Friday, November 06, 2009

The Elephant In The Room

In the years I have been following peak oil issues I have been struck by the views of the 'doomers', who expect a global crash resulting in massive population die-off as the world claws its way back to a balanced environment. What I have come to realize is that those views vary only in terms of time and scale. Today I came across two separate articles discussing the issue of population.

At The Energy Bulletin I found this article, originally written in 2000, on what we must do in an energy descent. The priorities matter, but the underlying assumption is that human population will be reduced. The authors, Howard and Elisabeth Odum, envision an environment that is less conflict riven than exists now, but is radically different from what we know. The alternative, only gently noted, is conflict that leads to all out war. Howard Odum was an ecologist and considered an early leader in addressing sustainability.

The second article is an Oil Drum piece about Dr. Albert Bartlett's Laws of Sustainability. The key assumption underlying Dr. Bartlett's laws is the notion that growth of the human population is incompatible with a sustainable economy/environment. Without a reduction in population there can be no sustainable living, which is the First Law. In fact, he declares that "Sustainable Growth is an oxymoron." The discussion that follows the article is as lively as any, with a lot of analysis as to whether the Laws are really Laws or something else.

What both articles share is the conviction that there will be a reduction in the human population. This is the Elephant in the room. Facing it squarely in America means taking on a cultural paradigm that claims a preferential option for children to the point of banning contraception. It was not until Griswold v. Connecticut (1965) that contraception came off the table as something to be regulated by government. That has not stopped the religious right and its friends from attempting to impose limits on access to contraception as well as abortion. Rather than trust the judgement of the people most directly involved, they wish to impose actions borne out of their set of values. In reading the two articles I have to wonder what these supposed guardians of public morals would do or say in the face of Odum's and Bartlett's assertions.

The conversation about population will be held, although probably not until we are staring the crisis squarely in the eye. Even then, I suspect there will be strong resistance to the notion that we need to revisit the size of our population in conjunction with the carrying capacity of the planet. Mind, this conversation will occur in other countries as well. Given the emotional fervor that will surround this issue I fear we will not take the proactive steps we need to in sufficient numbers to bring down our respective populations to a sustainable level.

The timeframe to reach that point is not known, but, based on the articles, it will take about 70 years to accomplish that feat. I have serious doubts that we will do so peacefully. I fear that we will instead find ourselves besieged by The Four Horsemen, much to our global sorrow.


isabell said...

Each of us say that the environment needs us, and we need to do the needful. We need to know what we can do, so here I have listed the most useful laws and treaties which I have seen across the web in favor of the environment.

The North Coast said...

The proposed guardians of our public morals have nothing to say about Bartlett's speeches and what is known about our resource situation because they are so deep in denial that they aren't about to expose themselves to anything that contradicts the worldview they have such an emotional attachment to.

As a rule, the more rooted in emotion and superstition a person's beliefs are, the more they resist revision. It is easy to change a person's opinion on matters purely intellectual, much more difficult to change those based on religion, and well-nigh impossible to dislodge beliefs based on superstitions learned at mom's knees.

In times of crisis, when there is a tremendous conflict of ideas, and ideologies one after the other fail to offer answers and solutions, people fall back on the superstitions and dogma they learned as a child, sort of an intellectual fight-or-flight thing. They cling to these beliefs and do not require proofs of their validity because they are like "comfort food", and they also become very "tribal" in their orientation. Worse, they become apt to the hand of any demagogue who knows how to exploit their fear and superstition to promote his agenda.

Human psychology will be our biggest obstacle in dealing with the difficult conditions facing us in coming years.