Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Taboo topic: the population time bomb

What is the Number One Global Problem? In the time it took you to read the previous seven words, the world's population increased by around 5. That's not 5 newborns cancelled out by 5 deaths. That's an overall increase of population which, as I write, is almost 6.6 billion; over three times more than when I was born 60 years ago. Every new person is a consumer of our planetary resources, just as we all are. Some will consume much more than others depending on where they are born and whether their parents are rich or poor. All will contribute in some degree to a grim trio of familiar troubles. The more people there are, the worse they will be:
  1. climate change
  2. destruction of biodiversity
  3. pollution

Yet you seldom see much about the population increase. Climate change is the subject of the moment and, in many ways, rightly so. But why do we have to tackle climate change? Because there are so many people. And of course all three issues are tightly interlinked, whilst looming behind them like the spectre at the feast is population increase and the inevitable overconsumption of resources. So biodiversity is being destroyed, partly by climate change but also by the human need for more food (farmland from forest; overfishing etc.). Pollution is caused by people and the gaseous part of it causes climate change. And climate change itself is aggravated by so many people causing fossil fuels to be burned for energy and industrial feedstocks.

Why don't we get serious about population? I suppose the answer must in part be the fear of eugenics. Who gets to have children? Who doesn't? Should they be 'rationed'? Many declare that there is no problem and that the planet can comfortably hold more. Others insist that their religion demands that women produce as many children as possible by forbidding contraception. Some countries, unbelievably, are worried about underpopulation. All these issues - and many similar - are dangerous: people have very strong feelings about what should and should not be done.

There's nothing new here. The problem of population was elucidated far better over 30 years ago [population 4.1 billion]:

The present [1976] population of Latin America [given as an example] is around 300 million [almost 550 million today], and already many of them are under-nourished. But if the population continued to increase at the present rate, it would take less than 500 years to reach the point where the people, packed in a standing position, formed a solid human carpet over the whole area of the continent. This is so, even if we assumed them to be very skinny -- a not-unrealistic assumption. In 1000 years from now, they would be standing on each other's shoulders more than a million deep.

It will not have escaped you that this is a hypothetical calculation! It will not really happen like that for some very good practical reasons. The names of these reasons are famine, plague, and war; or, if we are lucky, birth control. It is no use appealing to advances in agricultural science -- 'green revolutions' and the like [e.g. genetic engineering which has now leaped to the forefront of 'solutions']. Increases in food production may temporarily relieve the problem, but it is mathematically certain that they cannot be a long-term solution; indeed... they may well make the problem worse, by speeding up the rate of population expansion. It is a simple logical truth that, short of mass emigration into space... uncontrolled birth-rates are bound to lead to horribly increased death-rates. It is hard to believe that this simple truth is not understood by those leaders who forbid their followers to use contraceptive methods. They express a preference for 'natural methods' of population limitation, and a natural method is exactly what they are going to get. It is called starvation.

from The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins, 1976 p.119.

Full up: The world is full. There's nowhere else to emigrate to for the first time in human history. Humans now occupy the reasonably-habitable parts of every landmass including normally-uninhabitable Antarctica. Not many decades ago, countries like Australia were encouraging immigration and not many decades before that, the USA was accepting the "tired, poor and huddled masses yearning to breathe free" from overcrowded Europe. Not any more. Today, Europe is closing its borders and the US is building a fence to keep migrants out, even though much of their respective agricultural economies depend on low-paid labourforces with no right of residence.

I speak as a former immigrant. In fact, my wife and I have emigrated twice; once to Canada (1970) and, years later, to Spain (1987). In both cases, we were privileged, being educated and not without resources. Even so, the processes were not easy.

The Big Problem: As I see it, the biggest problem we have to solve as soon as possible is not climate change but population growth. If the world's population of humans was small and stable (say a few tens of millions, just to make the point), there wouldn't be a problem with climate change, biodiversity or pollution. There would be an abundance of everything: food, fuel and all the array of natural resources people depend on for their comfort and wellbeing. Those few millions could consume what they liked and they wouldn't begin to cause the problems I mentioned, simply because there wouldn't be enough of them to affect the atmosphere and oceans which control the stability of the world's climate. A small stable population of people would be benign. And they probably wouldn't be constantly warring on one pretext or another, the pretexts we're all familiar with being, generally, land and resources.

