16 February 2009

A conversation on ecological sustainability

ChicagoMike wrote a comment to the last post What we grow, and a slight digression, and it deserved a longer response than I could fit into a comment, and it is a vital and timely conversation to be having, so here is Mike's comment, and my response below.

ChicagoMike: I do have to disagree on a key point though. This planet is really only able to support 1 to 1.5 billion people. Population is the problem. Humans are "stealing" sunshine from the past (fossil fuels) which support agriculture and society on a massive scale. When the fossil fuels run low (obviously a lot of differences on the estimate), the agriculture and technology which support our current and growing population will fail, and Humanity will be making a huge adjustment. Mainly, shedding about 80% of its population. These events will not happen overnight in some cataclysm, but will occur over decades. All large cities will become unsupportable and the world will have some heavy times ahead. This is a long way off, but it is almost inevitable. Nuclear power plants, windmills, and solar cells do not make fertilizer. Lets just hope that we don't irrevocably damage the planet in the readjustment. Check out The Long Emergency by James Howard Kunstler.

Grow the Change: ChicagoMike, I am familiar with the over-population theories, and sympathize with them to a degree since I thought this way at one point along my environmental path. These theories largely came out in the 80s, along side the environmental conservation movement that saw “nature” as something untouched and pure, and human interaction as the problem. Studies have come out since then, showing how human activity has shaped the ecology of this planet for at least 80,000 years, for better or for worse (see anthropology studies from Aboriginal Australians). Out of this has come a new theory of environmentalism that does not look at the conservation of nature, so that “nature” can take care of itself, but rather sustainable resource management. Meaning stewardship, we have inherited the earth from previous generations who shaped it, for better or worse, and we are responsible for handing these natural resources on to the next generation.

The reason I no longer believe that over-population is the dominant problem, or even the root cause of many of our ecological crises, is that our “modern” systems of production, food, manufacturing, transportation, etc, are lavishly and shamefully wasteful and inefficient. This unthrifty attitude arises from a market based on cheap and supposedly abundant non-renewable resources, including fossil fuels and fossil water. Take food as an example. Studies have come out giving conservative estimates that 30% of food is wasted (thrown out, spoiled, left in the field) along each way station from the farm to the plate, in our modern, industrial, fossil fuel based, Green Revolution, farming model. So if a farm produces 1000 lbs of produce, about 30% is lost (due usually to market considerations, either ripening later, or not conforming, etc), so 700 lbs goes to the processor/packager and another 30% is lost, 490 lbs head to the retailer of which 30% is lost (as many of you dumpster divers can attest to), 343 lbs makes it to the family table of which 30% is thrown out. The original farm used up the fossil fuels as well as fossil water to produce 1000 lbs of food, and only 240 lbs actually made it into a body as nourishment. Now, most of you reading this practice more efficient methods of bringing the food from the farm to the table, and either compost or feed your livestock with your table scraps. Out of 1000 lbs produced in our garden, without any fossil fuel or fossil water, we use 100% either on the table, in the barn, or in the compost pile. As is true in many gardens and sustainable food systems, but still not the majority.

Food production is just one example, this model of inefficiency is almost universal. The power companies lose a large portion of the power they produce pushing it along the lines to your house, internal combustion engines are stupidly inefficient on fuel, Canada still allows 5 gallon flush toilets for goodness sake, and in the Tar Sands of Alberta they use 2 barrels of oil to produce 1, I could go on and on about the reckless waste of our natural resources. And the biggest myth is that “we need fossil fuels to actually feed all of these people”. We do not, but our economic infrastructure does. The markets of the rich nations would fall (or be transformed), and they threaten to take the rest of the world with them. But I am sick of being blackmailed into apathy, and I know I am not the only one.

So the way I see it, we actually have the choice, either an 80% “shedding” of population, meaning mostly children, elderly and economically vulnerable people, or we can reduce our consumption of resources by 80% simply by not wasting them, and using our intellect to build smarter more efficient systems. I find it interesting that the estimated carrying capacity of the planet is 1 to 1.5 billion people, because I think this is just about the population of the “western” nations, and at our current use of resources, that is all this earth can support. These theories of overpopulation run dangerously close to eugenics and ethno-centricism. This is not a personal attack on you ChicagoMike, this is a Post-Structural and Post-Colonial critique of these theories of overpopulation, see Foucault or Spivak.

