‘It’s Not Either/Or’ — Population and Consumption in the Climate Solutions Debate

Yves here. While this post is a helpful first pass at a thorny topic, there are a lot more layers to the question of the role of population reduction as part of a consumption reduction strategy. And yes, we do have to reduce consumption of material resources to prevent catastrophic outcomes; that is why yours truly keeps harping on radical conservation.

First, the article oddly skips over the fact that what we really need to do is kill all the squillionaires or at least get them to consume only like (at most) garden variety middle class people. The rich and particularly the super rich are resource hogs. Having the billion poorest people in the world all die off would probably not have a huge impact on climate change.

Second, the assertion that population decline can only be linear is abjectly false. The Mayan civilization disappeared after seven years of drought. The inhabitants of Chaco Canyon died out after a longer period of poor harvests, with cannibalism in the end stages. I would not call the estimate 1/3 fall in the population of Europe over the few years of the Black Death linear either.

Third, the author seems to regard population growth as the natural state of affairs. In fact, globally it was pretty static until the Industrial Revolution. Sanitation and indoor plumbing, with the resulting reduction of disease, increased lifespans.

Covid is in the process of starting to shrink the population. An MD reader sent a copy of a lead story from a local paper, which pointed out that in state, for the first time ever, the birth rate was lower than the death rate. His comments:

The article is a very cleaned up version of what we as physicians were all told yesterday.

The freak out time has now officially arrived here. This has NEVER even begun to closely happen in this state. They have reliable numbers back to 1922 – and semi-reliable numbers dating back to the 1860s. Nothing like this has ever happened before. And not even close.

As the states are now compiling their end of year vital statistics numbers, things are beginning to really look ugly. In the article it states that 23 states are having similar numbers for deaths and births. Not exactly how it was presented yesterday – “so far 24 states have reported their numbers – and EVERY SINGLE REPORTED STATE so far is having the same thing – the birth rate is down – and the all cause mortality is very much up.”…

What is concerning to the epidemiologist that was talking to us yesterday is that the actual relative rate in each state of both deaths and births is right about the same number in all reporting states. This would not be expected in any kind of infectious disease problem – or at least it has never happened in history – they tend to have a lot more scatter. No – this is something else – something exogenous.

As I have been telling you all for months – there are significant issues with young women – and with miscarriages – finally, the numbers are coming in to make me realize that I am not losing my marbles. The ICD 10 codes for primary amenorrhea and for mid-trimester abortions are through the roof from historical patterns. Also mentioned was the fact that there is a sudden drop off being noticed by fertility clinics in number and motility of sperm. NONE OF THESE THINGS ARE BEING STEADFASTLY COMPILED ON A FEDERAL LEVEL – so this is at times like the blind leading the blind.

The all cause mortality – estimated about 5-10% have to do with COVID – and that is a stretch – mostly COVID deaths for 2021 an 2022 have been older patients near terminus anyway. No – the ICD codes for pulmonary embolus, acute coronary syndromes, sudden cardiac death, strokes, suicide, drug OD, and various cancers seem to be the cause – and the cancers that are skyrocketing are leukemia, lymphoma, myeloma and solid endocrine and neuroendocrine tumors. There is a clear biphasic curve of these deaths – a lot of older people dying – but there is also a significant rise in the 20-40 year olds as well….It is right about now that we need a functional CDC and functional accurate MMWR that is presenting accurate numbers and not hiding things.

It is going to be very interesting to see the numbers from all the other states that have yet to come in.

We were repeatedly assured this was completely unprecedented and was very concerning. The fact this is happening in multiple other states is also deeply concerning.

Guys, I am getting deeply worried about what I am seeing and hearing. We are beginning to have severe manpower shortage issues in almost every industry. Just getting a plumber is a weeks-long ordeal. And just from my observation, we do not seem to have a lot of people sitting around living on govt handouts as presented in the media.

So the population problem may start taking care of itself…just not the way we wanted.

By Thomas Neuburger. Originally published at God’s Spies

“Uncontrolled population growth is exponential, whereas population easing would tend to be linear: multiple offspring themselves multiply exponentially, whereas a non-existent offspring does not spread non-existence.”
—Blackthorn, cited below

I wrote here about adding a Quick Hits series to God’s Spies. This is the first in that series.

In this post, I’d like call to your attention a piece by a Twitter friend, a man who goes by “Blackthorn.” According to his bio, he is “an American living in Europe. PhD in social sciences (U. of London). Works in international orgs.”

The essay I’m looking at is this one: “it’s not either/or”. In it, the writer looks at the relationship between global warming as both a technological problem, “humans using a means of energy production that pollutes,” and as a demographic problem, “one of overpopulation.”

