I've been a longtime advocate of the need to accelerate our development and application of technological solutions to environmentalist problems (hence the event I helped co-found, Creating Equilibrium). Over the years I've written and spoken quite a bit on the topic too. Here's a little primer on my take on it all. You should be able to garner my thoughts from this and it'll at least show you where to go to dive deeper.
1. Exponential Tech To Solve Our Greatest Environmental Challenges
This one was fun. It got some serious traction too. It's a powerful concept which will hopefully have even more powerful results.
The Five Year Ban: Because A Billion Less People Is A Great Place To Start!
Want to hear an unpopular opinion: I think we should put Nadya Suleman in jail. Perhaps you don’t recall the name. Perhaps you don’t even believe a crime has been committed. Perhaps you think I should be locked up along the way. Fine. But someone has to start saying things aloud, so here goes:STOP HAVING CHILDREN.Nadya Suleman had 14. And they should all be taken from her and raised by fit parents. Seriously, I could care less about the fact that she’s unmarried, unemployed, unable to convince herself that she’s not Angelina Jolie. Here’s the truth: we are running out of resources and we are running out of time.
The International Committee on Climate Change has said we have thee to five years to curb our ways or the current environmental disaster is irreversible. Irreversible means that the little economic hiccup we’re feeling today isn’t even the warn up round. It’s T-ball compared to the major leagues.You think the economy is bad now—wait a few years. Wait until we’re almost completely out of oil and food and water and available land and really I could go on for two more pages listing everything we’re running out of. Why? Because we are quite literally running out of everything. So how long do you have to wait to be starving, thirsty, and all the rest? Truthfully, it shouldn’t be long now.And the main reason it shouldn’t be long now is because there are already way too many of us. By now, everyone knows the current population stats.
The earth is close to holding 7 billion people. If things don’t stop soon, by 2050, conservative estimates put the number at 9.2 billion.I’ve written it before and I’ll write it again. Scientists studying the carrying capacity of the earth—that is how many of us can live here sustainably—have fluctuated massively. Wild-eyed optimists believe it’s close to 2 billion. Dour pessimists say 300 million. The point is that—and I’m going by the best of those figures—we need to lose 4.4 billion people and we need to lose them fast.I'm not advocating murder or euthanasia or anything along those lines, but something needs to be done. Not too long ago, one of my readers pointed out that I’m pretty good at pointing out what’s wrong in the world and lousy about pointing out solutions. So here’s my simple solution: Stop Having Children.I call it the 5 Year Ban. For the next five years let’s not have any kids. All of us. The whole freaking planet.I don’t think this should be a top down approach. I don’t mean a literal government ban. I mean a grassroots movement of responsible adults behaving like responsible adults. I mean a populist moratorium on childbirth.Why 5 years? Because it’s a manageable number. Because it would mean a billion less people. Because a billion less people is a good place to start.If everyone living on the planet today were really serious about, well, there being a planet left to live on, a planet left for our children to actually occupy, a planet that can actually sustain life. If we were serious then we would all be using birth control. All the time. And we would never stop using it. Don’t give me this nonsense about replacement children. About declining populations in Europe. What about Africa or Asia?
The downstream corollary to Thomas Freidman’s Flat Earth idea is, well, the world is flat. It’s small, it’s hot, and it’s crowded. What I do at my home in New Mexico effects not just my neighbors or my countrymen. It effects the whole world. Why? Because resources—the things we’re running out of—don’t give a damn for geography.The water coming out of the tap doesn’t care if it’s a Persian or a Nigerian who’s drinking it. There’s only so much to go around. We have spent the past 4000 years trying to shrug off the nightmare that is Biblical advice. We no longer sanction slavery or believe it okay to stone a woman to death for wearing sexy clothing or any of that other nonsense—but go forth and multiply? Got to be the worst advice in the history of the world.And sure, a five year ban won’t fix all of this and it raises some questions as well—like how do we insure that year six won’t produce an influx of offspring?
