Sitting Out Earth Day
April 22, 2008 9:23 PM   Subscribe

The new face of hunger -- “World agriculture has entered a new, unsustainable and politically risky period” says the International Food Policy Research Institute. Food riots have erupted in countries all along the equator because of soaring food commodity prices. So, where does the world get more food? If the extra supplies are to come mainly from large farmers in America and Europe, then they may be trapped in a farm subsidy Catch-22. Increase production per acre? We just learned about the myth of GM crops (previously of MeFi). All of this is why some are just sitting out Earth Day.
posted by netbros (114 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
 
by almost any measure, the human suffering is likely to be vast. In El Salvador the poor are eating only half as much food as they were a year ago. Afghans are now spending half their income on food, up from a tenth in 2006.

On a conservative estimate, food-price rises may reduce the spending power of the urban poor and country people who buy their own food by 20% (in some regions, prices are rising by far more). Just over 1 billion people live on $1 a day, the benchmark of absolute poverty; 1.5 billion live on $1 to $2 a day. Bob Zoellick, the president of the World Bank, reckons that food inflation could push at least 100m people into poverty, wiping out all the gains the poorest billion have made during almost a decade of economic growth.


Thats certainly not good. This aside, however, is even worse:

The quickest way to increase your crop is to plant more. But in the short run there is only a limited amount of fallow land easily available. (The substantial unused acreage in Brazil and Russia will take a decade or so to get ready.)

The "substantial unused acreage" in Brazil means rainforest. If this is true -- that we are in the processing of deforesting "substantial acreage[s]" of rainforest just to feed our ever-increasing number of mouths, we, as a species, are utterly, royally fucked.
posted by Avenger at 9:43 PM on April 22, 2008 [7 favorites]


If these equatorial people are so hungry and angry, they should just divert their energy from rioting to converting rainforest to farmland. Easy.

On preview, what Avenger said in the last part.
posted by clearly at 9:57 PM on April 22, 2008 [1 favorite]


Is there some theory where Malthus is wrong, yet ultimately right?
posted by rush at 9:59 PM on April 22, 2008


You know, I get that it's really sad that rainforests are being destroyed to get more farmland, but if it comes to a choice between people being fed and preserving rainforests I'd have to go for the first option every time.
posted by peacheater at 10:01 PM on April 22, 2008 [1 favorite]


You know, the US could stop converting corn into fuel ethanol, and the problem would vanish. That would only take a few months.
posted by Class Goat at 10:10 PM on April 22, 2008 [3 favorites]


You know, the US could stop converting corn into fuel ethanol, and the problem would vanish. That would only take a few months.
Yes I wish they would, especially since it's been found that it's probably not cost-effective and that ethanol can be produced more cheaply from other sources.
posted by peacheater at 10:13 PM on April 22, 2008 [1 favorite]


...but if it comes to a choice between people being fed and preserving rainforests I'd have to go for the first option every time.

Theres a problem here, though. The Amazon represents about 10% of all carbon stored in our planet's ecosystems and is also about 50% of whatever remains of Earth's rainforests. I think its safe to say that the continued destruction of the Amazon (roughly 40% over the next 20 years) is going to have an extremely negative impact on our climate, and consequently, on our ability to feed ourselves.

I love the environment, nature, trees, rainforests and all that -- but thats not the main reason why I agitate for conservation. The most important reason to protect the rainforests is that our lives will be very difficult without them.
posted by Avenger at 10:15 PM on April 22, 2008 [4 favorites]


You know, I get that it's really sad that rainforests are being destroyed to get more farmland, but if it comes to a choice between people being fed and preserving rainforests I'd have to go for the first option every time.

This is exactly what the people who clear rainforests are thinking. And it's easy to understand why - which makes it hard to blame them.

It will be easier to blame them when millions of people die in floods, but that will be a long time from now. Sort of like squirting the cat with your squirt gun hours after they tear up your couch, it won't really help anything.

It turns out that humanity's ultimate failing is the inability to understand long-term consequences. Oh well, it was fun while it lasted! I think I'll go get another drink.
posted by blacklite at 10:18 PM on April 22, 2008 [4 favorites]


You know, the US could

Yeah. America will do something intelligent and thereby make life better for everyone.
posted by blacklite at 10:19 PM on April 22, 2008 [5 favorites]


I'm not really advocating clearing rainforests here. I get that that's probably a bad thing and will have horrible consequences in the future. In any case, I don't think the problem is so much one of food production but of distribution. In many areas there's actually more than enough food to go around but the starving people don't have enough money to purchase it. For example, India actually has a surplus of food and has grain rotting away in government granaries, but the poorest people can't even afford government subsidized rates to purchase it. I'm not sure what to do about it.
posted by peacheater at 10:27 PM on April 22, 2008


peacheater You know, I get that it's really sad that rainforests are being destroyed to get more farmland, but if it comes to a choice between people being fed and preserving rainforests I'd have to go for the first option every time.

I wouldn't get too attached to that nickname, if I were you. Peaches are a fussy fruit. They like moderate rainfall, and moderate temperatures, and moderate wind velocity, and all that kind of stuff.

It's not "really sad". It's "terrifyingly dangerous". And it's not a choice between "people being fed" and preserving rainforests. It's a choice between industrial farming for profit, and preserving rainforests. While I'm inclined to accept the idea of chopping down rainforests as an alternative to starving, there are a lot of intermediate possibilities to be explored first. For instance, nationalizing the farming industry, and instituting a requirement that all able-bodied people put in a day's work a week on the farms. Sure, that's ideologically questionable, requires vast political will and power, etc etc. But it is so much preferable in terms of social and economic effects to cutting down rainforests, that to seriously contemplate cutting down rainforests instead is ridiculous.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 10:53 PM on April 22, 2008 [7 favorites]


Abstinence-only education is the key. God wouldn't be punishing the poor if they didn't sin so much.
posted by cytherea at 10:54 PM on April 22, 2008


India actually has a surplus of food and has grain rotting away in government granaries, but the poorest people can't even afford government subsidized rates to purchase it. I'm not sure what to do about it.

Stating the problem in those exact terms ought to provide a clue. If the market economy isn't meeting a need, indeed if it is causing the need not to be met, then we need to take meeting the need out of the market economy.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 10:55 PM on April 22, 2008 [1 favorite]


aeschenkarnos I've already explained that I'm not for cutting down rainforests and that I understand that there are alternatives that should be explored first. It just bothers me when people seem to put environmental concerns before all else, including human survival. I get that in the long run human beings, as a species, will be better off with those rainforests in place. It's just a pattern I see repeated again and again and I can't help calling it out when I see it. For example, in India, vast displacements of indigenous tribal people to make room for tiger sanctuaries or local animal rights groups refusing to allow rabies vaccines made by killing pigs and driving up the cost of vaccines more than six times. It's easy to say that we should look at the global picture but that's because you're not in these people's shoes.
Again, I'm really not advocating cutting down rainforests here. If you look at my post above I mention that the problems with food scarcity in many areas is one of distribution not production. I think that's the first thing that should be looked into.
posted by peacheater at 11:03 PM on April 22, 2008


Stating the problem in those exact terms ought to provide a clue. If the market economy isn't meeting a need, indeed if it is causing the need not to be met, then we need to take meeting the need out of the market economy.
You know you're really preaching to the choir here. I get that, I really do. It's difficult to get governments to agree to such a radical restructuring in practice.
posted by peacheater at 11:05 PM on April 22, 2008


6.66 plus billion people. This has gotten out of hand.

At this point, we are fighting to save people because there are too many of us. On the other side of that coin is the absolute treasure that is biodiversity, which is being threatened because a some of the nearly 7 billion of us raping this planet aren't able to eat. For once in our greedy existence, we should respect that ceiling of the population curve.

When I hear hunger, I immediately think "stop having children." You could even capitalize that phrase and add enough exclamation points that a few ones slip in there.

When we as a species (or planet at this rate) reach our Malthusian catastrophe things are going to get ugly. The envelope has been pushed far enough. When reasonable amounts of people can't eat because there is a shortage of food as well as readily available places to grow food, there is no reason whatsoever to shoot the future of this planet in the foot to feed the already too many mouths.