This dichotomy informs some thinking about our shared coming disaster, but not most of it. For example, you hardly read these days in IPCC literature about population issues as a driver. As Simon Lewis puts it in The Guardian:

Every government now agrees that the climate crisis is driven by how the world’s wealthy – which includes much of the UK’s population – currently live, consume and invest.

This is a major leap forward compared to previous reports. The last IPCC summary on solutions in 2014 labelled population growth as one of “the most important drivers of increases in CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion”. Such dangerous misunderstandings are no longer present in the summary report. Seven years on, these old “blame the poor” arguments increasingly seem like a relic of a previous age.

Some writers contend that the IPCC is worse than negligent in its latest report. The data that shows that population is indeed a global-warming driver is present in the underlying scientific report, but was scrubbed by the IPCC’s controlling politicians from the Summary for Policymakers, the only document anyone really reads. That makes the IPCC complicit in hiding this fact, not just ignorant of it.

Side note: I suspect there are two tripwires in place in talking about population. The first is the hint of eugenics, anything adjacent to the wish that “others should die so we can live better lives.” A ghoulish thought indeed.

The second is, as the writer linked above contends, a desire to censor “anything that might call into question the goodness of continued growth.” Economic growth, presented as “what’s best for us all,” is best understood as “what improves the lives of the already wealthy,” since that’s what growth actually does in the real world. Opposing growth is anathema in a post-modern capitalist world.

Back to Blackthorn:

What happens if we look at this as an over-population problem rather than an energy-technology or excessive-consumption one? … The metric that can shed light on this issue ­– how much rise in emissions owes to development vs. to population swelling – is carbon emissions per capita.  A rise in this indicates what you could call intensification of carbon emissions; a steady per-capita rate, in which the absolute increase in emissions tracks population growth, would indicate that emissions growth is population-driven. [emphasis added]

As to solutions, we clearly need to do both — curb growth and (humanly) decrease population. But in practice, what does that look like? If we could do both, what combination of changes achieves the desired effect?

The answer isn’t obvious, especially since population decline, even at an accelerated pace, has a considerable lag time. In addition, as Blackthorn points out, while population explosion is exponential, decline can only be linear. Multiple births beget multiple births. Multiple deaths beget nothing.

For me, the most interesting section is where he starts to tease out what exactly would a decline in birth accomplish from a climate standpoint?

For that discussion, start reading with this paragraph:

Let’s jump to possible solutions.  Speed is of the essence, because deadly climate breakdown is happening already.  How rapidly could we pivot to reducing carbon emissions, and start to re-absorb atmospheric carbon, with simple population easing as opposed to a switch to non-polluting energy or mass conversion to leaner lifestyles?  Where would a steep level of population easing – an immediate decline in fertility to below replacement level – get us in a few years?

Note especially the charts. The first shows the rate at which we’re projected to eat earth’s resources (our ecological footprint) if nothing changes.

(“Biocapacity” in the chart above is one earth’s-worth of resources.)

His second chart shows the effect on our footprint of 25% reduced consumption alone. The third shows our footprint with just population control via the fertility rate. The fourth combines the two. It’s a fascinating discussion. I hope you find it so as well.

Again, the piece is: “it’s not either/or”.

I’ll close with his closing:

[T]he population vs. consumption debate risks settling into opposing camps with ill will and negative stereotypes – self-flagellating ascetics vs. Malthusian misanthropes.  But it’s a false dichotomy.

I wholly agree.

Like so much else in this post-modern political world, refusing to take one from column A and one from column B — on the assumption that one of those columns contains only evil — will destroy both columns and we who created them.

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  1. PlutoniumKun

    This is a very worthwhile discussion, although I would add to the above that I think the primary reason the IPCC has avoided too much discussion of population is that this is seen as focusing too much on poorer African countries. Wealthy westerners blaming poor sub-Saharans for climate change and telling them to have fewer babies is not a good look.

    But a number of points are key: First off, as the article makes clear, beyond a mass genocide or a new bubonic plague, there is no possibility of reducing population significantly within the timeframe needed for aggressive action. We need to make substantial reductions within the next 2 decades to have any chance whatever of avoiding complete global meltdown. Populations cannot be reduced that quickly. even the slaughter of WWII only made a dent in population.

    Another key point is that most demographers now consider that in real terms, world population is already set to decline. Official numbers tend to lag real changes and in most parts of the world population increases are now steady or in active decline and in many crucial regions such as China the official figures may actually be overstating population growth. This seems an inevitable result of development, there are no major exceptions unless you consider the Gulf States to be ‘developed’. Population increase is now primarily a regional problem (mostly north Africa, the Middle East, and parts of East Asia). To an extent, that problem is curing itself, albeit far too slowly to make a real difference for 21st century climate change. Providing economic stability to the poorer parts of the planet is the best way to ensure the demographics of those areas ‘catch up’ to the rest of the world.

