What is wrong, and why we can’t seem to fix it

Throughout most of my life I have been living under conservative governments, and the nicest way I can find to describe political conservatism is to say that it embodies the popular phrase ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’. However, as we all know there are many things wrong at present, and they need fixing. No amount of ignoring them will make them go away. This blog is about those awkward facts of world that won’t go away and which political conservatism won’t make go away either.

What I’m going to aim to do is post a blog once a week, on a Friday, so you can digest it over the weekend. The next week’s blog will either be the next in my series, or a discussion of issues that have arisen from the comments.

I’m going to have a very strict comments policy, comment will only be accepted if they are intelligent and polite contributions to discussion around the topic of the post. Everything else will be moderated.

If you find a blog here sympathetic, you might consider reading the blogs from the beginning, as they are supposed to be a more or less continuous argument.

Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Facing our Problems 2

In my piece last week I argued that of the two major problems facing humanity, climate change and global economic overreach (for which the solution is the encouragement of a decline in population), the first, climate change, was comparatively easy to address as the solutions to it do not differ from existing technological solutions, requiring only the abandonment of fossil fuels in favour of renewables.

And it has been pointed out to me how here in Australia the recent move by a very reluctant Labor Federal Government to implement a carbon pricing mechanism, initially by a carbon tax, demonstrates this. The Government would clearly love to move in traditional ways still, exploiting Australia’s vast coal reserves to earn export dollars and recycling this in the form of middle-class welfare to buy votes. Instead it has begun the process of implementing a carbon pricing mechanism and although we are almost as far away as we ever were from a solution to increasing CO2 levels in the atmosphere, at least we have begun (‘a journey of thousand miles…’ and all that).

However, I argued last week, global economic overreach and population are not yet seen as problem in the same way, and solutions to this need a large change in thinking before they can be generally accepted. A good current example of this is the reaction in the comments section of a climate change site, Real Climate, to some passages cited from an editorial in journal Air Water Soil Pollution. In part these read:

The current USA is an example of a failed capitalistic state in which essential long-term goals such as prevention of climate change and limitation of human population growth are subjugated to the short-term profit motive and the principle of economic growth.

Various people providing comments on Real Climate throw up their hands in horror at these comments, and other passages, which to me seem simply to be stating facts.

***

The question I want to discuss this week, following on from the above, is why people
don’t follow their own interests, why do continue to exist in various forms of denial leaving glaring problems unaddressed?

This is subject of quite a volume of popular political writing, including the well-known book What’s the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America (2004) by Thomas Frank. This work explores how conservatism in the form of the Republican Party has capture previously left-leaning areas such as Kansas, persuading people to vote for a party which, Frank argues, consistently works against their economic interests.

The answer is that although liberal individualism, and a face-value reading of Darwin, would predispose us to expect people follow their own interests, a closer look will reveal that the pursuit of pure individual advantage would be a highly difficult undertaking for humans. Humans, and most of related primate species (and therefore presumably our primate ancestors) are intensely social animals. Any success that is achieved by humans is in the context of a family, a group, a society and the Darwinian imperative to follows one’s own interest should be expanded to say ‘follow one’s own interests so long as this does not involve unwinnable or unmanageable conflict with others’.

In the context of Kansas, for example, we can surmise that in the eyes of the rural and urban poor their interests are better served by fitting in with a conservative and reactionary social mindset which can provide some support services (for example various Christian churches in the US function as a non-state-based welfare system for people identifying as church members) and, as political evolution has occurred in the late C20 in the midwest a sufficient number of poor Americans have found that identifying with conservatism brings more dependable support than, for example, the patchy and timid social programs espoused by the Democrats.

In the western world it was found in the C19 that an expansion of the franchise to lower social classes did not result in immediate social revolution and an end to capitalism. What was found was that the newly enfranchised voters fitted in with the existing party politics, and that although in Britain, for example, a radical political movement existed, and towards the end of the century the Labour Party came into being, society was transformed very slowly.

This is because as well as ‘fitting in’ and deriving small benefits from the existing situation, there was the prospect of social mobility: people could aspire to climb out of their class. In fact I would lay down as a rule that people in hierarchical societies tend not to identify with their actual social class, but tend instead to identify with the next class above theirs, the one they hope to climb into. Thus they are easily manipulated by politicians, business interests &c.

