Thursday, June 22, 2006


I've been reading Jared Diamond's Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. I'd read his earlier book, Guns, Germs and, and Steel. This one is even more powerful. It's not bedtime reading, though.

Diamond examines several small and large civilizations throughout history that have collapsed (e.g., Easter Islands, Mayans, Greenland, New Mexico) and discusses the five main scientifically-substantiated causes of the fall of civilizations:
  • overpopulation
  • degradation of the environment
  • loss of trade allies
  • conflict
  • leadership and cultural values that are out of sync with what's happening
He then examines some current situations (e.g., Montana, Australia, Rwanda, Haiti, and China) to explore to what extent some of our civilizations are following the same path toward collapse. The parallels he finds are striking.

Once the land has been cleared so long that the soil deteriorates, once the cities have spread to the point that they cover the arable soil, and once all the trees have been cut down, a civilization is in its terminal phase. The social factors follow: transportation and communication become impossible, trade and alliancing fade away, leadership becomes extreme or absurd, and factions start to fight over the few remaining resources. At this point, the people have choices to make: to keep their culture or change it.

Few people think about how precarious our civilization is. If oil were cut off tomorrow, we wouldn't be able to carry on. I don't want democracy to die, nor modern medicine and education. I don't want the planet to become more desertified. And I don't want the spiritual evolution of religion to stop dead as extremism takes over.

I was thinking last night of the choices we need to make:
  • developing a global, universal contraception program to bring populations down
  • creating awards for nations whose populations are falling to reinforce the idea that growth is not good
  • admiring people who choose not to have children
  • resisting and refusing changes (e.g., Seattle)
  • developing a long-term (a century or two) global reforestation and de-desertification program
  • revising corporate law to remove the need to provide returns on investment at all cost
  • creating "costs" for corporations, individuals, and businesses to ensure compliance with the people's will
  • replacing individual rights with group rights
  • preserving old means of survival, such as heritage seeds
  • replacing as much of the energy infrastructure as possible with non-fossil-fuel technology
  • promoting pacifism in all religions to help create alternatives to conflict as resources dwindle further
I don't know why this book has moved me so much. I have been a member of the Green Party and environmental groups for years. I think of environmentalism as a spiritual value, and I work to place group values above my individual rights. Maybe because this book goes beyond spiritual and scientific values and focuses on a cultural imperative: change or collapse.

It's that simple.


At 10:42 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

have you ever heard of the georgia guidestones? it is a very interesting topic related to what you're saying.

At 4:27 PM, Blogger earthfreak said...

What is with these anonymous posts??

This one at least isnt' hostile, but what are they talking about, how about a link? how about saying some of what they find interesting? is this just really cryptic spam? I'm so confused....

Onto the topic at hand, I read (most of "Collapse" a few months ago, just read "The Long Emergency" and am in the middle (beginning) of "Plan B 2.0" - and I recently also finished, "Hope, Human and Wild, which I wish I'd saved, because it's more "upbeat" :)

Anyway, I feel like I'm deep into this stuff, without much hope of vision or whatever would help me try to address this stuff.

One of my personal "big issues" is that, in addition to not doing enough about overpopulation in the "third world" we in the US have health care programs that will assist heterosexual married couples to go to extreme measures to get pregnant! (ok, ignoring the homophobia and sexism that leaves single women and lesbian couples to pay for this out of pocket, why does this medical service even EXIST??? - there are TOO MANY PEOPLE IN THE WORLD!)

Ok, breathe.......

Now, maybe that's more "symbolic" or something - I'm sure that a good birth control program worldwide would do more to keep the planet livable for human beings than cutting off artificial insemination and fertility treatments in the US, but STILL. Americans are so freakish about their "rights" to so many frivolous privileges, it pisses me off....