    So they key for meaningful action is on reducing energy use and consumption urgently and rapidly. This can be done in very short timeframes (specifically, the normal replacement cycle for infrastructure replacement/refurbishment of 20-25 years) if the will is there. That is the key challenge.

    1. Karl

      I think addressing the population dimension goes well beyond the politics of North vs. South. Humanity is not yet ready to have an adult conversation about “too many babies”. Family and children are fundamental to the social fabric throughout much of the world. Making babies is considered a basic human right, to the point of idolatry. Abortion is abhorrent in Christianity, Buddhism and other traditions. It’s also abhorrent to that other religion, capitalism, which is obsessed with growth.

      Voluntary contraception is more accepted, but must become free and universally available. But that means husbands must concede the conception decision to their wives. But because of political cowardice, the necessary global education hasn’t been occurring.

      A point of maturity of the human race in the face of this catastrophe will of necessity eventually be reached. But it requires taking this issue out of the closet (soon) and understanding that rapid decline in population is possible over just a few generations. What if the UN offered free universal contraception and family planning services worldwide? What about a universal “one child” policy backed up by incentives and education? These could have strong effects over 50 years. And, the bonus may be less poverty and strife in the world.

      1. anon in so cal

        Decreased demographic growth is also crucial to mitigating catastrophic extinction of other species. We’re in the midst of a sixth mass extinction that is driven by both climate change and habitat loss.
        You listed good suggestions but the cultural opposition to contraception and lack of political leadership is very discouraging. It is sickening to witness influencers with huge followings on social media ridicule Paul Erlich. These include people who purport to be environmentalists.

  2. Amfortas the hippie

    too many humans is the root problem, from which flows all of the existential crises we face as a species and planet.
    i suppose that the inability to mention this in polite society is, perhaps, one of the last vestiges of Humanism.
    we wrangled over this a lot at LATOC, as far back as 2004…the amurkin Right’s insistence on both maximalising population growth, as well as making sure that every lunatic can have a bunch of guns seemed to only make matters worse, short, medium and long term.
    but from the vantage of my Mind Palace(tar paper shack on the moon, near the Mare Crisium and the Hill of Picard), it could be seen ads a short term method of engineering social conflict…a Hobbsean Civil War of All against All…that might likely contribute to population decline…but without dirtying the hands of the elite.
    Blackthorn mentions the woeful shortage of contraceptives in much of the world…and i agree that fixing that would be a good thing, short to long term.
    in those Latoc discussions, the idea of a purposeful, engineered Pandemic was pretty much discounted out of hand…due to the unpredictability of such things, and the likelihood that it would blow back on the Elite, themselves..but, given the uncomfortable feeling i’ve had since february 2020, that this is exactly what’s happening…either Mihop or Lihop, it doesn’t matter….maybe “They” know something we don’t, and it was deemed worth the risk of blowback.
    2 recent things i’ve read of late…i think one was from Links:
    and this:https://rwmalonemd.substack.com/p/mrna-vaccines-the-cia-and-national

    are both very frelling disturbing.
    and adjacent to the latter:https://rwmalonemd.substack.com/p/welcome-to-fifth-gen-information

    is like the old classic CT of “Silent Weapons for Quiet Wars” come to life.
    i dont know how Dr Malone is perceived around here, but i’ve been aware of him since my first research frenzy into cutting edge cancer treatment circa 2018…i grokked then that the mRNA Platform would be revolutionary…if they could somehow get it to work…which was readily acknowledged prior to 2020 was likely impossible….per, not least, it’s inventor.
    that “They” went ahead anyway says a lot, to me…and that this Platform is likely to be the basis of myriad new …even mandatory…drugs going forward, is terrifying in it’s implications.
    the heart problems, weird-ass multisystem dysfunction and various autoimmune disorders and immune dysregulation that flow from the widespread use of this Platform seems ready-made for culling the herd, with a degree of plausible deniability, to boot.

    no flat earth ice walls or alien lizards in human suits required.

    1. Mikel

      My main takeway from the Malone presentation: intelligence agencies, holding on to a belief system about race and genetics that is out of the 19th Century, are trying to lead science. With this in mind, I believe Malone has over-estimated some of their abilities. But he is more convincing in pointing out the short-comings of their science/technology in other parts of the presentation.
      They’ve (intelligence agencies) also made a threat assessment that sounds like something that comes out of wartime…not peacetime.

      And I’ll be sticking to calling these drugs “the shots” and “therapeutics”.
      I agree that they have no business being called “vaccines.”

