he believes that the figures he projects for 2050 are a good thing.

The article goes on to discuss how we're lifting people out of poverty, a billion since 2000. Nowhere is it mentioned how the impact of adding these people to what's now being called the "consumer class" is increasing their carbon footprint and adding to our looming resource crisis.

The article pays no heed, none at all, to "overshoot," the steadily increasing rate by which one species, our own, is depleting the Earth's resources faster than they can be replenished. We're already exceeding our planet's carrying capacity by a factor of 1.7. That's not a made up number. It's verifiable, measurable, tangible. It can be seen by the naked eye from the International Space Station viewing cupola. It is an inescapable truth, hard as granite.

The article explores at length how Islam will outgrow Christianity by 2050. The author, however, ignores the fact that it's the Muslim world that will bear the most severe impacts of global warming and climate change.

Time and again this article presents a projection that rests atop a foundation of omissions. That should be anything but persuasive and yet it's an approach that has become commonplace today. It's not just annoying, it's dangerous.


Anonymous said...

Nuclear winter solves all three problems at once. And come Friday, that possibility's rarely been closer.


The Mound of Sound said...

Well, Cap, that's a uniquely enthusiastic way of looking at it.

Anonymous said...

I don't see any reason to worry. Trump's got some of the best people, believe me, THE BEST, working on some of the potential downsides - like how to ensure Trump and his family survive and keep their privileged positions...

But as Trump announced to the world at 3 a.m. on Twitter, “We’re going to do nuke and replace, very complicated stuff, and we’re going to get this right. We'll put an end to this Chinese hoax.” He added, “We’re going to have a world that is far less expensive and far better.”


The Mound of Sound said...

The irony is, Cap, there are a few promises he made that, if honoured, might make even me happy. I know he won't honour them but that's not the point.

Ultimately improving conditions for ordinary Americans is going to have to mean some creative forms of income/wealth redistribution. The rich used to invest their money. Now, as Stiglitz, Krugman and others point out, they've returned to accumulating wealth just as the nobility did in Europe until the industrial revolution. This "dead money" drives inequality and poverty while causing social dislocation. It's a form of neo-feudalism.

Anonymous said...

We knew the dangers of over population long before climate change ever even became a casual conversation piece.
What irks me, and strike me dead you ultra feminists, is the right to have children crowd that use all forms of artificial insemination surrogate mums and sperm donors to produce children by the childless.
This artificial lifestyle is reaching new horizons as technology gives the world more and more ways to overpopulate this finite world; for a price that is.
Our tax systems reward the over populators whilst those that choose to live within their means are ,dare I say it, persecuted for the moral sin of childlessness.
Even more stupidity is shown when those that cannot bare children do the right thing and wish to adopt.
These people are faced with costs of around $60/$80 thousand Dollars to save a third world kid from a life in hell.


Northern PoV said...

Ever since I read Malthus (in my early teens in the 60s) I've been a believer.
He was simply missing a little data from his model. This was obvious to this to me ... I thought his critics were 'small thinkers'. Oh and the "positive" checks - that would be Cap's nuclear winter for example.

from wikipedia
"Many critics believe that the basis of Malthusian theory has been fundamentally discredited in the years since the publication of Principle of Population, often citing major advances in agricultural techniques and modern reductions in human fertility.[6] Many modern proponents believe that the basic concept of population growth eventually outstripping resources is still fundamentally valid, and "positive checks" are still likely in humanity's future if there is no action to curb population growth.[7][8]"

Hugh said...

Increased population appears to be a result of increased energy production, ie mainly from oil and other fossil fuels.

There is recognition that fossil fuel production now must decline - does that mean that population must then decline as a result?

A large population depends on large-scale ocean, land and air transport, and large-scale agriculture and fisheries - how can these be powered by non-fossil fuel energy?

What I'm getting at is that our large population is now depending on massive usage of fossil fuels - I don't see how clean renewable energy can totally replace the fossil fuel energy now used to support 7 billion people.

World population has risen over the last 100 years in line with rising fossil fuel production. I'll make the assertion that there's no way a non-fossil fuel burning world can support anywhere near 7 billion people.

Dana said...