So here’s my answer: Personal responsibility. A grassroots movement means we mean it. It means people having children in year six would feel shame and embarrassment at their unbelievable selfishness.And yeah, if you are having children right now you are being selfish. You’re stealing. Stealing from the future. Stealing from the rest of humanity. Stealing from every living thing on the earth right now.The current planetary die off rate—meaning the rate at which species are going extinct—is a 1000 times greater than ever before in history. Why? Because humans—one species among millions—have stolen the food, the water, the space. And every time we bring more life into this world we’re increasing that theft exponentially. How do we stop a massive influx of kids in year six? Well, let’s not only stop having kids, let’s create adoption incentives.
There are tons of kids who need parents right now. A lot of them come from parts of the world where the main employment opportunities they’ll be offered in the future are criminal, soldier or terrorist, or some combination of the three. So we can adopt these kids now or fight them later—that’s the only choice here. Because that’s the other thing resource scarcity guarantees: war.We are soon going to be killing each other over resources, just like we’ve always killed each other over resources—only this next time it won’t be over something to put in our gas tanks. It’ll be over something to put in our belly.
And it won't be an isolated incident, it'll be a global catastrophe.That’s our future. That’s what happens if we don’t stop having children. In fact, if we don’t stop having children then we’re going to get to meet another bad Biblical idea head on: the four horseman of the apocalypse. Pestilence, War, Famine, Death.When John Kennedy said: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country,” he was trying to usher in an era of duty and sacrifice and real responsibility. We need another era like that, only we need this next one to be global.And this time, it’s a little easier. You don’t need to ask what you need to do for the world. You already know. Stop having children. It’s that easy.
The Five Year Ban Part II: Global Over-Population Re-Examined
So I made a lot of people very angry with my last post—understandable. The facts are scary and the truth uncomfortable. That said, a great many of my new fans have managed to skew what I wrote into incredibly peculiar directions. For error correction purposes, I’m going to devote my next few posts to different aspects of this topic.I want to start by reiterating what I'm saying and not saying. What I suggested was that we VOLUNTARILY stop having children for five years. I don't mean forever. I am not suggesting euthanasia or genocide or forced sterilization or top-down government mandates. I simply think we can give the planet a five year break.
Those five years would not solve the problem, but they would lower the current population numbers by a little less than a billion people and it would do so in a way that doesn’t require culling the herd through violence of any kind. In the choice between birth control and mass devastation, I'm picking birth control. Furthermore, for those who feel I’m a misanthrope, I would argue just the opposite. A misanthrope would want to see the human race disappear. I’m a pretty big fan of our species and would really like to prevent such a cataclysm. What I am suggesting is an easier (not in terms of emotional sacrifice, rather in terms of cost and method) way of giving us a chance to better our situation. While I did point out that most experts feel the earth has 4.4 billion too many people —I want to see humanity survive. I don't suggest killing off these people. I merely am pointing out what scientists have been pointing out for quite a while: that there are way too many of us.
My idea is a way to give these 4.4 billion extra folks a fighting chance in the years ahead. What do I mean by a fighting chance? Well, let’s first look at why we need that chance.Let’s start off by briefly examining some of the resource issues currently facing humanity. Peak oil is the one that gets the most attention, so I’ll begin there. The term itself refers to the point in time when the maximum rate of global petroleum extraction is reached, after which begins a long slow decline. It was coined by Shell Oil geoscientist M. King Hubbert in 1956. He then predicted that American oil production (mainly the big Texas fields) would peak between 1965-1970 and, well, he was right. In fact, his model, now called the Hubbert peak theory, has predicted—with a fair level of accuracy—the peak and decline in production of most of the oil fields around the globe.
According to a recent paper by Kjell Alklett, president of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil and physics professor at the Uppsala University in Sweden: “We have all been enjoying the greatest party the world has ever seen: the great oil party. After the climax comes the decline, when we have to sober up and face the fact that the party is coming to an end.” So maybe the Swedes got it wrong? Well, in the past few months everyone from the rather conservative former Fed chairman Alan Greenspan to scientists at MIThave concurred. The point is this: While people have gone back and forth about the when on the matter, the if is no longer in question.The pessimists say we already peaked back in the early 90s, Hubbert himself believed the year 2000 was the date, while the optimists feel we still have about ten to fifteen years until that happens. Meanwhile, a consortium of global geologists believe we’ve already tapped 94 percent of the world’s available oil.Maybe they're wrong. Maybe the optimists are correct and we still have a few years to party. Even so, it’s worth remembering that the oil that was floating closer to the surface of the earth (what we’ve already finished off) is far easier to access than the stuff that’s much deeper. Meaning the oil shocks of last summer and the five dollar a gallon price-at-the-pump was merely the warm up round.
