Category Archives: overpopulation

Take the time: Nick Werle on Free Markets and Nature

We tell ourselves stories, and sometimes we can see with frightening clarity the impact of those stories on our behavior.

A recent essay in 3 Quarks Daily by Nick Werle (Competing to Live: On Planet Earth and Being in Nature) takes a careful but wide ranging look at the many stories we tell ourselves about Nature.  He looks at David Attenborough’s Planet Earth series and the focus on the delicate balance in nature…and its requirements.  He looks at Darwin’s story in The Origin and sees similar threads regarding competition and the urge to survive. They both have a keen interest in understanding the mechanism of competition.

“In the rain forest, which we have seen has both high productivity and unceasing conflict, ‘competition for resources ensures that no one species dominates the jungle.’”

David Attenborough, Planet Earth

All of Nature is Regulated and Interconnected…and we are part of Nature

At the end he raises the obvious question of how we humans, the closest relative to the marauding gangs of chimpanzees that are depicted wrecking havoc in the jungle, care or alternately don’t seem to care about our place in the balance of nature.  Deregulationism has at its core a willful faith that the market will balance out all transgressions, that it is a marvelous–nay, Magic–self-regulating machine that is well within the bounds of Nature itself. It is a faith that ignores the obvious issue of interconnectedness.  Witness the global concern over Japan’s under-regulated, under-managed, growth focused nuclear program in the last month.  Earthquakes and tsunamis are natural disasters; nuclear meltdowns as a result of deregulation are not, and no market forces  can adjust the damage done.

As we have seen with increasing regularity, our wave of deregulation–from bubble to bust, from drilling and chemicals to “clean-ups,” implosions,  and overpopulation, we are not living in balance with the planet we call home.

We have managed to upset the balance of so many systems that it seems to me we are now living well outside of nature.  Plastic may well be the iconic metaphor for all we have become. The story we tell ourselves, and what we are actually doing, are not concordant, even as they could be.  Attenborough makes an argument that yes, we are part of Nature, and our particular playing field is uniquely human, but is nonetheless part of the large balance we would do well to have an interest in. The point Attendborough makes is more subtle than those put forth by deregulationists:

It positions humanity not as an alien force superimposed on an independently existing natural world but as a part of the same precariously balance system. The argument is so affective because it refuses to plead. Instead it suggests that we reconsider the boundaries we draw between systems we hope to keep in balance.

Instead of defining the jungle as the wild and unthinkable state of nature, this naturalist approach seeks to fuse man’s understanding of himself with the complexities of Nature in order to ensure that Planet Earth never becomes a stunning monument to irrecoverable beauty.



Days 278-281: MLwC and can we stop eating ourselves out of house and home?

Jared Diamond, of Guns, Germs and Steel fame, wrote another book that got its share of acclaim but not nearly the read GSG did, for some reason. The other book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive basically chronicles our species’ historical tendency to consume itself out of house and home, with some notable exceptions which he also chronicles.

Diamond identifies 5 key features that can contribute to a society’s collapse and discusses each in its turn:

  • natural climate changes
  • manmade environmental damage
  • reduced support from neighbors or trading partners
  • hostile neighbors
  • how societies identify and respond to environmental problems

Of real interest to me today, in light of Jakarta’s government sponsored and orchestrated project to plant 79 million (Million!) trees to counteract the deforestation of their small island. Jakarta has the highest rate of deforestation in the world, and may well be–at least for its size–a record breaking carbon producer as it slashes and burns its way to “monetization” and simultaneously drains and harvests some of the largest peat wetlands in the world. The country is possibly in the running for real-time environmental collapse and is–credit where credit is due–trying to do something about it.