I find that the transition from "individual rights" to "group rights" is the most compelling, and the most challenging. We tend to think of democracy and fairness as tied up in "individual rights" - and certainly, they are important - but they have become the rights of people with money to ruin it for everyone else (in my opinion) - what if we valued other things, too? If we, as a world community, said NO, you can't drill in ANWAR, even though there's some oil there, you can't build suburban houses on our best farmland (there's still some left, some places!), You can't drive cars as huge and gas guzzling as they can possibly be manufactured. You can't take, or pollute, huge amounts of the water supply , it belongs to everyone.

I would love to see us as quakers really take this on, so that we will all survive this and in 100 years people can point to us as major movers, like we do now with slavery (I'm not so much into the "fame" aspect of it - it's just SOMEONE needs to do it, and I have even less influence in methodist and muslim circles :)


At 6:02 PM, Blogger Nancy A said...

Hello Pam

You're so right -- everything stems from the world's obscene overpopulation. I have tried in vain to find a Canadian charity to donate to that is focused on world population (I think maybe there is one, a new one, but I can't quite figure out its purpose yet). The US has one, but only one.

What's worse is that most people believe that overpopulation is a third world problem. But any child born here has a much worse impact on the survival of the planet than one born in a poor country. So we should be heavily promoting a one- or two-child mandate here. Like, big billboard ads and bus ads: "Two is enough." And we should not be encouraging immigration except for humanitarian purposes. If our population is falling, LET IT FALL. Falling population is good.

What's awful to me is the idea that even if a disease were to wipe out half the world's population over the next year, it would only take our species two decades to replace them. There would probably be a zero impact on the environment. To have any real impact, we'd have to reduce our numbers by about 3/4 and maintain birth control after that.

Grim. But as Diamond says, we have to make some choices.

As for the Georgia Guidestones, I found a website on it here:

At 1:50 AM, Blogger Richard said...

I disagree the world is overpopulated. It has been a common cry since the time of the ancient Greeks.

As an example (assuming a world population of 6.5 billion).

We if we squeezed every man, woman and child into the province of Ontario - they would get 154 sq m (1650 sq ft) of land. The rest of the world would be void of humans.

The population density would be a rather staggering 6500 per sq km. But, this would still be less than the population density of Manhattan (25,849 per sq km).

I don't think population is the problem. The most densely populated area is Europe, not Asia (despite China's large population - Great Britain has a higher population density on par with India), and certainly not Africa.

At 7:37 AM, Blogger Nancy A said...

Richard - that is an interesting perspective, one I've never heard or read before. I 't think you'll have a hard time finding many scientists to agree with it.

Our current population exists entirely because of the existence of artificial fertilizers. Without them, only 1/3 of the world's population would have any food at all right now. So the population we have is already on artificial support.

Space to live in is not the problem. Humans require a great deal of land to support themselves, either through fishing, hunting, or farming.

With the current population density, we need to cut down vast amounts of forest to fuel and feed everyone. This causes environmental degradation, which further erodes the planet and destroys the our ability to feed ourselves (while killing everything on the planet for a few thousand years).

Dr. David Suzuki uses this analogy. Imagine a test tube with one bacterium in it, a type of bacteria doubles its population every second. That is, at 2 seconds, the population is 2; at 3 seconds, the population is 4, etc. The test tube holds enough food for the growing bacteria colony to live for exactly 24 hours, right down to the second. Once the food runs out, the colony dies. If we start the colony at midnight and let it grow all day, at one time will the test tube be half-full?

Don't look -- don't look -- figure it out...

(Answer: 1 second to midnight)

That is the power of exponential growth.

Second question: If we were able to produce an entire second test tube at that time, how much extra time would we gain for the bacteria?

Don't look -- don't look -- calculate...

(Answer: 1 more second)

At 11:39 AM, Blogger earthfreak said...

Richard -

I have to heartily disagree as well, though I think that the position that you presented is pretty representative of how an intelligent person might view the situation if they haven't studied it much. I think that's one of the biggest challenges that we face.

