Tag Archives: population

Sustainability needs academics, outside Ivory Towers

Avoiding societal collapse means building bridges between science and the rest of the world.

Paris smog, from Montmartre

“It is imperative that we quickly solve six intertwined problems: population growth and overconsumption, climate change, pollution, ecosystem destruction, disease spillovers and extinction.” Above, winter smog over Paris, seen from Montmartre © Deborah Jones 2015

by Anthony D. Barnosky, Elizabeth A. Hadly, and Paul R. Ehrlich
March 18, 2016

Until recently, Earth was so big compared with humanity’s impacts that its resources seemed limitless. But that is no longer the case. Thanks to rapid growth in both human population and per capita consumption, we are now on the edge of irrevocable damage to our planetary life support systems. If we want to avoid locking in long-lasting impacts, it is imperative that we quickly solve six intertwined problems: population growth and overconsumption, climate change, pollution, ecosystem destruction, disease spillovers and extinction.

The Challenges

Most pressing among these today is climate change. Since the Industrial Revolution, we have produced most of the energy we need by burning fossil fuels. This has added carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases to the atmosphere at a pace 200 times faster than what was normal for Earth’s pre-industrial carbon cycle. As a result, we are now changing climate faster than people have ever experienced since our ancestors became Homo sapiens. Already the changing climate is manifesting as more frequent floods, wildfires and heat waves that kill thousands of people annually; rising sea levels that displace communities and cost hundreds of billions of dollars for coastal infrastructure building and repair; and increasingly acid oceans, which in some places are becoming so acidic that oyster and scallop fisheries are beginning to collapse.

Fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, pharmaceuticals, industrial chemicals and trash have contaminated even the most remote environments of the world.

With no change in course, present emissions trajectories will likely, by mid-century, heat the planet to a level that humans and most other contemporary vertebrate species have never experienced, inhibiting food production and greatly multiplying other climate-change problems, including exacerbating global conflict and national security concerns. Indeed, if the present climate-change trajectory continues to 2100, Earth will be hotter than it has been in at least 14 million years, and large regions will be too hot to support human life outdoors.

Meanwhile, human consumption of natural resources is creating a plethora of other types of pollution as well. More than 6 million people die each year from the health effects of air pollution from burning fossil fuels. Our solid waste — increasingly plastic and electronic — has created burgeoning landfills and massive trash gyres in the middle of the oceans. Fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, pharmaceuticals, industrial chemicals and trash have contaminated even the most remote environments of the world. Whales and polar bears harbor toxins in their tissues; Arctic lakes far from any human settlements exhibit elevated nitrogen levels.

The harm we’re doing to nature is coming back to haunt us in the form of infectious disease risk as well. Increasing encroachment of humans into previously little-touched ecosystems is leading to more frequent and severe “spillovers” of disease from nonhuman to human communities. Climate change is further increasing the odds that novel diseases will crop up in humans and the plants and animals on which we depend: Many of the world’s diseases are tropical in origin, and as we build roads and destroy habitats in the tropics, we increase the probability of exposure. Reverse spillover from humans to animals is an issue as well — an increasing number of animals are afflicted with antibiotic-resistant forms of bacteria.

Finally, meeting human demand for food, housing, water and other goods and services has transformed more than half of the planet into farms, cities, roads and dams. This ecosystem transformation, along with poaching, overfishing and generally exploiting nature for short-term profit, has accelerated the extinction rate of wild animals and plants to levels not seen since the dinosaurs died out. The result has been tremendous loss of ecosystem services such as water filtration, pollination of crops, control of pests and emotional fulfillment. Should present rates of extinction continue, in as little as three human lifetimes Earth would lose three out of every four familiar species (for example, vertebrates) forever.

Meeting human demand for food, housing, water and other goods and services has transformed more than half of the planet into farms, cities, roads and dams. Above, powerlines in Western Canada © Gavin Kennedy 2015

Meeting human demand for food, housing, water and other goods and services has transformed more than half of the planet into farms, cities, roads and dams. Above, powerlines in Western Canada © Gavin Kennedy 2015

Overarching Challenges

Contributing to all of these are two overarching challenges: the number of people in the world and our ecological footprints — especially the excessively large per capita ecological footprints in high-income countries.

