Big Question: Feast or famine?

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I agree that little has transformed the earth more than agriculture, but it is inaccurate to say that “30 percent of greenhouse gases come from agriculture.” The reason that this is inaccurate is because what really counts (though it is not the only thing that counts) is the release of carbon that was previously trapped in fossil form. Such of the “green house gas” mentioned in the video does not involve fossil carbon.

Anyway, having said that, here is a blog post that is linked to the video you just watched:

The Other Inconvenient Truth

It’s taken a long time, but the issue of global climate change is finally getting the attention it deserves. There is now widespread acceptance of the need to confront energy security and global warming. We finally acknowledge that our addiction to fossil fuels, which has been harming our national security, economy and environment for decades, must end.

Unfortunately, this positive shift in the national zeitgeist has had an unintended downside. Climate change has become the poster child of environmental crisis, complete with its own celebrities and campaigners. But is it so serious that we can afford to ignore equally serious environmental issues, such as the rise of infectious disease, the collapse of fisheries, the ongoing loss of forests and biodiversity, and the depletion of global water supplies?


Read the rest here.


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20 thoughts on “Big Question: Feast or famine?

  1. As long as we’re facing inconvenient truths, we should face up to the biggest problem. In fact, there is only one problem: overpopulation.

  2. The problem with the problems of resource depletion, biodiversity, and all the other things is that the onset of the seriousness of the problems is non-linear. The systems can tolerate a lot of degradation, until that degradation hits a critical level and then there is exponential change (as there is around all critical points).

    Look it up; around all “critical points” there is exponential change.

  3. There was an analysis of the Soylent Green idea in some journal many years ago. It doesn’t really work out all that well. Sort of like the economics of running a mink farm where your raise the mink on the skinned carcases of previous mink.

    What we have is conflict between the economist’s view that the global market will never cease expanding (which most folks like), and the ecologist’s concept of limiting factors (which most folks don’t like).

  4. It bears repeating … the underlying problem is overpopulation. But, despite much thinking on it, I can offer no easy solutions that don’t cause more problems. We’re headed for eventual die-back as a species if we can’t turn it around.

  5. I’m not sure what the point of mentioning the disappearance of the Aral sea was. As bad as the rest of our impact is on the environment, the Aral sea is the exception, not the rule, when it comes to these things. It was after all the result of general Soviet incompetence that it dried up, and not as a result of the “normal” impact of agriculture, like all the other things listed.

    I’m hoping that one day we’ll be able to grow food completely in petri dishes (or whatever). Less impact on the environment, plus no animals are harmed in the making of the food either!

    But my most pressing concern is: what is the music in this video?

    In fact, there is only one problem: overpopulation.

    The only problem? You could get rid of 5 billion people and climate change would still be a massive problem. Get rid of the richest billion or two, and climate change is not so much a problem. Overpopulation is only one problem, although it is inter-related with other problems.

  6. What we have is conflict between the economist’s view that the global market will never cease expanding (which most folks like), and the ecologist’s concept of limiting factors (which most folks don’t like).

    Which economists make the claim that the global market will never cease expanding? Because it just did in the last year or so.

    I would say that most economists say that the global market should (as in morally) not cease expanding. I would agree with that. Because when it does, then we get what’s happened the past year or so: jobs lost and all that comes with that.

    But there is no contradiction between desire for continual growth and the “ecologist’s concept of limiting factors” (it’s not only ecologists who would say that of course, ask a physicist). Growth will run out one day. Maybe in our lifetimes. Maybe in a thousand years. Maybe in a few billion years. One day ecologically, physically, whatever, it will have to. But we should want growth for society’s sake until that day. And we can, if we do it right, have growth for the next (say) hundred years and not suffer ecologically. We just have to do some of the things in the video, switch away from fossil fuels, and so forth.

  7. There was an idea I saw about vertical agriculture – essentially devoting an entire complex of buildings to agricultural growth.

    Yes, it’s going to cost more in the short run at least, but it’s more environmentally healthy. Plus food is grown locally.

  8. Yes, population is not the only problem, but the notion of population control was pretty conspicuous in its absence in that video.

    Indeed, the Aral sea was destroyed by stupid management decisions made by people who had never seen it. But the example of the Aral sea is probably still worth examining, because we will need to avoid making those sorts of stupid management decisions. Much of the environmental damage we see around is the result, directly or indirectly, of stupid management decisions.

  9. The problem isn’t overpopulation, the problem is per capita environmental impact times population.

    The problem is that environmental impact doesn’t have a cost to those that are doing it, so they have no incentive to reduce it.

    Doing things sustainably will always cost more than doing it unsustainably. Walking from my desk to the bathroom to take a crap has a cost in terms of energy expended in walking. It is worth it to me because then I don’t accumulate crap (of that type) in my office.

    If we make the costs of doing things unsustainably more expensive (through fees), then people will do the sustainable thing because it is cheaper.

  10. Alex –

    You make a rather absurd argument. The only reason that we need growth, is because we have created a corporate model that requires constant growth. The corporate business model manages money in an absurd fashion – never developing on what they have, rather on what they can borrow. Never considering stagnation and sustainability – only more, more and more still.