  3. Henry Moon Pie

    I’ll second PK’s point that this is a worthwhile and important discussion. We’re at the point where we must be talking about the specifics of how we can reduce carbon emission and the human environmental footprint more generally if we want to avoid catastrophic impacts on human welfare up to the point of the end of human civilization.

    And I’ll also endorse Neuburger’s contention that both population growth and human consumption levels must be addressed. Finally, I strongly agree with Yves’s emphasis on radical conservation, though I’m happy to go right to arguing for degrowth.

    Here’s where my patience is running thin. As a reader of NC and, with less frequency, MOA, I see plenty of climate denialism, especially in the latter. This line of argument might have been worth considering 30 years ago, but as our situation has worsened and more data has been collected confirming the central points of the climate change hypothesis, it’s harder and harder to attribute good faith to its proponents. They have served the purposes of the Business As Usual advocates quite well, delaying action by allowing us over-consumers in WEIRD countries an excuse for making no significant changes in economic policy or personal habits.

    I suppose one excuse available to our denialists is that WEIRD country leadership has refused to level with the citizenry about how dire the situation really is. Even those businesspeople, politicians and media personalities who are willing to acknowledge the reality of anthropogenic climate change insist on pretending that it’s possible for WEIRD economies to keep on growing infinitely as long as we’re powered by PVs and wind turbines instead of the internal combustion engine. This attempt at deceptive manipulation was bound to increase skepticism about the whole idea of a climate crisis. Moreover, trillions of dollars have been spent implanting in us the idea that life is a game best characterized as “the one who dies with the most toys wins.” To turn this “Compete and Consume” worldview to one where we “Cooperate and Conserve” instead is a tough sell. Finally, to bring growth to an end is to bring capitalism to an end, and billionaires are having none of that.

    With all these powerful forces arrayed to hide the truth, I just wish I saw fewer of our friends and colleagues falling for these lies and promoting them.

    1. GramSci

      “With all these powerful forces arrayed to hide the truth, I just wish I saw fewer of our friends and colleagues falling for these lies and promoting them.”

      Wholly concur, but I think that in the future I’ll refer to these “lies” as “fairy tales”.

  4. KEW

    The inhabitants of Chaco Canyon died out after a longer period of poor harvests, with cannibalism in the end stages. I would not call the estimate 1/3 fall in the population of Europe over the few years of the Black Death linear either.

    I do not believe there was evidence of widespread cannibalism. Possibly employed as a terror technique under presumably conditions of scarcity and conflict .

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      I hate to tell you but the information is suppressed because it is seen as prejudicial to Native Americans, per guides at the site, who if pressed will quietly say they are told to not admit to even the possibility. For instance, there were bones broken in a way that made sense only to eat the marrow.

      1. David in Santa Cruz

        One theory that I’ve read about the evidence (including “pot-scarred” human bones and DNA analysis of coprolites from latrines) is that terrorism by Toltec military expeditions from Mexico seeking turquoise was responsible for the abandonment of irrigated cities and the clear signs of cannibalism in what is now New Mexico and Arizona.

        Highly-organized warfare accompanied by ritualized human sacrifice and cannibalism appear to have been quite common in Mesoamerica. Not suggesting this as a solution to climate change!

        1. agent ranger smith

          From Toltecistan to Chaco Canyon would be a distance of about a thousand miles over very difficult and obstructive country. That would be a very impressive military expedition.

          1. JBird4049

            No need for large military operations over great distances. There is evidence of the movement of at least culture, if not people, during some periods of cannibalism beween what is now the Southwest and Mexico, and from Central America and central Mexico.

            It could be much like the cultural exchanges during the Greco-Roman period or even during the Bronze Age with trade going from the British Islands to Egypt and Assyria. Then there are the large, long distance population movements during the Bronze Age Collapse.

    2. skk

      The sentence in the original lead is “after a longer period of poor harvests, with cannibalism in the end stages”.

      I parse it for its point ? It appeals to my immediate expectation of “yeah in very hungry times, people will eat anything, including other people” But is that the only true reason in the cited case ?

      For such a taboo subject, that final phrase does prompt me to go searching for essays and papers on it. Here’s one:

      I don’t know if _that’s_ true either of course.

      1. juliania

        It is my understanding that some of today’s pueblo people consider the farming populations supporting Chaco to have been their ancestors. Those people, having experienced hardships, simply packed up their belongings and left to form new communities closer to the river. Also, a few of the original communities on the outskirts of the area, (though many have perished,) still exist. In more recent times, that happened in Pecos. Families there moved to other pueblo communities when life there (for whatever reason) became unsustainable.

