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Archive for May, 2010

There is this notion out there among the people that overpopulation is a global problem that must be addressed. I hear it being discussed, and recently I saw a campaign that gives out condoms to increase awareness that overpopulation is causing a reduction in biodiversity. Clever since condoms can be used to control birth rate. More precisely, this campaign seems to claim: Human increase in population is having a negative effect on the carrying capacity of other species. As far as the definition of “carrying capacity” goes this is true, but it is not the real problem at hand. In fact, the phrase “increase in population” can be replaced with “mismanagement of resources” so the sentence reads: Mismanagement of resources is having a negative effect on the carrying capacity of other species.  Considering this we begin to delve deeper to the real problem. Attributing problems such as loss of biodiversity to human overpopulation is getting in the way of the discussion of the actual, solvable problem of resource mismanagement. Overpopulation is not a problem in its own right, it is an effect of a much deeper problem that I believe will eventually have a solution. The deeper problem is the current ineffective management of resources such as food, water, land, bio-diversity and energy that leads to devastating scarcities. From scarcity comes the idea that there are too many people. Resource scarcity can be an effect from natural causes such as drought, or a natural disaster but resource mismanagement plays a significant, if not greater role. The idea of overpopulation arises from resource scarcity and acts like a phantom problem blocking our vision to the real problem, resource mismanagement, that must be addressed.

Here is a thought experiment to underline my point: Imagine a world where the population is held constant (the death rate is equal to the birth rate) and the resources are managed correctly so resource scarcity is minimized. Every animal in the Earth ecosystem has enough food, water, land, energy etc. to survive and thrive. Now imagine that one of those resources experiences a drastic, uncontrollable reduction. A reduction in water from a major drought is a good example. All of sudden, there is not enough water for everybody, thus producing an effect of over-population. Too many people, not enough water. This thought experiment can be made with any resource, even land or biodiversity. A drastic reduction in land could happen as ocean levels rise due to climate change. Now imagine this same constant population having a growth surge. If resources are not managed correctly, then scarcity can arise. Mismanagement of land, for example, could result in the destruction of habitat of other animals to make room for new humans. If the land use is managed correctly, these habitats would be protected. There are a number of ways to manage the use of land including vertical development, zoning regulations, and dedicated preservation, or conservation areas. This list is by no means exhaustive. It is important to understand the population surge used in the above thought experiment was likely caused by an increase of availability of an essential resource like food or water. This increase in an essential resource can happen naturally, like a wet decade, or by resource management, such as subsidized dam controlled irrigation. Financial systems also play a role in resource management. For example, the price of food is a major factor to its availability for the majority of US citizens. This is just one of many examples of how the economics of a population play a strong role in resource management.

Another way to think about this is with a metaphor. Imagine a large dinner party. The host only has a set amount of food and decides to serve it buffet style. The servers keep filling the buffet trays giving a feeling of abundance to the dinner guests so they take as they please, sometimes having extra on their plate. In reality, there is no abundance, and the food runs out before the last few guests fill up their plates. Can we say that the problem with the dinner party is that there are too many guests? No, the problem is that host decided to manage the food using a buffet. If instead the food was portioned, then served, the dinner party would have been a success. This is a simple metaphor, but shows how scarcity of a resource can be incorrectly attributed to overpopulation and not the mismanagement of resources which is the real problem. With this metaphor, we can also see that knowledge of resource availability promotes a sustainable population. Imagine the first people in line at the buffet notice that the servers keep filling the buffet, so they call some friends to come to the party. Hey, there’s plenty of food, right? If they had some knowledge that in reality, the servers were about to come up short on food, then they would not have invited extra people to the party. More people coming to the party represents an increase in birth rate. (The decrease in death rate is not really represented in the metaphor, but one can imagine people living longer, healthier lives in times of abundance.)  If the party goers had knowledge that there wasn’t enough food to begin with, some would have gone a little easy on their portion with the hope to avoid coming up short. Increasing knowledge among a population of potential resource scarcity is an essential tool in our tool box in solving global resource mismanagement. If we understand that a population is growing because a false belief that resources are abundant, we can take steps to change how the resources are managed to reflect the reality of their availability. In our dinner party metaphor, this would mean the party guests suggest to the host that it would be a better idea to portion out plates instead of using a buffet. If we look at this dinner party metaphor and see the problem as one of too many guests, our solutions are limited. Does the host ask people to leave? Do the guests with food, who are already full, offer their table scraps to the hungry late arrivals? Do they offer them money? Use your imagination to explore what these questions represent outside of our metaphor.

