Thursday, January 14, 2010
Overpopulation a Myth? Think again!
Fig. 1: The FINITE Earth as seen from space. This image more than anything shows why we must conserve precious resources- and control our numbers.
Human stupidity, I have found, often runs in bunches and can emerge from disparate areas of the media spectrum, or political spectrum. In the past 24 hours, for example, we have already beheld Pat Robertson’s pathetic attempt to lay the blame for the Haitians' current earthquake woes on some “pact” made with Satan to escape French colonial hegemony. (See previous blog entry)
Now, at the other end of the spectrum, we find a Salon.com (actually ‘Open Salon’) blogger named Deborah Young writing balderdash that the planet’s not really overpopulated under the header: ‘Overpopulation: Have A Baby! Have Two!’
On reading it I had to wonder if the woman was really that dense and misinformed (or easily propagandized) or if she was being sarcastic, or was just trying to stir up controversy to get eyeballs feeding on her article. I still haven’t decided yet, but am leading to the first and last. (Though we also can't discount she may have just taken in too much Hawaiian sun and fried her brains before writing it!) Propagandized? Well, she does write:
“Even though the New York Times rightly listed it as "one of the myths of the 20th century" in its January 1, 2000 Millennium Edition, it's a myth that just won't die.”
And, of course, who are we to dispute the great New York Times, the venerable gray lady herself? Well, if anyone read my series on the U.S. Propaganda Industry they’d have seen the New York Times was right in the middle of it, trying to divert attention on everything from conspiracy in the JFK assassination to corporate chicanery- and later, cheerleading us into an ill-conceived war with Iraq. But alas, the lady is wrong (both the Young lady and the Gray lady) and the Times is in error. Population crisis is no myth and even a person of menial intellect can grasp it once they attend to the most critical limiting factors.
Perhaps the most critical limiting factor of all is potable water: by distribution, volume, by accessibility and by quality. Start with the fact that only a tiny part of the fresh water on Earth (barely 0.3%) is accessible. The rest is either too remote (e.g. in Amazonian and Siberian rivers) or too polluted to use. Even as I write this more than 57% of the U.S. watershed is polluted, often by nasties such as agricultural runoff (which caused 490,000 Milwaukeeans to get ill in 1994- from cryptosporidium) to potassium perchlorate – otherwise known as rocket fuel.
In the ‘State of the World’ report (2000, pp. 46-47- issued the same year as the New York Times “myth” on overpopulation), it was noted that the ever increasing water deficits will likely spark “water wars” by 2025.As they note (p. 47):
“When a country’s renewable water supplies drop below 1,700 cubic meters per capita (what some analysts call the water stress level) it becomes difficult for the country to mobilize enough water to satisfy all the food, household, and industrial needs of its population.”
Market “solutions” are absurd on their face since water is an absolute life necessity – not a commercial commodity, or one that a vast population can simply "move to" , to access! (Hint: nations with their own water may not appreciate it!) One cannot and nations will not, “bargain for water” or permit privatized solutions, such as recently met with major political crisis in Bolivia. You are looking, in effect, at mass chaos, bloody guerilla style warfare which no country will be able to prevent inside its borders.
The same 'State of the World’ report notes at present rates of decline and even without factoring in the worst global warming influences – the number of people living in water-stressed countries will rise from 470 million to 3 billion by 2025. More than a sixfold increase. Add in projected new climate change data and likely effects (see. eg. recent issues of Eos) and the stressed populations increase nine or tenfold. All subsequent State of the World reports that have touched on this issue note the paucity problem for water is worsening, mainly due to climate change. For example, large parts of Africa right now are literally nearing their last drop – in some nations people are close to drinking mud.
Of course, to bolster her myriad spurious claims, Young drags in ‘The Population Bomb’ by Paul R. Ehrlich, noting:
“He promised us we would experience famines between 1970 and 1985 due to population growth outstripping resources.
Of course, Ehrlich and others (in various WSJ, Financial Times op-ed articles since 2000) have noted that merely because he was off several decades (mainly because the positive compensatory effects of the Green Revolution initiated by Norman Borlaug couldn’t be forecast precisely) doesn’t mean he is wrong in the absolute sense and it will never happen. Surely, any major water shortage such as forecast will also incept a food shortage, since 99% of crops require considerable water to grow! Does the lady get it? Nope.