But our numbers are not small and not stable. There are nearly 6.6 billion of us, ratcheting up and up in numbers and expectations, and consuming more and more. Because we have failed dismally to even attempt to control our numbers, the result is that we have to tackle not just population growth, but climate change, pollution and biodiversity all at once.

Solutions: The de facto 'natural' solutions are already operating in uncontrolled fashion, mostly affecting the poor:

Other more intentional methods of controlling numbers of people have achieved various levels of notoriety:

  • one-child-per-couple law in China
  • mass sterilisations
  • infanticide, apparently widespread in countries where, for various reasons, male children are preferred to female
  • abortion

The only widely-acceptable method of control has, of course, been contraception. Unfortunately, some religious groups ban it and because of this influence, the Bush administration of the USA has stopped funding programmes which delivered contraception to those who could most have benefitted from it.

The stark choices: If we do nothing and continue as we are, the planetary mega-ecosystem within which we all live will solve the problem for us -- and it won't be nice for us. Some believe there may not be an 'us' at all within just a few decades, as the planet extinguishes that life which it cannot support.

If we do something, it won't be nice either but has the potential for being rather gentler to a greater number of us than the random and dreadful effects of war, disease and starvation. In short, climate change is a deadly symptom - one of several - of an even more serious malaise. I'm not saying we shouldn't be taking radical steps to tackle the climate problem. We should, but we desperately need to come to terms with the underlying fundamental issue: overpopulation. We need, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, urgent jaw jaw. Otherwise there will be war war ... and more more...

Thursday, March 15, 2007

While the cat's away... Having a NoFF week!

The author, thoroughly well wrapped and insulated, at his desk, preparing to write this blogWhile the cat's away, this mouse ain't having much fun: My wife Val, who's not in the least cat-like, is away for a few days, assisting at my son Mark Lynas's book launch. So it seemed entirely appropriate to conduct a 'climate' experiment on myself.

A winter week without fossil fuel: Yes, it's theoretically possible (see my earlier post Have a NoFF Day: NoFF = No Fossil Fuels) and I wanted to find out just how unpleasant it was. I was going to live in a post-carbon world for just 6 days. I turned the oil-fired central heating off at the main switch before Val even walked out of the door to catch her train on Monday, so keen was I. I also vowed that I would not indulge in heat from the wood-burning stove which is nominally carbon-neutral (though I have reservations about this since the trees I have planted around my farm won't sequester what I am burning now for many years to come). We would normally have the stove lit in the evenings at this chilly time of year.

Cold but not that cold: The very first night was quite a test. The skies cleared and the temperature plummeted to 0 degrees Celsius overnight. But I didn't die. I survived quite well by dint of wearing the same night-time clothes in bed (I normally sleep naked) that I wear on my mountain sojourns in Scotland: a base layer on my upper body and Polartec 100 'long johns' on the lower part. The old stone farmhouse has solid uninsulatable walls (something we're hoping to remedy by passive solar means) which buffer the maximum and miniumum outside temperatures so that, without heat input, the inside temperature reflects the average of day and night. This can mean that it's colder in the house during the day - and this has happened several times. Day temperatures did, once, shoot up to 14 Celsius leaving the kitchen at a chilly 10. So the average temperature in the house is probably around 10-11 Celsius.

Watching the telly: Not surprisingly, the body gets coldest when it's not active physically. During the part of the day when I'm outside on the farm, working physically (which includes excavating the foundations for the passive solar conservatory), I'm often hot and the sun shines from time to time. At night, when I relax late in the evening to watch a rented DVD (murder mysteries are my thing this week), I wrap up as warm as I can with as little skin exposed as possible. And with all my layers - the more the better - including a thick fleece and a 'body mitten' blanket thing, I find that I am reasonably comfortable.

