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Dubious assumptions prime population bomb

Fred Pearce, Nature
The United Nations says there could be 10 billion people on Earth by the end of the century. Fred Pearce finds problems in its analysis.

The latest global population projections, published by the United Nations last week, say that the world will be awash with 10.1 billion people by 2100, a billion more than previously supposed. Already, there is talk again of a ticking population time bomb.

But a closer look at the assumptions behind this scenario shows it to be perverse and contradictory. In fact, it looks more like a political construct than a scientific analysis.

The heart of the problem is this: the new UN estimates record that both world population and global fertility rates are currently slightly lower than presumed when the last projections were made two years ago. Yet, they project significantly higher growth rates than those estimated two years ago.

This paradox is created by a seemingly arbitrary change in assumptions about future fertility that requires a proper explanation. And quickly. Plans to cope with an increasing array of global challenges — not least climate change and food policy — are predicated on the UN’s demographic projections. The past few years have seen a plethora of scientific papers asking ‘can the world feed 9 billion?’ It won’t be long before the work is revisited to see whether we can feed 10 billion.

We are doing quite well at defusing the population bomb. Women today, on average, have half as many babies as their grandmothers did.
(11 May 2011)

Teens After Armageddon

Jessica Bruder, New York Times
How many times can the world come to an end? For Saba, the fatalistic 18-year-old heroine of “Blood Red Road,” quite a few. She lives long after Earth’s last major civilization, the Wreckers, went extinct. Her mother died nine years earlier, giving birth to Saba’s sister, Emmi. The lake beside her family’s shack is drying up, replaced by a wasteland of dust storms and heat.

It soon gets worse …

“Blood Red Road” is the opening installment in a planned trilogy by the first-time novelist Moira Young, and it sets the stage for a classic hero’s journey.

… The problem isn’t that some of these plot de­vices are familiar. It’s that there are so many of them. Even in 450-odd pages, the subthemes can’t all be developed. Some are introduced and later abandoned, possibly to be rescued in the next volume. Others hang around, crowding the book.

All this clutter seems incongruous with what makes the story truly sing: Young’s spare depictions of the struggle to survive and find companionship in a barren world that hardens hearts and minds.

… Hers is an ugly inheritance. Like millennial teenagers, Saba knows that epic problems — economic, environmental, social — are handed down from one generation to the next. No one gets a fresh start. In Saba’s world, we’re ghosts from another civilization; the readers are Wreckers. And the death of this city — our city — is a mystery.

“Could of bin plague or hunger or thirst or wars. Or maybe all of ’em at once,” she marvels. “The Wreckers did it all.”
(3 June 2011)
Suggested by contributor Jim Barton, who writes: “Candidate for next apocalypse cluster.” -BA

A Turning-Point We Miss at Our Peril

Johann Hari, The Independent/UK
We have the choice of burning all the oil left and hacking down all the remaining rainforests – or saving humanity

Sometimes, there are hinge-points in human history – moments when we have to choose between an exuberant descent into lunacy, and a still, sober voice offering us a sane way out. Usually, we can only see them when we look back from a distance. In 1793, the great democrat Thomas Paine said the French Revolution shouldn’t betray its principles by killing the King, because it would trigger an orgy of blood-letting that would eventually drown them all. They threw him in jail. In 1919, the great economist John Maynard Keynes said the European powers shouldn’t humiliate Germany, because it would catalyse extreme nationalism and produce another world war. They ignored him. In 1953, a handful of US President Dwight Eisenhower’s advisers urged him not to destroy Iranian democracy and kidnap its Prime Minister, because it would have a reactionary ripple effect that lasted decades. He refused to listen.

Another of those seemingly small moments with a long echo is happening now. A marginalised voice is offering us a warning, and an inspiring way to save ourselves – yet this alternative seems to be passing unheard in the night. It is coming from the people of Ecuador, led by their President, Rafael Correa, and it would begin to deal with two converging crises.

In the four billion years since life on Earth began, there have been five times when there was a sudden mass extinction of life-forms. The last time was 65 million years ago, when the dinosaurs were killed, probably by a meteor. But now the world’s scientists agree that the sixth mass extinction is at hand. Humans have accelerated the rate of species extinction by a factor of at least 100, and the great Harvard biologist EO Wilson warns that it could reach a factor of 10,000 within the next 20 years. We are doing this largely by stripping species of their habitats.
(26 May 2011)

The Coming Economic Contraction

James Keye, Dissident Voice
Economic contraction, the lowering of material wealth standards especially for the middle classes, is more complex than the simple redistribution of tiny increments of wealth from the multitude to the aggressively rich. There is a more serious process in play. It is that those peoples and nations using more than an average of about 2.5 hectares per capita of the earth’s productive capacity must bring down their use (1 hectare = 100 meters by 100 meters = 2.47 acres): this can be done with some equity and social justice or it can be done in dynamic struggle to keep present levels, increase use on the old pattern, if possible, and push want and despair off onto others. (search “Ecological Footprint Atlas 2010” and “2010 NFA data tables” for most resent data)

Put another way, this can be done with some serious efforts at fairness or it can be done catastrophically. Our opening efforts, while not irrevocable, seem pointed toward catastrophe. At present the need to reduce average consumption is occurring at the same time as the world’s wealthiest people are increasingly using their power advantage to gather up (steal from other humans and the rest of the living world) and control as much real wealth as possible.

Much of the analysis, in the developed countries, of our changing life styles, living standards and material well-being has been done with the unstated, underlying assumption that any reduction in personal wealth is an unnecessary, dreadful and unacceptable loss – this is a very dangerous foundational belief, and suffers from a variety of errors of thinking and living.

The biggest danger is that the rich use this way of thinking to justify what are, from any reasonable point of view, excesses that do violence to other humans and the living space. The other major and nearly equal danger is that those living beyond the earth’s productive capacity, though not rich, not only use this argument, but are encouraged in it by all that find it appealing, and thus make it impossible to have the serious consideration of our future that is needed.

The belief that the value of one’s life is dependent on material measures is at once too easy and too deeply incorrect to be satisfactory, but the ease has trumped the inaccuracy.
(25 May 2011)