Saturday marked the 250th anniversary of the birth of Thomas Robert Malthus. I would like to wish him many happy returns.
And he does keep on returning, doesn’t he, despite those who say he is wrong or passé.
His Essay on the Principle of Population argued that, if left unchecked, human population growth would encounter limits: “The power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the Earth to produce subsistence for man.” He foresaw famine, disease and much suffering, especially among the poorest. But in addition to these “negative checks,” he also recognized “preventive checks” like limiting birthrates and later marriage. As a cleric, he advocated “the chaste postponement of marriage.”
Some 218 years after the first edition of his controversial treatise was published, we are still arguing about it. In 1798, the world population was under one billion. Now it’s 7.4 billion and counting. For the last 40 years, it’s been increasing by one billion every 12 to 13 years.
Some people say that’s no problem, that we’re better off than ever. The Green Revolution staved off the starvation in India predicted by Paul Ehrlich in The Population Bomb. Advances in agriculture, medicine and other technology have made us richer and healthier. The late Julian Simon even said that ever more people is a good thing, since humans are “the ultimate resource” and every mouth to feed comes with a pair of hands to work and a brain to solve problems. What could go wrong?
But things are going seriously wrong. To provision our ever-growing population, we are, in Ehrlich’s words, turning the planet into a “feedlot for humanity.” We have taken over about one-third of its land surface and scoured its oceans, wiping out several major fisheries and depleting the rest. Our “solution” of farmed fish creates other problems. High-yield Green Revolution crops require pesticides, fertilizer and water; the first two are becoming more expensive, the last scarcer in many areas.
Homo sapiens’ appetite is gargantuan. As we strive to get at dwindling resources for ever more people, we dig deeper into the Earth, blow the tops of mountains, divert rivers, cut down forests and pave over swaths of land. We fill the land, water, and air with our pollution. We’re driving record numbers of species to extinction and decimating others with activities from chemical poisoning to hunting for bushmeat, or simply by taking over their habitat.
Greenhouse gases from our industry are changing the Earth’s climate, with such dangerous consequences as ocean acidification, rising sea levels and flooding, changes in rainfall patterns including in vital “breadbaskets,” and loss of forest cover.
While the word “sustainable” has become popular, growing human numbers and activities are anything but. Increasing awareness of our impact has led to developments in renewable energy, recycling, earth-friendly farming and more. There have also been spectacular advances in family planning. But powerful —notably religious — opposition has kept governments and international bodies from actively promoting small families and prevented hundreds of millions of women who would plan their families from having access to modern methods.
Those who deny that overpopulation is a problem say the poor don’t consume much. Yet the poor want nothing more than to consume more, as proved by India and China. Who can blame them? And a burgeoning number of desperately poor people does have a major impact: they cut down forests to grow food, drain rivers, deplete aquifers, and overfish and over-hunt in their local area. But make these points and you’ll be accused of blaming the poor for the problems of the rich.
We seem bound to learn the hard way that there really is a limit to how many people the Earth can support.
We wish it weren’t so, but it really is starting to look as if Malthus was right.
Madeline Weld is president of Population Institute Canada, based in Ottawa.
Saturday, 20 February 2016
An opinion piece by Madeline Weld of the Population Institute Canada (h/t Gail):
Wednesday, 16 September 2015
There is some increasingly interesting and grim research on the psychological consequences and affects of rapidly changing environmental conditions and global warming available. This is a summation of a report by Van Susteren and Coyle, reblogged from Climate Progress:
We spend vast amounts of time and personal energy trying to calculate the most urgent threats posed by climate change. Washington, D.C. psychiatrist and climate activist Lise Van Susteren, however, says the most insidious danger may already be upon us. She’s not talking about heat, drought, floods, severe storms, or rising seas. She’s focused on the psychological risks posed by global warming.
Van Susteren has co-authored a report on the psychological effects of climate change that predicts Americans will suffer “depressive and anxiety disorders, post-traumatic stress disorders, substance abuse, suicides, and widespread outbreaks of violence,” in the face of rising temperatures, extreme weather, and scarce resources. Van Susteren and her co-author Kevin Coyle write that counselors and first responders “are not even close to being prepared to handle the scale and intensity of impacts that will arise from the harsher conditions and disasters that global warming will unleash.”
There is currently no organized discipline for the study of the psychological risks of climate change, yet it is already taking a toll on many people who tackle this issue. Surprisingly susceptible are those who might seem to be immune.
“The climate deniers? I always say they‘re really too stressed to hear the truth,” said Van Susteren. “We see this kind of thing in my work all the time, where people who aren’t ready to hear the truth about something will simply say it doesn’t exist.”
Those who do acknowledge the problem face a different set of issues, particularly those who work on the problem. Lisa Van Susteren coined the term “pre-traumatic stress disorder” to describe the grief, anger, and anxiety clinging to the scientists and advocates whose job it is to gaze into a future that can look increasingly bleak. [MORE]
Saturday, 5 September 2015
This job opportunity may be of interest to some of my readers. Details here.
