Archive for the 'Carrying Capacity' Category

Don’t Control Population this Way

Sunday, January 28th, 2018

Human skulls at the Nyamata Genocide Memorial

There are many ways to decrease human numbers, and most of them should be shunned. Indeed, some of them are quite horrifying. In this and subsequent columns I’ll write about some of them.

It has been more than 20 years since the Rwandan genocide, but it stands out in my mind as the worst episode of human slaughter in recent history. Estimates of the number of people killed in a terrible 100 day period range from 1/2 million to a million. The population of Rwanda at that time was less than 8 million; a huge proportion of this small country’s people killed each other. In addition, an estimated 2 million were displaced or fled the country.

Genocide is the intentional destruction of a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group. Theories about the causes of genocide include tribalism, autocratic rulers and lack of resources. An article about this genocide, “Remember Rwanda” by James Gasana was published in WorldWatch. Gasana is Rwandan and had held 2 different cabinet positions in that country. In this article he noted that murder was most common where people went to bed hungry. That hunger, contributed to by overpopulation, apparently was part of what fueled the killing

In 1994 Rwanda had an almost entirely agricultural economy and was overpopulated. As the population rose the size of landholdings shrank and the overworked land became less productive. Even if people wanted to limit their fertility, the predominant religion, Roman Catholicism, preached against “artificial” contraception.

That is in the past. With international help and amazing resilience, the Rwandan people have put that terrible part of their history behind them. However, another country appears to be enduring a religiously motivated genocide. The Rohingya people in Myanmar (Burma) are both an ethnic minority and, as Muslims, have different religious beliefs from the Buddhist majority.

Genocide Watch lists 10 stages that are seen in preparation for and carrying out a genocide: Classification, Symbolization, Discrimination, Dehumanization, Organization, Polarization, Preparation, Persecution, Extermination and Denial. Most of these stages can be seen with the treatment of the Rohingyas.

Although they live in Myanmar, the Rohingyas aren’t allowed citizenship—classification. While they are not forced to wear identifying symbols, their freedom is restricted in other ways. They must live in ghettoes and are restricted by curfews—organization and polarization. Mobs attack Rohingya settlements while officials offer no protection—preparation. “Security” forces have killed thousands of Rohingyas while others have been tortured, “disappeared” or have suffered rape—extermination. The country admits to no wrongdoing—denial.

Perhaps the most dire of the measures against the Rohingyas is limitation of their reproductive rights. While there is no limitation on other people in Myanmar, the Rohingyas are only allowed to have two children. Apparently the Muslims tend to have larger families than the Buddhists in the same area. The state officials’ reason for this limitation is to “…ease tensions between Buddhists and their Muslim Rohingya neighbors.” Even if this is the true motivation, legislating the number of children in a family is wrong.

Unfortunately, Myanmar and Rwanda are not unique; there are many historical examples of peoples being singled out and exterminated. In the chapter on genocide, “The Great Big Book of Horrible Things” tallies an estimated 32 million deaths from genocides in the past 3 millennia. This includes a huge but unknown number of indigenous people killed in the Americas when we Europeans invaded.

Currently there are several countries where genocide is happening or is very likely. These include South Sudan, Sudan, Syria, Yemen and the Democratic Republic of Congo, all of which have unstable governments and terrible records of civil rights.

What can we do to prevent genocide? In “Warning Signs of Genocide: an anthropological perspective” Drs. Gene and Barbara Anderson state that the most important protection against genocide is critical thinking—the process of independently analyzing, synthesizing, and evaluating information as a guide to behavior and beliefs. They have written a second book, “Halting Genocide in America”, in which they are concerned that some people in the USA are already taking steps along the road to genocide.

Genocide is perhaps the most vicious way to slow population growth, but there are several others on my list of means to reject. Nature tends to limit populations with disease and famine, over which we have only limited control. Some other ways of slowing growth are imposed by people and governments. These include eugenics, family size coercion, war, gun violence, and the Voluntary Extinction Movement. More about them in future essays.

