Combat Overpopulation Denial

February 23rd, 2019

“Most economic fallacies derive from the tendency to assume that there is a fixed pie, that one party can gain only at the expense of another.” 

           Milton Friedman

            I first met people who denied the population problem in 1994 at the International Conference on Population and Development. They supported their claim that there was no population problem with the statement that all the world’s people could fit into Texas.

            Well, they are correct, however there are problems with this contention. If everybody crowded into Texas we would each have almost a thousand square feet! That’s plenty of room, wouldn’t you say?

            What about food? where would food come from, and how would it get distributed to all those people? What about drinking water? How would we stay warm in the winter? And what would happen to all the waste? Clearly people require more than just a thousand square feet.

            How much land does each person currently use? The best way of calculating this seems to be the Ecological Footprint. The EF has been calculated for people in many countries, and combines the land needed to live on, grow our food on, the area needed to develop natural resources and also the land to dispose of our waste. It is a comprehensive method of evaluating a person’s impact on Earth, although it does leave out one factor. More about that factor below.

            The area of land in square feet, and the world population, are both very large numbers, of course. The EF only includes what is called “bioproductive” land—leaving out mountains and deserts. It turns out that an average citizen of the world is using about 291,000 square feet of land, or about 6 2/3 acres. This is more than 290 times the area allotted if we all squeezed into Texas! The people who deny overpopulation use an argument that is based on drastic misinformation.

            Indeed, not only could we all not fit into Texas for any period of time, but also we don’t really fit into Earth. To be sustainable, with our current population and level of consumption, we would need 1.7 times the land area available to us. We have overdrawn on our global savings account in order to enjoy our consumptive lifestyle.

            We can already see the effects of overpopulation and overconsumption. Perhaps most evident is climate change. Land is eroding, fisheries are depleted and toxic chemicals are ubiquitous. Furthermore, we are killing off other species at terrifying rates—at least 1000 timesnormal. Although the Ecological Footprint is an excellent tool for comparing what people are using with what is available, it has a major limitation. It does not leave any resources for other species.

            I haven’t read the book “Empty Planet: The Shock of Global Population Decline”, but I’ve read reviews. The authors, neither of whom is a demographer, maintain that the world is not overpopulated and, indeed, needs more people. They are concerned that the birth rate is falling more rapidly than the UN and other demographers realize. I wish they were correct, but I disagree!

            The Wall Street Journal review of the book uses the term “global population collapse”—but there is little reason to believe that this will happen this century; we’re still adding 80 million people to the planet each year. The review is concerned that the growth of the economy will slow. Only a madman or an economist can believe that perpetual economic growth is possible. 

            What is wrong with this book? There seem to be many errors. The authors don’t focus on subSaharan Africa, where the average woman still has almost 5 children, and parents want large families. The authors seem to ignore demographic momentum, which causes growth to continue for several decades even after a country reaches replacement family size.

            The major problem with “Empty Planet” is that nowhere (in reviews I’ve read) do the authors compare the resources we humans are using with what is available. The Ecological Footprint does that, and the result is not pretty. Unfortunately that book is not alone in not considering the finiteness of our planet. Even though Milton Friedman won a Nobel Prize for economics, he was not thinking globally when he wrote the quote at the beginning of this column. Our global “pie” is fixed in size. We in rich countries are endangering people in other countries with our growing population and extravagant lifestyle. We are also endangering our progeny.

© Richard Grossman 2019

Use More Renewable Electricity

February 13th, 2019
Photo of a solar array image from Wikipedia

While our government in Washington is struggling to deny climate change, we can take action locally. Our electric coop, La Plata Electric Association (LPEA), offers easy ways to do this by purchasing renewable power.

Isn’t all electricity the same? Yes, it is, if it comes through wires attached to the electrical grid. Let’s look at reasons you might want to use electricity generated in a renewable way. Do you have asthma like I do? Millions of other people in our country suffer from this and other respiratory afflictions. Breathing is made more difficult by the fine particles that escape from coal fired power plants and by smog that comes from the ozone generated by natural gas development. Those tiny particles are invisible but cause atmospheric haze. Worse is that they are also responsible for loss of life due to cancer and heart attacks.

We are already suffering the effects of climate change. Despite the welcome snow this month, southwest Colorado is still at the worst level of drought. The huge 416 wild fire last summer was much too close to home. Climate change has prolonged the forest fire season and has helped to create many more mega-fires. We are seeing the effects of anthropocentric climate disruption already! One action that we can take to slow climate change is to use less electricity generated by burning fossil fuels.

In addition to fouling the air, power plants are some of the biggest users of fresh water, which they use for cooling. Although some of the water is returned to streams or rivers, it is hotter, which can be fatal for fish and other animals. Some think that nuclear is the safest source since it is less polluting.

Every source of electricity has its drawbacks, unfortunately. This is why I sometimes write about energy in columns that focus on human population. Almost everything that people do has detrimental effects to the natural world. We can decrease that impact by decreasing the number of people, by consuming less and by technology. Using renewable power is one way of minimizing our impact.

