Lack of Environment

A blog on the politics and psychology underlying the denial of all our environmental problems

Archive for the ‘optimum population’ Category

The population consumption environment nexus

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Today’s post is that which was intended for last Monday.  However, thanks to the happy coincidence of incoming information, Monday’s post was taken up with summarising an 11-year old presentation by Dr Albert A. Bartlett, entitled ‘Arithmetic, Population and Energy’, which is the best summary I have yet seen of the insidious problems caused by exponential growth.  Even if you think you understand the maths – and are familiar with concepts such as doubling time and illustrations such as 264 grains of rice on a chessboard – it is still worth watching the a series of eight 9-minute videos, or entire presentation, posted on YouTube.  This is primarily because of all the evidence Bartlett presents, which suggests that anyone who says exponential growth and/or resource depletion is not a problem is either stupid or a liar.  It really is that simple.

However, I should also wish to draw attention to two further happy coincidences – two recent posts by fellow bloggers that are well worth reading:
1. “The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function.” – another post about Bartlett’s presentation by Jules Bywater-Lees.
2. The Great Unmentionable by George Monbiot – a self-explanatory post by Paul Handover.

Today, then, I will finally get round to summarising the recently-published paper by economist Partha S. Dasgupta and biologist Paul R. Ehrlich, entitled ‘Pervasive Externalities at the Population, Consumption, and Environment Nexus’.  As I said on Monday, the abstract is viewable on the Science journal website, but, having done a quick Google search, I found the entire paper published as a PDF by Dasgupta on the website of Cambridge University.  Here, then, is my summary of  the paper:

‘Pervasive Externalities at the Population, Consumption, and Environment Nexus’, by Partha S. Dasgupta and Paul R. Ehrlich.

Introduction (in lieu of Abstract)
The authors start by pointing out that externalities (i.e. unintended consequences) in economics are widely acknowledged but generally relate to human use of the natural environment.  Thus, people talk about our collective failure to value the essential ecosystem services Nature provides.  In strict contrast to this, the authors suggest that the adverse consequences of resource consumption and population growth are generally not acknowledged.

Reproductive Externalities
The authors then begin by suggesting that birth rates in Europe began to decline 400 years ago as a result of improvements in the standard of living of most people because, almost counter intuitively, it led to people delaying marriage and childbirth until they could afford to set up their own household.  However, birth rates in developed countries have since fallen much further and faster with improvements to the education and emancipation of women; and the advent and acceptance of contraception.

The authors note that, today, population growth is greatest in poor countries.  However, unlike Bartlett, they do not acknowledge that per-capita rates of consumption make modest population growth in wealthy countries even more problematic.  Instead, the authors focus on the factors that continue to encourage high birth rates in poor countries (in sub-Saharan Africa in particular).

Under the title ‘pro-natalist institutions’, the authors discuss societal norms such as the fostering of children by non-biological parents; communal land tenure (as opposed to the division of land amongst children that could discourage large families).  Although seemingly careful not to mention the effect of religious beliefs, the largely “unmet need” for family planning is acknowledged.  The authors also seem to be optimistic that lowering birth rates can be achieved faster through increasing access to contraception than it may be by improving education.  Irrespective of how it is achieved, the authors acknowledge that achieving it will be essential to halting global human population growth.  Notwithstanding, for the moment, that the ecological carrying capacity of the planet may have already been exceeded, the authors point out that whether or not global human population growth stabilises depends mainly on average family size in the future.

Under the title ‘conformity’, the authors discuss the reality that people continue to have large families long after the original reason for doing so (e.g. high infant mortality and lack of good healthcare or social welfare) has diminished or disappeared.  On a more positive note, the authors suggest that the desire to conform can be broken if a big enough minority can be encouraged to modify their behaviour (i.e. and defy convention).

Under the title ‘breakdown of the commons and the added need for labour’, the authors discuss the externalities arising from the predominance of subsistence economies.  These are the things that keep poor people poor, such as the labour intensive nature of many agricultural practices in the absence of mechanisation; and the fact that children who are fetching water, gathering fuel, working the land, or looking after animals are often missing out on being educated as a result.

