Sunday, August 14, 2016

Making the Grade in Population

"Activist saints who receive C’s on the population quiz: Ralph Borsodi, George Monbiot, Wendell Berry, David Attenborough and Jane Goodall."

Fourteen percent of all humans who have ever lived are alive today. Recent projections  of fertility momentum put global population between 9.6 and 12.3 billion by the end of the century. Of course that could no more be sustained than too many reindeer living on lichen on a small island.

A 2014 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (Bradshaw and Brook, "Human population reduction is not a quick fix for environmental problems." DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1410465111)  looked at a number of different scenarios to gauge how long it might take the human population to plateau and then decline. The Yale Environmental Review commented:

Many of the findings highlight the strength of this demographic momentum. For example, the study found that if every unplanned pregnancy were avoided worldwide due to reproductive education, family planning, and cultural shifts, population would peak at 8.39 billion in 2050 and then fall to 7.3 billion by 2100, a level slightly higher than today. The study also found that implementing contentious population control measures such as a worldwide one-child policy, results in a population that wouldn’t fall back to present-day size until the end of the century. Another scenario looked at a hypothetical catastrophic mortality event equal to the number of deaths from the First World War, the Second World War, and the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic combined. This event barely altered the long-term population projection.

Population tends to be the third rail for many environmental activists. They are okay talking about a one child policy for China, or lamenting the fact that Africa will more than triple its population by mid-century, but the idea of limiting their own family size seems to hold little interest.

Perhaps some role models are needed. Among the presidential candidates, Jill Stein gets a C. She has two children. Donald Trump receives a failing grade. He has 5. Hillary Clinton, with only one child, receives a B. To get an A she would have needed either none or a half child, perhaps one adopted from a one child family or acquired by marriage.

Top Marks: Leo DiCaprio (0); Rocky Mountain Institute’s Amory Lovins (0); Consumer Advocate Ralph Nader (0); Sea Shepherd Captain Paul Watson (1);’s Bill McKibben (1); Greenpeace Executive Director Annie Leonard (1); Greenpeace spokesman Kumi Naidoo (1); and “population bomb” theorists Paul and Anne Ehrlich (1).

The US’s largest and most influential grassroots environmental organization, Sierra Club, has a population mission:

The Global Population and Environment Program believes that healthy people and a healthy environment go hand in hand. We work to protect the global environment, preserve natural resources for future generations, and ensure healthy, thriving families and communities by promoting global reproductive health, reproductive rights and sustainable development initiatives.

And yet the Sierra Club’s president and his wife “attribute their ongoing passion for environmental activism in part to concern that their children (plural) inherit a healthy world.”

Pope Francis has yet to issue an encyclical urging Catholics to use birth control. Naomi Klein thinks artificial insemination should be a universal right.

Activist saints who receive C’s on the population quiz: Ralph Borsodi, George Monbiot, Wendell Berry, David Attenborough and Jane Goodall.

Top Marks: Rachel Carson (0); Henry David Thoreau (0).

Failing grades: Thomas Malthus (3), Helen Caldicott (3); Al Gore (4); David Brower (4), Jacques-Yves Cousteau (4); Garrett Hardin (4); Allan Yeomans (5); Aldo Leopold (5); and David Suzuki (5 children, 6 grandchildren).

Groucho Marx, on You Bet Your Life, questioned a female contestant who came from a family of 17 children:

Groucho: How does your father feel about this rather startling turn of events? Is he happy or just dazed?
Daughter: Oh, my daddy loves children.

Groucho: Well, I like pancakes, but I haven't got closets full of them ...

Many people are familiar with the Groucho cigar story, which is similar but a bit more salacious. Apparently that is an urban legend. Judge for yourself at Snopes.


Robert Gillett said...

Our exponentially growing population has a direct connection with our increasing consumption/eradication of other species.

ceridwen said...

Ooh....naughty naughty mentioning that particular "elephant in the room" - ie that there are a noticeable number of people out there (including famous self-proclaimed environmentalists) that have more than 2 children. The record to date is 8 children to one of them. Sharon Astyk talks a lot of sense in other ways - but I believe she has 5 children. I have given up trying to understand how people can say they care about the planet and overpopulation etc in one breath and admit to having more than 2 children in the next. Hypocrisy or what?

John D. Wheeler said...

Ceridwen, you are quite mistaken about Sharon Astyk. She has had far, far more than 5 children. The 5 children she has now she adopted on March 15 of this year. Whether or not she gave birth to any children I am not certain. But she has raised many children that she did not give birth to.

I see no hypocrisy there.

And I think Malthus is being judged a bit harshly, too; you really should look at the times he lived in. I suspect the death rate was high enough that a couple did have to have more than 3 children to have 2 survive to adulthood.

Mark said...

? Seven generations from now, the anthropocene decimating Earth's diversity to a fraction, Human beings will also be diminished in size, function, and intellect. This will perhaps enhance their wisdom. ?

Wisdom is the quality we do not stimulate, and so it atrophies.

Intelligence is a deceptive guide, as it is based on reduced, isolated empirical facts.

In the next seven generations, we will be be loosing the war on nature, and surrender.

Don Stewart said...

