Population Poser

January 14, 2011

There is a lot said and written about climate change and what should be done about it. We are urged to reduce our carbon emissions. The assumption is that climate change is a problem that can be solved by altering our mode of living. But climate change is not a problem, it is a symptom of a problem.

The real problem is the huge, enormous, out-of-control human population. This morning, there were 6,897,307,682 human beings infesting the planet. This number of people cannot be sustained without industrial, mechanized agriculture and distribution systems, which rely on fossil fuels to work. You may drive your electric car or hybrid, but those technologies are not suited to, say, a combine harvester or a container ship, and your car emissions are a drop in the ocean compared to the gigatonnes of greenhouse gases pumped out by industry and farted out by the millions of head of livestock we require to keep our population fed. The principal resource upon which we rely to sustain our population are fossil fuels in general, and particularly oil. These are not renewable and are becoming depleted as we use them up at an ever-increasing rate.

Overpopulation is common in nature. When resources are abundant, populations grow exponentially until the resources are depleted and the environment is degraded to the extent that the depleted resources cannot easily recover, and (if migration is not possible) then the population undergoes a collapse, and (if the species is lucky enough not to become extinct) remains at a low level until the depleted resources recover and the population can begin to grow again.

Our consumption of non-renewable resources can be likened to herds of elephants that push over trees to get at the topmost leaves, killing the trees until the forest has turned into grassland and there is nothing left to eat. Then, amidst much plaintive trumpeting, the animals die. In 1989 Richard C. Duncan published the ‘Olduvai Theory’ in which he claimed that industrial civilization has a life span of about 100 years, and that per-capita energy production would begin to decrease in the early 21st century. Electrical power shortages would begin to occur, and shortly thereafter the energy shortages would lead to a decrease in the production of food.

Why do human beings continue to breed in such numbers when it is clear that to do so is disastrous?
I don’t know, but I suspect it’s because most people don’t know—they cannot project current trends into the future and read their fate there. I was listening to a radio talk show the other day, and the hostess said that we cannot ask people to reduce the number of children they have because it’s ‘culturally sensitive’. What poppycock! this is too important to allow it to fall victim to political correctness–the fate of our species is at stake.

So is there a solution? We could do nothing; let nature take her course. What would happen then? I foresee that as the resources we require to merely survive become more and more scarce, people will begin to fight for them. Conflict and violence will become the default mode for those wishing to survive, but most will die amidst great suffering. Yes, nature will take care of our population problem, but there will be no such thing as human civilization at the end of the process.

In 1968 Garrett Hardin came up with a solution he called ‘mutual coercion mutually agreed upon’. People must be made to agree to do voluntarily what’s best for the group as whole. As he points out, this will not be easily achieved, especially in Western cultures where freedom, in reproduction as elsewhere, is regarded so highly. Perhaps the Chinese strategy of limiting women to a single birth is the way to go, enforced by compulsory sterilization following the birth of the child.

I can offer no solution of my own, but if you wish to do what’s best for your species, please turn off the lights and keep your zipper closed.

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Grumpy Old Man by Mark Widdicombe is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.5 License

Hot Air

December 4, 2009

I am not a scientist. In fact I have no degrees of any kind (except the Ph.D. I downloaded from the internet and which looks lovely on my office wall next to Dufus’s rabies vaccination certificate). I therefore have to trust what scientists tell me about their research. I have been following the research into climate change in general, and anthropogenic global warming (hereinafter referred to as AGW) with keen interest.

When AGW was first suggested I was, properly, sceptical. The evidence that atmospheric CO2 levels were increasing was incontrovertible; it was and is an objective fact, but the controversy lay in the effect increasing CO2 levels would have on global climate. Some scientists hypothesised that the increased CO2 concentration in the atmosphere would act like a blanket and increase atmospheric temperatures globally. The political left seized on AGW as a convenient club with which to lambast the things they despise: Big Business and the Nasty Capitalist West. Since then it has become increasingly difficult to separate the political from the scientific.

As time went by it seemed that the AGW proponents were winning the debate; the science seemed solid even though they invited suspicion by always prefacing their arguments with a claim that the debate was over, and that all sane people agreed with them. Writers like Lomborg in The Sceptical Environmentalist disagreed, and I could not believe the vituperative passion with which his arguments were met–real scientists do not froth at the mouth and wax hysterical when someone disagrees with them. A holder of a minority opinion is not necessarily a crackpot.

Of course there were ridiculous arguments from the other side as well. The usual army of nut jobs and conspiracy theorists crawled out of the woodwork to claim, bizarrely, that AGW was dreamed up by the oil companies to ensure that they received funding for research into alternative energy sources that would allow their survival after the oil ran out, or that it was a US government conspiracy to save the power grids from failing due to excessive electricity consumption. And so on.

The real problem with AGW theory is that there is only one experiment that can reliably test whether or not its predictions are true, and that is the real-time one in which we are all taking part. By the time the results are known, it is too late to take remedial steps if the theory is vindicated. Other experiments take place in model environments which are acknowledged, even by their architects, to be deeply flawed. Not enough is known about atmospheric dynamics to construct accurate models, and we don’t have sufficiently powerful computers to run the models even if we could construct them.

And now this. Emails and other data retrieved by a hacker from servers at the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia show that some of the leading climate researchers have systematically “massaged” data to fit their theories, perverted the peer review process to silence criticism, and failed to release the raw data for review by claiming copyright over it. You may think, as I did, that the University of East Anglia is hardly a Harvard, or Oxford, or University of Cape Town, and that this is therefore a storm in a teacup, but the truth is that the UEA Climate Research Unit is a major supplier of data to the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the UN body that is responsible for the climate circus playing out in Copenhagen, and before that in Kyoto and Johannesburg.

So where do we go from here? Just because some scientists have, perhaps, used unethical practices does not prove them wrong, just as an invalid argument can have a true conclusion. Even if they are wrong there are still compelling reasons to pretend that they are right and cut down on the pollution we pump daily into our atmosphere and water. What sane person would prefer to breathe dirty air over clean, or have toxins in his drinking water? But what will cleaning up our act cost? We cannot sustain our population without mechanized, industrial agriculture which relies on fossil fuels; fertilizers require oil for their manufacture; food must be transported in bulk to the cities where people live, which is impossible without trucks, ships and trains, all of which rely on fossil fuels and pump CO2 into the atmosphere; the people in the cities must work in order to pay for food, which requires power in the form of electricity which is mostly generated by the burning of fossil fuels. In short, our species will suffer a population collapse (with attendent misery and violence as people fight each other for dwindling resources) if it were suddenly deprived of the energy sources provided by fossil fuels. Alternative sources such as nuclear, hydroelectric, wind and solar can only provide, with current technology, a fraction of our needs.

Another consequence of this scandal is that the man in the street will lose faith in the integrity of science. Once he thinks scientists have been guilty of crying wolf and playing fast and loose with the facts, he will take everything they say in future with a pinch of salt. He will accord them the same (or less) credibility than his priest or sangoma, which would be disastrous. We must come clean now. I call on the CRU to release the raw climate data and the source code of their climate models immediately, so their conclusions can be independently verified.

Creative Commons License
Grumpy Old Man by Mark Widdicombe is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.5 License.