Consumption Externalities
The authors start by stating the obvious: the consumption (and depletion) of resources has consequences for both current and future generations.  In terms of consequences for people alive today, the most obvious adverse consequence of resource consumption – or rather pollution by the waste being generated – is highlighted as being ongoing global climate disruption.  The authors then focus on what drives us to consume things and to do ‘competitively’ and ‘conspicuously’ (i.e. to equate consumption with progress, fulfilment, and happiness).  Here too, the authors highlight the troubling reality of social conformity as a driver of persistently self-destructive behaviour.

Environmental Externalities
Once again, the authors acknowledge previous discussion (in academic literature) of anthropogenic impacts upon the environment and choose to focus on those that are detrimental.  They suggest that these can be categorised as either unidirectional or reciprocal:  the former being impacts the authors describe as “externalities each party inflicts… on all others, as in the case of unmanaged common property resources”.   The authors then highlight that, unlike commonly owned resources at a local level, global resources that are not owned by anybody (such as the atmosphere and the  fish in the sea) tend to be become polluted or over-exploited.

Difficulties in Enacting Policies to Counter Externalities
The authors begin their discussion of all of the above by lamenting the popular misconception by economists of Nature as something that is “a fixed, indestructible factor of production”.  This rather opaque statement incorporates a variety of fallacies, including that Nature has only instrumental value; that it has an infinite capacity to provide resources for our use; and that it has an infinite capacity to assimilate (or recycle) the wastes we generate.  These are all serious misperceptions of reality:  Nature’s resources are finite and its essential ecosystem services are non-substitutable.  For example, if human activity continues to decimate bee populations, at what point will it start to impact upon our ability to grow fruit and cereal crops?  Indeed, is this not already happening?

As in many other discussions of the environment, the authors highlight the non-linearity of many processes in Nature; and the existence of positive (i.e. self-reinforcing or mutually-destructive) feedback mechanisms.  Thus, they construct the population consumption environment nexus as three corners of a triangle with each having an effect upon – and being affected by – the others. Towards the end of their discussion, the authors highlight the fact that 15 of the 24 major ecosystem services examined in the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment were found to be either degraded or currently subjected to unsustainable use.

Even more worryingly, they cite the conclusions of numerous other studies that, if all 7 billion of the people on the planet today were to squander resources at the rate at which those who are already wealthy do, “at least two more Earths would be needed to support everyone on a sustained basis”.  Considering the consensus view of UN statisticians that, on its current trajectory, the world population could exceed 10 billion by 2050, the authors make the obvious point that, if realised, “the demands made on the Earth system will prove to be even more unsustainable”.

So it is, then, that the authors end their discussion of the issues by considering the prospects for technology alone to solve this problem.  They start by noting that technology does not operate in a vacuum (i.e. it too consumes resources) and that innovators respond to incentives (so government policies are important).   Reflecting recent pronouncements by the IMF, the authors highlight the fact that Nature’s essential ecosystem services are currently grossly under-valued (e.g. the price of fossil fuels does not currently reflect the damage our use of them does to our environment).  The authors also cite historical and empirical evidence that suggests that innovation and technology has historically increased unemployment; and archaeological evidence that past civilisations collapsed as a result of degradation of their environment or an inability to respond fast enough to environmental change.  This should be of great concern to all humans alive today, because the current rates of environmental change are almost certainly unprecedented in the period of time over which such civilisations have existed.

I will let the authors’ conclusion speak for itself:

Although their magnitudes are likely to differ across societies, owing to differences in societal histories, institutions, customs, and ecologies, the reproductive and consumption externalities we have identified here share striking commonalities. Moreover, the analysis has uncovered reasons why technological innovations since the Industrial Revolution have been rapacious in their reliance on natural capital. We have shown that the externalities studied in this paper are not self-correcting. Therefore, the analysis we have presented points to a spiralling socio-environmental process, giving credence to the presumption that the pattern of contemporary economic growth is unsustainable.

