Thursday, February 19, 2009

Some Hard Questions

There's a fascinating conversation going on as to whether or not cheap energy is a fool's paradise that is destined to fail? It is really worth checking out over at DotEarth

In the comment section I entered the debate with a challenge to my dear friend Kelpie's views about how a population policy might solve the problem.

Here is Kelpie's comment:

Thus far in human history, an increase in available energy has always led to an increase in population growth. There are a few instances where civilized societies have maintained a steady state - these are all island nations. Some were found in Polynesia. Edo Japan is the best example.

So-that means that tackling population growth head on is an absolute necessity, whether we can increase the energy available to us or not, ultimately it makes no difference. Let us heed the words of Engles on this. Engles hated Malthus and thought the idea of population outstripping resources was ludicrous, but still said this:

"There is, of course, the abstract possibility that the number of people will become so great that limits will have to be set to their increase. But if at some stage communist society finds itself obliged to regulate the producion of human beings, just as it has already come to regulate the production of things, it will be precisely this society, and this society alone, which can carry this out without difficulty. It does not seem to me that it would be at all difficult in such a society to achieve by planning a result which has already been produced spontaneously, without planning in France and Lower Austria. At any rate, it is for the people in the communist society themselves to decide whether, when and how this is to be done, and what means they wish to employ to the purpose. I do not feel called upon to make proposals for giving them advice about it. These people, in any case, will surely not be any less intelligent than we are."

Engels' abstract possibility is very real to most of us today. Some still can't see it, but as food prices climb ever higher, the mismatch of population and resources on our planet will soon be undeniable. We are those people who must decide how to deal with overpopulation. Fortunately, the solution is not that hard. Just give women the choice and the means to prevent or end pregnancies that they do not want. Accompany that with education about ecology and economic alternatives to motherhood and the problem is solved. Unfortunately, regressive patriarchal forces are incapable of conceding reproductive control to women. Maybe that's the best argument there is for "communism" or some similar economic revolution. It may be the only thing that can topple the patriarchs from power and start the flow of funds to women's health and welfare.

Even our beloved Obama administration allowed funds for women's reproductive healthcare to be stripped from the stimulus package. Women's health is not a side issue. It is THE issue of our time.

More at greenyourhead

And here's my response:

I'd like to challenge the view presented by my old colleague Kelpie Wilson (who does much great work for the earth) as it seems representative of much that is presented as a simple population solution.

In post #109 Kelpie says, "Fortunately, the solution is not that hard. Just give women the choice and the means to prevent or end pregnancies that they do not want. Accompany that with education about ecology and economic alternatives to motherhood and the problem is solved."

The problem is that there is no analysis of how the "economic alternatives to motherhood" will be created for poorer and "less developed" peoples. My understanding is that reductions of family size naturally arrive with women's rights, urbanization, education, economic development, etc. But the development package also includes increased per capita consumption and more energy intensive technologies.

Can anyone provide a study showing that modern woman-liberating and opportunity-creating economic development results in lowering the cumulative impact on the earth? If not, then I've got to think that it's not so simple. Surely, women must have full rights of choice and opportunity but it it is because they are human beings and not necessarily as a solution for the problem over over-consumption of the earth's natural resources.

Truly, the contradictions of development are immense and they arrive as a package. As one who is steeped in the ideologies of deep ecology and wilderness preservation I've been trying to confront these issues as an American tree-hugger now living in Brazil. Here are a few of the posts:

Chico Mendes, Capixaba and Change

Soy in the Amazon


All around me, here in Acre, Brazil, I see that the younger newer middle-class families are smaller, better educated and more urban. I also see that as cheap energy appears (rural electrification is a recent arrival here) there is an explosion of home appliance buying -- TVs, PCs, air conditioners, toasters, home entertainment centers, etc. BUT, it's important to note that these people are only now acquiring what an average entry-level environmental studies teacher or employee of an environment organization in the US already has and has known all of his or her life.