    3. AndrewJ

      I hadn’t heard of cannibalism associated with the Chaco collapse before… but turns out that yes, there is evidence. It’s also a good field to research and publish in if your goal is to get cancelled.
      Here’s a fun except:
      “When I excavated it,” Billman told me, “I got the sense that it may have been taboo. We are proposing that this may have been a political strategy. One or several communities in this area may have used raiding and cannibalism to drive off people from a village and prevent other people from settling there. If you raided a village, consumed some of the residents, and left the remains there for everyone to see, you would gain the reputation of being a community to stay away from.”
      I doubt this impulse has left us. From my own experiences, often the best natural, unmanaged campsites on BLM or National Forest land are trashed. It took me a while, but now I believe it is often intentional, not just laziness – it’s good way to keep people away, either from the area in general, or the site in particular. I have little doubt that post-collapse the same mentality will find a way of expression that’s a little more to-the-point: go away or we’ll eat you and leave the bits behind.

    4. Wukchumni

      Man Corn: Cannibalism and Violence in the Prehistoric American Southwest, by Christy & Jacqueline Turner is very persuasive that it was quite widespread as climate change pressed in on not just Chaco Canyon, but the whole Southwest ball of works.

      They had crude weaponry made out of rocks in order to dine a la carte, ours is a bit more sophisticated.

      I’ll pick a number and guestimate that of the 400 million guns in the USA half have never been fired or just a few times. Its gonna get crazy, we all know it, just what sets things off initially is the X factor.

      You can sense we’re being readied to do our own thing in these not so united states, meaning that everything we grew up with is going away in some fashion, nobody has cared about the well being* of the public for a long time, why shouldn’t this be the culmination?

      * 2x F-35’s are busy gamboling away our money overhead, probably $100k for each amortized sortie.

  5. The Rev Kev

    If we start to go for a population crash, it will get brutal. But it may be necessary for the survival of our species. Today I have heard about future projections of the population of Oz and wonder if it may all be a fantasy in light of the general decrease in populations. It is now over 25 million but I remember when it was only about 10 million. And at that same time, the population of the US was about 225 million and not the present 335 million. Would that be so bad to go back to that earlier level? Doesn’t mean we have to bring back disco from that era. The truth of the matter is that at present there are about 8 billion people in the world but that our planet has only a carrying capacity of about 500 million – where we were in about the year 1600. But if we wanted to jump start this process, confiscating the wealth of the world’s billionaires and reducing them to mere millionaires would really help in alleviating resource depletion. Just sayin’.

  6. Samuel Conner

    > Multiple deaths beget nothing

    It depends a great deal on “who is dying”. The quoted statement assumes that those dying are not making contributions to the functioning of the civilization. One can easily imagine a situation in which increasingly widespread mortality leads to system breakdown. What happens if there are too few technicians left to maintain all the machinery of industrial agriculture?

    Speaking of worker shortages, this AM I made a run to a local grocery to replenish stocks. I’m flush with N95s at the moment and I brought 3 boxes of 20 to the store to offer to the manager to share with the staff — on prior visits I have seen few or no staff wearing any protection.

    The customer service person paged the store manager, who responded, “thank you, but we don’t need them.” They already have 800 in inventory.

    Not one store employee that I encountered today was wearing a mask; about 1 in 10 of the customers was masked with a surgical procedure mask or a cloth mask. I was the only person wearing an N95.

    The employees present were all young-looking. Turning the clock back a few months, there were lots of older people manning the checkout lanes and stocking shelves. Where were those people today?

    It’s just one data point, but still … damn.

  7. Carla

    Yves says it best: “what we really need to do is kill all the squillionaires or at least get them to consume only like (at most) garden variety middle class people. The rich and particularly the super rich are resource hogs. Having the billion poorest people in the world all die off would probably not have a huge impact on climate change.”

    Jason Hickel makes this point very convincingly in his book Less Is More: Degrowth of the (rich) “global north” is critical to any possible mitigation of climate change, and while degrowth is impossible within capitalism, redistribution of existing wealth could easily provide for equitable steady-state economies in the rich countries. He also stresses that in contrast, the “global south” needs to be able to develop its own resources to achieve healthy steady-state economies for their populations.

    Pie in the sky? Sure. But pretending we can (or even should) have infinite growth on a finite planet has brought humanity to the brink of disaster, so… should changing course remain unthinkable?

  8. Maha

    From 40 years of doing anti-poverty work, we used to say that one of the best ways to reduce birth rates is to educate women. Still true? Policy ramifications for India, etc….

    Also, many of us have been barking about over-consumption for, well, for decades. One thing we should look at is food waste, especially in the U.S. Look at how often fruit and veggies are swooped-out at your local grocery store, and the oversized portions at restaurants. Some of the “excess” is donated, but much of it is tossed (not even composted). In addition to needed attitudinal change about ripe or blemished food, we need to change state and local laws and get suppliers onboard. [We can rant about unsustainable agricultural practices another time.]