The lady also recycles another canard:
“World population growth is rapidly declining. United Nations figures showed in 2003 that 79 countries that comprise 40% of the worlds population had fertility rates too low to prevent population decline.”
But, of course, she doesn’t indicate this is based on averages! And statistics can conceal a lot, for example focusing on declines in fertility but not declines in death rates! Right now, India and Africa continue to have literal population explosions, as noted by several issues of The Reporter, the publication of Population Connection. Not only that, Africa’s youngest demographic (11-16 yrs.) is rising most rapidly and with it the threat of greatest internal unrest, strife and civil war – especially as the jobs can’t be found to provide these youngsters. Uganda alone, given its current fertility rate increase, will more than triple its population to 158 million by 2050. Young doesn't factor in these examples at all.
She also doesn’t mention that even with some declines (mainly occurring in western developed democracies) the world’s population will take until almost 2050 to stabilize at a population of 10 billion. (There are some lower estimates of 8.5 billion, but I regard them as pie in the sky) This, despite the fact we can’t even properly feed three-fifths of our current 6.8 billion! (Note the UN's population estimates or projections are only one of several, and not all of us believe they are realistic. See the webcast below!)
Interested readers may access more information on projected population trends, problems from the Fred H. Bixby Population Forum ('The World in 2050'):
Population myths such as circulated by Young are dealt with in this webcast:
Young, for her part, continues with her canards:
“Population rose six-fold in the next 200 years. But this is an increase, not an explosion because it has been accompanied by a productivity explosion, a resource explosion, a food explosion, an information explosion, a communication explosion, a science explosion and a medical explosion.The result is that the six-fold increase in world population is dwarfed by the eighty-fold increase in world output during the same 200 year period.”
Not so fast there, lady! First, you are tacitly placing all the “explosions” within the same generic or categorical tableaux and this is a basic logical error. For example, the “productivity explosion” is largely bogus. It has been shown mainly to have arisen (from stats especially in the U.S.) from companies laying off workers and having fewer remaining workers do the tasks originally done by 50% or 75% more, with the cost of lost wages (from the displaced workers) in the process. The “communication explosion” can also be severely questioned, given how much electronic communication is pure piffle and junk – like sending emails with You tube videos of a cat playing a piano, or some doofus doing a solo dance in his dorm room.
The “science explosion” is also questionable, especially as it pertains to the ability to deal specifically with problems attendant on much larger populations. For example, most of this explosion has been in the fields of physics (Large hadron collider, Fermi lab, superconductivity etc.) and astronomy (Hubble telescope, numerous spacecrafts to other worlds) and not in the fields where increased crop production can make a difference. As it is, the Green revolution is grinding to a halt, no thanks to huge multinationals that force farmers world wide to use their genetically-engineered, specialized seeds which are for one growth cycle only. Other multinationals, in addition, have actually had the nerve to invoke and place patents on biological species including crops, thereby circumscribing their use. Up to now, no one has figured out how to control these multinationals - which often rival governments and nation states in their power. Young doesn't factor in any of that in her rose-colored glasses.
The “medical explosion” is also arguably spurious since it is unbalanced. Nearly all medical costs are consumed in the last year of life, and the most costly procedures are used to try to extend it using highly specialized devices, techniques. Meanwhile, more than 45 million in the U.S. have no access to medical care that won’t bankrupt them. Though a “health care” bill is funneling through congress, it contains many defects – not the least of which is that it doesn’t address the dwindling number of primary care physicians. To sustain and tend to the enhanced medical needs of the population that will emerge if the health bill is passed, will require at least another 200,000 physicians each year for the next ten years. And at least half of those need to be in geriatric medicine. It just isn’t happening!
Thus, the “eighty fold world output” to which the lady appends her hopes is more an illusion than anything that can translate into supporting a mammoth population of 10 billion in quality. And I mean, if quality is not part of it, then it can’t be worth anything. If we are all to be packed into a world of the lowest common denominator- something on the order of living without most goods and services so all can have- then forget about it. She does have a point concerning dictators squandering national resources (like Papa Doc Duvalier in Haiti) but totally excludes from comment the most wasteful and rapacious system in the world, capitalism. There is never going to be ANY way for her more equitable distribution of food, resources, water...until she confronts that bogey. Her omission speaks volumes....of selective attention, expedience and convenience!
