Friday, April 27, 2012

People and the Planet: contraception and reduction of consumption

The UK Royal Society has published a report on environmental pressures from population and consumption, entitled People and the Planet. The conclusion offers a stark choice:
Over the next 30 – 40 years the confluence of the
challenges described in this report provides the
opportunity to move towards a sustainable economy
and a better world for the majority of humanity,
or alternatively the risk of social, economic and
environmental failures and catastrophes on a scale
never imagined.

We had several discussions on this blog about the issues of alarmism, and about population growth in relation to climate change, highlighting the so called Kaya identity. The Royal Society Report addresses the wider issue of the future of humanity and singles out population and consumption levels (but making frequent comments on climate change). It is in line with many scientists' adherence to Neo-Malthusian principles.

But it is not quite as simple as that. There are some clever people on the author team who would not fall into the category of Neo-Maltusianism, especially the distinguished economist Partha Dasgupta. One of the major policy goals is defined as bringing 1.3 billion people out of absolute poverty, 'and reduce the inequality that persists in the world today.'
And chapter 2 of the report contains all the usual social science insights about the connection between population growth, wealth, health, and education, especially levels of female education.
However, the key recommendations (placed prominently on the homepage of the report) mention education only in passing and put the emphasis on family planning, focusing on contraception. 

In line with the old script of climate alarmism, the report states that 'The rise in emissions of
carbon dioxide to the atmosphere has now led to measurable and dangerous climate change.' This is an interesting aside, posing the question what the science basis for the statement was. Note that the statement does not say that it will be impossible to meet the 2 degree target. It says that we already witness dangerous climate change.

The report also makes the unrealistic assumption that the world economy is a zero sum game and that reducing levels of consumption in the rich world would have a positive impact on the environment. 
Several commentators have pointed out some of the weaknesses, Mark Lynas on the Breakthrough blog Tim Worstall in the Telegraph, and Leo Hickman in the Guardian. The debate is animated.


Heber Rizzo said...

Shame on RS.
This is not science, but a mix of religion and politics.

Günter Heß said...


Another one of Galadriels mirrors. A mirror that shows what could or might be.

Didn't we suffer enough of them?

Please excuse my sarcasm. But I have to say it:

Here comes the prophecy of paradise in recommendation 9 that lays most often 30 – 40 years ahead, if we act accordingly:

"Collaboration between National Governments is needed to develop socio-economic systems and institutions that are not dependent on continued material consumption growth. This will inform
the development and implementation of policies that allow both people and the planet to flourish."

Recommendation 7 is a must that guarantees funding:
„Natural and social scientists need to increase their research efforts on the interactions between consumption, demographic change and environmental impact.“
Recommendation 8 calculates our happiness for us, the head count:
National Governments should accelerate the development of comprehensive wealth measures. This should include reforms to the system of national accounts, and improvement in natural asset accounting.

Best regards

@ReinerGrundmann said...

There is a very thoughtful comment by Keith Kloor in Discover magazine. This is how it starts:

"If you were cryogenically frozen in the early 1970s, like Woody Allen was in Sleeper, and brought back to life today, you would obviously find much changed about the world.
Except environmentalism and its underlying precepts. That would be a familiar and quaint relic. You would wake up from your Rip Van Winkle period and everything around you would be different, except the green movement. It’s still anti-nuclear, anti-technology, anti-industrial civilization. It still talks in mushy metaphors from the Aquarius age, cooing over Mother Earth and the Balance of Nature. And most of all, environmentalists are still acting like Old Testament prophets, warning of a plague of environmental ills about to rain down on humanity."

Werner Krauss said...

I just read Mark Lynas comment on breakthrough, where he argues against the negative world view of "old environmentalism". While this is fine, I am kind of worried about the alternative view he suggests. here an example:

"Take fisheries - it is often assumed that because many are over-exploited at the moment then there will never be enough fish for everyone's wants to be satisfied. However, as a scientific report only last week showed, if fisheries and aquaculture are properly managed there can be at least the same levels of per capita fish consumption by 2050 as today."

To say "if fisheries are properly managed" is not really an argument or a strategy! Of course, if the world is properly managed, there is no need for any environmentalism! The problem is, the world is not properly managed.

I said it somewhere else before; while I support the post-environmental attitude, I am sometimes critical about this very "American" breakthrough attitude towards growth and development; and proper management can mean everything and nothing.

@ReinerGrundmann said...


what exactly do you mean by "American" breakthrough attitude?

Werner Krauss said...

In a forthcoming article, "The Anthropology of Post-Environmental Landscapes", I summarize the Breakthrough Institute Ideology as follows:

"Their radical approach suggests a new environmentalism which embraces the car industry, accepts the need for mobility, for cheap energy and progress in order to maintain America’s leadership and standard of life."