Often cited in the over-population theory is the desertification of marginal lands around the Sahara. Overgrazing and overharvesting of wood for cooking fires are cited as the cause of the expansion of the desert, and the loss of arable land. Narrowly speaking, this is true. But is it not true that if they had planted a tree for every one they cut, the desert would not advance? So is it not a management issue, rather than a population issue? So it is also an education issue.

It is perhaps the case that this earth is at or near it's carrying capacity, especially with climate change on the horizon. The question I ask is why has the population increased so dramatically in the last 30-50 years? Is it really fossil fuels and fossil water, or is it the money that has been made from mining these resources? I believe it is economic development that encourages population booms, and not necessarily access to natural resources. And as more money is made from the sale and consumption of these resources, they become less available to the increased masses of poor, who then become an easily exploited labor pool.

It's a complex issue, but I firmly believe there is more than enough for everyone alive right now on this earth to be nourished, clothed, housed and enabled with dignified work. This is not an utopian ideal, but an ethical principle. We can live without a speculative and debt-based economy, and we can grow food, transport ourselves, produce power and goods, communicate and innovate without fossil fuels. The problem is, I believe, that most of us are taking more than is our share, if we believe it is a human right to have an equal share of our ecological inheritance. And yes, that share gets smaller as population increases, and as adults, our share is transferred every time a child is born. As great as the ecological crisis is, it is also the easiest to solve. Even greater, and more problematic because it is a philosophical and ethical issue, is the human rights crisis we are facing.


farm mom said...

I'm of this mind as well. And this is really wonderfully written, my friend. Well done!

Throwback at Trapper Creek said...

Excellent post, any ideas on educating everyone, besides just keep plugging away as we are? Your cabbage field photo shows the problem is widespread. When we do go to town, we drive through a farm that grows nothing but cabbage, possibly 100 acres or more. Year in and year out, same crop, same amendments, same pesticides, same gargantuan equipment, only a portion of these plantings are ever harvested. Most are just plowed back in. Meanwhile, the foodbanks in Portland are crying for more food or donations to buy food. What do they ask for peanut butter, pasta and rice. People are hungry for real food, but the farmers can't see another way, and the food banks offer no real chance for change through classes, or workshops. I don't know this, but suspect that if the farmer were to try to donate his surplus cabbage the food bank would turn it down.

We easily feed ourselves, but most of our neighbors have no interest in eating fresh food, it seems too many people still have the idea that something is better if it comes from the store.

Congrats on the kids! They look great.

Chicago Mike said...

Sorry if what I wrote struck such a nerve Freija.

This is just an honest disagreement between someone with high ethical standards (you) and a dyed in the wool pragmatist (me). I understand and agree on the ideal, but disagree how things will play out and on root causes.

And I may be a lot of things, but apathetic is not one of them. :)

There are a few points that I feel were skewed in your analysis or that bear note.

1) 1 to 1.5 billion as the estimated sustainable holding capacity of the earth comes from estimates taking arable land without fossil fuel use. It is not a political statement.

2) Your point on waste is well taken.

3) The increase in population over the last 30 to 50 years falls closely to two events. Decrease in infant mortality rates due to improved medical practice and the so-called "green revolution". Both of which are partially, if not largely, founded on fossil fuels. The spread of these as results of colonialism are academic at best. They happened and had serious impact. And when the fuel is gone...

4) The decrease in population will fall disproportionately on the parts of the world which are both impoverished and have become overpopulated. That is true. Wrong, but true. Pakistan has more than tripled its population in 47 years to over 172 million. At that rate their population will be well over 500 million in our lifetime. The continued expansion of population in that manner is not, and never will be, sustainable. Population will be the issue. Forget limited amounts of oil, if you have to, but there are also limited amounts of soil. So for this to work you have to change entire cultures fundamentally. That requires a new and more insidious form of colonialism. "Hi, we are from the west, and we know whats good for you, and it means controlling your population, here is what you have to do..."

In conclusion, population and sustainability are inextricably linked, and both are inextricably linked to resources. Resources are the only limit on population, and fossil fuels create more resources, so they enable more population. Fewer fossil fuels means fewer resources, means less population.

Just calling it like I see it.

With Best Regard,

Chicago Mike

Anonymous said...

You write: "But is it not true that if they had planted a tree for every one they cut, the desert would not advance? So is it not a management issue, rather than a population issue? So it is also an education issue."

But "they" didn't plant those trees. The question is why? Education and management yes, but when we need fuel for dinner tonight the last tree standing will be cut down either by you or me.

I would argue that this is exactly why the problem is too many people. It may not be overpopulation per se, but it certainly is human nature. Human nature leads to overpopulation, mismanagement etc. Time and again it is shown that given ample resources this is what we chose.