To feed that many more people under business-as-usual food production, distribution and wastage would require converting even more of Earth’s lands to agriculture and overfishing more of the sea.

Human population has nearly tripled in just one lifetime, and almost a quarter of a million more people are being added every day. Best-case scenarios indicate that by 2050 the planet will have to support at least 2 billion to 3 billion people more than it does today.

Fishers leave Steveston, B.C. © Deborah Jones 2013

Fishing harbour at Steveston, B.C., Canada  © Deborah Jones 2013

To feed that many more people under business-as-usual food production, distribution and wastage would require converting even more of Earth’s lands to agriculture and overfishing more of the sea. There simply isn’t enough productive land left to accomplish that, or enough of the species we like to eat left in the ocean, especially in the face of climate stresses that agriculture and aquaculture have not yet witnessed.

Maintaining present rates of consumption — let alone raising standards of living for billions of poor people today — is similarly problematic. Continuing currently accepted norms of manufacturing goods and services into the future would dramatically increase what already are dangerous levels of environmental contamination worldwide and deplete water and other critical natural resources we depend upon today.

Beyond Breakthroughs 

How can science and society solve these intertwined problems and avoid environmental tipping points that would make human life infinitely more difficult?

Solutions will require scientific and technological breakthroughs — but breakthroughs will not be enough. On a global scale, obstacles include political, economic and social factors, including inequalities in economic opportunities and land tenure rights, or poor distributional infrastructure — problems science alone can’t solve. In addition to science, solutions will require effective collaboration of environmental and physical scientists with social scientists and those in the humanities.

In other words, we must recognize the interrelated facets of seemingly distinct issues. We must actively exchange information among practitioners in academics, politics, religion and business and other stakeholders to connect different pieces of the solutions puzzle that are emerging from different specialties.

In addition, people outside the scientific community must recognize and accept that the problems are serious and that solutions are at hand.

That means we within academia must link our work with stakeholders in ways that elicit significant action. This is especially important, since guiding the planet for the future will likely require some fundamental changes — not just in human economic and governance systems, but also in societal values. Engagement with religious leaders, local communities and businesses, subnational groups, and the military and security sectors of society is critically important to further these necessary conversations and impel action.

It is no longer enough to simply do the science and publish an academic paper. That is a necessary first step, but it moves only halfway toward the goal of guiding the planet toward a future that is sustainable.

The good news is we are already making progress in both areas. Scientists and others are coming together to propose and pursue solutions. And three initiatives have been constructed specifically to bridge the science-society divide. The Millennium Alliance for Humanity and Biosphere was founded specifically to connect scientists, humanists, activists and civil society in order to foster positive global change. The Consensus for Action provides a venue for policy-makers to quickly digest why it is essential to immediately address the issues described here; for scientists to communicate to policy-makers throughout the world the importance of dealing with these key environmental issues; and for members of the public to voice their support to policy-makers for taking action. And Mapping the Impacts of Global Change: Stories of Our Changing Environment as Told By U.S. Citizens provides rapid and locally relevant information to everyone, from the general public to political leaders, about how these threats to humanity’s life support systems play out.

In summary, it is no longer enough to simply do the science and publish an academic paper. That is a necessary first step, but it moves only halfway toward the goal of guiding the planet toward a future that is sustainable for both human civilization and the biosphere. To implement knowledge that arises from basic research, we must establish dialogues and collaborations that transcend narrow academic specialties and bridge between academia, industry, the policy community and society in general.

Now is the time to rise to these scientific and communication challenges. The trajectories of population overgrowth, climate change, ecosystem loss, extinctions, disease and environmental contamination have been rapidly accelerating over the past half-century. If not arrested within the next decade, their momentum may prevent us from stopping them short of disaster.View Ensia homepage

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Anthony D. Barnosky is a Professor of integrative biology, University of California, Berkeley.
@tonybarnosky  Elizabeth A. Hadly  is a Stanford professor and global change scientist.
@LizHadly  Paul R. Ehrlich is President, Center for Conservation Biology and Bing Professor of Population Studies, Stanford University. This story was first published by Ensia in collaboration   with the academic journal Elementa. It is based on “Avoiding collapse: Grand challenges for science and society to solve by 2050,” a peer-reviewed article published March 15 as part of Elementa’s Avoiding Collapse special feature. Read the original piece here.