Indulgences: No, not the papal sort; the physical sort:
  • I boil water - exactly the right amount, measured, for my tea and coffee
  • I take an 'instant' hot water electric shower each evening
  • I cook my simple meals on an electric hob
  • I have lights (low energy, of course) on where I need them
  • I use my laptop for several hours (I am an editor for and watch TV (LCD screen) for 2 h each day
  • I don't drive anywhere because there's plenty of food stored and growing on the farm: vegetables, I mean, not sheep. There's some apples still keeping from last year too

So you can see that my energy demands are extremely low by today's standards. Furthermore, we have reasonably green electricity (RSPB Energy).

T'was ever thus, not long ago: You only have to step back a generation or two to realise that people have always lived like this. Central heating, now completely taken for granted, is an innovation in my lifetime. As a schoolboy aged 10 in chilly Redcar-by-the-sea, I remember ice encrusting the inside of my bedroom window and the stone hotwater bottle my granny gave me to warm the bed. I also remember the misery of the outside toilet. In winter, you would crunch through the snow to get there. Just one small room was heated - a coal fire, and that only for the evening. This is not a complaint; merely an observation. In past times, everyone lived with the cold and dressed accordingly. The notion of heating an entire building was unknown. Not any more. That toughness and reslience has been lost and even cranks like me find it unpleasant to live with almost no energy inputs.

The cat returns: Val returns on Saturday night. The fire is laid ready for her. In fairness, I should add that she, too, has learned to dress appropriately and is to be seen wearing her red hat and thick fleece jacket, body mitten wrapped round her legs, as she does the farm accounts. She, like me, accepts what the IPCC and others are telling us about climate change and about our need to change. She, like me, is doing what she can.

Results: At school, we learned to present our results after conducting experiments (remember? Aim, Method, Results, Conclusions). I'm still continuing my experiment but the results are already clear: it's not fun living without energy. It can be done and may have to be done by many. So I conclude that we need to do our best to reduce energy consumption and to increase renewable energy capacity. We at Mur Crusto farm are well on the way to providing our home with solar heat and, when that's complete, intend to invest some of our savings in a reasonable size (say 5-10 kW) wind turbine. It will be grid-connected and so will earn us money just as effectively as money locked away in investments. And unlike investments which can all come crashing down overnight, our turbine will quietly generate energy and revenue for at least 20 years. Which is the safer option in this unsafe, unstable world which we humans have created? To see what I mean by 'unsafe and unstable', see my son's book: Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet, launched tonight!

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Swindled: undermining the fragile consensus

Damaging setback? Channel 4's documentary 'The Great Global Warming Swindle’ has inflicted damage on what looked like the beginnings of a widespread consensus on climate change and upon our taking responsibility for it. This is sad because building such a consensus has taken years and many waverers will have been convinced by this programme's false polemics which appear to give a green light to our understandable desires to continue our energy-extravagant lifestyles.

A propaganda gift: George Marshall (COIN) writes: "this programme was a propaganda gift to the various vested interests who seek to undermine the fragile political and social will to take action on this global action. And it was sometimes very convincing, as strongly worded opinions often are when they are not subject to any verification or external challenge." In The Great Channel 4 Swindle, he looks in detail at what was claimed and who was saying it. Some of the names should be well known by now. They are the professional deniers who are skilled at misrepresenting climate science but, as Marshall says, you can "make up your own minds from their track records" which he presents.

Hornswoggled! RealClimate - 'climate science from climate scientists' - offers a detailed critique of the Channel 4 programme titled Swindled! In a post written by two climate modellers, one from the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York and the other from the British Antarctic Survey, they (tongue in cheek perhaps) say "We were hoping for important revelations and final proof that we have all been hornswoggled by the climate Illuminati, but it just repeated the usual specious claims we hear all the time. We feel swindled." As one of the many comments on this thorough analysis notes, "yet another tin of red herrings to rebut".

Red herrings and outrage: And if RealClimate isn't enough proof for you, try Campaign against Climate Change (you may need to scroll down the page to see the article). Here, the red herrings get their comeuppance with numerous links to the detailed science behind the issues. As someone asks, what is Channel 4's agenda? Finally, this useful site gives an example of letters of complaint to C4 and Ofcom if you were 'outraged that Channel 4 aired the programme with no caveats'.