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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Shades of Green

There are a lot of voices in the climate and sustainability discussion.  I’ve been thinking about where in the spectrum I fall, and why.  Who are the people I’m trying to convince?  What camp do opponents imagine I’m in?  Even amongst those of us who agree that the energy and climate problem is enormous, there’s disagreement about whether change in our daily lives is necessary, desirable, or acceptable.

Below is a list of people I’ve personally been influenced by.  Everyone here agrees that the current system has to change, that the magnitude of the required change is large, and that the direction of the change is unequivocally away from fossil energy sources.  Where we differ is on what part of the system needs to change, and why.  In particular, there seems to be a range of positions taken on the issue of social change.  The Pessimists think that no technical solution comes close to being adequate, that large social changes are thus obligatory, and that they will be interpreted negatively by most people.  The Optimists think that the best solutions include both technical and social components, and that the required social changes are relatively modest, and not necessarily negative at all.  Some Optimists advocate for social change overtly, while others imply that purely technical options look implausible without it.  The Cornucopians discount the need for social change, and are thus left with the technical task of supplying virtually unlimited carbon-free energy.

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Vaclav Smil – Drivers of environmental change: focus on energy transitions – YouTube

Vaclav Smil on the the scale and difficulty of executing an energy transition for the civilization.  “Calculate with me!” he says, before diving into a bunch of order-of-magnitude demonstrations that this is all much harder than we might like to think.  He’s very pessimistic about the large-scale integration of intermittent resources, and also about humanity’s ability to initiate a change voluntarily.  Would like to understand those positions better… and still continue to disagree with them.  The talk is long and rambling, but he’s so clearly engaged and emphatic that it doesn’t matter.