Whether our drastic population decline comes via global warming, epidemic, or self destruction, the common denominator here is the unchecked population growth leading to our current state of overpopulation. It will come with further unchecked growth. Our 2.5 kids' children may not be all to ready to offer thanks for 'improving' the planet during our time here.
posted by clearly at 11:06 PM on April 22, 2008 [3 favorites]


Is it really biofuels at fault? I notice that the grain that has increased in price the most is rice, which isn't used to make biofuels (at least that I know.) Sure, you could argue that people who used to eat corn are now eating rice, but that seems implausible and it still doesn't explain why rice has increased more than corn.
posted by Mitrovarr at 11:06 PM on April 22, 2008


I heard a really wonderful lecture by a favorite teacher of mine which all this reminds me of. He drew a big square on the blackboard and divided it up into 100 little squares. Then he said: imagine that there are 100 people. Now each person needs about 1 square to live comfortably. But imagine now that 5 of the 100 people have 95 squares. The remaining 95 people have to squeeze into the 5 squares left. They're rather crowded. The 5 people with 95 squares want to distract attention from the fact that they hold 95 squares so they keep pointing their fingers at the 95 people in the five squares and say: oh no, this big square of ours is getting too overcrowded, there should be fewer people, thus preventing people from seeing that the true problem isn't overpopulation but overconsumption.
posted by peacheater at 11:17 PM on April 22, 2008 [12 favorites]


Did the big square people live happily ever after?
posted by TwelveTwo at 11:28 PM on April 22, 2008 [1 favorite]


Hard to say, let's wait a 100 years or so.
posted by peacheater at 11:32 PM on April 22, 2008


Is it really biofuels at fault? I notice that the grain that has increased in price the most is rice, which isn't used to make biofuels (at least that I know.)

Food is, to a great extent, fungible. As corn supplies in the world have declined and the price has gone up, a lot of people have switched to rice, increasing demand for it.
posted by Class Goat at 11:33 PM on April 22, 2008


> Is it really biofuels at fault?

That's a dramatic over-simplification, but a popular one. I don't think anybody knows for sure right now, but it's likely an unfortunate confluence of independent factors: speculation, capital movement, drought, blight, normal price cycles -- and also biofuels.

I can find no support whatsoever for the assertion that this crisis would simply go away in a matter of months if only the US stopped the production of ethanol from corn. Not that that's a bad idea, but that outcome is wishful thinking.
posted by sdodd at 11:47 PM on April 22, 2008


The true problem isn't overpopulation but overconsumption.

This is where environmentalism starts to veer into religious territory. Overconsumption by what measure? Why should there be 100 people when clearly five would be much happier, unless there is some metaphysical per-capita overconsumption threshold?

If our goal is to maximize the average happiness per person, then we should minimize our population. In the strict zero sum world of the blackboard, the ideal population would indeed be one.

However, in the real world there are economies of scale and benefits to specialization. I can't build a car from raw ore starting by myself, and I can't develop new anti-cancer drugs by myself either. A single person would find most of the resources of the world out of his reach, which is why our ideal population is not one.

But do we really need 6.6 billion? Probably not.
posted by Pyry at 11:59 PM on April 22, 2008 [2 favorites]


"... For instance, nationalizing the farming industry, and instituting a requirement that all able-bodied people put in a day's work a week on the farms. Sure, that's ideologically questionable, requires vast political will and power, etc etc. But it is so much preferable in terms of social and economic effects to cutting down rainforests, that to seriously contemplate cutting down rainforests instead is ridiculous."
posted by aeschenkarnos at 1:53 AM on April 23

Comedy gold, I'll wager, even in Uzbekistan. Thanks for the chuckle.
posted by paulsc at 12:08 AM on April 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


Class Goat: Food is, to a great extent, fungible. As corn supplies in the world have declined and the price has gone up, a lot of people have switched to rice, increasing demand for it.

It really doesn't make sense that the secondary effects (people switching to rice) would outweigh the primary effets (biofuel using corn.) Also, foods are not entirely fungible, especially to people in developing nations - people who eat rice culturally aren't necessarily going to eat corn instead, or at least not in the same quantities, and that also goes the other way.
posted by Mitrovarr at 12:09 AM on April 23, 2008


Peak.Oil. Baby.

Rising prices -> food riots -> border wars -> robot and/or zombie apocolypse.

Think of it as invisible inflation that trickles down to the poor and converts instantly to misery and chaos.
posted by vrakatar at 12:23 AM on April 23, 2008


Hopefully this is evidence of nature beginning to self-regulate. Best news I've heard in ages.
posted by arcadia at 12:27 AM on April 23, 2008


Peacheater, your teacher was right. The five people are trying to keep all the other people crowded into tiny little squares while those five live it up.

But I would like to ask you if you could hold that thought in your head, and also put another one in there. Because these two thoughts can be true at the same time!

1). People have a tendancy to hoard all the good for themselves at the expense of others.

2). The world can only support X number of people.

Even more exciting, #2 can be expanded to say: The world can only support X number of people regardless of how the goodies are divided up.
posted by bravelittletoaster at 12:54 AM on April 23, 2008 [2 favorites]


oopsies. "all the goodies".
posted by bravelittletoaster at 12:54 AM on April 23, 2008


So, how many incentives do we need: eat less meat? I'm as much as an opportunist as the other but this seems to be the answer again & again ..
posted by borq at 1:07 AM on April 23, 2008


The claim that population is irrelevant because some people are richer than others makes no sense to me. OF COURSE some people are richer than others. It's always been that way and it always will be. OF COURSE it sucks. But the fact remains that 600 million rich people and 6 billion poor people are going to do (and are doing) more ecological damage than 5 million rich people and 500 million poor people would do.

Carrying capacity is critical, and consumption must be reduced. This is NOT incompatible with population reduction, and the whole argument is just a red herring that distracts people from addressing the real problem.

There are too many people on the planet, some of them are too rich, and many of them are too poor. So we address social inequality AND we work on reducing the population. What's the problem?
posted by arcadia at 1:19 AM on April 23, 2008 [2 favorites]


The problem is that population control has a long ugly history of being used as a weapon against the poor, that's what.
posted by BinGregory at 1:23 AM on April 23, 2008 [3 favorites]


paulsc Comedy gold, I'll wager, even in Uzbekistan. Thanks for the chuckle.
Allow me to subtitle your giggling: "Tee hee. As if nationalization would ever ever be permitted by those in charge. Tee hee."
People have thought a lot of things would never be permitted by those in charge, in the course of history. Massive disasters have a way of leading to changes of who is in charge. Global food shortages would be a massive disaster. Climate change from clearing rainforests would be a massive disaster too.

In case you missed it somehow, clearing the Brazilian rainforest would be extremely bad for all of us. If we haven't got enough food, instead of clearing the rainforest, we should be contemplating alternatives that are only bad for some of us. Like nationalizing the basic food supply. The environment is more important than the economy; most intelligent people realize that, but it's unclear to many just how much more important. At this level, the environment is essential to our lives. The economy is a game we play.

We're floating on a raft here, that people are cutting up to sell for firewood as we float. Wherever people are seriously damaging the environment for reasons of profit, that needs to be stomped on and shut down. The Kyoto treaty and carbon trading and so forth aren't even vaguely close to a practical solution. Pollution, above a certain point, should be treated as an act of war against the rest of the world. That's what it is.

I'm sorry that I have to point this out to you, but you're chuckling while things are being done, for money, that drastically increase the probability of your death. That's your actual, personal death. Death in riots due to starvation, death due to starvation, death due to climate change, death due to social collapse due to the above, death due to disease due to the above. What do you seriously think will happen if the Brazilian rainforest is cleared? Do you think you'll be exempt from the consequences?
posted by aeschenkarnos at 1:41 AM on April 23, 2008 [9 favorites]


Nationalising agriculture is not the answer. It just doesn't work: socialism showed us that. Even with the best will in the world - take Tanzania and Nyerere's grand experiment with African socialism - land reform like that crashes and burns every time.
posted by YouRebelScum at 2:30 AM on April 23, 2008


paulsc Comedy gold, I'll wager, even in Uzbekistan. Thanks for the chuckle.
aeschenkarnos Allow me to subtitle your giggling: "Tee hee. As if nationalization would ever ever be permitted by those in charge. Tee hee."

As I understood it, paulsc's point was not that nationalization wouldn't be permitted by those in charge, but that, as was demonstrated in Uzbekistan under the Soviet Union, it was not a viable solution.
posted by JiBB at 2:38 AM on April 23, 2008 [3 favorites]


BinGregory - Just about any social structure you can think of has been used at one point or another as a weapon against the poor: land ownership, religion, economic stratification, educational discrimination, etc. etc. If population control has been used that way as well, that doesn't make population control inherently "anti-poor". As I've said in other threads, ecologically speaking the population control of the rich is far more important, in that the rich are consuming vastly more resources. But the poor are producing more babies. My conclusion: fewer rich people, fewer poor people, fewer people period.