Domestic abuse on a planetary scale

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The UK Home Office is currently running a hard hitting campaign to highlight the common truth that both victims and perpetrators of domestic abuse cannot recognise (or admit) the nature of their situation.  The campaign is entitled, ‘If you could see yourself would you see abuse?’  Here is an example:

Is this where humanity is at today?  Are we in denial about what we have done – and are doing – to the planet?  I think many of us are.  Therefore:
— On Monday, I re-published an article written by the Executive Director of CIWEM, Nick Reeves, highlighting the modern delusion that perpetual growth can be sustainable.
— On Wednesday, I published a summary of a conversation with a technological optimist who seems to want to insist that human ingenuity means that resources are effectively infinite.
— Today, I want to bring things full-circle to consider the ultimate problem, the numbers of human beings on the planet.

How Many People Can Live On Planet Earth?
This was the title of a BBC Horizon programme first broadcast just over a year ago, narrated by Sir David Attenborough.  If you have never seen it – and even if you have – it is well worth watching.  However, at nearly an hour long, many may not watch it, so I will summarise it below.

In his own lifetime, octogenarian, Sir David has witnessed the human population of the planet triple.  It is now seven times what it was before the Industrial Revolution; and the UN predict that, unless ecological limits intervene to prevent it, there could be anything between 9 and 15 billion by the end of this Century.  A great deal depends on the education and emancipation of women:  Given the health and freedom to choose, well-educated women choose not to have big families.  Therefore, authoritarian government policies including enforced sterilisation and fines for having more than one child are not required.

However, all that is required to ensure that there will be over 9 billion humans by 2050 is for all the teenagers alive today to survive to be grandparents.  This is the problem; and the programme examines three reasons why it is a problem, namely: Water, Food, and Energy.

This is what the mismanagement of water resources looks like

The programme points out that there is no more water on the Earth today than there was 4600 million years ago:  Most of it is salty and will kill you if you drink it; and most of the 1% that is fresh water is locked-up in glaciers and ice caps.  Already, today, 1 billion people do not have access to clean water.  Is it really sensible to suggest that water scarcity is not going to be a problem in the future when it is already one now?

Growing food needs lots of water; a very significant proportion of available freshwater is already used for agriculture.  In the last 50 years land-locked surface water drainage systems like those that feed the Aral Sea (in the former USSR) and Lake Chad (in Africa) have been so over-exploited for agricultural purposes that, today, both bodies of water have almost disappeared (i.e. they are about 10% of their former size).

The mechanisation of farming and the widespread use of artificial pesticides and fertilisers (derived from hydrocarbons and phosphate) enabled massive increases in agricultural productivity and efficiency.  In the last half century alone, such technology has resulted in a fivefold increase in crop yields.  Surely, it is delusional to think this can continue indefinitely?  To borrow a phrase from the sphere of stock market traders, “past performance does not guarantee future returns on your investment”.  Talking of investment, many governments (like China) are already buying up land in other countries to feed their own people:  This has already produced the insane situation in which countries like Ethiopia (that cannot feed their own people) are being used by foreign governments to grow food that is then exported to be consumed by others.  Where is the justice in that?

More humans will use more energy and, unless each one of us starts using much less of it, there will soon not be enough to go around.  This is already a genuine concern to many governments around the World (although many do not admit it publicly).

Here in the UK, we face record high energy prices and increasing energy insecurity as a result of the failure of successive governments to plan ahead; and encourage as many people as possible to become energy-independent (by generating their own electricity from renewable sources).  Had they done this, we would not now need to consider implementing massive new power distribution networks that will disfigure our countryside far more than do any number of windfarms.   Therefore, with the possible exception of the long term implications of an ageing population, the failure to facilitate the decentralisation and decarbonisation of our power generation systems is probably the greatest political failure in modern Britain.

On a global scale, therefore, it is little wonder that Clive Hamilton has described the anthropogenic climate disruption that we now see unfolding around us as “a failure of modern politics”.

