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Too many people, too much stuff - Feb 1

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Peak Middle Class

Donal, TPM Blog
One of my high school history textbooks went to great lengths to shoot down communism as it was explaining it. The authors cited a large middle class, such as in the US, as a bulwark against the class struggle predicted by Marx and Engels. I guess that argument stuck with me, and over the years I have tended to find comfort in our prosperous middle class as a stabilizing influence in our political culture.

But the middle class comes with a hefty environmental price tag.

If you listen to Julian Darley, Richard Heinberg or any of many academic doomsayers, it is the large, comfortable middle classes of the developed world and the growing middle classes in Asia that are the primary culprits in both energy depletion and climate change. Not the rich, because there aren't enough of them to make a difference, not the teeming millions of poor because they don't individually own or consume all that much, but the middle class with their long SUV commutes to large, exurban houses stocked with globally manufactured possessions.

And the middle classes are themselves an economic burden.

If you believe Sharon Astyk, the middle class bears on a substantial economic foundation of newly-industrialized third world workers.
(28 January 2009)



Earth’s big problem: Too many people

Gregory M. Lamb, The Christian Science Monitor
But how can we ease population without taking draconian steps? By developing in ways that we should be anyway, experts say.
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Are there too many people on Earth?

That question is rarely raised today, in part because it conjures up the possibility of governments intruding into the most private and profound decision a couple can make. In a worst-case scenario, authorities could impose discriminatory policies that would limit births based on such criteria as race, ethnic origin, cultural background, religion, or gender.

But with huge, vexing questions such as food security, poverty, energy supplies, environmental degradation, and climate change facing humanity, some are asking whether aggressive measures to control population growth should be on the public agenda.

... Lifestyles are bigger issue

Ehrlich and Weisman agree with critics who say population alone isn’t the issue. Lifestyles in developed countries in North America and Europe consume a lot of resources. Everyone living in an industrialized nation puts a much heavier burden on the environment than does someone living in, say, Asia or Africa. Though family sizes in the developed world are smaller, the number of households hasn’t shrunk commensurately.

“It’s actually the number of households – and not the number of people – that has a bigger impact on the environment,” says Matthew Connelly, a professor of history at Columbia University in New York and the author of “Fatal Misconception: The Struggle to Control World Population.”

“This is not a population crisis,” Professor Connelly argues. “The crisis is us, the consumption patterns of the wealthiest people in the world. That’s what’s unsustainable.” The problem in trying to control populations “is that we don’t know how to do it,” he says. “We don’t have a good theory to explain, much less predict, why people have babies and why they have as many as they do.”

China’s strict one-child-per-family policy, established 30 years ago, has cut its population growth significantly. But it has also created a huge gender imbalance, as families have chosen male children over female, he says.
(28 January 2009)



Peak Everything

Tom Laskawy, Ezra Klein, The American Prospect
Felix Salmon mused on the subject of Peakniks recently (and what a neologism THAT is!) after reading Ben McGrath's entertainingly morbid piece "The Dystopians" in The New Yorker ($ub req'd). While it's worth observing that "peaknik" has typically referred to Peak Oilers, I think it's safe to say that we're all peakniks now.

McGrath talks mostly about financial doomsayers, i.e. Peak Debt and Peak Dollars, but refers generally, if somewhat dismissively, to the "Peaknik Diaspora" and some of its adherents. These would be folks who "believe" in Peak Oil, Peak Carbon, Peak Dirt, Peak Fish. Personally, I think Peak Carbon is a not terribly useful way to refer to climate change - although "climate change" is itself a not terribly useful way to refer to climate change (something that Gar Lipow has taken it upon himself to fix). Peak Things, in my humble opinion (speaking of which, why did IMHO go out of favor? Is there no longer any humility on the Internet?), should only refer to resource maximums. Switching that around for carbon - i.e. we're trying to stop producing carbon so we can declare/achieve Peak Carbon and continue reducing from there - is just plain confusing. So let's dispense with Peak Carbon.

Peak Dirt (aka Peak Soil), on the other hand, is very real. Or rather the underlying problem of soil erosion is very real. Industrial agriculture with its "fencerow-to-fencerow" monocropping techniques and mass applications of synthetic fertilizer further exacerbates the problem (although there's a peak for fertilizer, too - Peak Phosphorus).
(29 January 2009)
Also at Gristmill.

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