I don't know why I bother going on about it. I'm fairly sure of only a few things:
1 - It's nearly impossible to convince anyone of anything.
2 - People who want to breed, generally breed.
3 - Nature will realign the balance eventually, and there's not a damn fuckin' thing you or I can do about it.

Despite humanity's best efforts to derail them, laws of ecology are still in force. We have prolonged our growth curve through the application of technology, but that's just a change in degree and size, not in form.

Get on the Google and research J shaped curves. Fascinating stuff, that.

"J-shaped growth curve: A curve on a graph that records the situation in which, in a new environment, the population density of an organism increases rapidly in an exponential (logarithmic) form, but then stops abruptly as environmental resistance (e.g. seasonality) or some other factor (e.g. the end of the breeding phase) suddenly becomes effective...This type of population growth is termed ‘density-independent’ as the regulation of growth rate is not tied to the population density until the final crash."

Until the final crash.
posted by arcadia at 2:54 AM on April 23, 2008 [2 favorites]


God, you VHEMT people are so fucking annoying.

PEOPLE ARE NOT RATIONAL ABOUT THEIR ABILITY TO HAVE CHILDREN. The fact that fifty thousand computer programmers have valiantly renounced that doesn't mean it's an option that it will be possible to implement on a grand scale. Reproduction, as a species of animals, is our #1 evolutionary goal. Do you really think you can change that? It's as delusional and Utopian as the New Socialist Man.
posted by nasreddin at 3:45 AM on April 23, 2008 [2 favorites]


It just bothers me when people seem to put environmental concerns before all else, including human survival.

Now I see the problem. You think environmental concerns and human survival are two different things.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 3:47 AM on April 23, 2008 [7 favorites]


"Do you really think you can change that?"

Of course I don't, I'm not stupid. Re-read my post. Should we only say things that we think are within the realm of certainty? So much for "peace on earth", "love your neighbour", etc. etc.

By the way, I'm not a "VHEMT person", although I suppose I am fucking annoying, at least at times. I'm just a guy who needs room to breathe.

Kirth Gerson - I think environmental concerns and human survival are definitely two different things. The first is necessary to the second, the second is totally unnecessary, and maybe even antithetical, to the first.
posted by arcadia at 4:17 AM on April 23, 2008


Oh, and I'm not a computer programmer either. You only need to check my profile to learn that I'm an angry deity.
posted by arcadia at 4:18 AM on April 23, 2008


Of course I don't, I'm not stupid. Re-read my post. Should we only say things that we think are within the realm of certainty? So much for "peace on earth", "love your neighbour", etc. etc.

By the way, I'm not a "VHEMT person", although I suppose I am fucking annoying, at least at times. I'm just a guy who needs room to breathe.


So you're essentially admitting that this is just inane utopian blather? And if you're not a VHEMT person, why did you post a link to their site last week?

I mean, I have a revolutionary new idea: free unicorns and bunnies for everyone. The bunnies will eat CO2 and shit oil. The unicorns will eat poverty and shit happiness. The human race cannot afford to go without magic happy bunnies and unicorns!
posted by nasreddin at 4:27 AM on April 23, 2008



I posted a link to VHEMT because I thought it was interesting, I wasn't aware that that gave them controlling interest of my being. I think I'm allowed to agree with groups without being "a [fill in the blank] person".

I think there's a difference between discussing issues that aren't necessarily feasible and indulging in "inane utopian blather". I hope you react with equal vehemence to people who believe in the sustainability of growth-based capitalism and human omnipresence over the entire earth. That's no more realistic.

You're quite bitter about something, obviously, and I don't think it's me.
posted by arcadia at 4:37 AM on April 23, 2008


Slightly off topic.


Why is there a corn belt in the US? Because that is the area due to heat, rain,drainage, etc. that with the least amount of effort corn can be grown profitably.


Now lets say the price of corn doubles. A farmer farther north might have to spend more money drying his corn (yes they use propane/natural gas to dry corn, yes it sucks). He harvests at 26% moisture, versus the guy down south who harvests at 20% moisture, but the price is higher so he can afford to dry it and still make a profit.


So what's the point? There are vast amounts of land in North America that can be farmed today that are either not being farmed or are being under utilized. Where I am, there are 400 acres that are harvested for grass hay once every few years, other fields have had trees planted on them. If the price goes high enough, 1000$ an acre can be spent for tile drainage and grain corn can be grown. Farmers need time to react, but with higher sustained corn prices farmers can meet the demand.
posted by sety at 4:39 AM on April 23, 2008


I think the idea that land can be "under-utilized" is at the root of the problem. It reminds me of logging companies that refer to old growth forests as "decadent". I don't want to live in a planet sized cornfield, do you?
posted by arcadia at 4:43 AM on April 23, 2008



I think there's a difference between discussing issues that aren't necessarily feasible and indulging in "inane utopian blather". I hope you react with equal vehemence to people who believe in the sustainability of growth-based capitalism and human omnipresence over the entire earth. That's no more realistic.


The trouble is, as far as utopias go, "let's all stop reproducing and slowly die off" is probably the least compelling one, next to the Thousand Year Reich.

You're quite bitter about something, obviously, and I don't think it's me.


I'm bitter about the people who come into environment threads, point the finger at the poor people who are having babies, and say: that's the problem! we need fewer people! When the actual culprit is not the poor mother but the growth-based capitalist (and state-capitalist) system (as you seem to recognize). It's an elaborate kind of blaming the victim. And also, it's not very factually correct: as I've mentioned many times before, the UN population predictions show world population plateauing over the next 50 years.
posted by nasreddin at 4:43 AM on April 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


TIME on Ethanol, Brazil's deforestation.
posted by Eideteker at 4:46 AM on April 23, 2008


OF COURSE some people are richer than others. It's always been that way and it always will be.

OF COURSE people will reproduce as much as they feel able. It's always been that way and it always will be. Money is a rather more recent pursuit by comparison. Tell you what, bub, I'll go refresh myself on J-curves in my old ConBio textbook if you can find me an example of an organism that is not driven by the desire to reproduce. Don't get me wrong, your personal choice to abstain from breeding is noble and an act of charity toward the rest of us; but like all acts of charity, it is more virtuous when unaccompanied by proselytizing.
posted by BinGregory at 4:53 AM on April 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


Thanks for your semi-acknowledgement that I'm not blaming the poor. If you reread my post you might notice that if anything I'm explicitly blaming the rich.

In fact I'm not "blaming" anyone, because I don't think there is ultimately an ethical dimension to this argument. Ethics are a human invention, and ecology operates outside of them. If populations do certain things, certain results will follow. It's just a matter of cause and effect, and I'm simply expressing my preferred effect. I would rather see a drastic reduction in population than a massive holocaust, and that seems like a pretty humanitarian attitude to me, frankly.

Even if UN predictions are right, a plateau in 50 years at 9 billion will make little difference. We're at under 7 billion now, and look around you. All systems are beginning to give out at the seams.

But that's not even my point, really. Even if current trends were sustainable I would still be saying exactly the same thing. Why? Because I don't believe that more humans = better, whether we're destroying the planet or not. The idea that a maximal human population is a good thing is merely a residual holdover from an era when populations were actually in danger and people were encouraged by society to have maximum children. There's no "truth" in this belief whatsoever. So my opinion varies from the majority and I make no apologies for that. A tiny human population lost within a vast sea of "underutilized" wilderness sounds like a great life to me. That's what I believe. I don't really care if you agree with me or not.

Characterizing me and people who agree with me as cruel or uncaring is just an angry lashing out at the unknown. I'm not at all a cruel or uncaring person, and I don't want anyone to kill themselves or to go around killing other people. A drastic reduction in the birth rate would be a relatively painless way to solve many problems. Am I utopian? Do I think it's going to happen? No and no. I think ultimately the problem will be solved by a massive increase in the death rate, through some new disease probably. And that bums me out, big time. But hey, nature bats last. That's the way it is.
posted by arcadia at 5:00 AM on April 23, 2008 [2 favorites]


You'll search in vain for any claim on my part that my lack of children is due to virtue, nobility, or any other admirable feature. I just never wanted 'em, so it was no sacrifice for me.

