Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Re: Ten reasons why population control can’t stop climate change

This is a response to the essay found here:
Ten reasons why population control can’t stop climate change
1. Population does not cause climate change
2. The world is not ’full’
3. Social justice and contraception
4. The climate emergency demands immediate, transformative action now
5. Population arguments wrongly downplay the potential to win
6. Population control is an old argument tacked onto a new issue
7. Arguing for tighter migration restrictions in Australia is a dangerous policy
8. Population control has a disturbing history
9. People in the global South are part of the solution, not the problem
10. Who holds political power is the real ‘population’ issue
My response:
Speaking as a "leftie," Mr. Butler makes the same mistakes that most "lefties" do, and one is akin to the primary mistake that economists make: the invisible hand is invisible for a reason; it doesn't exist. What's best for one is supposed to be what is best for all, but this is never true in specific, thus we have the current economic madness visited upon us. The rich bankers of the world decided they had conquered risk and were far more important to the planet than, say, farmers. So they screwed us all for their own profits.

The same problem exists with regard to population. People will not stop having children "just because." They will do it once they are able to, via services and products not available to many, and once they are (relatively) wealthy. The problem here is, poverty is forever. There is only so much pie and there are always those who take more than an equal portion, particularly in a capitalist system (though we see this in every and any system). This will never change. Now, I would love to see a steady-state economy. I just don't think I ever will.

Thus, Mr. Butler's utopian view of population is a good way to get us all killed.

Mr. Butler's worst offense is to simply ignore three other factors: exponents, energy decline and Liebig's Law of the Minimum. These are all intricately woven together. Mr. Butler may want to look at consumption and population in the U.S. as an example of how not to think about population. Despite large gains in efficiency, the US continues to increase its consumption of energy. Curious! If we have become more efficient, and in some measures much, much more efficient, why has energy use continued to increase? The answer is obvious: population continues to increase. And it always will without some form of population control.

In fact, sustainable societies typically do manage population. One I read of, perhaps in Jared Diamond's Collapse, was a tribe that had lived for thousands of years in the same area. They were able to because they practiced infanticide of ill, weak, malformed babies, sent elderly people off to fend for themselves, practiced birth control and managed sexual behavior. I'm not an advocate of infanticide, forced sterilization, etc., but we must do something.

I recommend listening to Dr. Al Bartlett's lecture on this topic.

And here are a few of my thoughts. Recommended readings/listenings, really:

Energy decline due to falling extraction of our most intensive source of energy, oil, means that per capita energy is falling. Falling energy = falling society. Everything we do takes energy and as the world aspires to the standard of living in the developed nations (at a minimum of ten barrels of oil a year/person, which is about 17 years of oil if we all live the same), that energy demand increases. It overtakes efficiency gains. You simply can't ignore Diminishing Returns.

Even if we move to all-renewables, eventually we run into Liebig's Law of the Minimum. That is, the weakest link. A system is only as robust as its weakest link, and a supply chain is only as long as its rarest resource/raw material. Even now, issues are cropping up with rare earth metals, 95% of which are apparently controlled by China.

Exponents. Energy. Minimums.

Population matters, Mr. Butler, and it is ignorance (non-pejorative sense) on your part that allows you to falsely reassure yourself and your readers otherwise.



  1. Both population and consumption are a problem. However, with 15% the world's population consuming 50% its resources, consumption is a bigger problem.

    Australia, the US and NZ make up 5% of the world's population, but cause 25% of greenhouse gas emissions; we need to get under 15% of current emissions to avoid catastrophic climate change. So 95% of the world's population could disappear overnight, and we'd still get catastrophic climate change. Woops.

    Consumption is a more quickly dealt-with problem. That is, we in the West could halve our consumption within a month or so without any degradation in lifestyle, and by 75-90% within a decade with some investment and no decline in lifestyle. But it's not possible to humanely reduce anyone's population by 50% within a month or so, or 75-90% within a decade.

    It's not really a lefty-righty issue. A family of 7 have a grocery bill of $600 a week, and can only afford $100. However, 6 of them eat $50 each, and 1 of them eats $300 worth. The grossly obese one says to the other 7 skinny ones, "this family is too big."

    Maybe so, but it's a lot easier for him to stop pigging out than it is to kick people out of the family.

  2. You're splitting hairs. We both obviously agree population and consumption are both problems. In fact, they are two sides of the same coin. Targeting one over the other when the problems we face are so broad, multifaceted and urgent doesn't get us much of anywhere. We will manage both or we will succeed with neither.


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