Celebrate 20 Years of Population Matters!

May 24th, 2015


Twenty years ago this spring Morley Ballantine (then the Herald’s editor) gave me the responsibility of writing a column on human population issues. I want to take this opportunity to give an update on population and to thank some of the people who have been involved.

I believe that this is the only regularly appearing newspaper column about issues of human population. Indeed, it is probably the only regularly appearing treatment of this most important subject in any medium. It started as an idea for a book with short chapters, each with a verb in the title, and with a positive message about what individuals can do about population. Gail, my wife, and I were able to think of just 17 chapters initially and we worried that there might not be enough content for a whole book. About 240 essays later I have a long list of possible future topics!

Bill Roberts has been my editor and friend throughout these two decades. We seldom see each other, but have mutual respect. Bill has been great in keeping me in line: “stick to the subject” read one of his emails. Richard Ballantine has taken over his mother’s concern for population. He has provided support not only for these columns but also financial support through the Ballantine Family Fund for relevant events in our community.

For several years a group observed World Population Awareness Week in Durango. We brought in speakers and had events—but too often they competed with the wonderful Lifelong Learning series at Fort Lewis College. Fortunately Rich Hoehlein, organizer of this series, has agreed to have occasional talks on topics related to population rather than splitting the audience.

Gail is my first sounding board. I trust her reaction to an idea or draft article more than my own. She finds mistakes in drafts that I’ve been over many times, and comes up with solutions to writing problems. I am lucky to have such a talented writing partner.

When Population Matters! first hit the press, world population was about 5.7 billion; it has increased by a billion and a half to 7.2 billion in the past 20 years. This rapid increase is partially due to the International Conference on Population and Development, which shifted the focus away from population. The word “population” was tinged by a past history of coercion; instead the Conference focused on “reproductive health”.

Now we can measure the consequences of population and consumption using the “Ecological Footprint” concept, and have discovered that we are using resources much faster that the planet can provide. We also know that climate change is a repercussion of population growth, as are the decreasing numbers of wildlife and loss of species.

We have made many improvements in family planning since 1995. Emergency Contraception has helped prevent unplanned pregnancies. EC was rarely prescribed 20 years ago, but now EC pills are available in over 50 countries, in many without prescription. We have recognized Long Acting Reversible Contraception (LARC) as being much better than methods that require daily or weekly usage. Another LARC, a new IUD, will soon be available.

The Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) has taken a positive step to lower our high unintended pregnancy rate. It provides contraception without co-pay for any enrollee. (Unfortunately it does not pay for vasectomies!) An experiment in Colorado showed that it is possible to lower the teen pregnancy rate (and to decrease the number of abortions) by providing LARCs without charge to uninsured women. Unfortunately, a Colorado legislature killed funding to continue this program.

Even before EC pills were available without prescription it was possible to get them over the Internet. This same model is being used to provide birth control pills. But isn’t “the pill” dangerous? There are some risks with hormonal contraception, but a study in England has shown that women who used oral contraceptives, on average, lived longer than women who did not. Planned Parenthood has been providing pills safely for years to women without an exam—just a blood pressure reading. This miracle medicine is now available at: https://www.prjktruby.com for just $20 per month. This fee also helps to pay for birth control for women in the developing world, thanks to PRJKT RUBY.

My sense is that people are becoming more aware of population issues. FP2020, the program to provide quality family planning services for many of the world’s poorest countries, is a barometer of this change. My hope is that the USA will continue to see programs that will lower our high unintended pregnancy rate.

© Richard Grossman MD, 2015

PS: I have been distributing these monthly columns by email to people all over the country–and a few outside the USA. I promise only one email a month. If you would like to be added to the listserv, please contact me at: subscribe@population-matters.org

Subscribe to Population Matters!