Logically, of course, social mobility is a nonsense. People have always been able to rise out their class, even in societies where the lowest rung were slaves. However, everyone can’t rise out of their class, otherwise nothing changes. What can happen is that a general rise in prosperity across society can be mistaken for social mobility, and this is the history of developed world in capitalism, from the Reform Act of 1832 (in Britain) to the present. It is this necessity for the appearance of rising prosperity and causes people to cling so desperately to a political and economic order which is killing the planet.

(Recently I read an account of the effort of US House Representative Republicans tying to remove regulatory powers from the EPA for atmospheric CO2 and I was amused by the commentators mordant observation: ‘Darwin would have been amazed how desperately people can struggle for their own extinction’.)

This appearance of prosperity is what has allowed the creation of the 30/30/40 society; this model for society sees the top 40% of society as rich and secure, the middle 30% as the harassed middle classes, convinced they are wealthy when in fact they are merely mortgage slaves, and the remaining 30% as the traditional working class, only now they are excluded from much in way of assistance or welfare that they had in the post-war period, are out of reach of home-ownership, and are restricted to unskilled and casual work, but nevertheless still mainly identify with their society and believe in the system that so structures them.*

Which returns us to our original problem, we can’t think our way around our mindset because we can’t acknowledge any threat to the ‘prosperity’ than gives the illusion of social mobility.

But this, of course, leaves the basic situation unchanged. People who are concentrating on being good and loyal members of their social groups and global capitalist society, and hoping to climb into the next class up, cannot spare a thought for dire ecological situation we are in. And, as I will discuss in my next post, the guardians of that global capitalist society make sure that that remains unchanged by withholding, or distorting the information that we receive.

* The journalist Will Hutton coined the ‘30/30/40’ model in a book published in 1995. For what it’s worth from my own observations of Britain (growing up there) I would have the proportions as more like 40:40:20 (working class, middle class, privileged). I believe that Hutton has a rather rosy-spectacled view of society.

Next week: the Media

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Dealing with our Problems 1

In the last few blogs I have been discussing Global Warming and population, two interlinked problems that have the capacity to endanger continued human survival. In this blog I wanted to think about why we can’t seem to deal with these two problems.

There is a common sense expectation that if people come across problems, they should investigate the causes of these problems, deal with them and solve the problem. It is rarely as simple as this. For example, the link between smoking and lung cancer was first made in the 1950s (prior to this it was difficult to establish the link as people died younger, and, in an era before antibiotics, with high air pollution, people’s lung health was generally pretty poor and smokers often weren’t obviously worse off than non-smokers).

However, after this it took at least 25 years of fighting against the tobacco companies for any progress to be made in restricting advertising of tobacco products. Many of the arguments that have become familiar again more recently with corporate campaigns against environment protection were first used in the these battles, such as:
  • There’s no proof of the link between smoking and cancer
  • You can’t restrict people’s personal freedom
  • Any regulation is an attack on private enterprise
  • Politicians are meddling
  • Any harm done to tobacco company profits will damage the economy &c &c

And now, 60 years later, some 20% or more of people in developed countries still smoke.

Global Warming is another such story. Here the progress made in understanding global climate follows almost text-book account of how science works.

  1. In the C19 observations were made in the lab that CO2 traps slightly more energy in the infra-red part of the spectrum than other gases. This was later explained with reference to the molecular structure of CO2.
  2. In the mid C20 scientists began to suggest that anthropogenic CO2 in the atmosphere would cause global warming. However there were no measures of CO2 in the atmosphere and global temperature records were not sophisticated enough to determine whether global warming was happening.
  3. Partly as a result of 2, and partly for other reasons, CO2 in the atmosphere started to be monitored, and temperatures started to be monitored in more places, and with more uniform processes, than before.
  4. As a result of 3, by the 1980s there was evidence for global warming caused by anthropogenic CO2. More research was conducted and multiple lines of evidence for global warming were established. By the 1990s the evidence was irrefutable.

However at this point resistance built because there wasn’t just one industry that stood to lose as in the case of tobacco, there were seemingly several. After a few years in which there were some attempts to question the evidence for global warming (the ‘hockey stick’ controversy), corporate players hit on a better strategy. This involved not coherent argument, but the spread of doubt and disinformation, together with a tactical alliance with right-wing political movements. Their work was facilitated the new technology of the Internet, which made the spread of disinformation from supposedly independent contributors that much easier.

