Posts tagged with: population

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Wednesday, March 31, 2010

In this week’s Acton Commentary I examine some of the issues surrounding concern for our planet’s growing human population. In “The Science of Stewardship: Sin, Sustainability, and GM Foods,” I argue that increased food production, augmented by advances in genetic modification, has a key role to play in meeting the needs of future generations. And in this way companies like Monsanto have contributed greatly to our ability to address the need for increased yields.

They have done so in great measure by combining tech with technique, or as the Forbes piece puts it, “marrying conventional breeding with genetic engineering.” Just as important as getting seeds that have the right genetic “tech” is mastering all the variables and skills needed to make plants grow properly, from soil makeup, to cultivation techniques, to timing. On the question of timing, for instance, there’s always more research being done on the best time to plant different kinds of crops.

A recent Popular Science feature, for instance, labeled the “bean counter” one of “The 10 Worst Jobs In Science” for being “most tedious.” So that even “after 10,000 years of intensive agriculture, we still don’t understand key things, like the best moment to plant soybeans.” And that’s why graduate students like Andrew Robinson at Purdue will “spend the next few years hand-counting beans from about 750 plots.”

But the question of increased population isn’t as innocent as might first appear. On the one hand, it’s certainly true that concern about the increase of the world’s human population often masks latent or not-so-latent misanthropy.

And on the other hand, as many have pointed out, it’s not the number of people in itself that largely determines global environmental impact, but rather the lifestyle of those people, their consumption habits, as well as the underlying economic structures, that function as determinative factors.

But even so, increased yields might help alleviate some of the difficulties with realizing large-scale urban farming, for instance. And while “complete self-reliance” of cities on local food sources “is not currently sensible,” and perhaps really shouldn’t be pursued, the prospects of getting significant produce from smaller plots looms large as an economic possibility given advances in both biotech and technique. There is real hope here economically and environmentally for places like Detroit.

As I also note in the piece, there are certainly moral limits that provide us space within which to pursue scientific advances and progress, but beyond which we “run the risk of aggravating our offense against God.” And it is not only up to scientists themselves, no matter how concerned, to recognize and articulate those limits.

On this the Bible has much to say. I made an attempt about 5 years ago to come to grips with these limits within which responsible stewardship occurs in the form of “A Theological Framework for Evaluating Genetically Modified Food.” I followed up that framework, which articulates a view largely affirming the instrumental use of plants, with a series denying a similarly instrumental use of animals.

Blog author: kschmiesing
posted by on Thursday, September 24, 2009

Not exactly unheralded—he did get obits in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal—but deserving more attention is the passing of Norman Borlaug, Nobel Peace Prize winner and catalyst for the Green Revolution that transformed developing world agriculture.

As the headline to Gregg Easterbrook’s outstanding piece in the WSJ put it, he was “the man who defused the ‘population bomb.’” Yet, Easterbrook writes, “though streets and buildings are named for Norman Borlaug throughout the developing world, most Americans don’t even know his name.”

His death comes amidst renewed claims that our environment cannot sustain the world’s increasing population.

But the predictions of the present-day Thomas Malthuses and Paul Ehrlichs will always be wrong, because they lack the imagination to account for the future Norman Borlaugs.

Blog author: kschmiesing
posted by on Thursday, January 15, 2009

It’s usually good to steer clear of apocalyptic predictions of any sort, but as temperatures struggle to break the 10 degrees fahrenheit mark under full sun here in the Great Lakes region, talk of a “demographic winter” feels more compelling than warnings of global warming.

More seriously, the release of a new film by that name is the occasion for Jenny Roback Morse’s reflection on the economics of population. I don’t pretend to be an expert in the field and I am skeptical of any argument simplistically connecting population growth (or decline) with economic growth (or decline). But I am convinced that something as fundamental as demography must play a significant role in economic trends, and it does seem that, in general, economists and policymakers alike have neglected or at least failed to appreciate the importance of the issue. (For a counterexample, see Oskari Juurikkala’s analysis of pending pension crises: Pensions, Population, and Prosperity.)

It is hard to see how strong economic growth can be sustained in the face of a declining population: it’s just asking too much of technological advance and productivity gains.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Tuesday, August 26, 2008
Anders Chydenius (1729-1803)

The answer of the Nordic philosopher and priest Anders Chydenius (1729-1803) applies equally well to his younger contemporary Malthus as to 21st-century neo-Malthusian paganism:

Would the Great Master, who adorns the valley with flowers and covers the cliff itself with grass and mosses, exhibit such a great mistake in man, his masterpiece, that man should not be able to enrich the globe with as many inhabitants as it can support? That would be a mean thought even in a Pagan, but blasphemy in a Christian, when reading the Almighty’s precept: ‘Be fruitful, multiply and fill the earth.’