You might also wish to read:

Academics can change the world – if they engage with it. By Savo Heleta, Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University

Research and creative thinking can change the world. This means that academics have enormous power. But, as academics Asit Biswas and Julian Kirchherr have warned, the overwhelming majority are not shaping today’s public debates. Instead, their work is largely sitting in academic journals that are read almost exclusively by their peers.

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Known Unknowns in Global Economics

JIM MCNIVEN: THOUGHTLINES
November, 2015

A decade ago, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld ruminated about the uncertainties of life and how little we know about our wider environment. His comments were not original with him, but they did popularize the categories of what we think we know, what we are aware of but are ignorant of its outline and details, and what we don’t even suspect that is lying out there: 1) the knowns, 2) the known unknowns and 3) the unknown unknowns.

A lot of people made fun of Rumsfeld and his categories, but they have entered the popular lexicon and he even used a variation as the title of his memoirs. I had run across the same classification system many years before and it has proven useful to me. I am pretty sure the ancient Babylonians and Greeks used it.

We are a global society slowly beginning to explore a couple of ‘known unknowns’ that need to be managed right as we start to experience their effects.* These are population decline and price deflation. By and large, the development of modern economies over the past 500 years has come with a continual increase in population and our general economic thinking has been predicated on an assumption that the population of a society and therefore demand for goods and services will be potentially larger tomorrow than today. What if that assumption is beginning to be incorrect?

Second, at least since the Great Depression, there has been a presumption that one of the major challenges to economic management has been the need to control inflation. In the early 1980s, when inflationary pressures began to recede under the installation of high interest rates, many commentators wished for the halcyon days that would come when price stability (read: zero inflation) was achieved. Well, here we are, at least in some societies, and close to it in many more.

If you look at reliable projections of population for the major societies in the world, say, the US, the EU, Japan, China and India, with the exception of the last in this list, populations will start to decline from now (Japan) until 2050 and will keep doing so thereafter. These projections are inexorable without very heavy immigration from other countries with ‘better’ demographics or intolerable governance.

We do not know how to deal with this phenomenon, but we are learning a bit from Japan about it. Japan’s population has begun to decline recently after a couple of decades of stagnation. Its labor force has remained steady in size only because of poor pensions, which force many retirees back into the labor market. The labor force could grow if there weren’t cultural constraints against greater female participation and against immigration. The present government has said it wants to change the first of these, but it is doubtful that exhortation will accomplish a lot before the size of the decline in Japan’s labor force overtakes these wishes.

Further, all of the experiments in places like Russia and Canada and Sweden and elsewhere to provide incentives for citizens to have more children have proven, at best, to lead to minor changes in birthrates, but nothing near a rate that would lead to population stability. Note that the decision to have children in the more developed countries is normally one made by both prospective parents. Policymakers have not got their heads around this yet.

The ‘known unknown’ in this situation is how does a society maintain any kind of economic growth when one of the two main drivers, population/labor force and productivity, does not exist? So far, the Japanese have shown us that they haven’t a clue, but are vigorously pushing all the available policy buttons. Their economy has been more or less flat for two decades and more. Maybe that is success …

The second problem is tied to the first, but has its own dynamic. As noted above, coping with inflation has been a concern for decades now. Too much money chasing too few ‘goods’. Run government surpluses in good times and deficits in bad. Keep the value of the currency stable. The stress was always on achieving and maintaining stability in the face of upward pressures on prices and wages.

Yet, today, if we return to Japan for a moment, it has been practicing a massive QE, or quantitative expansion of its money supply, for a number of years, really without much effect on the price levels in the country. QE ought to be inflationary, since it pumps a lot more money into the economy.

