If I ever preached to the choir, this luncheon was it. The sixty people in the room were professed environmentalists, all of them on the advisory council of an earth center at a college that advertises itself, rightfully, as strongly committed to environmental responsibility. Seated to my right was a friendly but road-weary woman who had arrived minutes before from Chicago. She had rented a car at the airport and driven straight here.
“When will you return home?” I asked.
“I’ll go back this afternoon,” she said.
My white cloth napkin lay folded in my lap. Two silver forks waited to the left of my plate. In minutes I would rise to speak at a meal for which and only for which one woman had flown from Illinois to North Carolina. In fact, I was speaking about the climate crisis. Could anything I said be worth those 750 pounds of carbon dioxide blasted into the atmosphere? Fifty-nine other people had journeyed here by various conveyances. Surely I was in part responsible.
That afternoon, on a panel at the same college, I was asked to discuss “walking the talk.” As invariably happens in the company in which I often find myself, someone referred to the audience as “the choir” and to us panelists as “ministers” — “What can we do to quit just preaching to the choir?”
By “choir” I assume the person meant the already converted, the dedicated, the environmentalists, which implies that somewhere out in the big world there are people who have not yet seen the light, or have seen the light but have not accepted it as their savior, and that our job might more necessarily be to bring those people into the fold. Another person raised her hand and talked about how the uneducated firefighters at the station where she volunteers drive F-150s and employ chemicals to green their lawns. “Where are those people today?” she asked.
As missionaries, the choir member implied, we are failing.
I looked around the room, trying to find the so-called choir. I have been trying to find the choir for a long time, and even more importantly, have been trying to join the choir. From where I stand, even the choir seems to be failing. Or as my friend Dave Brown put it, the choir may be much smaller than we thought.
MANY YEARS AGO A MAN I REVERE, a forest ecologist who has done more than anybody I know to promote his home ecosystem, revealed to me that he shoots hawks. He and his wife love the birds that flock to their butterfly gardens; they love to watch them through a floor-to-ceiling bird window. Yet my mentor loves the colorful songbirds more than he loves the raptors they attract, and in this conflict of interest the ecologist kills hawks.
This private confession of a forest ecologist caused a great turmoil in me. Whitman, of course, said, “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself.” But I’m a purist. I like black and white. I like hawks.
I fear what this choir — the one I attempt to sing in and occasionally preach to — actually looks like.
At risk of appearing a fraud, I want to admit my own culpability right up front. I live in a comfortable house in the small city of Brattleboro, Vermont. My husband and I cut trees to heat our home, and some of them are alive when we fell them. On the coldest days we turn to fossil fuels to keep the house above sixty degrees. We drive vehicles that consume fossil fuels, and we have raised a son who also now drives a gasoline-powered vehicle. We even own a motorboat. Our home uses electricity that, in part, is produced by the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant. I fly regularly. Never having been to Europe, I’d like to take my family there someday, and chances are we’ll fly.
A portion of the food we buy is trucked or flown to us from a shocking distance. We have three dogs, demanding their own portions of the Earth’s resources. Somehow my desk holder is always filled with disposable pens. I shave my legs, and I don’t do it with a straight edge. I’ve purchased clothing at times that was surely made in sweatshops. So, perfect I am not. In fact, my part in the destruction of nature is both serious and shameful.
Yet many times a day, I move ever toward a more sustainable life, learning to weigh the implications of my actions. To measure sustainability, I often refer to Jim Merkel’s definition, which is human consumption based on biospheric production or, using the Earth’s resources at a rate slower than they regenerate. Step by step I creep toward a life that is easier on the planet, eating locally as much as possible, buying secondhand goods, using manual technology instead of electric. For over a year my husband and I saved to buy a hybrid car before purchasing a used one at list price from a friend. A state grant allowed us to exchange every incandescent bulb in our home for a compact florescent. Each spring our vegetable garden expands.
These conversions toward sustainability may be easier for me than for some. I was raised very poor — on a junkyard, in fact. I learned almost from infancy to recycle, to make do or do without, to keep needs separate from desires, to waste not. Living within our means taught me to live within the Earth’s means. Growing up in a fanatically religious family, too, I learned early that “putting your money where your mouth is” was more than an adage. My family practiced what my father preached.
Still, I am far from saved. My footprint is surely too large for me to enter the kingdom of sustainability heaven. If sustainable living is a continuum, from excessive waste to zero waste, then I too am not where I want to be on it.
However, I gaze out across the continuum and see people — environmentalists! — much farther behind than I expect.
A few people I know who consider themselves environmentalists have purchased new cars recently, ones that run on internal-combustion engines and get less than thirty miles to the gallon. One friend, a global-warming scientist, told me he decided not to buy a hybrid “until the kinks get worked out.”
Three other environmentalist friends have built new homes. Full of love and admiration for my friends, I have enjoyed these beautiful homes, all artfully designed, comfortable, well-heated, well-lit, and more than 2,500 square feet in size. All of the houses are connected to the power grid, although one also has solar panels. Another was described to me by my friend, the owner, as “sustainable,” by which she meant that some passive solar techniques were employed in its construction and that natural stone was used for the mammoth fireplace. That particular home has a pool and a hot tub.
I watched another friend buy a pint of blueberries from a farmstand and accept a plastic bag offered by the cashier. The minute we got to the car, he removed the blueberries from the bag and we started to eat them. I was brought face to face with a plastic bag whose lifespan was less than five minutes (but whose slow death in a landfill may take more than a thousand years).
Every day, in thousands of actions large and small, we who profess to love the Earth are making decisions that destroy it. Some of these choices are unavoidable, to be sure. But in many cases we could easily choose less harmful options and not suffer measurably, if at all.
PERHAPS THE HARDEST THING FOR ME IN LIFE is contradiction. There is an ancient enmity between deed and creed, it seems. Knowing the complexity of the human psyche, my own included, I never expect the two to align perfectly. Nor are contradictions easy to recognize in ourselves. However, when words and actions are obviously incongruous, I start to feel crazy, and in the face of new and startling evidence of environmental catastrophe, the contradictions are almost too much to bear.
A global-warming speaker is invited to a village ten miles from Brattleboro to speak. She accepts. There is no effort made to organize a carpool or a bus, and as might be expected, most of the people in the audience, including myself, have motored from town. Or, eighteen hundred land-trust advocates gather in Nashville. I am among them, grimly imagining the jet fuel, gasoline, and oil burned to get eighteen hundred people to a single location.
Some of the contradictions are less dramatic. Last Thanksgiving we ordered a locally grown, organic turkey. When I called, the farmer said that I would need to pick up the turkey on the Sunday prior to Thanksgiving at her farm, located thirty miles away.
“Is there no other way to get it?” I asked. “Do you not deliver to town?”
“The only way we distribute is at the farm.”
“I’m very worried about climate change,” I said. “Could I have someone else from town pick up my turkey? I’ll send a check.”
“Listen,” she said. “I have ninety turkeys to distribute. I don’t have time to find someone who will bring your turkey to you.”
“Not necessarily to my door,” I said. “I could meet the person in town. If you give me a few numbers, I’ll call around and find someone.”
“Sorry,” she said, annoyed. “I can’t give out the names of my customers.”
There I was, caught between eating locally and driving sixty miles to pick up a turkey.
And that’s the conundrum we all should be facing. Every day we should be weighing even the minutest decision and asking ourselves, Which action causes the least harm? Should I travel these miles? Will my gains in knowledge and inspiration offset my damage to the planet?
In the case of the turkey, I found two other families who’d ordered birds and we rode together to the farm. In the end, the benefits of that particular Thanksgiving fowl still outweighed the costs associated with the mass-produced, store-bought option, but even my share of the miles traveled to fetch it left a bitter taste in my mouth.
WE CHOIR MEMBERS ARE WELL-EDUCATED. We’ve read Field Notes from a Catastrophe and The Long Emergency and The Omnivore’s Dilemma. But are we committed enough to really make change? Are we part of being change, or are we just talking about change? Do we consider every decision we make? Do we analyze our own impact and work to decrease it, day by day? Do we continually strive to get by with less?
Or are we, too, alongside the unenlightened multitudes, living in denial, turning our heads from the true consequences of our actions? Are we still living safely, properly? Are we unwilling to give up our memberships? Are we unwilling to look different, to act different, to stand behind our beliefs even if we might be considered eccentric or even losers by the dominant culture? Are we granting ourselves exemptions? Do we justify harmful actions because they’re done on behalf of the Earth? Or worse, do we justify them because we think we’re already doing enough?
And, having been taught so well to act — to be activists — are we able to see that the best decisions may not look like action? That the right action (as with the Chicagoan) may be staying closer to home?
Many times I have attended some gathering or other to speak about environmental issues, and when the final word has been delivered, the final question debated, refreshments are served on plastic plates and in plastic cups. I prepare my remarks. I take a deep breath, step in front of the crowd. I rant, I rave, I weep and open my heart. I preach fire and brimstone, and the punch is served in plastic cups. I cannot tell you the horrible feeling that envelops me.
Now, when invited somewhere to speak, I send a sheet ahead of time asking organizers for an environment-friendly event: paper instead of plastics; no Styrofoam; if possible, real flatware and dinnerware; at least biodegradable flatware; recycled paper in fliers and press releases; services provided by local businesses; locally grown and organic food preferred for meals or receptions; receptacles for recycling; carpooling encouraged. These guidelines, with many more that you or I have yet to imagine, are ones that we need to employ every hour of every day. We have to believe with our bodies what we know in our minds to be true. We have to accept the solutions to our environmental problems as personal and start applying them personally, and then all around us.
Given that our government won’t ratify the Kyoto Protocol or take steps to limit production of carbon and other greenhouse gases, we choir members have to sign the Kyoto treaty individually, or take a pledge to reduce our personal emissions 30 percent in the next two years and 80 percent by 2050. We also have to keep applying pressure to government, and holding our elected officials accountable. If we’re not doing it, who is?
Living a lie destroys the spirit. It is a kind of mental illness, a schizophrenia. It also undermines our credibility. That’s why An Inconvenient Truth disappointed me. The night the film premiered in Brattleboro, my husband and I bicycled to the theater and waited in line for tickets. Afterward, we were uplifted: we knew millions of people would watch the movie and would change. I remain grateful for the film and the effect it’s having, but what I remember most now are its contradictions. In scene after scene, Al Gore gobbles up fossil fuels: he’s behind the wheel of an SUV, he’s going through customs, he’s on a plane, he’s being driven through a city. Even when demonstrating a graph about rising temperatures, Mr. Gore doesn’t climb a ladder affixed to the wall. No, he mounts a hydraulic lift.
I HAVE BEEN ACCUSED OF BEING JUDGMENTAL. Lean in instead of leaning out, I’ve been told. Judge not that ye be not judged. But I wonder if judgment is really a bad habit — or if the social taboo against passing judgment simply allows us to feel safer in our own hypocrisy.
Whether we be heads of state or directors of organizations or worker bees or armchair cheerleaders, we in the choir are leaders and role models. We, of all people, have to show that life can be lived differently, and that the reimagined life can be beautiful, functional, and overflowing with rewards none of us expected.
So the question becomes: what should the choir look like? And: what do I have to do to belong?
We can look to Susana Lein for part of the answer. Lein runs Salamander Springs Farm near Berea, Kentucky. She spent the better part of the 1980s as a landscape architect in the Boston area, then seven years living in her husband’s native Guatemala, learning to live simply, making do. When her marriage ended, she returned to the United States, bought ninety-eight acres with friends, and began to live on the land in a tent. She farms six acres without tillage or chemicals of any kind. A designer and alternative builder, she is also a person determined to live within her means and the means of the Earth. She built a rough house by raiding dumpsters for building supplies and trading labor with friends. She uses a composting toilet, a spring for water, solar energy.
I heard Lein speak at a Northeast Organic Farming Association conference. What attracted me to her talk was its title: “Creating a Farm and Homestead on Marginal Land (While Penniless).” Humble and unassuming, private and down-to-earth, Susana Lein was the most inspiring person I’d seen in a long time. Without a doubt she walks the talk.
We also need to recognize that others in the choir may not look the way we expect them to. My father the junkman belongs in the choir, although he would never call himself an environmentalist. He’s never flown in a passenger jet and rarely travels by car beyond his home county. He lives simply, makes do. That he never went to college, never read Aldo Leopold, and may not have heard of carrying capacity matters not. Now is as good a time as any to shed our preconceptions about what an environmentalist looks like, and to recognize that the most unlikely people are going to be allies in the quest for sustainability.
The good news is that I’m starting to see more determination and more personal accountability. Recently I spoke to environmental educators in North Carolina during an eco-picnic in a longleaf pine grove on Fort Bragg. The day was sunny and gorgeous. Lois Nixon, who organized the event, made sure that picnic lunches were served in reusable cooler bags, that napkins were cotton washcloths, and that most of the lunch was local and organic. She distributed compact fluorescent bulbs (donated
to the group) to offset some of the carbon generated by travel.
A Covington, Georgia Montessori school sponsored a reception after a reading I gave at the local public library. The hors d’oeuvres were bowls of cherry tomatoes and carrot sticks, grown by local gardeners — no brownies from a box, no cheese sticks. By using porcelain plates and cloth napkins, the group met its goal of zero waste.
At the Farmers Diner in Vermont, where we ate on my birthday, there was not a paper towel to be found in the restroom. On the sink sat a basket of white hand-towels and underneath, a basket for used ones.
Of course, no matter how many paper cups or napkins I decline, the fact remains that I fly around the country in a direct negation of my mission. To scale back this personal gluttony of fossil fuels, I have been accepting fewer invitations, scheduling multiple events in one area, and combining business with social visits and research. At home, I bike and walk a lot. A lot is not enough, I know. I am working toward leaving home on my bike more often than in my car, until maybe there’s no longer any use for the car.
And when my son goes off to college next fall and I can be away from home for longer periods of time, I intend to put a moratorium on air travel. I’ll be taking the train and the bus, which means that I’ll think long and hard about going to Arizona for a two-day conference when the journey itself is two days each way. I’ll miss some of the travel, but I look forward to the unsurpassable joys of staying close to home — and that joy is the key here, because I’m not preaching a life of deprivation. I’m talking about bringing our actions into better alignment with our aspirations for the Earth.
I want to see our communities get more and more localized, with more local food produced and consumed, more local goods bought and sold. I want to see local entrepreneurship and craftsmanship encouraged. I want a renaissance of the hands, so that we use fewer electrical gadgets and motorized tools.
I want to hear of an organization that decides, because of the climate crisis, to cancel its annual conference. I want to see us relying on the mail and conference calls and e-mail for corresponding with distant colleagues, and engaging more deliberately with our neighbors. I want to see us using petroleum as if it were precious, which is to say sparingly and wisely, driving shorter distances and less often; in fact, I want getting in a single-occupancy vehicle to be a last resort.
I want us to get radical. I want us choir members to make even the hardest decisions while holding the Earth in mind.
I want us to raise the bar for ourselves.
This article, along with other landmark Orion essays about transformative action, are collected in a new anthology, Change Everything Now. Order your copy here.
I enjoyed Janisse Ray’s thoughtful “Alter Call for True Believers” in the September / October 2007 issue. She lays out her frustrations about the impossibility of ever doing enough. I would share her anxiety except for some recent discussions with my son, a Vermont schoolteacher who rides his bike 28 miles round trip to work and back home two days a week, and really works at cutting down consumption and keeping things balanced and within his local economy.
After reading Bill McKibben’s “Deep Economy” and Paul Hawken’s “Blessed Unrest” he had concluded that we can’t just stop living but need to decide how we want to live our lives . . . and then do as much as we can to be the part of the solution instead of the problem. I read both books and was moved by the thinking and the report of positive activity going on around the country and the world.
It is impossible to just stop living but we can live more thoughtfully . . . buying things we need but buying less, buying our food from local supply sources, keeping our homes tuned and using less energy, keeping our cars and yard tools tuned and using them more thoughtfully, walking or riding our bikes instead of driving, dining out at local restaurants and supporting local merchants, buying products with less packaging, cutting down on plastics, using fewer paper paper products, using paint and cleaning supplies that don’t do harm, recycling, working with our phones and computers more rather than traveling to more meetings, and encouraging family, friends, neighbors, companies and political leaders to do the same.
My son and I were having this discussion at our family cottage in northern Michigan. We noted that this was the third summer that we had been using a 20′ pontoon boat with an efficient, cleaner burning 50 hp 4 stroke gas outboard vs a 16′ ski boat with a 90 hp 2 stroke gas / oil mix outboard. The pontoon boat carries up to 10 people and two dogs just sipping gas while the ski boat carried 5 people and two dogs really sucking gas. (The pontoon boat uses the same amount of fuel in 5 months that the ski boat did in 2 – 3 days pulling skiers.) We have not ended our boat use, our carbon fuel use is not perfect, but a lot better.
I been part of a “Taking Grace Green” stewardship effort at our local Episcopal church to begin working more thoughtfully with the environment. There is a lot of enthusiasm and energy among people wanting to change and be doing things better. It isn’t going to be perfect . . . but is a start to making things better. And, if we get up to speed like some of Paul Hawken’s examples of new grassroots action in “Blessed Unrest”, we will help to widen the movement and be a part of the change that needs to happen. And we will start living better, more responsible lives on a healthier planet.
I begin with a salute to Janisse Ray. And a deep, deep sigh….
How ironic that the FIRST step to ‘walking’ must be to move to a city. Yup. Too bad, but of the many folk I know who have realized the American ideal of the remote-small-town-rural life, all are inevitably stuck in a lifestyle that of necessity will continue to be wasteful.
Unless one does sell the car and tear up the speaking-tour invites.
The village is fine. It developed around the nexus of resources, security, and focus of human activity. When one’s activity requires extended travel, the being in other places, then it can only be concluded that the right ‘village’ is one that concentrates, and makes less impactful, the resource requirements one’s work invoke.
A VERY nice city for its culture, its people, and for the bicycle. I ‘measure’ my success by how infrequently I buy a packet of bus tickets. I’m presently working on one I’d picked up in May….and by looking down into the courtyard to admire the space reserved for my car. Empty.
I think it’s important to distinguish between what we as a society must to do to avert the worst possibilities of carbon dioxide pollution, and the personal steps we take to demonstrate our concern about the problem, and to point towards a sustainable future. As individuals, we only need to solve part of the problem- to make our best effort, and show that the changes we’ll all need to make in the future, are, in part, manageable today. As a society, we have a few decades to stop emitting CO2. This is a manageable technological challenge, provided we committ ourselve to doing it. The political task of getting our society to make this committment it will be much easier if we keep our language and focus positive. We need to emphasize that the changes we need to make to stop emitting CO2 are compatible with a life style that has advantages compared with our present way of life.