That brings me to the title of the blog and point 2 and 5 above. Diamond chronicles how many societies from ancient to modern use the resources around them to survive and reproduce. Inevitably, certain resources cannot be regrown or resupplied as quickly as we can reproduce and therefore the resource drain increases incrementally until the foundation upon which a society is built–based on resource usage–literally collapses. He uses a number of well known examples from long ago, the Anasazi, Easter Island, the Greenland Norse and others. In its simplest terms, the dependence on wood for heating and cooking was a critical mistake: the wood in these areas was slow growth and dependent on a fragile environment. In these cases, it is quite likely that the populations literally ate themselves out of house and home.

Point 5 above is all about situations wherein a population recognizes the danger signs and responds. He has fewer examples of this than he does of the other point which makes for a gloomy read all around, but there are examples: Tikopia in the South Pacific, New Guinea and a forest region in Japan. There are arguably others that are actively trying to stave off the effects of resource depletion all over the world, places like Costa Rica with some successes and still plenty to do, and Kenya (see the awesome Wangari Maathi), and now perhaps…perhaps add Jakarta. Some are calling this tree project a sort of window-dressing on the real problem: the black market for the exotic woods that grow there. Until the market declines or more viable options assert themselves, the slash-and-cash economy will continue to flourish. But let’s take an optimistic view for now…you never know. One small act leads to another and another and another.

Daily Stats (Mon, Tue, Wed, Thu)
Car: 3 miles
Bike: 11 miles
Ped: 3
Bus: 0

A video of Diamond lecturing on this topic can be found here.

Day 191-194: MLwC and still partying like it’s 1959!

As Saturday was “Take a Conservative Friend to Lunch” day (not really, I just made that up), my partner and I took my friend Tom B. to lunch. First off, we love Tom.  He’s a good guy, and mostly we should just talk about movies and music, and mostly we do.  But not Saturday. Talk turned to the usual list of Talk Radio Hit Parade “issues” –Immigration, Global Climate Change Fraud, Taxes, and unexpectedly…Wildlife.

This last was too much for me. Tom was going on about how wrong it is that if he’s hiking in a National Park, he’s not allowed to carry a gun to protect himself in case he’s charged by a bear. I’m not aware of that law, but I like it.

Tom feels that humans should be able to carry guns in the wild in order to “even the playing field” with ferocious beasts. That was hilarious to me, and I thought, “Oh yeah, there’s that whole weird twist on the ‘dominion’ thing again.” I suggested that once upon a time, people didn’t go into the wilderness unless 1) They knew what they were doing and 2) They understood the risk. But now, you have so many people out there at any given time it’s almost not like hiking anymore.  And worse, people are building their 5,000 square foot houses in the middle of the wilderness and being outraged when a cougar attacks one of them when out jogging. This is not a ferocious beast, this is a response to lack of territory and resources.

We’re still living like it’s 1959

Here’s the deal: we are still living like it’s 1959 and there are only 3 billion people on the planet. 37 years later, world pop is well on its way to 7 billion. We are the only species on the planet that has the wildly extravagant idea that we can populate endlessly, use all resources available, without systemic change. How does this relate to Tom’s desire to go wherever he wants without incursion from wildlife (or any other natural barrier)?

We seem to think that the entire planetary system is without the very reactive wiring we take for granted in ourselves: loss of territory and defensive strategies, fear for resources and reactive measures, protection of offspring and dwellings. Just about every creature on this planet shows evidence of that behavior–from vegetation and invasive plants, to cougars and loss of territory/food resources, to humans and fear of invasion by all kinds of forces. We’re just organisms responding to stimuli. I know, I know, a lot of people are truly offended by that and I can understand the offense. I just find, for myself, that I am much more able to live in harmony with other creatures and systems when I remember I am just an organism like them…except with a whole arsenal of tools to make sure I win any argument we might have.

All creatures on this planet respond to threat and loss of “freedom” pretty much the same we do.

Anyway, back to Tom B. I may be deluding myself, but I do think he sort of understood that we have gone way too far in expecting the animal kingdom to be fine with inexperienced hikers and joggers just willy-nilly crashing into their environments. They react as they are wired to react. We’re the ones that are jimmying the game, we’re the ones that expect the laws of nature to change.