Let’s pretend that it is inflationary. Then we have to look at why the US, which did much the same thing after 2008, did not have a lot of inflation. In this case, it appears that a lot of the excess cash produced by the Federal Reserve found its way out of the country and into loans or purchases by foreigners. This has not been the case in Japan, where the excess cash has led to a decline of the yen relative to most countries, something that also ought to be inflationary. But not much happened in Japan price-wise either. The implication is that the Japanese QE has only succeeded in keeping deflation at bay. Maybe that is success as well….

Deflation comes from a lack of demand, with prices dropping until the market is cleared of whatever is on offer. If you have a society where there is an increasing number of pensioners, who outstrip the number of new, young entrants into the workforce, then you will get a decrease in demand. This is because retirement for most people brings with it a decrease in income that can equal, say for instance, a 50% drop. Part of this leads to lower spending and part may be made up by savings. We can include public and private pensions in the 50% that was maintained. Savings rates in the country would drop and demand would decline as well, which is what we have seen in Japan.

There is a second effect when we get to population decline, but first let’s explore the difference between labor force decline and that of population. In places like Canada and Japan, people normally retire in their early 60s, say 62, and they normally die around 80. Therefore, they spend 18 years living on reduced incomes and reduced demand.

Labour force decline puts a cap on how much a society can produce, unless non-participants are encouraged into working or there is adequate immigration. Otherwise, the job of increasing output has to rely on productivity increases. In both instances, people and productivity, there are a number of cultural constraints that work against this neat, logical solution.

Population decline puts a constraint on demand as well as investment. First, less people means a smaller market. Second, it means that investment calculations are upset, in that adding capacity to a shrinking market is an illogical act unless the investor assumes this new investment will drive somebody else completely out of the market. A growing market might be able to absorb new capacity; a shrinking market is a nasty exercise. At any given time there is more capacity than needed, there is no hope that a rising number of consumers will buy their way into a national recovery from recession, there is no prospect for gains on savings and there is no government, save possibly Japan, that has gone thorough the process of the initial denial of this reality towards a policy set that allows us to manage such a condition.

That being said, there are some possibilities for successful management, once we get used to this coming new reality. It will become an increasingly widespread condition and this will encourage innovation in economic management, but right now the economic effects of population decline and deflation are terra incognita. We know it is there, but like the old mapmakers, we don’t know much about it.

Let’s speculate on what might contribute to a more optimistic future. Like the old mapmakers, perhaps we can populate the known unknown ‘lands’ of the future with the odd fair maiden, dragon and golden mountain or two …  in another column.

 Copyright Jim McNiven 2015

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Jim McNiven’s latest book is The Yankee Road: Tracing the Journey of the New England Tribe that Created Modern Americawww.theyankeeroad.com

Jim McNiven

James McNiven has a PhD from the University of Michigan. He has written widely on public policy and economic development issues and is the co-author of three books. His most recent research has been about the relationship of demographic changes to Canadian regional economic development. He also has an interest in American business history and continues to teach at Dalhousie on a part-time basis.

 

 

 

 

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Facts and Opinions is a boutique journal of reporting and analysis in words and images, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O is funded by you, our readers. We are ad-free and spam-free, and do not solicit donations from partisan organizations. Real journalism has value. Thank you for your support. Please tell others about us, and follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

F&O’s CONTENTS page is updated each Saturday. Sign up for emailed announcements of new work on our free FRONTLINES blog; find evidence-based reporting in Reports; commentary, analysis and creative non-fiction in OPINION-FEATURES; and image galleries in PHOTO-ESSAYS. If you value journalism please support F&O, and tell others about us.

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Axing China’s one-child rule unlikely to change population

By Stuart Gietel-Basten, University of Oxford
October, 2015

Village children collect firewood for cooking fuel, Tianlin County, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, China. Photo by Nick Hogarth for Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR). CC

Village children collect firewood for cooking fuel, Tianlin County, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, China. Photo by Nick Hogarth for Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR). CC

China is scrapping its one-child policy and officially allowing all couples to have two children. While some may think this heralds an overnight switch, the reality is that it is far less dramatic. This is, in fact, merely the latest in an array of piecemeal national and local reforms implemented since 1984.

In fact the change is really a very pragmatic response to an unpopular policy that no longer made any sense. And much like the introduction of the policy in 1978, it will have little impact on the country’s population level.