Backing this point up is the 2007 Joint Association Survey of Drilling Costs which found that the oil industry spent 106 percent more to drill and equip wells in the US than they did in 2006, along the way setting all time record highs for production costs. And while running out of oil would put a huge dent in our drive-time habits (to say nothing of what it would do to industry), water is a much graver concern. Currently, water scarcity now effects four out of every ten people on the planet according to the World Health Organization. 1.2 billion people do not have access to clean water. 5 to 10 million people, mostly children, mostly in the third world, die each year because of this. Here, in America, scientists at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography in San Diego have forecast that Lake Mead and Lake Powell—the two largest reservoirs in the southwest United States could become “dead pools” within 13 years. The Ogallala Aquifer, the largest in the United States, contained more water than Lake Huron before electric pumping began. Since then, we have dropped those levels by 12 billion cubic meters a year—roughly 18 times the annual flow of the Colorado River.Here’s an even larger concern: less oil and less water means less food. A lot of my readers pointed out that Paul “Population Bomb” Ehrlich was drastically wrong in predicting that millions of people would starve to death in 1970s and 80s.
While I will address this more completely in future posts, for now let’s examine the shorthand version of why he was wrong.Ehrlich failed to foresee a massive innovation, specifically Norman Borlaug’s “Green Revolution” which raised food production levels higher than they’ve ever before been lifted. But how that happened is the more important concern. We achieved this food bounty by pouring massive amounts of oil (and water actually since a lot of that oil was used in pumping water out of aquifers to grow more crops) on our farm land. Modern agriculture is built around petrochemicals. Petrochemicals run our tractors, provide our pest control, ship our foods, power our big box supermarkets and do thousands of other little things along the way—so running out of oil and water also means we could start running out of food.And we’ve already started. 786 million people currently don't have enough to eat. In six of the last eight years world grain production has fallen short of consumption rates. And this is only going to get worse as global warming continues to take hold. In a July 2004 study done by the US National Academy of Sciences a team of researchers concluded—and this conclusion has since been accepted as a global rule of thumb—that for every 1 degree the planet’s temperature rises above normal levels, we will see a ten percent reduction in rice, corn and wheat yields.And the above constitutes a very, very, very abridged look at potential coming shortages.
For a better overview, check out “Global Trends 2025: A Transformed World,” prepared by the US National Intelligence Council which drew upon the input of hundreds of specialists from dozens of countries—including (for those who think this is just liberal fear mongering) mainstream think tanks like the Brookings Institution, the RAND Corporation and the American Enterprise Institute. All of these experts agreed that in 25 years the world will likely face greater shortages of water for drinking and farming, insufficient food to meet demand and serious competition for diminishing energy resources. For those who still think this is progressive claptrap, it’s worth pointing out that this report can be found here—on the CIA’s website.So what does all of this have to do with my proposed 5 Year Ban?
Simply put, I’m a big believer in human innovation and our ability to think and work our way out of this mess. But that thinking and that working is going to take time. So giving the earth a five year population break is a way of buying us some more time. Rather than being a vote for misanthropy, it’s a vote for humanity. All I’m proposing is that humanity take a short rest period while we try to solve the most dire threat to our species in the history of the world. Five years of breathing room to jumpstart an alternative energy revolution. Five years to stave off resource wars. Five years to help us help ourselves.Really, is that too much to ask?