I agree with Mike above once our free ride fossil fuel becomes scarcer human population will fall.

ChristyACB said...

I'm going to have to go with ChicagoMike on a couple of real and indisputable facts.

1. Population density is the not the same everywhere nor is the carrying capacity of the planet the same everywhere.

Where we are likely to see the most drop-off of population are in places that never should have gotten such large populations to begin with.

While we, as North Americans, tend to look around and see such a huge carrying capacity and think we'll be fine, most of the world is not like this at all.

Many of the African countries (not all) that have the huge hungry and crying populations we see on TV commercials should never have gotten there in the first place.

It was through well intentioned but very ill thought out charity that cheap vaccinations were given to all their children, but where reducing the number of children born isn't up to a woman. Hence, having 10 children with only 2 surviving is sad but those 2 will grow up and be able to farm or gather at a level that is adequate. Now our cheap charity means 9 of them live and there isn't enough carrying capacity. So war and even more crushing poverty and more illness come.

So, yes, they are almost certain to experience a severe drop in population since that land can carry what it can carry and only by bringing over food can more survive.

Ditto with India. A country rich in resources and fertile land, but also haunted by the threat of tropical storms that, in the natural world, used to take up to half a million lives at a time. That land is not reliable and isn't really a part of their carrying capacity in a natural sense.

It goes all over that way. It may not be an evenly distributed 1.5 to 2 billion. It may even be more than that number, but it is a number that is distributed far, far differently than it is today.

Bishops Homegrown said...

Good reply Grow the Change.

At one point in time I too followed the same pragmatic path as Chicago Mike, but as I have become more adept at gathering and disseminating information I have come to the realization that the population issue can go either way.

A few issues come to mind. First, a good portion of the 80% reduction in population theory comes for the study of Eugenics via Rockerfeller and Rothschild funded institutes. These predictions are plastered and lathered in the soap of "environmental protection" but designed instead to have an effect on how the human organism views himself or herself in the natural world. These views tend to see the human organism as a disease organism and a pest problem. It makes no real sense to think of yourself as a living, breathing, conscious human and at the same time have a view that you need to be exterminated because a research institute that has not looked at the fact from an unbiased angle has released information that is not in any way truthful or helpful in a resolution of said problem.

While overpopulation could become an issue it is not because the earth can not sustain a large population of humans, it is because humans become to lazy and pessimistic to find better solutions to the problems. As an example do a bit of research on Terra Preta and it's ability to provide food to a much larger population base in the amazonian delta than we ever though before. Some now believe that North America alone may have had agricultural systems so advanced that it fostered a population much larger than the pouplation of North America at the moment. As an example the ancient city of Tenochtitlan had a huge population and survived by purely self-sustainable agricultural needs and the trade resulting from these methods.

The issue becomes in my mind that there are solution, humans may or may not seek those solutions but the denial that there are reasonable and available solutions reeks of defeat regardless of how you look at it.

Among the many considerations that one should take into account are:

-Soil fertility and Organic farming-a monumental shift from fossil fuels to organic fertilizers must be made while taking advantage of all sources and means of fertility including the composting of noxious weeds, animal manures, and even human manures. Composted Human manure alone is enough to fertilize an area of production proportionate to the number of humans (and some) that are famring a given area. In these systems there is no waste. A few farm animals and the continual pulling and composting of weeds will asure any self-sufficient society/family of abundant fertility from year to year.

-One can not discount Vertical space. All attempts must be made to create new "hanging gardens" so to speak using all manner of growing conditions to create food and protein for a society. Rooftop gardens, window boxes, balconies and more make great growing areas.

-Continued development and implementation of lesser known sources of protein including previously undomesticated crop species and soy beans

-All inclusive eco systems running with the help of aquaphonics, vermaculture, bio-char, composting and more

-Permaculture and the concept of no wasted space. Fruit trees on public property and along road ways and in parks will go far

-Advanced bio-dynamics and increased soil fertility. No more mono cultures. Diverse gardens no matter how small, even if only planted in the small postal stamp yards of the suburbs can and will go far to feeding societies. Less focus on ornamental and "status" plants allows us to focus more on food production.

-The re-implementation of land race and regionally adapted crops. Give the farmers back their seeds

-Independent plant breeding. No more PVP's and sanctions against farmers. An international ban on GMO's. Breed and select plants for loco micro-climate conditions continually selecting for higher nutrition via the search for amino acids and higer proteins.