I do also have to point out that my house probably covers about 1600sf, and it's a pretty small house by US standards. If that was all the space I had I would have NOWHERE to grow food - and from what I hear it takes about 1/2 an acre to grow food for one person (though I think in places like China there are lots of people who survive on 1/4-1/3 acre) -

but then that's of decent farmland, in much of Ontario (I think) you can't grow a dang thing. I don't know, but I wouldnt' be surprised if part of it is frozen all year.

Ok, I know that you're not proposing that we actually turn Ontario into a MASSIVE replica of Manhattan and try to have everyone in the world live there. :)

The first question that comes to mind is, does the mindset that RIchard presents allow that there is conceivably a number at which we would reach "overpopulation"??? - Ok, so it's been a "common cry" since the greeks (I'd be curious to hear more about that, btw) - but we also have a significantly higher population than we had then.
It is possible that there is SUCH A THING as overpopultion (can we all agree that, say, 50 trillion human beings would be over capacity?) and that the ancient greeks (or some of them) thought we were approaching it and were wrong, and yet there is still such a thing???? We may well be wrong, too, and I guess it depends on what you mean. The world seems overpopulated today - lots of people are hungry, and we have displaced a lot of other animals and plants (we have killed off a huge percentage, compared to natural die off) - but if you don't care, maybe it's not. But then, what about when we run out of oil and can't ship food into NYC? what if we have a famine there, or all of a sudden are trying to fit all those refugees onto farms, where people aren't stacked on top of each other 20 stories high?? would we be overpopulated then? what if our population doubles again? (which won't take very long at all? what if it does again after that?

In fact, The Long Emergency points out that the pre-industrialized world had a population of about 1 billion, and it probably had for a while. That is pretty much the "carrying capacity" of the planet without oil and advanced technology. And we are looking at a world without oil (or without it in the abundance we're used to, which in effect might be much the same thing) - We currently have six times that many people, maybe closer to 7 (?)

It's fine to imagine how many people we could fit on the planet if everywhere was build up like manhattan, but do you know what the "ecological footprint" of Manhattan is???? (I don't, but it's a lot bigger than the rock it stands on!!) - How many acres of land grow the food they eat there? How much land is in oil wells to find the fuel to truck the food there, and the waste out, how many acres of landfills? of electricity stations?

Britain isnt' "nicer" than India, with it's similar density because they're smarter!!! they have had access to cheap labor and land through colonization for YEARS, and they're still a relatively wealthy country (now thanks to north sea oil, I think, mostly) - they live in relatively high population density, and "farm out" the land-use needs that they have to poorer countries, much like we do in the US (though we have lower population densities in most places!

Nancy - I wouldn't even focus on the "only 2" thing anymore. It's useful, but a lot of people are already there. What about adoption? What about having no kids??

We are looking a DRASTIC situation, it will call for more and more drastic measures the longer we let it go on. Eventually, it will inflict the drastic measures on us (like the test tube full of bacteria!)

I'm not all that worried about immigration, actually. I think it's fine for people to come here to try for a better life. And I'd like to support it. If I thought that the big problem was that US citizens cause so much more problems than Mexican citizens, maybe I'd move to Mexico. It's an issue, but I think culture is "global" enough now that it really doesnt' matter where that human being lives, just that they are one of 6 billion on a planet that can support 1 billion.

So, what do we do? What if quakers seriously supported population control?? support family planning eveywhere, education for women, adoption, the abolition of "fertility treatments" (nature is trying desperately to step in here, if infertility doens't work, we'll be on to plagues and famine. - oops, we already are, but it will get a lot worse!)



At 12:27 AM, Blogger Richard said...

I don't deny that the earth is a finite resource and that it can support an indefinite number of people. However, I think we are nowhere near the limit the earth is capable of sustaining.

