Earth’s Soil Is Getting Too Salty for Crops to Grow

Nov 1, 2014

Image: Bill & Brigitte Clough/AgStock Images/Corbis

By Sarah Zielinski

In the upcoming film Interstellar, Earth’s soil has become so degraded that only corn will grow, driving humans to travel through a wormhole in search of a planet with land fertile enough for other crops. In the real world things aren’t quite so dire, but degraded soil is a big problem—and one that could be getting worse. According to a new estimate, one factor, the buildup of salt in soil, causes some $27.3 billion annually in lost crop production.

“This trend is expected to continue unless concrete measures are planned and implemented to reverse such land degradation,” says lead author Manzoor Qadir, assistant director of water and human development at the United Nations University Institute for Water, Environment and Health. Qadir and his colleagues published their findings October 28 in Natural Resources Forum.

Irrigation makes it possible to grow crops in regions where there is too little rainfall to meet the plants’ water needs. But applying too much water can lead to salinization. That’s because irrigated water contains dissolved salts that are left behind when water evaporates. Over time, concentrations of those salts can reach levels that make it more difficult for plants to take up water from the soil. Higher concentrations may become toxic, killing the crops.

Qadir and his colleagues estimated the cost of crop losses from salinization by reviewing more than 20 studies from Australia, India, Pakistan, Spain, Central Asia and the United States, published over the last two decades. They found that about 7.7 square miles of land in arid and semi-arid parts of the world is lost to salinization every day. Today some 240,000 square miles—an area about the size of France—have become degraded by salt. In some areas, salinization can affect half or more of irrigated farm fields.


Read the full article by clicking the name of the source located below.

 

39 comments on “Earth’s Soil Is Getting Too Salty for Crops to Grow

  • If irrigation water is applied to hor dry lands without drainage, there will be a build-up of dissolved salts due to evaporation in the soil, which will eventually make it toxic to most plants. There is often a hard salt pan just below the surface in desert areas, as mineral rich water is drawn up to the surface by capillary action.

    There is a related problem, that excessive extracting of ground water near coasts, leads to seawater invading the aquifers to replace the deficit. This is an increasing problem in areas such as the Nile delta.



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  • It’s been so for years. Fred Pearce published When the Rivers Run Dry in 2006 highlighting exactly the same problem, and the WWF published a report: Ashok Chapagain and Stuart Orr, August 2008. UK Water Footprint: the impact of the UK’s food and fibre consumption on global water resources. Volume one. http://assets.panda.org/downloads/wwf_uk_footprint.pdf

    It’s been 6-8 years, and hardly anything came of it. Most of the food grown in the Indus Valley, for instance, is for export to the wealthier nations like the UK and the US. Yet the Pakistanis will be the ones feeling the worst of the effects of salinization when the salt hits the fan.

    Salt damage can be reversed through measures such as tree planting, crop rotation using salt-tolerant plants and implementing drainage around fields. Such activities can be expensive and take years, but the cost of doing nothing and letting lands continue to degrade is worse, the researchers argue. “With the need to provide more food, feed, and fiber to an expanding population, and little new productive land available, there will be a need for productivity enhancement of salt-affected lands in irrigated areas,” they write.

    And who’s going to foot the bill? The cheap labour force, the poor populations they come from in their native countries, or the rich companies, cartels, and countries that take so much of the money for the products bought that the farmers get relatively little left over?

    What they also don’t mention is that the effects of global warming are also likely to exacerbate the problem, as it contributes to an increasing drying trend. While it won’t necessarily solve all of the problem, measures taken against global warming will also be measures against an increase in salinization. But the response to global warming has so far been lethargic, and there’s been both government and business/industry attempts to impede any action for it (unless it’s both showy and largely ineffective, like commissioning geo-engineering projects and erecting hydroelectric dams everywhere).

    Amid food security concerns, scarcity of new productive land close to irrigated areas and continued salt-induced land degradation have put productivity enhancement of salt-affected lands back on the political agenda,” he says. “These lands are a valuable resource that cannot be neglected.

    Unless, you know, you’re a rich nation or retailer who can take your business elsewhere. And just because it’s on the political agenda, doesn’t mean anything tangible will come out of that agenda.

    The problem is that the big businesses who control agricultural measures in these countries get richer faster by ignoring future sustainability and increasing yield now for current consumers. I imagine native Pakistani small scale farmers were doing just fine before the large landowners and big businesses elbowed their way in.