Water is an excellent example of a resource because it is required for producing food, we all need it to survive and is probably the limiting factor of our species carrying capacity at any given time. If weather patterns change, and aquifers are depleted, large populations can find themselves with severe scarcities. If these scarcities are not repaired, then It gives the impression that there are too many people for the small amount of water available. The fact that there is not enough water to go around should not be attributed to too many people, but a lack of resource for an already existing population. With more intelligent, knowledge based resource management, its possible to reduce the risk of water scarcity whether natural or man-made. Intelligent resource management in conjunction with knowledgeable citizens may reduce this risk enough to keep the population at a level able to withstand severe resource scarcities. Increasing the knowledge and awareness of the citizens towards resource availability allows for intelligent reproduction decisions to occur contributing to sustainable population growth or decline.

Lets look at another situation the reflects the difficulty in removing the notion of over-population with the problem of resource mismanagement. Imagine a small population living off the land in a remote place. Lets say that their method of food production is slash and burn agriculture. They move from field to field in a rotation that eventually brings them back to the field they started on. If this population experiences a few years with surplus crop yields due to some factor such as an increase of water for irrigation, then it is likely their population will increase.  After the population surge, and many decades of high crop yields the irrigation water supply returns to normal and there is not enough food to feed the new larger population. At this point their field rotation system is inadequate and must expand to accommodate the new population. More land is burned, more habitat is destroyed, and surrounding ecosystems suffer. In this situation it is also possible that species go extinct. At first glance it seems that overpopulation is the problem. In reality, it is the mismanagement of the agriculture land resource and initial food surplus that is the problem. It may be true that technology is not available to these people to increase crop density, or they do not have capacity to trade with far away neighbors, but from a global perspective it cannot be said that their problem is too many people. The real problem is that they have difficulty maintaining their new population with their current resources without increasing the footprint of their agricultural land. If the population was aware, at the beginning of the food surplus, that eventually the availability of food would return to normal, then maybe the population would have focused on food preservation, exporting surplus and maintaining a constant birth rate. This could be done by increasing awareness, and managing the resources so the population remains constant through the relatively short period of abundance to minimize the risk of scarcity when conditions return to normal. Since they had no way of knowing the food supply would return to previous levels, the problem of feeding their population without increasing the footprint of their agricultural land is one of immediate concern. Throughout history this very problem has been solved by increasing crop density, planting higher yield crops, and establishing trade with another population with a food surplus. Some methods are clearly more sustainable than others, but the idea here is to see through the veil of over-population to the problem of resource mismanagement while appreciating that through technology, global awareness, partnership, and aid this problem can be solved in a sustainable manner.

In man-kinds recent history, our population has surged. There was steady growth of about 1 billion people every 120 years or so up until the Industrial revolution. Since then its been about 1 billion every 15 years or so. This surge in growth is a result of relative good times here on Earth. Civilizations discovered ways to manage resources and effectively deliver them to the general population while decreasing the death rate through advances in nutrition, medicine, and overall quality of life.  Unfortunately, the management of resources has not been done in a sustainable way to protect bio-diversity, prevent pollution, and ensure the health of the world ecosystem and its thriving population. A good example of this mismanagement is United States land resources. During the population surge, the large population centers of the US expanded to the surrounding land. This was easy after the invention, and mass production of the motor vehicle. Also, the system of land ownership, engrained in the governing structure, provided an incentive. This resulted in our population encroaching upon habitats and ecosystems causing irreversible harm in the form of pollution, destruction of habitat, and abuse of species as a resource (ie. over hunting and fishing, etc.). It is a mistake to attribute this unfortunate situation with over-population. It is actually a result of the mismanagement of our land resources, animal resources, water resources, and energy resources. It is also due to a lack of knowledge and understanding by the citizens of the consequences of their actions. If, during this population surge, resources were managed to protect habitat and biodiversity, prevent pollution, and maintain sustainability, our country would look very different than it does today.