The kind of struggles Ms. Ray had with her turkey farmer are just the kind of thing that can help along the changes we need if they are carried out in a positive spirit: by taking steps to change her own life, she’s realized that there are aspects of her economy that are incompatible with a less energy-intensive life style. When she communicates this to her turkey farmer, she may not solve the problem immediately, but she creates an awareness in him that may blossom into action when a few more people make similar requests. The key is to see these frustrating exchanges as one of the main goals of our personal choices: to educate others about how society needs to change in a carbon-constrained world. For this to work well, though, I think an optimisitic and confident attitude is crucial.
Instead of travel, what about videoconferencing? It’s not that great yet, but it may be less energy intensive than flying.
And yes, take the train. I was waiting for the train to be mentioned. The Vermonter just resumed service after stopping for tunnel revamping (a tunnel the train goes through had its lower surface dropped 3 feet so that more freight CAN TRAVEL BY TRAIN, i.e., ie, double decker cars). The Downeaster (goes through ME) just added a 5th trip and ridership has increased. Something people can do is push for more passenger rail (Bush has tried to kill Amtrak every year of his Administration), push for more efficient rail & high speed rail and push for accessible stations that also have plenty of space for bicycles as well as space for bicycles on the train. The Talgo trains that travel the OR/WA route do so (although currently the Talgo cars are being fixed and the temporary substitutes cannot handle bicycles).
And as the other poster said, keep asking for a less energy consumptive way of doing things. Push for rail, push for more bikepaths, safe/dry places to lock bikes at shops/malls, etc. Push for “edible schoolyards” and local buying of food by residential colleges in your area (if Yale did it, so can other schools). It’s worth noting that there have been a number of essays/opinion articles attacking the validity of “eating locally”–it proves that the MSM, industrial ag is concerned enough to be paying pundits to attack the idea, even though the % of people eating “locally” is so small.
I would just like to thank Janisse Ray for her excellent piece. It touched me and I know and have felt that great discomfort and have been tagged with the “judgement” label.
I especially appreciate ending the article with talking about being radical, a word I use more and more often. I am proud to be a radical, though I still have contradictions that I ferret out day by day.
Many thanks to Janisse Ray for a wonderful meditation on the question which engages many of us every day – “What must we do to ‘walk the talk’ in our own lives?”
It seems to me that there are a few implicit assumptions in Ms. Ray’s essay and I thought it might be useful (or at least interesting to me) to tease them out.
First, there is an assumption that true believers should behave in a way that actually restores ecological and community damage instead of simply reducing the level of new damage done. Under such an assumption, it wouldn’t be enough to demonstrate that one’s actions were less destructive than the most egregious excesses of others. One’s behavior must produce an active good, not just avoid adding to the burden of bad.
Yes from me.
Second, there is an assumption that personal resource use and pollution/waste generation, and contribution of greenhouse gasses to the atmosphere are acceptable ways to assess how well we are “walking the talk”.
Third, I gather an assumption that true believers can reasonably come to agreement on “how much is enough” and “how much is too much”. That is, even true believers don’t simply say that the answer is always to just use less – or reduce one’s footprint more – regardless of how well one is already doing. To use a religious analogy, one might have serious admiration for those who have chosen the monk’s life of radical simplicity, but one doesn’t require that level of drastic action from everyone in the community of faith. At the same time, one doesn’t let people off the hook just because they have good intentions and feel guilty when they fall short. Actions count. Results count.
Yes a third time.
Fourth, there is an assumption that an acceptable level of resource use can actually be measured, such that individuals can make choices and tradeoffs with some sense of how their own behavior evens out in the end against the acceptable standard.
You bet. I agree.
Fifth, I sense an assumption that certain kinds of behavior are recognized by the community at large as being generally “good” or “bad” if one is seeking to achieve the agreed upon standard. So, even though we can’t always be sure what trade-offs individuals are making, we all know it will be harder to achieve the standard over time if we engage in certain behaviors at all. We come to agree that some specific behaviors are generally to be avoided by the community of faith, including airplane trips, homes over a certain size, power boats, using nondisposables, cars with poor gas mileage, excessive car travel in general, diets full of nonlocal, traditionally grown foods, and so forth.
By extension, certain other behaviors are generally looked on as good, with an agreed upon understanding that they reliably lead to achieving the standards we implicitly all want to reach. So, we applaud those who walk or bike, those who live in smaller quarters, those who eschew air travel, use the canvas bag at the store, eat local, organic food, install energy and water efficient appliances, etc.
Finally – in my world at least – there is also the assumption that active participation in the social and political life of the community is one of the standards that we aim for, and that there is (as with resource consumption and pollution generation) an acceptable standard of participation below which true believers cannot fall if they claim to be serious. The community of faith is a *community* and not just a group of people striving for personal achievement against a personal standard. The community also understands that there are many actions which can only be taken successfully from larger groups of people collectively. Walking the talk requires you to show up and pitch a certain amount of time or be judged accordingly.
I’m on board with that one.
So – other than providing me with lots to think about on an morning off from work – where does this leave us?
It seem to me that our current moment requires us to get serious *with* each other about our community standards *for* each other. It may have once been good enough for all of us to simply ask each other to “do better”, or to routinely show the flag through symbolic actions that demonstrated our place in the community of believers. We could let each other off the hook under the assumption that we are “trying*, or we are “doing the best we can”.
What is interesting about environmentally sound living, however, is just how amenable it is to actual measurement, with appropriate adjustments to different places. (For example, decreasing water use by certain amounts would be a critical measure in some places, and not in others).
If we could come to agreement on a reasonable standard of personal contribution to greenhouse gasses, for example, would we really care which combination of actions our friends and neighbors take to stay below the standard? Conversely, if there was such an agreement, would we congratulate ourselves for the occasional visible symbolic action (driving a Prius) if we knew that our cumulative score was over the limit?
The idea here is to focus less on daily behaviors, taken daily, and more on achieving final results against agreed upon standards over time – including those standards which require our participation in collective action.
In this kind of community, we could regularly check in with our fellows with questions about how well they are doing against an agreed upon standard of results. Precisely because it was agreed upon, we would feel more comfortable calling each other to account when they (or we) don’t measure up.
For myself, I’m on the lookout for people and organizations who are proposing measurable standards that I can use to measure my own level of ecological and community restoration, even if I fly on a few jet planes every year as part of my work.
The underlying issue here is that the structure of our society is founded on methods of exchange “business” which fragment our relationship to ecology and community. Most businesses are structured like pyramids. People and resources are used to benefit those at the top who set policy to achieve maximum profit. This narrow focus, mandated in publicly held companies by the law of our land, has turned our basic human need for exchange into a destructive pattern. This will change because it is not sustainable, but this type of change and what might emerge can only be imagined in a mythic context. We are part of that story though we cannot see the larger picture.
We have to find ways in each of our worlds to create cohesive circles of interdependency based on fair and equitable exchange with each other and the eco system. We need to create circle based modes of economy. I call this approach the circle manifesto. (www.circlemanifesto.com)
To consider whether to take a positive or negative approach is too superficial for me. And to be too results oriented can be pointless. No one is wise enough to know whether our species will survive this transition or not. The point is that we have to do the work in our own world as a requirement to live ethically and responsibly. We do the work for ourselves and for the great and beautiful web of life.
Living in the ethical gray areas of turkeys is an authentic place to be. Even if it is terribly uncomfortable, it is still an opportunity to deepen our own spiritual path. Perfection should not be the enemy of the good.
This article is fantastic!
Mirrors some of my own meditative thinking.
Many of the ‘environmentalists’ in my community have come to be known as earth nazi’s for berating those who throw away recycleables, bashing those with larger homes than they need, etc. Some of these same ones have large SUV’s that run on biofuels.
I find that I want to distance myself from them, even though I am considered one of them!
Each of us should have the opportunity to make our own choices, but should be held at least responsible for those choices.
Negative reinforcement doesn’t necessarily encourage us to be more responsible, it encourages us to act from fear. Using resources better does not mean that we get to use more.
I have my own guilt associated with the way that I live, however, uping my standard, often means spending more money. (Buying a home to live in a walkable neighborhood, organic/local foods, prius’, etc.) Spending more money means that I have to work more hours at my non-profit environmental jobs. Working more means more travel and a greater chance of burn-out. It is a dizzying array of choices. It is easy to become overwhelmed.
I think the answer lies in what John Seed is calling Despair and Empowerment. We have to have the moments of despair, which are true understandings of the state of the world. We also have to have empowerment which mostly occurs from a feeling of community with others on the same path. If we alienate each other by being nazi’s we will get nowhere. However, inviting community to join together (virtually or in person) to discuss these issues, repairs the guilt glitch in all of us.
Thank you for this communication from Janisse Ray and my ability to rant on my own personal guilts!
This is a wonderful article that captures my feelings exactly. I work part time in a heath food store and one of my big frustrations is all the plastic. Plastic bags that we repack all those organic goodies (candies, dried fruits, etc.) everyone loves, plastic gloves we must wear to make a deli sandwich. Plastic garbage bags. Plastic bubble wrap supplements and other breakables come in. Styrofoam peanuts – those things should be outlawed. It really irks me when books and other nonbreakables come way overpackaged in plastic and styrofoam. At home I have more control over plastic. But I still use some, though much less than even a year ago.
I may be wrong, but I believe my biggest personal contribution to climate change is my car, a 1996 Honda that gets about 32 MPG but is old and so therefore has dirtier emissions, or so I’ve been told. But I can’t afford a new car and don’t know when I’ll be able to. I live seven miles from town, fourteen miles from my job, and there’s no small store nearby to pick up even a paper. I’ve lived in a rural area all my life and don’t like cities. Ideal would be a house in a small town so we could walk at least for some things. (Problems with legs and back make bike riding not a great idea for me at this point in my life, nor would it work for my disabled sister, though she can walk just fine.) We are thinking of selling and moving to just such a location but the housing market right now isn’t great here and places in town cost way more than we can afford. Contradictions are crazy-making especially when so much is at stake. But I do garden, do buy as much local food as possible, the store where I work is a great, community-centered place (plastic notwithstanding), and there are days when I don’t have to drive anywhere. They are the best! And thanks to the rising cost of fuel and everything else, we buy much less ‘stuff’ than ever before, and don’t miss it at all. I love flea markets, antique stores, and yard sales. I have learned over the years not to judge because because it feels bad and changes nothing. And since I’m far from perfect, I figure if I don’t judge you, then hopefully you won’t judge me.
I have taken to asking customers at the store if they “need” a bag (and I always use paper unless they specifically request plastic or, better yet, have their own) rather than if they’d “like” a bag, and I think that small word change does make a difference.
Since I had posted, gruffly, comment number two, it really does seem my role must be that of the ‘Grinch That Stole Christmas’.
Ms. Ray’s monologue is soooo predictable. She does us a service, maybe, in that I know too many earnest folk who monopolize every conversation as if they had Ms. Ray’s article soldered into their brains, as script! Nice to have it all right out here, to parse a little further…..
Two realms stand out to this writer, and are illustrated by points in Ms. Ray’s article and in some of the responses in other comments.
Recall from the article, and from several comment posts, where the writers have chosen actually to live. Lifestyle choices matter: a poignant subtext here might go ‘but…I like my country life…’ Fine, but don’t you think before you join the choir that you might examine the costs your preference imposes on the rest of us? If you simply must drive a car to get to town because of where you like to rest your head, and thus you ‘can’t afford’ a less-impactful model, why shouldn’t you consider how you are burdening us all with the consequences of your free choice?
These are unpleasant hints of a sort that seethe over the heads of every choir and one reason I dread sermons, whether on the transmitting or the receiving end.
And, ah yes, the turkey paradox.
Ms. Ray, in a hurry for the sake of her own convenience, badgers the farmer, at the peak of HER most frantic season, to extend the further service of delivery. And at the same price, one wonders…
Where in Ms. Ray’s article, nay, in her mind, was an inspiration to network among her neighbors and friends, to organize a turkey pickup, or for next year, a turkey relay into town, adding value and subtracting impact at one swoop? Goodness. The pickup crew could even stop off at some other farms along the way — pumpkins, squash, a bit of fall color for the mantle. Idle chit-chat with locals maybe.
Oh– but THAT takes time and energy. It’s dreary, making those calls, hoofing it around town — not to speak of getting into town in the first place, o lucky country-dwellers, we!
We may pat ourselves on the back for right-thinking but the buck does stop when we get up and act. OR were those nods to ‘walking’ and ‘talking’ mere ornamentation? Vote. Badger mercilessly your elected reps. Form coops. Move to town.
So sorry about that last. Here’s one man’s vision of a low-carbon utopia: live where informal working alliances for practical ends (i.e. getting turkeys delivered) are as hard to start as stepping out the door and chatting with the two nearest neighbors. Groceries? Should be available within a 5 minute walk, preferably a 1 minute walk, where one carries in one’s empty bag, fills it, and comes home. Minimal waste, maximal use of time, a bit of exercise thrown in painlessly.
And the optical boutique, when new glasses are in order for screen-squinting? Right around the corner, the other side of the shoe store, the jewelry shop, the hardware boutique, and the post office…but be careful if you are headed out into the next block. You’ll pass through the bi-weekly street market, a minefield of every gadget and article of clothing known to humankind, plus garden-fresh vegetables, flowers, artisan cheeses, meats…oh, the horror of it. The humanity.
Getting rid of the waste? Across the street on the curb, let’s see. Brown equals compost. Green, glass and cans. White, plastic, and gray, paper and cardboard. The rest of course goes in ‘undefined’ — the mid-sized box. Once a month if there’s something bigger or odder, it can sit next to that bin and will be spirited away.
Used batteries, compact fluorescents, computer parts? Check the return slots at the market for that, too.
Ah. Utopia. Italy is no paradise, but all of what I’ve described is exactly what is in place, now, in every town and city. Where there’s a will there’s a way.
Grinch says: will you? When?
Hey Mr. Grinch,
I agree with everything you’ve said. And it is no secret, at least among progressives here in the U.S., that Europe is way ahead of us (even a model in some respects). Changing societal habits in the U.S. is happening – there is more momentum in the “no” direction than ever before. I think the greatest hurdles for American society is how to caste off our cultural habits and paradigms with regard to issues like private property and community.
Competition is so much a trained and ingrained trait in American culture, that it takes an event of critical tragedy before people actually experience what “community” really feels like. Currently, given a few exceptions, Americans are more inclined to avoid contact even with immediate neighbors rather than to associate. I bring this up because, as important as individual action is, community is our real issue.
All the little acts we need to do for a healthier, greener world are obvious to many Americans, but those things are not yet “Common Sense” because we have very little example, training or experience in “sense of common-unity”. Americans are typically more inclined to assert (at almost any cost) their separateness. It is a kind of dysfunctional individualism that prohibits the formation of healthy local common sense.
There is an awful lot of bad common sense in our culture. We’re working on it. Building “local economies” is not a new idea, but it is hard to wean the kid off the teat.
I guess Mr Grinch and all his followers have it all figured out. But I am still behind asking questions. Is it really more energy efficient for everything to be delivered into the city than for me to grow everything I can in my country garden? I work only 3 days a week because my country life is so affordable. The rest of the time we spend on our land, gardening and walking and visiting neighbors and of course communicating on the net and by phone and even letter.
Is his city life really all that superior? Where does his sewage go compared to our composting toilet and use of grey water? There are many issues and I think more than one right answer. An attitude of arrogance and self smugness is what turns many people off to the environmental movement. Is that the best approach? Or could we begin to look at things with an eye for understanding and cooperation? We have young family members in Atlanta who dont even bother to recycle because they feel so overwhelmed with their life of full time work and parenting young children. I can feel very judgmental about their choices. But where does that get us? Or I can try to think of ways to make their life a bit easier or to model a happy life that does not depend on so much consumption. These are complicated questions that do not lend themselves to stock answers. At least that is how I see it.
Well! A Rose is a Rose! Let me ask Mr. Grinch to let you know if — or when — he gets it all figured out.
Figuring. About 30 people live in my apartment building. There mare about 28 or 30 such apartment buildings on this city block, so that makes maybe 700 or 800 people. How many composting toilets is that? May we move in next door to you? (And what does a two story composting toilet look like? Five stories? Eleven?)
No — still not speaking for Mr. Grinch — I don’t have it all figured out. Please remember the example which I addressed was merely the ‘one person one turkey’ problem. These are not simple equations — AND the nascent MBA in me wants to know from Ms. Rose much more about the economics of her life in the country and above all how the math comes out that she need work just 3 days a week to get by. Salutary, given contemporary land cost and debt service realities, not to mention pay-back on the investment for a composting toilet. If it’s really so, may we bottle that solution and distribute it widely? Royalties to Ms. Rose, of course. Or is there more here than meets the eye, what my mother always remarked as NVMOS — some kind of No Visible Means of Support — at work? One is struck that in his writing Wally Stegner usually followed the word ‘hippy’ with the phrase, ‘on trust funds’. Do forgive me for this, but I’ll bend with Ms. Rose’s ‘arrogance’ and ‘smugness’ (seems a trifle strong, that) if she’ll tolerate what she sees as mine. In an ‘it takes one to know one’ spirit, if that’s what it is.
But I hope not. I have ‘had-it-to-here’ with abuses of land and abuses of people, of us. That is what drives me. Sorry if anyone takes my rougher edges the wrong way, but kindly know that if this observer spots the grail, he will pounce and pass it back along, quicker than quick.
On with the search.
I was more than touched by the later passage from Ms. Rose, invoking her family who do struggle, energies at the limit, in classic contemporary career-task mode. Those are ‘realities’, many will testify. Manifestations of HABIT. I write not to judge, but to uncover, if I can, those traces of habit. I was disappointed in Ms. Ray’s article, (though not with her sense of the danger before us, which I share) and I’ve expressed that already. Earlier I responded to her example of the turkey from her article, and now to Ms. Rose’s comments.
A joyful sight anywhere is a well-loved garden. I’d so like to believe in the dream of the self-sufficient garden economy. But here Ms. Rose herself notes that she must perform paid labor several days a week, along with tending her garden. So GARDENS help enormously. But I doubt that COUNTRY LIVING, if I may suggest a distinction between the two, will solve much on the national, let alone global, scale. Where would that crowd on my one city block live, really? Especially the many who would be lost without the social, economic, and cultural structure the urban fabric provides. Not everyone can be happy watering the garden and turning the compost dawn to dark. In fact it might be argued that only a small minority, things being equal, would choose the relative isolation Ms. Rose sketches over the densities of experience in the city.