My comment was to try and put things into an imaginable perspective. I think we can all agree that when we talk about 6.5 billion people it is a large number to conceptualize. I simply wanted to illustrate how you could put all the earth's people into a known and experienced population density, (if we went to a population density approaching Manhattan, then we could squeeze all the current people into the state of Florida), while leaving the rest of the world empty of humans. I did not intend to imply that we could simultaneously house and produce for people in that area. Production would necessarily be outside that land.

Current production levels are not solely the result of artificial fertilizers (in fact, organic growers would argue that equivalent yields are possible using "natural" methods of agriculture).

We are very wasteful in terms of our resources. The ecological footprint of Manhattan is much smaller than the ecological footprint of all those people living in single detached homes. It is cheaper to heat a 20 story apartment building than it is to heat 500 homes. Transportation to work and recreation is also more environmentally friendly, since the distances are correspondingly smaller.

We are lousy stewards of planetary resources. I remember hearing that fishing vessels discard unwanted catch that is equal to or greater than the catch they are going for (if they are catching herring, they discard all non-herring fish - mostly dead at the time). We pay farmers not to produce or penalize them if they do produce. Dairy farmers in Ontario are allotted a certain amount of milk they may produce. If they produce more, then it is simply discarded since the milk board will charge them to take it away.

Western governments subsidize farming, forcing the prices artificially low and making it impossible for third world nations to compete - since they can't, they don't and they starve.

Ethiopia used to be called the bread basket of Africa. African agriculture was destroyed by Europeans who brought in crops like wheat and corn, displacing traditional crops such as Amaranth and Yeheb, which are better suited for the African continent. We destroy the environment by putting in place crops that do not retain the natural ecology, causing land to dry and wither.

I have been interested in the preservation of this planet since I was at least 6 years old. I am a fairly low waste producer (outside of the car). Our household (2 adults and 2 children aged 4 and 7) produce no more than 1 black garbage bag a week of waste - usually only 1/2 a bag. I look at my neighbours and wonder what they are putting in their 2, 3, 4 or more bags every week.

The problem is not overpopulation; the problem is injustice, inequitable distribution and use of resources, and profligate waste.

(Incidentally, I am not trolling, nor am I trying to be argumentative, I simply wish to express how I see things. I trust scientists no more than I trust anyone else. They are as much slaves to the preservation and promotion of their orthodoxies and ideologies as anyone else. Good book to read is Biology As Ideology by Richard C Lewotin. You can listen to a short 15 minute clip his CBC Massey Lecture here.

I am happy, Nancy and Pam, that your responses were thoughtful and dialogue engaging.

Out of curiosity Nancy, you are about the same age as me and I presume we both schooled in Canada - though I schooled in Quebec – do you remember a environmental comic book, published by the government of Canada, in the mid 70s that was handed out to school children? I remember receiving it when I was in elementary school. I keep looking for it, but I can't find it. Its main characters are a boy and girl who discover this strange stone (meteorite?) that is warm to the touch and gives them super powers. At the end of the comic, they travel to the year 2000 to see a burnt and spent out planet and return to their own time to help spread the message.)

Now, on another note, what is going to happen with China? It has severely curtailed its population growth. It population is growing older. How ill they deal with and support the older people? Will the simply ignore them? Will they declare, "Comrade, you have served your country well and now one last duty awaits you" (mandatory euthanasia)? Will the militaristically expand to grab resources (people) to support their infrastructure? Or will they support their people through friendly trade and economic practices?

At 11:56 PM, Anonymous zach said...

Nancy, I'm glad to read your thoughts -- this sounds similar to the very disconcerting shift I went through around April, which gave me a very real concern for the earth for the first time.

Richard, I'm glad that you responded to Nancy and Pam's responses gracefully. I think I take more their side, but I hope you are right. Well, I know you're right as far as their being massive inefficiencies in the way the world works right now, but I mean I hope you're right that changing that might be enough.

Pam, I'm about to respond to your comment on my blog re setting something (not sure what) up so we can talk more about these things...