The Five Year Ban Part III: Psychology and the Population Bomb: Why We Don't Want To Talk About Population
Since the topic at hand is population, I thought it would be helpful if I provided some numbers and some insight to back up what I’ve been calling a crisis. There are currently 6.7 billion people on the planet. Another 350,000 are born each day, another 150,000 die each day. The net result is 200,000 more humans with each passing twenty-four hours.The US population stands at 305 million people and is climbing fast. Every hour, California alone adds 60 people. According to data from the Pew Research Center, if current trends continue, the US will reach 438 million by 2050. According to the organization Population Environment Balance, 93 percent of the increase in energy use in the US since 1970 can be attributed to population growth. In 1970, our population was 200 million. We used 67 quadrillion BTUs of energy and 14.7 million barrels of oil a day. Today, even after a massive rise in energy-efficient appliances, with a population over 300 million, we use 100 quadrillion BTUs a day and consume 20 million barrels of oil. When I speak about concerns over peak oil—this is where those concerns originate.In 1900, there were 25.6 Americans per square mile. Today it’s 83—a tripling of our density. In the past 20 years, we’ve converted 10 million acres of forest to suburbs—that’s an area twice as large as Yosemite, Yellowstone, Shenandoah and Everglades National Parks combined. Every minute, the US loses 2 acres of farmland. Every year, we pave over an area the size of Delaware. When we talk about species dying off at a rate 1000 greater than ever before in history—it’s partially because we keep stealing their land.“Ecological Footprint” is a term used to measure an individual’s impact on the planet. As computed by the Global Footprint Network, the average American has a footprint equivalent to 9.4 global hectares (23.3 acres) or roughly 17 football fields. The average Haitian, by comparison, uses .5 global hectares—or 1.5 acres—to survive. Which is why exporting American culture and lifestyles is problematic.
If the rest of the world wants to live like we do, then we need five planets worth of resources to make that happen. This is also the reason I began calling for a 5 Year Global Moratorium on Childbirth and the reason I think that moratorium needs to emerge from the US first. As an American, I think it’s important to clean up my mess before telling the rest of the world how to live (I have no children, nor will I ever have any). Also because, as an American, I’m making the biggest mess.But America is only part of the problem. By 2050 Uganda’s population will grow from 27 million to 131 million. Niger from 14 to 50 million, Afghanistan from 30 to 82 million. Asia will add 500 million people by 2015. Which means, according to new figures released by the Global Footprint Network, the World Wildlife Fund and the Zoological Society of London, at the rate we’re going, by the early 2030s we will require two planets worth of resources to meet our needs. Interestingly, none of this knowledge is secret. It’s public data and widely available.
So the better question is why is there so much psychological resistance to discussions about the dangers of our population explosion.That question has lately come under some scrutiny. One of the better answers comes from “Why the Silence on Population,” a paper by UC Berkeley researcher Martha Campbell published in 2007 in the journal Population and Environment. “In the 1960s and 70s,” she writes, “much attention was paid to the world’s rapidly growing human population. The number of people on this planet stood at three billion in 1960 and it was poised to double before the end of the century. Between 1999 and 2050 that number will likely expand by another three billion, yet in contrast there has been nothing but silence. The subject of population has all but disappeared from the media in the past 25 years.” She then goes onto describe a perfect storm of six elements that have come together to create this silence:
1. Birth rates have actually dropped worldwide—and this shift has been widely described by the media. Family planning programs in less developed countries has dropped the average number of kids from 5 to 3 per woman. If you were wondering, 2.1 kids is the so-called “replacement rate,” the number at which we reach “zero-population growth.”
2. Much attention has now been placed on the high level of impact that consumption puts on the environment. Since there is a link between smaller families and better economic well-being, this drop in family size has actually increased the amount of consumption in the world. “The third element in the perfect storm,” again I’m quoting Campbell, “has a different origin. Anti-abortion activists, religious leaders and conservative think tanks have been influential in reducing attention to population growth.”
The incredible scale of the global AIDs epidemic has done two things. A great example of this being that most of us now believe the term “Malthusian”—after the English economist Thomas Malthus who warned of the dangers of population growth and resource scarcity almost 200 years ago—has become a dirty word. When I wrote my first post (the original Five Year Ban) my critics called me Malthusian. All I can say to that is ‘thank you very much.’
4. It has forced international health dollars, which were once directed towards family planning, into AIDs prevention and relief. Secondly, it has made many people believe that AIDs is “taking care” of the population problem. Uganda, which has a heartbreaking problem with AIDs, is still going to quadruple its population by 2050.
5. In 1994 the United Nations International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) became the turning point in the removal of the subject from policy discourse. “In the run-up to ICPD,” writes Campbell, “and following the two-week conference in Cairo, talking about population became politically incorrect in many circles. Drawing attention to any connection between population and the environment became taboo—again, because it was viewed, or promoted, as disadvantageous to women.” The idea was that pre-Cairo, all discussion over family planning—partially because of what happened in India and China (infant girls being killed, wives beaten for birthing girls)—became seen as coercion. “Population control” became a non-subject. Instead, discussion about family planning, pregnancy, childbirth was bundled into the term “reproductive health” and talk of population and its negative impacts was essentially forbidden.