In my dreamier, idealistic moments I imagine that here in Italy the very best solution might be to live in one of the smaller towns. The surrounding forests and croplands would be at hand, and quiet. A town is a social place above all, and in it one finds all those things one uses day to day, as I noted in my earlier post, in easy walking range. There’s sewage and gray water of course, but you can see where it goes and keep an eye on things being done right. You know the person who tends the valves and switches because you bump into her often enough in the bar or the post. But the large city, too, has a grace that fosters a good life, reflection, creativity, and a serenity of spirit. If we deny that, we’ll be tossing the baby with the (gray) water. As an aside, I’m regularly surprised at how many little vegetable gardens there are, stuffed in where any bit of unused land can be co-opted for a few tomato or melon vines. I suspect the water for some that I’ve seen is gray, to boot.
Changing habits calls for learning new new ones, AGAINST the flow of intuition. This counter-intuitive learning is the most difficult of all. If the whole picture of moving to the country and installing a composter is truly the answer (or even one of the really big ones) then the ‘reason’ for that isn’t obvious. It’s counter-intuitive. So, how would one — how would I — learn differently?
That’s the real question. I can speak to this in concrete terms in relation to bicycling, because so many people — also here in Italy — respond to the mere mention that I use a bicycle at all by repeating their pet anxieties about danger, sweat, discomfort, effort, traffic, and so on. I myself ‘know’ that these objections are not ‘valid’. I also know that repeating the ‘truth’ I have discovered is futile. So there’s the question. How does one make that jump? My own search to answer that is ongoing.
And one thing more, though for country-dwellers who are perfectly content with life as it is, may stop reading here.
When I walk to La Scala to see Don Giovanni, or bike or take the bus or the metro or the train across town or out to Rivoli to see an exhibition at the Castello, or to teach my photo classes — and so on, I’m glad for being in the crush of the city. When I want to add a really good prosciutto crudo, or artisanal cheese, or some variety in the peperoni I like, to my larder, it’s nice to know that the deli around the corner, or the street market a few blocks down will have lots of temptations. I’m not ‘against’ country life, but I’d not counsel valuing it above the city, for a whole host of human and cultural, as well as engineering and practical reasons. I hope the country dwellers can accept that, too. And do the math, the engineering analysis, honestly. I think they would be shocked in many cases at the true costs of their dream, and unnerved at the relative actual economies implicit in the city alternative.
Until someone can show us how all of my city-block neighbors and I, and ten-thousand more blocks like us, can share fields, pastures, and composting toilets gracefully, I’ll posit we still need cities, sewage, gray water, and all.
I’m sorry, but I have to say this – what Americans call environmentalism a large part of the world calls moderation, and, laying a guilt trip upon oneself isn’t going to help solve the problem.
A naturalized citizen from the U.K.
Mr Tyson, (no relation to the turkey factory, I assume)
Your remarks about “trust fund hippies” shows that you have put me in one of your standard categories appparently reserved for people who live in the country. I am a nurse and have been for over 25 years. In case you don’t know, it is pretty hard work most of the time. My mother cleaned houses for a living and saved enough to send me to college. I wanted to point this out not to chastize you for this categorization but just to point out that all of us do this. What if we all did less of this and more of really listening to each other. Perhaps we could solve problems more easily.
I know that there are huge contradictions in my life style when it comes to the environment. I would love to see them clearly and weed them out as much as I can.
Your city life sounds really good for you. But it too has some contradictions. That is all I want to point out. Thank you and Janisse Ray for bringing it all up. Like Susan Meeker who sees the insanity in the use of so much plastic in her Natural Food job and Drew who cousels us to look to community for solutions, we are all adding a piece to this puzzle. I just wish the whole world was working on it. I really do thank you and all the others who live their lives with intention to walk lightly on this Earth.
This is Grinch, back having pulled a fast one on Mr. Tyson — who says he did feel properly chastised by Ms. Rose and knows he probably deserved it.
Both he and I wish our UK half who weighed in with a pithy reminder of how the other half lives would expand a bit on the thought. We agree with her that self-flagellation, guilt-tripping, don’t help.
Maybe the kicker is in the banner for this comment column: ‘It is time (Ms. Ray says)…to get serious about leading by example.’
Ms. Rose’s example is so appealing that it kills us to say it, but we imagine the conditions that made it possible for her to establish herself as she has are much harder to come by these days. We both tip our hats to her endeavor and her hard work, all the same.
I. Making the case for a reduction in absolute global human population numbers.
2007 World Population Data:
II. Making the case for a reduction in per human consumption of limited resources.
The Wealth Report: Living Large While Being Green —- Rich Buy ‘Offsets’ For Wasteful Ways; Noble, or Guilt Fee?
24 August 2007
The Wall Street Journal
It’s not easy being green — especially if you’re rich.
With their growing fleets of yachts, jets and cars, and their sprawling estates, today’s outsized wealthy have also become outsized polluters. There are now 10,000 private jets swarming American skies, all burning more than 15 times as much fuel per passenger as commercial planes. The summer seas are increasingly crowded with megayachts swallowing up to 80 gallons of fuel an hour.
Yet with the green movement in vogue, the rich are looking for ways to compensate for their carbon-dioxide generation, which is linked to global warming, without crimping their style. Some are buying carbon “offsets” for their private-jet flights, which help fund alternate-energy technologies such as windmills, or carbon dioxide-eating greenery such as trees. Others are installing ocean-monitoring equipment on their yachts. And a few are building green-certified mansions, complete with solar-heated indoor swimming pools.
Some people say the measures are a noble effort on the part of the wealthy to improve the environment. Eric Carlson, executive director and founder of the Carbon Fund, a nonprofit that works with companies and individuals to offset emissions, says the wealthy are taking the lead in alternative-energy markets such as solar technologies just as they take the lead in consumer markets.
“Obviously these people have different lifestyles from yours or mine,” Mr. Carlson says. “At the same time, they’re not obligated to do anything. We praise those who are doing things. We’re trying to get to a market where the superwealthy are leaders in reducing their [carbon dioxide] footprint and playing a major role in changing this market.”
Others say the efforts are little more than window-dressing, designed to ease the guilt of the wealthy or boost their status among an increasingly green elite. Environmentalists say that if the rich really wanted to help the environment, they would stop flying on private jets, live in smaller homes, and buy kayaks instead of yachts.
“Carbon offsets and these other things are feel-good solutions,” says Lester Brown, founder and president of the Earth Policy Institute. “I’m always interested in people who buy a carbon offset for their jet to fly between their four big homes. These kinds of programs postpone more meaningful action.”
Either way, an increasing number of companies are launching programs designed to help the rich live large while staying green. Jets.com, a private jet service, plans to start a program in early September in partnership with the Carbon Fund. After they take a trip, customers will get a statement on their bills telling them how much carbon dioxide their flight emitted and what it would cost to buy offsets from the fund.
The offsets are a bargain compared with the flights: A round-trip private-jet flight between Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and Boston costs about $20,000. The offsets for the 13 metric tons of carbon dioxide emitted would cost about $74, the company says.
V1 Jets International, a jet charter company, rolled out its “Green Card” program that it says accentuates “the positive effect your flight emissions will have on the environment.” The company calculates the total emissions from the trip and then buys a carbon offset from the Carbon Fund. “From a jet perspective, we have a responsibility to look after the damage that these planes do,” says Andrew Zarrow, V1’s president. The company also has created technologies designed to make flights more efficient by selling seats on “deadleg” trips — flights that are returning empty from one-way trips.
Yacht companies also are getting into the act. Trinity Yachts, a Gulfport, Miss., builder, this month announced it will pay for part of the cost of installing special oceanographic and atmospheric monitoring systems in all of its new boats.
The system, called the SeaKeeper 1000, measures water temperatures and salinity, as well as air temperature and wind speed. The data are sent to scientists who monitor the earth’s oceans. Trinity’s program is in partnership with International Sea-Keepers, a nonprofit marine conservation group founded by a group of yacht owners concerned about the environment.
“The caliber of client we have is very aware of what’s going on in the environment,” says William S. Smith III, vice president of Trinity Yachts. Still, the system doesn’t reduce emissions from the yachts themselves, which can burn hundreds of gallons of fuel a day.
Some wealthy people are going green with their houses, too. The U.S. Green Building Council has certified at least three mansions for being leaders in environmental design, including one owned by Ted Turner’s daughter, Laura Turner Seydel, and her husband, Rutherford, in Atlanta. The 7,000-square-foot-plus house, called EcoManor, is equipped with 27 photovoltaic panels on the roof, rainwater-collecting tanks for supplying toilet water, and “gray water” systems that use water from the showers and sinks for the lawn and gardens. The top of the house is insulated with a soy-based foam that is more efficient than fiberglass. The home has 40 energy monitors and a switch near the door that turns off every light in the house before the family leaves.
Mr. Seydel says the couple’s energy bill is about half that of comparable homes. While he acknowledges they could have built a slightly smaller house, he said all the space is well used, between kids and visiting friends and in-laws.
“The wealthy have always been the early adapters to technology,” he says. “I’m hoping that we can pave the way and show that you can have something that’s luxurious that also makes a lot of sense from an energy and convenience point of view.”
III. Making the case for a reduction in the seemingly endless economic globalization activities of BIG BUSINESS now overspreading Earth.
In Praise of Mother Nature
By Bret Schulte
US News & World Report
Science writers generally don’t do whimsy, particularly those who have witnessed the aftermath of Chernobyl or the plundering of Latin America’s resources. But in his provocative new book, The World Without Us, Alan Weisman adds a dash of fiction to his science to address a despairing problem: the planet’s health. Weisman wonders how Earth would fare if people simply disappeared. With help from experts, Weisman discovered that, untended, humanity’s achievements would stand little chance against Mother Nature, even in her weakened state. Sans electric pumps, the New York subway would flood within days. Pretty flowers would quickly crack sidewalks. And the life span of your house? About 50 years. Weisman spoke to U.S. News.
Environmental books are often depressing reads. Does framing a message around a hypothetical make it more approachable?
I would say so. I was looking for some way to seduce readers to keep following along so they could see what is going on in the world and how it all connects. Ultimately, once we take humans out of the picture we see how the rest of nature could flourish. We think, “Wow, if nature could do all that, then is there a way that this could happen that does not depend on our extinction?”
Your book takes us to a 14th-century European hunting preserve and demilitarized zones where nature has a free hand. Were you surprised by what you saw?
It was pretty weird. This fragment of primeval European forest on the Poland-Belarus border literally feels like it’s out of Grimm’s fairy tales. That’s what it looks like, that’s what it sounds like, that’s what it smells like. But the incredible thing is that it doesn’t feel exotic. For someone growing up in Europe or North America, it feels familiar. It feels right.
How did your visit to Chernobyl lead to this book?
I got a call in 2003 from an editor at Discover magazine who read the 1994 story I wrote after the explosion at Chernobyl, where I described how abandoned houses were being taken over by their own landscaping. Roots and trees and even flowers were breaking up sidewalks. A population of radioactive deer kept growing, and radioactive wolves kept coming after them. In 1994, she thought the article was depressing, but as she was editing all these depressing environmental stories, she said it had become one of the most hopeful stories: that no matter how badly we screw up, nature will find a way to overcome it.
What did you take away from these places?
I wasn’t really expecting to realize the history of architecture is kind of like a bell-shaped curve. Our first dwellings were caves, then we started making caves-houses out of rock-and as we got more refined, our buildings grew higher and less permanent. Engineers tell me that our oldest buildings will outlast the newer ones…because we don’t make them the way we used to, out of material from the Earth. The World Trade Center collapsed and St. Paul’s Chapel, which is made out of Manhattan schist, is still standing. Other buildings around the World Trade Center that did not get hit by the airplanes collapsed anyhow.
Is this book a cold splash of water for humanity’s many triumphs?
In some ways it’s a wake-up call, but at the same time humans have done some beautiful things, things you have to admire. One of the surprises for me is coming away with so much respect for the people who maintain our infrastructure. If it wasn’t for these guys keeping the bridges from rusting, or who keep our subway tunnels pumped, or who show up every day at our nuclear plants, stuff would start to disassemble rapidly. We live on the backs of some unsung heroes who are keeping it all together.
Three things: One of them is lovely, the Voyager spacecraft carrying our artwork, our music. I talked to John Lomberg, who put all that together for Carl Sagan, and it was beautiful to talk to someone who thought about what the message to posterity should be. On the darker side: nuclear waste. Depleted uranium has a 4.6 billion-year half-life. The planet is only going to last about 5 billion years before the sun expands. The other thing is plastics. No one really knows how long it will take for plastics to break down because they’re relatively new. Plastic isn’t filling up landfills; it’s blowing into rivers and flowing to the ocean. It’s breathtaking how much plastic we’ve generated.
Your book ends on a controversial note.
I ask: What if we tried one child per family for everyone? I don’t want to deprive people of siblings, but I don’t want to deprive people of species that are wonderful and part of our life. We can’t live without them. If we could bring our numbers down, that would buy us some time to clean up our act.
To expand; I really have only one thing to say – buy less America! Somehow it always seems that to simplify their lives people buy more. How does that work?
To Ms. Rose,
Mr Tyson, (no relation to the turkey factory, I assume)
None! But ah— might one wish?
Your remarks about “trust fund hippies” shows that you have put me in one
of your standard categories appparently reserved for people who live in the
No, that wasn’t my meaning, I’m sorry that you took it that way. The point I tried to make is that your circumstances, as you describe them, sound unworkable for more than a fortunate few. I’m not gifted in brevity so I hope this condensation clarifies what I had hoped to express. Yes, I enjoy the city life I lead, including the bicycle ride I’m about to take this Sunday morning, far into the mountains to the west. But, and this is the important qualification, I don’t imagine that the life I lead would suit just anyone, either. Again, I hope to make the point that in imagining a better future we would do well to check our models against the relevant pragmatics.
Wallace Stegner’s formulation about hippies came to mind simply because it expresses (for me) the disconnect between that era’s ‘flowery’ public image, and the difficult underlying realities. Again I’m sorry if this rubbed against you, personally. My mother’s ‘no visible means of support’ remark also fits. ‘Hippies’ largely represented an affluent, well-educated, White American social stratum who had the means to drop out. (I didn’t, quite. I worked, to get through college.) So it is with country living, I fear. The idyllic setting and free-time lifestyle are American ideals, but in almost every case I can think of when you scratch the surface you discover exceptional if not truly extraordinary circumstances that have made this or that individual’s country haven possible. My intent was only to point out that, good as this may be as a non-impactful, if not truly sustainable, way of life, it is probably not a good model for widespread adoption, simply because it will not be possible to scale up the model, against pragmatic limits.
My family has a cabin at high elevation in the California Sierra Nevada. It is off the grid, has a pit toilet that has served with no need of service for twenty years, and returns no effluvia to the terrain or ground water. It can be heated with wood dragged in from forest deadfall without showing a trace, but that is true only because there are so few cabins there, and so vast a forest nearby.
But this cabin is a very poor ‘model’ or ‘example’ for something as huge as what Ms. Ray points to in her article. Everything about the place is un-ordinary and not scalable. The carrying capacity of that brittle subalpine or subarctic mountain environment is small, and — if you will note above, I wrote ‘has’ with respect to the issue of possession, and ‘can be’ for that of obtaining fuel for heating and cooking. Ours is a US Forest Service lease site, not ‘real property’. And we usually purchase firewood which is delivered by motor vehicle. As much as I am grateful for the place, I keep in mind that we are stewards of something, there, in keeping with a profound privilege that we enjoy.In some sense the ‘style’ in which we occupy the place is a kind of fantasy posturing, no matter how deeply we think we understand what we are doing. Returning to the city, I look around me and search for ‘style’ that brings fantasy as close as possible to ordinary quotidian actualities.
The examples could be multiplied. I did my best, working from the example of Ms. Rose’s and Ms. Ray’s country living experiences, and in relatively few words, to convey some of the practical differences between ‘country living’ and ‘city life’ as we know them.
There is something else that comes through in Ms. Rose’s words, as well as in Ms. Ray’s article. But efore I continue, may I say to Ms. Rose and others, none of this is meant personally, but as self-observation. It is part of us all. I insert here that I’m open to off-list email too, at lkrndu ‘at’ tiscali.it — my more complete contact info is on my blog and linked pages, if you click on my name at the top of this post.
I am a nurse and have been for over 25 years. In case you don’t
know, it is pretty hard work most of the time. My mother cleaned houses for
a living and saved enough to send me to college. I wanted to point this out
not to chastize you for this categorization but just to point out that all
of us do this.
‘Hard work’ and ‘all of us do this’. I hope I’m included in that number! I write as a former middle school science teacher, speaking of work. So. In the article and these posts, Ms. Rose’s included, I read a tone of stress or anxiety. It’s as if we live in fear we might not be able keep what we’ve earned, what we’ve made. Maybe this manifests greed, the dark side of task, or a losing sight of purpose, the high side of love. Such underlying un-ease might well trigger guilt and shame that cloud our thinking when we approach larger dilemmas.
I know that there are huge contradictions in my life style when it comes to
the environment. I would love to see them clearly and weed them out as much
as I can.
I for one can accept such contradictions, and especially when I know we’re on the same page in our forthrighness as to what’s what. That honesty, and self-acceptance makes going to the next step in exploring options much more fluid and much less personally threatening.
Your city life sounds really good for you. But it too has some
It is and it does. I ‘bragged’ some of the positives earlier. Again, my deeper motive was to suggest that cities allow for a certain critical mass of human energy, fusion power for deeper, better, more finely wrought ideas and institutions. City is society. But if you’d like me to really clog the list, I could go on — and on — about the contradictions, as you say, that I see every day….. 🙂 Italy is ‘late’ in just about everything, not just train arrivals. Even though my washing machine probably uses a fifth the water and electricity of its US counterpart, and zero fossil fuel for the dryer (solar, a line off the back balcony), I have no illusions about where those dead AA batteries really wind up, at least some of the time. Not only does real progress come slowly, the curve is not always upwards, but spiky, seismic.
I worked — hard — as a carpenter building a house. The boss tore us away from our labor at 4:30 sharp every day, put a beer in each of our hands, and said, ‘Now the most important part of the day. Take ten steps back, close your eyes, sip some beer. Turn around and look at what you’ve done.’
Man, I tell you. That made the aching muscles loosen up, the mind fill with what the eyes beheld: progress, something made. And made better than before. Made, and, in the mind’s eye more brightly than before, the vision. The plan of what would become. The next day of work, and the next, until the structure be complete. And we’d move on, to the next.
What is next? And how do you know?
I’m having trouble having much sympathy for Janisse. Sure, it’s great to be self-aware. And yet this self-awareness rings hollow, like my sister-in-law, who very publicly expressed angst over whether to buy her young daughters Barbie(TM) dolls. She ended up buying the damn dolls, and all the rest of it was just wasted breath.
We can all do more, but those who understand this should have a responsibility to actually do more, rather than just talk or write about it. Angst over leg-shaving? Gimme a break!