"Burning carbon and using the released energy of combustion is easy and obvious. It will be done fairly early in the life of the presumed intelligent species, well before they accumulate enough scientific knowledge to detect the long-term planetary danger of the carbon dioxide exhaust gases. In our case we have been doing it for over a million years, but figured out the problem of global warming less than a hundred years ago.

By the time the danger is realized, the species will be carbon-dependent - locked into the burning of carbon for energy - trapped in a vicious spiral of thermodynamically-driven self-organization, energy-dependent maintenance of existing physical and social structures, increasing energy dependence, increasing CO₂ production - and increasing planetary heating from the "greenhouse effect".

If there is enough carbon available, the species will become technologically advanced, will send out signals for a short while and will then go extinct due to an inability to adapt to the planet's changing climate. The species will not climb out of its gravity well and fly to the stars, because the energy required will all be soaked up in its own growth, and extinction will happen well before it gets to the Dyson Sphere stage.

Now, I'm probably anthropomorphizing and projecting like crazy, but the whole edifice rests on the fairly banal assumption that our experience is approximately average for an intelligent species. That is, we are not in the least special. Other intelligent life will probably arise under similar circumstances, follow a similar path and fall into a similar hole."


The Mound of Sound said...

TB, I think you miss the mark. From the aspect of women the best thing we can do is expand reproductive rights. Women, given the knowledge, medical support and relief from patriarchal domination tend to have smaller families, fewer children.

In a post the other day I mentioned a German Jesuit professor I had, a specialist in Latin American studies. As a good Catholic priest he got turfed out of two countries in South America for distributing condoms. He described the scourge of machismo where men thought to demonstrate their manhood, their virility, by fathering large families with more kids than they could ever hope to support. This led to a host of familial ills.

How great, in overall numbers, do you imagine the "artificial" fertility problem to be? Do you see lots of IVF babies walking around your malls or at family gatherings? That's not the problem.

The Mound of Sound said...

NPoV and Hugh. Population growth, fossil fuels and global food security are a complex issue. Yet they're frightening enough that I took a couple of online courses on the food security issue.

Yes, abundant and cheap fossil fuel has been a driving force behind our population expansion, particularly during the 20th century and into today. Fossil energy facilitated mechanized agriculture. At first it improved smallholding agriculture but that was steadily displaced by largeholding, industrial agriculture, that, in its turn, morphed into multinational corporate agriculture that, to use their term, "followed the sun" to ensure that fresh strawberries were available on Sainsbury shelves 12 months a year.

This has led to a host of ills that are usually kept overseas, out of sight/out of mind to Western consumers. Multinationals have spread into countries that never had title registration so that farmers could be tossed off the land their ancestors had tilled for centuries. All it takes is a little money in the hands of a few compliant officials and, voila. We now have impoverished countries that produce bountiful harvests of food their own people cannot hope to afford, foodstuffs for the developed world.

Other nations, India and China are prime examples, targeted massive population expansion. Both emerged from WWII with populations about the size of America's today. Both, but especially India, were food insecure and experienced periodic famine. Then along came the Green Revolution. The developer even received a Nobel Prize for it. At its core, the Green Revolution is the use of mechanized agriculture combined with the application of agri-chemicals (herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers) and loads of irrigation including seasonal groundwater. It's wonderful until it's not.

Like a deadly narcotic the Green Revolution created a powerful dependency on a collection of practices that became potentially dangerous when carried on too intensively for too long. Yes you can achieve a respectable crop yield from marginal or secondary farmland this way but you're also apt to work the soil to exhaustion. In some of the prime agricultural regions of India, just to get any decent crop now requires twice the original application of agri-chemicals that, in turn, accelerates soil exhaustion. Meanwhile groundwater resources grow ever scarcer.

The Mound of Sound said...


In this way India went from a nation beset by food insecurity to become a significant regional food exporter. However both China and India are now again food insecure and facing a bleaker future. Desertification is a particular problem in China. NASA publishes photos of massive dust storms that rise over China, cross the Pacific and wind up being swiffered off my furniture.

