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"Everywhere, the cost of food is rising sharply. Whether the world is in for a long period of continued increases has become one of the most urgent issues in economics.

"Many factors are contributing to the rise, but the biggest is runaway demand. In recent years, the world’s developing countries have been growing about 7 percent a year, an unusually rapid rate by historical standards.

"The high growth rate means hundreds of millions of people are, for the first time, getting access to the basics of life, including a better diet. That jump in demand is helping to drive up the prices of agricultural commodities.

"Farmers the world over are producing flat-out. American agricultural exports are expected to increase 23 percent this year to $101 billion, a record. [And yet] The world’s grain stockpiles have fallen to the lowest levels in decades.

"'Everyone wants to eat like an American on this globe,' said Daniel W. Basse of the AgResource Company, a Chicago consultancy. 'But if they do, we’re going to need another two or three globes to grow it all.'

"In contrast to a run-up in the 1990s, investors this time are betting — as they buy and sell contracts for future delivery of food commodities — that scarcity and high prices will last for years. . . .

"The biggest blemish on this winter of joy is that farmers' own costs are rising rapidly. Expenses for the diesel fuel used to run tractors and combines and for the fertilizer essential to modern agriculture have soared. . . .

"[Wheat] prices have more than tripled, partly because of a drought in Australia and bad harvests elsewhere and also because of unslaked global demand for crackers, bread and noodles."

    - "A Global Need for Grain that Farms Can't Fill," The New York Times, March 9, 2008

One of the interesting things about this issue is the mental conflict it induces in progressives.  On the one hand, we can't exactly say that gains in quality of life in the poorer countries are a bad thing in general, but on the other hand, it does push the overpopulation crisis closer to disastrous collision with the limits of world production capacity.

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My video response to Chris Dodd's efforts aimed at reversing the dangerous trend toward the loss of civil liberties embodied in the Military Commissions Act of 2006.

My entry in a global warming ad contest aimed at influencing the 2008 presidential candidates.

My entry for the YouTube Presidential Debate Question contest, asking pointed questions about the thorny issue of overpopulation. Post positive comments please!

And finally, check out the Church of Gaia/Earthseed main page for some recent updates.
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There are global-warming skeptics. Some of them are scientists. Some of them accept that some warming is happening, but argue that it's a temporary variation unrelated to greenhouse-gas emissions, similar to the Medieval Warm Period.

Whether any of the skeptics are actually credible, I don't know. But I find myself in the awkward position of hoping that they're wrong, and for pretty much the reason you'd expect: if it's conclusively demonstrated that global warming is nonexistent or that it won't get much worse before it cycles back, then all of those who have campaigned so hard to raise awareness about a supposedly impending catastrophe will be laughed out of their jobs. More broadly, the credibility of environmentalists worldwide will be almost completely destroyed. As a result, the political will to act on issues other than climate change is also likely to vanish.

To understand the severity of this problem, consider what the nonexistence of global warming would and wouldn't mean:

It would mean...It wouldn't mean...
...that there's no pressing need to slow or halt carbon-dioxide emissions....that we can just stop worrying about the fact that the oil is running out, or ignore the health effects of coal-based power.
...that sea levels probably won't rise significantly this century....that there will always be enough land even as the scale of the human presence continues to expand.
...that the rate of severe droughts and resulting crop failures won't rise much further....that our current strategy of growing vast monoculture fields and destroying topsoil is a good idea.
...that the incidence of tropical diseases won't increase much more as a result of climate change....that the problems of AIDS, antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and illnesses caused by industrial chemicals in our environment will just go away.
...that the Amazon will not just dry up and blow away, and coral reef bleaching should slow down soon....that biodiversity loss due to deliberate habitat destruction will stop anytime soon, unless we do something about it.

So what can environmentalists do about all this? If the skeptics win, we will need to distance ourselves from climate scientists and rally around a new, more concrete cause, most likely the simple question of how to avoid using up our natural resources. On the other hand, if global warming is real but won't be indisputably obvious for another few decades, then we simply have to stay the course and knock down the skeptics one by one.

Clearly, it would be good to know for certain one way or the other, but science isn't like that. I'll post more when I've done my homework and come to a conclusion about which outcome seems more likely.
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According to Mr. Wright, my tenth-grade social studies teacher, religion provides people with answers to three important questions: Where did we come from? Why are we here? Where are we going? The last question is particularly important, since the answers given are usually used to counteract the fear of death. Belief in an afterlife or resurrection is probably most of what makes religion so attractive to so many people. So if the science-based Church of Gaia/Earthseed is ever going to get anywhere, it will probably need to include one or more of these concepts: read the list )
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"Call us a disease, I don't care--I am a human, and I want us to spread everywhere like an epidemic, so we can never be stamped out."

-Colonel Graff of the Interstellar Colonization Ministry, in Shadow of the Giant

(For those few who don't know what I'm talking about, this is how an AI program named Agent Smith describes humanity in the movie The Matrix: "I realized that you're not actually mammals. Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with the surrounding environment, but you humans do not. You move to an area, and you multiply, and multiply, until every natural resource is consumed. The only way you can survive is to spread to another area. There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern. A virus. Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet..." Source)

A metaphor

Oct. 29th, 2005 10:46 am
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Humanity is crammed onto the Titanic, which is barrelling toward an iceberg. The iceberg is still far enough away that only a few sharp-eyed people can see it in the dark. Some of those people are banging on the control-room door, yelling at the captain to change course. So far, he's turned the wheel a few degrees to port, but we don't know if he did that because of the iceberg or because he was planning to anyway. It's not enough, of course, though he may not realize that. Maybe he thinks a glancing blow to the iceberg would be no problem, given all the engineering that went into making the ship "unsinkable."