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  • 4
    Light Wave says:

    Aussies know about this, after cutting so many trees down to make way for agriculture…the land became a dust bowl as farmers used wells to irrigate the land for a few hundred years and that used up most of the underground water aquifirs…..which made salt come up to the surface of the already dry land as thin layers of top soil literally blew away, thats why western australia needed to build the desalination plant at the coast to produce fresh water from salty seas……the great artesian basin in australia is mostly used up…..a resource that lasted for millions of years is all but gone since farming was introduced…..



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  • 5
    Light Wave says:

    Aussies know about this, after cutting so many trees down to make way for agriculture…the land became a dust bowl as farmers used wells to irrigate the land for a few hundred years and that used up most of the underground water aquifirs…..which made salt come up to the surface of the already dry land as thin layers of top soil literally blew away, thats why western australia needed to build the desalination plant at the coast to produce fresh water from salty seas……the great artesian basin in australia is mostly used up…..a resource that lasted for millions of years is all but gone since farming was introduced…..



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  • Zeuglodon Nov 2, 2014 at 9:21 am

    What they also don’t mention is that the effects of global warming are also likely to exacerbate the problem, as it contributes to an increasing drying trend. While it won’t necessarily solve all of the problem, measures taken against global warming will also be measures against an increase in salinization. But the response to global warming has so far been lethargic, and there’s been both government and business/industry attempts to impede any action for it

    IPCC – http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-29855884



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  • “With the need to provide more food, feed, and fiber to an expanding population, and little new productive land available, there will be a need for productivity enhancement of salt-affected lands in irrigated areas,”
    (Quote from extended article).

    And so it came to pass that the researchers returned to the bosom of Thomas Malthus so scorned by his people for two centuries. Population increases in geometric progression 2, 4, 8, 16… while land increases in arithmetic
    progression 2, 4, 6, 8… The amount of arable land is limited while population can expand infinitely. In a nutshell that’s what these guys are accepting.

    A nod in the article to the necessity of stabilizing then reducing global population would have been appreciated. The neo-Malthusian Paul Ehrlich has a quote from The Population Bomb paraphrased, “the measure of intelligence when you discover the bathtub overflowing is whether you reach for the mop or turn the spigots off first.” We are playing a game to see how many people we can cram onto the face of the earth…a game that can only end badly. It is cold consolation that the Bible tells us the truth about ourselves: “You Are The Salt of The Earth.”



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  • Lightwave.
    If left unmanaged, salinity has serious implications for water quality, plant growth, biodiversity, land productivity and the supply of water for critical human needs.
    High salinity can:
    reduce crop yields
    affect aquatic ecosystems and vegetation
    damage infrastructure.
    Typically, the Murray–Darling Basin is renowned for its flat terrain, low rainfall and high evaporation rates which assist in the accumulation of increased salt in the landscape.Salt is a natural feature of the Basin with its derivation coming from ancient ocean sediments, the weathering of rocks and deposition by rainfall over millions of years.
    The amount of salt in the Basin is not increasing; however naturally occurring salt is being ‘mobilised’ and concentrated in certain parts of the landscape. Whilst salt mobilisation happens naturally, it is often exacerbated by human activities such as irrigation development and land clearing (removal of deep–rooted native vegetation).
    Resulting removal of deep–rooted native vegetation and its replacement with shallow–rooted crops and pastures can result in rising groundwater and the accumulation of salt at the surface.
    An accumulation of salt at the soil surface is known as dryland salinity. Observations of groundwater during the drought indicated that dryland salinity is cyclic in nature and is related to climate.

    The salinisation of the Murray-Darling Basin in South Australia is so serious that it has become an election issue. Water running through this system is toxic. I believe that money is being spent by the federal government in an effort to remedy the situation though I’m not sure if any improvement is to be seen yet.
    When flying over the state of South Australia salt-pans can be seen everywhere. They appear pink around the perimeter and then white, crusted salt makes up the rest of the pan. This is the situation over a large area of the state. ( I’m sure you’ve seen this Lightwave).
    I doubt whether the salt-pans of SA are man-made but climate change must be helping. The Murray-Darling Basin problem of salinisation is definitely the result of farming.( Crop irrigation and land clearing)



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  • There is a similar article here:-

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-29800885

    About 2,000 hectares of fertile land are lost each day due to damage caused by salt, according to a UN analysis.

    The total area now affected is equivalent to the size of France – 62 million hectares – which has increased from 45 million 20 years ago.

    Salt degradation occurs in areas of dry irrigated land with little rainfall and where there is no natural drainage.