The face of food insecurity coupled with climate change vulnerability is also manifest in land grabbing underway. Now the Chinese and certain Middle East nations are competing with Western multinationals and local populations to snatch up the best farmland in nations that were already impoverished and food insecure. I researched some major British agri-corporations who proudly boasted of their African operations and discovered that these same "donor" countries we knew best for their periodic famines that required Western food relief programmes. Imagine, going into a country with a history of famine and all the knock-on ills that generates, and grabbing up chunks of what good farmland they still have.

Sometime ago I concluded that, at its heart, neoliberalism is guided by a philosophy of "because we can" with scant to no regard to whether we should. It has led us into truly dangerous dependencies that can only worsen and are bound to come back and bit us, hard.

We're already using the Earth's resources at 1.7 times their replenishment rate, 1.7 times Earth's ecological carrying capacity. We find ways to "game the system" but, eventually, all bills come due. The problem isn't so much that we're exhausting our ecosystem, our one and only biosphere, but that we've become mortally dependent on the continuation of the expansion of these practices.

This perpetual, exponential growth allows us to cling to the illusion that we can still "float all boats." That illusion, in turn, relieves us of having to recognize our global ecosystem as "lifeboat Earth" for once we see it as finite we're forced to struggle with how that limited resource is to be shared which brings up no end of issues of equity and accountability we're in no mood to entertain.

The ecosystem is already collapsing around us. Studies have shown that we have lost half of all terrestrial life and half of all marine life since neoliberalism took hold. I had a long discussion with a scientist at the California centre of the Global Footprint Network who put me on to research that confirmed my suspicion that all other life on the planet - birds, mammals, fish, plants - is in decline because of mankind's insatiable need for ever more. We're now consuming their world atop our own. These meticulous studies come out and as dawn follows night, by the next week they're gone, straight down the Memory Hole. And as they go, one after another, so goes our chances of finding any new, survivable paradigm.

The Mound of Sound said...

Hugh argues that "there's no way a non fossil-fuel burning world can support anywhere near 7 billion people." The fact is that our fossil fuel burning world isn't supporting 7 billion people either.

We're gaming the system, Hugh. We've created the illusion that we can support 7 billion. We can't without substantially degrading our ecosystem, something that's been going on for decades.

In one of my courses I wandered off into some independent research during which I stumbled across some jarring studies on our fragile agricultural land stocks. What I learned is that there is no pristine farmland any longer, not even in agriculturally advanced nations such as our own. Much of our global agri-land is already significantly degraded. The conclusions were ominous.

I tucked those studies away until in the fall of 2014, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) issued a report stating that mankind has but 60-years of agricultural production remaining. 60 years. Sounds impossible, right? Some sort of dark fantasy, to be sure. Only it's quite real and there have been studies since that corroborate that finding.

What's happening? Intensive crop production entailing hefty applications of artificial fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides, are stripping arable land of their carbon. Depleting soils of their carbon will eventually render them sterile. We are working our farmland toward sterility.

We all know that black, loamy soil is ideal for growing anything. Look at your bag of potting soil or a bag of compost. They're black. That's carbon. It comes from a few sources but mainly decomposition. Carbon does a number of wonderful things in soil. It retains water which is a natural benefit for drought conditions. It resists soil compaction. But foremost is that it is the best medium for microbial growth which are the essential nutrient absorbed through the roots of plants to facilitate photosynthesis. Carbon is life.

But these warnings, like all the others, are now deep down the Memory Hole. It's taken me a few years but I've developed an amazingly good plan to reverse this problem but I need access to someone like Tom Steyer to get anywhere with it. Some other time.

So, no Hugh, we're not capable of supporting 7 billion people. The evidence is everywhere. You only need look. It's visible to the naked eye from the space station viewing port. Fires that sweep from one end of Indonesia to the other. Disappearing forests. Growing deserts. Rivers that no longer run to the sea. Lakes going dry. Algae blooms in major lakes and along ocean coastlines. On and on and on. The planet can no longer provide enough to meet our insatiable needs. It's inability to still cleanse our waste is the miner's canary.

Hope I haven't burst too many balloons.

The Mound of Sound said...

Dana, thanks for the link. It's an elegant way of looking at this nightmarish problem. All intelligent life is self-extinguishing. Indeed.