TAP dancing on the deck of the Titanic

In an after-class discussion with Dr. Meyerson, he framed the major approaches to addressing global warming/ecological damage issues as Technology, Attitude, and Population. I am, of course, in the Technology camp.

The Attitude camp thinks we can fix global warming if we just all wake up to how messed up things currently are. Any political solution is also inherently a “Attitude” approach to the problem. While I fundamentally agree that if we all had full cognizance of our senses and access to the appropriate information we would not be burning gigatons of life’s ancestors to get to WalMart, I think the Attitude camp ignores or diminishes the strength of the artifactual space in dictating the differential expression of attitudes in behaviour.

The Population camp thinks “there are too many of us” so population control is the way to reduce our ecological footprint. While I believe that the single most important goal in the human sphere is that of an Earth where all women are treated equitably, and that the means to control one’s fertility is a core component of said treatment, I have a hard time not shuddering at this argument.

When I hear it, it is mostly expressed by US citizens, who are among the least denesely populated societies on Earth, so I can’t help but wonder which “us” is overpopulated? Surely it can’t be all those skinny brown people over There, could it? Or all those hispanics that have recently moved into someone’s neighborhood? I certainly have heard and read an extraordinary number of thoughts along these lines, independent of any discussion of population control as an ecological act.

When we talk about “reducing global warming” we usually mean something that results in fewer molecules absorbing/emitting infra-red (mae-IR) in our atmosphere, and much of the means to that end involve looking at those current patterns of activity that increase mae-IR. Analogously, when people talk about “reducing population” as a virtue, I feel it lends moral support to anything that reduces the population.

The Ethical branch of this argument says we’ll get there through birth control alone, but I have also repeatedly heard people attempt to diminish the scope of disasters, like the tsunami in the Indian Ocean, using the “population control” argument.

Even if they’re not willing to take that stance on such a concrete example, a depopulationist will generally consider the gravity of disasters that haven’t happened yet, like the next flu outbreak, to be lessened because it will diminish the population.

I think that a focus on Population is a really bad idea, because the discourse surrounding it is too infected by racism, thinly gilded eugenic agendas, and outright dictatorial implementations. While a brilliant and ethical person focusing on population problems might produce excellent monographs, I suspect that their work will be used to justify the next generation’s one child policy or ethnic cleansing. Ultimately, even in the most ethical adherents to this approach, it seems to be coupled with a disdain for humanity and an essential hopelessness – that we are bad things and the only way to make it better is for there to be less of us – that I think are deeply corrosive.

So finally we get to Technology. The simple reason why our artifactual space will be the primary mover in returning mae-IR to a pre-Industrial concentration is that artifacts are the component of human society that evolves mae-IR (you could think of humans as a particularly stinky sort of plant life, in that sense). Although most anthropogenic CH4 evolves from the posterior of ruminants rather than from smokestacks, given the climate impact and “life history”, as it were, of animal domestication makes it meaningful to consider a Cow to be a technological artifact. Regardless of its historical status, today the Cow is fully a human artifact.

In my first week’s reading for my Climate Change class, there’s this graph showing temperature fluctuations from 1000 AD to the present, and it shows basically a random walk (i.e. an unchanging average) leading to a linear increase from the 18th century all the way to the present (with a brief respite courtesy Mount Pinatubo.)Global surface temperatures 1000-2000ce

That didn’t happen because of anything but fossil fuel combustion, and it’s not going to be fixed by anything that doesn’t come out to a complete phase out of fossil fuel combustion. Since there is no substitute for fossil fuel combustion that is not a “technology”, there will be no solution that is not a technology.

6 thoughts on “TAP dancing on the deck of the Titanic

  1. Hi; I’m in your climate change class: Carl.

    “When I hear [the population argument], it is mostly expressed by US citizens, who are among the least densely populated societies on Earth, so I can’t help but wonder which “us” is overpopulated? Surely it can’t be all those skinny brown people over There, could it? Or all those hispanics that have recently moved into someone’s neighborhood? I certainly have heard and read an extraordinary number of thoughts along these lines, independent of any discussion of population control as an ecological act.”