It is a moot point whether the manufactured global warming denialism of the 2000s was more influential in holding back action on global warming than simple inertia and corporate obstructionism by more traditional methods (ie lobbying politicians). However I believe that this lack of action will soon end, mainly because when examined closely, almost no one except fossil fuel companies will lose out from measures to address global warming. The solutions to anthropogenic global warming are so similar to familiar economic activities that when momentum finally does build it will soon be commonplace to hear of the opening of renewable energy generating stations, to plug our electric car in, to call the repairman to fix the solar roof &c &c.

The next problem is more intractable. I have labelled this problem ‘population’, but most people in the world would not see this as a problem (and many of those who would are racists). What I am using this word as short-hand for is the overreach of human economic activities which compromises the earth’s ability to continue to support them. (My diagnosis of this can be found in earlier blogs, together with argument as to why encouraging a declining human population, along with all the measures that have already been proposed, is the solution for the overreach). Now global warming, I suggest can be addressed by methods familiar to developed societies, by overreach cannot; indeed we could solve global warming (that is, restrict the warming to a ‘safe’ 2°C) and still be left with the problem that the totality of human economic activities is too much for the planet, even when all clever, green innovations are taken into account.

Global warming doesn’t really require much in the way of a mental shift, it merely requires us to abandon fossil fuels in favour of renewables (much as undoing the harm of smoking merely required us to abandon tobacco products). Dealing with overreach via lowered populations requires us to do at least two things that are deeply ingrained into us:

  1. The first is admit we can’t all have children. Even if many of us never children, or have only one or two, it will be a mental leap to thinking that restricting the number of our offspring is something every one of us will have to think about.
  2. The second (which I hope isn’t as deeply buried as the first), is the recognition that our economic orthodoxy (growth at all costs), is wrong and needs to be stood on its head.

The first is hard, because it is against human nature. We have to have confidence in human society and its long-term future in order to forgo having children, or having many children, and possibly having as our only legacy in the future the gratitude of future generations who are not our direct descendants.

The second should be easier, because The Economy, people should be realising by now, is not so much a fact of nature, as a fact of our particular society. The events of the Global Economic Crisis of 2008 showed that the international economy is more like a badly-run Ponzi Scheme than what we might like to imagine as rational mechanism for organising economic activity. (Actually the previous economic crises of the C20 and earlier should already have made this realisation easy). Sadly, however, three years later, little seems to have changed and the widespread scepticism of people towards economic orthodoxy in 2008 seems to have evaporated.

Economics always reminds me of someone’s description of Catholicism, which was that it was logically unassailable ‘granted certain supernatural axioms’. In the case of economics, much of economics consists of entirely valid descriptions of areas of economic activity, which, however, are not descriptions of global flows of energy and resources. Economics has often been accused justly of ignoring externalities, and not accounting fully, this is its ‘supernatural axioms’, that you can compartmentalise activities and ignore some of these activities’ effects. This is also why economic overreach cannot be ‘discovered’ like global warming with increasing evidence, because evidence for it was already there from the 1960s onwards, it was just that few people thought to look.

A good analogy in this context would be with the US energy company Enron, which until the late 1990s was a by-word for a successful, innovative, company. Each part of Enron seemed to be amazingly profitable, it wasn’t until a full audit of Enron’s activities was undertaken after its filing for bankruptcy in 2001 that it was revealed that Enron had almost no assets and huge liabilities. Its apparent success was due to creative accountancing, which highlighted the few assets and reported projected profits as actual profits whilst disguising the liabilities.

The global economy is like Enron, apparently wealthy, but built upon huge ecological liabilities. It would be grotesque to argue that a course of action responding to global economic overreach by encouraging population decline would be ‘bad for the economy’, when in fact it is the economy which is bad for the world.

The only way that this fact is going to become common knowledge is if people begin not to ignore externalities, to join the dots and to think globally… and reject supernatural economic axioms. Then they will find that the sums don’t add up. However, on the way to this recognition we must expect a hurricane of outrage, opposition and denial from people who will lose by any changes, or who imagine that they will.

Next week: Facing our Problems 2

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Population 3: What we can do in Australia?

I’ve argued in previously posts, population, alongside global warming, is the most serious issue facing humanity. A species that uses 150% of available biological resources can hardly expect an untroubled existence.