© Richard Grossman MD, 2018

Graph showing dip in Rwandan population after genocide, followed by recovery.

Compare Climate Change Strategies

Monday, November 6th, 2017


Recently I asked some authorities on climate change: “what is the most effective way of decreasing greenhouse gas emissions?” They gave stock answers about decreasing consumption. “If you were my students, your grades would all be D’s” was my response.

They are, unfortunately, not alone. A recent study listed the 4 most effective activities that people can do to decrease their emissions. Three of them are what you might expect, while the most effective one—by far—might be unexpected.

The measure used by the authors of this article is tonnes CO2-equivalent (tCO2e) emission reductions per year. The average person in the USA causes about 16 tonnes of CO2 to be released annually. (a tonne is a metric ton; roughly equal to our ton of 2000 pounds) Here are the 4, listed from least to most effective.

Eat a plant-based diet. This has health benefits as well as aiding the environment. It is clear that eating meat, especially red meat, is bad for your health. The effects on the world around us are also negative—excessive use of water, sewage lagoons that pollute ground water and dead zones in the ocean from animal waste. An individual’s annual saving by avoiding meat is almost a tonne.

Our transportation system depends on fossil fuels, which generate CO2 when used. It makes sense that avoiding air travel and not driving a car would decrease carbon emissions. Giving up both air travel and your car would keep 4 tonnes of CO2 out of the atmosphere.

Buying “green” electricity is quite effective, and is inexpensive—thanks to our electrical cooperative. Switching from power produced with coal to renewable sources prevents 1.5 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions—and makes our air healthier.

The most effective thing that an individual can do to reduce his or her carbon footprint is to have one fewer child. The effect is strong because of the “carbon legacy” of a child born in a rich country. The carbon footprint of the individual child is significant, but the legacy of all that person’s progeny (who will go on for many generations) is huge. A child not conceived reduces a person’s carbon footprint by 58 tonnes! Yes, the one best action an individual can take to reduce his or her carbon footprint is to choose to have a small family—or no children at all.

Unfortunately, most people who study, write and teach about greenhouse gas reduction don’t consider the impact of childbearing. The authors of the paper mentioned above also studied governmental recommendations to reduce emissions from the EU, the USA, Australia and Canada. Not surprising, they found that the recommendations all focused on less effective actions.

Likewise, the paper examined the content of science textbooks. They searched several textbooks used in Canada for suggestions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Very few of the recommendations were for the 4 most effective actions named above.

To quote from this paper: “It is especially important that adolescents are prepared for this shift [to reduce carbon emissions]. They still have the freedom to make large behavioural choices that will structure the rest of their lives, and must grow up accustomed to a lifestyle that approaches the 2.1 tonnes per person annual emissions budget necessary by 2050 to meet the 2 ° C climate target.” They went on to write: “Furthermore, adolescents can act as a catalyst to change their households behaviour.”

They also compared less effective and highly effective interventions: “…a US family who chooses to have one fewer child would provide the same level of emissions reductions as 684 teenagers who choose to adopt comprehensive recycling for the rest of their lives.” The paper concludes: “Some high-impact actions may be politically unpopular, but this does not justify a focus on moderate or low-impact actions at the expense of high-impact actions.

I hope that the importance of childbearing gets across at the Climate Change Symposium to be held Thursday afternoon, November 9th. This Symposium will be a new venture for Fort Lewis College Lifelong Learning programs. It will feature 5 outstanding experts speaking on a topic of major importance. The keynote speaker is internationally known scientist Kevin Ternberth.

The Symposium is now history for most people reading this. I hope that the importance of population growth has been driven home by the article by Seth Wynes and Kimberly A Nicholas that I used as the basis for this column. It is “The climate mitigation gap: education and government recommendations miss the most effective individual actions” and can be found at:

© Richard Grossman MD, 2017


Stick to Humor, Dr. Black

Wednesday, April 3rd, 2013

Stick to Humor, Dr. Black

“…the first essential component of social justice is adequate food for all mankind.”