    The report is published in UN journal Natural Resources Forum.

    It suggests tree planting, deep ploughing and the production of salt-tolerant crops. It also proposes digging drains or ditches around the affected land.

    These methods would be expensive but the authors say the cost of inaction would be worse. They estimate the global cost to be $27.3bn (£16.9bn).



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  • Oh, the IPCC have been making the situation clear for years without it getting through. The most tangible result has been years of governments repeatedly saying “Yes, we mustn’t waste any time!” over and over, while nothing really gets done.

    Part of the problem is the oft-quoted canard that we can kerb climate change and keep the current economic measures in place, which too often gets called sustainable development. The BBC article even shows it:

    Another significant fight was over the inclusion of text about Article 2 of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

    It quickly became a standoff between those who want the focus to be on cutting emissions against those who think the right to develop economies must come first.

    An unlikely alliance between Bolivia and Saudi Arabia ultimately saw the section dropped entirely from the underlying report.

    Some of those attending the talks said that tackling climate change and sustainable development went hand in hand.

    “Different countries come to different perspectives” said Prof Jim Skea from Imperial College and a review editor of the report.

    “But from the science perspective, we need them both. We need to walk and chew gum at the same time.”

    It’s a preposterous reluctance to face the fact that the current way of “developing economies” is inimical to the task of reducing CO2 emissions and other factors in climate change. Either the environmentally destructive “free market” economy of intensive mining, deforesting, big business farming, and unaccountable corporate secrecy goes, or you forgo genuinely sustainable measures like reduced consumption, a more even distribution of wealth across countries and socioeconomic ranks, and preventing big business, especially polluting and destructive ones, from working unchecked. No one can have it both ways.



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  • 13
    aroundtown says:

    I agree with your sentiment on population. I had one child, a daughter, and had myself sterilized in my early twenties when the world population stood at 3.4 billion and now it seems my singular effort is a joke when you consider our present population. Nowadays you see personal vehicles the size of a small bus driving around with silhouette cut-outs on the windows advertising with pride the size of their brood’s and they seem oblivious to the problem of population expansion.

    As far as the soil I guess it looks like it going to be “dust to salty dust” for us unless we change course and make a cohesive effort to manage it responsibly. This continual taking at our pleasure is not going to fly in the long term and nature is giving us much more than a hint on that proposition.



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  • Hi Olgun. At first it appeared that intensive farming of the desert was a viable option. I didn’t realise there would be an additional 8 years later. to top off the program. All those dreams blown away with the dust!



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  • Massive population is certainly part of the problem, but the bigger problems are:

    The imposition of grossly inefficient agricultural practices for no greater reason than because they enable big businesses to monopolize and control the supply for their own financial gain. The imposition of large-scale monoculture, for instance, and heavy use of chemical control and water treatment.
    Unequal distribution of food and land resources, such that people starve so that wealthier nations can enjoy an unnecessary surplus (some of which is wasted) through chain stores and supermarkets, which gives the latter extra profits.
    General indifference and hostility to traditional and genuinely organic methods that could sustainably produce yield without mass environmental damage. This is despite the fact that traditional farming methods can produce significantly more yields per hectare than the supposedly advanced industrialized monoculture system, with fewer problems of disease and soil degradation. But you can’t make a quick buck off it, so out it goes.

    It’s the same with climate change issues. Most of it is blamed on overpopulation, but the majority of CO2 emissions come from affluent countries and their commercial operations, the populations of which make up roughly one sixth or one fifth of the global total, and whose population growth rates have been leading the deceleration and decline (making campaigns to reduce their populations redundant). Most of the problems are caused by the environmentally destructive consumer cultures of the wealthy minority, either directly through their own lifestyles or indirectly by imposing on the lifestyles of people elsewhere. This is before you get to the super-rich wallowing in luxuries that eat through more resources than even the typical consumer could.

    Putting it bluntly, whether you intended it or not, you’re blaming the poor for a problem mostly perpetrated by the rich, based on an idea also perpetrated by the rich: the convenient thing about making a big issue of overpopulation is that it enables big businesses, government, and other fat cats to distract the populace from the even bigger issue of massive and destructive overconsumption. These are the same groups, remember, who either oppose global warming consensus (especially if they have affiliations with the major polluting industries) or pretend to be doing something about it while supporting or increasing fossil fuel and transport systems that exacerbate the problem.