One last thing on this rant: I’m not really out to change Tom, just to make sure some little bit of the other side is represented in the conversation. I don’t want to change anyone–I just want more information to be included in the conversation. I want us to wake up our brains with just a little more new information.

Oh and, yeah, I do wish we’d realize it’s not 1959 anymore and we are close to 7 Billion People on this planet and things really, really do change in big ways with that kind of impact.

Daily Stats (Fri, Sat, Sun, Mon)
Car: 0
Bike: 0
Ped: 0
Bus: 0
(been sick with a summer cold and ain’t doin much of anythin’ these days)

Day 160: MLwC and when making things easy makes things worse

In the USA, making things easier and then selling tons of those easy things is the basis of our entire economy and consumer culture. It’s human nature: easy is good, difficult is bad. But as with all good things, there is a tipping point where good goes bad.

In the world of “easy things,” that tipping point is often related to over-consumption. At this time of year, I think of all the garden watering contraptions that have been invented–to take the trouble out of the task of watering. Most of them rely heavily on a broadcast spray functionality that could not–really!–could not be more wasteful. On an 80 degree day, spraying water into the air guarantees losing about half of what you’re pumping out.

Sierra Club blog had a good quote a few months back that comes to mind:

“The greenest ballpark in the country may be Fenway Park, because only an idiot would try driving and parking there.” (Sports Illustrated, March 2007)

And over at Confessions of a Green Girl Wannabe Marguerite, who is in Paris right now, notes that:

There is some advantage to not having access to the comfort of modern appliances. In our Paris appartment, I still have not figured out how to use the wash machine. The dryer appears to be even more of a mystery. One [interesting] consequence has been how little dirty laundry we have generated as a result.

Fast food is easy–so easy, we eat too much of it. Driving is easy–so easy, we forget other forms of transportation, or even forget how nice it might be to hang closer to home. Getting a double tall split shot cappuccino is ridiculously easy–and our landfills are overflowing with plastic and paper cups to prove it.

I rarely drive downtown anymore. In fact, I can’t remember the last time I did, and I would not have predicted that a year ago. I resonate with the Fenway park quote above: driving downtown is so hard anymore that I’ve learned a hundred other ways to get there–all smarter and less impacting than driving.

What other things might be better if they were just a wee bit more difficult? And how on earth could we possibly sell such an idea to an entire culture that bases its choices on “easy livin'”?

Daily Stats: (Wed)
Car: 0
Bike: 0
Ped: 3 miles
Bus: 0
internet: all day long.

Day 152: MLwC and Christian Environmentalism

I was raised Southern Californian, which back then meant something more along the lines of west coast new-age power-thinking. Sometimes my mom went to an Episcopal church but I rarely attended and am basically a clean slate when it comes to dogma. In my adult life I’ve veered off towards american Buddhism via yoga and meditation and that, truly, has made me a nicer person to be around–including to myself.

Yesterday as I took a walk through Lincoln Park after work, I got to thinking about a stat I’d seen, that something less than 7% of bloggers include opposing perspectives on their blogs–and I’m not talking about including opposing perspectives only to trash them. I would fall into that category, for sure. On the other hand, I feel that much of mainstream news is based on divisive headline grabbing, so I don’t exactly feel like “opposing views” is getting short shrift in the world.

That said, the notion of Christian Environmentalism wafted into my head. I’ve heard some mention of the “movement” in the last 6 months or so but nothing recently. I realized this was an opportunity to include viewpoints that are more challenging to me in my thinking–and I like that a lot.

A quick search on Google blogs reveals a lot of Christian Environmental discussion wherein lefty liberals are trashed for making up the whole issue of global warming–false science, global warming as the new lefty “idol.” Whatever. Global warming is kind of like God–if it’s true, you can’t escape it. Time will tell.  Wikipedia has an entry for Green Christianity which seems a bit more charitable than the cursory view I gave the blogosphere–that entry is worth reading.