Although I have identified addressing population as the key to a sustainable future (accompanied by other strategies of course), I don’t doubt that it will be hugely difficult to persuade people to have fewer children. But as the alternative is mass starvation on a scale never seen before, probably accompanied by wars on a scale and destructiveness never seen before, it is something that has to be tried.

Although the global population has grown hugely in the C20 it has slowed overall recently, and in some regions it has slowed faster. For example in Britain in the late C19, a generation before Marie Stopes and contraception, the birthrate began to fall. In my own family this is very noticeable: in genealogical records compiled by my relatives I have seen that in the 1850s couples were having up 8 children and by 1900 families of 2-3 were common, even amongst people who were very poor.

This transition has been attributed to better nutrition, better hygiene, higher standards of living &c reducing the death rate and therefore making it more likely that fewer children would die (however, the infant mortality rate didn’t fall much until 1900 (see previous reference), and so it must have been just a more general confidence in the overall healthiness of society that was influencing people).

This transition to a more prosperous, lower fertility society was expected for what used to be called the 3rd World in the later C20, but it didn’t eventuate. This is probably because prosperity didn’t actually arrive, instead neo-colonialism, with its imperative to secure raw materials and low-price commodities has continued to skew international trade. With only modest gains in the standard of living the birth-rate has not declined by much.

However, the problem remaining is this, even with this prosperity-induced decline in the birth-rate (as under the UN’s ‘low scenario’, see first reference), the decline still wouldn’t be enough. For example, the UK is still obviously overpopulated, and if it didn’t have handouts in the form of underpriced raw materials and commodities from the developing world, would struggle to feed, clothe and shelter its population, never mind having a high standard of living.

I have to say that I don’t know what the answer to this is globally, although, as I said in a previous post, no efforts should be spared to try to reduce global inequalities, and remove the distortions of the current global economic system. However, what I do think is that first stage in facing any problem is to admit the problem and lay it out, and here I think Australia has a role to play globally.

Australia enjoys a reputation around the world as a vast, empty land of sunshine, natural bounty, and carefree living. It is thought, and not just amongst English-speaking people, as a place that people can just go to and settle, the last frontier, as it were. Now if a courageous Australian Prime Minister could say:

Actually we have had it wrong, locally and globally. We thought we could go on expanding population and production for ever, but clearly this is not the case. My Government today commits to a target for a sustainable population for Australia below current levels, and policies to lower Australia’s birth-rate and additions from immigration in order to attain that sustainable population. These policies are not designed to take away anyone’s right to have children, or to enjoy prosperity, and they are not designed to hurt the prosperity of any other part of the world. Instead they are designed to allow Australia to sustain its people into the future and to act as an example for other countries to follow, if they too wish to have a future.

Of course this wouldn’t be the current Prime Minister, nor sadly anyone from the Greens, who have yet to formulate a population policy.* Still less would it be likely to anyone from the conservative side of politics (conservatism conserves nothing).

However I do believe that such a speech and such a program of policies would have a global impact far beyond Australia’s actual importance, and would in fact be a defining moment in human history, like Darwin’s formulation of evolution.

If, as according the chart on pages 36-39 of the WWF Living Planet Report, Australia is currently using the equivalent of 6.8 hectares of biological production per capita, when 1.8 are available long-term, then we can say that one figure for a sustainable population for Australia is the 2007 population (21.1 million) divided by 3.8 (6.8 1.8) = 5.6 million. This may be a bit brutal because, of course, Australia is 5% of the land area of the planet, though this 5% isn’t the most fertile. However it does give us an idea that the sustainable long-term population of Australia is something well below present levels (and certainly not the ‘Big Australia’ of 35 million + people beloved of business).

By the later C20 Australia had a declining birth-rate, but still a high one compared to European countries (like the birth-rate in the US; there must be something about societies that delude themselves into thinking they are still a frontier that encourages this), and certainly the Australian birth-rate was one above replacement level. In the early C21 a foolish Liberal Party politician grew alarmed at the decline and increased the ‘Baby-Bonus’, shortly after an increase in the birth-rate followed. I like to think that, as some have argued, this was merely a cohort effect of a generation of women from the end of the Baby-Boom (late 1960s) having their children late. However the first priority for any population policy for Australia should be remove the baby-bonus entirely.