I’m speaking at a conference (on forming co-operatives) that is 2,000 km away this November. I’d take the train, but it costs more than flying. So we’re taking an extra two weeks, and driving there and back on waste vegetable oil.
It’s not as though just anyone can do this, but people who are supposedly leading the way, who are supposedly inspiring others to do good — these people have a moral imperative to “walk the talk.”
The problems are so deep and intractable that it takes revolutionary action to change them. For example, participation in the economy: most people don’t think they have any choice but to slave for little bits of green paper, because all that they value in life comes from having these little bits of green paper.
How much money is time with your family worth? How much money is food security worth? How much money is energy security worth? How much money is housing security worth?
When Bush was first (s)elected in 2000, I began plans to leave the US. Not out of spite, but out of the feeling that in an “ownership society” country, there was no longer any room for the frugal. My plan was to live simply, but in the US, the only name for that is “poor.”
When the bombs began flying, I vowed to stop supporting the country with my tax dollars — not by being a tax resister and breaking some arbitrary laws that would end up causing me a lot of pain and suffering, but by consciously limiting my income to below the level at which taxes were due.
And guess what — the sky didn’t fall. I’m not shivering and malnourished. We “downsized” our lives, and left the suburbs (see http://www.EscapeFromSuburbia.com) for a place where we could raise more of our food. We stopped eating meat (a huge resource drain), and so have no angst over driving 60 miles for a turkey. We got rid of our gasoline vehicles and began making our own biodiesel from waste cooking oil. And even then, we bike to town and drive under 3,000 miles a year — most of those are “love miles” to visit aging family, rather than running unnecessary errands.
I’m not trying to toot my own horn here. I’m trying to say that it’s too late for “50 simple ways to save the planet.” The simple ways are not enough. It’s time for the activists to really “walk the talk.”
Please forgive me if it seems I’m being too hard on you, Janisse. But if you go speak somewhere, and anyone in the audience is doing better by the earth than you, make it a personal quest to catch up. (If many of the audience are, humbly apologize, return your speaker’s fee, and go home with a vow to do much better!)
And thank you for the small/huge step of requesting your venues use environmentally responsible practices. Perhaps you don’t have enough clout yet to politely insist on such practices; perhaps the next step would be to do so, which may also be a form of voluntary income reduction. 🙂
I’m having trouble having much
sympathy for Janisse. Sure, it’s
great to be self-aware.
Exactly. Except that this isn’t self-awareness. It is a not-very-honest self-promotion masquerading as a sham quest for self-knowledge. Worse still, it’s not even FUNNY.
Does the author of the piece ever bother to so much as glance at the — oftimes thoughtful — exchanges her public upchuck has prompted? No, methinks.
…2,000 km away…I’d take the train, but…
we’re taking an extra two weeks, driving
on waste vegetable oil.
A WEEK to…drive…600 miles?? Ah. The New Leisure Class…where do I sign up?
It’s not as though just anyone can do this,
Well, anyone COULD, so long as the supply of veg oil holds out, but when we finally shut down all the McD’s and Burgies — there won’t be enough to go ’round anymore, now will there? Or does used olive oil count?
but people who are supposedly
leading the way…have a moral imperative
to “walk the talk.”
AND drive the drive, apparently.
The problems are so deep and intractable
So let’s all go home and dowse our next well whilst watching the Apocalypse’ arrival on CNN. Powered by our private windmill.
My plan was to live
simply, but in the US,
the only name for that is “poor.”
Sì. E qui, in Italia? La parola è veramente la stessa: POVERO. Same word, different lingua…hello?
I vowed to stop supporting the
country with my tax dollars …by
consciously limiting my income
to below the level at which taxes
That is, by lapsing into poverty…
We “downsized” our lives, and
left the suburbs for a place where
we could raise more of our food.
All fine, and perfect examples of the Stegnerian ‘HOTF’* way of life. Note too that writer’s lifelong concern with the rapacious clear-cut-burn-and-move-on cycle across the North American continent. What’s new, original, or liberated of the same sin, in YOUR migration? What are your ‘connection points’ to Society? And perchance have ya got a wee bit of extra real-estate there for me and my 800 or so nearest neighbors to come join you? Oh– and our dogs including the pair of 160 pound great danes next door, the ear-clipped rottie out back and its best buddy, the three-legged siamese? We’ll leave the flock of pigeons the siamese almost but not quite manages to catch and promise to use only extra-virgin olive oil in OUR ways of doing things. (/s/ Loyal Oppositionist)
I’m not trying to toot my own
horn here. I’m trying to say that
it’s too late for “50 simple ways
to save the planet.”
Ah. But you are, exactly. And what’s wrong with ‘simple’ ways? Good places to start, points of entry to get under some of the edges of ingrained habit. I seem to recall a time — oh, waaay back in the last century — when people posted little signs above their toilets:
‘If it’s brown
flush it down
If it’s yellow
let it mellow’
Saved water, that simple thing did. It did.
It’s time for the activists to “walk the talk.”
And? We should follow you, out into the hinterland, the scrubbrush-scape of nary-a-connected-thought, let alone social, political, scientific, managerial, or MORAL co-involvement with daily life?
Please forgive me if it seems I’m being too hard
on you, Janisse.
We forgive you. You’re going too easy on Janisse, and in general, so this writer is endeavoring to take up some of the slack. (Wooo! This is FUNNN!)
And thank you for the small/huge step of…
perhaps the next step would
be…voluntary income reduction.
Hello? You mean we’re forgetting the whole sweep of capitalist economic reality? The time-value of money? The power of leverage? Y’know kiddies, back to Econ 1 and noting that there IS a dark side — sub-prime lending jumps immediately to mind for some reason — AND a high side.
Those of you who HAVE fled the cities and ‘burbs have already taken advantage of this, for better of for worse: you have invested yourselves, and, presumably, your capital (yes, in the money-meaning) in a new way of life. We each have some leeway to do that. If there is room for argument (there is, from this perspective) then there SHOULD be hard questions asked with respect to any proposed ‘solution’, and especially of the status-quo.
But remember to separate the factual elements of what-is, from the forces and principles at work behind them. Behavior and above all reason may redirect the latter to new outcomes, even if it won’t (and can’t) change the present state of the former. Here’s a fact: the vast majority of the people on the earth dwell in cities. And another: that majority is increasing and will continue to increase.
*HOTF is Hippies On Trust Funds. Poor Stegner. May he rest in peace…
To Orion Magazine,
I am the global warming scientist friend who doubted the effectiveness of buying a hybrid car alluded to in Janisse Ray’s September/October 2007 Orion article on page 3, column 2, 2nd paragraph.
While I agree with the overall premise of your Orion article, In my opinion, “hypocritical” as used to describe the choir’s actions is a discouraging word. In my opinion, the tone of your article is not likely to promote the change of behavior we would all like to see.
And one thing about scientists, even those of us who investigate climate change, we are naturally skeptical.
I have had bad luck with batteries of all kinds. I use them a lot at work, and they don’t seem to last too long for me. When we chose to buy our 2nd hand Toyota Echo, 5 years ago instead of a hybrid (the devout thing to do), it was in part because I didn’t know, (and I still don’t) how long those big hybrid batteries last. Nor have I seen any information about the environmental cost of producing those batteries in terms of mining, fossil fuels and environmental damage. So we bought a used Echo that gets 35 to 38 mpg—different from what you implied. Is it that much worse to have a car that gets 10-15 mpg less than yours but doesn’t have a battery? Also the Echo is simpler, 30% less parts than a hybrid, and is less to keep up.
I think that the “choir” needs the freedom to take the actions that it deems best and be subjected to encouragement, not criticism. For example, this year we added roofing insulation and thermal windows. We could have bought a hybrid with these funds but what is the environmental cost of a new Japanese car vis a vis keeping the 2001 echo? What exactly is the “best” action? Who gets to say?
Things are not always as simple as they seem. Case in point is the recent analysis that found that due to differences in farming practices it is less environmentally damaging for the British to eat mutton shipped from New Zealand rather than locally grown mutton.
Sure we can all do better, but in my opinion, the tone of your article does more to shame and discourage the converted rather than to encourage them. The tone is, “its just never enough, is it”??
Trying to wean ourselves to a lower fossil fuel diet is like being on a low-calorie diet. It is very difficult to say no to the many temptations offered by our industrial society. It is hard not to eat that brownie on the table at the Janisse Ray event. But compassion and encouragement rather than shaming is a better approach to offer to those of us faced with trying to fend of middle aged spread in addition to excess fossil fuel consumption.
your scientist friend.
“Should enviros be eschewing travel and canceling conferences?” Yes – If travel is incongruent with one’s talk – localize the talk. Here’s a contradiction: Why is travel to exotic places a regular feature in the Sierra Club magazine?
“Is the path to a greener world a narrow one that demands saying “no” to many of the goods and comforts to which we’re accustomed?” I suppose one can always question what they are “accustomed” to. It depends on the willingness to explore the “unaccustomed.” There was a time when much of what we are now accustomed to, was not a custom. SUVs, automatic dishwashers , bottled water, fast food….etc.
“Or is it better to consume some resources in the service of a larger battle?” I guess this question really boils down to defining service and battle. “war talk” Dropping the A-Bomb was justified in the service of a battle. Everyone finds a way to justify anything and it’s always to serve what one believes is true.
21 SOLUTIONS? to Save the World………
After a too brief review of the SOLUTIONSn (referred to above) by some of our most respected leading thinkers, I could not find examples of examinations of the issue of growth, particularly with regard to the rapidly increasing scale of certain distinctly human over-growth activities: unrestricted species propagation, unrestrained per capita consumption and the unbridled globalization of large-scale production capabilities now overspreading the surface of Earth.
What am I missing?
Yes, Steve — “grow” is a four-letter word.
As long as politicians and their constituents pursue endless growth, humanity is in trouble.
In a zero-sum game, one person’s growth is necessarily another person’s decline.
Imagine an ethic, perhaps spread as a meme, in which each of us is saddened by growth, knowing it takes from someone else. In such an ethic, we can also be joyous about decline, knowing it will allow for someone else’s growth. A new twist on getting old, perhaps? 🙂
Jan and Steve,
I don’t know why this irritates me, but something feels particularly sinister about a human being having a desire to control the fertility of other human beings. I remember reading about this in another forum about a week ago and one of the respondents cleared this up nicely for me by sending a link to this paper. http://www.twnside.org.sg/title/malthus.htm
It ties all related aspects of politics, economics and population together.
Anyway, this discussion is supposed to be focused on -> “Should enviros be eschewing travel and canceling conferences? Is the path to a greener world a narrow one that demands saying “no” to many of the goods and comforts to which we’re accustomed? Or is it better to consume some resources in the service of a larger battle?”
We can theorize on global solutions until doomsday, but here in the choir, at some point you have to ask, am I walking, or just talking?
Some musings on the subject –
For me, “walking my talk” is necessary for my health and well-being. Once I adopt something as my value, like living lightly on the Earth or taking others needs into consideration when I consume, it takes up a lot of energy to keep justifying actions that are not in line with this value. So just for my own peace of mind, I try to live by my core values. I’m thinking that most people are similar to me in this way.
Yet, I have found that my sensitivity to the core value increases with time. At first it is OK to follow the “50 simple ways to save the Earth.” Then as I think more deeply, I see the effects of my actions more clearly and my actions must become even more “pure”(but only by my own standards). So at first I might limit my driving a bit when it doesn’t make much difference. Then I might go out of my way to take public transportation once in a while, I might buy a bike and ride it to work on good days and when I am not too tired. Someday I might decide not to have a child in order to limit my footprint on the Earth. The commitment to the value of living in harmony with the Earth is strengthened by each action and also by seeing the actions of others with similar values. It almost seems to me that there is no inherent heirarchy of actions. All are equally significant and insignficant.
This last observation leads me to think that it is quite impossible to decide what others should be doing and absolutely essential to decide what you yourself should be doing.
I would like to hear more from people who are considering their next step. What would it be?
I guess you’d say I’m one of the Back to the Earth 60s people. I’m not the only one. We’ve been learning how to live on the land and sharing our skills for a long time. Some people called us the Counterculture but a lot of us knew we were just getting ready for the future.
In the 80s in the hill country of Texas, in a small town called Comfort, we published a little magazine called “Close to Home.” It was about all the things people around there were doing to support themselves, working out of their homes. There were craftspeople, artists, furniture builders, coop schools and midwives, people growing flowers, pecans and herbs, all kinds of wonder stuff.
We were working on permaculture and regional self-sufficiency, growing a lot of our own food and building community.
It’s been hard stay with this lifestyle the last 20 years in this country but many have and many more have their experiences to share, their hard earned lessons.
It gives me great joy to see more and more people wake up to the truth of our dependence on the earth. I know it can be frustrating and I honor your self-questioning. Skillful discernment is not the same as “judging.”
Just don’t get discouraged. The momentum is building. Let’s hope for a quantum leap!
‘There are few real boundaries in Nature’ — Rebecca Solnit
How sweetly ironic! That’s the masthead tidbit offered up on THIS Orion page at the moment. And by a writer I truly admire. Tsch. Tsch.
To one and all, this discussion is pretty silly. Question: WILL IT SCALE? Not likely, from the implausible proposals broached here. For every one of ‘us’ who goes back to the land (takes comfort in Comfort, TX?) there are ten thousand or ten million who want to get in, get big, get — to the Mall.
I don’t see ANY address to that larger reality. So in this way this discussion — but it isn’t that, it’s a billboard attacked by graffiti, every one for her (him) self with one witty remark or another — IS just for the choir, and at the pleasure of the original preacher.
When I was small I was not at all easy with church. Why? Because I listened to the solemnity of the sermon, took in the pious expressions on adults’ faces around me, and then during the week (we lived in a small town — Davis, California, of all later-to-be-considered-hip places) ran into some of those same ‘choristers’ — going about their various businesses, as if nothing had ever been said last Sunday morning.
I don’t see anything different here. What I read, and hear, in the comments added, and in the original article, is a fumbling for self-congratulation — as a reward for self-absorption.
‘Core’ values?? How do you know?! Where is the margin for asking questions, for skepticism? And above all, a vision that reaches beyond that tight, tiny circle of one’s own very private comfort zone?
Salmony’s contribution of a URL for ’21’ solutions was intriguing. The one that caught my eye was something like ‘450’ for that many ppm of CO2, at which point opinion among scientists converges on a conclusion that irreversible heating and loss of arctic ice masses will accelerate.
Knowing the choir would rather adjourn for (organic, herbal) tea, I ask, what if we go to 475? Any plans, in that case? But no, no, no, this calls for thinking — not only outside the box, but beyond the personal core, gut, self-righteous sphere.
Excuse me! We published a magazine and lots of people bought it and bought the goods and services those of us in it were offering – locally. They also got ideas for their own lives and put them into practice.
By the way, if you think living on the land is “taking comfort” – just laid back, self-indulgent airheads – you’ve never done it.
It’s grassroots, my friend, and as far as I can see grassroots IS the larger reality.
Who you telling ‘never done it’?
Here’s what back-to-the-land means, if you take your model and extend it to the world’s population — in other words if you scale it so that your model includes everyone:
It’s a Nepalese shepherd, hardscrabble with enough to feed his family — in a good year.
It is his up-slope neighbor, tilling a 2/3-acre ‘field’ with a wooden plow — and his wife, his daughter, and himself, as the draft animals.
Do I need to go on?
The HUGE question, the true elephant in THIS room — and in Comfort, is: will it scale?
This observer, who HAS lived as you describe and enjoyed the many fruits of that very satisfying way of life, so long as said life-style remains opt-out-able, begs to remind you that doing so, in the manner YOU describe, publishing a magazine and all, is a high privilege. Nay, a luxury, in this age.
Try it a little farther west of Meridian 100 — and not only in N. America, but in the majority of environments worldwide that resemble the semi-arid Western plains of the US…..
Note for the geographically challenged, Comfort, Texas lies at 99 degrees west longitude. By the way, the hydrologist is curious: where do you get your water? The American West has long been structured on the time-honored water rights principle of robbing Peter to pay Paul.
And who said living in SW Texas, publishing a magazine, plowing land, and selling stuff were enough, pardon me? How about the music conservatory, the think-tank, the library, the theater company? The monastery, or the technology development skunk-works? And the synergies among all that and more?
IOW, there’s a town of Comfort, but no city, yet, only an outpost, far, in some terms, from Society.
It won’t be sufficient.
For anyone who remembers Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog, this writer was straight enough on some occasion to read Brand’s intro. Something in there about pursuing the alternatives with full gusto. And also riffing through the ‘traditional’ and the ‘old’ for nuggets.
We need both. And all.
Drew, I don’t know why this irritates me, but something feels particularly sinister about a human being having a desire to control the farting of other human beings, say in a crowded elevator.
There are simply too many people. If we don’t figure out how to limit our own numbers, nature will do it. It’s been that way for hundreds of millions of years, but despite our high-falutin’ opinion of ourselves, we show no more understanding of this than yeast cells, which multiply beyond their resources and die in their own excrement, just as it looks like humanity is about to do.
And I’m not only talking, I’m walking. I had myself fixed before ever having children. I’m hoping someday there will be a “cap ‘n’ trade” system for procreation, and I can get rich off my unused fertility credit. 🙂
I’m not only walking, I’m running! I seem to have “adopted” a number of young adults the age my children would have been, who are interested in learning Permaculture and sustainability. All in all, not a bad trade — didn’t have to change diapers, can hand off the “grand children” when their diapers need work, didn’t have to put up with teens, and I get these kids right about the time when they’re thinking maybe the older generation has something to offer, after all… 🙂
Congratulations. I don’t agree there are too many people. It’s a Malthusian scare tactic. Read the link I sent, better yet, read the book it refers to. You’ll be enlightened.
Hi Drew. I read the link. Sounds like character assassination. I could make similar arguments against Jesus Christ, based on the behavior of many of his followers. The link seems to have more issues with what people do in Malthus’s name than with the man’s theories themselves.
Malthus was right about population. He just didn’t know about fossil fuel. Can’t blame him for that, can you?
Population has risen in lock-step with energy availability. Energy availability has peaked, and will soon go into decline. Population must follow. This is how all trophic systems work, and fossil fuel is certainly a trophic system for H. sapiens — ten calories of fossil energy go into each calorie of food produced. The “Green Revolution” should more rightly be called the “Brown Revolution,” because none of it would have been possible without fossil fuel.
But perhaps you haven’t noticed the recent rise in food prices, echoing nicely the recent run-up in energy prices?
Since you’re fond of books and enlightenment, I’d suggest the Club of Rome report, Limits to Growth, and Beyond the Limits, by Donella and Dennis Meadows.
Of course, Malthus couldn’t know about fossil fuel, and A Miracle Might Occur, and some deus ex machina could supply another increment of energy to humanity that will enable more growth.
