Saturday, September 22, 2007

Updated Baseball Quote, with Annotations

To update a quote attributed to Walt Whitman:

I see bad things in (Major League) baseball. It will keep people in-doors (fantasy leagues), fill them with overpriced stadium food and beer, give them a larger bitter skepticism (steroids), tend to achieve a gaping economic disparity (e.g. the Yankees' payroll), assuage no losses, and ultimately be something too cheapened and commercialized for us.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Thoughts on Stemming Overpopulation to Save the Environment

If you ask me what are the three best ways to save the planet, I would say they are:
  • Creating and restoring compact, mixed-use, walkable and bikeable urban form
  • Establishing a local food system that protects local farmland
  • Building all of our future buildings to be climate-sensitive and climate-resilient (i.e. they do not rely on conventional heating and cooling machines)
If I said this in a speech in front of a big crowd (A man can dream, can't he?), there would inevitably be a small group of hard line enviros upset that I didn't mention controlling overpopulation. They would be upset because they feel that the world's burgeoning population, by seriously stretching our planet's carrying capacity and relying on buried sunlight to sustain itself, is far-and-away the worst environmental problem.

Technically, they would be correct. And on the practical level I will passively stand beside them, agreeing with increased access to birth control and wincing when I hear about Christian families from Arkansas with 16 kids.

But their argument approaches a mere tautology that delves much deeper into ethics than, I presume, most of them realize. Their argument can be, I think, fairly represented along these lines:
The Earth's population is well beyond the Earth's long-term carrying capacity. The reason this many people can survive in the short term is because we have tapped into the finite savings account of fossil fuels, which are basically just energy stored at a time when there were no humans to consume it. We cannot sustain this population (and especially projected future increases) for a long time, and if we try to it will only result in massive hardship, war, starvation, pestilence, and death, to mention only the anthropocentric consequences. (The consequences to other species will be loss of habitat and perhaps extinction.) In fact, we can already see the first pangs of overpopulation in the widespread starvation that is already a fact of life in the less developed world, the resource wars that have taken place in many parts of the globe, global warming, accelerating species extinctions, and so forth. If we can reduce global population, then we can mitigate these bad consequences because there will be less people to stretch and fight over the planet's resources.
It is a stirring argument with a lot of meaningful truth to it, but it is tautologous because people, like all living things, consume resources to survive. Humans are, of course, unprecedented among species for the resources we consume not just to survive, but also to thrive, achieve comfort, and entertain ourselves. If there were no humans on the planet, we would not have any of the problems mentioned above. But then there would be no humans to feel happiness.

The first rule of being an environmentalist is not merely to maintain as little of an ecological footprint as possible. If this were the case, we could all reduce our footprint to zero by dying. Rather, the first rule is to be content while maintaining as little of an ecological footprint as possible.

We don't know what the true maximum "carrying capacity" of the planet for human beings. It may seem as if we have passed the long-term capacity, but there is still a lot of room to conserve more in our lifestyles and use energy much more efficiently. If we suddenly started excelling at every energy/climate change solution out there and made unexpectedly marked progress on environmental goals, then we might find that 6+ billion people can all fit here sustainably.

So overpopulation as a solution to global environmental problems should at best require a supplemental focus for us, something of which to be wary, but focusing solely on overpopulation is heading straight for the tip of an ethical iceberg.