    Sources:

    http://www.monbiot.com/2009/09/29/the-population-myth/

    http://www.monbiot.com/2000/08/24/organic-farming-will-feed-the-world/

    http://www.monbiot.com/2008/06/10/small-is-bountiful/

    http://www.monbiot.com/2000/11/01/small-is-vulnerable/

    http://www.monbiot.com/2008/08/26/manufactured-famine/



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  • Zeuglodon Nov 3, 2014 at 4:05 am

    These are the same groups, remember, who either oppose global warming consensus (especially if they have affiliations with the major polluting industries) or pretend to be doing something about it while supporting or increasing fossil fuel and transport systems that exacerbate the problem.

    I see media reports on the latest IPCC report, are giving disproportionate time to carbon capture, while largely ignoring better alternatives!



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  • 20
    bonnie says:

    tree planting

    Hmm, at the moment cannot think what species of tree(s) would be salt tolerant. Nature holds many surprises, though – a pretty water plant with arrowhead shaped leaves, reportedly can effectively deal with coal plant nasty runoff. Funny, it’s considered intrusive in other parts of the world, “one man’s junk is another man’s treasure”.

    If no solution is to be had, perhaps all the affected areas might morph into the likes of Mono Lake – Dead Sea of the West, so deemed by Mark Twain. If so, I, for one, will welcome our new planktonic algae overlords.



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  • bonnie Nov 3, 2014 at 9:10 am

    Hmm, at the moment cannot think what species of tree(s) would be salt tolerant.

    One of the issues is, that trees with deep root systems, can get below the surface crust of salts left by evaporation, and into the deeper strata with cleaner water below.

    Failing that – it’s back to the mangroves!



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  • 22
    bonnie says:

    mangroves

    By George that’s it, thanks. I was thinking of the (bald) cypress, but they grow too far inland, i.e. no coastal water mix.

    btw, there were (are?) conservation efforts to ‘save the cypress trees’ from the mulching industry (u.s.).



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  • Zeuglodon.
    Could I draw your attention to a short article found in this week’s New Scientist, in reference to your first link.
    http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg22429934.100-a-killer-plague-wouldnt-save-the-planet-from-us.html

    I understand that you see these population discussions as ‘blaming the poor for being poor’, and I can see that rich industrialists would jump at any chance to deflect blame from themselves and their attempts to make the most profit from the smallest investment.

    It must be in the best interests of the poor living in low lying areas and having the associated poor quality soil to limit their numbers. They are going to be the worst hit by the natural disasters associated with climate change.

    Must we bring this down to one factor? Isn’t there enough blame to share around; fossil fuels, overpopulation, overzealous use of pesticides and fertilizers?



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  • 24
    aroundtown says:

    Your views are very much to the point Zeuglodon and if addressed would yield desired change. The problem that I see is this, I have watched the economic engine for quite some time and the oldest of rules generally plays out, the golden rule – those with the gold make the rules, and we are left with the consequences of that model. I guess in my mind my contribution of having one child is this, they had one less person to sell their product to and that reduces demand.

    They say there is a path to the back door of power but unfortunately it is more of a freeway these days and the rich are getting their voices and propositions adopted and the 99% is standing in front of a locked gate with no appreciable voice that changes the status quo.

    I have been watching documentaries as of late and there are four that come quickly to mind that touches on all the connected issues and certainly expands on the soil condition of the original post. They are worth watching. In order they are: Last call at the Oasis, Yert, Zeitgeist, and lastly – Inequality for all.

    Very enlightening as to the real world that we live in and not the pro-offered one that is spoon fed to us daily by the media’s interests and their owners.

    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2043900/&lt

    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1540151/?ref_=fn_al_tt_1

    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1166827/?ref_=nv_sr_1

    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2215151/?ref_=nv_sr_1



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  • 25
    aroundtown says:

    I want to provide some additional info and appreciate your post Zeuglodon.

    I think we will continue to see the oldest Rule play out – The Golden Rule: Those with the gold make the rules, and we see the massive dividend to the 1% expansion daily and they have little concern about the environment as we are aware. The 99% feel the consequences because we live with them everyday.

    I have been watching documentaries as of late and they expand on your points and additionally cover the concerns in the original post. I highly recommend watching them. They are in order: Zeitgeist, Inequality for all, Yert, and Last call at the Oasis. I will try to create links for info from Imdb. There is some very good info on crop and animal rotation in the yert movie and I found it stunningly simply and could be utilized on a large scale, the effects would be substantial in my estimation.