    What exactly is wrong with growing a business to a sustainable, functional size and maintaining? What is wrong with the idea of actually passing along a functional social and economic model to our great grandchildren and the progeny we are unlikely to actually meet? Or at least starting to build that model, so that we can bear some of the brunt of making what will be a rather painful change to something more functional and sustainable?

    Why the fuck should we just prop up this sinking ship for a hundred years, so that when it finally does collapse, it will pretty much mean the death of the human race – not to mention a lot of other life on earth? Because like it or not, your notion of continuing is not going to be nearly enough to avoid that. Right now China, a massive country, with a truly massive population is right about where the U.S. was nearly eighty years ago, in terms of pollution. And that is just going to get worse – until they develop to the point that they don’t want it, and pass those aspects of manufacture to underdeveloped nations.

    We can play all the fucking shuffle the poison games we want. It is never going to change a fucking thing. We can also decide that we are going to try to bring people to the table and actually work on dealing with population issues and how the global economy functions – so that a hundred years our progeny won’t be facing the imminent collapse of civilization and instead will have gotten a head start towards dealing with the collapse of the status quo through changes we start making today. (I think that may be some kind of record for me, in regards to run-on sentences)

  11. Aren’t population growth rates and average family sizes declining even in the poorer parts of the world, though? I remember reading somewhere that at current rates the world’s population should peak around 2050 and then hold steady or start to decline slowly. Is that just BS?

  12. @Paul S.

    A lot of aid effort goes into trying to encourage family planning, and to present positive incentives for smaller families. Sadly, it runs into opposition both locally (many cultures put a social premium on fecundity, and there are often still economic advantages to having more children), and (indefensibly in my opinion) from mostly religious types who argue that contraception is morally wrong. So, while many areas are showing improvements in birth-rate and population increase, many are still growing quite fast. Predicting what will happen in the more resistant populations based on what’s already happened in the best examples is a popular gambit, but unrealistic; on the other hand, pessimistic views often fail to consider the possibility of new incentives and disincentives.

  13. DuWayne, you obviously did not read what I said.

    What exactly is wrong with growing a business to a sustainable, functional size and maintaining?

    There is absolutely nothing wrong with that. But if the whole of the economy decides to stop growing, then you get WHAT IS HAPPENING RIGHT NOW (I did give rather a big hint about this in the comment you were replying to, but you decided not to read that part). 10%+ unemployment. Is that what you want?

    You mention China and underdeveloped nations. Have you stopped to think what no growth would do to the citizens of such countries? Most live in wretched poverty. And what, you think they should stay that way, just because YOU have enough?

    (I’ll also point out that while population increases, you need growth just to stay at the same level)

    I repeat: there is no contradiction between economic growth and ecological/physical limits in the medium term. In the long term there will be, but in the long term even not growing at all is not going to help you. (In 5 billion years the Sun explodes, and all life on Earth will be dead by then, and eventually the 2nd law of thermodynamics will mean that no life will be possible anywhere in the universe. And if you think there’s problems with economic growth in the 100 years, it wouldn’t be long after that before similar happened to non-growth.). In the long run we are all dead as someone famous once said.

    And I should also point out, because clearly you don’t believe this, but there is no contradiction between economic growth and environmentalism (at least the kind that relies on scientific evidence, not the kind that just goes “Natural=bad” as some environmentalists do). End climate change? Carbon tax/cap+trade, R&D spending and so on. You can do those things and still have growth. All that’s stopping them is politics. In fact, with growth, technology can become more efficient over time (e.g. Moore’s law).

    All I can say is that you react to economic growth the way a creationist would react to evolution.

  14. And apparently, you weren’t reading me particularly clearly. I am not saying the all economic growth is bad – for the record, *I* don’t even have enough. But sustained growth without end is going to lead to a rather heavy and resounding crash, with extremely dire consequences.

    And yes, at some point we all die – including the human race. That doesn’t mean we should just say “fuck it” and not try to forestall that end as long as possible. Pretending that the only way for an economy to survive is sustained growth is patently absurd. And it also requires sustained population growth to make it work.

    So what exactly is the problem with trying to start addressing these problems now – instead of just getting ours for as long as we can – fuck future generations? That attitude is exactly the attitude that has gotten us into the mess we are in now. Personally, I would rather leave my children with the beginnings of a plan for making necessary changes for survival. I am certainly not raising my kids with the intent of leaving them an even shittier situation than my own – though they will likely face one. I am far more interested in seeking solutions, so that equilibrium might be achieved and economic ruin on a scale that sends humans back to the dark ages might be averted.

    Fuck this “I want mine now, fuck everyone else” fucking bullshit. It is selfish, shortsighted and inexcusable. We are already pretty well fucked as it stands, taking a little more hurt in an attempt to lay the foundation for a better future for the human race isn’t going to make it that much worse and may well make it better for us now.

    The status quo is unsustainable on myriad levels. I for one, refuse to just dance away on a sinking ship.

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