The next should be to restrict Child Support payments to a simple payment for one child (ie if you have one child you get financial support, if you have any more children the payments stay the same). Obviously this should be for new births, not taking away existing benefits.

Both these measures would be painted as taking money away from people. But how could this be right? It’s simply a case of no longer paying people, not taking away what they already have. This would send a powerful signal across society that having children is now personal decision that will be more costly than in the past.

The next thing should be pay people to take contraceptive measures. Presently we pay people to have children, so in the future we should pay people not to have children. Women over 16, for example, could be paid to have 3-year contraceptive implants if they chose to have them. Older men and women could be given a permanent, lifetime tax cut to have a vasectomy or a tubal ligation. Vast efforts should also be expended to inform people about contraception and Australia should basically be awash with contraceptives.

None of this, of course, is coercive. People could still have children, it would just be it would be much more expensive. There is a danger that this program could be seen as class-discriminatory, insofar as poorer people are more likely to be more poorly educated, have less information and be more likely have unplanned pregnancies. Obviously these policies would need to be designed to try to minimise these dangers.

Immigration usually looms large in discussions of population in Australia, usually illegitimately. There is an argument to say that immigration should be totally unrestricted. This is, realistically, less likely to happen than anything I have described in this blog, humans being the us-and-them types they are. In any case, although this would be just theoretically, in reality it would take the world further away from the realisation of the need to address population—people would still be deluded about the possibility of endless prosperity from a growing population, that there were still places to escape to.

A glance at Table 2.3, Settler Arrivals by Region of Birth, in the Department of Immigration and Citizenship’s Immigration Update 2009-10 shows that in the composition of the settler intake to Australia for that financial year there were approximately 20,000 Europeans, but also approximately 20,000 people from South Asia, 20,000 from Southeast Asia and 20,000 from Northeast Asia. This is the sort of figure that perturbs certain people, but it doesn’t perturb me. We can note that owing to the language requirements for Australian immigration all settlers will have at least passable English, and this means that settlers who arrive from South Asia, Southeast Asia and Northeast Asia are likely to belong already to the English-speaking global aspirationalist culture (‘must have bigger house, now!’).

In fact speaking personally I don’t care what culture prevails in Australia in the short or medium term. If someone told me that by 2100 the official language of Australia was going to be Chinese, Arabic or Indonesian, I wouldn’t lose a moment’s sleep over this. All cultures change over time, and in a sufficiently long perspective (my 30,000 generations), the only culture is ‘human’. The only things that matters is how many people there are in Australia, not what culture they belong to.

But to return to immediate concerns we should note that while there were nearly 209,000 settlers in 2009-10, 87,000 people also left, leaving net permanent additions around 122,000. By contrast ABS Births Australia 2009, shows that in 2009 (calendar year) there were 295,700 births in Australia. So clearly, although immigration should be restricted in the cause of attaining a sustainable population, getting the birth-rate down is a greater priority.


*I may be wrong about this, party politics annoy me intensely and I try to come in to contact with them as little as possible. There is also a Stable Population Party in Australia, but, as will be clear from what I have written, I believe that its goal is too modest.

Next week: Impediments to progress to sustainability.

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Population 2: A Defence of Malthus

Last week I wrote about population and argued for regarding it as a priority to take measures to see a declining population globally.

This post is a defence of Malthus, an elaboration of what I wrote last week.

To most people I imagine Malthus is an old guy who said we’d all starve and we didn’t so he was wrong and we don’t need to worry. In fact almost everything that Thomas Malthus (1766-1834) wrote about productivity and population was correct. He was the first writer to describe a crucial ecological law, that in an ecosystem any species will multiply until the limits of its resources are met and then either stay at that population level, or decline in population. It was this insight that allowed Darwin to add another element to his concept of natural selection.

In discussing this concept in relation to human society Malthus of course recognised that humans can transform ecosystems in the way that most species cannot. He didn’t believe that agricultural was static, in fact he wrote in full knowledge of the enormous increases in productivity that had occurred in the C18 in Britain. He recognised that in order for agriculture to be more productive, either more land needed to be brought into cultivation or the existing land had to have more inputs added to it. These inputs could be in form of new techniques like crop rotation, or in the form of more labour, better cultivation (ie deeper ploughing), or better fertilising &c &c

Malthus feared, however, that in the long run increases in productivity would not keep pace with the growth in population. As this was in the days before contraception, Malthus’s only two solutions were emigration to new lands, and encouraging people to marry at a later stage in life and have fewer children.