"Proselytizing" is really just another word for the side of the argument that you're not on.
posted by arcadia at 5:02 AM on April 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


Regarding the desire to reproduce, you're obviously right about that. But the primary bribe that nature uses is the sex drive, and last time I checked there were many ways to have sex without making babies. So, I'm in agreement with many comments on other threads about empowerment and education of women, which has the effect of decreasing birth rates, because guess what? When given the choice, most women don't particularly want to be baby factories.
posted by arcadia at 5:07 AM on April 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


The idea that a maximal human population is a good thing is merely a residual holdover from an era when populations were actually in danger and people were encouraged by society to have maximum children. There's no "truth" in this belief whatsoever. So my opinion varies from the majority and I make no apologies for that. A tiny human population lost within a vast sea of "underutilized" wilderness sounds like a great life to me. That's what I believe. I don't really care if you agree with me or not.

Characterizing me and people who agree with me as cruel or uncaring is just an angry lashing out at the unknown. I'm not at all a cruel or uncaring person, and I don't want anyone to kill themselves or to go around killing other people


So in one breath you say that ethics are a human invention and don't apply to ecology, and in the next you say that a small human population would be good? Don't you see the contradiction? Ecology doesn't act according to "good" or "bad," especially not according to what some dude from the Internet thinks is good or bad. Ecology is a natural process. According to ecology we will expand until we reach the carrying capacity of our environment.

If you don't think changing the birth rate is realistic or possible, why do you keep popping into these threads and haranguing people about how overpopulation is responsible for everything? Wouldn't it be equally productive to talk about, say, sustainable community-based political structures or something? Or, for that matter, happiness-shitting unicorns?

It's a bit disingenuous of you to claim that you're not blaming the poor. Racists, for instance, always say that it's not the inferior races' fault they're inferior, that's just the way things are. Which is not to say that you're a racist, but using the language of "this is just bare facts dude" is just a dodge to make you look reasonable rather than, effectively, like someone who doesn't give a shit about the six billion (mostly poor) human beings that will have to magically disappear to make your utopia possible. It's an anti-human stance at best.
posted by nasreddin at 5:13 AM on April 23, 2008


Did anyone read the "Catch 22" link?

"The potential problem, economists said, is that strong demand for corn and other grains has caused prices to reach historic highs. That has led to record farmland values and steadily increasing debt as farmers borrow money to buy more land, finance the higher costs of fertilizer and seed and upgrade their equipment. Economists worry that farmers could be tempted to add debt due to the belief that high commodity prices would continue."

What it says, in a nutshell, is that farmers are going to make so much money thanks to high grain prices that they will all be running out and buying/taking loans out for all kinds of stuff, and that if prices go back down then they will have a problem making payments. Wow, what a scoop.

This "they are going to make so much money it will ruin them" is yet another fine example of lazy journalism. This situation is going to help farmers, and it's going to help them a LOT. Nearly all farms run in a constant state of debt. A few good years could help a lot of farmers dig themselves out from under this debt, replace worn equipment, etc. Anyone who thinks higher prices for the grains they sell is going to hurt farmers is crazy.

And really- "what we learned about the myth of GM crops???" Please..
posted by Patapsco Mike at 5:18 AM on April 23, 2008


The idea that a maximal human population is a good thing is merely a residual holdover from an era when populations were actually in danger and people were encouraged by society to have maximum children. There's no "truth" in this belief whatsoever.

Nobody anywhere has ever decided to have children, or not to have children, based on "the idea that a maximal human population is a good thing."
posted by nasreddin at 5:24 AM on April 23, 2008


I didn't say it would be "good", I said it "sounds like a great life TO ME", so I don't see the contradiction.

It's not disingenuous of me at all to say that I'm not blaming the poor. You're taking an aspect that some people attach to the population debate and applying it to my argument with no basis whatsoever. I've never said anything to even imply that I'm blaming the poor, and the few times that I've made a distinction between rich and poor it was to say that I would rather see a reduction in the population of the rich because they use more resources. I wish you'd read what I write rather than what you want to assume that I write, based on what you want to read. You've obviously got some framework in your mind of "population control advocate = hater of poor and/or racist", although you at least refrain from calling me a racist, another claim that would be utterly without basis. My guess is you're coming from a background of socialist / leftist politics, with which I'm quite sympathetic, but which gets so utterly obsessed with the rich/poor dichotomy that it won't recognize facts. Guess what? Poor people are victims of structural inequality, not saints! They're not untouchable just because they're poor!

Final point: these six billion people are all going to disappear anyway. In a little over a hundred years, every single person now on this planet will be dead. I didn't make it this way, that's just a fact. You can pretend that this isn't a fact based on your belief that I'm annoying or something, but most people would acknowledge that this is a fact. Therefore, as I've said over and over, killing, suicide, murder, whatever, are not only morally unjustifiable but irrelevant. What matters is birth rates, because the ones not yet born are the ones who will be populating the planet in a hundred years. And if there are fewer of them, that will be far better FOR THEM. More resources, less crowding, less pollution, less political tension, etc. etc. I totally fail to see how my advocating this is based on me not giving a shit about people.
posted by arcadia at 5:25 AM on April 23, 2008 [2 favorites]


"Nobody anywhere has ever decided to have children, or not to have children, based on "the idea that a maximal human population is a good thing."

Depends on how you define human. Throughout most of history people have done exactly this, they've just been saying "Catholic" or "Protestant" or "Muslim" or, basically, "us", rather than "human".

I still frequently hear this argument amongst "progressives": "We have to have kids, otherwise "they" will outnumber us"; an amazingly elitist sentiment coming from supposed egalitarians, often delivered in a joking way but also, if people are honest, usually believed.
posted by arcadia at 5:37 AM on April 23, 2008


I've never said anything to even imply that I'm blaming the poor, and the few times that I've made a distinction between rich and poor it was to say that I would rather see a reduction in the population of the rich because they use more resources.

Because, even though you're not explicitly blaming the poor, you are effectively ignoring the real basis of environmental destruction--which is caused by increasing industrialization and consumption by people in rich countries. It's like the Social Darwinist explanation of social hierarchy: no one is blamed for exploitation, but it serves as an ideological veil to conceal the real culprits and the real nature of exploitation.

My guess is you're coming from a background of socialist / leftist politics, with which I'm quite sympathetic, but which gets so utterly obsessed with the rich/poor dichotomy that it won't recognize facts.

I'm actually a vaguely Bob Black-aligned post-left anarchist, but thanks for playing. For what it's worth, I don't have anything against small-scale communities and a small human population, but unlike you I realize that actually putting something like this into effect would be an act of authoritarianism and genocide on a scale unprecedented in human history.

What matters is birth rates, because the ones not yet born are the ones who will be populating the planet in a hundred years.

I would say that to the vast majority of people raising a family and protecting their offspring are rights and values as dear as their own lives. It's just as unethical to demand that people no longer have offspring as it is to demand that they kill themselves.
posted by nasreddin at 5:39 AM on April 23, 2008 [2 favorites]


Depends on how you define human. Throughout most of history people have done exactly this, they've just been saying "Catholic" or "Protestant" or "Muslim" or, basically, "us", rather than "human".

I'm a historian, and I'm having trouble thinking of a time in recorded history when political or religious motivations had a significant effect on people's decision to have children. Maybe if you count the Third Reich's breeding programs or the various other incentive-based policies over the years, but that's not quite the same thing. Can you name a couple of examples?
posted by nasreddin at 5:42 AM on April 23, 2008


And to think, it's not that long ago we were blaming corn subsidies for obesity due to unhealthy foods and suggested they encouraged an imbalance of trade.
posted by mikeh at 5:44 AM on April 23, 2008


nasreddin: as I've mentioned many times before, the UN population predictions show world population plateauing over the next 50 years.

Your faith in this forecast, which is based on social and economic changes leading to lower birth rates, appears to contradict your insistence that doing anything to encourage people to have fewer children is futile.
posted by sfenders at 5:45 AM on April 23, 2008


"I'm a historian, and I'm having trouble thinking of a time in recorded history when political or religious motivations had a significant effect on people's decision to have children. Can you name a couple of examples?

One should suffice.

"And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth."
- Genesis I.28
posted by arcadia at 5:53 AM on April 23, 2008


But I'll go for two.

"High Muslim population growth is in fact a part of a greater global plan to make Islam the dominant religion in the world by sheer demographics. In all fairness to Muslims, their religious leaders and most rank and file are quite open about why the Muslims want to increase their population at a faster rate. As many Muslim leaders have pointed out they are not interested in "quality of life" -- they are interested in "the quantity of the Muslim population". In the aftermath of Census release when one Muslim leader called for Muslims to practice birth control, other Muslim scholars rebuffed him and called for more children of Islam and some women groups have publicly protested against the proposed family planning."
posted by arcadia at 5:59 AM on April 23, 2008


Your faith in this forecast, which is based on social and economic changes leading to lower birth rates, appears to contradict your insistence that doing anything to encourage people to have fewer children is futile.