    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1166827/?ref_=nv_sr_1

    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2215151/?ref_=nv_sr_1

    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1540151/?ref_=fn_al_tt_1

    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2043900/?ref_=fn_al_tt_1



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  • I understand that you see these population discussions as ‘blaming the poor for being poor’, and I can see that rich industrialists would jump at any chance to deflect blame from themselves and their attempts to make the most profit from the smallest investment…

    Must we bring this down to one factor?

    What in my comment would make you believe that I was doing this? My opening words were “Massive population is certainly part of the problem, but the bigger problems…” I made a point of describing the majority of the issues, most of the problem, mostly perpetrated, rather than all of the issues, all of the problem, entirely perpetrated. Monbiot, despite the non-indicative titles, doesn’t bring it down to one factor, either. In one of the articles (sorry, this one I forgot to add to the original comment), he points out overpopulation’s role:

    http://www.monbiot.com/2011/10/27/its-the-rich-wot-gets-the-pleasure/

    The new report, inflated though its figures seem to be, will gravely disappoint the population obsessives. It cites Paul Murtaugh of Oregon State University, whose research shows that:

    “An extra child born today in the United States, would, down the generations, produce an eventual carbon footprint seven times that of an extra child in China, 55 times that of an Indian child or 86 times that of a Nigerian child.”

    And it draws on a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences which makes the first comprehensive assessment of how changes in population affect carbon dioxide emissions. This concludes that:

    “slowing population growth could provide 16 per cent to 19 per cent of the emissions reductions suggested to be necessary by 2050 to avoid dangerous climate change”.

    In other words, it can make a contribution. But the other 81-84% will have to come from reducing consumption and changing technologies. The UN report concludes that “even if zero population growth were achieved, that would barely touch the climate problem.”

    I’m mystified as to why you would treat me as if I were depicting this as a black-and-white issue with one simple answer, especially given the immoderation of Melvin’s own comment by comparison.

    In any case, my position is not that the population discussions are distractions in themselves, but I do contend that they tend to attract too much focus, especially when overconsumption is a bigger factor, and that a good chunk of this is due to deliberate attempts by richer people and nations to deflect blame elsewhere. I brought it up in the first place for the simple reason that the bigger factor was conspicuously absent in the current discussion by comparison.

    It must be in the best interests of the poor living in low lying areas and having the associated poor quality soil to limit their numbers. They are going to be the worst hit by the natural disasters associated with climate change.

    It’s in the best interests of everybody to limit our numbers, especially the high consumers, but it’s even more important to get the high consumers to limit their consumption.

    On its own terms, the depopulation initiative would require confronting the engines of mass overconsumption as well, as they’re one of the significant stumbling blocks. For the poor, among the best methods for reducing populations are improved sex education (and education in general), access to contraceptives, equal rights and emancipation of women, and all this being girded by general economic strengthening. But even here, the rich industries and governments of the West are a huge part of the problem, as the extortion of Third World workers in Africa and Asia by such companies – combined with globally implemented trade rules that favour them – regulates against the Third World’s national trade protectionism and prevents them from gaining enough financial strength and independence to improve the situation economically. This makes them easier to exploit, meaning that other industries, public services, and general quality of life are compromised as byproducts.

    Representatives of richer nations can’t tell the poor to reduce their population numbers for their own good with one hand, and then ignore, overlook, or prevent measures that would actually accomplish this reduction with the other hand. This is especially the case when that other hand is doing so in order to maintain a greater problem to soil degradation and climate change.

    Could I draw your attention to a short article found in this week’s New Scientist, in reference to your first link.

    You can, and I’m grateful you did, as it made for fascinating reading. As to why you wanted me to read it, I’m not entirely clear. Nothing in it seemed to contradict anything I said or anything Monbiot writes.

    I would also point out that the author of that piece also authored this piece in Nature:

    http://www.nature.com/news/2011/110511/full/473125a.html

    Monbiot noticed that as well, and commented about it here:

    http://www.monbiot.com/2011/10/27/its-the-rich-wot-gets-the-pleasure/

    Make no mistake: population is a big issue. Yet the bigger issue is discussed at the end of the article you linked to:

    Whether it’s a natural decline, a strict policy or a disastrous plague, none of these population drops would be enough to fix environmental problems like climate change. The sticking point instead lies in our high consumption of natural resources.

    Bradshaw and Brook suggest that a sustainable human population, given current Western consumption patterns and technologies, would be between 1 and 2 billion people.

