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It’s time environmentalists talked about the population problem

It’s time environmentalists talked about the population problem

Bob Brown is right – it's time environmentalists talked about the population problem
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In all the talk of tackling environmental problems such as climate change, the problem of population growth often escapes attention. Politicians don’t like talking about it. By and large, neither do environmentalists—but former Greens leader Bob Brown has bucked that trend.

Brown recently declared the world’s  must start to decline before 2100, telling The Australian newspaper: “We are already using more than what the planet can supply and we use more than the living fabric of the planet in supply. That’s why we wake up every day to fewer fisheries, less forests, more extinctions and so on. The human herd at eight billion is the greatest herd of mammals ever on this planet and it is unsustainable to have that growing.”

Research suggests our species has far exceeded its fair share of the planetary bounty, and Brown is right to call for the  to peak. It is high time others joined the chorus—not only other environmentalists, but those concerned with international development and human rights.

Population growth, by the numbers

COVID-19 has killed more than one million people. While undeniably tragic, the figure is minor compared to world’s annual growth in population, estimated by the United Nations at about 83 million.

In 1900, the world’s population was about 1.6 billion people. By 2023 it’s expected to hit 8 billion. According to the UN, it will reach 9.7 billion by 2050 and 11.2 billion by 2100.

(The US-based Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation recently forecast a lower peak of about 9.7 billion by 2064, falling to about 8.8 billion by 2100.)

Why is the population growing so fast? Much of it is due to advanced fertilizers and intensive farming practices, leading to higher crop yields that can sustain more people. Health care has improved, and people are living much longer. And many parts of the world have historically had high fertility rates.

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Analysis shows how the Greens have changed the language of economic debate in New Zealand

When Health Minister Chris Hipkins recently quipped that the Green Party is “to some extent the conscience of the Labour Party” he was not simply referring to polls suggesting Labour may need the Greens’ support to form a government.

Hipkins was also suggesting Green policies help keep Labour honest on environmental and social issues. So, what difference has the Green Party really made to New Zealand’s political debate?

Drawing on a study of 57 million words spoken in parliament between 2003 and 2016, our analysis shows the presence of a Green party has changed the political conversation on economics and environment.

In the recent Newshub leaders’ debate, both Jacinda Ardern and Judith Collins agreed that “growing the economy” was the best way to respond to the economic crisis driven by COVID-19.

Their responses varied only on traditional left-right lines. Ardern argued that raising incomes and investing in training would grow the economy. Collins suggested economic growth should be advanced by increasing consumer spending through temporary tax cuts.

By contrast, Green parties in New Zealand and elsewhere have long questioned the impact of relentless growth on the natural resources of a finite planet. Green thinking is informed by ecological economics, which aims to achieve more sustainable forms of collective prosperity that meet social needs within the planet’s limits.

man and woman shaking hands
‘Labour’s conscience’: Jacinda Ardern and James Shaw sign the confidence and supply agreement that brought the Greens into coalition in 2017. GettyImages

The language of economic growth

The impact of this radically different view can be observed in New Zealand parliamentary debates. When MPs from National and Labour used the word “economy” they commonly talked about it in the context of “growth” (“grow”/“growing”/“growth”).

On average, National MPs said “growth” once every four mentions of “economy”. Labour MPs said “growth” once every six mentions.

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Climate explained: why carbon dioxide has such outsized influence on Earth’s climate

I heard that carbon dioxide makes up 0.04% of the world’s atmosphere. Not 0.4% or 4%, but 0.04%! How can it be so important in global warming if it’s such a small percentage?

I am often asked how carbon dioxide can have an important effect on global climate when its concentration is so small – just 0.041% of Earth’s atmosphere. And human activities are responsible for just 32% of that amount.

I study the importance of atmospheric gases for air pollution and climate change. The key to carbon dioxide’s strong influence on climate is its ability to absorb heat emitted from our planet’s surface, keeping it from escaping out to space.

The ‘Keeling Curve,’ named for scientist Charles David Keeling, tracks the accumulation of carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere, measured in parts per million. Scripps Institution of OceanographyCC BY

Early greenhouse science

The scientists who first identified carbon dioxide’s importance for climate in the 1850s were also surprised by its influence. Working separately, John Tyndall in England and Eunice Foote in the United States found that carbon dioxide, water vapor and methane all absorbed heat, while more abundant gases did not.

Scientists had already calculated that the Earth was about 59 degrees Fahrenheit (33 degrees Celsius) warmer than it should be, given the amount of sunlight reaching its surface. The best explanation for that discrepancy was that the atmosphere retained heat to warm the planet.