I don't see how it does.


One should suffice.

"And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth."
- Genesis I.28


I'm not talking about religious or political leaders demanding population growth. I'm talking about individual families' decision to have children. The two have always been very different, and it's only the second one that matters. I don't know of anyone, at least on a societal scale, who has decided to have children only because God or their mullah said so.
posted by nasreddin at 6:04 AM on April 23, 2008


"I don't know of anyone, at least on a societal scale, who has decided to have children only because God or their mullah said so."

You're a historian?
posted by arcadia at 6:07 AM on April 23, 2008


Can we finally fucking agree that fueling our SUV's with food is immoral?!?
posted by Pollomacho at 6:08 AM on April 23, 2008


"Religion has also sought to influence the size of families. It has already been noted that ancestor worship in China encouraged concubinage and large families, and that the marital duty of the Hindu husband contributed to a high birth rate...Most religions have taught that numerous progeny are a gift from the gods. The man whose "quiver was full" of children was indeed blessed of Jehovah.

In view of religious encouragement to have children it is not surprising that the movement for smaller families met strong opposition from organized religion. Birth control is of course inimical to the aims of ancestor worship in China or the sex teachings of Hinduism. Likewise it runs counter to the teachings of modern Catholicism, which is today the chief adversary of contraception in western countries."

Ray E. Baber, Religion and the Family, p. 96
posted by arcadia at 6:12 AM on April 23, 2008


So how is all of that at all related to the supposed maxim that "a maximal human population is desirable"? Obviously certain cultures encourage larger family structures, that's beyond doubt. (but of course that has very little to do with "God told me to"--it's a function of a broader notion of culture; thus Buddhists would religiously be against needless sex and procreation, as far as I know, which doesn't stop them from having large families.)
posted by nasreddin at 6:21 AM on April 23, 2008


That is to say, it is possible for a culture to encourage family building, but discourage breeding on a societal scale. In the early days of industrialization, for instance, large families were considered desirable but there were massive attempts to get the poor to stop breeding, since the poverty and chaos of the Industrial Revolution were their fault.
posted by nasreddin at 6:26 AM on April 23, 2008


You seem to think that religious structures have little effect on individual psychology, motivations, or decisions. I would argue that for most of the last several thousand years, conformity to religion was the primary, if not the only factor in people's decision making, particularly when it came to issues involving sex and families. Even though the modern West is now largely secularized, we're still living with the impact of this history, one of the factors of which is the underlying assumption that the more humans there are, the better.

The world is full of "secular" people whose ethical structures are basically religious, with the God taken out. The idea of children as "innocent", the idea of an afterlife, monogamy, forgiveness, and many more aspects of modern society originate in religion.
posted by arcadia at 6:28 AM on April 23, 2008 [2 favorites]


You seem to think that religious structures have little effect on individual psychology, motivations, or decisions. I would argue that for most of the last several thousand years, conformity to religion was the primary, if not the only factor in people's decision making, particularly when it came to issues involving sex and families. Even though the modern West is now largely secularized, we're still living with the impact of this history, one of the factors of which is the underlying assumption that the more humans there are, the better.

This is a highly stereotyped and well-nigh useless way of looking at history. Religion, whether or not it's laid down in holy books, is constantly immersed in a cultural system, and it is that cultural system which "determines" human behavior rather than religion itself. The same exact religion turns into very different things in different societies: early modern Geneva, an almost fascist theocracy, and Holland, the most tolerant and democratic society in Europe, were both predominantly or overwhelmingly Calvinist. Religion by itself, without the mediation of culture (and economy, and politics, and gender, and whatever else) has zero effect, simply because it has never been observed.
posted by nasreddin at 6:35 AM on April 23, 2008 [3 favorites]


Okay, good point. One for you!
posted by arcadia at 6:38 AM on April 23, 2008


"Unused acreage in Brazil" does not Nessisarally mean the rainforests. There are other areas as well, including large savannas and temperate forests. Most people believe that the rainforest soil isn't even suitable for agriculture, and I don't think rainforests are being cut down at all for farms, just for timber and cattle farming which wastes the land anyway.
posted by delmoi at 6:40 AM on April 23, 2008


Can we finally fucking agree that fueling our SUV's with food is immoral?!?

I can't speak for 'we', but it sure looks like a dick move to me.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 6:55 AM on April 23, 2008


Why does it seem like in every thread I read lately arcadia is every other comment? Has anyone else noticed this? Do we need a MeTa intervention?
posted by Eideteker at 7:10 AM on April 23, 2008


Eideteker - According to my profile, there are exactly 6 threads in which I've posted more than one comment, so I'd have to say the answer is that we share the same interests!

Thanks for your support!
posted by arcadia at 7:19 AM on April 23, 2008


Why not put this great police state apparatus that George W. Bush has put in place over the past 8 years and start programs of monitored and enforced austerity?

/Just trying to think creatively, people, don't shoot.
posted by psmealey at 7:32 AM on April 23, 2008


It appears the end will be rather like Waiting for Godot: we're all arguing and discussing, waiting for something to happen that never comes (because a) the problem is too big or b) we were too busy arguing to doing anything at all). Except this time, we don't make a graceful exit. We will just become the most majestic fossils of a ended mammalian age.
posted by whimsicalnymph at 8:27 AM on April 23, 2008 [3 favorites]


Can we finally fucking agree that fueling our SUV's with food is immoral?!?

Friend, it wouldn't matter if the Hummer was literally powered by human blood, the people driving them wouldn't care.

Then again, who am I to talk about morality? The steak I had for dinner last night took five pounds of grain to create. Can we finally fucking agree that converting massive amounts of food into much smaller amounts of tastier food is immoral?
posted by Parasite Unseen at 8:41 AM on April 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


So, where does the world get more food?

The world doesn't need more food. It needs to grow better food and distribute it better.

Many countries - especially in the south - divert most of their agriculture toward export economies, feeding the north's desire for filler, additives, and the contents of a diet heavy on carbs and red meat - most of which they will throw out. This is often at the behest of foreign corporations, or governments trying to pay off debts to the international usury bodies.

Meanwhile, the US and Canada put huge amounts of crops into fuel. Instead, they could start subsidizing public transit and (re)designing settlements to be less reliant on personal automobiles and delivery trucks. This would have the bonus of freeing up land for community urban agriculture.

As for overpopulation, well, that tends to become less of a problem where education and material stability rise - which are more likely to happen if impoverished nations and communities aren't being bled dry by wealthy conglomerates or corrupt local governments.

Three paragrahps in a comment on the blue make it seem overly simplistic, I know, but probably still less so than "the world needs more food." (No offense, netbros - I know you just needed to be pithy)
posted by regicide is good for you at 8:53 AM on April 23, 2008 [2 favorites]


First of all corn based ethanol is merely a transitional technology. Build a distribution mechanism for ethanol, and a market of ethanol powered vehicles and then we will find that producers will develop cheaper means of producing ethanol such as algea, switchgrass, cellulous, etc. Second the choice isn't food or fuel. The choice is between food, soda pop, other HFCS snacks, grain fed livestock, corn whiskey, and other products. Why does your Pepsi get priority over my E85 converted Honda?
posted by humanfont at 9:28 AM on April 23, 2008


Maybe I didn't make myself clear. In the recent past, even on MeFi, we've had the pleasure of grousing about the heavy corn subsidies paid for farmers, which has lead to (previous) overproduction, and created an industry of cheap sweeteners, cattle feed, and corn as a filler in any number of foods populating those middle aisles of the grocery store.

Ethanol was decried as an annoying stop-gap measure: inefficient to refine compared to other fuels, and corn was criticized as a bad choice. The reality is that both the efficiency and demand have gone up for ethanol, changing it from a way to get rid of a surplus of corn to a source of demand.

More efficient plants and techniques to create biofuels are on the way, but ethanol's here now. I've often mentioned in conversation how eventually a demand for corn ethanol would pull the prices up to the point where using corn as a filler in food would become uneconomical, and subsidies would no longer be necessary. I don't want to wave away food riots or quickly-rising commodity prices as bumps in the road, but we're starting to see the shift in the agricultural markets that biofuels are driving.

