Sunday, May 9, 2021

The Great Pause Week 60: Demographic Time Bombs

"Worrying about the economy keeps techno-cornucopians and unicorns up at night. Us back-to-the-landers, not so much."

Oiled collage after images by Adnan Abidi / Reuters

 


 

 

Sitting barefoot beside the Indian River on Earth Day 2021, Tesla and Space X founder Elon Musk told Singularity University and X-Prize founder Peter Diamandis that the population problem will become a crisis by mid-century. I was expecting to hear him say overpopulation was killing the planet. 

“We’ll need more people,” he said.

Musk was pointing out that over the next 80 years, in almost every country, population will shrink. According to a 2017 “Global Burden of Disease” study published in The Lancet, some of the largest nations’ populations will halve, while Nigeria will overtake China as the second most populous. Other African countries will also continue to densify. 

Outside of Africa, women are having fewer children. In 1950, the average number a woman produced was 4.7. By 2017, it was 2.4. Well before 2100, the Lancet authors predicted, it will fall below 1.7. And that is a magic number, something Thomas Malthus would not have predicted absent a globe-shattering famine.

Kenneth Johnson, a demographer at the University of New Hampshire, has calculated that together with the rise in deaths — up by about 18 percent from 2019 — the drop in births is contributing to the aging of the American population: A total of 25 states had more deaths than births last year, Dr. Johnson said, up from five at the end of 2019.

The New York Times

It is comforting to think the drop in births is due at least in part to the pandemic, and historically, births do tend to dip after economic crises, but the Times observed:

The rate among women in their early 20s is down by 40 percent since 2007, the government said. Teenagers have had the sharpest decline, down by 63 percent since 2007, the data showed.

Once women have fewer than 2.1 babies each, population declines. In fact, the researchers at the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation predicted the world’s population will max out in in 2064 at 9.7 billion and fall to 8.8 billion before century’s end. “Falling to 8.8 billion” makes me wince. One needs to grasp what that dimension of human flesh will mean for fish and fowl. It is like accepting 2 degrees as a climate goal.

Paired with an aging population, endemic zoonosis, gender reveal, plastic pollution, and other mega-trends, Musk called it a “demographic time bomb,” warning we could reach a time by mid-century when there aren’t enough young people to support the economy, or the older generations. 

Worrying about the economy keeps techno-cornucopians and unicorns up at night. Us back-to-the-landers, not so much.

Professor Holly Jean Buck, in her book, After Geoengineering: Climate Tragedy, Repair, and Restoration, relates that science journalist Leigh Phillips, in his book, Austerity Ecology and the Collapse-Porn Addicts: A Defence of Growth, Progress, Industry, and Stuff, equates austerity and degrowth as “mathematically and socially identical.” 

To solve the global biocrisis, more is needed: more growth, progress, industry, and civilization. He asserts that “it will require significant ingenuity to engineer a reverse of the processes we have inadvertently set in motion, likely even some way to produce a carbon-negative economy for a period,” with hundreds of innovations that will come from the most advanced research laboratories and factories. “By turning its back on the possibility of such technologies, on the very idea of progress, green anti-modernism actually commits us to catastrophic climate change.” 

Some think we should try to avert this problem by encouraging fertility. Given the perfect storm of climate change, biodiversity loss and resource depletion, my feeling is that we should not be thinking of ways to reverse the trend. We have to look at the future like a lineup of surfers looking at incoming sets. National economies and elderly welfare, as important as they may be, are not more important than innumerable species extinctions, our own included. Degrowth is a wave we could learn to surf. And, like zoonotic pandemics, it is a wave we know is out there.

According to the projections, China will halve its population this century. Some 23 countries, including Japan and Italy, will drop even faster and farther. 

Sitting in a Beijing Pizza Hut with ecovillage pioneer and CEO of a quasi-governmental scholarly exchange program Alice Wang a few years ago I asked why China ended its one child policy.

“We didn’t need it,” she said.
 
She went on to explain that during the years that policy lasted, it was incredibly difficult to administrate and had scores of exceptions and provisos. But more importantly, people tended to lavish attention on their sole child. When those children grew and started having children of their own, they did the same. Even though the restrictions were lifted, most people who had grown up as sole children wanted to have their own small families like that so they could lavish education, travel, gifts, and love on their one child. It was an enormous cultural shift that took place in just one or two generations. 

A year after I had that conversation with Alice, I visited my sister who lives in central India. I couldn’t help but be grateful I’ve spent most of my life living in rural settings. Apart from The Farm, the villages of my life were not so small that everyone could know everyone’s name, but they were small enough that you could find a space in the forest where you could listen to fox kits yapping somewhere down the valley, or watch pileated woodpeckers in their mating ritual, racing like squirrels up, down, and around the trunks of trees, or float on your back in water and stare up at the clouds in near total silence, with only chirping birds and croaking frogs.