Even if he does turn the wheel hard over, the massive inertia of the Titanic is such that it may not be able to change course fast enough. So some other sharp-eyed people are making the rounds of all the passengers and crew, trying to get them all to move to the port side of the ship and heel it over some to help it turn faster. Many of the people they talk to complain that this could capsize the ship and kill us all anyway. They may be right, but it's definitely the lesser of the two dangers--even though there aren't enough lifeboats, by a factor of millions.

What does the iceberg represent? Well, here's the list of possibilities I've come up with so far:
  1. Depletion of clean water supplies.


  2. Massive crop failures due to global warming, topsoil depletion, a defect in a genetically-engineered crop species, or an unexpected side effect of the extinction of a wild species.


  3. Deadly global pandemics resulting from global warming and populations displaced by rising sea levels.


  4. Collapse of electricity grids due to accelerating rises in oil prices. This would make it very difficult to produce fertilizer, or to provide fuel for most vehicles, including farm equipment.


  5. The catastrophic failure of a misguided attempt at solving global environmental problems using a quick, cheap technical fix, such as J. Craig Venter's plan to make genetically-engineered carbon-dioxide-eating microbes.


  6. Total economic collapse and/or global thermonuclear war resulting from any of the above.
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A completely ridiculous analysis of the environmental themes in the Decemberween issue of Teen Girl Squad on Homestarrunner.com

After her three friends have jumped into a lion's mouth to get their Decemberween presents, What's-Her-Face says "I'm vegan," which in this case clearly indicates not that she doesn't eat animals but rather that she doesn't want to be eaten by an animal. But the author of the comic doesn't let her escape death so easily, as she is immediately crushed under a "wave o' babies," which clearly represents the problem of overpopulation.

Thus What's-Her-Face, consistently the odd one out in this comic (see esp. issues #3 and #5), is clearly cast here as an environmentalist. Further evidence of this can be obtained by observing that What's-Her-Face, by refusing to take a risk for material gain, is rejecting basic capitalist values, another trait common to environmentalists. The other three teen girls are good capitalists, as we know from the trip to the mall in issue #3; in the Decemberween issue, after being swallowed whole, they appear to be happy with their place in the belly of the beast.

The message here is clearly that if we refuse to accept short-term dangers like the lion (or like converting our economy to use renewable energy sources), the long-term threats will get us. Thus, perversely enough, the other three girls turn out to have a better environmental plan than What's-Her-Face. And if you believe any of that, I've got a bridge in Strong Badia to sell you.
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On the one hand, there's the obvious argument that abortion is a form of family planning and will therefore help to control overpopulation.

On the other hand, there's the idea that a teenager who is forced to become a mother of one child will probably never have a larger family, so that legal abortion may result in more children in the world. And there's the much harsher argument that back-alley abortions are more efficient at reducing the population than legal ones, because back-alley abortions often kill the mother as well as the child.

In any case, the right to abortion moves reproduction closer to being a commons, a shared resource with no rules about how it is used. In his famous article, The Tragedy of the Commons, Garrett Hardin argues that reproduction should not be a commons because people can't be trusted to voluntarily act in a way that halts population growth.

Until recently in China, the pro-choice movement (such as it was) was a sort of bizarre middle ground between those who opposed abortion and the state, which used forced abortions as part of its program to control population growth. Whether this scenario will recur remains to be seen.
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If you've watched the movie Advertising and the End of the World and were confused by the graph showing the curves representing "natural resources" and "production" intersecting in about the year 2070, here's an explanation.

"Probably the best index of the scale of the human economy as a part of the biosphere is the percentage of human appropriation of the total world product of photosynthesis. Net primary production (NPP) is the amount of energy captured in photosynthesis by primary producers, less the energy used in their own growth and reproduction. NPP is thus the basic food resource for everything on earth not capable of photosynthesis. Vitousek et al. calculate that 25% of potential global (terrestrial and aquatic) NPP is now appropriated by human beings (BioScience 1986 vol. 34, no. 6, pp. 368-73). If only terrestrial NPP is considered, the amount rises to 40%. The definition of human appropriation underlying the figures quoted includes direct use by human beings (food, fuel, fiber, timber) plus the reduction from potential NPP due to alteration of ecosystems caused by humans. The latter reflects deforestation, desertification, paving over, and human conversion to less productive systems (such as agriculture). Taking the 25% figure for the entire world, it is apparent that two more doublings of the human scale will give 100%. Since this would mean zero energy left for all nonhuman and nondomesticated species, and since humans cannot survive without the services of ecosystems, it is clear that two more doublings of the human scale would be an ecological impossibility, even if it were arithmetically possible. Assuming a constant level of per capita resource consumption, the doubling time of the human scale would be equal to the doubling time of population, which is on the order of 40 years."

1986 + 40*2 = 2066, which is close to 2070. But wait, there's more.

"Of course economic development currently aims to increase the average per capita resource consumption and consequently to reduce the doubling time of the scale of the human presence below that implicit in the demographic rate of growth. Furthermore the terrestrial figure of 40% human appropriation is really the more relevant one since we are unlikely to increase our take from the oceans very much. Unless we awaken to the existence and nearness of scale limits, then the greenhouse effect, ozone layer depletion, and acid rain will be just a preview of disasters to come, not in the vague distant future but in the next generation."

-Herman E. Daly and John B. Cobb, Jr., For the Common Good.

For some idea of what such a future might be like, see the novel A Friend of the Earth by T. C. Boyle.

March 2015

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