What happens when that energy resource becomes depleted? Aren’t we simply delaying the inevitable? Garrett Hardin wrote: “Given an infinite source of energy, population growth still produces an inescapable problem. The problem of the acquisition of energy is replaced by the problem of its dissipation.” and Steven Hawking notes: “By 2500 or so, people will cover the entire land mass of the world shoulder to shoulder, and the earth will glow a dull red with the energy they dissipate.”
So, where do you draw the line? Do you even believe there’s a line? It not, then we must part and agree to disagree.
But if you do agree that endless growth in a finite world is not possible, surely we should obey the Precautionary Principle, and err on the side of caution?
Bob – Simplifying one’s lifestyle, becoming more aware of where one’s food is coming from, buying locally, living closer to the earth – these are good things to do anywhere. We got our water from a well and a few times a year we went into the city (San Antonio – plenty of culture there) fifty miles away. And I have to say I lost my respect for Stewart Brand when he came out in favor of nuclear power. Too bad.
Jan, I don’t see character assassination in the paper. I’m also not contending there are absolutely no limits to growth per se. I’m not a capitalist aristocrat. The biggest threat to natural limits is not precisely the population. Yes, population is a problem if we “assume” the math alone and that populations in developing countries are being groomed to inevitably join the butchering of the planet that western capitalists so ably and actively promote. I am not that pessimistic, hysterical, or deluded into missing how aggressive western economic principles are to a great degree, the primary culprit behind the smokescreen defining population growth as a undeniable threat.
“Attributing conflicts arising from resource scarcity to population pressures, rather than neo-colonialism or neo-liberalism, meanwhile serves the function of making Western interventions appear more benign.”
Whatever danger is posed by population growth is made so by the spread of unchecked, out of scale predatory materialistic ideologies. In my opinion it is predictable, if not at least despicable, for those who sit so comfortably on the throne of fossil fueled infrastructures, to want to target human procreation in so called developing countries. And make no mistake, they are the primary target. And that is the focus of this way of thinking….control the poor, reduce their numbers and many can maintain a semblance of our extravagant gluttony.
All this talk of controlling population just reduces one into a “survival of the fittest” mindset. It’s school yard bullying prompted by the promises made to little warlords acting as agents for the greed of little tyrants who only want the dollars they can squeeze out of the land that belongs to real, honest, hardworking people.
If the population in North America, for example, could rely less on the resources from global markets, maybe global populations would strike a balance. If developing countries would stop being a battle ground for transnational corporations – hungry to get their labor and resources, maybe those populations would have a chance to return to the ways they naturally have for supporting themselves.
It might seem like a little thing but somebody said it a few posts back. Buy less America! and to that I”ll add – Buy Local!
“… it is predictable, if not at least despicable, for those who sit so comfortably on the throne of fossil fueled infrastructures, to want to target human procreation in so called developing countries. And make no mistake, they are the primary target.”
Ah, now I know where you’re coming from.
I agree that not everyone who advocates reduced population has pure motives. NPG (for one) is pretty racist in its policies. I don’t support any population reduction group who has “immigration” as one of its issues, or who specifically targets the third world.
But I think you’re jumping to conclusions about those in this forum who advocate population reduction. Each American baby will have at least twenty times the impact of an Indian or Chinese baby, and perhaps 100 times the impact of an African baby.
I think population is a problem, period — north, south, east, west, rich, poor — you name it.
Donella Meadows presents the following equation in Beyond the Limits, which I think she stole from HT Odum:
I = P * A * T
Impact equals Population times Affluence times Technology.
I consider “Affluence” to be essentially energy consumption.
You can reduce impact by reducing any of the terms.
But in your zeal to not be in favor of reducing population, would you reduce the affluence or access to technology of the population?
That seems to me to be just as arrogant and barbaric — tell people in the third world that they can’t have modern medicine or electric lights, just so they can procreate at will.
Wouldn’t it be much simpler if we could all just agree to reduce our numbers? Would you go along with this if it were proportionately applied to all countries, regardless of wealth?
I = P * A * T
Impact equals Population times Affluence times Technology.
You can reduce impact by reducing any of the terms.
Ah! Now this I can relate to. How about this? In the San Joaquin Valley of California (a formerly rich ag zone over a hundred miles wide) new growth is re-doubling city areas at mind-numbing rates. So if people won’t, darn them, become less numerous to reduce the IMPACT of this growth, we can simply make them poorer, right? Boy, if that tactic will make the impact ‘less’ I’m all for it, although in exactly what terms that would e less escapes me at the moment.
But OK! Become poor and your impact will be reduced! The back-to-the-landers deserve a round of applause. Oh, by the way, the horny-thorny question nags its way back on to the table still: WILL IT SCALE?
In fact I rather enjoyed the San Joaquin Valley when I was a kid and it was about equal parts cropland and riparian wetland as far as the eye could see. Lots fewer people, rich and poor. Dangit. If there have got to be more people, let them be richer than poorer, I say. The numbers who have come by now would spread out even more and make an even lousier mess of the place if they hadn’t the props of technology — and affluence — to keep them bunched up and off the grass, so to speak.
To those who shoot the messenger — Stewart Brand in this case — because he doesn’t perfectly fit their pieties, may I draw the attention back to the message: that it is essential as never before to take full advantage of every resource, technological, managerial, societal. MIT reports progress in bio-engineering bacteria to make gasoline from grass. ‘The solution’? We’ll see. Might help.
Well water is fine, but no Permaculture farm is an island, as John Donne wrote the song. Who coordinates this well, if it is deep, with drawdowns over the region? And if shallow, to balance local users, and organize measures to prevent nasty infiltrations from surface waste? Those are technological, administrative, and societal issues. Comfort is or soon will be engulfed in the sprawl of San Antonio, one of the fastest-growing regions in the US. What then?
The Malthus article is nothing more than a screed for someone with an ax to grind, the fulminations about capitalism, semantic head-tripping, I’m afraid. Historically there is one proven positive correlation with reduced fertility. It is NOT capitalist exploitation, it is NOT widespread famine, epidemic, war, or natural disaster, it is NOT externally-imposed government (or foreign NGO) policy.
It is education. For women.
Culture is a helluvalot MORE than driving 50 miles a few times a year to see a movie. And munch a drive-thru burger. It encompasses science, technology, government, communications, education and debate — AND Don Giovanni plus Pirates of the Caribbean, thank you, whether or not at walking distance from where the viewer rests his head. Something more than scuffles over the bar tab on the Titanic, including win-win’s to foreshadow declining fertilities. Note the plural, it might have done to have added ‘of rich and poor alike’. But the awful truth IS ‘racist’, if we’ve just got to be prisoner to coded rhetoric. The vast majority of the earth’s population, who are poor, don’t live in the wealthy, technoratic ‘west’ and are not ‘white’.
Every current college graduate in India speaks English. Shall we open debate with a few of them to see what they would suggest?
Perhaps you have overlooked at least one other correlation: No food equals no people. No exceptions.
I have seen many examples of thoroughly well-educated females of the highest socioeconomic standing having large families, even in these days. However, I have never seen, heard, read or found a single shred of good scientific evidence — in all of recorded history — of a human being surviving long periods of time without food.
ALL the scientific evidence indicates that human beings cannot survive long absent food.
The education of women in our time is important, for sure; but, a precondition for education is food.
Thanks for your comments and for those of others to this stimulating discussion.
In Comment # 24 I referenced the following work:
21 SOLUTIONS? to Save the World………
Please note that nowhere is there mentioned the potential for an ECOLOGICAL catastrophe that could soon result from the rapidly mounting pressures produced by unbridled human production, increasing per capita consumption and near exponential human population growth.
Nowhere is there mentioned the potential for a colossal wreckage of the global ECONOMY in the offing that could result from the irreversible degradation of the environment and the reckless dissipation of finite resources produced by the adamant and relentless growth of certain distinctly human activities now overspreading the surface of Earth.
At least to me, we have substantial evidence of unbelievable blindness and elective mutism. Such spectacular omissions are unprecedented in my experience.
What are our leaders thinking and doing?
What am I missing?
Nope I can’t entirely agree Jan. I do agree, for the affluent caste it is an easier choice, but I cannot condone a way to “control a population”. You jump as well to the conclusion that nothing will, or can change with regard to the the level of impact from American “affluent” children. As if the statistic is fixed in stone.
It’s also a poor argument to suspect developing populations will be denied access to medicine and technology. Why would they? Who would deny them? Not me.
You think having less children is as simple as an agreement? What planet woulld I find that on? Hell, we’re supposed to be intelligent and so far, we in this forum seem bent on finding our ways to disagree. (all for the good)
Rises in population today are a symptom, the cause of which are mainly created by dysfunctions in governments and economies that inadvertently, or sometimes intentionally, manipulate and suppress characteristics relevant to local in a population, and thus. the natural livelihoods and well being of a society.
Yes, I will agree that over population is a potential problem, but cannot be solved by enforcement or by some miraculous agreement. It can addressed by getting to the the real causes. I agree with Bob, education is one important tactic, but not just for women. And Bob, if you think global economics is not abusive and impacts population and the environment in which they dwell , you’ve got to be ‘head tripping’ yourself.
(Further Musings: Not Just the Titanic Bar Tab We’ve Run Up)
When I was in high school I performed with a church orchestra, one day something Bach. It gave me goosebumps. I told to the music director I’d like to have been able to meet ol’ Bach; she said she’d prefer to meet Christ, first. Touché. We were in church. Oddly though when I return to that moment in memory I realize I really would have wanted to have met Bach, first, to have sat in his little church on a spring Sunday, to have listened, to have watched his fingers dance over the organ keyboard.
It’s something to do with the realization, the perfection, of a certain inevitability of — form.
We are all, one might submit, searching for better, justified, fully-realized forms, for institutions, for — infrastructure, wanting any more graceful word. Whatever our differences be, in our choice of words.
The American painter and photographer Charles Sheeler (his opus magnum must be his cycle of paintings and photographs of the then eighth wonder of the world, Ford Motor’s River Rouge complex outside of Detroit) said he liked his Ford car — and Bach — for the same reason: because all the parts worked so well together.
I’d risk putting us all in one basket, that we seek ways to get all the parts working better, and sustainably, together. I might wish there could be a future with somewhat fewer of the human parts, but from here the big picture doesn’t augur well. (Surprises welcome.) Meanwhile here’s the deal. Ms. Ray made the call in her title and setting remarks, even though she blew the follow-through. (I guess choristers are traditionally stuck with what the minister delivers and walks out on, smiling toothlessly and greeting the faithful on the steps.)
The core of Ms. Ray’s appeal was to teach by example. We each have our little piece of the philosopher’s elephant we blindly fondle, which we admire or despise. The ticklish part: getting hold of a slightly wider perspective. If we’ve got a handle on something that’s got to go (overpopulation? CO2? lead paint?) then testing the reforms we envision is the real challenge. If it’s proselytizing for our particular dearly-beloved faith, from the country vegetable patch or the city high-rise, we must likewise test how our evangelism can play. In the big, wide, real world where there are other and conflicting perspectives, actualities.
Paul Valery wrote ‘The world is always more interesting than any of our ideas about it.’ The more we kick our ideas around, the more the world, and it’s problems can knock US about. That we might truly learn what’s new.
Perhaps you have overlooked at
least one other correlation: No food
equals no people. No exceptions.
I have seen many examples of
thoroughly well-educated females
of the highest socioeconomic standing
having large families, even in these days.
Dear Steve, forgive me, first, if I tell you I don’t understand your point. Rich folks sometimes choose to have large families. And? Can you try again? Help us out here — not clear what you’re driving at, other than hammering home the trivial no food – no people. The education factor comes as a counter-intuitive surprise. I first heard it from the — uh — donkey’s mouth, on a Sierra Club Family Burro Trip a dozen years ago, from a passenger who is a historian and regaled us with tales from her research.
The historically positive correlation between women’s education level and lowered fertility is just that, a measured statistical relationship among observed facts. Call it ‘scientific’ because it is based on data. Along with related data concerning social relationships, family needs, and changes through time in how women see themselves and make decisions about their own lives. By extension of course about the lives of their families, communities, the world. But the 15-words-or-less heart of the matter is: better education for girls and women and lower fertility happen together.
I for one have trouble imagining ‘education’ as someone’s way of forcing behavior change. (Take that from one who has been a middle school teacher, eh?!) If I start speculating…well, remember, first, that this observation of correlation is itself a mere ‘fact’ we now can live with, and re-interpret how we may…so if I speculate, I don’t imagine poor villagers in India or Nepal, the example I cited earlier, just picking up and leaving their fields to go to school. In fact it’s more like ‘No Kemalina, you stay right here, I need you to help cook and drag in firewood and help daddy plow…’ There must be some intrinsic reward for people facing such life-constraints, to take on something new, to take risk. Just for starters, thinking out loud, the prospect of what education promises must itself activate some imaginative world in which one enters new realms of possibility, along with acquiring means, knowledge, skills, to accomplish new things.
I’ve endeavored to express that thought as ‘speculation’ but I’d say there is generous ‘story’ to confirm something like that as being real. Otherwise one truly abandons hope.
Did you know that the real cause of the Irish potato famines had more to do with the substitution of milled (hull-less) white flour for potatoes than with the shortage of potatoes? The skin of a potato and the hull of the wheat kernel contain zinc, if I remember right. (This is approximate! a good Googler with even more available time can confirm this.) Dietary zinc suppresses fertility. Remove the restraint and population climbs more steeply. Disaster, or — then again, the exodus of Irish to New York and Boston might be viewed as an ultimate win for us. History is devilish, that way…..
And Bob, if you think global
economics is not abusive and
impacts population and the
environment inwhich they
dwell , you’ve got to be
‘head tripping’ yourself.
Er— Drew. If you believe that -I- think ‘global economics’ is not just beneficial, I’d say you didn’t read what I wrote. Grrrrr. 🙂
May I ask in all innocence what OTHER system exists?. Other than what I imagine — could be oh, so wrong about this — your term ‘global economics’ implies?
We could go back to the ways of the Mono people. Except that even they were a trading people. Fly corpses (concentrated protein, i.e. meat, in a preserved, stable form) in exchange for acorn pulp…. Trans-continental transport infrastructure, too. At least a piece of the continent — across the Sierra Nevada, between the Mono basin and the Central Valley.
….the potential for an ECOLOGICAL
catastrophe that could soon result
from the rapidly mounting pressures
produced by unbridled human…
…. the potential for a colossal wreckage of the
Paul Ehrlich made his public career starting from ‘The Population Bomb’ in 1968. He founded Zero Population Growth — which recently changed its name to something similar.
His scenario was for just such massive ecological and economic disasters, with hundreds of millions of deaths. In the 1970s and onward. But they didn’t actually happen like that, and some stats show that, in spite of the huge tragedies of death from famine/malnutrition, disease, and war, it is actually that both the raw numbers and the percentages have fallen from, say, the latter part of the 19th century.
Not to get complacent. Steve’s rant about apocalypse might grab headlines but this doubter suspects the cringe will come like the fog, on little cat-feet. (In the midst of intellectual, spiritual, and governmental fogs, of course.) We’re headed for incremental squeezes. Not, one morning, ‘NO MORE’ of this or that — land, free-running rivers, electric power, oil — but less today than yesterday. With parallel spikes and troughs in every graph of activity, production, population (especially of migration), stock and commodity prices, and the rest.
I wish well the back-to-the-landers, but as I’ve tried to express, I find that not to be a solution because it cannot be applied very widely. Even if many, many more people could somehow afford to leave cities and suburbs and take up gardening and ‘sustainable’ farming, there would not be room for them all. Worse, the very qualities of ambience and space that underlie this ‘movement’ would shrivel. I write ‘shrivel’ as the verb of choice. Not go ‘thrrrrrrppp’ all at once, but — little by little. Hectare by hectare. Not gobbled, nibbled up. A subdivision here. A new off-ramp there.
It takes true zeal, and also determination and discipline to change things. That means — AMONG OTHER THINGS — lots of trips to city hall. That last was a metaphor for making one’s presence felt, and fighting the good, activist fight, in many governmental — and informational, educational venues.
Having the facts at hand, and, frankly vetted, by experts in relevant areas, helps. Credibility counts.
And: people with weak stomachs should not watch sausage, laws, or art being made. Harry Truman said it well, ‘If you can’t stand the heat….’
Dear Bob Tyson and Friends,
It is not my intention to either trivialize truth or engage in rants. Please forgive any of my communications that remind you of wildly extravagant comments or other forms of raving. As my long-suffering spouse knows better than anyone else, my communication skills have always been woefully inadequate and are now noticeably diminishing. She would be the first to point out my advanced age, waning faculties and dimming vision.
Speaking for myself, please understand that I am unprepared and poorly equipped for the work at hand.
Despite literally thousands of failures to communicate effectively for the past seven years, I have continuously sought to draw attention to unchallenged scientific evidence related to potentially calamitous impacts that could conceivably result from the scale and growth rate of human production, consumption and overpopulation activities now overspreading Earth.
At least to me, Paul Ehrlich is a great man and most superlative scientist. I think his science is somehow on the correct track (as is the 1972 work of the Club of Rome) even though the predictions derived from these scientific findings were proven incorrect. Paul R. Ehrlich’s science is not the problem. Among other things, his mistake was making silly bets. I believe his bad bets became more famous than his good science and, most unfortunately, attention to his bad bets served to help set back advancements in population science for more than three decades.
Now comes apparently unforeseen scientific evidence from Russell Hopfenberg, Ph.D., and David Pimentel, Ph.D. on human population dynamics and absolute global human population numbers.
I think of Paul R. Ehrlich as a forerunner with regard to the elegant research from Hopfenberg and Pimentel. If you would be so kind, please consider the evidence being presented by Dr. Hopfenberg and Dr. Pimentel, in the light of Dr. Ehrlich’s vital research.
Steven Earl Salmony, Ph.D., M.P.A.
AWAREness Campaign on the Human Population, established 2001
1834 North Lakeshore Drive
Chapel Hill, NC 27514, USA
You’re right Bob, it is the only system. Onward and upward – besides, what better use of third world lands is there than to turn them over to become little Syngenta or Monsanto states, to become fields of patented, genetically modified Round-up Ready corn or soybeans for bio-fuels. Kind of like the state of Iowa. What a model! Hallelujah! the world is saved!
I direct this specifically towards Steve. Dr. Ehrlich is a very fine scientist, I hope by my raising his name here I suggested not otherwise.
Catastrophe predictions grab headlines. Obscure important details. Confuse debate. You’re right, Ehrlich put his nickel on the wrong number. Yet his science was sound, so that’s not the quibble. As the other famed philospher with the big catcher’s mitt put it, ‘Predictions are always hard, especially when they are about the future’. (Yogi Berra) We do need to look to our own houses on that one, presently.