At 10:59 AM, Blogger earthfreak said...

Richard -

I do agree with all of your points (I think) about how wasteful we currently are with resources.

In fact, it's possible that, as you say, we have no "overpopulation" problem whatsoever, and if we just were a lot more organized and ethical everything would be fine.

I still think that that's an issue, though, what does "fine" mean? I just read, in one of these many books I'm reading, that humans and their livestock (and pets) comprised some tiny percentage of the mass of living beings on the planet for a long time (like 1 or 2 percent) and now comprise some relatively huge number (like half? I think much more than half, actually) (I would be so much more effective if I could remember numbers!) Now, for me, even if we can feed all those people and whatnot, that seems, well, out of balance, and I'll go so far as to say wrong!

I don't have much hope that we can show evidence of being much smarter than bacteria and forsee the coming crises and act. It seems that there's always someone who will take advantage of a situation, even if most people want to be responsible

(The example in my head lately is ANWAR - we will drill there, eventually, even though there's less than 6 months worth of oil there - if we manage to stave it off until we're in crisis, that will be impressive, but human beings don't seem to be wired to ever think (as a group) "well, we're going to have to deal with this anyway a few months down the road, so let's just deal with it now and leave the caribou in peace")

"Collapse" is great because it does seem to offer a few examples of societies making the RIGHT choices (I think it's that book, if not "Hope Human and Wild" is highly reccomended!) but I despair somewhat of the US getting there.

I think that really it's a huge series of choices that we need to make - to curtail population, to eat lower on the food chain, to eat locally (even when it's boring!!!) to live closer together, to stop driving, and on and on. How about to tax gas at a high rate, to zone against big-box stores like walmart (or create a law that businesses in a community must be owned by folks in that community)


At 6:13 PM, Blogger Richard said...

zach: I have my point of view and my way of understanding things. I wish everyone saw the world teh way I do, but they don't. It doesn't do any of us any good to be petty about it.

pam: the UN is predicting teh population will peak at a little over 10 billion before starting to decline.

We have to remember that the growth rate is slowing - it was over 2% per annum in the late 50s early 60s and has dropped to about 1.4% now.

This means a doubling of population roughly every 50 years. However, we can also play the game backwards and halve the population every 50 years.

So that means that the population must have sprunbg magically into existance about 1500 years ago. If we assume a few natural disasters that wipe out 50% of humans at a time - then we push back the date of origin 50 years for each such catastrophe.

The surge in population growth over the past 100 - 150 years is not because exponential growth is catching up with up, it is because people are living longer (along with lower infant mortality - but this is a lesser effect).

Imagine what happens: humans live about 35-40 years and then die. Then you bring in better nutrition, sanitation, healthcare, immunize people. Suddenly these people are living to 60-70. What happens? In a very short space of time - 1-2 generations, you have effectively doubled the population. This freaks people out because the growth has been explosive. However, the real growth rate is what comes after the population stabilizes - and from what I can see - it it fairly small: look at Europe, North America, Australia.

As populations mature and absorb this initial growth spurt, their rate will slow down.

At 1:13 PM, Blogger earthfreak said...

Richard -

I'm sorry, but I think I'm missing most of your point.

-Population obviously didn't just spring into existence 1500 years ago. If you're talking about assuming the same rate of doubling ad infinitum, that's obviously silly and I don't see your point. I had quoted something I read that said that the world human population was about 1 billion for ages, and that that seems to be some sort of "natural" carrying capacity.

We are growing exponentially right now, and it's OBVIOUS that eventually that will stop - I think the question for us is whether there is any way to stop it relatively painlessly - through family planning, etc, or will it be stopped by massive famines and epidemics???

I would also be interested to know what you think about how much space we as humans take up - the part I noted (badly) about how humans and our domesticated animals are now MOST of the mass of living things on the planet, whereas "naturally" (or at least historically we would comprise 2% or so. If we can still feed ourselves, is that "okay"?



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