What has happened for the two centuries since Malthus made his argument is that the extensive use of fossil fuels, first coal, then oil, made his arguments seem irrelevant. Almost all the cultivatable area of the earth was put under cultivation, and fossil fuels enabled the use of machinery and artificial fertiliser inputs. Productivity increase manyfold. However, note that during this period the population also increased manyfold: in the later C20 population growth was more than exponential. Nor was poverty solved.

And in many parts of the world during this period Malthusian remedies occurred anyway, for example many millions of Europeans emigrated to the United States and Canada in the C19, and the average number of children per couple, in Britain at any rate, dropped towards the end of the C19 from previously higher levels.

However with the approaching problems of peak soil and peak oil (discussed in previous posts), we are back in Malthusian territory. If we look at his remedies we find that there is no more land that can be brought into cultivation, and further intensification of cultivation is no longer possible because oil is running out. There is no alternative source of energy that has the same chemical properties as fossil fuels, especially oil, or the same energy yield (the amount of energy remaining once the energy required to generate it is subtracted). Alternative energy sources such as wind and wave-powered generation have more modest yields, and so too, despite the arguments of its proponents, does nuclear.

There is no obvious source of the massive amounts of power required to keep on with the process of intensification, and in any case, intensification will soon run up against the physical limits of a finite world, for example, despite all possible inputs and technological innovations, beyond a certain point it is simply not possible to produce any more protein from a given area of cultivated land.

Further inputs of energy also run into the problem of pollution. It has been recognised that beyond the problem of increasing production using up resources (in an example from last week, the fact that groundwater worldwide is becoming depleted), greater activity means more pollution (so the groundwater that remains is increasingly likely to be polluted). With fossil fuels the pollution issue was first noted as obvious air pollution in industrial areas (including smog) in the C19. As this pollution was mitigated then Sulphur dioxide and other pollutants were recognised as causing acid rain and acidification of lakes hundreds of miles away from industrial areas. As measures were put in place to mitigate these problems the global increase in atmospheric Carbon dioxide was identified as a problem, and we are still stuck on remedies for this. At each stage, dealing with the pollution becomes more difficult and more costly. Further grand schemes, for example capturing solar energy in vast solar arrays in space and beaming it as microwave radiation to the Earth’s surface, would run into the problem of waste heat directly heating the biosphere.

One paraphrase of the laws of thermodynamics is ‘there’s no such thing as a free lunch’. This is not quite true because humans have arguably had half a free lunch, the discovery of fossil fuels. This is only half a free lunch because although during the fossil fuel era just ending humanity went through an amazing period of technological advance, it also did some very dumb things like getting rid of a lot of the biodiversity of the planet, and running the life-support systems of the planet into the ground, to say nothing of starting a dangerous period of global warming.

To return to Malthusian remedies to the problem of population outstripping production: emigration is also no longer an option. Many people in less developed countries would dearly like to emigrate to developed countries, but these societies are by and large unwilling to accept them. In any case, even if large numbers of people from the developing world were allowed to settle in the developed world, this wouldn’t solve any global problems, it would simply mean that unsustainable consumer demand would accelerate.

It seems that having fewer children is the only option for facing these problems (for everyone) and that, despite the scorn of all ‘right-thinking people’, Malthus was correct after all.


Next week: further thoughts on population, and what Australia could do about the population question

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Population

In last week’s post, Global Warming, I pointed out that agriculture, and in fact all of current human activity, is unsustainable.

In support of this argument I refer to the 2010 Living Planet Report. On page 36-39 of the full report we find a graph showing to the ecological footprint of each county in the world, from the United Arab Emirates (the most consumptive country) to East Timor (the least). Overall we are using 150% of the Earth’s biological capacity each year (hence ‘unsustainable’).

What this means is that each year the damage inflicted on the Earth is greater, and the Earth is progressively less able to absorb this impact; for example groundwater worldwide is becoming depleted, and what remains is increasingly likely to be polluted.

The conventional wisdom is that we all need to work hard at sustainability and make what we do ‘greener’ so that our ecological footprint becomes smaller each year. And it is true that, for example, if we could convert to a low carbon economy, drive electric cars &c, then our (developed world) footprint would become a lot lower. But it still wouldn’t drop below the threshold where our (developed world) footprint was less than our per capita fair share of the world’s resources because the total population of the world is still increasing AND we can assume all the people living below that threshold would, given the chance, change to a lifestyle well above it.