6. This last one is slightly harder to understand, but we've come to believe that economics is the main driver behind smaller family size. Essentially, we’ve been taught that when a couple achieves a certain level of economic stability, they will magically stop having as many children. In fact, the truth is that the real measure of how many children a woman will have is actually a woman’s access to information and birth control. It’s just that right now rich women have easier access to these things than poor women, so that’s where we see the greatest effect.
To this I would add something I mentioned in my last post—the fact that Paul Ehrlich, author of “The Population Bomb,” predicted widespread starvation in the 70s and 80s. This was averted by the “Green Revolution,” which was nothing more than the massive application of petrochemicals to agriculture. This oil influx greatly increased food yields so mass starvation was averted. Unfortunately, since we’re now running out of those petrochemicals, things are going to start sliding in the other direction pretty fast. Which is to say, the crisis wasn’t averted at all. It was merely delayed a dew decades. Well, those decades are now coming to a close and it’s high time we start talking about population problems again. Why? As Dr. Martin Luther King pointed out in 1966: “There is no human circumstance more tragic than the persisting existence of a harmful condition for which a remedy is readily available. Family planning, to relate population to world resources, is possible, practical and necessary. Unlike plagues of the dark ages or contemporary diseases we do not yet understand, the modern plague of overpopulation is solvable by means we have discovered and with resources we possess.”
The Five Year Ban Part IV: Ecopsychology and the End of the World
I have been discussing population for the last few posts, and on my last installment in this series, I wanted to discuss the psychology behind why many of my readers still have difficulty grasping the message.
I don't mean this in a disrespectful manner. In fact, there is now an entire branch of psychology that deals with this sort of problem.
It emerged in 1982, when Professor of Human Ecology at Pitzer College in Claremont, California, the late Paul Shepard, extended James Lovelock's Gaia (developed while Lovelock was working for NASA, the idea earth is a giant interconnected superorganism) and Arne Naess' Deep Ecology (essentially the philosophical outgrowth of Gaia, sometimes called biotic egalitarianism) into the realm of the psychological, proposing in his book Nature and Madness that if there are profound and innate links between the planet and the human beings, those links extend to the human mind-and that by wantonly destroying the former we are simultaneously ravaging the latter-quite literally driving ourselves mad one clear cut forest at a time.
Shepard's arrived at this conclusion by thinking about how evolution shaped the human brain to shrink complexity by categorization. Our brains slot everything into small boxes. Part of this is our primate ancestry where divisions between ‘us' and 'them' were often critical to survival and part came about during the development of language, when the act of giving names to things required us to first put them in categories. Since those categories were based on what we saw around us, early language acted as our bridge to the natural world. The letter "A" comes from the Hebrew world "aleph" which means, among other things, oxen. Which is why, when you'll you turn an "A" upside down, you get a pictograph of an oxen head.
Overall, Shepard's work dealt with this process of categorization and how it affected the development of human intelligence. He realized it wasn't just that language was based on a connection to natural world, it was nearly everything else as well. Humans spent 99 percent of their existence as hunter-gatherers, which means the entire architecture of the higher cortex has been built atop the scaffolding of the great outdoors. When Shepard talks about humans being driven mad by environmental devastation, he's actually concerned with what happens when the very things that taught us how to think disappear.
Since publication, these ideas have been authenticated and expanded and now form the foundation of the multidisciplinary field of ecopsychology. Blending ecology, neuroscience, sociology, psychology, environmental science- to name a few-ecopsychology concerns itself with everything from reestablishing our connection to the natural world to the emotional problem of confronting what Harvard psychiatrist and founder of the Center for Psychological and Social Change, John Mack, once called "the agonizing murder of the life systems on Earth."
Experimental validation for ecopsychology can now be found everywhere. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, according to research conducted by the Hurricane Katrina Advisory Group, the rates of severe mental illness jumped from 6.1 percent to 11.3 percent among those who lived in the area. Mild-to-moderate mental illness also doubled, from 9.7 to 19.9 percent.
