Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Chief scientist refutes Fred Pearce's bad logic about population and environment

"Population is 'our biggest challenge' says government chief scientist Sir John Beddington".   . . . 

This article (reproduced below) from The Ecologist describes strong positions on population set out by the UK's chief scientist, and the philosopher Philip Cafaro.

The "deniers of the population holocaust", described in a chapter of Overloading Australia  (See ) , are now  under pressure. Yet as this article notes, they are still around. One of them, Fred Pearce, the "environment consultant" of New Scientist magazine, is a prolific turner out of articles claiming that population is not really a problem because
(a) world population growth will (he claims) one day stop and reverse and
(b) it is over-consumption by the rich, in countries that mainly have stable populations, not the consumption of the poor in countries with fast rising populations that is the problem, since this causes most of the CO2 emissions etc. Talk about population  problems is a matter of the greedy rich pressing their selfish concerns upon the poor in countries  whose fast-expanding populations are not really a problem because each individual consumes so little.

On this first argument (a), Professor Albert Bartlett comments: "We could offer the same argument to show that fire departments are not needed because, if left to themselves, all fires go out by themselves."

As to Pearce's second main argument (b), it is dear to some old Lefties who have moved into the modern Green parties, but is a sophistry.  Let's name its main flaws:
  • It's not true that only poor countries suffer rapid population growth. Australia, Canada, the UK and the USA have out-of-control population growth,  higher than some third-world nations, and the growth of their high-consuming populations does huge harm on a global scale.
  • Population growth is a cruel problem for people in poorer countries, because it presses down their living standards and pinches them for necessities.
  • Most of the environmental ill-effects of population growth are felt locally, and by the populations who create them. The deforestation of Haiti and of much of India is not caused by rich people over consuming but by huge numbers of poor people desperate for firewood. So the poor do suffer from over-population. (And how! For details see Overloading Australia p. 22.)
  • The implied solution (tell people in richer countries to stop consuming so much)  has at present little chance of success, since the preachings of environmentalists are a whisper against the roar of advertisers sooling us on to consume. Besides the poor of India and China are also out to increase their consumption, and indeed are rapidly doing so; so their increasing numbers are not irrelevant.
Fred Pearce makes loose unquantifiable claims like "Rising consumption today far outstrips the rising headcount as a threat to the planet." (see below in the article). He mixes these with other claims that may be half-true but irrelevant, like "most of the remaining population growth is in countries with a very small impact on the planet." -- little impact unless you count the forests destroyed, species eliminated, and the human misery produced (which may produce widespread instability, terrorism, and wars) ! 

Such an argument invites us to abandon the search for real solutions, and luxuriate instead in feeling morally superior (to the rich who, supposedly, consume more than the accusers do, or even superior to those  who point out the need to restrain population.) So it's an example of the old vice of "indignationism", into which the Left sometimes falls. Fred Pearce and George Monbiot confuse our main guilt with our main problem, and then propose a non-solution.

(And the Rightwing neo-con websites lap up and repeat these supposedly Leftwing excuses for doing nothing about population growth).

Yes we in the richer countries are guilty of much higher consumption, and if we had been put on Earth (in an old-fashioned Christian view) to achieve our salvation by practicing self-denial, we would be the ones in danger of damnation. However the fact that over-consumption is one of humanity's worst "sins" (and one of our less attractive traits as a species) does not prove that over-consumption is humanity's worst problem -- much less that it is necessarily more productive to work on reducing over-consumption than to work on reducing population-growth  -- much less that population growth doesn't matter because we are about to wipe out or massively reduce over-consumption!

The deniers should learn to show some sense, and recognise that, as Jacques Cousteau pointed out, both population and per capita consumption need to be brought down  -- and we are not winning so easily on either front that we can afford to neglect the other !

As for Pearce's increasingly implausble claims about "demographic winter" see Beddington's remarks and also

For a further refutation of some of George Monbiot's errors about population -- regrettable in such an often-excellent environmental journalist -- see The Monbiot Fallacy ).