There's no easy solution. I think we'll see less corn used in foods, making the "corn syrup is making our children fat" crowd reevaluate whether that's actually the issue. Other biofuels will come of age, and the corn ethanol market might diminish. At the same time, markets abroad like China and India will have an increased demand as they move to a pipelined agricultural system closer to the US's.

Or so goes my two cents.
posted by mikeh at 9:34 AM on April 23, 2008


bravelittletoaster: Because these two thoughts can be true at the same time!

1). People have a tendancy to hoard all the good for themselves at the expense of others.

2). The world can only support X number of people.


I completely agree that the world can only support X number of people. Does that mean that I think that's problem now? No. Right now the major problem isn't the people in India and China producing more babies, it's the people in the industrialized West with their unsustainable fuel consumption habits. The way I see it, we can somehow force poor people in poor countries to produce fewer babies, thus easing the problem to a very small extent, or rich people in industrialized nations can use a little less stuff, which would make a far bigger impact at far less human cost. Yet everyone seems to plump for the first option. I wonder why. Could it have anything to do with that being the option that wouldn't require them to change their habits at all?
posted by peacheater at 9:46 AM on April 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


(No offense, netbros - I know you just needed to be pithy) -- None taken reggie. Pith indeed.
posted by netbros at 9:47 AM on April 23, 2008


Y'all can argue this back and forth 'til you're blue in the face, but the bottom line is; we've been fucking nature over for too long, and sometime soon nature's gonna start fucking us back.
posted by you just lost the game at 10:16 AM on April 23, 2008


regicide is good for you
As for overpopulation, well, that tends to become less of a problem where education and material stability rise - which are more likely to happen if impoverished nations and communities aren't being bled dry by wealthy conglomerates or corrupt local governments.
I totally agree. The same teacher who came up with the analogy I shared above also had a game-theoretic way of looking at this that made a lot of sense to me. His rationale for coming up with this was that most population reduction schemes thought up by the government (the Indian government) were based on the presumption that poor people were stupid and couldn't understand why it was in their own best interest not to have more babies. But what might seem irrational to the middle-class might actually be perfectly rational behaviour for the poor.
The difference is in the differing expectations different classes have for their children. Suppose that there are three classes: the rich, the middle-class and the poor. Suppose that the cost to raise a child, feed and clothe them and educate them is c. Now imagine that the child also contributes some money back to you -- let's call it b for benefit. For the truly rich, c is irrelevant -- thus they can have as many children as they want and not truly feel the pinch. On the other hand b isn't that great either since it's unlikely that the children are going to contribute back to the parents any time in the near future. So the rich tend to have varying numbers of children, since it really doesn't matter to them materially.
For the middle-class on the other hand the cost per child is pretty high relative to their income. Also it is expected that it'll be a while before the child can contribute anything back materially so they have to wait about 20 years or so before they can expect any sort of return on investment. Therefore it makes perfect sense for a middle-class family to have just 1 or 2 children, maybe 3 at a maximum. Which is what we generally find to be the case.
Finally the poor. For the poor the cost doesn't increase to a great extent with more children. In fact by the time they're 5 or 6 the children will usually have to contribute to the family income in some way. Further, if they don't have children alive in their old age there's a good chance there will be no one to take care of them, in the absence of state-sponsored care. Combine this with the large possibility that some of their children will die due to tuberculosis or malaria or typhoid or during childbirth or any of a hundred other causes, and it makes perfect sense for poor people to try to have more children. To expect them to give up the relative safety blanket of more children just to make the world a better place is pointless. The only way that's going to happen is coercion or actually raising their material wealth. I hope you'll all agree that the second way is preferable.
posted by peacheater at 10:19 AM on April 23, 2008


The steak I had for dinner last night took five pounds of grain to create. Can we finally fucking agree that converting massive amounts of food into much smaller amounts of tastier food is immoral?

First, the meat industry, despite its admitted inefficiency, is not and has not driven the price of staple grains beyond the reach of world consumers as much as the American obsession with driving. Converting food to food still ends with the resultant outout of food. Converting food to auto fuel results in exhaust and record food prices.
posted by Pollomacho at 10:32 AM on April 23, 2008


The true problem isn't overpopulation but overconsumption.

How many times must this be debunked.

They are both huge problems.

Right now the major problem isn't the people in India and China producing more babies, it's the people in the industrialized West with their unsustainable fuel consumption habits.

Damn. This is so frustrating. China and India certainly ARE producing more babies.... babies that want cars and TV's and iPods and 3000 square foor homes. It only takes 2% of their populations to desire and acquire consumptive life style and the result is what we see now.

While the west undeniable over-consumes, that fact is China and India DESIRE to be over consumers as well. Because the cancer like growth of consuming is what drives the modern global economy. It has been the fasted most (short term) efficient way of lifting peoples standards of living.

They buy CARS which burn fossil fuels. Which drives up fuel costs. Which drive up the cost of food production - with or without bio fuels in the mix. Though Ethenol is an egregious boondoggle (other Bio fuels certainly are NOT) that has not helped the situation - these food riots were inevitable. This was all predicted nearly 20 years ago.


As for overpopulation, well, that tends to become less of a problem where education and material stability rise - which are more likely to happen if impoverished nations and communities aren't being bled dry by wealthy conglomerates or corrupt local governments.

Okay you guys. You need to think harder about this stuff. How is that "standards of living rise?"

Consumer economies. That's how. That's what we know works. And as we see it comes at a tremendous cost.

There is absolutely no way 7 billion people on this planet can live even as lower middle class Europeans live. And they are pretty god damned efficient. But they still rely on a consumer based economy.

You won't get 20% of India, Indonesia, China or Africa up to even upper poverty levels of a western nation. We don't have the energy resources and the cycle would be self consuming. In order to sustain that many people at even a meager more sustainable consumer level you will suppress the very economic engines that provide them wealth to keep them healthy.

We are like bacterial in a petri dish. The more you feed us the more we grow. The more we grow the more we choke on our waste until we crash.

There is only one humane course out of this mess. Changing our economic model and consumptive habits AND reducing the population.

Try any one without the other and you will have disaster.
posted by tkchrist at 10:32 AM on April 23, 2008 [5 favorites]


I would say that to the vast majority of people raising a family and protecting their offspring are rights and values as dear as their own lives. It's just as unethical to demand that people no longer have offspring as it is to demand that they kill themselves.

And I would counter that it would then be equally as immoral to ask people to not chop down trees, damn rivers, and dump their toxic shit in water tables. Or for that matter wage war on their neighbors.

All of that can, and has, been justified by "protecting offspring."

Slaughtering and the theft of vital resources are all "moral" in this framework of desperate people who will die with out acquiring more to feed themselves.
posted by tkchrist at 10:41 AM on April 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


I get so frustrated every time I have this discussion with someone too. How is it ethical to expect one group of people to suddenly stop having children just to make the world a better place when other groups of people could make a bigger impact by consuming less? If you seriously think that asking people to consume less and pollute less is on a par with regulating how many children they can have, I don't think we're going to reach a point of agreement very soon. Yes, if India and China consume at the levels that the US and other western countries we're going to have a huge crisis. But guess what? They aren't at the moment and the West is. I hate it when people get so worked up about what's going to happen when India and China become developed when it seems quite clear to me that the world is going to hell in a handbasket with the West's overconsumption problems alone. Sometimes it seems to me that the West would prefer underdeveloped nations to remain that way forever so that they can continue their wild overconsumption.
posted by peacheater at 10:57 AM on April 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


peacheater, I think that the ethics of assuming the status quo is inherently good or right is a trap that many fall into. That isn't to say that there aren't overreactions to the "consume nothing" side of the continuum, but really most people expect that they can continue doing tomorrow what they did today, and so on.

I think the prime example of that might be one of Iowa's senators, Chuck Grassley. I always cringe a little when I read comments he's made that fall into the "status quo" category, because I can see where he's coming from if I put myself into a different mindset. But from how I normally view the world, he sounds awful.

He previously made a comment about how people expect the lights to come on when you turn on the light switch, and how gas comes out the pump when you put it in your car. Yeah, that's how things are right now, but how is it a reasonable expectation to assume you'll always have the status quo? Can't we at least get people used to the idea that maybe one day they won't use a gas pump, or that doing so frequently is inherently a bad idea, and not just because of price?
posted by mikeh at 11:16 AM on April 23, 2008


One simple way to think of the problem of growing world population is basic economic terms. Supply and demand. The more people there are... the greater the supply of human labor there is... the less that labor is worth. Humans are not worth much. It is why we can simply let 2 million people starve and it has no real effect on us. If there are fewer people they are worth more. We NEED their labor. When the supply of human labor is short humans are in demand. They can thus make demands. When great swaths of them suffer or die... we have a greater chance of feeling it.