LPEA has 2 voluntary programs to promote renewable or “green” power generated by solar, wind or hydro. Our electrical cooperative can provide part or all of your electricity from these renewable sources. The extra cost is minimal, only about 50¢ a month for the average LPEA member. A call to their friendly office staff can give you more information. They also have a program to fund local solar arrays. This Renewable Generation Fund is currently helping to support 4 projects at nonprofits. 

Your first step should be to look for ways to use less energy. That saves money and diminishes one’s impact. Turn off lights you don’t need, and install dimmers if you don’t always need to run lights at full brightness. Our local 4CORE specializes in home energy efficiency. It offers ideas to decrease waste of electricity and rebates for Energy Star® appliances.

LPEA has a great program to reimburse you for half of the cost of certain efficient LED bulbs. These use only a fraction of the “juice” of traditional incandescent bulbs and are more efficient, and safer than compact fluorescents. I’ve taken advantage of this program in the past, buying a few LEDs at a time, but I went hog-wild this year since it is the last year of the program. Soon almost all the light in our home will come from the sun or LED bulbs! LEDs are much improved and the price has come down dramatically. To find out more about this rebate program go to www.LPEA.coop—but be careful to follow the instructions carefully.

We are tied to Tri-State Generation and Transmission for all of our electricity except what is generated locally. Despite the decreasing costs of solar panels, soon people won’t be able to install solar arrays because the contract with Tri-State, which limits the amount of power that can be generated locally. Because so much of their energy comes from burning coal, they are rumored to be the most polluting power supplier in the country. Tri-State has been slow to convert to renewable sources but it appears that they are finally seeing the light; they are installing a huge solar array north of Trinidad, Colorado.

We can be proud of our electric coop for its support of renewable power, especially with its new policy to cut its carbon footprint by 50% by 2030, while keeping rates low. We need to keep pressure on Tri-State to increase their low limit on locally generated renewable power.

©Richard Grossman MD 2019

Inspire the United Nations

December 23rd, 2018

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has done wonders by motivating individuals and nations to take action to slow climate change. What could happen if the United Nations formed a similar organization to slow population growth?

I probably don’t need to remind you that far and away the most effective way of slowing climate change is with small families. Indeed, of all the actions that an individual can take, having one fewer child is 14 times more effective than avoiding air travel, being a vegetarian, changing light bulbs and recycling—combined! Fortunately people all over the world are choosing to have fewer children, although I imagine that few are doing this for environmental reasons.

A friend, Rob Harding, has been working tirelessly to form a Framework Convention on Population Growth. The UN states a framework convention: “…describes a type of legally binding treaty which establishes broader commitments for its parties and leaves the setting of specific targets either to subsequent more detailed agreements… or to national legislation.” The IPCC was established by the Framework Convention on Climate Change.

Harding recently attended COP24 (the annual international UN meeting to work on climate change) in Poland in order to witness how the IPCC works and to make contact with UN officials. He has written a description of his proposal for Scientists Warning, available at: https://tinyurl.com/UN-Pop-Proposal.

Harding proposes that the UN take 3 routes to slow population growth. The first is education, which is already well known to have many benefits, including a decrease in family size. Indeed, educating girls and women is one of the most effective means to do this, for several reasons. Educated women are more likely to get married later, to be more independent of their husbands and to use contraception effectively. A further benefit of education is that the offspring of educated parents are more likely to live through childhood. The mother and father will know more about sanitation, will have better incomes and will seek medical care when their kids need it. There is another advantage that might seem paradoxical: parents choose smaller families if they know that their kids will survive to adulthood.

The second effort is to make it easy for people to have access to effective contraception. Harding is careful to specify that there mustn’t be coercion. the 1994 UN’s International Conference on Population and Development turned away from family planning because of the bad experience with coercion in places such as India and China. I feel that it is very important that all family planning programs be voluntary.

I am pleased that Rob decries coercion. The most valid concern that anyone has expressed over his proposal is that the panel might be set up similar to the structure of the IPCC, where each country has a goal to reduce emissions. Goals for the number of people who used contraception (especially sterilization) are blamed for the coercive policies in India and China.

Finally, Harding’s proposal recommends promotion of smaller family size. One of the most remarkable examples of a way to influence family size influence is accidental. In Brazil apparently everyone watches TV, and soap operas are particularly popular. The families in the “soaps” are all small. This is not because the producers want to influence family size choices, but because it is difficult to manage children on a TV set. The average woman had 6 or more children 60 years ago but now the average is less than 2! One of my favorite nonprofit organizations, the Population Media Center, has worked to influence family size choices in many countries using radio and TV shows. Their methodology is very effective, including in Africa where men often want larger families than their wives, according to studies.

Although Harding is employed by a nonprofit organization that is concerned about population, he has been doing this proposal to the UN on his own time. He has already garnered support from several thousand people and about 50 organizations! His hope is to expand the network of people who are interested in the proposal, and perhaps even to find an organization that would take it over as one of its programs.

My impression, when talking with Harding after he returned home from Poland, was that the climate talks were not very productive. I also sensed that he got a dose of the complexity of the United Nations—but he is not discouraged from persisting with his important task of inspiring the UN to recognize and tackle the population problem.

© Richard Grossman MD, 2018

Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States.