I encourage you to check out the full article in the Ecologist,

--meanwhile, below is the first half of it:

Population is 'our biggest challenge' says government chief scientist Sir John Beddington

Tom Levitt

14th February, 2012

The next world population milestone of 8 billion will come sooner than we think - perhaps as early as 2025 - yet we remain reluctant to debate the    issue. A forthcoming Royal Society report may force us to

While many commentators look ahead to 9 billion by 2050 there is a more immediate statistic that 'frightens' the UK government's chief scientist: 1 billion extra people in the next 13 years.

Speaking at a joint WWF and Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) event last week, which looked ahead to the Rio+20 conference in June, John Beddington told an audience that half of that population increase would come from Asia and most of the other half from Africa. Based on the UN's projections, he said Africa's population would grow 'frighteningly fast' from 1 billion today to 1.5 billion by 2025-2030.

He went on to lament the issue of population as 'under thought' and 'our biggest challenge' as it exacerbates existing problems over access to water and other resources.

Much of the population increase in Africa and Asia will see more people living in and migrating to areas of environmental risk, such as coastal cities, said Beddington, which as the recent Foresight report on Migration and Environmental Change points out, will put more at risk from flooding and rising sea levels.

Beddington's protestations are broadly similar to those being made by many others outside government such as Sir David Attenborough, who calls silence over the issue an 'absurd taboo'.

The silence is echoed across many environmental groups and government policymakers. A new paper by philospher Philip Cafaro, 'Climate ethics and population policy', suggests both have been fearful of wading into a host of contentious ethical issues, including family planning, abortion and immigration. The result has been limited progress in tackling ecological limits to growth and a failure to embrace one of the two primary drivers of climate change, along with consumption.

Indeed, when the Ecologist went back to Beddington's officials they clarified his remarks slightly, preferring to suggest population increases would have 'profound implications for the planet' rather than being 'our greatest challenge'.

Of course, it is ethically much easier to talk about how areas of high population growth will be impacted by climate change, as Beddington does, rather than how population growth itself is a cause of climate change and other environmental problems, as Attenborough and others do.

WWF, another group perhaps seeking to avoid controversy, suggests it is an issue for development and humanitarian organisations and instead focuses on the other primary driver of greenhouse gas emissions, overconsumption.

Others such as author Fred Pearce, have argued in the Ecologist that population growth is under control in all but a few exceptions and heading for long-term declines. As such it is a needless distraction from the issue of overconsumption, the major driver of environmental destruction.

Professor Cafaro, from Colorado State University, says both are critically important and that tackling population growth is not a reason for inaction on overconsumption. He citesone paper estimating that slowing population growth could provide 16-29 per cent of emission reductions needed to avoid dangerous climate change.

'What is the greater threat to poor people in Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Niger, Pakistan or India? Global climate change or national population growth?' Professor Cafaro asks.

'Perhaps we need not rank these two threats, since, as the example suggests, they magnify one another's potential harms. More people consuming water and longer, more frequent droughts = water shortages in Niger and Pakistan. More people living on marginal lands and harsher, more frequent storms = more deaths and environmental refugees from Bangladesh and Indonesia. Those worried about alleviating human suffering in the developing world cannot avoid population issues.

'A reasonable approach to environmental risk and a decent respect for human rights argue just as strongly for reining in harmful consumption as they do for avoiding over-population.'

But Fred Pearce has argued that consumption dwarfs population as the main environmental threat.

'Rising consumption today far outstrips the rising headcount as a threat to the planet. And most of the extra consumption has been in rich countries that have long since given up adding substantial numbers to their population, while most of the remaining population growth is in countries with a very small impact on the planet. By almost any measure you choose, a small proportion of the world’s people take the majority of the world’s resources and produce the majority of its pollution.
   . . . 
. . .

.........               SNIP!!      --------

With a major study by the Royal Society on population and human wellbeing due to be published in April, the debate looks certain to continue.