Indeed, the biblical answer to Chydenius question would seem to clearly be, “No.” Remember, after all, you are worth more than many sparrows.

“If a man will not work, he shall not eat.” That’s a good rule, I think.

The Care of Creation blog is noting, however, that “people who work longer hours use more energy and generally contribute more to the decline of the ecological quality of life on planet earth.”

The basis for the claim is a report that comes from the Center for Economic and Policy Research, and “finds that if all countries worked as many hours per week as U.S. workers do, the world would consume 15 to 30 percent more energy by 2050 than it would by following Europe’s model.”

As I’ve asserted before, calculations that simply take into account the outputs of various environmentally-relevant factors, like GHGs, without also noting the relevant economic variables, are highly flawed.

So perhaps per capita American workers do work longer hours and therefore use more energy than their European counterparts. But do the American workers also contribute more to their respective country’s GNP than do Europeans? I’m betting they do…and it shouldn’t be surprising that all these factors correlate, because of the energy-dependent nature of the economy in the 21st century. But as recent trends suggest, perhaps even that doesn’t mean that economies must increase GHG emissions to grow.

Who gets more bang for their energy buck? The EU’s share of gross world product (GWP) is roughly 20%. Estimates put the EU’s population right around 490 million. The US’s share of GWP is larger than the EU’s, somewhere between 20% and 30%, but accomplishes that with a fraction of the population, numbering barely above 300 million.

So, work less and “save” the planet, but also contribute less to the global economy. That’s a formula for disaster.

For another take on how you can do nothing and save the planet, see the May 21 edition of the Joy of Tech comic.

Over at the Huffington Post blog, David Roberts, a staff writer for Grist.org, describes the relationship between activist causes, like women’s reproductive rights and “sustainable development,” and population control.

Roberts says he doesn’t directly address the problem of over-population because talking about it as such isn’t very effective. Apparently, telling people that they and their kids very existence is the “ultimate problem of all problems” doesn’t resonate very well. It “alienates a large swathe of the general public,” you know, the ones who still have some residual moral sensibilities.

So, instead, Roberts pursues items that he think will ultimately result in lowered populations…a subordination of these causes as means to the greater end. He writes, “Each of these — empowering women and spreading prosperity — is worth pursuing in its own right. Each is a powerful political rallying cry. Each produces a range of ancillary benefits.”

But of course the greatest benefit of them both is that they help in “scaling human population back.”

And as Roberts notes, the connection between radical environmentalism and population control has been devastating for the cause, leading him to conclude that overt population control rhetoric “is political poison.”

His concluding advice? “If you’re worried about population, work toward sustainable development and female empowerment.”

And, I might add, if you are able to similarly disguise a radical environmentalist agenda and separate out the perception of pursuing population control, why not work toward that too?

Blog author: kschmiesing
posted by on Wednesday, January 10, 2007

I mentioned South Korea in a commentary on population a few months ago. New data show that the erstwhile East Asian tiger is now the world’s leader in population contraction. Its fertility rate is 1.08, less than half the replacement rate of 2.1. In other words, if that rate persists, South Korea will halve its population with each generation.

As is usual, aggressive government action played a role in the problem. The nation established its population control policy in 1961. Among other things, it favored government employees with two or fewer children and gave housing preferences to small families. Reacting lethargically to a trend already long in evidence, it ended its advocacy of fertility decline in 1996. Now, in an equally tardy move, the government has decided to promote population increase. In what must be an unprecedented occurrence—one that may be among the more startling signs of the times—the Planned Parenthood affiliate in South Korea is cooperating with the government in its effort to raise the birthrate.

HT: Joseph D’Agostino of PRI.

Cross-posted on Friends of CE.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Friday, June 16, 2006

Before reading the rest of this post, let’s try a little experiment. Here are a set of quotations…your job is to decide who said it, a real-life scientist or Agent Smith from the Matrix trilogy (see answer key below the jump):

“Do you hear that, Mr. Anderson? That is the sound of inevitability.”

1. Humans are “no better than bacteria!”

2. “Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet.”

3. “There is no denying the natural world would be a better place without people. ALL people!”

4. “Planet Earth could use another major human pandemic, and pronto!”

5. “Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with the surrounding environment, but humans do not. Humans move to an area, and multiply, and multiply, until every natural resource is consumed.”

PowerBlog contributor Don Bosch has a great post over at his home blog, the Evangelical Ecologist, reacting to today’s piece from Deroy Murdock, “For them, people are just in the way.”

