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What will future generations condemn us for?

Kwame Anthony Appiah, Washington Post
Once, pretty much everywhere, beating your wife and children was regarded as a father’s duty, homosexuality was a hanging offense, and waterboarding was approved — in fact, invented — by the Catholic Church. Through the middle of the 19th century, the United States and other nations in the Americas condoned plantation slavery. Many of our grandparents were born in states where women were forbidden to vote. And well into the 20th century, lynch mobs in this country stripped, tortured, hanged and burned human beings at picnics.

Looking back at such horrors, it is easy to ask: What were people thinking?

Yet, the chances are that our own descendants will ask the same question, with the same incomprehension, about some of our practices today.

Is there a way to guess which ones?

… a look at the past suggests three signs that a particular practice is destined for future condemnation.

First, people have already heard the arguments against the practice. The case against slavery didn’t emerge in a blinding moment of moral clarity, for instance; it had been around for centuries.

Second, defenders of the custom tend not to offer moral counterarguments but instead invoke tradition, human nature or necessity. (As in, "We’ve always had slaves, and how could we grow cotton without them?")

And third, supporters engage in what one might call strategic ignorance, avoiding truths that might force them to face the evils in which they’re complicit.

… With these signs in mind, here are four contenders for future moral condemnation.

Our prison system

Industrial meat production

The institutionalized and isolated elderly
… Sometimes we can learn from societies much poorer than ours. My English mother spent the last 50 years of her life in Ghana, where I grew up. In her final years, it was her good fortune not only to have the resources to stay at home, but also to live in a country where doing so was customary. She had family next door who visited her every day, and she was cared for by doctors and nurses who were willing to come to her when she was too ill to come to them. In short, she had the advantages of a society in which older people are treated with respect and concern.

The environment

… It’s not as though we’re unaware of what we’re doing to the planet: We know the harm done by deforestation, wetland destruction, pollution, overfishing, greenhouse gas emissions — the whole litany. Our descendants, who will inherit this devastated Earth, are unlikely to have the luxury of such recklessness. Chances are, they won’t be able to avert their eyes, even if they want to.

Kwame Anthony Appiah, a philosophy professor at Princeton University, is the author of "The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen."
(26 September 2010)


Policy at Its Worst

Bob Herbert, New York Times
We can go to war in Iraq and Afghanistan, and threaten to blow Iran off the face of the planet. We can conduct a nonstop campaign of drone and helicopter attacks in Pakistan and run a network of secret prisons around the world. We are the mightiest nation mankind has ever seen.

But we can’t seem to build a railroad tunnel to carry commuters between New Jersey and New York.

The United States is not just losing its capacity to do great things. It’s losing its soul. It’s speeding down an increasingly rubble-strewn path to a region where being second rate is good enough.

The railroad tunnel was the kind of infrastructure project that used to get done in the United States almost as a matter of routine. It was a big and expensive project, but the payoff would have been huge. It would have reduced congestion and pollution in the New York-New Jersey corridor. It would have generated economic activity and put thousands of people to work. It would have enabled twice as many passengers to ride the trains on that heavily traveled route between the two states.

The project had been in the works for 20 years, and ground had already been broken when the governor of New Jersey, Chris Christie, rejected the project on Thursday, saying that his state could not afford its share of the costs. Extreme pressure is being exerted from federal officials and others to get Mr. Christie to change his mind, but, as of now, the project is a no-go.

This is a railroad tunnel we’re talking about. We’re not trying to go to the Moon. This is not the Manhattan Project. It’s a railroad tunnel that’s needed to take people back and forth to work and to ease the pressure on the existing tunnel, a wilting two-track facility that’s about 100 years old. What is the matter with us?

The Chinese could build it. The Turks could build it. We can’t build it.
(9 October 2010)


Why I was wrong about population

Graham Strouts, Zone 6
Book review PeopleQuake by Fred Pearce Eden Project Books 2010 Pbck; 342pp

There is a scary book I have a half-share in with a neo-Malthusian friend which contains graphs of the exponential growth curves in population for each of the countries of the world.

The Rapid Growth of Human Population 1750-2000 by William Stanton predicts a likely collapse and massive die-off by the title’s latter date on account of human population exceeding the carrying capacity of the planet resulting in resource wars, famines and environmental systems failure.

Most of the graphs tell a similar, devastating story: starting around 1850- when the world reached its first Billion inhabitants- populations that in many cases had been relatively stable for thousands of years began to explode and the nearly flat lines all morph spontaneously into hockey-sticks. With another 84-million added to the planet every year at the books publication, the stats and the authors’ analysis lend powerful support to the petri-dish theory of humanity: like bacteria in a sugar solution, homo sapiens will simply keep on consuming all the available resources, leading to massive population increase, followed by die-off.