Norman Borlaug, in his 1970 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech


            I used to love to listen to Baxter Black on the radio. I admired his sense of humor and his human insight. Then I read an article he wrote.

“What is sustainable ag?” appeared in the March, 2013 issue of Western Farmer-Stockman. I am writing this as a response to my friend Al, who clipped the article for me. Al is a wise man and an experienced farmer. He wrote: “I thought this was a good article on sustainable agriculture. I hope you find it interesting.”

Indeed, it is interesting—not for what it contains, but for what Dr. Black left out. First, let me summarize the article.

Dr. Black writes that that most agriculturalists think that “sustainable farming” is a joke, and derides those who want to return to pre1950 farming methods. He makes fun of “hobby farmers” who have a garden and a few animals since they don’t produce enough food to feed their families for even two weeks.

Black then rightly recaps the history after World War II, when world population soared and people worried about food shortages. Megacorporations and scientists were able to increase food production remarkably, despite the creep of cities taking over productive ag land. He doesn’t mention the “green revolution” of Dr. Norman Borlaug and others, which is credited with saving over a billion lives by developing highly productive strains of crops.

This modern, industrial model of agriculture is sustainable according to Black, because it can sustain so many people. Great grandpa’s old-fashioned ways of producing food are laughable in today’s context, he writes. He would prefer the term “subsistence-level farming”.

Although I understand Al’s and Black’s viewpoint, I cannot agree. My concern is that, along with its good, the “green revolution” has had several dreadful unintended consequences.

Growing highly productive plants and animals requires the use of many chemicals that are made from limited resources, and are toxic. The chemicals include fertilizers, insecticides, fungicides and herbicides. They are all derived from fossil fuels, and all transported with fossil fuel. Unfortunately, supplies of carbon-based fuels are limited. We have probably already maximized the production of petroleum and soon will see its decline—and a rapid increase in prices.

We are starting to realize the subtle toxicity of many of the agricultural chemicals. The wonder insecticide of my childhood, DDT (which I was told was entirely safe) turned out to be an ecological disaster and now is banned in many countries. An amazing group of insecticides, neonicatinoids, is probably responsible for the die-off of our honeybees—colony collapse disorder. Since bees pollinate so many crops, this is an agricultural disaster.

We now realize that many agricultural chemicals have endocrine effects, even in minuscule concentrations. Just a pinch in all the water in an Olympic swimming pool can cause harm! Insecticide residues may decrease sperm counts. One common agrichemical, atrazine, has been shown to cause feminization of male frogs and has been implicated in reproductive cancers.

The seeds of highly productive plant strains must be bought from corporations that control their prices. In the past, seed grain was carefully preserved from the prior crop, but now farmers need cash—or credit—in order to buy seeds. This expense, along with the cost of the chemicals, has broken many farmers. In a good year they can make a living, but in a bad year their suicide rate climbs.

Finally, modern agriculture depletes our soil. The use of chemicals exhausts many components that help plants grow.

There is a subtle chicken-and-egg situation here. Modern agriculture has increased food supply, which allowed our population to swell. Borlaug outwitted Malthus, who predicted that human population would be limited by starvation from lack of food.

Here is the quandary: does modern agriculture only provide a short-term gain? As we deplete petroleum and as crop growing conditions worsen from climate change and drought, can the amazing technology of modern agriculture be sustained? Indeed, some scientists have a terrible vision of severe food shortages with bloodshed and more deaths than Borlaug’s green revolution saved.

In his Nobel Prize speech quoted above, Borlaug also said: ““Most people still fail to comprehend the magnitude and menace of the ‘Population Monster’.” Hopefully Herald readers are better informed than most. But only time will tell if Dr. Black is correct about sustainable agriculture, or if he should go back to being a humorist.

© Richard Grossman MD, 2013

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