Saturday, February 01, 2014

Sex And The Climate – Part I

“In the year 1798, in An Essay on the Principles of Population, Thomas Malthus proposed the theory that while resources tend to grow linearly, population grows exponentially. That led to the argument that (as explained in Wikipedia), ‘If left unrestricted, human populations continue to grow until they become too large to be supported by the food grown on available agricultural land, causing starvation that in turn restricts population growth.’ Pointing out that this had happened many times previously in human history. Malthus predicted a recurrence of this pattern by the middle of the 19th century. His solution to what he visualized as an impending disaster was ‘moral restraint.’ [Those two words are a polite way of saying that a population that controls its sex drive will produce fewer children.] Is it possible that this 150 year old proposal by Malthus formed the basis of the current administration’s failed ‘celibacy program?’ Regardless, that didn’t work now either.)”

If the allusion to the “current administration” seems puzzling, it should, since the above was the opening paragraph of an article that appeared five and a half years ago in the September 2007 issue of Viewpointe, and the reference was to the Bush administration’s efforts to promote its religiously oriented version of birth control––celibacy.

Since the Malthusian (and the Bush) proposition failed to attain its combined goals of lowered pregnancies, fewer children, and ultimately a diminishing population, a new development has exploded, one that Malthus could not have dreamed of. While sex has always been considered an activity that precipitates warm feelings, both mentally and physically, a much different type of warming, also a consequence of sexual activity, is progressing at an explosive rate. However, few in the mass media have recognized or connected this sex induced warmth (especially the result of too much sex) to totally different and significantly more dramatic repercussions––Global Warming.

Despite the recent general disinterest by the press in examining the affinity between the two, exactly four years ago, on February 17th, 2010, an article in The New York Times did so, writing, “With the continuing failure of governments to reach agreements on combating Climate Change, the outlook for both humans and nature remains bleak. And nowhere is the failure more conspicuous than in the avoidance of the subject of population growth. Population is a double-barreled environmental problem — not only is population increasing; so are emissions per capita.”

The article continued, “In 1970, when worldwide greenhouse gas emissions had just begun to transgress the sustainable capacity of the atmosphere, the world population was about 3.7 billion; today it’s about 6.9 billion [as I write this, the World Population Clock measures the population as 7,143,061,894]— an increase of 86 [today 93] percent. In that same period, worldwide emissions from fossil fuels rose from about 14 billion tons to an estimated 29 billion tons — an increase of 107 percent. In other words, in 1970, such emissions were about 3.8 tons per capita; today, despite the growing awareness of climate change, they have actually risen to about 4.2 tons per capita. Yet inexplicably and inexcusably, recommendations by the United States, the United Nations and independent research groups essentially never include — and certainly never stress — population as a contribution to global warming.”

About eight months ago, The Guardian published an extract from a new book, Ten Billion, written by Stephen Emmott, head of Computational Science at Microsoft Research in Cambridge, UK. The headline read, “Humans: the Real Threat to Life on Earth” –– followed by this: If population levels continue to rise at the current rate, our grandchildren will see the Earth plunged into an unprecedented environmental crisis.”

However, what I found particularly edifying in that article was the following definition that completely nullifies the myth (one that pervades the thinking of both sides of the Climate Change debate –– believers and non-believers) that climate change refers to weather.

“We hear the term ‘climate’ every day, so it is worth thinking about what we actually mean by it. Obviously, climate is not the same as weather. The climate is one of the Earth's fundamental life support systems, one that determines whether or not we humans are able to live on this planet. It is generated by four components: the atmosphere (the air we breathe), the hydrosphere (the planet's water), the cryosphere (the ice sheets and glaciers), and the biosphere (the planet's plants and animals). By now, our activities [have] started to modify every one of these components.” So let’s stop the nonsense spread by science deniers that a cold spell proves that global warming is a hoax.

Six and a half years ago, Alan Weisman, a multi-award winning journalist published the critically acclaimed The World Without Us, a book which describes a post-human scenario of the planet. He projects a fascinating scenario wherein humans have somehow completely disappeared from our planet, and nature takes over; renewing and replenishing the lands, and allowing all those remaining earthly creatures to flourish (except cockroaches in New York City that would die of the cold in unheated buildings). His newest book, “Countdown: Our Last, Best Hope for a Future on Earth?” was released in September 2013 with a number of favorable reviews including one in the Sunday book section of The New York Times––here are some of those comments:

“If we wanted to bring about the extinction of the human race as quickly as possible, how might we proceed? We could begin by destroying the planet’s atmosphere, making it incapable of supporting human life. We could invent bombs capable of obliterating the entire planet, and place them in the hands of those desperate enough to detonate them. We could bioengineer our main food sources — rice, wheat and corn — in such a way that a single disease could bring about catastrophic famine. But the most effective measure, counterintuitive as it may be, would be to increase our numbers. Population is what economists call a multiplier. The more people, the greater the likelihood of ecological collapse, nuclear war, plague.”

The review continues, “As Alan Weisman’s ‘Countdown’ amply demonstrates, we are well on our way. Some seven billion people are alive today; the United Nations estimates that by the end of the century we could number as many as 15.8 billion [the high end of U.N. estimates]. Biologists have calculated that an ideal population — the number at which everyone could live at a first-world level of consumption, without ruining the planet irretrievably — would be 1.5 billion.”

Here is another, but similar review from the Los Angeles Times: “In ‘Countdown,’ Weisman explains that population is going in the wrong direction — by adding 1 million more people to the planet every 4½ days — if we want to achieve some semblance of ecological sustainability. It's not just this century's projected growth to 11 billion [the low end of U.N. estimates] that troubles him. Weisman is concerned about how the 7 billion of us already here are straining natural limits, from the buildup of heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere to the decline of available fresh water.”

Weisman writes, “Our numbers have reached a point where we've essentially redefined the concept of original sin. From the instant we're born, even the humblest among us compounds the world's mounting problems by needing food, firewood, and a roof, for starters. Literally and figuratively, we're all exhaling CO2 and pushing other species over the edge.” Focusing mainly on the ecological problem, the book questions how many people the Earth can support without capsizing. The scientific term for that would be what is the earth’s “carrying capacity?” There is nothing new about that endeavor. One finds similar concerns expressed in the writings of Plato and Aristotle in the fourth century B.C., as well as in the teachings of Confucius as early as the sixth century B.C.

However, answers to that question are too broad ranging to provide a definitive number. They range from the above-mentioned, idealistic 1.5 billion to an unrealistic, unlimited. Nevertheless, most estimates have concentrated on the world’s capacity to feed an ever-growing population rather than on the currently more critical problem; the impact the amplifying masses have on climate change. Next month’s article will elaborate on that subject, one that is typified by a comment made by demographer Joel Cohen of Columbia University’s Earth Institute. He said, “What people do in their beds has externalities that affect people that aren’t in bed with them.”