Towards the end of the programme, Sir David Attenborough cites the work of Professor William E. Rees at the University of British Columbia.  It is Rees that first came up with the concept of ecological carrying capacity.  Attenborough summarises Rees’ work by saying that the Earth might be able to support 15 billion people if everyone was living like people in many poor countries today but only 1.5 billion if everyone was living like people do in the USA.  There are many who think even this is insanely optimistic:  This is because the greater the amount by which we humans exceed the Earth’s ecological carrying capacity, the greater the amount by which that capacity is ultimately reduced.  That being the case, the fact that the Earth supported 1 billion humans for tens of thousands of years prior to the Industrial Revolution may well now be irrelevant.,ecological_scarcity.html

So, then, is it about time that we humans admitted that we have been guilty of domestic abuse on a planetary scale?  I for one think that it is.

Does that make me anti-human, anti-progress, anti-Western, or anti-Capitalist?  No, it does not:  As I said on Wednesday, it just makes me an environmental realist.  It just makes me someone who recognises that, unless we stop abusing our environment, we will eventually make life impossible for many millions if not billions of our fellow humans; and consign a significant proportion of all known life-forms to the pages of our natural history textbooks.  As one of my regular readers, Pendantry, would undoubtedly point out, I think we really are living in The Age of Stupid.

End ecocide in Europe (and the World)

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I am not sure what good it will do unless the whole World decides to stop self-harming as well but…

Image credit : End Ecocide in Europe

If you live in the EU please sign-up here to help stop ecocide in Europe (thanks Pendantry).


One way to stop Ecocide in Europe would be to stop Hydraulic Fracturing from going ahead in your neighbourhood.  The best way to do this would be to form or join a local protest group:  See the Frack-Off website for details.

As a hydrogeologist who has spent many years working on Landfill sites, I am well acquainted with methane; and how it is better to burn it than to let it escape into the atmosphere.  Therefore, even if you discount all the immediate environmental hazards associated with fracking, you should be very concerned about the uncontrolled releases of methane that will occur if fracking becomes common practice.  As per my recent blog post, Stephen Leahy explains why here.

Meanwhile, on the subject of those immediate environmental risks, here is the inside story from someone who was, until comparatively recently, directly involved; environmental scientist Jessica Ernst (thanks Christine).


Ultimately, of course, ecocide will only be avoided if we stop doing the things that are causing it.  And the main thing we are doing that is causing it – is growing in numbers in the absence of predators; consuming exponentially-increasing amounts of food and water; and producing exponentially-increasing amounts of waste.  This is no idle piece of misanthropic rhetoric – it is a cold hard fact.

Louise Gray published a short article on the Telegraph website yesterday, in which she cites Sir David Attenborough as having described humans as a plague on the Earth that need to be controlled by limiting population growth.  This has attracted an  an awful lot of attention and comment; most of it negative; and some of it very unpleasant.  What I find most astonishing is the inability of so many admittedly-self-selected people to appreciate the difference between ideology and science.   Furthermore, despite little evidence of scientific training in many of their comments, they seem content to accuse Attenborough of being a bad scientist; a bad person; and of peddling bad ideology.  All this reality inversion prompted this comment from me:

Absolutely stupendous amounts of Dunning-Kruger Effect in evidence here:  Despite the fact that only 49% of the population can be better-than-average at doing anything — and a far smaller percentage are likely to know what they are talking about in this instance — the fallacy of the marketplace of ideas is clearly the intellectual fortress to which the ideologically-prejudiced retreat when confronted with the scientific realities of Nature.

A few hours earlier I had found it necessary to respond to a particularly stupid assertion (that every human could be given 1000 square feet and there would still be room for plenty more) by saying this:

You need to look up the terms “ecological carrying capacity” and “overpopulation” in a reputable scientific dictionary.  The latter is dependent on the former – which is specific to local conditions – so even one person per square mile makes a desert overpopulated.

If you think that a seven-fold increase in the human population since the Industrial Revolution is not a problem – especially as we are running out of the “cheap” energy that facilitated it – you are picking a fight with basic biological science: Populations of any species are limited by food supply and by predation.  Humans have no predators but, having ignored (or disputed) the warnings for decades, we are now beginning to see people fighting over access to clean water and food; or at very least complaining about the price of life’s essentials – hence the Arab Spring.

The writing is very much on the wall.  We ignore it (or dispute the fact that it is there) at our peril.