The Pollyanna Princess from Hawaii, already on a tear, continues:
“People change, grow and evolve. Systems are put into place to cope with larger populations. We are not a static humanity. We invent things. We are made up of both the mundane and divine. “
Here is where she’s totally off. First, we are in no way "divine" - if we were, 6 millon wouldn't have been slaughtered in a holocaust. Second, as I noted, all potential systems are limited by critical factors. In the case of supporting human population, it’s water. If any food or housing system is to be put into place to support a population of 10 billion (Young actually cites a projection to 16 billion!) it must first be able to provide the water- the water for crops, the water for cement to construct domeciles, the water to drink and the water to bathe. She is oblivious to this factor as she doesn’t even mention it! She just expects, I guess, that some genius will be born amidst her baby-making charge, and figure out a way to make water from ……air? Even implementing conversion plants (sea water to fresh water) can’t solve the entrenched problem – because the expense of building more than 22,000 such plants worldwide (to provide for the base water needs of even ten billion) would be astronomical.
Another monumental bit of horse pockey is her claim that:
“We don't live in a finite world; for every problem there are always several solutions which don't involve taxing the citizenship into poverty or paying farmers not to grow nutritious food. ”
But that’s logically mixing chalk and cheese. Just because there may be the odd “solution” for the odd problem, doesn’t mean we don’t live in a finite world! In truth we live in a very finite world, which is obvious to any remote half-blind moron – if they behold the image of our Earth from space. Starting out with this base reality – visibly disclosed in numerous photographs, e.g. taken of the Earth during the Apollo lunar missions (See Figure 1) the first thing we may dispense with is that the planet is “infinite” in size, or has an “infinite” or unlimited amount of resources (which is essentially saying the same thing). Especially given the fact its human population continually grows to consume those (finite) resources, while leaving atrocious volumes of waste (chemical toxins, CO2, etc.) in its wake.
Logically, if any non-renewable resources are removed and consumed from a finite planet, then there must be fewer left behind, but more pollutants. Already we can see that this is indeed a “zero- sum” game and one cannot simply extract any x amount of “wealth” without impoverishing or degrading the most fundamental natural wealth of the planet. (On which all other wealth is predicated, as Univ. of Maryland Economics Professor Herman Daly has pointed out).
The last bit of malarkey from Young is her best:
“You want number crunching? If you gave every person on Planet Earth an acre of land, Europe, Asia, Africa and half of Latin America and North America would be empty. Antigrowth arguments that we are running out of land are just plain wrong. The vast majority of the planet's inhabitable surface is empty of human inhabitants.”
Of course, Ms. Young can’t grasp or process that those vast tracts of land are empty for a reason – they aren’t habitable because the readily accessible resources (especially water) aren’t there in abundance to allow living there. I believe for this reason I haven’t seen too many people rushing into the Mojave to set up communities, or into the heartland of interior Alaska. In addition, we know that even now the main water reservoir of Lake Mead (which provides Vegas’ needs) will likely run out if the drought continues there another two years. Already Hoover Dam (which I visited in ’06) is at a precarious level. To have enough pressure to function and pump water it needs to be at least at 1045’. It is already within the danger zone. Some 50’ lower and it will have to stop pumping. The problems peculiar to Hoover Dam, Lake Mead and Vegas aren’t unique, they are occurring world wide.
Trying to more evenly distribute the population across the planet sounds plausible on paper, but when one examines the critical factors that would enable this – they just aren’t there. And no newborn genius will deliver us from this reality.
The lady advises “Have a baby! Have two!”
My rejoinder is, sure, go ahead- make babies, if you want to speed humanity’s descent into a hell on Earth. For other issues to do with Peak Oil I haven’t touched on, go to:
The noted, science writer Isaac Asimov- in various essays written over decades- has also warned of similar constraints on humanity’s use of resources, particularly in terms of how population growth impinges on finite resources and sets limits to growth. Isaac Asimov was probably also the first to use the term “carrying capacity” which he estimated to be 3 billion humans for this limited world.
Asimov warned that humans had two choices: decrease their population to the carrying capacity limit to live in an equilibrium with the Earth and its resources, or let nature “increase the human death rate” (e.g. by starvation, pestilence, wars over resources etc.) I have seen nothing in all the resource use, disease, water shortage and other data to convince me of any opposite Pollyanna point of view.