The Lancet study predicted that India, whose total fertility rate dropped below replacement in 2018, would peak before 2050 and fall to 68% of its former population by the end of the century, although it would still remain the most dense and populous nation on Earth. India’s present Covid experience seems bent on speeding up the Lancet’s timetable.

Over the coming decades, Nigeria will grow to around 800 million and become the second most populous. The USA, now with its lowest birthrate in 35 years, will remain a dominant power only if it allows more immigration, meaning, for the most part, more Nigerians and Indians. By virtue of stronger, better educated, youthful and feminist urban populations, it could be that Mumbai and Lagos will become epicenters of innovation and art this century.

Is the Lancet piece right about global contraction? Is Musk’s concern well placed? My sister described to me what life may be like for many in the world’s most populous nations — India, Nigeria, China, USA, and Pakistan, in that order — in the not-too-distant future:

“People who are members of the same family or just friends think nothing of sharing a hotel bed — my objection to this has been incomprehensible to others. A college boy might share a bed with his mother, nobody thinks twice about this. 
“High density in Indian homes and public places is the norm rather than the exception. The polite social distance in public places (aside from Covid times) is smaller than in the West and even less in private to the point of being nonexistent, except around strangers, foreigners, or when protecting females of reproductive years.
“Many homes have no furnishings, which facilitates high density. A cloth or woven mat like a tatami is rolled out on the floor for mealtimes. Thin futons are rolled up in the daytime and unrolled at night. Or there is no futon, just a sheet or blanket. If there is a bed, it is shared by Mom and Dad plus the youngest tots or maybe given to frail elderly, and it’s no more than 3 feet wide. (The ability of Indians to sleep on hard surfaces is a wonder. They’ll buy a bed and then insert a piece of plywood under the mattress rather than enjoy the springs.) No pillows, or hard ones. If a friend is passing through your town and you offer shelter, this may consist of a sheet for the floor or on un-cushioned carpet; lacking a bed is no barrier to hospitality. The arrival of molded plastic lawn chairs changed this some. They are ubiquitous indoors and out now. Tables are rare. There are trays. There are no closets, people have never heard of them, and only rich people have architects. 
“Hostels for college students have the bunks spaced closely together with a small suitcase or footlocker as the only storage. Nobody expects to have their own space.”
“One pressure that is a big population-growth factor is the Hindu-Muslim tension. The more educated a Hindu couple, the fewer children they have. But Muslims of all education levels and social strata feel it is their duty to reproduce abundantly to increase their numbers as a repressed minority.

I did not realize it at the time, but there in that Beijing restaurant, ecovillager Alice Wang gave me a complete solution to the climate, biodiversity and population emergencies. Faced with a demographic shift to 5 billion people this century that would have made the density in the favelas of Mumbai and Sao Paolo pale in comparison, the Chinese radically cut fertility. Not because of anything they feared — although that was the starting point — but because it made their lives better, and that is how, in the end, the one child policy succeeded. 

A teenage girl in Jakarta or Nairobi with TikTok on her iPhone and western soaps on the TV, each in their own way showing independent, liberated women role models, does not yearn for the life of her grandmother, held captive by religion and male-dominated culture. She probably finds most of the boys her age are pretty dumb about that. She is going to be different.

When Musk started selling his first edition Tesla Model-S at privileged elite pricing, he kept the daring young company going not because people feared climate change and wanted to get rid of their old gas-hogs, but because it was a better ride if you could afford it. You set the power switch to “Insane” and boom! The G-forces pushed you deep into that leather seat (Tesla vegan leather only arrived in 2017). We should all remember that when critics start saying the Paris climate goals are too ambitious. The zero carbon and sustainable development goals won’t succeed because we are frightened. They will succeed because life will be infinitely better.

____________________

 The COVID-19 pandemic has destroyed lives, livelihoods, and economies. But it has not slowed down climate change, which presents an existential threat to all life, humans included. The warnings could not be stronger: temperatures and fires are breaking records, greenhouse gas levels keep climbing, sea level is rising, and natural disasters are upsizing.

As the world confronts the pandemic and emerges into recovery, there is growing recognition that the recovery must be a pathway to a new carbon economy, one that goes beyond zero emissions and runs the industrial carbon cycle backwards — taking CO2 from the atmosphere and ocean, turning it into coal and oil, and burying it in the ground. The triple bottom line of this new economy is antifragility, regeneration, and resilience.