May 24th, 2015

I have been distributing these monthly columns by email to people all over the country–and a few outside the USA. I promise only one email a month. If you would like to be added to the listserv, please contact me at: subscribe@population-matters.org

Acknowledge the True Cost of Electricity

April 27th, 2015

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Courtesy of Dr. Drew Shindell

Did you know that the federal government is shortchanging us citizens by a billion dollars a year? Cozy deals with the feds are allowing private enterprise to underpay for natural resources.

Last month I wrote about pressuring educational institutions to divest from fossil fuel investments. Our future health and that of the planet depend on using as little carbon-based fuel as possible.

Now there is more evidence that divestment is the proper path to follow. A New York Times article examines the most common energy source for generating electricity (coal) and suggests that the public is being cheated. Another article in a scholarly journal looks at atmospheric externalities from five different methods of electrical generation and comes up with estimates of the true cost of each. Any way you look at it, short-term gains by big business are robbing citizens of money and health.

Coal on our federal lands belongs to us citizens. Congress set the royalty rate for private companies at about 12% of the sale price for coal strip-mined on federal land. Almost all of that coal is used for generating electricity.

Often a small fraction of the price is actually collected, however. The General Accounting Office found that the effective royalty rate was only 5.6% in Colorado in 2012—less than half of what it should have been! Headwaters Economics, a nonpartisan research group, estimates that the loss each year to US citizens is between 1 and 5 billion dollars. Somehow we are being cheated out of this money. But that isn’t the only bad deal that is robbing us of money and health.

“Externalities” are hidden costs of a product. In La Plata County 2/3 of our electricity comes from coal-fired power plants. There are many externalities that don’t appear on our La Plata Electric Association bills, including greenhouse gases, mercury and health-robbing particulates.

One third of CO2 greenhouse gas emissions in the USA result from electrical generation, but we don’t pay directly for emissions that are causing disasters. Instead, our taxes pay for damage caused by storms and other symptoms of the climate-havoc that CO2 causes. Pregnant women are forbidden from eating many fish because they are contaminated with mercury from burning coal. Some of us pay both with money and with shortened lives for the asthma and other respiratory diseases caused by smokestack particulate emissions. The list of hidden costs goes on and on.

What is the true cost of electricity? LPEA charges domestic customers 11.9 cents per kWh—but that is far from the whole cost. (A kilowatt-hour is a measure of electricity.) Professor Shindell at Duke University has attempted to determine the true cost of energy. His paper “The social cost of atmospheric release” looks at two categories of cost—the core cost and externalities. Interestingly, the core costs of wind, solar and nuclear are all about 10 cents/kWh. None of these sources has significant externalities, according to Shindell. This obviously ignores the possible disasters associated with nuclear, however, as demonstrated by the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. Furthermore, these costs do not include power distribution.

According to Shindell, the cost of generation with natural gas is the least expensive at about 6 cents/kWh, but the externalities add another dime of hidden expense. Coal is a loser: its core cost is a dime, but the externalities add another 27 cents to the true cost! That means that the true cost of electricity generated by coal-fired power plants is 37 cents/kWh.

Shindell’s study just looked at air pollution externalities. Water, in this year of drought, is another externality. While renewable energy uses little or no water, generation with coal requires a huge amount for cooling.

We are lucky to live where forward-thinking LPEA provides our power. Regrettably, more than 2/3 of its power is currently generated by coal. Fortunately it makes renewably generated “Green Power” available for tiny increment in cost. It has programs to encourage energy efficiency, such as paying half the cost of LED light bulbs. It promotes local renewable power generation with wind, hydro and photovoltaic systems, and has encouraged “planting” solar gardens.

What can the electrical consumer do? The first step is to use electricity frugally. Turn off lights when you don’t need them, unplug electrical “parasites” that draw current even when they’re “off” and replace your old refrigerator with an Energy Star one. Next, spend a few dollars a year to get “green” power. Always keep in mind that electrical generation with coal is robbing us of both money and health.

© Richard Grossman MD, 2015

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