Tyndall and Foote showed that nitrogen and oxygen, which together account for 99% of the atmosphere, had essentially no influence on Earth’s temperature because they did not absorb heat. Rather, they found that gases present in much smaller concentrations were entirely responsible for maintaining temperatures that made the Earth habitable, by trapping heat to create a natural greenhouse effect.

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Nobel prize-winning economics of climate change is misleading and dangerous – here’s why

Nobel prize-winning economics of climate change is misleading and dangerous – here’s why

While climate scientists warn that climate change could be catastrophic, economists such as 2018 Nobel prize winner William Nordhaus assert that it will be nowhere near as damaging. In a 2018 paper published after he was awarded the prize, Nordhaus claimed that 3°C of warming would reduce global GDP by just 2.1%, compared to what it would be in the total absence of climate change. Even a 6°C increase in global temperature, he claimed, would reduce GDP by just 8.5%.

If you find reassurance in those mild estimates of damage, be warned. In a newly published paper, I have demonstrated that the data on which these estimates are based relies upon seriously flawed assumptions.

If you find reassurance in those mild estimates of damage, be warned. In a newly published paper, I have demonstrated that the data on which these estimates are based relies upon seriously flawed assumptions.

Nordhaus’s celebrated work, which, according to the Nobel committee, has “brought us considerably closer to answering the question of how we can achieve sustained and sustainable global economic growth”, gives governments a reason to give climate change a low priority.

His estimates imply that the costs of addressing climate change exceed the benefits until global warming reaches 4°C, and that a mild carbon tax will be sufficient to stabilise temperatures at this level at an overall cost of less than 4% of GDP in 120 year’s time. Unfortunately, these numbers are based on empirical estimates that are not merely wrong, but irrelevant.

Nordhaus (and about 20 like-minded economists) used two main methods to derive sanguine estimates of the economic consequences of climate change: the “enumerative method” and the “statistical method”. But my research shows neither stand up to scrutiny.

The ‘enumerative method’

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How our food choices cut into forests and put us closer to viruses

How our food choices cut into forests and put us closer to viruses

As the global population has doubled to 7.8 billion in about 50 years, industrial agriculture has increased the output from fields and farms to feed humanity. One of the negative outcomes of this transformation has been the extreme simplification of ecological systems, with complex multi-functional landscapes converted to vast swaths of monocultures.

From cattle farming to oil palm plantations, industrial agriculture remains the greatest driver of deforestation, particularly in the tropics. And as agricultural activities expand and intensify, ecosystems lose plants, wildlife and other biodiversity.

The permanent transformation of forested landscapes for commodity crops currently drives more than a quarter of all global deforestation. This includes soy, palm oil, beef cattle, coffee, cocoa, sugar and other key ingredients of our increasingly simplified and highly processed diets.

The erosion of the forest frontier has also increased our exposure to infectious diseases, such as Ebolamalaria and other zoonotic diseases. Spillover incidents would be far less prevalent without human encroachment into the forest.

We need to examine our global food system: Is it doing its job, or is it contributing to forest destruction and biodiversity loss — and putting human life at risk?

What are we eating?

The food most associated with biodiversity loss also tends to also be connected to unhealthy diets across the globe. Fifty years after the Green Revolution — the transition to intensive, high yielding food production reliant on a limited number of crop and livestock species — nearly 800 million people still go to bed hungry; one in three is malnourished; and up to two billion people suffer some sort of micronutrient deficiency and associated health impacts, such as stunting or wasting.

Forest cut down for an agricultural field
A large soy field cuts into the forest in Brazil. (Shutterstock)

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Coronavirus: have we already missed the opportunity to build a better world?

Many people like to say that the coronavirus is teaching us a lesson, as if the pandemic were a kind of morality play that should lead to a change in our behaviour. It shows us that we can make big shifts quickly if we want to. That we can build back better. That social inequality is starkly revealed at times of crisis. That there is a “magic money tree”. The idea that crisis leads to change was also common during the financial crunch over a decade ago, but that didn’t produce any lasting transformations. So will post-COVID life be any different?

At the start of lockdown, in the middle of the anxiety and confusion, I started to notice that I was enjoying myself. I was cooking and gardening more; the air was cleaner, my city was quieter and I was spending more time with my partner. Lots of people started to write about the idea that there should be #NoGoingBack. It seemed that we had taken a deep collective breath, and then started to think about coronavirus as a stimulus to encourage us to think how we might address other big issues – climateinequalityracism and so on.