The crucial variable in all this is population, because the other variables are very difficult to change. It requires a lot of ingenuity to devise ways that more people can live on less, it requires great ingenuity to persuade people to moderate their desires. It is still pretty difficult to persuade people to have fewer, or no, children, but I reckon that of the three it is the easiest.

If we could find a way to get people to have fewer children, then over time the amount of available resources per person would become greater, eventually dropping below the sustainability threshold. We can even calculate this figure. If there are the equivalent of 1.8 hectares per person of productivity available and the population is 6.6 billion (2007 figures, as used in the 2010 LPR), then there are 11.88 billion hectares available. If we select a developed country such as Germany, which has a footprint of 5 hectares per person, as a model, then there should be a global population of 2.38 billion people living as Germans do now.

I would argue in fact that for the purposes of long-term sustainability we should aim for a global population of well below this, to ensure an ecological buffer against unforeseen developments or catastrophes in the future (eg asteroid impact, or non-anthropogenic climate change), possibly around 1 billion, all living at around the same, high technological level. Personally, I would see the future of humanity as a continuation of human history up until around 1800, where the land areas of the planet were basically a sea of natural vegetation managed at low levels of intensity by humans, with islands of habitat more intensively managed dotted here and there (in contrast to the post C18 world of an intensively (mis)managed land surface of the world with a few island of natural vegetation dotted here and there). As we all know, ‘nature’, in the sense of natural vegetation, is good for people, because, after all, it’s our natural habitat, and overcrowding and competition for resources lead to wars and social strife.


Finally in this piece I’d like to discuss the strange view that population should be left to sort itself out by itself and that it illegitimate to discuss it at all. This, I take it, is a view that owes a great deal to Catholic social thought. It isn’t the abortion debate, the question of when life begins, but it is a view that sees any attempt to persuade people to have fewer children as somehow ‘murdering’ people who have never been conceived (!!!???)

To me this view makes no sense, as it is we face population disaster and even if the UN estimates of a slowing population growth eventuate, population growth will have slowed too late and the population will have settled at too a high a level to be sustainable.

If we take my 30,000 generations perspective we can see how short-sighted this view is. According to some 1 x 1011 (100 billion) humans have ever lived (including those alive at present). If humanity survives for another 30,000 generations at a sustainable global population of one billion, then 1.5 x 1013 people will have lived. 1 x 1011 (number of people who have lived already) added to 1.5 x 1013 (number of people who can be expected to live) is 1.51 x 1013. In other words the number of people who have lived up to now is utterly insignificant compared to the number of people who can be expected to live in a sustainable future. If we ignore the population issue, then I suspect that most of the people who will ever live have already done so.

Because of the Catholic view there seems to be an automatic assumption that it is unethical to call for a lower population. I can’t see that it is, after all, is it ethical to support the current arrangements, where up to a billion people still live with hunger, and in which there is no likelihood that the plight of these people will improve?

What needs to be said of course is that no efforts should be spared to feed the hungry or try to eliminate the distortions in the global economy that cause people to live with hunger. And, as I said, our goal should be a global society where everyone has a similar, and high, standard of living. However, no efforts should be spared either in convincing people that a lower population is a more sustainable population.

Another thing that needs saying, of course, is that population management can’t be coercive, and must be based on education. In this regard China’s One Child Policy is definitely the policy not to imitate; here there was a legal requirement for city-dwellers only to have one child per couple, but this was promulgated in the absence of any education about contraception.

Similarly no population policy can be based on any actual or perceived bias towards one or other social group. Eugenics, the unscientific view of the early C20 that it is possible to breed a better humanity by encouraging or forcing people perceived as inferior not to have children, should be left as a footnote in history. The thing we are concerned with is not the perceived qualities of humanity, but the bottom line, the actual number of people alive at any one time.

I like to think that if we can persuade people to have fewer children then we can avoid population catastrophe. I would have been more sanguine if this was a process that had started around 40 years ago, and the pessimist in me thinks that the chances of the population declining in any useful way before peak soil, peak oil and global warming cut in are small. Nevertheless it is a process that must be started.

Next week: a defence of Malthus