I looked up Hopfenberg/Pimentel to get a sense of their argument. They sound like they’re on the right track but in a boringly familiar manner methinks. Here is something else that turned up, used by another commentator in referencing their work:
According to the unchallenged and virtually irrefutable research of…(H/P)….
Ouch. Say what????? ‘Virtually irrefutable’? Since when! Scientists earn their keep because they ARE skeptical and by refutint, on the basis of evidence, their research. The Laws of Gravitation are so-called only because they’ve withstood centuries testing. Back to Ehrlich, he observed actual phenomena (as Newton did the apple). He applied reason to characterize what he saw. He drew inferences, and concluded that events might unfold in a certain direction. And, he predicted, at a certain pace.
He was ‘wrong’ only about the magnitude, not on the probable direction of future events. Although it’s likely not long enough to test with significance the discrepancy between his projection and events. (Similar vein, Katrina might have been an effect of climate change, or it might have been within the expected scatter of storm intensities even absent global warming. We don’t now have the data to make that distinction, although at some point we may. Note that markets are opening up for reinsurance and bond sales on the downside risks of catastrophic storm, fire, and earthquake losses in future.)
But it’s the other part of that line, referring to H/P’s work, that really gets me. ‘Unchallenged’…..hmmmmm. It has to be the second of two possibilities. Either the research was flawless, or it was trivial, insignificant. I pick the second. If it had been so obviously flawless in its design, execution, evidence revealed, and conclusions that there’s no wiggle room, that is, truly ‘irrefutable’ we would be hearing about it. Such a thing has never happened in the history of science. So I’m afraid it is probably trivial, meaning that no scientist (or corporate interst) has found it interesting, important, new, or threatening enough to bother challenging.
(There is an article in the currrent The New Yorker online about a pair of professors who have written a long working paper criticising the US’ long support for Israel and a foreign policy mistake, perpetuated at the behest of a powerful ‘lobby’. I leave the interested parties to look it up, but note this: on Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government website one may download the paper itself to read, and click a link to read faculty comment. In this case, there is one comment. And only one, from Alan Dershowitz. Now, again not wishing to provoke, I have to note that I was a little surprised, given the controversial nature of the original paper, that there was but ONE response. I’m sure there will be more in the public media. This one reply from Dershowitz, considering that professor’s clearly-expressed biases — and commission of elementary logical fallacies in the first paragraphs of his responses — speaks for itself that this is somehow perhaps not so important a topic, other than to a few with pet-peeve level vested interests. Or color me wrong, which would be nice. The issue at hand does loom with great weight in all of our lives. Oil. Politics. Religion. Bong. Bong. Bong.)
Scientists don’t sit still. The first possibility (‘irrefutable’) is absurd. I’ll take the second: the general thrust of these fellows’ conclusions is boringly familiar. One doubts their research, in detail, breaks new ground or challenges old dogma. Which hasn’t a thing to do with the problem at hand, nor with what to do to understand and do something about it, other than to know when to cut, run, and not waste time on useless side-stepping.
If we see population growth and environmental damage as corollaries to global materialistic activity it means that at least we aren’t blind. If we see where the trendlines head then just perhaps we can make intelligent plans, altogether. M King Hubbert predicted peak oil (the phrase has, I know, since acquired Capital Letters) back in the late 50’s. His evidentiary basis was the publicly documented growth in oil demand in the US, and the trends in production from and depletion of oil fields. No one I know of disputes his background thesis, as far as his characterization of the real-world forces at play and the observable, quantifiabloe effects of them.
However, his depletion curves and his inferences about ‘peak oil’ and so on were ridiculed, at the time. He was made a pariah. So it is no small wonder to examine them now (this is for the continental US) and see that generally he was right. A peak in production, onshore, around 1970 with a decline that continues today. An upward curve in consumption, that continues to this day. (The negative sum of the two being made up, of course, by imports.)
Is that enough to pull out all the stops, IOW, to panic? I don’t think so. First of all, there are options staring us in the face. One IS to adjust habits. We got into the SUV habit. We can get out of it. If Priuses become all the rage, as SUVs did fifteen years ago, hey. I’ll cheer. Toyota Echos might be better but that’s hairsplitting in contrast to the quantum jump back from the abyss that letting go of the 12 mpg dinosaurs would represent. And OF COURSE we need to go much farther. I hope the new Fiat 500 is almost as small as the original, and goes much farther on a liter of gas. (No data — been to lazy to follow up.) Plus — just maybe — this ridiculous idea, among others, of bacteria that produce fuel will find a niche. I for one can’t imagine it ever being more than that, but surprises are always welcome.
Another option-set has to do with time. Look at Hubbert’s Peak Oil curves and you do realize that things have taken time to unfold. Not rooting for complacency but for well-thought-out changes, win-win’s and generate profits — sorry ’bout that — among many sectors, globally.
I know Steve is well-meaning, but the cannodading Cassandra-isms might be counterproductive. If we’re to lead by example, might we first examine the example we live? A disappointing aspect of Ms. Ray’s article was the pat, black-or-white kind of questions she dropped, and of responses that seemed to fit. Might be worthwhile to push that baseball cap back on the sweaty noggin, scratch the head, and sigh, ‘Ah yes, how ARE we doing on this?’ Really dig in and examine what we’re about, city — or country. And then go out to ‘set’ that ‘example’.
As to those predictions — the ones about the future — maybe we’re at the same place as Huck and Jim (The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, pp 60ff):
And Jim said you mustn’t count the things
you are going to cook for dinner, because that
would bring bad luck. The same if you shook
the table-cloth after sundown. And he said
if a man owned a beehive and that man died,
the bees must be told about it before sun-up
next morning, or else the bees would all weaken
down and quit work and die. Jim said bees
wouldn’t sting idiots; but I didn’t believe that,
because I had tried them lots of times myself,
and they wouldn’t sting me.
I had heard about some of these things before,
but not all of them. Jim knowed all kinds of signs.
He said he knowed most everything. I said it looked
to me like all the signs was about bad luck, and so
I asked him if there warn’t any good-luck signs. He says:
“Mighty few — an’ dey ain’t no use to a body.
What you want to know when good luck’s a-comin’ for?
Want to keep it off?” And he said: “Ef you’s got hairy
arms en a hairy breas’, it’s a sign dat you’s agwyne
to be rich. Well, dey’s some use in a sign like dat,
‘kase it’s so fur ahead. You see, maybe you’s got
to be po’ a long time fust, en so you might git
discourage’ en kill yo’sef ‘f you didn’ know by
de sign dat you gwyne to be rich bymeby.”
“Have you got hairy arms and a hairy breast, Jim?”
“What’s de use to ax dat question? Don’t you see I has?”
“Well, are you rich?”
“No, but I ben rich wunst, and gwyne to be rich agin.
Wunst I had foteen dollars, but I tuck to specalat’n’,
en got busted out.”
“What did you speculate in, Jim?”
“Well, fust I tackled stock.”
“What kind of stock?”
“Why, live stock — cattle, you know.
I put ten dollars in a cow. But I ain’ gwyne to
resk no mo’ money in stock. De cow up ‘n’ died on my han’s.”
“So you lost the ten dollars.”
“No, I didn’t lose it all. I on’y los’ ’bout nine of it.
I sole de hide en taller for a dollar en ten cents.”
Maybe we’ve still got a buck or two in our pockets. And better not to count what we’re cookin’ for dinner….?? We don’t want to get stung, now do we?
Drew! You’re forthright and eschew irony. (Not.) But let’s see if I’ve understood your solution — now, I hope I’ve got this right — of ‘making the Third World into Syngenta or Monsanto states like the state of Iowa’. Phew. Where’d you come up with that howler? 🙁
Whucher prob, bub? If you’d like to quote something I said and tear it to bits, fine. I can learn something from that. But this won’t do. You’re putting words in my mouth that are not even close to the sense of what I think and have tried to express. Let alone to what I’ve written. That’s a BIG no-no. I don’t really mind, except that discussion is one thing and I see that fighting is something else.
Please tone down the pit-bull side of your rhetoric. If you’ve something to hash with me, you’re welcome to use my contact info for off-list exchange. You’ll find leads to it in a previous post and via the link with my name.
To Drew: Here’s another shot. Read this line again. It’s tricky. But I think you didn’t read it carefully enough the first time around.
”If you believe that -I- think ‘global economics’ is not just beneficial, I’d say you didn’t read what I wrote.”
Ack– I do see a problem. Remove the ‘not’ and the sentence goes where I meant it to. Proof-reading. Always. Or sometimes….
To play it straight, I DO NOT believe that ‘global economics’ (in Drew’s wording) is JUST — or only — beneficial.
This is how the original sentence oughta’ve been:
If you believe that -I- think ‘global economics’ is JUST beneficial, I’d say you didn’t read what I wrote.
Yah I know….meglio tarde di mai. Better late than never. Apologies t those who insist on getting the news straight out, no shilly-shally around ‘nuance’.
Dear Bob Tyson,
Thanks by your comments.
Please note that I believe I understand what you report about what I have said. There is nothing to challenge. Standing by what I have presented here and elsewhere is something you can anticipate from me.
You have made yourself as clear as I have tried to make myself. I like and thank you for that.
Perhaps you can help me. For some years, I have been approaching our colleagues in the fields of biology, sociology, psychology, physics, economics, demography, political science, among other hard and soft sciences, to simply discharge a professional duty to science by commenting, as scientists typically do, on the evidence presented by Hopfenberg and Pimentel. So far, I have not been successful in getting a respected colleague to carefully and skillfully examine the research from Hopfenberg and Pimentel. Do you think you can help me find one top-rank scientist who would be willing to carefully and skillfully examine what Hopfenberg and Pimentel have presented and then report the findings to the community of scientists? Such assistance from you would help a great deal.
Please know that as soon as the evidence to which I draw attention is sensibly refuted, the AWAREness Campaign on the Human Population will immediately end. Because of promise already given, you can rest assured that whenever the evidence is refuted, you, our friends in the Orion Society and many other Earth-keepers will not hear from me again.
Until then, the work at hand continues, I suppose.
Perhaps you can help me. For some years,
I have been approaching our colleagues
in the fields of biology…to comment(ing),
as scientists typically do, on the evidence
presented by Hopfenberg and Pimentel.
Before I can answer you on this one I need to know a little more about H+P and their work. I also warn you my connections are few and feeble, so I may not be the best channel. But. I scanned a couple of websites very quickly to get a feel for their thesis, can you give us a thumbnail of what they’re about? Spell it out a bit or point us to a pithy website for more info and let’s see what’s what. I confess I’m not sure from what I read in which discipline their work would fall.
I frankly couldn’t see what was fresh or unique in the general drift, beyond their tracking on trends of production, population, consumption. Maybe I’m missing something — what do you make of the lack of peer review? Having original research accepted for publication in any science journal follows pretty methodical, pragmatic steps. One would think that a journal would have at least taken a preliminary look — if they submitted an article and sent it around for pre-publication comment, as is customary.
Let us know. I’m more than skeptical I fear. The world is in tough shape, yet there are mechanisms for important discoveries to surface. It’s pretty rare for something exceptional to escape notice, so if you’ve got a hot one here things might turn real interesting real quick. What IS their heretofore un-revealed evidence?
…wish I had a second alias to post this, but…
Anybody remember the ‘cold fusion’ research back when?? Arrgh.
Ah Bob! I beg your apology. I was indeed standing with my heels planted. I completely misread you. I was (in my snide position) attempting to show the “not so beneficial” illusory patina of globalized capitalism. And as you would say “will it scale?”
Here, I would like to posit, as an attempt at clarity, something E.F. Schumacher mentioned with regard to private ownership – since I discern this is a crucial commandment that drives most of the religion of the western/global economic system. And the oft’ used justification for the ‘right’ to own by any means.
“Systems are never more nor less than incarnations of man’s most basic attitudes.” – “As regards private property, the first and most basic distinction is between (a)property that is an aid to creative work and (b) property that is an alternative to it. There is something inherently natural and healthy about the former – private ownership of the working proprietor; and there is something inherently unnatural and unhealthy about the later – private ownership of the passive owner who lives parasitically on the work of others. This basic distinction was clearly seen by R.H. Tawney many decades ago, who followed that “it is idle, therefore, to present a case for or against private property without specifying the particular forms of property to which reference is made.” For it is not private ownership, but private ownership divorced from work, which is corrupting to the principle of industry.”
It should of course be distinguished that “creative work” is indeed available to those who cannot or choose not to pursue ownership of private enterprise. However, as the scale of ownership becomes increasingly detached and impersonal..the work and the worker seems to follow.
Likely, with regard to scale – I am more a proponent of L. Kohr, who advised the breaking down of large nations. “Little states produce greater wisdom in their policies because they are weak. Their leaders could not get away with stupidity, not even in the short run. Large powers, on the other hand, can get away with stupidity for prolonged periods. But who among us, if he feels he can get away with stupidity, which can be had so effortlessly, will ever take the trouble and pains of being wise?”
It is definitely easier and less painful to be lazy and stupid, especially when the focus rests on searching for giant solutions for giant problems. It seems wisdom emerges more readily when problems of global dimensions are broken down to a scale that can reflect the requirements of immediate, local and personal actions.
Thank you, Drew.
Hmmm. How local is local? Didn’t Karl Marx say something about this even longer ago?
Steve, I don’t know of Hopfenberg’s work, but I do know of peer review of Pimentel’s work on the energy balance of biofuels. I believe UCB has duplicated his results, as have his peers at Cornell. But that doesn’t seem to be what you’re interested in.
Pimentel was the first to point out that, with the methods used today in the US (corn/enzyme/yeast), ethanol actually consumes more energy than it produces. A pretty clever ploy by the oilmen in the White House to cause oil prices to go up, if you ask me!
I’m not aware of any population research he may have published. A ref or two of your favorites would be appreciated, or I can just google.
I think Pimentel’s most important point about modern industrial farming is that if you take away the oil, you take away the ability to make food on the scale modern civilization needs. We’re practicing Permaculture here, and I’m trying to teach people how to survive without oil, but I fear as many as 5/6ths won’t be able to.
Bob, you may be right that everyone can’t go back to the land. On the other hand, those who can may be the only non-rich survivers. Prior to widespread use of petroleum, there were fifteen families on the land for every one in the cities. Today, there are thousands in the city for every one on the land.
This has been a fascinating conversation, but it seems the parties have taken up their intractable corners, and I’ve got work to do. I’m planning to tackle some standing deadwood today, and buck/split/stack a cord or so of winter heat. Then I’ve got a batch of biodiesel to make — from restaurant waste, I don’t believe in making it out of food. Then I’ve got to do some work in our winter garden.
So thank you all for this diversion from the “hard fun” of actually making food and energy. (We’re actually a carbon sink here… now if I could just sell these carbon credits to some wannabee green SUV driver… 🙂
….follow on to the above, isn’t this ‘both-and’ and not ‘either-or’? Sure it’s got to be ‘local’. And also ‘global’.
There’s a talking-past each other thing going on, too, in this example from Drew’s last post:
Likely, with regard to scale – I am more a proponent of L. Kohr, who advised the breaking down of large nations. “Little states produce greater wisdom in their policies because they are weak.“
This may be a useful ideal or metaphor, even though what I know of history contains many ‘balkanizations’. What I meant by ‘scale’ (how does this or that solution ‘scale’) was a pure matter of pragmatics. Of engineering.
I want to be very direct and not insult anyone for his or her present life-mode, ergo this disclosure line.
Scaling is the matter of taking a defined program that works, say, for one person, or one small community, and testing to see if it will work, without unexpected bad effects, if it is ‘scaled up’ and made big, involving bigger numbers of people as it is applied to a big community, a city, a country. Or to the entire world.
Those who happily till the soil in small outposts won’t like this, but I have yet to see convincing signs that that way of life can work for any but a certain minority.
Minority that is among industrialized populaces where that lifestyle is an opt-in deal. Majority in much of the world where the overhang of uncertainty about the next harvest, the next coup, the next plague of locusts all conspire to rob the idyll of its charm.
Demographic note: migration into cities is the biggest human movement of our era. Or — into slums the likes of which we’ve never seen before.
To Drew’s invocation of ‘scale’ I ask, what does breaking larger nations up into smaller ones accomplish? India broke before into India + Pakistan, E and W, thence to India + Pakistan + Bangladesh…what next?
I really must be a Bear of Very Little Brain. Someone ‘splain me, pleez.
It’s mysterious to me where this character Kohr hangs out. If ‘little states produce greater wisdom in their policies because they are weak’ then it naturally follows that India and Pakistan both got dem nukes, right?? Is that a sign of weakness, or wisdom?
Jan, go if you must. If there IS value in this sort of thing though maybe it’s getting past those ‘corners’. I see some of that progress. If nothing else this can be a lab for honing the expression of the ideas.
For example, you wrote, ‘Prior to widespread use of petroleum, there were fifteen families on the land for every one in the cities. Today, there are thousands in the city for every one on the land.’
‘Prior to widespread use of petroleum’ would be when, 1870s? And what was the world population, then?
I would so love to be convinced that Permaculture can do more than create a superclass of survivors. I hope you can imagine from this gentle hint just how tragically elitist and exclusive that sounds.
Pimentel was the first to point out that,
with the methods used today in
the US (corn/enzyme/yeast),
ethanol actually consumes more
energy than it produces. A pretty
clever ploy by the oilmen in the
White House to cause
oil prices to go up…
Let’s see. Jan is on the same page with Pimental that it takes more energy to make ethanol than you get from it, in the US. Is this the one, unique significant fact we need to run with, or might there be others that are important? Is it relevant (or — even true, despite how much I, too, detest them as liars) that ‘oilmen in the White House’ fomented this ‘ploy’ — sez Jan?
Jan can unwind this Rubik’s cube and show us which part is true. Nasty news, the price of oil goes up, independent of the room-roster at 1600 Pensylvania.
Well, local for me at the moment, is instigating a debate on watershed deterioration, starting and maintaining restoration projects and calling to account the mining operation and feedlot operations in this vicinity already cited on numerous occasions for not following mandated measures to contain their runoff.
Organizing efforts with the local utilities to educate and aggressively promote the offer of incentives for reducing energy consumption and employing renewable alternatives.
Other things – purchasing recycled building materials is starting to catch on…it’s how we saved the only longstanding local building material supplier left in the county able to compete with the national chains.
I don’t know what local is for others, but everybody is physically living somewhere. I do what strikes me is good doing where I live, together with the people who live here too. It’s kind of a small city, rural county conglomeration.
There is also a local university here and that adds a particular advantage that similar communities don’t have…more progressive thinking.