Being an academic, I decided to put together a quick and dirty book on what life might look like after the crisis. I persuaded various activists and academics to write short pieces on working at home, money, leadership and lots of other topics. The idea was to show that the world could change if we wanted it to. The book is out now, but it already feels, only four months after I imagined it, like the document of a lost time. The city noises are back, and jet trails are beginning to scar the sky. Has the moment been lost?

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A toilet paper run is like a bank run. The economic fixes are about the same

A toilet paper run is like a bank run. The economic fixes are about the same

Panic buying knows no borders. 

Shoppers in AustraliaJapanHong Kong and the United States have caught toilet paper fever on the back of the COVID-19 coronavirus. Shop shelves are being emptied as quickly as they can be stocked. 

This panic buying is the result of the fear of missing out. It’s a phenomenon of consumer behaviour similar to what happens when there is a run on banks.

A bank run occurs when depositors of a bank withdraw cash because they believe it might collapse. What we’re seeing now is a toilet-paper run.

Coordination games

A bank holds only a fraction of its deposits as cash reserves. This practice is known as “fractional-reserve banking”. It lends out as much of its deposits as it can – subject to a banking regulator’s capital-adequacy requirements – making a profit from the interest it charges.

If every customer simultaneously decided to withdraw all of their deposits, the bank would crumble under the liability. 

Why, then, do we not normally observe bank runs? Or toilet paper runs?

A Hong Kong pharmacy orders in extra toilet paper in early February, as people panic buy. Jerome Favre/EPA

The answer comes from Nobel-winning economist John Nash (played by Russell Crowe in the 2001 movie A Beautiful Mind). Nash shared the Nobel prize in economics for his insights in game theory, notably the existence of what is now called a “Nash equilibrium” in “games”.

Both banking and the toilet-paper market can be thought of as a “coordination game”. There are two players – you and everyone else. There are two strategies – panic buy or act normally. Each strategy has an associated pay-off.

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I’ve seriously tried to believe capitalism and the planet can coexist, but I’ve lost faith

I’ve seriously tried to believe capitalism and the planet can coexist, but I’ve lost faith


As the Productivity Commission confirmed this week, Australia’s economy has enjoyed uninterrupted growth for 28 years straight. Specifically, our output of goods and services last financial year grew by 2%. Economists obviously see the growth of a national economy as good news – but what is it doing to the Earth?

Capitalism demands limitless economic growth, yet research shows that trajectory is incompatible with a finite planet.

If capitalism is still the dominant economic system in 2050, current trendssuggest our planetary ecosystems will be, at best, on the brink of collapse. Bushfires will become more monstrous and wildlife will continue to be annihilated.

As my research has sought to demonstrate, an adequate response to climate change, and the broader environmental crisis, will require creating a post-capitalist society which operates within Earth’s ecological limits.

This won’t will be easy – it will be the hardest thing our species has tried to do. I’m not saying capitalism hasn’t produced benefits for society (although those benefits are distributed very unequally within and between nations). 

And of course, some people will think even talking about the prospect is naive, or ludicrous. But it’s time to have the conversation.

Pigs feed at a landfill site in front of a power station in Macedonia. GEORGI LICOVSKI/EPA

What is growth?

Economic growth generally refers to gross domestic product (GDP) – the monetary value of goods and services produced in an economy. Historically, and across the globe, GDP and environmental impact has been closely linked.

Capitalism needs growth. Businesses must pursue profits to stay viable and governments want growth because a larger tax base means more capacity for funding public services.

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Climate action shouldn’t mean choosing between personal and political responsibility

Climate action shouldn’t mean choosing between personal and political responsibility

© fotografixx / iStock

Can your individual behaviour make a real difference to the environment? And should you be expected to voluntarily change your life in the face of our worsening environmental crises? Some argue this emphasis on personal responsibility is a distraction from the real culprits: companies and governments.

We often treat the decisions to find alternative ways of living more sustainably and to pursue political resistance against big polluters and inactive governments as separate. But our recent research found that the relationship between alternatives and resistance is really far more complex. One can often lead to the other.

Previous studies have shown that taking individual responsibility for the environment or developing green alternatives often go hand in hand with political action. Our research suggests that this relationship can form over time, and that when people change their lifestyles for environmental reasons this can galvanise their political action more generally. But we also found that this doesn’t always happen and that bringing the two together can be difficult.

Our first study, carried out with Soetkin Verhaegen of UCLouvain in Belgium, looked at the environmental actions of a group of over 1,500 politically interested Belgians between 2017 and 2018. We found that citizens who took individual actions such as buying ethical products, changing how they travelled or producing their own food or energy, became more politically active over time. This included interacting with political institutions (for example, contacting elected politicians) and other actions such as taking part in protests.