The future is already here

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I happened to turn on the BBC News TV channel over the weekend and caught the tail-end of the video below – entitled India’s Water Crisis.  However, upon investigation, I discovered this had been first broadcast over six months ago.  If you have not seen this, I really do think you should watch it.  It is only 22 minutes long but, if even that would be a challenge, you could watch and listen to this 3-minute audio slide show on the BBC website instead.

As part of my MA, I researched the water supply problems China faces in the Yellow River basin, which I summarised on my blog last year (starting here).  In this video, narrated and presented by Jill McGivering, we see a depressingly-familiar picture unfolded in graphic detail; regarding India’s most sacred river – the Ganges:  For example, at Varanasi, the River Ganges is now one of the most polluted rivers in the World – due to the amounts of untreated sewage, industrial effluent, and cremated bodies that are being continually put into it there.  The latter is an issue that I touched upon over a year ago (in ‘The pollution of death’ [14 December 2011]).

The problems the above practices cause are compounded by the fact that the flow in the Ganges is kept very low as a result of the amount of water abstracted from it in order to provide water for cities like India’s capital – New Delhi.

Meanwhile, the groundwater table in rural areas is falling faster than it has ever been known to in the past – not really that surprising given that it is being abstracted faster than ever – because there are more people living in India than ever before.

People who say population growth in the developing world is a non-problem need to watch this video; stop trying to pick a fight with history and science; and start dealing with the nature of reality:  All our environmental problems are limits to growth phenomena; and we will not begin to solve them until ideologically-prejudiced economists, politicians, religious leaders – and unduly optimistic people everywhere – stop denying the nature of reality.

If they do not embrace reality soon, I am seriously concerned about the potential for civil disorder and even war that would seem an almost inevitable consequence of water scarcity such as we now see in rural India; where people are already spending a fifth (20%) of their income on water.

Written by Martin Lack

14 January 2013 at 00:02

Deckchair fight on sinking Titanic

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Yesterday, on Learning from Dogs, Paul Handover re-published an essay by Gail Tverberg, who writes the Our Finite World blog.  On her About page, Gail describes herself as… “an actuary interested in finite world issues – oil depletion, natural gas depletion, water shortages, and climate change.”

The post in question, on Gail’s Our Finite World blog is ‘Climate Change: The Standard Fixes Don’t Work’.  It is quite long but well worth a read because, as I have myself commented (on her blog):

It is nice to see someone not shying away from the inconvenient truth that all our environmental problems can be boiled down to Limits to Growth phenomena. A frontier mentality was OK when early European settlers spread out across the New World; today it is not. When you live alone in a wilderness, it is safe to use a passing river as a source of water, a washroom, and a toilet; but when you live in a Mumbai slum, it is not. Over-population is not a magic number; it is a function of our environment. One person per probably makes a desert over-populated.

To understand why I said this, you could do a lot worse than read the short series of posts I made on this blog, starting exactly a year ago today, regarding the 1996 book by Paul and Anne Ehrlich, entitled The Betrayal of Science and Reason. It could just as easily have been written today because, sadly, very little has changed (apart from our problems have grow far more acute as a result of their generally having been ignored).

With the benefit of her actuarial expertise, Gail summarises all the reasons why our politicians need to wake up; because they (and most of humanity with them) are in the middle of sleepwalking us all into an ecological catastrophe.

  • In 1992, the World got together and agreed to start trying to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.  We failed.  Since 2002, global emissions have accelerated.
  • For decades, people have dismissed the idea that oil production might peak soon as foolish nonsense.  It is not dismissed as such today.  Today, Peak Oil is a reality; one that is driving global economic stagnation.
  • Echoing the points made by Dr Samuel Alexander of the Simplicity Institute, Gail highlights the Perfect Storm of problems arising from the urgent need to decarbonise our economies; and the fact that many of the things we need to do to achieve that ultimate goal will require fossil fuel to be used.
  • Echoing the points made by Garrett Hardin in his 1968 ‘ Tragedy of the Commons’ paper, Gail highlights the essential need for a global solution, globally implemented (because otherwise those who do not implement the solution will gain an economic advantage over those that do).