Knowledge of problems resulting from resource mismanagement is quite often incorrectly associated with overpopulation. Much of the world population is intelligent and understands there are serious global issues with disastrous repercussions linked to scarcity of water, food, biodiversity, etc. We understand that a reduction in the population growth rate would be a potential relief from future scarcity. This gathering of knowledge allows us to, as a whole, intelligently control population levels based on the amount of resources available. For example, many intelligent couples throughout the United States are choosing to have only one or two children because this contributes to a sustainable population level at a time when future availability of essential resources is unknown. A sustainable population level is one that does not exceed the availability of a limiting resource. However, within this sustainable framework, a population can safely grow over time. As the availability of the limiting resource increases, the population may increase in a sustainable manner. If resources are managed correctly, this growth can be maintained sustainably limited only by human technology and innovation.

Today, we look at countries like India and China, and gasp at the amount of people each border contains. Since the beginning of man, population surges come about after a resource is provided to the society in a reliable, abundant manner. In other words, when there is an abundance of food, energy, land and water, and the infrastructure is such that it can provide the citizens with these resources, then humans reproduce at higher rates, and die at lower rates. This is a natural phenomenon, and happens in animal populations throughout the Earth human or otherwise. This does not need to be treated as a good or bad thing, but a natural phenomenon that reacts to availability of essential resources. We can attribute surges in population to exploitation of the abundant resources available, and the availability of these resources is ultimately defined by nature and the management entities defined by the government and economic structure of the society. This very thing happened in India and China as it did in the United States, and soon may be facing a time of scarcity with unsustainable populations. Another good example is Saudi Arabia. The surface of that country is dry as a bone, but they sit on a large reservoir of oil, and a large reservoir of water. The reservoir of water, like the oil, does not replenish. The Saudi government has been pumping water from this aquifer and supplying it to its people in abundance. This caused the population to surge over a few decades in the 20th century. The reservoir will eventually run dry, causing severe scarcity problems. Even if they can solve their water problem by buying water from say, Turkey, or even Israel, their oil will eventually run dry, leaving them vulnerable, along with the entire middle east to severe scarcity. A better route would have been to manage the water in such a way to promote conservation while looking for other sources of freshwater whether those sources be technology based, or trade based. Also, spreading awareness throughout their population of the reality of the existing water supply may have prevented such a large surge in population to begin with. Unfortunately, a government is only as powerful as the size of its army, so a larger population the better. This applies to all countries with aspirations of being a global super-power.

If after all this you still ascribe to overpopulation being the problem at hand, I ask you to think about solutions. To solve, we must reduce the population. This can be done by either increasing the death rate, decreasing the birth rate, or both. If this is accomplished, but we still have not solved the deeper problem of resource mismanagement, there will still be poverty, starvation, thirst, and loss of bio-diversity. Just because a population is reduced, or a growth halted, does not mean that the existing population will not exploit land resources, energy resources, food resources and water resources. It is naive to think so.

The earth, surrounding atmosphere, and sun provide an abundance of resources, that if managed in a sustainable, intelligent way could allow the entire earth ecosystem, including the human population, to thrive in abundance. Eventually, a maximum population, or carrying capacity, will be reached, and most likely will be defined by the availability of freshwater, our limiting resource, but we have not reached that point. Even now, there are technologies emerging that will allow humans to make use of freshwater not currently available. Once the carrying capacity of humans is reached, then it is a matter of knowledge and nature to maintain the population at a constant, sustainable level.

Over-population is merely a symptom of resource scarcity due to resource mismanagement. In reality, the only reason resources are scarce is because we as a civilization are still figuring out how to manage them effectively and in a sustainable manner. This is a relatively new problem for mankind, and we need to pursue paths that find solutions to this problem instead of wasting resources treating its symptoms.

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How exiting! Here is the link to the Amazon page so you can buy it:

Unleashed Fury: The Political Struggle for Dog-friendly Parks by Julie Walsh

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BP Executive Grilled on Oil Spill (Anderson Cooper)

http://cnn.com/video/?/video/bestoftv/2010/05/19/ac.bp.dudley.full.interview.cnn

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Yesterday NPR reported that the BP estimate of 5,000 barrels per day is VERY wrong. In fact, BP probably just made up a number! After the video of the leak made it to press the day before yesterday, scientists are saying that it is more like 70,000 barrells a day! Thats the equivalent to an Exxon Valdez spill every four days! The guy Cooper Anderson is talking to is Douglas Brinkley who wrote The Great Deluge which is the historical account of hurricane Katrina. Cheers to him!