    I’m curious what you mean, here; you seem to find the population argument, as you call it (or maybe certain incarnations of it), racist or founded on racist sentiments and I’d like to understand why. Is it b/c you think we’re saying, in effect, “there’re a lot of blacks and hispanics running around, and someone should really do something about that”? It does happen to be the case, as I’m sure you know, that the Church (which is none too wild about birth control) is or has been a huge presence in many developing parts of the world, where (compoundingly) availability of birth control options is often scarce to nil, anyway. So, to me, the correlation doesn’t beg causation, but I’m guessing that I’m just missing your point. Would you clarify?

  2. Hi Carl! Thanks for your comment. While I think that some people who work to reduce the world’s population have no racist sentiment, I think that people that do have racist sentiment are active in this arena, and that the more “mainstream” population reduction gets, the easier it becomes for people to cloak their racist notions in the cloth of virtue.

    Even if you don’t buy the “bad bedfellows” argument against population control, when Americans advocate it, I believe the evidence suggests they’re being at least implicitly biased: you would have to sterilize 50 Indians (for example) to achieve the same emissions reduction you’d gain just by cutting an American’s emissions down to the size of an average Indian.

    I don’t understand your Church argument, I’m afraid. I’d like to re-emphasize that I think access to birth control is important; not because we want to reduce the population, but because women should have the ability to control their reproduction.

  3. Hey Ethan,

    Two questions,

    First, what are the grey areas on the graph supposed to represent? I notice they get ‘tighter’ the closer to “now” the graph gets.

    Secondly, I hear a lot of arguments on /. about this, and one common viewpoint is “what about the suns output of energy-could that have anything to do with it?”. Also I hear “We’re coming out of a mini-ice age”.

    Playing devils advocate here, since I never seem to find adequate answers to these questions 😉

    BTW-I will be doing glassblowing this semester, so wait with baited breath for a wedding present.

  4. I don’t understand why population control is such a bad thing. If a species is taking many of the planet’s resources, and it is cognizant of that, and wants to make room for other forms or life, it doesn’t imply self-loathing. It shows awareness and consideration for other beings.

  5. Doug: The light grey represents maximum and minimum temperatures reached in that year; I’m not sure what the dark grey represents; probably seasonal maxima/minima. As to your other questions, I find RealClimate to be one of the best blogs on this subject. They have a good article on the subject of Solar forcing as well as one on the little ice age which seems to be mostly a reigonal phenomena.

    Stef: The problem is that it is not a species taking many of the planet’s resources. The problem is that a subset of the population is taking many of the planets resources. I’ve already given the example of an American’s ecological footprint vs. that of an Indian. The problem with population control as a means of reducing greenhouse gas emissions is that there’s no strong correlation between population density and emissions. When scientists are looking to explain the factors behind variability in natural phenomena, they often look for “natural experiments”: situations that the researchers did not construct but that illuminate the factors involved.

    We do have one good example of this: in 1979, China enacted the one child policy, which is still in effect today. They enforce this population control measure with the full force available to an undemocratic government, including forced abortion and stiff fines for additional children. While there is reasonable debate about whether the one child policy has been effective in reducing population growth, there is no denying that it represents the most organized and systematic attempt to control population.

    If population control was correlated with a decline in greenhouse gas emissions, we would expect to see a reduction in China’s greenhouse gas emissions over the period in question. Instead, what we see is a vast increase in greenhouse emissions over the interval in question. Even if you ignore the growth in population during that time, emissions per capita increased as well.

    This, coupled with the frankly unethical stance of many of population control’s proponents, including the arguable father of the notion, makes me believe that it is ineffective, bad science, and unethical to pursue population control as a means to reduce environmental impact.

  6. Well,

    You get little argument from me, I think you make some very good points-including your discussion about population control. I also cringe at the idea because when you start talking about population control in this country, it tends to get narrowly focused towards immigration and minorities which while some may feel is not racist, becomes a reactionary and then racist response by those in power.

    I think however that you rush over the attitudinal/behavioral part of your response without commenting on how that effects technology. For example, Bush’s administration has been accused of literally blotting out references to climate change in government scientific documents which of course blurs the lay persons understanding of how serious the issue is and defines it for our goverment. That may create a delayed response on the part of those persons/corporations/scientists dealing with or working on technology that address climate change or carbon emissions, especially when a lot of them look to this government for funding. How much funding in climate change issues/technology was denied or cut by this administration? I don’t know for sure that it caused any problems…but I suspect it did since I can think of other issues (for example AIDS research) that have been affected by an attitudinal barrier in this administration.

    RGGI may be another example but I’d have to do more research into that to say for sure.

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