    That’s an impossibly small target, but it shows where the real problem is. “Human behaviour is more important than human numbers,” says Lutz. “It’s not just the head count that matters, but what is inside the heads.”



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  • I spoke this out to my nana 🙂 this is how you do it; I was interested in the movie which lead me here but then I got interested in the facts



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  • ZEUGLODON: “An extra child born today in the United States, would, down the generations, produce an eventual carbon footprint seven times that of an extra child in China, 55 times that of an Indian child or 86 times that of a Nigerian child.”

    I appreciate the appeal that these statistics hold for concerned people but they are riddled with fallacies. Per capita carbon emissions for the United States stands at 17.6 while per capita emissions for China are 6.2. In the calendar year 2013 the average American emitted 2.84 times more carbon than the average Chinese. “Eventual carbon footprint” extrapolates, a constant mathematical measurement model “down the generations” (30 years?, 60 years?, 100 years in the future?) assuming that NOTHING CHANGES IN THE REAL WORLD. For decades critics have underscored statistics highlighting disproportionate gross emissions of the U.S. compared with China, crowning America as the world leader in pollution. Over the last several years, China caught up with- then surpassed the U.S. as the world leader in carbon emissions and other pollutants in general. It’s called longitudinal economic growth, and every nation on earth will participate, resulting in increased consumption of goods and services and especially fossil fuel energy attended by rising pollution. The abiding aspiration for humankind focuses on efforts to improve the standard of living.

    I join you in the ambition to distribute income more equitably, to develop fuel efficiencies or effective alternative fuels in manufacturing, transportation and residential use. I support conservation, recycling, tree planting and cleaning up soils and waterways. I agree that over-consumption (wasteful or harmful consumption) must be reduced and that public services – health, education and welfare should enjoy more funding from higher taxation on rich individuals and corporations. But we dive into a can of worms preaching this Utopian litany.

    While low-hanging fruit is still ripe for picking, the recommendations generally are so vague and abstract that no one knows how to define terms or knows where to begin. The proposals must all run the gauntlet of political conflict involving millions of opposing interest groups, national and foreign policies, scarcity of resources, and millions of pieces of complex legislation lacking sufficient or necessary consensus. The rich and poor will always be with us no matter what we do. Binary thinking on complex social, economic and political issues in a world going on 8 billion people leaves us posing in a Miss America swimsuit expressing our “wish” for an end to wars and world hunger.

    The “obsession” as you put it with overpopulation has the virtue of focusing on one goal – stabilizing then reducing population over a period of 150 to 200 years by achieving a global average birthrate around 1.7 and a total world population between 3 and 3.5 billion down from the almost 10 billion estimated by the U.N.



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  • Zeuglodon.
    I may have made assumtions about your motivations. I’m sorry; should not have jumped the gun. I was under the impression that you thought I apportioned all blame on our rapidly expanding population and I was quick to defend myself.

    I suspect our over-consumption is not going to lessen in the near future, in fact I think the number of countries in our merry band is going to grow substantially. By the end of the century I’d imagine China, India and Brazil will be in our league, consuming at the same rate.

    It seems hypercritical of me to chastise entire countries for their profligacy when I’m ‘part of the problem’. I drive a car! I heat my house! I use products with gay abandon just like every other inhabitant of a first world country.



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  • Nitya Nov 4, 2014 at 4:59 pm

    By the end of the century I’d imagine China, India and Brazil will be in our league, consuming at the same rate.

    I think a little research would be better than assumed imagination.
    http://www.renewableenergyworld.com/rea/news/article/2011/09/brazil-sets-the-pace-in-clean-energy

    With almost half of its energy supply generated by renewable sources, Brazil increasingly looks like a positive example for the rest of the world.

    According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, up to 77 percent of the world’s energy needs could potentially be supplied from renewable sources by 2050, despite the current figure being a much more modest 13 percent.

    Many heads of government around the world wondering how they can play their part in such a dramatic transformation could be forgiven for looking enviously at Brazil, where the figure already stood at 44.8 percent in 2010 and is forecast to rise to 46.3 percent in 2020.

    In the next decade demand for energy is expected to increase by around 60 percent in Brazil, fuelled by millions of people spending more on consumer goods for their homes and cars, economic growth continuing to outstrip that seen in developed nations and heavy spending to improve infrastructure ahead of the two greatest sporting shows on earth.

    However, Brazil has also committed to reducing its CO2 emissions by between 36 percent and 39 percent by 2020, making it vital that the country concentrates on clean sources of energy.