Professor of Environmental Humanities
Shape the new home of world-changing ideas
Bath Spa University is an inspiring place, founded on creativity, culture and enterprise. We are creating a world-leading research centre in Environmental Humanities. We are looking to appoint a Professor of Environmental Humanities who will chair the centre and play a pivotal role in university-wide projects spanning disciplines as diverse as film-making, literature and history, and environmental sciences.
The successful candidate will shape the centre’s research and secure external funding to address interconnected social and environmental issues. Involving environmental education, connecting communities and creating change, this is a unique opportunity which will call on your commitment to sustainable futures, and expertise in such areas as ecological criticism, geography and philosophy.
Discover more and apply at https://jobs.bathspa.ac.uk/wrl
For an informal discussion of this post, please call Professor John Strachan, Vice Provost for Research and Enterprise, on 01225 876292.
Closing date: 1 October 2015.
Tuesday, 25 August 2015
Reblogging this piece I came across by Clive Martin from March 27th 2014. It encapsulates a recurrent question students on ecological philosophy courses I run ask, and it's a 'hardy perennial' for anyone who makes a habit of staring into the interlocking and unfolding ecological and social crises of the twenty-first century.
[VICE] It's become commonplace to say that we, as "young people", have no future. We blame the shocking unemployment levels, we blame the Lib Dems' collaboration in the benign Vichy coalition we live under, we blame the baby boomers who are refusing to bequeath their wealth to the generation beneath them, we blame Thatcher for creating a society of bored and broken service industry workers whose jobs are constantly under threat. And we're right to.
I fully agree that these problems have sent everyone a bit mad, forcing us into a fruitless, childless existence that we can only escape with drinking games, Tesco Finest meals, cheap flights, gut-rotting drugs and shit games on our phones. But what is our generation going to do when the shit really hits the fan? Not when Carphone Warehouse pull out of the UK and universities cost 30 grand a year, but when Armageddon starts WhatsApping us?
Everyone’s been predicting the end of time since time began, obviously. God was going to kill us. Then the devil was going to kill us. Then the nuclear bomb was going to kill us. And now asteroids, or the sea, or our own shitty behaviour is going to kill us. Whatever happens, we know that one day it's all going to end in fire and for the media, this paranoia is a golden ticket. The ultimate paper-selling, SEO-friendly scare story – because most people are going to have at least some passing interest in hearing how and when their species is going to end. It's grade-A clickbait with a highbrow twist: the holy grail of the modern media.
Unfortunately, when you pick up the Guardian or whatever, it’s not mad men waving "THE END IS NIGH" placards, it’s really serious-sounding scientists. This gives weight not only to individual scare stories about bird flu or acid rain, but more significantly to the patchwork of terror, which suggests that – through a combination of gluttony, stupidity and cruelty – we’ve pretty much fucked the planet and the future is looking very much like a disaster film directed by Hieronymus Bosch.
The latest study I read comes from the pretty solid source of NASA, who've worked out that just because our society has managed to produce Citalopram, Itsu and Spotify, we aren't immune from the same kind of collapse that has eventually befallen every other human society in history. And that our resource-plundering modern habits aren't exactly helping our case for survival, either.
It's interesting, and somewhat sobering reading. Much like Mr B The Gentleman Rhymer's retort to Michael Gove, it's a piece that will make you wonder if it's worth just shuffling off this mortal coil with as little fuss as possible.
And that’s the real question: What we are we supposed to do with this information? Is there anything we can do? Or should we just get the patio chairs out of the garage, put some Stella on ice and wait for our neighbours to start barbequing Alsatians? I mean, it’s one thing for old people to hear that their legacy is fucked, but it’s another for young people to hear that they have no future. [CONTINUES]
Wednesday, 22 July 2015
[Youtube] "Poem by Agnes Török on the news of a new Conservative budget. Based on experiences of living in Britain under austerity as a young, queer, unemployed, female immigrant student - and not taking it any more. More info on: www.agnestorok.org "
Interesting piece on the distortion of carbon dating caused by the fossil fuel age here. It seems like Tim Morton's analysis of global warming as a hyperobject, perhaps most notably its trait of viscosity, could be applied to this in an illuminating manner.
[Climate Progress] Those concerned with climate change spend a lot of time arguing that it’s not just an environmental problem, but also an economic, human rights, national security, and even mental health issue. Now a new study has found that greenhouse gas emissions could impact a range of unlikely fields due to their effect on radiocarbon dating, a much-heralded scientific method used to determine the age of objects containing organic material.
The study, published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that emissions from fossil fuels are artificially raising the carbon age of the atmosphere, which makes objects today seem much older than they are when scrutinized by a radiocarbon dater. This change in the ability to date objects could impact measurements commonly taken in a broad range of endeavors, including archaeology, forgery detection, forensics, earth science, and physiology.
For instance, the study suggests that by 2050 — just 35 years from now — new clothes could have the same radiocarbon date as something worn during the Battle of Hastings in 1066. [MORE HERE]