This is a compelling idea that originated of course 200 years ago in Surrey with Malthus, author of Essay on the Principles of Population in 1798, but as Fed Pearce shows in his recent rebuttal to Malthus PeopleQuakethe inevitability of die-off has strongly informed much of the environmental movement- and still does.

Including myself here on Z5. I have written at several blog posts over the last few years arguing that population is one of the “last taboos” which needs to be addressed much more strongly in debates on sustainability. The reasoning goes like this: all our powering down and reducing emissions can be canceled out- and are being canceled out- by increases in population.

… Pearce’s book has made me question some of these assumptions, look at others in a new light, and realize that about some of the fundamental issues on population, I have been dead wrong.

Malthus was wrong

So far food production has in fact kept pace with population growth,and famines have been declining since the 1980s. Two-hundred years may be a long time to be wrong about something he was predicting in his own lifetime, but collapse theorists (like me) simply say: it’s coming. Peak Oil and all that- we have finally reached the point where the Malthusian nightmare of famines on a global scale are inevitable. The stresses we have placed on the environment that sustains us seem inevitably to overwhelm our technological improvements, with climate change the wild card with effects that may be impossible to prepare for adequately.

… Malthus didn’t see that technology could make a nonsense of his natural law. But just as importantly, I think, he was wrong about human nature. He saw the poor as mindless beasts driven by crude natural forces, incapable of controlling their own fertility. That was his “libel” on humanity. And it rather ignored the fact that his subjects were already controlling their own fertility.

Pearce explains how influential Malthus became, and why he was decried so much by for example Marx: After his death, British politicians, believing Malthus to be correct about population growth amongst the poor, did not act to intervene with the Irish Potato famine, in which millions starved while the island was operating the largest livestock exporting market in the world.

Was the famine a case study in the operation of Malthus’s law- or an illustration of its political misuse? In reality, the famine may be a terrible example of how, in the hands of mean-spirited politicians, Malthusianism can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

… These associations do make me pause and wonder: just how much doomerism around, not just population but peak oil and general resource depletion, is actually influenced by this kind of right-wing agenda? To what extent has the environmental movement’s concern about the human footprint been colored by racist or anti-humanist ideologies?

Pearce makes a compelling case that immigration is good for both immigrants and host countries; it represents the fastest way for the poor to improve their lot, and money sent home makes a real difference to the economies of poor countries. There is much we should do to improve the circumstances and conditions of immigrants, but immigration is not itself necessarily the problem.

Demographic Patterns

Pearce’s book takes you deep into the world of the demographer, where one encounters fascinating concepts of baby booms and demographic windows; the politics of contraception and the history of attempts at population control such as the one-child policy in China ; graphs like mushrooms and inverted mushrooms (and the in the case of AIDS stricken South Africa, an hour-glass); and some surprising insights.

It was Stewart Brand who first made me question some of the conclusions from the Exponential Growth camp: worldwide, fertility rates have already peaked and are declining faster than expected. Population is expected to peak by 2050-some say by 2040- and will start to decline in total numbers.

…Humanity still faces huge challenges, but the leveling off of human population growth, and even its decline in the near future, is a fact that needs to be acknowledged.

Rather than worrying about population overshoot, we need to address the issues that will arise over the next 30-40 years with a much older population, and the very different society that will ensue: possibly, as Pearce hopes, one not just older, but wiser also.

We need to leave behind the idea that sustainability is only for a minority of the human family, and work to making a sustainable future for all.
(23 August 2010)


Living off our capital

John Coulter, Online Opinion
Until recently any criticism of Australia’s population size and population growth rate was muted by tacit agreement between the main political parties. The Hawke government went against its own policy and acknowledged it was going against public opinion in pushing population growth. While Robert Ray was Minister for Immigration he created the Bureau of Immigration Research whose principal task it was to show how beneficial population growth was to Australia. Neither of these things, at the time, occasioned any criticism from the Opposition.

With the election of the Howard government a deception developed which led the public to believe that immigration was being restricted while, at the same time, the government was steadily increasing the intake, mainly of skilled migrants.

This pro-population growth policy of both major parties was also pursued by powerful vested interests in property development, real estate and sections of the retail industry. Commercial media drew income from these interests so were uncritical of population growth. Paradoxically, the ABC, often thought to be left leaning, also supported high population growth but for the reason that it had accepted that to limit immigration was an indication of racism.
(5 October 2010)
Suggested by Michael Lardelli. -BA