Lack of Environment

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

Posts Tagged ‘William Ophuls

Domestic abuse on a planetary scale

with 14 comments

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.

Views of Doha

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The 18th Conference of the Parties (COP18) to the UN’s Framework Convention on climate Change (UNFCCC), ended in Doha (Qatar) last weekend.  Sadly, this event was not considered newsworthy in the mainstream media in the UK.  Irrespective of the outcome of COP18, the X Factor and the tragic death of a nurse following a hoax phone call were considered far more important than the diminishing prospects for international cooperation to avert a climate catastrophe.

Back in the real world – as opposed to the sweet-smelling rose garden of our celebrity-obsessed media – the consequences of the UNFCCC’s failure to prevent continual growth in carbon dioxide emissions over the last 20 years have been reported by a wide range of bodies.  The news is not good.

Even before COP18 had ended, Greenpeace International executive director Kumi Naidoo, was on record as having told the AFP news agency:

If we make a judgment based on what we’ve seen in these negotiations so far, there is no reason to be optimistic. – Fractious Doha talks bode ill for 2020 deal, observers say

Writing for the website of the Global Travel Industry News website – let’s not talk about its carbon footprint for now – Wolfgang H. Thome (a PhD from Uganda) reported the outcome of COP18 as follows:

In spite of the writing now being clearly on the wall, and climate change projections suggesting an average rise of temperatures by 2 degrees C 40 years from now, and up to 5+ degrees C by the end of the century, the main polluters have once again succeeded to push tough decisions into the future. – Doha’s failure spells doom for Africa

A team of observers from the Center for American Progress website, introduced their summary of events as follows:

The end of this year’s UN climate summit last weekend in Doha, Qatar, marked a period of transition… to… a three-year process to create a new comprehensive climate treaty, which will be applicable to all countries and cover 100 percent of global emissions. – See here for the full briefing on the outcome.


There is just one problem with the glacial speed of the UNFCCC’s progress towards a Treaty to replace the failed Kyoto Protocol – unlike glacier melting in the real world – it is not accelerating in response to the increasingly obvious warming of the planet.

With my thanks to fellow-blogger Paul Handover for alerting me to it – via his most recent post – the Yale Forum on Climate Change and The Media has reported that the renowned British climate scientist – and prominent critique of UK government policy – Professor Robert Watson, recently told a California audience that:

Fundamentally, we are not on a path toward a 2 degree world…  Average global temperatures could rise 2 to 7 degrees C by the end of the century, driving a litany of environmental change…  Therefore, we must adapt… – Forget About That 2-Degree Future

What scares me about this is that, as Clive Hamilton suggested (in Requiem for a Species), believing that we can adapt to the accelerating change that our leaders are ignoring is very probably a fanciful delusion in itself. –

We have failed to heed the warning signs and therefore, just as William Ophuls predicted (in Ecology and the Politics of Scarcity), we are currently in the process of reducing the Earth’s long-term ecological carrying capacity. Furthermore, the longer our political “leaders” take to acknowledge – and respond to – this fact, the greater the collateral damage is going to be. –,ecological_scarcity.html

In the long run, unmitigated climate change is almost certainly going to cause genocide on an unprecedented scale – at least 100 times greater than the extermination of 6 million Jews by the Nazis 70 years ago. As was the case back then, an awful lot of people seem to be just standing around allowing it to happen.

Not sustainable going forward

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I have something important I want, on behalf of Bill McKibbin’s, to ask you to do today: The idea is that for a 24 hour period—starting at 8AM UTC/GMT today, folks around the world create a Twitterstorm by sending thousands upon thousands of tweets all with the same hashtag: #EndFossilFuelSubsidies.

But first, to get you in the mood, I hope you will read this:

If you ever find yourself in a business meeting playing a game of bull***t bingo, and don’t have the phrase “going forward” on your card, prepare to lose. However, last week, whilst pondering the notion of “sustainable development” (or rather its absence), my attention was caught by someone on TV combining the two into a wonderful sound byte: Apparently, the maintenance of 3 Accident and Emergency hospitals in one County is “not sustainable going forward…” It was then that it hit me! People use this excuse all the time: Whenever, a company wants to make lots of people redundant, end a manufacturing process, close a factory, or liquidate a business… they always cite the fact that any other course of action would be unsustainable. In other words, it would make a loss; it would be uneconomic; because the costs of doing so would be greater than any potential benefit. In short, it would be illogical; it might even be insane!