  9. KD

    War made the State and the State made War.

    Any kind of climate change regime is going to come from states–it may be through international institutions or international treaties–but at the end of the day it can only be adopted and implemented by states.

    If we take as our model that the state exists (or the nation-state exists) because it is highly capable of projecting force within an anarchic international system, and we recognize that the state’s capability to fight war (hard power) is based primarily on population, industrial capacity and technological sophistication, then prospects are poor for depopulation or reduced consumption.

    Obviously, depopulation, especially unilaterally, weakens the state, and reduced consumption while trying to preserve military infrastructure means something like living in the USSR in the “good old days” which is a hard sell for a public. Ignoring the security issue, a state basically commits suicide–they won’t save the Earth, they will be conquered by someone who hasn’t reduced population or consumption. I suppose nuclear deterrence may have some benefit but I wouldn’t want to rely on it, not to mention what happens if it goes astray.

    In the end, Malthus was probably right, and attempts to outsmart Malthusian logic, and natural forms of de-population (and a consequential mass reduction of economy to below or at subsistence), may forestall the inevitable collapse, but I do not see any way to escape ultimately.

    Yes, every nation could agree but the free rider problem will not be overcome, so even if there is agreement you won’t have universal compliance for the reasons above. Only a God can save us now.

  10. Rolf

    Another thumbs up to Yves’, PK’s, Amfortas’, and Henry’s points above. A population of 8e9 humans is unsustainable, but rates of population decline alone are far too slow to make a dent in our approach to catastrophic environmental change. And our beloved gazillionaires make outrageous contributions to climate deterioration.

    This is not a problem that “markets” can solve. Many people I know in the US are concerned about a deteriorating environment, but have been told the problem is soluble by consumerist preferences (e.g., swapping that gas guzzler for an electric vehicle) — when the real answer is to stop buying so much crap in the first place, along with a slew of other radical conservation changes, like making things last; don’t replace, repair. These are strategies under one’s control, and will be increasingly necessary.

    The US could significantly reduce its energy consumption with only modest changes in living standard. The US produces 2-3 times the CO2 per capita of countries in Europe, e.g. more than three times the French. But the French derive ~70% of their power from nuclear, and began building plants 50 years ago (and actually overbuilt generating capacity). My point is that national shifts in power generation require long lead times (Messmer’s plan was enacted without parliamentary debate). But radical conservation measures — everyone can begin today.

    Strategic global collaboration could and should play a role, but initiative won’t come from the US unless it can reform the private capture of entrenched political parties, and prevent oil and gas lobbyists and “endless war” neocons from writing foreign policy.

    But a real economic downturn in the US will require such conservation, no? We should get ready.

    1. Karl

      I think conservation is important but it may be less important than we think.

      Let’s consider the traditional “Global Human Impact” equation where GHI(t,B,M) = Population(t,B,M) x Technology Mix (t,B,M) x Consumption per capita (t,B,M). I’ve made explicit that each variable is a function of t=time, B= behavior (motivation and education), and M=mandates (coercion).

      I agree with Garrett Hardin (of Tragedy of the Commons fame) that M = mandates will ultimately be the most important. He called it “Mutual Coercion Mutually Agreed Upon”).

      I can foresee that this problem will either be solved through planned coercion or panicked coercion (WW III).

      With Population it will entail a universal “one child” policy backed up by incentives, universal contraception, etc.

      With Technology Mix it will entail such mandates as phase-out of fossil fueled electricity generation and transportation.

      With Consumption it may entail rationing, phase-out of meat consumption, etc.

      We need to focus on all aspects of human impact, not just conservation, if we’re going to tackle this. And, as Garrett Hardin said, mandates will ultimately be necessary as they are likely to be the only thing that really works. That’s the tragedy of the commons, also known as “Prisoner’s Dilemma” and “The Free Rider Problem.”

      Oh, and the panicked form of coercion is obviously WW III, genocide, etc. We seem to be headed there. All those nuclear weapons sitting in storage may ultimately be needed to save the planet. I’m aghast to have just made that statement!

      1. Karl

        I’ll correct myself on the subject of nukes “saving the planet” in that last rather flip sentence above. That’s obviously untrue in the case of a massive nuclear exchange in a super-power conflict. Even with reduced arsenals from past arms control agreements the global effects of such an exchange include fallout and long term effects to the ozone layer and temperatures. It would undoubtedly be an extinction event. One quote form a recent report on the climate impact of massive nuclear war (with so much soot in the stratosphere blocking sunlight) would be:

        … a drop in global temperature of some 8°C (more than the difference between today’s temperature and the depths of the last ice age), and even after a decade the temperature would have recovered only 4°C. In the world’s “breadbasket” agricultural regions, the temperature could remain below freezing for a year or more, and precipitation would drop by 90 percent. The effect on the world’s food supply [and much terrestrial life] would be devastating.