    In terms of electricity Brazil already meets 83 percent of its needs from renewable means, gaining recognition from the Washington-based Pew Environment Group as “one of the lowest carbon electricity matrices in the world.”

    http://www.climatecentral.org/news/u.s.-lags-behind-china-in-renewables-investments-17257
    Whereas China installed 14 gigawatts of electricity generation capacity from wind farms and 12 gigawatts of solar power generating capacity last year, the U.S. installed less than 1 gigawatt of wind power after a tax incentive for the wind industry expired. The U.S. installed a record 4.3 gigawatts of solar generation capacity in 2013 according to the report.



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  • I appreciate the appeal that these statistics hold for concerned people but they are riddled with fallacies.

    Certainly, neither the UNFPA report nor Pearce’s article qualify the figures correctly, a notorious problem when reporting on research papers. What they were quoting was just one of the scenarios the original paper discusses, which included an upper and lower limit (pessimistic and optimistic scenarios respectively) along with a “business as usual” scenario. The tables in the original included these as upper and lower bounds, or so it seems. The original can be found here, with the three scenarios discussed on page 3, and the China-US comparison mentioned on page 5 in a paragraph that begins “It is important to remember that these analyses focus on the carbon legacies of individuals, not populations”: http://www.science.oregonstate.edu/~murtaugh/files/gec-2009.PDF

    In any case, there was considerably more to my case than one journalist’s indirect and simplified report of an academic paper.

    Per capita carbon emissions for the United States stands at 17.6 while per capita emissions for China are 6.2. In the calendar year 2013 the average American emitted 2.84 times more carbon than the average Chinese.

    According to UN Data (see http://data.un.org/Data.aspx?q=Per+capita+carbon+emissions&d=MDG&f=seriesRowID%3a751), it was 17.5043 for the US and 6.1781 for China in 2010. While the Wikipedia page does give China a 7.2 in 2011, it doesn’t provide US figures, and I have yet to find a more up-to-date source.

    To give some context, though: the paper I mentioned was published in 2008, and in that year, the US and China carbon emissions per capita were 18.5 and 5.3 respectively. The year before, they were 19.3 and 4.9, and while the US hadn’t wavered much in the last couple of decades, China had slowly increased. Presumably, “business as usual” was based on the relatively slow-to-increase figures before then, and the more recent developments in China come under the pessimistic scenario predictions of increased carbon emissions per capita.

    In any case, the whole point of the paper was to make a range of forecasts by combining such data with data on fertility rates and reproduction, not simply carbon emissions per capita. Presumably, China’s having a lower fertility rate than the US was a factor in the original paper.

    “Eventual carbon footprint” extrapolates, a constant mathematical measurement model “down the generations” (30 years?, 60 years?, 100 years in the future?)

    The paper discusses the projected model up to 2100. None of the journal reports were cautious enough to mention this, regrettably. It’s a problem I see too often in these kinds of reports, which is generally why I prefer having access to original sources when I can, but I will admit in that case that I should have tracked down and linked to the original report in one of my earlier comments.

    assuming that NOTHING CHANGES IN THE REAL WORLD.

    Again, this is an oversimplification of the unqualified reporting, which in turn is based on an oversimplification. The original paper included ranges based on different scenarios.

    For decades critics have underscored statistics highlighting disproportionate gross emissions of the U.S. compared with China, crowning America as the world leader in pollution.

    That’s interesting, but technically not relevant, neither to this particular paper nor to my overall point. The Table 2 in the paper, which contains the relevant informationm simply lists the top 11 most populous countries as of 2005. While, of those 11, the US easily had the highest per capita carbon emission rate of 2005, it says nothing so grandiose as whether “America is the world leader in pollution”.

    Over the last several years, China caught up with- then surpassed the U.S. as the world leader in carbon emissions and other pollutants in general.

    This is going off topic, but that conclusion depends entirely on whether you measure by absolute emissions or emissions per capita. By absolute carbon emissions specifically, as of 2010, China produces 24.65% of global emissions, with the United States coming second at 16.16% of global emissions (making 40.81% between them). By absolute emissions of all greenhouse gases, again as of 2010, China leads at 22.7% of global emissions, followed again by the United States at 15.6% (making 38.3% between them). See:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_carbon_dioxide_emissions#List_of_countries_by_2010_CO2_emissions

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_greenhouse_gas_emissions

    By per capita emissions as of 2009, in carbon emissions the US produced 17.2 metric tons of CO2 per capita, while China produced 6.2. On this scale, there are nations worse than the US, including Australia, the UAE, and Qatar, but the US is usually within the top 15.