At least some Indians view their country with dismay over their tendency to let people in distress simply suffer and die:
(Read the first two paragraphs)

The episode brings to mind the parable of the Good Samaritan, and the man left in the ditch by the bandit.

Sharon Astyk has committed the terrible sin of taking in lots of foster children. I am pretty sure that, at the Pearly Gates, she will be judged harshly. She should have followed the outstanding example of the Indians who left this poor fellow to die, thus reducing the excess population on the Earth.

Of course.....there is just an outside possibility that the Judge at the Pearly Gates will turn out to be the author of the Parable of the Good maybe I will keep my mouth shut. I can't really claim good behavior with foster children....but maybe I will just claim ignorance.

Don Stewart

ceridwen said...

Obviously taking in foster children is to be commended. It was my understanding from her blog some time back that she has several children of her own though - ie 5 of her own iyswim as far as I remember. That is where the overpopulation comment comes in.

Don Stewart said...

I used to read Sharon's blog consistently. I haven't done so in several years. She had a number of her own children, and the family was living very thriftily on a subsistence farm. Then she began to take in foster children.

I object to two things:
*Singling out some single factor about a person and damning them because of it. For example, why not congratulate her on her diligent efforts on behalf of subsistence farming?
*Quoting out of context the fact that her family size increased significantly with the adoptions. She was already providing a home for the children. I assume that the State of New York will no longer give her a monthly check for them, now that they are legally adopted.

I don't think she lives on the farm anymore...or maybe she just stopped all the farming. I really don't know, or care very much. I'm not in the business of passing judgment on her.

Don Stewart

Don Stewart said...

Adding to my previous comment
I know that Sharon Astyk takes pretty seriously the Jewish injunction to 'heal the earth'.

If we are determined to try to grade people, we could do worse than ask 'what have they done to heal the earth?' I don't know how Sharon might respond to the question, but from what I know about her, I would say:
*Sharon raised her own children to live frugal lives, growing a significant amount of their own food
*Realizing that she had certain skills relative to parenting, and recognizing the suffering among foster children, she not only took in lots of foster children, she adopted a significant number.

While I am (ahem) a shining example to the unwashed, I wouldn't want to pit my own accomplishments against what I know about Sharon.

Don Stewart

dex3703 said...

Thank you, Albert, for bringing this up. I don't understand it either. In middle school I figured it out, and never had any children (that I know of, anyway). Now on Facebook I see old classmates bemoaning their three, four, five children leaving home. These same people, of course, drive big cars and live in suburban houses, and think they're 'green' because they changed their lightbulbs.

There's just no explaining. I'm sure they'd say I don't have children, so I wouldn't understand. At one time I would have said something like: that's nice, but your children will not have the future you think they'll have. Now I see it's useless and keep my mouth shut. Overall, Millenials seem to not be having children, at least in the USA, so I'm glad for that.

Still, the ones that live in Houston I'll advise to leave when the next big hurricane comes.

dex3703 said...

Don and ceridwen:

You both, perhaps unintentionally, bring up an interesting point. As the environment falls apart, do we have a duty to take people in? Do we have a duty to take in the children of those who have had too many?

And, the most Soylent Green question: if things are to truly have any hope on any timescale that means anything to humanity, is it better for all other species, as well as ourselves, to let the over-progeny of the North American well-off meet a quick end?

dex3703 said...

Last one from me. The Yale study also begs the same Soylent Green questions. If "every unplanned pregnancy were avoided worldwide due to reproductive education, family planning, and cultural shifts" and a giant loss of life of 1918 Flu + WWI + WWII "barely alter the long-term population projection", I see two things:

- population will not voluntarily go down
- any reduction in population that will make any difference must be colossal. As in unimaginable, of billions.

I happen to think that those billions will happen, and likely in India and Pakistan though also everywhere else, because of climate change: heat, drought, and famine.

ceridwen said...

I would say there is a level of obligation to take in other peoples children that would otherwise not be cared for properly - eg by fostering or adopting. But, at root, the problem remains that some people are having too many children (whether by choice, carelessness or to get extra benefits from the State - ie as in Britain). Thankfully, Britain is now putting a stop to paying out extra benefits to any future children any claimant has over and above two.

I watched Soylent Green (guess we all did...) and it now comes over as a bit clunky/old-fashioned in presentation - but it still makes a very very valid point and yes we can see the sheer pressure of people leading to all sorts of undesirable stuff happening to the food we eat (genetically-modified anyone? yummy!) and we can see the pressure on Nature. In much of England now there is building/building/building going on to house all the extra people (though there are reasons for all these extra people needing housing - besides British people having extra children - as I'm sure you know).

I know what you mean by people saying they are "green" just because they change lightbulbs basically. These are token/surface gestures and the real ones are how many children we have/whether we use private transport unnecessarily/whether we take plane journeys/support fracking. Being "green" isn't just about token changes in what goods we "consume".

I note many of those self-proclaimed as environmentalists BUT having more than two children state words to effect of "But OUR children are being taught to take care of the environment". To which the obvious answer is "4 children consuming at 50% of normal Western level equates to 2 children consuming at 100% of normal Western level = the same amount is being consumed". Add that these children might well go on to have children of their own and so the cycle continues.




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