But it's not only reactions to environmental disaster triggering such emotions. Most eco-psychologists have come to feel that the nearly 10 percent of adult Americans who suffer from mood disorders do so because of a lack of contact with wilderness. One of the studies backing this up appeared in the October 2008 in the journal Nature, when researchers at the University of Illinois found a 20 minute walk in the woods out-performed all the drugs currently on the market for the treatment of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) in children.
But if there are profound links between ourselves and our eco-systems, one of the difficult questions for eco-psychology to answer is why aren't more of us insane. After all, as James Gustav Speth, Dean of the Yale School of Forestry, recently pointed out: "Half of the world's tropical and temperate forests are now gone. The rate of deforestation in the tropics continues at an acre a second, and has for decades. Half of the planet's wetlands are gone. An estimated 90 percent of large predator fish are gone, and 75 percent of marine fisheries are now overfished or fished to capacity. Almost half the corals are gone or are seriously threatened. Species are disappearing at rates 1,000 times faster than normal. The planet has not seen such a spasm of extinction in 65 million years, since the dinosaurs disappeared." The answer seems to be that we are all slightly insane, only not perceptive enough to notice. This happens because of the familiar Freudian trait: denial. In her essay The Skill of Ecological Perception, the visual psychologist Laura Sewall examines this denial, which she calls our "psychic numbing," a sort of collective defense mechanism that "shields us from fully experiencing the latest reports on ozone depletion, increasing pollution, toxicity, poverty, illness, and the death of species." Not surprisingly, this condition has been repeatedly linked to the pathology narcissism-which is both a case of massive self-aggrandizement and an inability to understand that the boundaries of self frequently extend beyond the confines of skin.
One of the ways this denial has been found to work is in our evaluation of gradual change, like the kind produced by climate change. Humans and frogs are not too different in that if you put either of species in the proverbial pot, and bring it to boil slowly enough, because the brain is so well-designed to notice rapid and sudden changes in its surroundings, it often fails to notice gradual increases in danger until it's mostly too late.
Recently, the magazine New Scientist asked British biochemist James Lovelock, both the man who created the Gaia Hypothesis and the man whose work on atmospheric chlorofluorocarbons led to the global CFC ban that saved us, literally, from ozone layer depletion, if there was any hope for humanity now.
"I'm an optimistic pessimist," said Lovelock. "I think it's wrong to assume we'll survive a 2 degree warming: there are already too many people on earth. At 4 degrees we could not survive with one-tenth the current population. The reason is we would not find enough food (for every one degree the globe warms rice, corn and grain yields will drop by 10 percent), unless we synthesized it. Because of this, the cull during this century is going to be huge, up to 90 percent. The number of people remaining at the end of the century will probably be a billion or less. It's happened before: between ice ages there were bottlenecks where there were only 2000 people left. It's happening again."
Ecopsychologists believe to heal ourselves, we simultaneously need to heal the planet. The first step of this, as Sewall examines in a great essay called The Skill of Environmental Perception, is in learning to pay attention to the natural world. We have to start to notice the tiny details, so we can start to notice the awesome danger those details are adding towards.
So we can act.
For the past four blogs, I've been proposing a Five Year Ban-a voluntary, grassroots-based, worldwide five year moratorium on childbirth. Five years lowers the earth's population by a billion people. It means the food that we're going to run out of will go a lot farther. It means the carbon we're pumping into the earth's atmosphere will be pumped slightly slower-maybe even giving us time to figure out how to slow it down further, or perhaps reverse the effects. Five years to buy us some time.
Why do we need such a radical solution? because Lovelock's not alone out there. One of the main reasons I decided to put forth the idea of a five year ban is because I'm not like most of my fellow PT bloggers. They are primarily academics and clinicians. I am a science writer and environmental reporter. I spend most of my day talking to academics, clinicians and researchers-all scientists at the top of the fields. For the past five years, in talking to these people-and I talk to as many ecologists as I do weapons designers so my inquiries cut across all political lines-researchers familiar with the facts have nearly unanimously echoed Lovelock's concerns.
In proposing a Five-Year Ban what I'm asking is for people to make a choice. Do we want to lower our current population numbers voluntarily, or do we want nature to do it for us?
And I've been asking this because really, there's no other choice.