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2019 was a year of global unrest, spurred by anger at rising inequality – and 2020 is likely to be worse

2019 was a year of global unrest, spurred by anger at rising inequality – and 2020 is likely to be worse

2019 may well go down as the most disrupted year in global politics since the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 and the subsequent implosion of the former Soviet Union.

However, the likelihood is that 2020 will be worse, and bloodier.

Conditions that spawned global unrest on every continent in 2019 are unlikely to recede. Rather, they are likely to worsen in the face of a slowing global economyand little sign of causes of disaffection being addressed.

Washington as disruptor

In a word, the world is in a mess, made more threatening by the retreat of the Trump administration from America’s traditional role as a stabilising force.

President Donald Trump has moved the US away from its traditional role of global stabilising force. AAP/EPA/Kevin Dietsch

If anything, Washington is a disruptor in its abandonment of international agreements. These include: the Paris Agreement on climate change and the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans Pacific Partnership, previously the Trans Pacific Partnership, aimed at liberalising Asia-Pacific trade. The US has also withdrawn from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) that froze Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

Washington’s defenestration of the JCPOA and its reimposition of tough sanctions on Iran has further destabilised the world’s most volatile region.

All this and more, including an unresolved trade conflict between the US and China, virtually guarantees 2020 will stretch the sinews of a fragile global order.

An evolving US-China technology war and risks of a technological decoupling add to the gloom.

The world is in worse shape than during the GFC

The Global Financial Crisis of 2007-08 was a period of intense uncertainty as a global financial system buckled. But, for the most part, that distress was confined to governments, boardrooms and the offices of international lending institutions.

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Techno-fix futures will only accelerate climate chaos – don’t believe the hype

Techno-fix futures will only accelerate climate chaos – don’t believe the hype

Don’t expect the future to turn out like popular 1960s TV show The Jetsons. 

Thanks to the efforts of climate activists, the climate and ecological emergency has never been more prominent. But acknowledging the problem is just a starting point. Now this momentum must be harnessed to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions and reverse habitat destruction.

To accelerate this transition, we need a vision of the future – and there are many out there. The problem is that some of these visions severely misunderstand and underestimate the nature of the crises we face. If we rally behind the wrong one, we may end up propelling the planet all the more quickly towards destruction.

Building a future in sync with the natural world will not be easy. Our collective imagination is bound to ideas that have delivered us to the cusp of environmental catastrophe. The ways we worktraveleat, and even think are all locked into systems that perpetuate the use of fossil fuels, encroach on the natural world, and exploit wealth and resources from the Global South.

This means that to avoid the worst of climate breakdown, we have to transform every aspect of society as we know it. But to do this well requires deep understanding of why industries have been allowed to pollute the upper atmosphere, and how we can build economic and political infrastructure to stop emitting greenhouse gases and degrading ecosystems.

Worringly, this understanding is sorely lacking in two of the most popular emerging visions of the future – ecomodernism and left accelerationism. In a nutshell, both envisage that technological progress will allow us to address climate and ecological breakdown while also dramatically increasing production and consumption.

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Freedom of thought is under attack – here’s how to save your mind

Freedom of thought is under attack – here’s how to save your mind

Freedom of thought stands at a critical crossroads. Technological and psychological advances could be used to promote free thought. They could shield our inner worlds, reduce our mental biases, and create new spaces for thought. Yet states and corporations are forging these advances into weapons that restrict what we think. 

To lose freedom of thought would be to lose something uniquely human. We share our basic emotions with animals. But only we can step back and ask “do I want to be angry?”, “do I want to be that person?”, “couldn’t I be better?”.

We can reflect whether the thoughts, feelings and desires that bubble up within us are consistent with our own goals, values and ideals. If we agree they are, then this makes them more truly our own. We can then act authentically.

But we may also conclude that some thoughts that pop into our heads are a force other than our own. You sit down to do your work and “Check Facebook!” flashes through your mind. Did that thought come from you or from Mark Zuckerberg?

Freedom of thought demands dignity, enables democracy, and is part of what makes us a person. To safeguard it, we must first recognise its enemies.

Was that thought yours? Or Mark Zuckerberg’s? Frederic Legrand – COMEO/Shutterstock

Three threats to freedom of thought

The first threat comes from advances in psychology. Research has created new understandings of what influences our thoughts, behaviours, and decision making. 

States and corporations use this knowledge to make us think and act in a way that serves their goals. These may differ to ours. They use this knowledge to make us gamble morebuy more, and spend more time on social media. It may even be used to swing elections.