Help me get my blog posted every week. All Patreon donations and Blogger subscriptions are needed and welcomed. You are how we make this happen. Your contributions are being made to Global Village Institute, a tax-deductible 501(c)(3) charity. PowerUp! donors on Patreon get an autographed book off each first press run. Please help if you can.

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Sunday, May 2, 2021

The Great Pause Week 59: Joys of Soy

"Demand for soy in the EU uses 6 million square miles. 5.2 million of that is in South America."


Fifty-eight weeks ago
I crossed the border from Belize and decided to make my stand in a small Mexican village with dirt streets and thatched roofs. I had been coming here to write for more than ten years and I knew that it would likely be well-insulated from the rest of the world as the pandemic raged. That was true for many months because this town, and many neighboring towns, wisely ignored the denialism of Mexican state and federal health authorities and closed themselves to routine comings and goings. Unfortunately, like many places, willpower faltered, they reopened too soon, many of my neighbors became sick and died, and that continues today. Lacking vaccines, México, like India and Brazil, is an incubator and exporter of Covid variants to the rest of the world. One factor I did not anticipate when I made my decision to remain here was the speed with which effective vaccines would be developed, meaning that the pandemic will be years shorter in the affluent North, where the world’s supplies of vaccine are restarting normality, than in the South, where the pandemic has no end in sight.

A little while ago, I got a hankering for something that is standard fare in my ecovillage in Tennessee but can’t be found even in gourmet vegan restaurants here — boiled soybeans. It is not surprising really, because unless you have been exposed to the rich, buttery flavor of properly cooked beans, you probably accept the myth that they are cattle-feed or something that can only be processed into secondary products like milk, tofu, miso, natto, or tempeh. But all through the 1970s, soybeans were the basis of our diet at The Farm community, not only because they were so versatile, but because they were so cheap. The world price of soybeans at this writing is $14.33 per bushel. In 1972 they were around $5. Adjusting for inflation, that would be $32 today. Today’s soybeans are less than half the price they were in the 70s. The reasons for that are that we grow so many more today than we did in 1972, it is mostly automated —air-conditioned giant combines steered by GPS across flattened fields — and we subsidize the production cost with Saudi oil and fracked gas.

At the Sixth International Permaculture Convergence in Perth, Bill Mollison and I got into a spat in our stage presentations over the question of soy. He called them baby killers. He disliked soy only slightly less than he disliked “land lice,” as he liked to call goats. I showed slides of healthy babies in Guatemala where our project decimated infant mortality by introducing non-GMO soy, grown organically in the Japanese smallholder way. Soybeans have all eight essential amino acids in good balance. Lysine is the limiting amino, and you can get that from maize, which Guatemalans eat a lot of. Corn tortillas and boiled soybean frijoles make a complete protein, but in our camp in Solola we also made patés for babies, tofu, tempeh, soymilk, and, of course, ice cream. The image at the top of this piece is painted from a photo of Suzi Jenkins Viavant dispensing soy ice cream to schoolchildren in San Andreas Itzapa.

What my dear friend Bill was on about was something quite real; two things, actually. Because soybeans contain protease inhibitors that interfere with digestion activity, they have an antinutritional effect unless these inhibitors are deactivated. Whatever food you consume with them can be indigestible and give you a nasty stomach ache and gas. The inhibitors found in raw soy react primarily on trypsin, and chymotrypsin and plasmin to a lesser extent. Wild animals usually learn that any plant that contains a trypsin inhibitor is a food to avoid. Before feeding soy to cattle, it is ground into meal and heat-treated to remove the inhibitors.

Other foods containing protease inhibitors are lima beans (6 different inhibitors); winged beans; mung beans; raw egg white; and bovine pancreas and lung.

In a kitchen setting, boiling soybeans for 14 minutes deactivates about 80% of the inhibitors. Boiled 30 minutes, about 90%. At higher temperatures, e.g. in pressure cookers, shorter deactivation times are needed to reach 100%. When making soymilk, tofu and tempeh, good pre-cooking is part of the process. Any soybeans cooked well or fermented will be completely digestible. 

To bring out the flavor in soybeans intended for burritos, lasagna, stroganoff, or burgers, they should be cooked until they are dark brown and soft enough to mash between your tongue and the back of your teeth. Straight from the boiling pot, they should melt in your mouth and have a buttery taste, smell, and feel. My experience with a pressure cooker tells me that proper cooking can take 90 to 120 minutes for rehydrated dry beans, and I always do the tongue-mash test.