      2. Thomas Schmidt

        Time to dump Garret Hardin, that apologist for fascism, and read a little Elinor Ostrom:

        “Ostrom’s work challenged Hardin’s approach to the “Tragedy of the Commons”, arguing that individuals and communities could manage their own collective resources. Her field research in Maine, Indonesia, Nepal and Kenya led to the development of a set of design principles which have supported effective mobilization for local management of common pool resources (CPR) in a variety of areas”

        It was one thing to embrace it in the 60s, and quite another when there is empirical evidence against it.

    2. thousand points of green

      Its hard to make things last when those things have been made to break on purpose by the companies who make them. That problem could only be solved by harsh laws, harshly enforced.

      Does Germany have a kind-and-gentle version of such a law? I believe I have heard that things made in Germany for sale within Germany have to be taken back by the company who made them for recycling or re-use or disposal of by the company who made them at that company’s own expense. Is my memory wrong on that score?

      1. Rolf

        Its hard to make things last when those things have been made to break on purpose by the companies who make them. That problem could only be solved by harsh laws, harshly enforced.

        Yes, indeed, for many consumer goods, poor quality is a major problem, and thanks to fubarred phony reviewing (I’m looking at you, Bezos), it’s well nigh impossible to tell what’s good and what’s not, so I try to solicit personal recommendations from tradespeople, neighbors, people whose opinion I trust. Professional plumbers will generally share their opinions about brands to avoid, for example. I’ve had the best luck in buying quality used hardware, tools, restorable furniture, older appliances, etc. locally from Craigslist, or even computer equipment (quality server boards pulled from data centers by ebay sellers, who seem to work hard to protect their service reputation). Otherwise I avoid mail order and big box stores whenever possible, and never buy anything from Amazon. I’ve never owned a new car, had good luck buying used vehicles 2-5 years old (or much older depending on the model) for which flaws are known or fixable, and for which used or at least quality aftermarket parts are available.

        It’s a challenge given the decline in quality, but there are some quality goods still available.

        Although I lived in Germany for several years, I never had bad experiences buying stuff. Most of my neighbors, particularly older folks, were pretty tightfisted and frugal, very proud of their national brands, but were nevertheless always ready with strong opinions on what to avoid.

  11. SE

    What is part of the solution would be working on Life expectancy ? Bringing Life expectancy from 80 to 65 ?
    A kind of “Logan’s Run” society.

  12. GoDark

    There appears to be a “Catch-22” in actions to reduce populations to address climate change. One sees this “catch” in the West wherever one finds declining populations regradless of the causes or motives.

    When a population declines, there are not enough workers working to support “pay-as-you-go” pensions that are fundamental to political systems in the West. The solution: open the borders to immigration. This has occurred in the EU, UK, US, etc., despite laws and treaties to the contrary.

    Recall Chancellor Merkel finally admitting that inviting 1.5 million immigrants into Germany in 2015 (in violation of the Schengen Agreement) was driven by the need for workers in German industries in the face of a declining ethnic German population. The number of Germans in the population may decrease but, in an endless cycle, the number of immigrants increase to more than make up for the decrease of ethnic Germans in the population. Same for the United States faced with its “pay-as-you-go” pension system (Social Security) now calculated to go broke by 2035.

    The “Catch-22” is that attempts to reduce climate change with lower birth rates and smaller populations quickly create the need to import foreign labor to make up for the revenue and populations shortfalls threatening Western pension systems. This is an irresolvable problem … there is no way out of the population decrease-pension shortfall dilemma. In fact, it is a “third rail” of Western politics.

    The principle: “pay-as-you-go” pension systems operate in a positive-feedback mechanism that drive never-ending population increases to protect pension payouts to never-ending increases in the number of retired pensioners.

  13. flora

    Thanks very much for this post. There’s a lot to consider here.

    adding this:

    and this, ( yeah yeah, Daily Mail, but they often cover stories and details other MSM avoid broaching: )


    1. Rolf

      Thanks for these links, Flora. The hubris and appetites of Gates, Bezos, et al. strike me as almost grotesque. I confess I just can’t wrap my head around the need of these people to acquire wealth of this magnitude: it seems quite strange.