“It’s mysterious to me where this character Kohr hangs out. If ‘little states produce greater wisdom in their policies because they are weak’ then it naturally follows that India and Pakistan both got dem nukes, right?? Is that a sign of weakness, or wisdom?”
Let’s see if I can uncover some of the mysterious Kohr here. Well to begin with he was something of a admired colleague of Schumacher and was the one who actually coined that well known mantra “Small is beautiful”. Austrian by birth, he spent a significant amount of time in the field at various times and places mainly among third world Latin communities. In one of his books “The Breakdown of Nations” in a section entitled (Smallness, the Basis of Stability) he writes: “Whatever we investigate, the vast universe or the little atom, we find that creation has manifested itself in manifold littleness rather than in the simplicity of huge bulk. Everything is small, limited, discontinuous, disunited. Only relatively small bodies – though not the smallest, as we shall see – have stability. Below a certain size, everything fuses, joins, or accumulates. But beyond a certain size, everything collapses, degrades, or explodes.”
Far be it from me to adequately decipher, or simply summarize the many complexities of his theories and observations, but he covers alot of ground in his writings. As a diversion, here is an address, given not too long ago by Ivan Illich as a tribute to Leopold Kohr. http://www.oceanarks.org/annals/articles/kohr/
Thank you Janisse for reminding us that we have models in unlikely places and that no action is sometimes profound action. That our every “choice to” is automatically married to our “choice not to.” That our budgets are woefully skewed to illuminate some costs but not all costs. Thank you too for the journey. The one that starts today.
For Jan who wrote ‘This has been a fascinating conversation, but…’
Question: How will it be when your children leave home and — some of them — go off to the cities, in search of adventure, career, projects that burst the bounds of your little world, love…. ??
Throughout his life, Kohr labored to lay the foundations for an alternative to economics; he had no interest in seeking innovative ways to plan the allocation of scarce goods. (Ivan Illich)
Makes me grumpy. I been laboring to lay the foundations for an alternative to gravity, myself. Will let you know soon’s — there, almost got it — whoops…
I am sorry but this is cheap wordplay. I read the Illich piece and can’t find anything that resonates, even poetically.
Dear Bob Tyson,
Whatever assistance you can provide, however feeble it may be, is sure to be appreciated.
It is probably not a good idea for me to try and say much about the work of Russell Hopfenberg and David Pimentel. At least to me their evidence speaks for itself, in a remarkably simple way.
There is one comment I would like to make about the H-P research. Their evidence indicates that the governing population dynamics of of the human species is essentially common to, not different from, the population dynamics of other species.
Pehaps it is this realization that leads another great man and most superlative scientist to say,
“The raging monster upon the land is population growth. In its presence, sustainability is but a fragile theoretical construct. To say, as many do, that the difficulties of nations are not due to people but to poor ideology or land-use management is sophistic.” — E.O. Wilson
Wouldn’t it be a treat to hear from Ed Wilson (or Paul R. Ehrlich) on the subject of human population dynamics, with particular attention to work of Hopfenberg and Pimentel?
PS: Bob, you would probably agree how important it is to maintain sense of good humor, even in the midst of serious discussion like this one. So, Bob, Jan if you are still with us, and everyone else in the Orion community, enjoy……
Don’t be grumpy Bob. All wordplay is cheap. All talk is cheap – Especially from we who seek credibility in cheap criticisms.
Thank you Steve, for all of that.
Their (Hopfenberg and Pimentel’s) evidence
indicates that the governing population
dynamics of of the human species is…not
different from, th(ose) of other species.
Well– evidence or observations usually may be parsed in more than one way. H+P’s evidence has yet to be introduced here, so in spite of some googling of my own I haven’t seen enough of what theirs is for to say I accept — or question it. Remember too the difference between evidence and conclusion, between data and hypothesis. Reading abstracts and bits of one or two of their papers I was not encouraged. It’s too unfocused to be able to grasp their reasoning, if not their sincerity.
I think it does NOT cut it to conclude that ‘population growth is a function of (e.g. follows upon) food availability’ — as H+P appear to do. Maybe it’s actually the reverse, where people are concerned, if not some complex in-the-middle thing. Humans are the most adaptable critters ever. While there ARE more of us, we’ve made ourselves better off just because just because we discover so well how to produce more food from fewer resources. A ‘data point’ — there is more food produced per capita now than ever before.
Wait, wait. This DOES beg any notion of where to STOP. I would dance with joy if, ten generations from now, a new way of doing this brought back the sweep of riparian bogs and flyways stretching from Red Bluff to Fresno and from Antioch to Sonora in California. And could, reincarnated, stand with John Muir on one of the Coast Range passes on a bright March morning, beholding across the hundred miles of crystalline air the snowy Yosemite, shimmering above an endless carpet of wildflowers. (Muir, My First Summer in California — if I remember right.) Heck, I’d settle for the equivalent, gazing from the spire of the Mole Antoniellana in downtown Turin or from the roof of Milan’s cathedral, towards the Alps. Or across a future Shanghai….
And _ no _ subdivisions_warehouses_shoppingcenters….you all know the drill. Or many fewer than now, at least, and refreshingly different in shape.
The question, choir, is — Who’s got the map? Not only do we need to look up WHERE to stop, we don’t yet really see how to get there from here. Some claim answers, some aren’t so sure. Some are, truly, greedy and cynical, taking profit where they may. Some are scared shitless and can’t move. Some will starve no matter what. It’s bound to be a long trip. With too many inquisitive ‘Are we there yet, Daddy’s’ from the pint-sized crowd. Such as this writer.
“The raging monster upon the land is
population growth. In its presence,
sustainability is but a fragile theoretical
construct. To say, as many do, that the
difficulties of nations are not due to
people but to poor ideology
or land-use management
is sophistic.” — E.O. Wilson
Wilson — a genius, one of my heroes. Sigh. I guess one of the tricks when one converses with choir members is to know when you’ve fallen in with fundamentalists who have long ago decided that their particular, literalist reading of the Good Book(s) is THE road to Truth. I can’t take on Wilson’s brief as you’ve quoted it, word for word, as a manifesto for meaningful decision-making. But yes, as an attention-grabber. I bet Wilson knew far better, and I sure do agree. If we don’t keep our eye on the road (population increase) we won’t know how to build ideology and management that minister to our need.
On a visit to Russia (1990) we learned that the larger part of the potato crop never made it to market. Corruption, graft, diversion, but mostly just plain rotting in the field or sitting in some bin or railway car. One can nod with Wilson, but perhaps with an ironic smirk. It’s a people problem, not one of management nor of ideology, all right. But this gets to be a tail-chasing exercise: where do PEOPLE actualize anything of their existence, if it isn’t across the reference frames and concrete structures OF ideology and management? (The latter implies, I think, organization, or bureaucracy, almost as flight implies sky.)
In this passage, at the same time that Wilson ditches those who complain that poor ideology or management are the problem he also leaves wide open a door, nay, a great portal, to the notion that solutions do lie in GOOD ideology and BETTER land-management. One thing about him, he was a prodigious and expressive writer. If I paraphrase that passage, he says to me, ‘It’s talking in circles to claim that difficulties of nations result from poor ideology and bad land management, and not because of people’. He doesn’t actually reinforce the specific notion that population growth, as some isolated (and isolatable?) factor is the sole culprit, though. What are we to make of the simple term here, ‘people’, in a close reading? I take it that we may venture between the lines of these two sentences to read in something such as ‘…and paths to solutions will lie in learning good ideology and better land-management, in the context of people, and of their increasing number.’ If the html functions of this posting-site allowed me, I would bold/italicize the ultimate pair of prepositional phrases. And the words ‘good’ and ‘better’ that precede them.
Ideologies and management structures had better be made be ‘good’ — and precisely in proportion to how their formulation reflects awareness and a genuine taking-to-heart of the Damocles’ sword of increasing population. But people still are not rats. They have minds (not brains only), and ideas (ideals, vision), and ideologies (values, hierarchies of judgment and action), and institutions (bureaucracies, social, economic and political structures to accomplish policy actions). I now pronounce the raging monster and the poor of ideology and management to be husband and wife. Youse may kiss de bryde.
(Snyuck. Rotten-potato HUMOR ALERT. Oh. Drat…)
Even a Permaculturalist village has its institutionalized guiding principle and its ideology, its dedicated way of land-management. To say otherwise is silly. As it is to reject ‘economics’ as the problem. That’s like saying you can make a better hay-loader (for the Perma-field) but you’ve done it by rejecting ‘physics’ along the way. Last I checked, gravity actually helped out when I was loading hay. Of course physics, or gravity at least, has it’s ‘down’ side (jokey word-choice alert). One o dem bales could fall on yo’ haid. Is that physics’ fault? An ‘ideology’ that reminds you to stay awake and out from under could hardly be regarded as ‘poor’ here.
Can we relax, a lot, about language? We’ve so narrowed the meanings of so many common words, squeezing them into service under ideological pretenses, that we make it difficult and painful to hold a conversation. Yes it would be interesting to hear from Ehrlich and the others. Ehrlich has deepened and — I hope this is not an inflammatory word — moderated his screed from what it was in the late 60s. I don’t think he’s softened the core message one bit, though.
Drew: ‘All talk is cheap – Especially from we (sic) who seek credibility in cheap criticisms.’
Roger that. Over — and OUT!
Dear Bob Tyson,
You make many good points with which I am mostly in agreement.
If it is all right, a comment has come to mind that I want to share with you.
“But people still are not rats. They have minds (not brains only), and ideas (ideals, vision), and ideologies (values, hierarchies of judgment and action), and institutions (bureaucracies, social, economic and political structures to accomplish policy actions).”
According to Hopfenberg and Pimentel, the population dynamics of the human species are common to the population dynamics of other species, including rats. For all the wondrous gifts God has granted to the human species in terms of its substantial personal endowments, we can now see that the human species propagates like other species. From a species perspective, more food equals more people; less food equals less people; and no food equals no people.
For too long, human population growth has been widely viewed as somehow outside the course of nature. The potential causes of human population growth have seemed complex, obscure, numerous, or even unknowable, so that a strategy to address the problem has been thought to be all but impossible. One of the consequences of this unnatural way of viewing human population dynamics is that forecasts of global population growth vary widely: Some forecasting
data indicate the end to human
population growth soon, and other data suggest skyrocketing numbers.
With the evidence from Hopfenberg and Pimentel (2001) and the mathematical formulation of the population growth problem by Hopfenberg (2003), it may now be possible for us to see human population dynamics as a natural phenomenon… and no longer as a preternatural one.
Hopfenberg and Pimentel have provided an empirical presentation of a non-recursive biological problem that is independent of ethical, social, legal, religious, and cultural considerations. This means that world human population growth is a rapidly cycling positive-feedback loop, a relationship between food and population in which food availability drives population growth, and population growth
fuels the MISTAKEN impression that food production needs to be increased even more.
Their evidence indicates that as we increase total food production, presumably to feed a growing population, the absolute global population numbers of the human species increases, too.
A new biological understanding
emerges with this research. It is simply that the Earth’s carrying capacity for human organisms, like that for other organisms, is determined by food availability.
Thanks for your willingness to open-mindedly discuss the research of Hopfenberg and Pimentel with me.
A follow-up point……
A comprehensive and objective approach to human problems and human potentiality must acknowledge that humankind is a part of the biophysical world, not apart from it.
You are certainly correct in noting that human beings “have minds (not brains only), and ideas (ideals, vision), and ideologies (values, hierarchies of judgment and action), and institutions (bureaucracies, social, economic and political structures to accomplish policy actions).”
Even so, human and environmental health could be increasingly put at risk because the human community remains unaware of scientific evidence — as well as its potentially profound implications —regarding the unbridled propagation of the human species on the relatively small, finite, noticeably frangible planet God blesses us to inhabit.
And thank you, Steve. I’ll respond to part of what you’ve offered. But understand my position. I’m deeply skeptical of this line of reasoning. AND, I’m absolutely FOR damping human population. I don’t need Hopfengerg and Pimentel’s thesis to tell me why. Why do you?
According to Hopfenberg and Pimentel…
(snip) From a species perspective,
more food equals more people; less food
equals less…no food equals no people.
Ok. ‘According to H+P’… You re-state their hypothesis, but all we’ve really got here is their opinion. I scanned their 2001 paper — no data, only an elaboration of their viewpoint. No matter how sincere their conviction, without evidence — data — to examine and test, how can the argument be convincing? As it stands, it’s no more than emotional persuasion? Paul Ehrlich’s reasoning suffered the same lack back in the 60s. I met him several times when I was an undergrad at Stanford — very impressive, charismatic fellow. Not someone you’d be comfortable to disagree with in a discussion setting. That might be a virtue, or, in a collegial exchange, more than a bit of a failing. I was, emotionally, in thrall to his idea. Scary and somehow inevitable, inscrutable. And yet — something about the whole game just never looked quite right. I think it is this very lack of an underpinning, in the evidence, that was missing.
Math models for geometric growth is scary. So inevitable, convincing, especially if you ruminate on them —and nothing else. Bu they only predict, and their parameters are always incomplete. They can’t guarantee the outcome! Malthus got it wrong — had us all dead long ago and Ehrlich assured us massive die-offs would start in the 70s. Neither happened. How come?
My hypothesis goes, more people equals more food. Note the direction of the correlation. The arrow moves from cause to effect, from ‘more people’ (cause) to ‘more food’ (effect). Observable data correlates pretty well. So far, people make food. Not the other way around. Such as — Permaculturists.
My hypothesis has a second part. Over time the Food Productivity Factor, or ‘FpF’, rises. An ‘Fpf’ of 1.0 is when per capita food production exactly equals what is required, per capita, for people to sustain life. Under this hypothesis, at some point in the past the ‘FpF’ was exactly 1.0. Today people produce more per capita than just what each one requires to sustain life, so the ‘FpF’, despite the presence of a greater number of people than ever before, is now larger than 1.0. Not only does more people equal more food, the data suggest that more people equal more — and more — and still more — food.
This is off-topic. If you have Google Earth, put ‘stupinigi’ in the search box and see where it takes you. Stupinigi is a ‘little’ king-sized royal hunting lodge on the outskirts of Turin. It’s spectacular in the satellite pictures. I bicycled out there today, curious. Well. One look and you could see that Versailles could serve as the gate-house. I especially liked the thrice life-size bronze statue of an elk, right on the very top of the highest dome of the main palace. Around it, in a circular enclosure of brick, were the quarters, the town, really, for the serfs and the, well, staff. Extending a kilometer down the main road, the long axis you can see on Google, were the farmer’s granaries, each under a large brick arch with the family name on white stone, curving with the arch. I dunno just why this seems to fit, here. It obviously was the cat’s ass, back in ‘the day’ of the late 18th century. Architectural plan as social, political, and ideological structure. It is beautiful, too. I was stoked.
What took its place? A very few miles back up the main road towards Turin is the Fiat Mirafiori complex. Twentieth century iron, you might say, which I suppose includes those delta-winged Italian National Guard warplanes bristling with missiles that roar over my place on approach to Caselle every morning. Fiat something. Or then again the new housing in one suburb I pedaled by a little later. Looked like an English fake-estate, or an American plan for style. But you knew the insides were the same, white drywall all over and no detailing. Even the plastic Snow White and Seven Dwarfs tied on to the Sears-Roebuck iron balcony railings didn’t save the day.
I was also looking for a new, gigantic rail freight yard in that same quarter. It is as prominent on Google as Stupinigi, you can spot it a ways to the northwest. Couldn’t find it, I think because the railyard part is ‘encased’ inside a sprawling truck terminal and warehouse complex. Even that took fifteen minutes to pedal around. I have to go back though and pinpoint the freight yard. Might look interesting enough to make a photograph.
That bicycling circuit occupied me for two or two and a half hours — I was thinking about our discussion. Steve, this might be more comfortably said elsewhere, yet something makes me feel it’s right to add. Your intensity and your framing of the dilemma of population and limits has a certain aspect to it that I’d call panic. Though that doesn’t seem quite fair nor the mot juste. Well, close, I hope. I went ’round a mind-circuit while pedaling (and endeavoring to not get flattened by some cretino in his Lancia) — something like this. Suppose the Huge Crunch IS right about to hit? Will it matter to us who get wiped out? Is it worse than getting flattened by that cretino in his Lancia? Reductio ad absurdum, yes, but at some point they’re equal.
On the other hand just maybe one thing we do have IS some time. Not to be complacent, no. Still, can you re-formulate some of your good energies and also perhaps re-study some of your sources? There’s something here that just doesn’t compute. I don’t have enough of the picture to know more than that, but you have a deep background and skills, and much insight — so it would make sense to pick battles where you’ve got the best weapons and so on. To coin a phrase…. Or no?
Yes, again, I agree absolutely that one, just one, of the critical matters for society is the psychology — the pop-culture — of anti-intellectualism. I see it every day I enter a lecture hall. And as a middle school science teacher. If we need one thing above all it is science education, outreach, in all areas, on the double. On the triple. I’m a geologist and I have to say with pride that the geosciences have done very very well. Check out http://www.geosociety.org.
Ah– proofreading, AFTER publication. Ack! Down a ways in my last post I committed syntactical hari-kari and gave the impression I think Permaculturists aren’t in the ‘people who make food’ category. Sorry — should have read more like:
‘So far, people make food. Such as Permaculturists. Not the other way around.’
One more point………
The evidence of Hopfenberg and Pimentel appears to indicate
that the world’s human population—all segments of it—grow by approximately 2% peryear, including more people with brown eyes and more with blue eyes; more tall people and more short people; and more people who grow up well fed and more who grow up hungry. We may or may not be reducing hunger by increasing food production; however, we are most certainly producing more and more hungry people.
Furthermore, the evidence suggests
that the spectacularly successful efforts of humankind to increase world food harvests to feed a growing population result in an increase in absolute global human population numbers.
As mentioned earlier, Hopfenberg and Pimentel point out that the perceived need to increase food production to feed a growing population is a MISPERCEPTION. It is a denial of the physical reality of the space–time dimension. If people are starving at a given moment in time, increasing food production cannot help them. Are these starving people supposed to be waiting for sowing, growing, and reaping to be completed? Are they supposed to wait for surpluses to reach them? Without the receipt of food in a timely fashion, they would die. In such circumstances, increasing food production for people who are starving is like tossing parachutes to people who have already fallen out of the airplane. The produced food arrives too late. However, this does not mean human starvation is inevitable.
The evidence that the population dynamics of the human species is NOT biologically different in its
essence from the population dynamics of other species is precisely what I am asking you to examine.
Please note that we do not find hoards of starving roaches, birds, squirrels, alligators, or chimpanzees in the absence of food, as we do in many deeply impoverished human communities today, because these nonhuman species are not annually increasing their own production of
Among tribal peoples in remote original habitats, we do not find hoards of people starving. Like nonhuman species, “primitive” human
beings live within the carrying capacity of their environment.
