Archive for February, 2009

Speak Out on Population

Saturday, February 21st, 2009

Speak Out on Population

© Richard Grossman MD, 2009

“I do not understand why there is very little discussion, or even acknowledgement, that unless the human population on this planet can be limited to a sustainable number, there will be wars and death over food and water.”

I agree with Rick, a fellow Bayfield resident, who wrote the above sentence several months ago in response to one of my articles. Rick started:

“I read your article in the Herald this past weekend and was encouraged to find some recognition that human population growth is the root cause of this planet’s problems. I find it nauseating to read countless articles written by supposed experts proposing band-aid fixes to the increasing numbers of problems we humans face, when in fact, that will only delay the inevitable”.

I feel rewarded to know that there are others who feel the same way as I do. Thank you, Rick, and all of the others who have written or spoken to me in response to Population Matters! articles. I even appreciate hearing from people who do not agree with me. I count as a friend a man I haven’t met, but we communicate respectfully about abortion—a subject about which we have radically different ideas.

I am amazed that people do not make the connection between environmental issues and the human effect on Earth. After all, it is our profligate consumption and our ever-increasing numbers that are causing pollution, loss of species and global climate change—amongst other crises. Fortunately there are people, like Rick, who do “get it”; they understand the relationship, and are willing to do something about it.

Concern about human population became popular after Paul Ehrlich’s Population Bomb was published in 1968. Shortly afterwards, Zero Population Growth (which espoused reaching a steady state of population) was founded. Interest came to a halt in 1994 when the International Conference on Population and Development shifted the focus from population to “reproductive health.” The assumption was that providing reproductive health care would allow people to have as few children as they wanted.

The other part of that assumption is that economies were improving, and that fertility would decline as peoples’ wellbeing improved. Unfortunately, economic development implies increased consumption, so development is not an unmitigated blessing. Education (especially of girls) is all-around good, since education doesn’t need to increase consumption—but definitely is associated with smaller family size.

There were several reasons that people at ICPD turned away from population and toward RH. This huge conference of the United Nations needed to reach a consensus of the 179 nations attending (including the Holy See or Vatican) and RH was an easier concept for some countries to tolerate than population stabilization. A major reason that limiting population growth went out of favor is the abuses that were perpetrated in its name. In some countries people were coerced to use contraception or to have sterilization operations. China’s one child family policy is famous for being coercive, and there is evidence that some women were even forced to have abortions. We now recognize that the most successful family planning programs are totally voluntary.

So ICPD was a turning point away from concern about population. But how successful has the focus on RH been? In the fifteen years since ICPD the world’s population has increased by more than one billion people and atmospheric carbon dioxide has increased from 358 to 386 parts per million. Furthermore, we are now using the resources of about 1.3 planet earths, whereas in 1994 we only used about 10% more than was sustainable. We have not done well! I feel that attention has been distracted from the real issue.

How could this be? Why do people not pay more attention to population? I recommend a short video by a Harvard professor of psychology. Although it focuses on the related issue of global climate change, much of what it says also pertains to population:

An additional reason that population is even more taboo than climate may be more important. Population involves the issues of sexuality and contraception that many people—and religions—feel strongly about.

John Feeney, a Colorado journalist, has created the Global Speak Out on Population at The goal of GSOP is to bring the issue of human population back into the public’s consciousness. I suggest that you check out the website, and then sign the pledge of support.

Rick, you are correct; human population growth is the root cause of many of this planet’s problems. Thank you for recognizing this!

Published in the Durango Herald 2-09

The article above may be copied or published but must remain intact, with attribution to the author. I also request that the words “First published in the Durango Herald” accompany any publication. For more information, please write the author at:

Benefit from the Natural World

Saturday, February 21st, 2009

Benefit from the Natural World

© Richard Grossman MD, 2009

There is a fountain of youth, and it may be very close to you. A remarkable new study shows a way to prolong life.

People who live near green space live longer than those who live surrounded by treeless city. Research from England describes the value of green space. This careful study controlled for potential confounding factors. The researchers looked at the death rates of over 40 million people during a five-year period and found that people were less likely to die if they lived near green space.

The authors hypothesize that green space, defined as “open, undeveloped land with natural vegetation,” promotes health by encouraging exercise. Indeed, it is estimated that every hour of physical exercise prolongs a person’s life by two hours. This study’s authors also theorize that green space is psychologically and physiologically restorative. Being in nature can promote relaxation and lower a person’s blood pressure. Presumably, it is the tranquil vistas, pleasant odors and the sounds of nature that are pleasing and beneficial.

Of these two factors, the researchers felt that exercise is valuable, but relaxation is even more important. There is a possible third factor that they did not mention, however.

A couple of years ago a news release puzzled me. It stated that people in some of Colorado’s highest counties were the longest lived in the whole nation. At first, this report didn’t make sense, since life is arduous in the high, cold mountains. Then I learned the importance of air quality; put simply, bad air kills. Very fine particles in the air, such as from diesel exhaust, are serious contributors to heart and lung disease. Presumably people who live at altitude breathe purer air and are poisoned by fewer of these tiny particulates. This may be why they approach Methuselah in longevity.

It turns out that plant life helps filter out air impurities. Particles settle on plant surfaces, and then are washed to the ground by rain. In addition, vegetation absorbs some impurities and makes them harmless. This may be a third way that green space helps people live longer. Promoting exercise, promoting relaxation and purifying air are all important rôles for the natural world, even though they are poorly recognized by our capitalistic system.

Business and politics attach little value to undeveloped natural resources. The above study illustrates how valuable land with natural vegetation really is. There are many other examples of how the natural world benefits mankind.