  14. Craig Dempsey

    I think we need to rethink the relationship between overpopulation and global warming. These are two separate problems that interact, not just two parts of the same problem. Wealthy countries largely have falling home-grown populations, but, as discussed above, such as by GoDark, wealthy countries import large numbers of foreigners whenever their neoliberal economies need more employees. But where do we get these foreigners? A large percentage are refugees from overpopulated poor countries. If those countries were not overpopulated and generating refugees, then few would want to move to distant lands and strange cultures to try to start over. Meanwhile, global warming is reducing the carrying capacity of many poor countries. Just look at the recent horrific floods in Pakistan. We need a full spectrum plan against both global warming and against overpopulation to cure either one. Take it from Project Drawdown, providing education and birth control to women is a key part of fighting global warming, as well as a key part of reproductive justice.

  15. Thomas Schmidt

    Perhaps we could take a step and ban immigration to societies of high carbon intensity from societies of low carbon intensity, on the theory that wealthier people in new societies will generate more carbon? This would mean that immigration to the USA would be limited to people from countries with higher per-capita carbon usage, like Canada and the UAE. I don’t think many people could move to Canada. By contrast, most of Europe would be immigrable by North Americans as moving there would cut their carbon footprints.

    I’ll believe Canada is serious about climate change when they stop importing 500,000 people per year to burn more carbon.

  16. Stick'nMud

    Please excuse my late comment, as I missed this post at first. Others commented on the uncertainty around the abandonment of Chaco Canyon, which, from reading I did at U.C. in the ’80s, was likely due to a change in rainfall patterns that destroyed intensive water control systems and undermined agricultural production. All the ancient cliff dwellings, as well as the Chaco Canyon settlements, were Ancestral Pueblo peoples, often referred to as the Anasazi, who gradually abandoned the entire region to seek more reliable water along the Rio Grand. The smaller pueblos in the Gila Wilderness area of New Mexico were intermediate settlements of the Mogollon people that practiced rain-fed mesa top farming, but these too were abandoned by 1300. The evidence of cannibalism seems to be related to warfare, but this was itself likely due to a 300 year drought that put pressure on subsistence throughout the SW region.

    As for Yves’ comment on the collapse of the Classic Lowland Maya, I must challenge the claim of sudden population collapse, since there is strong evidence of continued occupation of and around the ceremonial centers, but the complete collapse of elite culture in undeniable. I took a deep dive into this subject back then (the 1980’s), and looked at all the different single cause theories. I concluded that a multi-factorial explanation, with climate change– both natural/secular and man-made– playing a central role, was the most credible explanation. IMO, the elite culture and religion, whichhad proved so successful during the Classic period when the climate was cool and wet (about the time of the Dark Ages in Europe), turned out to be maladaptive as the rainfall became scarce and unreliable.

    The great success of the Classic Lowland Maya in growing their population to roughly 5 million led to the shortening of the traditional fallow period of 14 to 20 years for their extensive ‘slash & burn’ agriculture of the peasants in the hinterland surrounding and supporting the ceremonial centers, and an ever greater distance of the peasant milpas (cornfields), hamlets, and villages from those centers. Peasant labor was required by the elites who controlled the best bottom lands near the centers (which produced the food needed by the elites, the artisans, and jaguar warriors), and this was insured by religious festivals that included redistribution of essential goods, such as iodine-rich sea salt and dried fish, and basaltic manos and metates to grind corn, which were procured by elite trading expeditions. Incidentally, the soil of the entire Mayan Lowland area is lacking in iodine, which, combined with a predominantly corn-based diet (lacking in meat) would lead to high rates of hypothyroidism and prevalence of disfiguring goiter among the inland populations.

    IMO, the most likely scenario is that the failure of the rainfall needed by the farmers led to greater elite demands for more temple building, resurfacing, and repainting, which involved cutting down what little remained of the forest to make charcoal for lime kilns to make limestone whitewash to resurface the temples. This also would likely lead to more raiding to obtain human sacrifices to appease the gods, especially Tlaloc, the rain god (think Apocalypto).

    By the late Classic (7th century AD), this had likely led to destruction of the rain forest, as evidenced by ancient nearby lake mud cores that show a lack of tree pollen and an abundance of grass pollen. IMO, the worse things got, the more insistent the elites were to do more (of the same). Increasing time conflict for the peasants between tending their subsistence milpas and elite demands for their covee labor in the ceremonial centers, may have led to something like class conflict, an example of which may be what we see in the Bonampak mural, and in the progressive cessation of stelae erection (stone pillars proclaiming the greatness of the new king).

    So, from roughly the 9th Century until the 20th Century, the population of the Classic Maya Lowlands (the Peten District of Guatemala, plus parts of nearby Mexico, Honduras, and El Salvador) remained at around 50,000, which would be a 99% reduction from the peak of 5 million in the 7th Century. This is in the same ballpark as 95% estimate of the population collapse of indigenous people in Mesoamerica due to the Spanish conquest in the 17th Century, which is explained and supported in the excellent book 1491.

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