The second point Bill made, and I agree with, is that the way soybeans are grown by industrial agriculture today is an abomination, leading to loss of family farms, biodiversity, topsoil and a habitable climate. The total area of soy now covers billions of acres — the total combined area of France, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands. The fastest growth in recent years has been in South America, where production grew by 123 per cent between 1996 and 2004. 

Soy produces more protein per hectare than any other major crop. It is also one of the most profitable agricultural products. Around 270 million tonnes were produced in 2012, of which 93 per cent came from just six countries: Brazil, United States, Argentina, China, India and Paraguay. Soy production is also expanding rapidly in Bolivia and Uruguay. The main importers are the EU and China, while the US has the greatest soy consumption per capita. 

 — World Wildlife Federation

The sad part is that 94% of this major world food crop goes into livestock feed or industrial uses and, counting vegetable oil and soy sauce, only 6% is consumed by people directly. When you feed it to cows, 98% of the nutritional value — the part that could be feeding people — is simply wasted. It is spent fattening a 350 pound-calf into a 1250-pound steer. Some of that can be recovered in the form of leather jackets or fertilizer, but a lot of it simply gets farted away as a greenhouse gas 87 times more powerful than carbon dioxide. Demand for soy in the EU uses 6 million square miles, 5.2 million of that in South America.

Nine out of 10 land-based species of animals and plants live in forests — the vast majority of them in the tropical forests of South America, Africa and Southeast Asia. Close to 1.6 billion people, including 60 million indigenous people, depend on forests for food, shelter, fuel and livelihoods. Forests provide vital ecosystem services, such as regulating water cycles, preventing soil erosion and helping to keep our climate stable: growing forests absorb and store carbon, but when they’re cleared, large amounts of carbon dioxide are released into the atmosphere. Half of the world’s tropical forests have been destroyed over the last century, and natural forests are continuing to decline in many parts of the world. 

— World Wildlife Federation

 

Before Monsanto and Cargill, John Deere and Whole Foods, there was a habit of growing soybeans for 2000 years in China, Japan and Korea. In China today around 40 million farmers grow soy, with the average farm size being around 0.2–0.3 ha (half to three-quarters of an acre). By turning stover into biochar and returning manures (“night soil”) to the fields, soil fertility was maintained for 40 centuries. Thanks to the Asian Biochar Centre in Nanjing, farms across China are once more regenerating topsoil, retaining water, and re-learning these techniques. They are producing much higher yields today than they did just 5 years ago. Rotational smallholder cropping, with leguminous crops like soy restoring nitrogen, is the way of the future. 

Using the power of soy in a regenerative, harmonious way, there is no food supply constraint holding human population from expanding ten-fold in this century. Other means will be needed to stop that.

In our next installment we’ll explore those means.

References:

Hwang, D. L., D. E. Foard, and C. H. Wei. “A soybean trypsin inhibitor. Crystallization and x-ray crystallographic study.” Journal of Biological Chemistry 252, no. 3 (1977): 1099–1101.

Liu, KeShun, Soybeans: Chemistry, Technology, and Utilization. Springer 2012.

Viavant, S.J., My First Experience in Guatemala as a Volunteer
https://munecaz.wordpress.com/my-first-experience-in-guatemala-as-a-volunteer-january-25-2014/

World Wildlife Federation. 2014. The Growth of Soy: Impacts and Solutions. WWF International, Gland, Switzerland


 

The COVID-19 pandemic has destroyed lives, livelihoods, and economies. But it has not slowed down climate change, which presents an existential threat to all life, humans included. The warnings could not be stronger: temperatures and fires are breaking records, greenhouse gas levels keep climbing, sea level is rising, and natural disasters are upsizing.

As the world confronts the pandemic and emerges into recovery, there is growing recognition that the recovery must be a pathway to a new carbon economy, one that goes beyond zero emissions and runs the industrial carbon cycle backwards — taking CO2 from the atmosphere and ocean, turning it into coal and oil, and burying it in the ground. The triple bottom line of this new economy is antifragility, regeneration, and resilience.

Help me get my blog posted every week. All Patreon donations and Blogger subscriptions are needed and welcomed. You are how we make this happen. Your contributions are being made to Global Village Institute, a tax-deductible 501(c)(3) charity. PowerUp! donors on Patreon get an autographed book off each first press run. Please help if you can.

#RestorationGeneration

“There are the good tipping points, the tipping points in public consciousness when it comes to addressing this crisis, and I think we are very close to that.”

 — Climate Scientist Michael Mann, January 13, 2021.


Want to help make a difference while you shop in the Amazon app, at no extra cost to you? Simply follow the instructions below to select “Global Village Institute” as your charity and activate AmazonSmile in the app. They’ll donate a portion of your eligible purchases to us.

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