Leaving aside for a moment that companies seem perfectly capable of sustaining massive losses and yet remain in business (it’s called “being too big to fail” and “getting bailed-out by the taxpayer”), it is important to note that cost-benefit analysis is everywhere; we do it all the time; it is part of everyday life. That being the case, why do we not apply it to life itself?

A multi-disciplinary team of scientists based at the University of California at Berkeley (UCB) have been trying to do just that; and they recently published the findings of their research in the journal Nature. Only an abstract may be viewed online without a subscription (i.e. free of charge). However, thanks to Christine over on, I have been able to read a substantial summary of their work on the UCB website. The opening paragraph reads like this:

A prestigious group of scientists from around the world is warning that population growth, widespread destruction of natural ecosystems, and climate change may be driving Earth toward an irreversible change in the biosphere

The publication of their research findings may well have been deliberately timed to coincide with the G20 and Rio+20 Summits this week; and – if not deliberate – it is very fortuitous. However, one thing it is not is new. This message is at least 200 years old. The Rev Thomas Malthus was the first to point out that, unless food production can keep up with demand, perpetual population growth must ultimately lead to increasing numbers of impoverished and/or starving people. Needless to say, even 200 years ago, this message was not well received by those who had a financial interest in maintaining a happy productive workforce (and saw Malthus as being a dangerous and subversive distraction).

Over the last 50 years, numerous scientists (mostly biologists) have published articles, research findings, and books on the subject – including Garrett Hardin, Paul and Anna Ehrlich, William Ophuls – but the most well known is probably the team of researchers based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), originally led by Dennis Meadows, that produced the first Limits to Growth report in 1972. Unfortunately, like everyone that has gone before – and everyone who has come along since then – they were immediately lambasted on the basis that Malthus had been proved wrong; they were accused of ‘crying “wolf”‘; and/or denounced as doomsayers, anti-progress, anti-Western, Communists, even misanthropic. Not only is it important to remember that the moral of the story of the boy who repeatedly raised the alarm is that the wolf eventually turned up (thanks Christine); it is also important to ask yourself why so many people (who are mainly economists not biologists) seek to dismiss this message?

The former World Bank economist, Herman E Daly (yes him again), once lamented that:
“Anyone who asserts the existence of limits is soon presented with a whole litany of things that someone once said could never be done but subsequently were done”; but insisted that
“Continuing to study economies only in terms of the [exchange value of money] is like studying organisms only in terms of the circulatory system, without ever mentioning the digestive tract.”

I am therefore inclined to think that the reason economists attack biologists who insist that limits to growth are a real threat is this: Attack is the best form of defence. However, denying the reality of limits to growth does not mean that they cease to exist. As it says on my About page:

“The driver of an accelerating car about to hit a brick wall might well say ‘so far so good’ – but that does not mean that the wall is not there!” (John Dryzek, 2005)

Denial is not a river in Egypt; it is an ideologically-prejudiced refusal to accept scientific facts that challenge the entire business model of this Carbon Age (which cannot last forever).

Like I have said before, the burning of fossil fuels has only become a problem because of the rate at which it is being done. When there were only 1 billion people on Earth chopping down trees and burning them to farm the land and keep warm, anthropogenic CO2 emissions were not a problem; but now that we are digging up fossilised carbon and putting it into the atmosphere 1000 times faster than it can be geologically recycled it is a very big problem indeed. Thus the unnatural climate change we are now causing is a limits to growth phenomenon; and the money that we must now spend to mitigate it and/or adapt (or else be annihilated) is just one of many costs incurred as a result of denying, for the last 40 years, that limits to growth exist.

I therefore make no apologies for again referring to The Limits to Growth: The 30 Year Update (2005), wherein the authors repeated their warning that if we put off dealing with limits to growth we are more likely to come up against several of them simultaneously. With regard to the revised computer modelling undertaken, they observed that in most cases the simulations ran out of the “ability to cope” when too much industrial output has to be diverted to solving problems; and concluded: “Growth, and especially exponential growth, is so insidious because it shortens the time for effective action. It loads stress on a system faster and faster, until coping mechanisms that have been adequate with slower rates of change finally begin to fail.” (Meadows et al 2005: 223).