History is replete with
examples of early humans and other ancestors not increasing their food production annually, but rather living successfully off the land for thousands of years as hunters and gatherers of food.
Before the agricultural
revolution and the production of more food than was needed for immediate survival, human numbers supposedly could not grow beyond their environment’s physical
capacity to sustain them because human population growth or decline is primarily a function of food availability.
Given its current huge scale and fully anticipated growth rate, the world’s human population has identifiable, potentially destructive ecological consequences. From this perspective, recent skyrocketing growth of the global human population can be recognized and understood as a powerful precipitating factor of a range of phenomena we call “global challenges” including, but not limited to, biodiversity loss, resource dissipation and environmental degradation.
You seem to confuse ‘evidence’ with ‘theory’, or ‘hypothesis’. Even my then 9-year-old daughter knew the difference. To something absurd I threw at her she shot right back, ‘Dad, that’s not a FACT, that’s your OPINION!’
Steve: I respect your opinion. I disagree. To be frank and repeat myself, I not only have yet to see the evidence that might help me understand your position, and perhaps modify my own, I strongly suspect such evidence does not exist.
Like nonhuman species, “primitive”
human beings live within the carrying
capacity of their environment.
If ‘primitives’ were so good at this, what happened to the Ancestral Puebloans (Anasazi) in the American Southwest? They flat disappeared, and the best guess is that they failed to produce enough food to survive — not ‘increased’ production, just survival quantities — because of world-wide climate fluctuation as part of the ‘Little Ice Age’. I think this is a cruel myth. Lots of primitive peoples have endured great suffering — and population suppression — because they were unequipped to deal with changes in the carrying capacity of their local environment. While one might dig up specific examples beyond the Ancient Puebloans, perhaps it’s suggestive that all ancient peoples have a rich mythology, sagas to retell, that involve meeting overwhelming circumstances with heroic effort of some kind.
Examples of animal populations crashing when food supplies fail are pretty danged commonplace. Seems a shaky comparison at best. People make food. More people make more food. (Yes, some more of the more people are tall, some more of the more people are blue-eyed…and so on. What the sam hill was all THAT part about?)
Yes, I agree that more and more people DO NOT NEED to keep making more and more AND MORE (that was 3 ‘and more’s’, right?) food. Enough food is enough. We have enough people, too, in my poor, not-so-humble OPINION. Enough!
Or else. I’ll start invoking Tom Swift. Now THERE’S a modest proposition…..
It is easy for me to relate to this article and I have been asking myself some of the same questions. As someone who has been recycling and composting from the mid seventies, as many of Orion’s readers may have been, I am very concious of my purchases. Every time I thow something away I know there is no “away”, only the landfill, a hole in Gaia.
I think about what ends up in the land fill and Ms. Ray is also. What if every one of us stopped using …..PENS, or Qtips or disposable shavers, today. How much difference would that make in reducing petrolum production, greenhouse gases, freight expense, landfill mass? Yes, I use already cloth bags and buy organic and those were not too difficult adjustments but I think the author is asking us can we take it to the next level personally. Can I give up my colored markers? They come in such lovely colors now: scarlet, olive, teal, lime and fuschia!! It doesn’t feel the same writing with pencils, but it could be one personal next step. A hard one, for me. There is an attachment there that I could look at. I could consider “letting them go” instead of “giving them up”, couldn’t I?
Every life is a politcal statement. Every behavior is a refection of what i believe in and stand for. I believe every action makes a difference and we all have to decide, for ourselves what we are willing to let go/release for the greater good. I feel good about using baking soda once again for tooth paste. I won’t be adding more gunky tubes of colgate to the landfill or supporting flouride production, but that may not be the change my neighbor can make. Maybe she can purchase the Prius, but she is still attached to Lady Bic. Maybe he can install a wind turbine, but he is still attached to Crest. Thanks to Janisse for the article that is helping me further reevaluate my habits and challenging me to the next level. I love that she is helping folks make the connections between the conference topics and using plastic utensils! I am sure it was a big A-HAH for some.
It is not time to rest on my laurels. For me, it is time to step up and make some harder choices about my attachments, and take even more responsibility. It also got me thinking about where and when to order my harvest turkey!
Dear Bob Tyson and Friends,
Please accept this apology. My abysmal communication skills are becoming evident once again. Y’all may be surprised to learn that once upon a time I seemed to do better.
Bob, you report,
“AND, I’m absolutely FOR damping human population. I don’t need Hopfengerg and Pimentel’s thesis to tell me why. Why do you?”
The reason I am rivetted to the evidence from Hopfenberg and Pimentel is this: at least to me, their research indicates that a huge looming challenge is posed to the human community by the current scale and growth rate of human numbers. Their evidence indicates that the problem is SO LARGE that your idea of simply “damping human population” is a grossly insufficient response. You cannot be seeing the problem that I see and make such a statement. From where I am standing, the problem before humanity is too much large to tamp down.
Your idea of damping human numbers reminds me of a person who is confronted by E.O.Wilson’s “raging monster upon the land” and decides to repulse the beast by spraying water from a garden hose at it.
It is OK for you to suggest here that my entreaties have the sense of “panic” in them. I would like to say that I believe the stage of panic was one I stumbled through some years ago, in an earlier stage of becoming aware of the magnitude of the distinctly human problem some call the “world problematique.” What I am trying to communicate now is what could be called expressions from the stage of “unadulterated urgency.”
Also, I would like to suggest that the time has come for leaders of the human community to swap the “need to know” ethic regarding the human condition for something new and different: the “obligation to share” ethic, just as we are doing here.
From my viewpoint, discussions like this one are vital to human and environmental health, and especially to safeguarding our children, the ones who may have to confront global challenges visible to us now on the far horizon.
At the risk of embarrassing myself yet again, please bear with me. I want to share my perspective using words that do not come from science. These words are the product of imagination.
Just for a moment, Bob and Friends, close your eyes and imagine that we are looking at a huge ocean wave, watching it move toward the shore. This wave is larger than any wave any of us has ever seen. Think of a tsunami. The wave is moving toward us; however, at the same time, there are many molecules in the wave that are moving in the opposite direction, against the tide. If we observe that the propagation of absolute global human population numbers is like the wave and the reproduction numbers of individuals in many locales are like the molecules, it may be inaccurate for the latter to be looked at as if it tells us something meaningful about the former.
Abundant research indicates that countries like Australia, Italy and Tunisia, among many others, have recently shown a decline in human population growth. These geographically localized data need not blind us to overwhelming evidence that the global population is still growing rapidly, may reach 9.2 billion by the middle of this century and, perhaps, go higher. World population is like the wave; localized reproduction numbers are like the molecules.
Put another way, global human propagation numbers and evidence of local reproduction numbers among individuals, even in a great multitude of places, may be pointing in different directions.
Choosing the scope of observation is like deciding to look at either the forest or the trees, at either the wave or its molecules. Think of human species propagation as the former and the localized counts of reproduction numbers as the latter. Please consider that the global challenge before us is a species propagation problem in a way not related to the counts of local reproduction numbers.
Dear Steve, and to all who are still with us. This exchange looks to have come down to Bob-and-Steve, so this will be my last bit for the forum as far as our exchange is concerned. Steve, if you wish to continue on the merits of Hopfenberg and Pimental and so on let’s do that by email. Mine is LKRNDU (at) tiscali.it (LooKaRouNDyoU….)
Now to your post.
Bob, you report,
Hate to quibble but I declared. Unequivocally. I did not ‘report’. There is a difference. Here it is again:
“AND, I’m absolutely FOR damping human
population. I don’t need Hopfengerg
and Pimentel’s thesis to tell me why.
Why do you?”
Why do you? What you had to say below doesn’t answer the question.
The reason I am rivetted (sic) to the evidence
from Hopfenberg and Pimentel is…
(that it) indicates that the problem is SO
LARGE that your idea of simply “damping
human population” is a grossly
For True Believers evidence is always riveting and the problem large. Sincerely, seriously. I accept that you see a problem SO LARGE. So do I — and I might say I’d enjoy it if you could extend me the courtesy of acknowledging me in that. Yet a dialogue on the texture of this problem seems out of reach for now. With faint hope of sharing at least one minor insight, I repeat, in most feeble voice: Nothing whatsoever in my choice of the word ‘damping’ was to be taken to mean I think this is something ‘simple’. The way you’ve twisted that is pretty cheap-ass.
Steve, I wish you well, and all of us. I’ve done my level best to critique the fine fabrics and clever cut of the Emperor’s new suit and hope my exegesis on the inadequacy of H+P’s publications, in terms of scientific merit, has been equally insightful. They are great opinion pieces. Testimony, surely. But they provide evidence only of their and your determination to evangelize on a point of view.
When you invoke science, do it responsibly. When you use science badly in service of persuasion, and especially when you use bad science — you make things worse.
Ehrlich learned the hard way. Beginning with The Population Bomb his ‘opinion pieces’ got people’s attention, but backfired when his smart readers realized something wasn’t right about his argument. Not that the problem isn’t real. But a true prophet ought not bear false witness. Hopfenberg and Pimental must be well-respected scientists in their home fields, but their published ‘work’ on population fails for lack of procedure, data — and peer-review. Their articles are opinion pieces cross-dressing as science.
I propose a thought experiment. Would all of the choir sit up straight, close their eyes, and invoke a distant future. By which time technologists, you know, those tinkerers who brought you the inclined plane (pyramids), the wheel (Oregon Trail?), the flying buttress (Chartres Cathedral), and the microchip (Windows Vista — ack) have tapped into the heat of the earth’s semi-molten nickel-iron core. This is so large a source that it might as well be inexhaustible. No radiation, no nuclear waste, no conversion into bombs, just energy, heat. The materials scientists have developed structures and nano-materials from which cities miles tall have been constructed, and food produced in any quantity, so that tens and tens and tens of billions of people can live in material comfort and free from want.
And so on — keep yer eyes shut a sec longer — just muddletate on that scenario for a bit and accept, for the sake of argument, that it has come to pass. There is no need of war because power is distributed — both the political and the electrical kinds — fairly, and besides everybody has what allows a good life-standard, in fact, as much as anyone could want, so that those content with very simple means are free to live accordingly and those wishing more can do that, too.
OK. Eyes wide open, Utopia goes ‘poof’. But just do suppose for a moment that such a thing were to be achieved. I say we still need to ask, ‘Why bother?’ Let me be clear: the material sufficiency part might be great. The tens and tens — billions of people, nah. Not to me, anyway. It may be that I do agree with you, Steve, in this, that for humankind to discover a non-destructive means to round off population at some figure would be an extra-biological breakthrough, something never seen before, in nature. Human nature might already be on arrival, though. Re-check those fertility rates, just as you reported in your last post. Italy — home to the Catholic Church — with the lowest fertility on the planet. One of the wealthiest countries, highest investment in geriatric support (bursting pharmacies for oldsters), fewest kids. Third world, invert picture.
For how much longer, and what kind of block-and-tackle can we conjure up to bring those images closer together?
I’m trying to get across something I believe is true, that a positive and possible direction may be constructed that does NOT require invoking population armageddon as the motive, nor as the threat. (Any more than the prospect of a bitter winter ahead sharpens determination to lay in enough firewood and salt an extra ham.) It seems, to me, that investigating, vigorously, where to hold a line as to absolute numbers is useful — and it may, or not be, futile, as well, but I’ll ask permission for now to step behind the curtain during THAT discussion. I’ve done my best to suggest some directions, and, admittedly, to get up the nose (Irish slang for provoke, and debunk) of some of those who have been dishing pat answers that, to me, don’t make sense.
This thing may get us. I don’t think so. If I part company from the choir, and from Mr. Sexton (Steve 🙂 it’s because what I want, more for my children’s children than for me, is a world brought to some optimum. In population numbers surely. In multicultured, polytechnical solutions to needs (bacteria that make gasoline, anyone?), certainly. Through disciplined, reason-based scientific inquiry? Won’t happen without.
From what I have rsad here, I am seeing more agreement in general, but like looking through a prism at varying angles, interpretations are diverse.
Speaking of growth, whether of people, poverty, wealth, or I.Q., I think we are evolving our economic paradigms. Within the standard neo-classical paradigm “uneconomic growth” is an anomalous category. You will not find it mentioned in any of the classics on macroeconomics. But within the paradigm of ecological economics it is an obvious possibility.
The pre-analytic vision of standard neo-classical economics is that the economy is the total system, and that nature, to the extent that it is considered at all, is a sector of the economy – e.g. the extractive sector (mines, wells, forests, fisheries, agriculture). Nature is not seen, as in the ecological economics vision, as an envelope containing, provisioning, and sustaining the entire economy, but as one sector of the economy similar to other sectors. If the products or services of the extractive sector should become scarce, the economy will presumably “grow around” that particular scarcity by substituting the products of other sectors. If the substitution is difficult, new technologies will be invented to make it easy.
The unimportance of nature, in this view, finds empirical support in the declining share of the extractive sector in total GNP. Beyond the initial provision of indestructible building blocks, nature is simply not important to the economy in the view of neo-classical economics. Ecological economics considers the percentage of GNP represented by resources to be a misleading indication of their importance. One might as well claim that a building’s foundation is unimportant because it represents only five percent of the height of the skyscraper erected above it. GNP is the sum of value added. Resources are that to which value is added – the foundation or base upon which the skyscraper of value added is resting. A foundation’s importance does not diminish with the growth of the structure that it supports! If GNP growth resulted only from increments in value added to a non-growing resource throughput, then it would remain economic growth. But that is not what happens.
What happens, according to ecological economics, is that the economy grows mainly by transforming its environment (natural capital) into itself (manmade capital). This process of transformation takes place within a total environment that is considered perishable, not entirely non-growing, or materially closed, but contains limits that can be exceeded. A throughput of solar energy powers biogeochemical cycles, but that energy throughput is perishable and potentially finite. As the economic subsystem grows it becomes larger relative to the total system, and therefore must conform itself more to the limits of the total system – finitude, non-growth, and entropy. Subsystem growth is ultimately limited by the size of the total system, even under neo-classical assumptions of easy substitution of manmade for natural capital. But if manmade and natural capital are complements rather than substitutes, as ecological economics claims, then expansion of the economic subsystem would be much more stringently limited by that complementarity. There would be no point in transforming natural capital into manmade capital beyond the capacity of remaining natural capital to complement and sustain it. What good are more fishing boats when the fish population has disappeared? The fish catch used to be limited by number of fishing boats (manmade capital) but is now limited by the remaining populations of fish in the sea (natural capital).
When factors are complements the one in short supply is limiting. If factors are substitutes then there cannot be a limiting factor. Economic logic says that we should economize on and invest in the limiting factor. Economic logic stays the same, but as we have moved from an “empty” world to a “full” world, the role of limiting factor has gradually shifted from manmade to natural capital, – e.g. from fishing boats to remaining fish in the sea; from saw mills to remaining forests; from irrigation systems to aquifers or rivers; from oil well drilling rigs to pools of petroleum in the ground; from engines that burn fossil fuel to the atmosphere’s capacity to absorb CO2, etc.
The optimal scale of the economy is smaller, when greater is: (a) the gap of complementarity between natural and manmade capital; (b) reduced desire for direct experience of nature; and (c) faulty estimates of both the intrinsic and instrumental value of other species. The smaller the optimal scale of the economy, the sooner its physical growth becomes uneconomic.
The neo-classical paradigm permits growth forever, but does not mandate it. Historically the growth mandate came from the answer given to the problems raised by Malthus, Marx, and Keynes. Growth was the common answer to all three problems. Overpopulation, unjust distribution, and involuntary unemployment would all be solved by growth. Overpopulation would be cured by the demographic transition initiated by growth(Malthus). Unjust distribution of wealth between classes would be rendered tolerable by growth, the rising tide that lifts all boats(Marx). Unemployment would yield to increasing aggregate demand which merely required that investment be stimulated, which of course implies growth (Keynes). Continuing this time-honored tradition the World Bank’s World Development Report continues to assert that more growth was also the solution to the environmental problem. But of course the assumption in all cases was that growth was economic, that it was making us richer rather than poorer. But now many are beginning to see how growth is becoming uneconomic. Uneconomic growth will not sustain the demographic transition and cure overpopulation. Neither will it help redress unjust distribution, nor cure unemployment. Nor will it provide extra wealth to be devoted to environmental repair and cleanup.
We now need more direct solutions to the problems of Malthus, Marx, and Keynes: population control to deal with overpopulation; redistribution to deal with excessive inequality; and ecological tax reform to raise and protect resource productivity and employment. It is utopian (or dystopian) to think of this being carried out by some world-sized authority. Some nations have made progress in controlling their population growth, in limiting domestic income inequality, in reducing unemployment. They have also improved resource productivity by internalizing environmental and social costs into prices. But significant gains will eventually be undercut by the ideology of globalization. Global economic integration by free trade and free capital mobility effectively erases the policy significance of national boundaries, turning the federated community of nations into a cosmopolitan non community of globalized individuals. Some of these “individuals” are giant transnational corporations, treated as individuals through the purchase of legal fictions.
Under globalization, each country seeks to expand beyond the limits of its own ecosystem and market by growing into the ecological and economic space of all other countries, as well as into the remaining global commons. Globalization operates by standards-lowering competition, to bid down wages, to externalize environmental costs, and reduce social overhead expenses for public goods. But it is far worse than an unrealistic global dream – it actively undercuts the ability of nations to continue dealing with their own localized symptoms of unjust distribution, unemployment, external costs, and overpopulation. It is hard to imagine any country continuing to limit its birth rate or internalize its environmental and social costs when the results of overpopulation and cost externalization in other countries freely spill over into it.
Globalization is the sexy elixir concocted by the growth-forever alchemists. Export-led growth is the new philosopher’s stone that turns lead into gold by the alchemy of free trade. With the revival of alchemy comes a return to the logic of Mercantilism: wealth is gold, and the way for countries without mines to get gold is to export more goods than they import, and receive payment for the difference in gold. The way to export more than you import is to reduce wages. The way to keep wages low is to have an oversupply of labor, attained by easy immigration or high birth rates among the working class. Globalization requires, therefore, that for a nation to be rich, the majority of its citizens must be poor, increase in number, and live in a deteriorating environment.
Truly, John Ruskin foresaw the era of uneconomic growth, a time when:
“That which seems to be wealth may in verity be only the gilded index of far-reaching ruin…….”
Do you folks ever get tired of pontificating and discuss something that relates to the real life experience of most people. Or do you have to be an intellectual to be an environmentalist? Maybe that’s another reason it is not very appealing to most.
Nah. We just like seein’ what it takes ta pull some folks’ chains. An ‘f ya drop by fer lunch (we serve chicken) you kin have de Pope’s nose!