I am so shocked to see people becoming so sentimental and conservative over "Cultural Imperialism" when it comes to family planning and population measures. What we are doing NOW is the worst form of "Imperialism" by dooming people to eternal poverty. You are telling them "Hey... you can't consume! You can't have a car! You can't own a single family home. You can't have a TV! You can't have access to the consumptive system that made ME rich. No. You need to live a traditional lifestyle of crushing poverty and over population."

To me it makes much more sense to try a concerted effort to gradually reduce consumption in the west in a way that won't crash the global economy, which is certainly doable, implement energy conservation measures, diversify energy sources, kill things like the US farm bill, AND convince developing world peoples to begin using birth control by providing them economic incentives to do so. There would be more to go around and labor would be in demand.

If we could get the world population down to say 2-3 billion over the next 100 years then we actually could simultaneously raise the standard of living of all 3 billion people with out massive suffering and war. There is no way that "raised standards" of living by it self would naturally evolve to reduced populations in 100 years time. Not with out a concerted effort NOW to reduce populations. If we don't try in 100 years world population will be 10 billion plus. You want misery and war? Let's go there.
posted by tkchrist at 11:19 AM on April 23, 2008 [4 favorites]


Yes, if India and China consume at the levels that the US and other western countries we're going to have a huge crisis. But guess what? They aren't at the moment and the West is.

A tiny fraction of their population IS over consuming and look at the effect it is having on the world economy? It is a matter of scale. And that growth will be exponential. If we don't act in the next couple of decades it won't matter.

I have gone to great lengths to reduce MY consumptive habits. You are preaching to the choir, there.

But buddy, over population is over 50% of this equation. Maybe 70%. You're deluding your self if you think other wise. Anything you do that does not include dealing with population growth directly will fail.
posted by tkchrist at 11:24 AM on April 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


Okay you guys. You need to think harder about this stuff. How is that "standards of living rise?"

Consumer economies.


tkchrist, I agree with you - please note that I didn't write "standards of living," which carries all sorts of GDP baggage, but "material stability," which is very different, and probably perfectly achievable outside of the consumerist model. I'd say there are a lot of communities whose material stability could only increase if consumerist economies lost some ground, since they're the ones going in to the negative so others can go in to an excess of (supposed) positive.

Consumer economies are only marginally good at improving material stability; what they're really good at is leeching off the value of any given productivity and diverting it toward the rich, and I think that's mostly what we'd lose in a move away from consumerism - not prosperity. Though we would have to redefine prosperity. Which we pretty much have to anyway.

At any rate I don't really want to go on about population culls until we've actually tried meeting people's (real) needs. If it doesn't work, I'll be the first to get my tubes tied.
posted by regicide is good for you at 11:29 AM on April 23, 2008


please note that I didn't write "standards of living," which carries all sorts of GDP baggage, but "material stability,"

Okay. Sorry.

At any rate I don't really want to go on about population culls until we've actually tried meeting people's (real) needs. If it doesn't work, I'll be the first to get my tubes tied.

The sad fact? The culls are happening anyway and in the most horrific way possible. And it will get worse. Once world populations hit over 8 Billion there is going to be war and famine like we have never seen, no matter how contracted western consumerism becomes (and it will as oil becomes more and more scarce).

Birth control is not inhumane. Nor is it culturally imperious. It is sensible and productive.

At one time being anti-slavery was seen as Culturally Imperious. Societies evolve.
posted by tkchrist at 11:43 AM on April 23, 2008 [2 favorites]


I notice no one's mentioned anything about the role of market speculation in creating the current mess, although in a very literal sense, the most direct contributor to the recent price increases, unless I'm mistaken, is that the markets are pricing these commodities higher, a result of speculation based on all these assumptions traders have made about the increasing demand, scarcity and so on.

Can anybody offer any perspective on the role that market speculation is playing in contributing to this crisis?
posted by saulgoodman at 11:53 AM on April 23, 2008


Religion by itself, without the mediation of culture (and economy, and politics, and gender, and whatever else) has zero effect, simply because it has never been observed.

Rather like rainfall by itself, without fertile fields to fall on, has zero effect on crop growth. I don't know how much effect it has when a billion Catholics are repeatedly told by their religious authority not to use birth control, but it's more than zero.

it's the people in the industrialized West with their unsustainable fuel consumption habits.

The country people always like to point to as the prime example of excessive consumption of natural resources also happens to be a large net exporter of food. Mostly by historical accident, despite their wasteful ways, and of course complicated by various already-mentioned things, but still it seems a bit questionable to place all of the blame for global food shortage on the "Industrialized West" when as a whole that part of the world still produces more food than it consumes.
posted by sfenders at 12:00 PM on April 23, 2008


OFFS. It's not A or B. Are we too drenched in partisan, cultural politics to realize that we have to solve multiple problems at once, rather than ranting on outmoded arguments like "It's the 1st world!" "No, it's the 3rd world!". It's both.

Yes, the US uses roughly 25% of the world's energy for the convenience of 5% of the planet's population. Increasingly, we're using food for that energy. No, that is not scalable. No, it's not sustainable. Conservation helps. Greater energy efficiency helps (but is not a solution in and of itself - yes, energy production gets more efficient, but as it does so we tend to use more of it.) Population controls help - if you have more than one child, you're contributing to the problem. Recycling, compositing, cradle-to-cradle use helps. Designing cities to be core-dense with strong public transit helps. Alternative, green energy (nuclear, wind, solar, biomass, geothermal) helps. All of them have to be pursued at the same time. No single one of them is going to solve the problem.

The lifestyle most middle-income Americans enjoy right now can be had, on a sustainable basis, by a world population of approximately 1.5 ~ 2 billion people. That's total world population. If you want that for your descendants, sacrifices and compromises have to be made right now.

The rest of the world wants the same lifestyle that you have. There's five billion of them. It's simply not possible.

So. You educate girls. Every extra year you keep a girl in school past the age of six reduces the number of children she will have by one. You supply clean drinking water, quality food, and medicine (women have large numbers of children in impoverished conditions in part because they know they are likely to lose a percentage to disease and/or malnutrition). Even simple things like effective mosquito netting can make a tremendous difference. You supply free birth control, rather than abstinence programs.

Now, you're still going to get a bump in population. Farming populations have lots of children to work the land (preferentially boys). A good part of this is embedded into the culture, and you're not going to change it in one generation. Short of catastrophe, we're going to reach that 9 billion. They won't be a happy or well fed 9 billion, and my personal feeling is that it's going to be sooner than 2050, but we're gonna have them.

Of course, the solutions I've mentioned are a double-edged sword. Well-educated girls don't want to stay in the village and have babies - they're more aware of professional opportunities in the cities. Reproduction goes down, consumption goes up. So you balance it. I'm not sure entirely how, yet - some sort of carbon tax from the West and industrialised Asia being used for measures I've been talking about in the rest of the world might work.

We can do this, or we can rely upon those three old stalwart riders of War, Famine, and Pestilence. I know which I'd prefer.
posted by Bora Horza Gobuchul at 12:15 PM on April 23, 2008 [4 favorites]



They won't be a happy or well fed 9 billion, and my personal feeling is that it's going to be sooner than 2050, but we're gonna have them.

Exactly.

It's so weird people argue we shouldn't deal with population becuase it's not the entire problem "yet." So leave it to your children to deal with when the problem is even worse?

Yeah. It's good we ignored carbon emissions for so long, too. And mercury in the food supply. And the collapse of world fisheries. And... on and on.

Since when does it get easier to fix problems as they get more complicated and worse? It's too imperious to convince 7 billion people to use birth control but some how magically that will be easier when it's 10 billion?

I can't fathom this type of thinking. It's what got us into this mess in the first place.

Jesus H. Christ. NOW is the time when you start dealing these problems. When the world population hits 8 billion it's gonna be easier to deal with? People are going to be living better? There will be less starvation and misery?

We could all be living at "material stability" but you know once populations hit 10 billion people there will be no stability. It's gonna be war and famine that check it.
posted by tkchrist at 12:52 PM on April 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


tkcrhist, it feels like most of us are in agreement that the population problem has to be dealt with. What I'm not hearing from you is how we deal with it in any appreciable way without addressing social conditions. Some of the biggest obstacles to birth control programs are education, access, cultural or religious taboos, and, (mostly) outside of North America, the reasonable gamble on most of your kids not surviving past toddlerhood.