The overwhelming narrative being presented now is that this is a step to help tackle population ageing and a declining workforce through increasing the birth rate – dealing with the “demographic time bomb”. According to Xinhua, the state news agency, “The change of policy is intended to balance population development and address the challenge of an ageing population.” The party line is that the policy played an essential part in controlling the country’s population and, hence, stimulating GDP growth per capita. It prevented “millions being born into poverty”, but is no longer needed.

Of course, many scholars have disputed this official view. When the one-child policy was introduced, fertility rates had already fallen drastically, though there was an apparent paradox that overall population growth rates were very high.

As well as being unnecessary, the policy has become unpopular because of the heavy-handed actions of some local family-planning politicians who, either through force or corruption, brought the implementation of the policy into ill repute. Indeed, the “social maintenance fees” collected for infringements of the one-child policy were often zealously enforced in order to plug local budget shortfalls. In this sense, you could go as far as seeing the policy change as an indirect result of President Xi’s anti-corruption drive.

Countless studies – as well as the experience of previous policy relaxations – have shown that the likely long-term impact of any reform would be small. Couples who are already eligible to have two children in urban areas, and also increasingly in rural areas, are choosing to have one. This means that the likely impact on overall fertility may be low. In this context, one could see the scrapping of the one-child policy as being a practical, pragmatic response to deal with an increasingly unpopular policy, safe in the knowledge that the long-term implications are likely to be minimal.

Fertility in China Data: UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs

 

This is not to say, however, that the policy change is unimportant. Far from it. We must not forget that for many hundreds of thousands of couples, the change in policy will allow them to fulfil their dream of having a second child.

In the short term, then, there is almost certainly going to be a mini baby boom. In some poorer provinces which have had rather stricter regulations, such as Sichuan, the baby boom may even be quite pronounced. (However, it is likely that an increase in the total fertility rate would have occurred anyway because of what demographers call the “tempo effect”, where postponement of births among one generation leads to an artificially low total fertility rate.) As with anything in China, its sheer size will mean that the numbers will be striking. This will almost certainly lead to some pressures on public services in the future.

The gradual move to a two-child policy is very reflective of the way policy is designed and changed in China. Scrapping the policy completely was not an option. This would have indicated that the policy was, in some ways, “wrong”.

Plus, one must not underestimate the size of the family planning bureaucracy. In 2005, it was estimated that that over half a million staff were directed involved in family planning policy at the township level and above, added to 1.2m village administrators and 6m “group leaders”. Effectively disbanding this overnight would have led to chaos.

But the fact that a change occurred indicates that major further change might lie ahead. Although it sounds counter-intuitive, after 35 years of strict anti-natalist policies, my colleague Quanbao Jiang and I recently argued that a switch to encouraging more children was not inconceivable, with China following the example of its low fertility neighbours in South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and so on. Indeed, examples already exist of family planning officials in some Chinese provinces encouraging eligible couples to have a second child. Under these circumstances the family planning apparatus could play a critical role after performing a seemingly unlikely ideological shift.

Finally, questions will undoubtedly be asked about the legacy of the one-child policy. While its likely role in driving down fertility has probably been overstated, its role in shaping the highly skewed ratio of boys born compared to girls is widely considered to have been significant. In 2005 there were 32m more men under the age of 20 than women in China.

In my view, we will only really tell some 10-20 years in the future when we will be able to see how fertility in China develops. It may well be that the policy could have been too successful if it transpires that fertility remains stubbornly low. What is the likely psychological impact of 35 years of constant messaging extolling the benefits of one-child families? And how is that internalised? We shall see.

Looking elsewhere in Asia, though, the Chinese government may find that it is much easier to “encourage” people to have fewer children than to have more.

The ConversationCreative Commons

Stuart Gietel-Basten is an Associate Professor of Social Policy, University of Oxford. This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Related:

China faces crippling water shortages and pollution, by Jonathan Manthorpe, F&O International Affairs

China’s drive for wealth and power is stumbling and could collapse over the country’s lack of water and its gross mismanagement of the resources it does have.

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