Brazil tends to take an indirect approach to the population issue, defining it instead as a series of health issues ranging from controlling sexually transmitted diseases to reducing the number of butchered abortions. They give away 100s of millions of condoms, even in high schools and even creating special rain forest brands made of natural latex -- yes, Chico Mendes Condoms (see: Condoms for Conservation ) But it's economic development that actually reduces the birthrate.

Yes, womens' rights are essential. And, yes, cheaper or more available energy increases consumption and triggers lots of economic activity. Development, consumption, cheap energy and reduced population travel together.

Recently the World Social Forum met in AmazĂ´nia, in Belem where 100,000 people from all over the world gathered as a counter-event to the World Economic Forum at Davos. One of the main poster issues there was the preservation of the Amazon forest and its indigenous people.

Brazil's President Lula also appeared and declared that the Amazon does not exist as a sanctuary for the world and he noted that the 20 million people who live here want material development like everyone else.

Can the developed world pay a price that can actually dissuade countries like Brazil to NOT follow the pattern well-established in the developed economies of cutting down the forest and exhausting nature's resources? Brazil has half of it's forests intact and another 30% in a fragmented state. The US has less than 10% of its primary forests standing and almost all of it is fragments.

Everywhere I go in Brazil people ask why the US and foreigners are so concerned about preserving the Amazon forest? The motives are definitely distrusted.

How would you have me answer their questions? Yes, womens' rights is not a side issue but sustainability is THE issue.


Clem Wilkes said...


I know it's difficult for the people's of Brazil to understand why some of us in the developed countries want to preserve the Amazon forest. It's understandable that they want developement and material things, since they know everyone in the developed world has them. But, the Amazon is the only intact carbon sink left in the world. It fixes more CO2,probably, than all the rest of the world's forests combined. As such, it helps slow global warming. I feel pretty sure that we are past the point of no return as far as warming is concerned, but if the Amazon is deforested then it will just happen that much quicker, that the environment will fail to continue to support life, whether of human two leggeds or the rest of creation, winged, four legged, crawlers, and swimmers. And most of the world's remaining hunter/gatherers, indigenous peoples live in the Amazon. We in the developed world have destroyed the natural ecosystem and the lives of millions of indigenous peoples. I, for one, hope that those still living wild and free in South America can continue to do so. That they won't be wiped out in the name of progress and development. There is so much more to wanting to keep the Amazon intact, but that is all I can say for now, except that also there are a lot of medicinal plants there that need to be preserved.

Thanks for keeping us informed.
Mi takuye oyasin,

Clem Wilkes

Lou Gold said...

Beautiful Clem, straight from your heart. I hope that more folks chime it as you have. These are not easy questions. We don't to have answers to express our feelings.

Mi takuye oyasin,


Kelpie said...

Lou, here is my response to your response (I posted this at Dot Earth): As you say Lou, of course the entire solution is not so simple. When I said the solution is simple, I meant that the prescription is simple - empower women and birth rates go down. It's like single-payer health care in the US. Most of us know it's the right way to go, but we have to overcome vast ideological barriers before we can even get started on the practical tasks of implementing it.

Perhaps Brazil has succeeded in making comprehensive reproductive health care available to all, but in many parts of the world this is still not the case. Regressive patriarchal attitudes in the US have a lot to do with the denial of this care to the world's poor. Until we have completed the task of empowering women worldwide, I don't think we can say that it doesn't work. So I still say, first things first. End patriarchy and empower women.

Regarding the population vs. consumption debate, it may be true that at a given point in time, smaller, more urban families have a bigger footprint on the earth than extremely poor but large families. But in the long run, the smaller families bring us closer to a stable population. The large families ensure that population pressure will continue to threaten biodiversity and other planetary resources, no matter how green and energy efficient technology becomes.

Development must accompany population stabilization in Brazil and everywhere else. Development in poor nations and de-development in rich nations need to both converge on a green path of efficient energy use and equal distribution of resources. Simple in concept, but again, another one that is devilish in its details.