This also is confirmed by their very general use of terms like "growth" or "development", and the unquestioned affirmation of consumerism as the motor for capitalism, even a green one - which is the hallmark of American economy (and not necessarily of export-oriented and war-experienced countries like Germany; and not confirmed by social movements like Occupy Wallstreet).

In my article, I also critically point at their tendency for generalization - as if the whole wide world were an extension of a (now green) US company:

"Due to the manifesto character, the definitions, criticisms and suggestions remain on a very general level; they do not really count with diverse populations, cultures, beliefs or specific social interactions and situations. In other words, they still have to be ethnographically grounded or rooted – time to change perspective, from the bird’s eye view of the political strategist to the grassroots perspective of anthropology."

(In: Howard, Peter, Ian Thompson and Emma Waterton (eds) The Routledge Companion to Landscape Studies, publication: Aug 2012.)

@ReinerGrundmann said...

There is always a danger of overgeneralising one's own cultural and political background. However, they seem to identify the divide correctly as one of pro/anti growth. And I cannot help but think that an anti-growth agenda will lead nowhere.

Maybe we should have a dedicated thread on their new publication "Love Your Monsters: Postenvironmentalism and the Anthropocene" (Nordhaus & Shellenberger eds)

Werner Krauss said...

second try, link galore:

here another excellent one by Keith Kloor, which covers also authors we already discussed on klimazwiebel:

And here the links to the NYT debate initated by the Breaktrhough Institute and centered around Peter Kareiva, who stands for the new "environmentalism", and is chief scientist of American Nature Conservancy:

and here two case studies I once posted here and which nicely illustrate the post-environmental dilemma:

and here:

Werner Krauss said...

@Reiner #7

Pf course, Breakthrough is absolutely refreshing, no doubt about that. But I have difficulties with propagating "growth", which is far from being an innocent concept.

I agree that the no-growth school of "old environmentalism" and other politics like always ending up in singling out another national park is outdated. But sometimes Breakthrough's anti-environmentalist fervor is so strong that one wants to remind them that it was not environmentalism that caused poverty, polluted the environment and caused under-development. Instead, it were those industries who propagate "growth" and (sustainable, green whatever) development all over the place, while heading for cheap labor and production sites without environmental legislation etc. (Ha! Sounds really old-fashioned, my argument! The inverted Nordhaus / Schellenberger effect -:))

Anyway, Breakthrough is indeed good to think with and a way out of old and worn out debates.

MikeR said...

More good news: Sterilize the poor.

@ReinerGrundmann said...

Bill Gates has some interesting insights on the topic:

"QUESTION: Does more population necessarily imply increased energy demand, resource extraction, and environmental degradation?

BILL GATES: Again, we know that as we save lives and improve living standards, population growth in poor countries will moderate, just as it has everywhere else that has developed economically. So in that respect, we’re trying to curb consumption of resources.

Developing countries will need more energy and other resources as they advance. But the problems associated with today’s resource consumption are problems caused by the rich world. Africa's greenhouse gas emissions are kind of a rounding error in the global picture at this point. Yet that is where the suffering from climate change will be the worst. Tropical agriculture, which is dependent on the timing of rains and the rains not being too light or too intense, is the most fragile.

The only way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is to innovate our way to zero-carbon energy that’s price competitive with oil, gas and coal. That has the most potential to cut emissions in the rich world, which is where almost all the consumption is taking place at this point, while moderating the environmental impacts from poor countries improving their standards of living."

Werner Krauss said...


let's take my agreement with the general argument for granted (at least for the moment). Here my concern as a follow up to Marc Lynas' "if fisheries (the world) is managed properly": Bill Gates shyly adds who will manage and bring development: "we". Again? This time for sure?

@ReinerGrundmann said...


"We" is a shorthand for politics. It points to the collective nature of problems and solutions.

I know you are suspicious of the word "we". Probably because it is used to paint over social divisions and to pretend that we are in this together, paying the same, suffering the same, etc. This is fine. But here we (again that word: but this time very specifically meaning you and me, Bill Gates and Mark Lynas, etc) are advancing arguments about how to solve collective action problems. In order to debate these problems and their potential solutions, we need "we" (unless we want to use clumsy language).

Here is a funny example from Heinrich Boell.

Werner Krauss said...

Okay, I'll join the collective; I don't want to be the Dr. Murke of political correctness. I will work on my personal breakthrough.

ghost said...

Sorry, to interrupt this thread:

not sure, if the Gleick thread is still open, BUT

Gleick was right. If you read this, it is clear any support for this disgusting bunch of... was wrong. Okay, honest brokers what is your opinion? I expect some thoughts and a post about this from you.