-Domestication of native food plants, wild crafting and gathering.

-The use of otherwise unused inner city space. Liberating city lots and public landscaping for the growth of food.

-Compost building crops. The succession planting of green manure cover crops on land that has recently been farmed or which will be farmed in the near future to replace minerals and nutrients and topsoil that would otherwise be lost

-The switch from large conglomerate and corporate farming to small, local and regional farming and gardening using locally adapted species and creating region specific economies.

-The recycling of Grey Water and rain water catchment using recycled materials.

-Looking to the past for answers. 10,000 years of Agrarian society holds many answers. 800 centuries of high yield Chinese agriculture should quell your speculations. Terra Preta and the Amazon can and will give us many answers.

This is just a short list of the many, many, things that can be done to avoid a calamity. I don't believe for a second that there needs to be an 80% reduction in population and I do believe that it is an excellent piece of brainwashing and propaganda to believe that it is a necessity or that the human population cannot be sustained by this planet. With thought and consideration anything is possible and can be accomplished. Whether humanity decides to follow these routes is another story altogether, it will take much research and many innovative and independent researchers and cross culture work to create such a society but it is indeed possible.

For those who will scoff at my thoughts and who prefer to view organic gardening as "low yield agriculture", I ask you to look into the history of mankind and the innovative ways in which we have used our natural resources in the past, if you can not see that such an option is a viable one no matter what then you will know why such an option has not been implemented yet, it is because you are far to unquestioning and unadventerous when it comes to solving the problems of the human condition.

I hope I have offended no one, but imagine that I have in some way or another.

-Alan Reed Bishop
Homegrown Goodness http://homegrowngoodness.blogspot.com
A former pessimist legitimately attempting to reach optimism no matter how far out of reach it seems.

Country Girl said...

Great post, you bring some good points to the table!

ChicagoMike said...

Hello Mr. Bishop,

I am not offended at all. We agree on several of the items you have listed.

What I feel is saddened that someone with whom I agree on these things finds the need to denigrate others with terms like "brainwashed" "pessimistic" "unquestioning" "unadventerous", and finds the need to tie a totally unrelated set of facts (fossil fuels are finite, their depletion will have serious impacts) to Eugenics, this connection is little more than a weak rhetorical tool.

Part of the reason I enjoy this blog is because I enjoy reading different points of view and to be inspired in my own life to continue my own journey towards sustainability.


Bishops Homegrown said...

Hello Mike,

These thoughts were not in regards to yourself, but based instead on the institutions and "academics" that put the information and thought process out there that sway people to believe that there must be an 80% drop in population. Sorry if that came off the wrong way, it wasn't meant that way.

I do know that fossil fuels are finite and that their eventual complete consumption and current consumption can spell disaster. I don't believe the Eugenics connection is a Rhetorical tool as there is much documentation to prove it's connection to the institutes releasing such information.

Just like you I am disgusted at the abuse we give to our home world, but I am also equally disgusted by the lack of current research and the constant throw about of this "80% cull in population" theory.

When it comes to fossil fuels and using them for heat or energy there are many other options that I did not discuss above, of course you know many if not most of them already so there is no need to go into them. These are all valid options awaiting the guiding hand of intrepid explorers.

Kim said...

Loved your post. We're going to keep growing our family and filling the world with loving, responsible people.

FRED said...

Let's not get confused about the real issue, lack of fossil fuel is not the biggest trouble, but climate change IS the biggest problem facing an evergrowing human population.
Human beings could develop agriculture these past 10,000 years BECAUSE of climate stability.

Unfortunately CO2 concentration are skyrocketing and leave no hope for a stable climate in the future any more. We'll have to adapt to a changing climate: more droughts, more floods, more forest fires, more typhoons, more extent deserts under the tropics and increased year to year, season to season weather variability.
All these climate factors are a mess for agriculture because they lead to the impossibility to predict what should be sown for the nex year, and much land is needed to feed the family/village.
What do wild animals do in case of changing climate?? They migrate!
What's the problem with 7 billion human beings on Earth? they can't be fed by hunting and plucking, so they can't migrate,which means they die when forest burn in Australia, when a typhoon stikes New Orleans, when a drought hit Etiopia...
When these events are marginal, there is enough soil left to feed few refugees. When these events accelerates, and fossil fuel becomes scarcer, and people are more numerous, that's when thing are tricky.
I'm not sure I wanna get old, these problems above will be ours 50 years on.
Agriculture could feed 10 billion people today (without watse), but when I'm old I bet this would not be true anymore.