I’d wanted to find a more reasoned, reasonable discussion of environmentalism and was a little disappointed, until I stumbled on the Chrysalis blog by Tim Keyes. Here was a calm discussion of the various concerns of this planet we inhabit and our spiritual/religious relationship to it. I was relieved. Here’s a nice quote from the entry:

Long ago, when a clergyman asked British naturalist J. Haldane what can be learned of God through the study of creation, he replied, “God has an inordinate fondness for beetles.” God has an inordinate fondness for life, too, which is all around those who have eyes to see it.


What I like about this post is that it tries to understand our relationship with the amazing gift of life that is the natural world all around us. I didn’t do an exhaustive search by any stretch, but I did peek into a lot of posts and too many of them focus on the “man in god’s image” therefore what I do must be godly and good and dominion over the rest of nature means I get to use it for my own ends–which of course are God’s own ends too, since we are made in God’s image. There is a real, live tautology there.

I welcome any readers out there to send me to other sites, because I really want to know: is there a Christian Environmental movement? Or is it more rhetorical maneuvering to maintain the status quo? I want to be introduced to some of that good old fashioned Christian fury that Christ was famous for when he spoke out against injustice and big business.

And finally, Look at me, Ma! I managed to find opposing viewpoints that more closely reflect my own!

Daily Stats: Monday
Car: 0
Bike: 0
Ped: approx 3 miles
Bus: 0
Desk: sitting nearly all day! 😦

Encyclopedia of Life and E. O. Wilson’s one wish

I just visited the Encyclopedia of Life and watched E.O Wilson’s 20 minute video, upon receiving the 2007 TED prize.

Wilson discusses the vast importance of insects to our living environment….he focuses on the massive scale of insect life that is simply unknown and yet are key parts of our great chain of life.

Also: there’s a fabulous vid-within-vid moment accompanied by Billie Holiday.  Worth a watch and a listen.

So, what is E. O. Wilson’s one wish?  That we work together to build the Encyclopedia of Life– built and shared by all communities around the world.  For the first time ever, the ability to gather and share the enormous magnitude of knowledge about science, biology, the climate, global warming, species preservation–the ability to gather this information is within reach due to the internet.

Well, if you check out eol.org, it looks like Wilson got his wish.  Cool.

Day 77 thru 80: My life w car

Been flying all over the place running errands in the car–it’s just like that sometimes. And this week promises to be busy as well. A lot of travel to the eastside where it seems no buses go…

newyorkart-michael.jpg

Somewhat unrelated (at least on the surface) to the environment, yet related in a systems kind of way…I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the social organization of Europe in medieval times. Yeah, really. It’s all related to a larger thought about communication networks, the larger conversation of culture, our interconnectedness and denial, but here’s what I’ve been mulling over:

In medieval times, there were basically three channels in life: the Church, the Military, and Commerce. The Court (royal, not judicial) had all of those rolled into it and was the center of all things.

In a way, we still have this organization, though much more complex and hard to read. I’ll stop here and tell why I started on this train of thought: my partner is a therapist, and as a result, we socialize with a lot of therapists, analysts, and others in the psychological care world. People in this world have a certain disdain for people in the Commerce world, and I won’t even mention the Military–it goes without saying.

I view the therapy field as an extension of the religious channel of medieval times; that channel served a spiritual need, a community need, for guidance that is not offered in the other channels.

What my partner and I got to talking about the other day is how each of these channels views the other channels as “less than,” or somehow corrupt in ways that they themself are not. So goes the military in its view of the non-military world and its concerns; so goes commerce with its profit imperative which it believes is paramount to all others; so goes the care-giving fields which certainly claim a higher moral ground to the other channels.

And yet…in truth, none of them live very well without the others. A military that is detached from the moral and emotional imperatives of the community is simply a dictatorship and a brutish one at that; a culture of commerce that does not see itself as part of a larger system wherein the health and well being of the system upon which it is dependent is paramount is simply greed gone awry (yeah, maybe we’re there…); and those charged with giving care of one sort or another who are disconnected from the other channels will become untethered at some point and unable to add a valued voice to the larger conversation of community.