BP has failed in its attempts to stop the leak with kindergarden tactics like: “We’ll put a box over it, then collect the leaking oil” then, when that didn’t work it was: “we’ll shove some garbage in there to plug it“. Genius. BP is failing at handling this situation on their own, and I think they are fine with that. They don’t want help. In fact, most of their methods seem to involve containing the oil and bringing it up to a ship. So, they’re really trying to collect all this black gold, not plug a leak. Surprised? I’m not. The very first idea I had for plugging this leak was to send down a bomb to plug it the way people have been plugging leaks since the beginning of leaks, by blowing it up so it collapses on itself. Maybe they have good reason not to do this? What is that good reason? They want to collect the oil! Talk about GREED! BP’s newest method is to put a pipe into the leak and suck the oil up to a ship.

I’m sure the well itself has a value. They will not comprise the integrity of the 13,000 foot hole until its value is surpassed by efforts to collect the oil gushing out of it. A good analogy is a car. Say you get in a car accident. If you can fix the car for less than the value of the car, then you fix it. If you can’t it’s “totaled”. Well, this well is not “totaled” just yet, so they want to fix it. When you don’t care about the environment, it’s simple economics. The well still has potential to supply BP with millions of barrells of oil, so I’m thinking they will do everything in their power to stop the leak without compromising the well, while collecting the leaking oil. To BP, this is one car accident in their fleet of hundreds of cars. Yes, BP has hundreds of oil rigs. To continue the analogy, the accident was their fault so their insurance will go up. Oh well, they have hundreds of more cars. Big deal.

The extent of this oil gush could wreak havoc for many years to come according to National Geographic, and they are using the incorrect BP estimate of 5,000 barrells a day. Imagine if that article was written using the new estimate of 70,000 barrells a day?

Its clear to me that BP does not have this under control, and never did. They know how to pump oil out of the ground, but they do not know how to fix a leak in their system. I don’t even know if they care about stopping leaks! Listen to THIS interview. Its ridiculous to think that we allow companies like BP to drill in our sensitive ecosystems without knowledge to stop, or clean up a leak of this nature. The consequences are just too high. As my wife said last night “They don’t even let you into a [high school] lab without knowing how to get toxic chemicals off your face.” If these oil companies are going to be drilling in the ocean, they should be improving methods of clean up. Methods of clean up are primitive and have not advanced since the 1980’s! Unacceptable folks.

Clearly the big boys over at Big Oil have made some back room agreements. These are the same people who also have the power to make a few phone calls and get some distractions on the news. For example, yesterday when the news broke about the new 70,000 barrell a day estimate, CNN.com did not have one item on their “recent news” list associated with the oil spill. You know what they did have? The life story of a US citizen gone terrorist who failed at being a terrorist. I’ll hold on the conspiracy theory for now, but I find it intriguing that Big Oil (or Big Power) has a major devastating incident they don’t have control over, and shortly after some whacko fails at blowing up Times Square? As the folks over at SNL would say, “Really?”

I’m not an expert on global ecosystems, but I do know that the Gulf of Mexico is a large, important ecosystem, that if compromised could radiate repercussions over the entire globe. This gush is not happening in a contained body of water. The Gulf is a key element in ocean currents and thus, ocean ecosystems. Shame on us for compromising our own existence by allowing the gulf to be exposed to such a threat.

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My wife brought this EcoSeed article to my attention today and I wanted to share it. Villages in Peru collect water in the form of fog as it moves through their land. In combination with other harvesting techniques, we could begin to transform water supply infrastructure to a more sustainable direction by taking advantage of what falls from the sky, or floats in the air. If we look hard enough, nature is showing us solutions to our water crisis.

Fog Catchers Bring Water to Parched Villages

When dense fog sweeps in from the Pacific Ocean, special nets on a hillside catch the moisture and provide precious water to the village of Bellavista, about 10 miles (16 kilometers) outside of Lima, Peru.

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I am now a …

Member at Sustainable Cities Collective

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