This is exactly the message of the UCB team of researchers. We have reached the point predicted by Meadows et al. Moreover, nowadays it is not just biologists that are admitting that we have reached the point where further delay will not be cost-effective; in fact it could well be deadly.

Above all else, we need a level playing field. That is why we must end the subsidies paid to fossil fuel companies that enable them to keep exploring for hydrocarbons that are becoming ever more costly to extract (whatever happened to cost-benefit analysis?). Therefore, I implore you to join the 24-hour Twitterstorm campaign, starting at 0800hrs UTC/GMT today (Monday 18 June 2012).

Find out more and sign-up at

AGW – Are you tired or emotional?

with 7 comments

This is my (more considered) response to an article by Celina Plaza, published recently on the ecoAffect blog here on WordPress, in which it is argued that we should not get so emotional about climate change. Its central premise being that we should separate scientific near-certainties [i.e. that (1) the Earth is warming; (2) we are causing it; and (3) it is causing more frequent extreme weather events] from the value-laden judgement that (4) “it is terrible that” this is happening (emphasis mine).

Although I like the way Celina has used the analogy of domestic arguments to get her point across, with regret, I must disagree. It may be that I am picking on one particular sentence and taking it out of context but, I think scientists now have good reason to argue that climate change is potentially “terrible“. The problem is that the more “alarmist” scientists become the more prone they are to being dismissed as such. However, arguing with “sceptics” is a Herculean task (pick your own analogy – Aegean stables or multi-headed Hydra with amazing regenerative properties, etc). If it were not for this fact – and that people tend to get very emotional when their entire socio-political world view is challenged – I believe we ought to be able to demonstrate that (4) does indeed follow from (1), (2), and (3)…

In the second edition of The Rough Guide to Climate Change, Robert Henson has summarised what he calls the “climate change contrarian” position in the following way:
The atmosphere may not be warming; but if it is, this is probably due to natural variation; but if it isn’t, the amount of warming is probably not significant; but if it is, the benefits should outweigh the disadvantages; but if they don’t, technology should be able to solve problems as they arise; but if it can’t, we shouldn’t wreck the economy to fix the problem.” (after Henson 2008: 257)

In isolation, this has the appearance of a so-called “straw man” argument. However, not only does Henson admit that no single “contrarian” believes all of these things at any one time (ibid: 258), he then goes on to spend several pages summarising the scientific consensus view that negates each proposition in turn (ibid: 258-66).

Unfortunately, by the time you get to the end, some other objection will be found because, for all the reasons cited by Clive Hamilton in Requiem for a Species, people do not want climate change to be real. Furthermore, despite the fact that China is now the world’s largest economy and biggest polluter, the Communist Party of China (CPC) recognises climate change and/or disruption as an existential threat to its own long-term existence and, therefore, even if only acting in the interests of self-preservation, it is now making strenuous efforts to reduce the intensity of its carbon emissions (i.e. CO2/GDP). As such, I think the CPC does consider climate change to be “terrible“.

Other reasons for taking this view would be that, having got a “sceptic” to accept (1) to (3), I do not see why it should not be possible to get them to accept that CO2 is a pollutant (i.e. it is “bad“); and that what is happening is unprecedented, is causing mass extinctions of other species, and will cause a drastic reduction in the size of the human population Earth can support (which I for one would no hesitation in describing this as “terrible“).

In the final analysis, the reason people are getting so upset (scientists and “sceptics” alike) is that those on both sides have invested so much effort in finding evidence to validate their position and, the closer we get to “the cliff edge” the more uncomfortable the losing party will get. Leon Festinger (1957) described the discomfort people feel when they continue to smoke despite knowing it will probably hasten their own death as “cognitive dissonance“. I think this – along with the challenge to laissez-faire global Capitalism – are the only explanations for high emotions that you need.