Murdock cites William Burger’s letter to Acton’s Jay Richards, in which Burger says, among other things, “From where I sit, Planet Earth could use another major human pandemic, and pronto!” Check out the full text of Burger’s letter in PDF form here. (more…)

On April 3, I reported the story of Texas scientist Eric Pianka, who allegedly argued in a speech that the only hope for the planet was for a mutated Ebola virus to exterminate 90% of the human population. Forrest Mims, who attended the speech, broke the story. Over the next few weeks, there was a media firestorm over the incident, and Mims was accused of misrepresenting Pianka’s speech. As a result, I received several emails telling me that I should retract the story. I did not, and I have no plans on doing so. I remain convinced that Mims basically got the story right.

The problem was that Pianka had asked that video cameras be turned off during his speech, and partial transcripts released later failed to fully corraborate Mims’ account. But, as Mims’ pointed out, the transcript lacked precisely the part of the speech with the offensive comments. In any event, Mims’ claim had several other corroborating pieces of evidence, which James Redford discusses in a blog posted entitled, “Forrest Mims Did Not Misrepresent Eric Pianka.” Cathy Young’s piece in the Boston Globe focused the issue properly: the point was not that Pianka had called for the active extermination of 90% of the population. It’s that he thought such an extermination by natural causes (like the Ebola virus) would be a “good thing.”

This story became especially irritating because many bloggers were more interested in the views of Forrest Mims than of Eric Pianka. Perhaps more troubling is that many commentators insisted that a respected scientist would never say that he looked forward to the deaths of billions of human beings. As a result, these commentators assigned Mims’ account a prior probability of about 0. This meant that virtually no evidence would be enough to confirm that Pianka had said more or less what Mims reported.

But anyone who reads widely in the environmental literature knows that suggestions such as Pianka’s are not uncommon. In fact, the desire for mass human death follows logically from the anti-human beliefs of some radical environmentalists. Some are more consistent in their beliefs than others. But Pianka is by no means the only person to express such opinions. Back in November, 2005, I reported on some personal correspondence from a prominent scientist, who expressed some Piankish views. He complained about “the devastation humans are currently imposing upon our planet” and then added:

Still, adding over seventy million new humans to the planet each year, the future looks pretty bleak to me. Surely, the Black Death was one of the best things that ever happened to Europe: elevating the worth of human labor, reducing environmental degradation, and, rather promptly, producing the Renaissance. From where I sit, Planet Earth could use another major human pandemic, and pronto!

Since I didn’t post the letter, however, I received several skeptical inquiries. So, in light of the recent events surrounding Pianka, I have decided to post a PDF of the letter. Anyone who looks at this letter will notice that it did not come from some obscure researcher, but from a scientist who for many years held a significant position. I do not post this for the purpose of harming the individual who sent this letter. Rather, I am posting it in hopes that more people will recognize that profound misanthropy is afoot in the academic and scientific community, most of it officially motivated by a desire to save the planet. It is naive to continue acting as if this type of death wish is reserved for isolated crackpots. On the contrary, it is well on its way to being respectable opinion in some quarters–held by the well educated and the otherwise civilized–just as eugenics was respectable a century ago.

The Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences recently held a conference examining population decline and its manifold causes and effects. In connection with that meeting, the Rome-based news service ZENIT interviewed Riccardo Cascioli, president of Italy’s European Center of Studies on Population, Environment and Development. The full interview can be found at ZENIT’s site, in the daily dispatch for May 5.

The final question and answer summarize the state of the situation with respect to the impact of government policy and financial incentives on population growth. It speaks to the limitations of policy and the importance of religious and cultural factors:

Q: Many European countries hope to resolve the low birthrate with financial incentives and increases in the number of immigrants. During his intervention at the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, Benedict XVI explained the phenomenon of the demographic decline as a lack of love and hope. What is your opinion in this respect?

Cascioli: The experience of some European countries, though they have had decades of policies that favor births — with incentives to births, flexible work to be able to look after children and a network of social services — should teach us that these measures are not enough.

Undoubtedly improvements are seen in the fertility rates, but they are not sufficient to reverse the tendency to the demographic winter.

Sadly, the European Union, which soon will publish a white book on the subject, is moving precisely in this direction, ignoring the cultural factor, that is, the most profound motives for a couple’s deciding to have or not have children.

Benedict XVI has finally put his finger on the problem: The real issue has to do with the meaning we give to life, because there is no financial incentive that could convince me to have children, if I live withdrawn in myself and am afraid of the future.

And here is the great task of the Church, because only the proclamation of Christ can reawaken to life a society that is sliding inexorably towards death.

The Pope’s address sounds, therefore, as a severe call also to those sectors of the Church that, when they address the demographic question, underscore almost exclusively the political options that governments must take.

The state has indeed the duty to remove obstacles — economic and social — to my freedom to decide how many children to have, but it cannot also give me the profound reasons to have them. Love and hope are before the state.