The population problem is to a great extent a class problem.
posted by regicide is good for you at 1:31 PM on April 23, 2008


The problem here is a massive lack of education. If people were educated enough to understand that we (as a species) are overpopulated, and that this inevitably leads to resource problems, then perhaps at least some (more) people would choose to have no children, or at least fewer children.

I'm mid-40s here, male, and for more than one reason I have chosen not to impregnate anyone. The main reason is that I'm just barely responsible enough to know that I am not responsible enough to father children. I also had an childhood filled with abuse and I know that such abuse is often cyclical, and I refuse to let myself become part of any such cycle; the cycle ended with me. But I also know that if there aren't people having 0 kids, to (somewhat, slightly) balance out the people squirting out ten kids, then the resource problems that we're already experiencing would be worse now and way worse later.

I suspect a big homo sapiens die-off is in our future. Maybe not in my lifetime, but maybe at or near the end of my lifetime. Thirty, forty years, that'd be my guess, and very possibly sooner. Unless there is a concerted (and expensive) global effort to educate our uneducated masses, convert to renewable energy sources, cut back on consumption, and reduce our population, well, things look bleak.

I see these high gas prices as a kind of positive. Yes, it sucks when I go to the pump. But the higher the price of gas goes, the more attractive other choices look and the more fiscally sound investment in renewable energy becomes. Once we really get going with solar/hydro/wind/whatever, I expect the costs to drop as economies of scale and technological improvements kick in. High gas prices, however painful they are in the short term (read: now), may actually be what saves us from ourselves.
posted by jamstigator at 1:33 PM on April 23, 2008


then perhaps at least some (more) people would choose to have no children, or at least fewer children.

it's not necessary to have no children. in the long-term, zero population growth can be achieved by couples having no more than two off-spring. in fact, it would be really stupid if everyone stopped having children, because the only thing you achieve that way is rapid extinction--unless, of course, you mean to force some noble souls to sacrifice their reproductive rights on behalf of others who aren't willing to exercise them responsibly, in which case, while we're just talking about our pipe-dreams, why not just have our pipe dream be that everyone takes enough responsibility to have no more than two children?

personally, i think population growth alone doesn't pose as key a threat to the continued survival and well-being of our species as does the simple fact that, as someone else pointed out up-thread, we're awful at making decisions that adequately consider long-term consequences--and we've usually got these big, shit-eating grins on our faces while we do it, as we keep reminding each other that we have every right to be focused only on our immediate, short-term needs.

not saying population growth's not a problem by any means, just that it's really only one manifestation of a much more general deficiency that always ends up biting us in the ass.
posted by saulgoodman at 1:50 PM on April 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


The population problem is to a great extent a class problem.

A large part. Certainly.

By the time you get only 20% of the entire world up to an educated, empowered, class level... let's say to a level of the average lower income Frenchman... who live much better than the lower income folks in the good ol USA... you have spent a couple of generations and trillions of dollars in this effort. And in that time the remaining 80% of the developed keep breeding exponentially.

At over 8 billion people (and that is less than a decade away) what "class" is a sustainable class? Honestly is there an economic class that the planet can sustain 8 billion members? Of course there is not. I'll tell you at 10 billion people 98% of those people on the planet will be living awful lives by any standard no matter what we do to educate them. We may just be able to feed them, but to what end? Just so they can have children so they can die in resource wars?

You have to deal with both efforts simultaneously and get over this sentimental notion about everybody has this unchecked automatic holy "right" to reproduce no matter how dire their living circumstances and the impact it will have on their own future. We no more have this right than we do to over consume, strip mine, or exploit people in slavery or yell fire in a crowded theater. Rights have contexts.
posted by tkchrist at 2:04 PM on April 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


Easter Island writ large.
posted by 3.2.3 at 2:18 PM on April 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


shit-eating grins on our faces while we do it, as we keep reminding each other that we have every right to be focused only on our immediate, short-term needs.

And one of those short term things is the idea we HAVE to have as many babies as we want.

Global warming. Nuclear weapons. Pollution. Nearly every single serious threat to the survival of human civilization is a product of our successes not a product of our failures. We are an entire species with a true Shakespearean flaw. Our greatest virtues are our greatest vices in the end.

Our ultimate success is that there are so many of us. We are stupendous bad asses in that regard. And at the root of the greatest threat to our survival is that fact... there are always more people to succeed and to make mistakes.

The species will be around as long as there is any kind of eco-sphere to support something to eat. The human animal will not go extinct until the planet dies. But will any kind of hopeful civilization exist beyond barbarity and endless atrocity? Not with 10 billion humans clawing at this rock.
posted by tkchrist at 2:22 PM on April 23, 2008


You have to deal with both efforts simultaneously and get over this sentimental notion about everybody has this unchecked automatic holy "right" to reproduce

tkchrist, sorry, but I totally missed the part where we're disagreeing.
posted by regicide is good for you at 2:25 PM on April 23, 2008


The country people always like to point to as the prime example of excessive consumption of natural resources also happens to be a large net exporter of food.

That's ancient history. The US is now close enough to the break-even point to dip into net import territory. In 2004/2005 the US had an agricultural trade deficit.
posted by BinGregory at 7:58 PM on April 23, 2008 [1 favorite]



tkchrist, sorry, but I totally missed the part where we're disagreeing.


A big Gold star in your book then. And a smiley face over the "i" in "regicide."
posted by tkchrist at 8:53 PM on April 23, 2008


That's ancient history. The US is now close enough to the break-even point to dip into net import territory. In 2004/2005 the US had an agricultural trade deficit.

Challenge my knowledge of international trade statistics, will you? Best find some better sources. The USDA for example has its own website.

I had just looked it up last week for a previous episode of this series of metafilter discussions of the world agricultural markets. The USDA forecasts a surplus of $24.5 billion for 2008. It did get lower in 2005 and 2006, but didn't go negative as was apparently forecast. Much of the recent increase is due to rising grain prices, but I imagine the surplus in terms of food calories is still quite large, as the US tends to import even more expensive stuff.

On the other hand, whether agriculture as a whole really improves the US balance of trade does depend in part on the price of imported fuel and fertilizer inputs. Add that in, and it appears to be a pretty close call by my quick estimate.
posted by sfenders at 4:11 AM on April 24, 2008


Well, yeah, I had heard it on the news somewhere back in 2004/5 and was stunned. I'm happy to take your word for it that it didn't happen, but the fact that it could easily have, that the margin is close enough to make it a possibility, is still shocking when you consider the position we were in for decades. Thanks for the fact check though.
posted by BinGregory at 4:46 AM on April 24, 2008


The population problem is to a great extent a class problem.

A large part. Certainly.


I wonder if it isn't something even more basic than a 'class problem'. Many animal species when confronted with environmental hardship, resource shortages or other threats to their collective survival conspicuously change their mating patterns--hell, they can even become more fertile--becoming much more prolific breeders than under less stressful circumstances.

The evolutionary benefits of such a strategy seem fairly obvious: Have more off-spring and increase the chances some of them will survive. This is a common adaptation pattern observed in other species, and maybe it applies to humans as well.

This might explain why nations tend to approach zero population growth as their wealth increases. Maybe rapid population growth in impoverished countries really has nothing at all to do with culture, economic circumstances, or whatever other narratives we might come up with. Maybe it's just simple survival stress that causes population booms.
posted by saulgoodman at 11:00 AM on April 24, 2008


A big Gold star in your book then. And a smiley face over the "i" in "regicide."

?

How remarkably uncalled-for that was.

Unless you're taking a personal stand against overpopulation through lethal snark. In which case it was merely ineffective.
posted by regicide is good for you at 6:40 PM on April 24, 2008


Sincerely. I wasn't making fun. I was pleased.
posted by tkchrist at 8:38 PM on April 24, 2008


This is a common adaptation pattern observed in other species, and maybe it applies to humans as well.

Haven't you noticed you get extra horny when you have the flu?
posted by tkchrist at 8:40 PM on April 24, 2008


Malthus will be proven wrong, you just need smaller people, i.e. software people. People still thinking with meat in 100 years will be living in zoos. In between, we'll likely see quite a lot of starvation in countries where they don't have enough water. But I have a hard time saying that countries with water should fix it. The over populated countries just need the political will to enact China-like population control measures.
posted by jeffburdges at 9:13 AM on April 25, 2008


Sincerely. I wasn't making fun. I was pleased.

Oh.

This is still MetaFilter, right?
posted by regicide is good for you at 2:16 AM on April 27, 2008


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