New York City learned the value of environmental resources when its water quality deteriorated. Its water comes from the Catskill Mountains, where natural processes had always purified the water. With the growing human population, the streams and lakes became contaminated by agricultural runoff and sewage. The City considered building a huge water purification system, but found that it was much less expensive to rehabilitate the watershed. By purchasing more land and cleaning up the pollution they regained pure water, saved money, and avoided the continuing cost of running a decontamination system.

Honey bees (Apis mellifera) are appreciated for their sweet product. The value of the honey produced in the USA is about $150 million each year. We benefit from bees in another way that is even more important. These little insects are invaluable for pollinating crops. The worth of this service has been estimated at $15 billion annually—one hundred times as much as honey production! We are starting to realize how truly helpful bees are now that they are disappearing for mysterious reasons. The impact on agriculture—and on natural vegetation—will be tremendous if this loss continues.

Closer to home, beavers (Castor canadensis) are seldom seen, but their dams and lodges are common. They almost became extinct in the American west during the 19th century when they were trapped for their fur. Without beaver ponds to hold water, stream beds washed out, resulting in floods and droughts. The dams and ponds create fertile bottom land and help purify water by filtering out impurities. Fortunately, beavers were reintroduced starting in the 1950s, helping to provide pure water for communities downstream.

It is difficult to assign a value to natural resources. In the past green space was considered pleasant, but optional. Our perception of its value may increase now that we know that it promotes health and longevity.

Preserving and restoring as much as possible of the natural world, especially green space, has benefits that may not be immediately evident. We should resist the urge to destroy natural resources before understanding their true value.

This article first appeared in the Durango Herald 1-2009

The article above may be copied or published but must remain intact, with attribution to the author. I also request that the words “First published in the Durango Herald” accompany any publication. For more information, please write the author at:

Favorite Species Contest Results

Saturday, February 21st, 2009

Favorite Species Contest Results

© Richard Grossman MD, 2008

In September I announced a contest to promote knowledge of biodiversity. Readers were invited to describe their favorite species of animal and to tell why they favor that species. For the Birds, a Durango store featuring products to explore backyard nature, kindly offered to supply prizes in both adult and kids’ categories.

One of the requirements for all entries was to include the animals’ scientific name, which is more exact than the common name. Another requirement was to mention the animal’s conservation status. In judging I looked for originality, persuasiveness and a good description of the animal.

You know that some animals are already extinct, some are endangered and some are plentiful. What animals are at risk? The best authority is the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN). It publishes an annual Red List of species in several categories, from “extinct” to “endangered” to “vulnerable” to “least concern.”

November’s article touched on the importance of biodiversity to humans. It described my favorite animal, Hyles lineata (the white lined sphinx moth), and told why it intrigues me. Fortunately it is common—in the “least concern” category.

I was delighted to receive over 40 entries from kids. They were all in Ms. McManus’ seventh grade science class at Miller Middle School. It was difficult to decide which was most deserving of the two prizes. Perhaps the most unexpected is Mikayla Montoya’s description of European nightcrawlers (Eisenia hortensis). This worm, an exotic from Azerbaijan, is ideal for fishing. Mikayla seems to be on her way to being a nature writer or biologist with her description of worm hunting with her dad in their neighbor’s yard! Unfortunately, she did not include the conservation status in her essay.

Some of the animals students described are pretty exotic—and endangered. My mother and Charly Cooper would agree that the golden lion tamarin (Leontopithecus rosalia) is both beautiful and threatened by human expansion. I was amazed to learn from Mady Ward’s essay that the longhorn cowfish (Lactoria cornuta) likes to be scratched between its eyes! Eli Kopp-DeVol’s description of Osteoglossum bicirrhosum, also known as the silver arawana or water monkey is intriguing. He explains that this fish can jump out of the Amazon onto the limbs of trees when the river floods. The seeds it eats are dropped on the river below, where they grow into new trees. These essays all deserve honorable mention.

It was difficult to choose winners in the kids’ category because of the wide variety of species and the obvious interest that the writers have in their choices of animals. The first place winner is Nick Tarpley who notes that the leaf-cutter ant (Atta cephalotes) has amazing abilities, including lifting three times its own weight. ”They don’t eat leaves, unlike popular belief. Instead they use the leaves to help grow fungus, which is their main diet.”

Second place goes to Hannah Smith for her description of Przwalski’s Horse (Equus ferus przewalskii). I learned that the wild population of this precursor of modern horses is fewer than 300! Fortunately there are a few more of these animals living in zoos and reserves. The species is endangered, of course. Hannah wrote: “I love horses for their beauty and movement. The Przewalski horses are not as beautiful as the domestic horse but are an important part of living history.”

There was only one adult entry, from Diane Trembly. She has friends in high places—western scrub jays (Aphelocoma californica) who have trained her to provide peanuts. Diane is impressed by their intelligence, writing “If I toss out multiple peanuts, the birds “weigh” them to see which is heavier, returning later for the lighter peanut.” Smart birds! And smart Diane, who gets a gift certificate to For the Birds.

Awarding the adult second prize is easy. It took an enthusiastic teacher to motivate all of the seventh graders. This is Jackie McManus’ second year teaching in Durango. She writes: I love teaching 7th grade – the kids are so funny! One day, after reminding the kids that fair isn’t always equal and equal isn’t always fair, one of my students blurted out, “Yeah, because if life was fair and equal, horses would be riding US half the time!” I love it!

I would like to finish with a quote from Kevin Brinkley, who chose to write about the Adelie penguin (Pygosecelis adeliae). Although his entry didn’t win a prize, I like his closing: “Thanks for reading. I hope you learned a lot.”

Published in the Durango Herald 12-2008

The article above may be copied or published but must remain intact, with attribution to the author. I also request that the words “First published in the Durango Herald” accompany any publication. For more information, please write the author at:

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