At all times in our human history, we’ve seen these channels of organization be recreated in different ways; we’ve seen them struggle for ascendancy, usually to the ultimate detriment of the the larger community. I guess I’m thinking about these things right now because it seems we are so close to having every possible form of communication available to us short of Vulcan Mind Meld, and yet we still strive to shut down communication of our shared experience.

The Church does not want to hear about the crushing effect of over-population and diminishing resources and so it retreats to a sanctimonious ground which they will call “higher ground.” Therapists do not want to associate themselves with business because their own view of themselves does not include a desire for profits (I mean, come on!), so they deny business as a valued aspect of life and therefore shut themselves off from a very needed participation in that larger conversation. The Military does not want to humanize the world since it may have to go to war with it, so it denies the human aspect of its own people, not to mention other cultures, it objectifies so it can rigidly command and control.

It is, at the end of the day, our own attachment to the outcome of our actions–our concepts about who we are and how we’re defined–that causes us the most trouble.

Well…after all that, here’s the details of my carbon-based life:

Daily Stats:
Car: Whew! about 50 miles total (approx 12 tasks, sometimes 2 people)
Bike: 5 miles
Electric-hybrid bus: 0
fexcar: 0

Day 42: My Life w Car

overpopulation.jpg

Some El Sal stats to consider: 19% of the population of El Salvador has a yearly income of less than a dollar a day; 48% is under the poverty line. The cost of gas here runs around $2.40. A quart of milk is about a buck.

A friend of mine here in San Salvador yesterday was talking a lot about the inequality of income and economies in the world, as it related to immigration legislation in the states. It’s a big issue, no denying that, and personally, I feel as confused about it as can be. But as the conversation went along, I found myself more and more energized about another topic: Overpopulation.

So, I said, “let’s bump this up a few notches, to about 35 thousand feet, and look at the really big picture.” What is the world going to look like when there are 9 billion people in it? This is what it looks like when there are 6 billion–and no one I know feels like things are working very well–dwindling resources, inability to offer a quality life to the majority of earths human population. So, what is it going to look like when there are 9 billion.

His answer was totally predictable, and for a smart guy, I was sort of disappointed. He said, “it’s been proven that in industrialized nations, the birth rate drops as the families become more educated and healthy.” That’s the same Bill Gates crap I’ve heard so many times. In fact, if that were so, the US would not have surpassed 3 billion a few months ago, right? I mean, we’ve got to be among the most industrialized modern nations in the world, I’m thinking, so how come we’re still growing at a phenomenal rate?

Everyone points to Germany when they toss this industrialized nation/zero population pithy response out. Germany has zero pop growth and has for awhile now. Well, one nation out of the whole world–and a sort of unusual and smallish nation at that–is not good evidence of the whole industrialized nation theory.

The conversation with my El Salvador friend continued and I said, Look, you know what I’d like to see in the world? I’d like to see a world where we are equal to all other forms of life on the planet. Not more important, more special, more this or more that, but equal. No other organism on this planet is free to reproduce endlessly without dire consequences. Since we are, next to bacteria, the most populous species on the planet, our dire consequences will be dire for the whole dang neighborhood.

And still, all we seem able to focus on is ourselves–our poverty, our diseases, our human suffering. As if everything else were a mere backdrop to our own experience.

Finally, the crap about global warming not being caused by human activity–hello? If you really read the studies, you see that carbon pollution has been around since the middle ages…and it’s totally related to the rise of cities and city-states.

And it’s all about Coal. We should be rising up demanding the end of Coal as a fuel, period. Coal is evil. And it’s 40% of our “contribution” to climate change. AND, AND, AND!! Coal was viewed as so evil in the 13th century that King Edward banned it. A man ahead of his times.

medieval-village.jpg

Daily stats:
car: approx 7 miles (taxi)
bike, bus, flexcar: 0