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Surveying archaeologists across the globe reveals deeper and more widespread roots of the human age, the Anthropocene

Surveying archaeologists across the globe reveals deeper and more widespread roots of the human age, the Anthropocene

Examples of how human societies are changing the planet abound – from building roads and houses, clearing forests for agriculture and digging train tunnels, to shrinking the ozone layer, driving species extinct, changing the climate and acidifying the oceans. Human impacts are everywhere. Our societies have changed Earth so much that it’s impossible to reverse many of these effects

Nuclear bomb testing left its mark in the geologic record. National Nuclear Security Administration/Wikimedia CommonsCC BY

Some researchers believe these changes are so big that they mark the beginning of a new “human age” of Earth history, the Anthropocene epoch. A committee of geologists has now proposed to mark the start of the Anthropocene in the mid-20th century, based on a striking indicator: the widely scattered radioactive dust from nuclear bomb tests in the early 1950s.

But this is not the final word.

Not everyone is sure that today’s industrialized, globalized societies will be around long enough to define a new geological epoch. Perhaps we are just a flash in the pan – an event – rather than a long, enduring epoch. 

Others debate the utility of picking a single thin line in Earth’s geological record to mark the start of human impacts in the geological record. Maybe the Anthropocene began at different times in different parts of the world. For example, the first instances of agriculture emerged at different places at different times, and resulted in huge impacts on the environment, through land clearing, habitat losses, extinctions, erosion and carbon emissions, forever changing the global climate.

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A globalised solar-powered future is wholly unrealistic – and our economy is the reason why

A globalised solar-powered future is wholly unrealistic – and our economy is the reason why

Over the past two centuries, millions of dedicated people – revolutionaries, activists, politicians, and theorists – have been unable to curb the disastrous and increasingly globalised trajectory of economic polarisation and ecological degradation. This is perhaps because we are utterly trapped in flawed ways of thinking about technology and economy – as the current discourse on climate change shows.

Rising greenhouse gas emissions are not just generating climate change. They are giving more and more of us climate anxiety. Doomsday scenarios are capturing the headlines at an accelerating rate. Scientists from all over the world tell us that emissions in ten years must be half of what they were ten years ago, or we face apocalypse. School children like Greta Thunberg and activist movements like Extinction Rebellion are demanding that we panic. And rightly so. But what should we do to avoid disaster?

Most scientists, politicians, and business leaders tend to put their hope in technological progress. Regardless of ideology, there is a widespread expectation that new technologies will replace fossil fuels by harnessing renewable energy such as solar and wind. Many also trust that there will be technologies for removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and for “geoengineering” the Earth’s climate. The common denominator in these visions is the faith that we can save modern civilisation if we shift to new technologies. But “technology” is not a magic wand. It requires a lot of money, which means claims on labour and resources from other areas. We tend to forget this crucial fact.

I would argue that the way we take conventional “all-purpose” money for granted is the main reason why we have not understood how advanced technologies are dependent on the appropriation of labour and resources from elsewhere.

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Despite good progress, 100% low-carbon energy is still a long way off for the UK

Despite good progress, 100% low-carbon energy is still a long way off for the UK

In the past ten years the UK’s electricity mix has changed dramatically. Coal’s contribution has dropped from 40% to 6%. Wind, solar power and hydroelectric plants now generate more electricity than nuclear power stations, thanks to rapid growth. Demand for electricity has also fallen, reducing the country’s dependence on fossil fuels. Thanks to these three factors, the carbon intensity of Britain’s electricity has almost halved, from more than 500g of CO₂ per kilowatt-hour in 2006 to less than 270g in 2018.

Progress has been so quick that a fully low-carbon power sector in Britain has transformed from a faint pipedream into a real possibility, according to the CEO of one of the UK’s “big six” energy companies. Indeed, the National Grid now expects to be able to operate a zero-carbon electricity system by 2025.

Already approaching that milestone on windy, sunny days, the country’s first hours of 100% low-carbon electricity could soon be here – but staying at 100% throughout the year will be much more difficult to achieve. So what does the journey to decarbonisation look like?

Headwinds to decarbonisation

To paint the UK’s energy future, it is important to first understand how electricity is generated today. The graph below is a visualisation of British electricity generation in October 2018. Periods of strong wind (in red) and sun (yellow) combined with nuclear power (green) meant that on some days, more than 75% of electricity came from low-carbon sources. With solar prices still decreasing and the government recently agreeing a major deal for offshore wind to produce one-third of the UK’s power by 2030, the country’s first hours of low-carbon power could arrive within the next five years.

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Olduvai IV: Courage
In progress...

Olduvai II: Exodus
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