Sunday, November 6, 2011

Overpopulation as "international socialist" conspiracy

We hit seven billion last week, as per the UN Population Division. Until recently, the world's population was expected to top out at about nine billion and slowly decline. More recent estimates, however, have the population continuing to rise to ten billion and potentially to keep rising (albeit much more slowly) from there.

This is a problem at our present level of development. While we have enough food and water for seven billion people if it were equally distributed, it isn't equally distributed, and it isn't likely to become so in the future. To produce that food and make use of that fresh water, farmers all our the world are using unsustainable practices, from deforestation to overuse of fertilizers and pesticides.

Because of that, even though technology will improve in the future, we don't know if those improvements will keep pace with the degradation of soil, the pollution and depletion of groundwater, the erosion and salinization of coastal lands, the droughts and heat waves of the 21st century. We can reliably expect that, all other things being equal, we will get better at producing food, but meanwhile the physical environment upon which we depend to make food will be becoming significantly more hostile because of our actions. And our food production needs not only to keep pace with these developments, but grow significantly in spite of them.

Of course the savants of WUWT have a simple explanation for all this:
The international socialists see all of this. They figure out: if we can develop an agenda through academia to be followed by the seemingly benevolent, above-the-fray NGOs, then we develop the scholarly agenda of “rights” and “global warming,” then we can feed the govt the science, and tell the govt who to fund to act on the science.

So, the intl socialists have to make up some crises. “Overpopulation,” “reproductive rights,” “global warming,” “pandemic,” etc.
 Yes, just like global warming and disease, overpopulation is a fake problem invented by international socialists to advance their secret agenda via their sinister organs, the NGOs(*).

Concerns about overpopulation are sometimes ad-hom'd to a desire for eugenics or a generally murderous, life-hating outlook:

I maintain that Bonnie Erbe's dopey tribute to Attenborough, "Meanwhile, population explosion ignored" (Courier Times, March 18) reveals "disguised form" eugenics. As Erbe herself notes, "Attenborough points out what I agree with him has become an 'absurd taboo' on speaking out publicly on human population growth and trying to do something about it."
. . .
Erbe parrots Attenborough's hateful bile, which is not even disguised! It would behoove Bonnie Erbe and Sir David to step out of their limos and visit a library.
They would benefit by opening a book once in a while, as there have been many notable ones - AFTER Rachel Carson's Silent Spring.
The logic here (and I use the term loosely) seems to be that if you like people, you want more people, and if you don't want more people, you hate people and you want them to die. The concept that people are nifty but that too many of them could get in each other's way is too subtle, it would seem.

A global population of ten billion people is concerning. Much like what we are doing to the planet's climate at the same time, ten billion humans represent a condition which our civilization has never seen (see the graph above). If they generated greenhouse gases at the same rate per capita as people today, you're talking about a 42% increase in greenhouse gas emissions, at the same time you have a 42% increase in the calories we need to sustain that population. At before you start tilling new fields to feed them, you may want to consider where three Chinas worth of people are going to live.

Since we need more housing and more food, you may want to cut down some forests. Before you do, however, you'd be well advised to read some of the recent literature on terrestrial carbon sinks: "An analysis of inventory data from across the globe suggests that temperate and boreal forests accounted for the majority of the terrestrial carbon sink over the past two decades."

The more people we have, the more difficult it will be to reverse course on greenhouse gas emissions. This is doubly so because many of those new people are going to be born in Sub-Saharan Africa, already the poorest region of the world, and the region expected to experience the most dramatic warming outside the polar regions:

Still, one can make a case that we will be able to cope with overpopulation:
For more than 40 years, climaxing around the first Earth Day, the public has been bombarded with apocalyptic tales of disaster regarding population growth. Paul Ehrlich, for example, a Stanford professor, prominent prophet of population doom and contributor to this op-ed article, predicted in his 1968 bestseller "The Population Bomb" that millions of people would die of starvation during the 1970s because the Earth's inhabitants would multiply at a faster rate than the world's ability to supply food. Six years later, in "The End of Affluence," a book he co-authored with his wife, Anne Ehrlich, the death toll estimates increased to a billion dying from starvation by the mid-1980s. By 1985, Ehrlich predicted, the world would enter a genuine era of scarcity. 
Paul Ehrlich's predicted famines never materialized. While too many people remain hungry, agricultural advances have fought off massive famines. Even as the world's population doubled, per-capita food consumption in poor countries increased from 1,932 calories a day in 1961 to 2,650 in 1998, and malnutrition in those countries fell from 45% of the population in 1949 to about 18%. Furthermore, fertility rates dropped from about five children per woman in the 1960s to about 2.5 today.
 I like how the author drops in that bit about falling fertility -- hey, overpopulation isn't a problem, and anyway, birth rates are falling.

Of course part of the reason birth rates are falling is that some governments, like China's, have actively sought to slow population growth, while other have benefited from rapidly falling birthrates as their people became wealthier and more educated. The collapse of the Soviet Union also led to plummeting birth rates in that part of the world.

It's always going to be possible, in retrospect, to identify wildly overstated or otherwise inaccurate predictions, but we shouldn't conclude, without evidence, that those predictions were universal or  even typical. The same author who fillets Ehrlich toss in this old canard:
[C]oncerns about climate change have shifted from cooling to warming since the 1970s.
Hopefully everyone knows that myth has been repeatedly debunked. Which reminds us to be cautious when someone pulls out an old, inaccurate prediction and asks us to make a number of leaps:

1. That the prediction is being fairly represented.
2. That reality is not different because the warning was heeded (many anti-science folks try to gin up outrage about the "acid rain scare" ignoring the fact that the threat didn't materialize because effective action was taken to mitigate and then reverse the damage.)
3. That the prediction is typical of predictions made at the time.
4. That "those people" making predictions then are similar/the same to "those people" making predictions now (and hence their failures "then" speak to their credibility "now").

That said, I think the author has a point. The green movement does have a history of saying intemperate things. The modern green movement has been largely supported and championed by the left (something of which the left can be proud), and the left has a long history of underestimating the adaptive power of capitalism. Hence leftists of many stripes, from Karl Marx on down, have imagined capitalism collapsing under the weight of its own contradictions in a terrible and glorious smash-up.

That is not going to happen, and those of us who acknowledge the problem of global warming, and the related problem of overpopulation, should make it as clear as possible that that is not our goal. The goal is to use the tremendous productive, inventive and adaptive power of capitalism, not hobble it. This requires a system in which democracy guides money a little bit, rather than money leading democracy by the nose. Markets are a powerful creation, but they are a creation, and they are an expression of human law, not natural law. So to work effectively they need a certain amount of regulation. The pursuit of the individual good will often contribute to the social good, but there are important exceptions. The right-wing climate denial movement would like to equate regulation with central planning and central planning with totalitarianism. Those working to move society towards coping with global warming should not help them by making global warming a proxy fight over the virtues or the sins of a market economy.

* The hostility right-wingers feel towards non-governmental organizations is quite interesting from a philosophical perspective. You'd think that something with "non-governmental" right in the name would appeal to them. The whole "small government" thing assumes that once we "starve the beast" all sorts of voluntary non-governmental organizations will spring up to vaccinate children, clean sewage, sponsor libraries and and provide free education. Private charity is thought to be ready to replace collective action in public good decided upon by our elected representatives.

Yet people actually self-organizing to do good outside the government model are reviled. Corporations are the only nongovernmental organizations of which they approve. Could it be that what they really want is a tyranny of money over people?


  1. Could it be that what they really want is a tyranny of money over people?

    No!...Surely not?

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