And so Gail goes on…


I suspect my pessimism is an artefact of my being unemployed and – seemingly – unable to challenge the collective hypnosis with which our politicians (and most people) seem to be afflicted.

Accusing someone of “re-arranging the deckchairs on the Titanic” is a grossly over-used analogy but that is not what we are doing.  Humanity today has gone way beyond just re-arranging the deckchairs.  As more and more of them float off into the icy water, like people involved in some insanely short-sighted game of musical chairs, many of us seem determined to fight over the dwindling number that remain.

I will close by quoting the words of Film Director James Cameron (for context see my post in April this year):

The human population of the Earth today is analogous to the passengers on the ‘unsinkable’ Titanic. Due to a combination of arrogance and hubris it was considered ‘too big to fail’; and where have we heard that before?… Firstly, the big machine of the Titanic is like the huge system that is modern civilisation today. The Titanic had huge momentum and could not quickly turn away from disaster [even if the wheel was turned the right way]. Secondly, it carried First, Second and Third Class passengers, which are analogous to citizens of Developed, Emerging, and Less Developed economies; wherein the poorest will be the worst affected by climate change [only 25% of Third Class passengers survived – compared with 60% of First Class]. Thirdly, we can now see the iceberg [i.e. anthropogenic climate disruption (ACD)] very clearly but, even so, we cannot turn away from it because of the political momentum of our fossil fuel based systems. There are too many people making money out of the system the way the system works right now. Those people are in control and until they relinquish control and/or turn the wheel [the right way] we are not going to avoid hitting the iceberg… When we hit it, the rich will still maintain their access to land, food and water; whereas the poorest will lose it… This story [of the Titanic] will always fascinate people because it is such a perfect analogy for our current predicament.

The immaculate conception of climate change denial

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This is a public service announcement for the attention of all those who, despite everything, continue to tell themselves anthropogenic climate disruption (ACD) is not happening:


The problem here is your a priori assumption that environmental concern is politically motivated. Unless or until you are willing to question this misconception yourself, I cannot really help you engage with reality. I will therefore be brief:

Limits to Growth is not an “agenda” – it is a biological reality: Populations increase unless or until predation and/or food supply intervene to stop them.

If there is no water or food available (or capable of being grown), even a desert can be over-populated – telling yourself it ain’t so does not change reality of what is currently happening in Niger: Starvation and death in sub-Saharan Africa is not a food distribution problem – it is a consequence of over-population.

Obviously, if you walk around with your eyes closed you will not see the proof of ACD, but I would suggest you put a boxer’s head guard on now to protect yourself against injury.

The current energy imbalance (0.6 Watts per – that is causing ACD) is equivalent to 4 hiroshima bombs being detonated every second.

Yours hopefully,


If you want to see what prompted this minor rant from me please go here.

Written by Martin Lack

2 April 2012 at 00:01

Have you a distorted world view?

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WordPress started recently supplying statistical data on the geographic origin of viewers of my blog. In so doing, they provide the data in list and map format. The map bothers me greatly because it uses the Mercator projection map (circa 1959) to turn the surface of a sphere into a flat image and, in the process, stretches polar regions of the globe horrendously (in order to appear to retain their shape):

Mercator Projection preserves as much accuracy of shapes as possible (except in polar regions).

Mercator Projection preserves as much accuracy of shapes as possible (except in polar regions).

Much more recently, the Gall-Peters Projection map produced an image that looks much more obviously distorted; but one which preserves the accuracy of all land surface areas. That is to say the distortion is greatest in near-equatorial areas and the land areas in polar regions appear greatly diminished:
Gall-Peters Projection preserves accuracy of land areas (but not shapes).

Gall-Peters Projection preserves accuracy of land areas (but not shapes).

However, when you compare the two, and/or think about it for a moment, the latter is a much better 2-dimensional representation of reality; one we would all do well to take on board because…

Africa is BIG – and lots of people are dying of starvation there because there are already far more people living there than the land can actually support.

Over-population is not the same as population density and – in some parts of the World – it is already a painful reality.


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