Can modernisation be “ecological”? – Part 3

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This is the third and final part of my mini-critique of the school of environmental thought known as Ecological Modernisation. The first two parts having been published on 24 September and 25 September respectively.
Newsflash: Today is Earth Overshoot Day for 2011. This was a genuine coincidence (i.e. I did not know this when I decided to do this 3-part story). See paragraph 2 below…

Where are we now?
In his seminal 1968 article on ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’, Garrett Hardin had observed that it was not possible to achieve Jeremy Bentham’s hedonistic goal of “the greatest good for the greatest number” because, at the level of the individual, to do so would require food and/or energy to be used for subsistence purposes only (Hardin 1968: 1243). In 1977, William Ophuls agreed that the optimum population is not the maximum possible, which appears to imply that, if necessary, artificial limits to growth should be imposed. Furthermore, he explicitly stated that, “…this optimum level… may be as little as fifty percent of the theoretical maximum…” (Ophuls 1977: 28).

Mathis Wackernagel et al have recently provided “…evidence that human activities have exceeded the biosphere’s capacity since the 1980s. This overshoot can be expressed as the extent to which human area demand exceeds nature’s supply. Whereas humanity’s load corresponded to 70% of the biosphere’s capacity in 1961; this percentage grew to 120% by 1999.” However, the authors also pointed out that, if… “12% of the bioproductive area was set aside to protect other species; the demand line crosses the supply line in the early 1970s rather than the 1980s” (Wackernagel et al 2002: 9268-9)(emphasis mine).

In laboratory-controlled studies, the size of a population of, say, fruit flies can be shown to depend on the scarcity or abundance of food; and the presence or absence of predators. However, in 2005, Meadows et al pointed out that a growing population “…will slow and stop in a smooth accommodation with its limits… only if it receives accurate, prompt signals telling it where it is with respect to its limits, and only if it responds to those signals quickly and accurately” (Meadows et al 2005: 157).

This pursuit of the resulting “S-curve” is sometimes referred to as the demographic transition of an increasingly affluent society through three stages: (1) high birth and death rates; (2) high birth rate but low death rate; and (3) low birth and death rates. However, in a section entitled ‘Why Technology and Markets Alone Can’t Avoid Overshoot’, Meadows et al also pointed out that if we put off dealing with limits to growth we are more likely to come up against several of them simultaneously (ibid: 223).

Even though no-one seems to want to talk about population control today, neither Hardin nor Malthus was the first to raise this contentious subject because, as Philip Kreager has pointed out, this dubious honour goes to Aristotle’s treatise on Politics within which, “…population is a recurring topic, extensively discussed and integral to the overall argument…” (Kreager 2008: 599). Furthermore, according to Theodore Lianos, although Aristotle was thinking at the scale of a city rather than a country, the great philosopher recognised that there was an optimum population size, which depended on the land area controlled by the city (for food production purposes), which could be determined by, “the land-population ratio that produces enough material goods so that the citizens can live a wise and generous life, comfortable but not wasteful nor luxurious” (Lianos 2010: 3).

It has been demonstrated that dematerialisation alone cannot deal with the problem of resource depletion unless the increase in unit efficiency is greater than the increase in scale of production (i.e. something that cannot be sustainable indefinitely).

Furthermore, whereas it may be possible to partially decouple environmental degradation from economic growth, pursuit of this as a sole objective is a dangerous strategy. This is because to do so is to remain ambivalent about the existence and significance of limits to growth; indeed it is to deny that growth itself may be the problem.

In the final analysis, the only thing that will be sustainable is progression towards the steady-state economy proposed by Daly and others; combined with qualitative development instead of quantitative growth. Therefore, the only form of modernisation that could be ecological is one that places the intrinsic value of vital resources such as clean air and clean water – and the inherent value of a beautiful landscape – well above the instrumental value of money or precious metals.
Hardin, G. (1968), ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’, Science, 168, pp.1243-8.
Kreager, P. (2008), ‘Aristotle and open population thinking’, Population and Development Review 14(34), pp.599-629.
Lianos, T. (2010), ‘Aristotle’s Macroeconomic Model of the City-State’.
Meadows D, et al (2005), Limits to Growth: the 30-Year Update, London: Earthscan.
Ophuls, W. (1977), Ecology and the Politics of Scarcity, San Francisco: Freeman and Co..
Wackernagel, M. et al (2002), ‘Tracking the ecological overshoot of the human economy’, Proc. of the National Academy of Sciences [USA], 99(14), pp.9266-9271.


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