Overpopulation isn’t the Problem

Some folks in Boulder like to make analogies to exponential global population growth in discussions about our local land use decisions (see for example Frosty WoolridgeFrosty Woolridge again, Robert Baker, David Brandt, or the venerable Al Bartlett himself). These analogies are inappropriate in multiple ways.

First, steep declines in fertility worldwide have largely defused the population bomb. Second, even if the bomb were still ticking, the population changes we see in Boulder, and more generally the Front Range of Colorado, the US and the booming megacities of Asia aren’t about population growth per se, they’re about migration.  In the developing world, it’s migration from rural areas to cities. In the already rich countries, it’s mostly migration between cities, often from low-wage regions to areas with better jobs and higher quality of life. Or it would be anyway, if we actually let people build housing in those places.

How we choose to build and rebuild cities to accommodate these migrations and humanity’s peak population later this century will largely determine our ultimate impact on the Earth’s climate and biosphere, and the quality of life that humanity has access to.  Contrary to many “population bomb” narratives, the main problem here as it relates to climate isn’t the impact of large numbers of poor people, because small numbers of rich people are responsible for the overwhelming majority of current greenhouse gas emissions.  How we accommodate those wealthy, high emissions populations makes a big difference, both directly, and through the example it sets for the rapidly expanding global middle class.

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Population Growth vs. Migration in Boulder and the World

The Boulder Blue Line has a short post entitled This Law Cannot Be Repealed by Albert Bartlett, who is an emeritus professor of Physics at CU, and who is most well known for speaking about the absurdity of “sustainable” growth and what exponential growth really means.  He’s also one of the original architects of Boulder’s “Blue Line”, which has limited growth beyond certain boundaries within the city and county.

I agree with Bartlett on a lot.  Unconstrained population growth is undoubtedly, in a global context, an epic disaster.  In his collection of essays Brave New World Revisited, Aldous Huxley noted of overpopulation that “Unsolved, that problem will render insoluble all our other problems.”  Similarly, the unconstrained geographic growth of towns and cities is a catastrophe, resulting in very low-density, car-dependent development which exacerbates the consequences of population growth by increasing the amount of resources that each individual consumes, in terms of land and energy and material goods.

Parks are for People

Urban density and good public space make scenes like this possible.

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The World Without Us by Alan Weisman

The World Without Us is an exploration of what the Earth would be like, and has been like, in the absence of H. sapiens.

This book was as much a look at how we have changed the world as it was an exploration of what would happen were we all to vanish one day.  I especially liked the chapter Polymers are Forever, about the ultimate fate of our plastics, and The Lost Menagerie, a chapter about the missing megafauna of the Americas.  Missing, largely because we ate it.  I thought he could have spent more time on nuclear waste and our laughable attempts to plan 10,000 years into the future in dealing with it.  It would have been interesting to have a chapter on climate change too, in the event that we’ve already tipped it over the edge and into an Eocene like warm period.  Maybe better than anything else, I liked his descriptions of the wild Earth, both before and after us.  I still think we can have such a world without driving ourselves extinct.  But it would take something on the order of his suggestion that we limit our fertility rate to 1.0 for the next few generations.  Down to 500 million people by the year 2150.  Are we up to the task?  This is a real chance to demonstrate that our intelligence makes us special after all.

He occasionally rambles off into technobabble about holographically projecting our minds to other worlds… or other far out stuff, which is doesn’t really serve the purpose of the book, and is distracting to anyone with a science background.  Those lapses aside, the basic message of the book is about the beauty and perhaps the inherent value, of the Earth, even without us here to observe it.  It is an inspirational call to Zero, Now.  It’s heartening that it spent so long on the bestsellers lists, if others got the same kind of message out of it that I did.  If it’s just feeding some apocalyptic peakist zombie trance, well, then that’s less heartening.  Certainly makes me want to visit all the remaining pristine parts of Earth.  Dive the coral reefs while I still can.  Walk in every different kind of remaining old-growth forest.  And keep on composting my urine.

Shared Links for Thu, Feb 5th, 2009

  • First annual Letter from the Gates Foundation – I hate Microsoft, but in the great American tradition of evil corporate fortunes being given back to good causes, the Gates Foundation works on some difficult, important, and interesting problems. I've been curious exactly how and why their focus on population has faded away over the last few years. Not sure this letter (suggested by and modeled after Warren Buffet… who doubled their endowment last year) really answers that question. I get the feeling that the change is partly for PR reasons – that they remain focused on the issue, but don't think it's really productive to make that statement prominently. (tagged: philanthropy health microsoft bill gates population )
  • WRI on Bus Rapid Transit v. Light Rail – Given the difference in cost, I really don't understand why BRT doesn't get more consistent consideration in transportation planning. Hopefully someone will notice this study (and hopefully the study is done well…) (tagged: transit transportation brt rail sustainability bus green )
  • Bill Gates unplugged – Talked about two problems: malaria, and lousy teaching in America. Not so interested in Malaria (we know what we need to do, we just don't really care… and if all it does is increase human population, is that really a success?), but our inability to make teaching work well reliably is really annoying… (tagged: education ted teaching schools bill gates )
  • Till Children Do Us Part – Yeah, having kids can keep you together… out of obligation, or desperation if you're an unemployable 50s housewife. But jeez, who ever thought they actually help a marriage? (tagged: children marriage love )
  • Dumping the Refrigerator for a Greener Planet – Well of course I *could* do without a fridge if I wanted to, but why not just get a super-efficient one, or understand better what *actually* needs refrigerated, or design a fridge that takes advantage of the outside temperature for condensing or evaporating coolant, or build an insulated north-facing root cellar into your earth-sheltered house, or use a zeer evaporative fridge, etc. Story seems a little one dimensional. (tagged: refrigerator energy sustainability green environment efficiency )
  • Extended Producer Responsibility – I wonder just how much of my predilection for German bike parts comes from their EPR policies, and how much comes from the German design ethos, and how separable those two things really are? (tagged: bike germany green sustainability recycling policy bicycle )

Rearranging vs. Reinventing the Global Economy

The US road to recovery runs through Beijing says Asia Times Online, and Thomas Barnett emphatically agrees.  Everyone is talking about how to reorganize the global economy, but mostly the discussion is about how to most efficiently export our recently collapsed model of growth to the developing world.  Better this time around for sure, we say, but not fundamentally different in any way.  The Chinese need (and want, it turns out) more domestic consumption and consumer debt.

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Imagine no mines

Imagine a world in which nothing is mined, where all the mineral resources we will ever need as a society have been extracted, and circulate perpetually in the economy, being endlessly transformed from finished goods into raw materials, and back again, with nothing input except renewable energy. This is a world of increasing material efficiency, and static population, in which standard of living is not defined by quantity of materials consumed. Buildings are de-constructed and re-assembled. They are designed with this in mind. Acid mine drainage is a thing of the past, and the mountaintops of West Virginia have regrown their deciduous veneer. Landfills are systematically emptied, and the copious resources placed within them by previous generations are re-organized into their useful constituent parts.

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