    In any case, as much as targeting the largest producers of CO2 is of strategic importance, it’s hard to see what it’s got to do with my broader point; that overpopulation is – while certainly a factor – not as big a factor as overconsumption when it comes to environmental damage.

    On that front, whether the US is better or worse than China is irrelevant: the fact remains that they’re both among the worst offenders when it comes to greenhouse gases alone. If you want to continue arguing about comparisons of how much worse the US is compared with China, you are free to do so, but it’s a curious way to reply to my comments.

    It’s called longitudinal economic growth, and every nation on earth will participate, resulting in increased consumption of goods and services and especially fossil fuel energy attended by rising pollution. The abiding aspiration for humankind focuses on efforts to improve the standard of living.

    Very stirring speech – almost a Utopian litany, one might say – but it’s more than a little suspect in its assumptions, especially the dubious linking between improving the standard of living and increasing consumption and pollution.

    For one thing, the target is not economic growth with high pollution, but low/manageable pollution and sustainability, if you’re interested in anything other than short-term gain. Fossil fuel industries aren’t sustainable, so any nation adding itself onto the list of consumers, maintaining its current consumption, or even increasing its current consumption, is on a dead end track of (at best) short-term gain. Currently, the only two viable alternatives for supplying a national grid are nuclear power, which can meet large demand but comes with problems of its own, and renewable sources, which are viable but limited in application. Any nation serious about energy and climate change issues would replace the current fossil fuel dependency with a reliance on some combination of these two industries. By all accounts, no major CO2-emitting nation has made any serious large-scale attempt in this direction. The notion of getting developing nations on the fossil fuel bandwagon is completely at odds with any notion of improving quality of life, since it will exacerbate problems already present in the current system.

    For another example, get back to the original post on salinization of soils used for large-scale agricultural practices. Most of the developing world – Africa and Asia especially – supplies the wealthier nations of North America and Europe via large-scale farming and mining operations. The products in North America and Europe – from technological advances and necessities to frivolous gadgets and garbage – depend on a large workforce and cheap labour outsourced to these nations, including hidden costs such as environmental damage and international socioeconomic inequality. In other words, the current system of economic growth and consumption is already a bad model for quality of life, since it accomplishes a high quality of life for the relatively few consumers at the detriment of reduced quality of life for the more abundant but poorer labour force needed to make it happen. Without radical reform, any further increase in the prevalence of such a model is going to make a bad situation worse.

    But we dive into a can of worms preaching this Utopian litany.

    There’s nothing Utopian about it, and it’s not a litany either. It’s basic common sense given the current situation, and each method you identify has its reasoning and justification, though granted not all of them are equally effective, cost-efficient, or practical.

    While low-hanging fruit is still ripe for picking, the recommendations generally are so vague and abstract that no one knows how to define terms or knows where to begin. The proposals must all run the gauntlet of political conflict involving millions of opposing interest groups, national and foreign policies, scarcity of resources, and millions of pieces of complex legislation lacking sufficient or necessary consensus. The rich and poor will always be with us no matter what we do. Binary thinking on complex social, economic and political issues in a world going on 8 billion people leaves us posing in a Miss America swimsuit expressing our “wish” for an end to wars and world hunger.

    I don’t think you grasp the main point here, and, quite frankly, the uncharitable rhetorical comparison you finish your paragraph with is pure bullshit. There is no “binary thinking on complex social, economic, and political issues”, and strawmanning like this is obtuse and underhanded. In fact, your comment here is based more on rhetoric than reality, especially when juxtaposed with the subsequent “attempt” – such as it is – to make depopulation look good by comparison.

    On global warming and climate change alone, the IPCC alone has a whole list of suggestions for policy based on department and political sector. In fact, it’s been making such lists ever since it began publishing its assessments. Even ten years ago, there were plenty of feasible ways of tackling the issue with then-current technology (see http://courses.washington.edu/ocean450/Discussion_Topics_Papers/Pacala_Socolow.pdf). There’s nothing vague or abstract about it.

    While certainly, there has been such a problem getting these proposals taken seriously (for decades now), since most governments have done more talking than acting, this has always relied on a combination of misinformation fed to the public and deliberate ignorance or avoidance of the issues, precisely because such measures will inconvenience the corporate interests of those maintaining the current system. That remains a practical problem for the means, though. It makes no difference to the case for averting global warming via the alternatives. The same point goes for the OP, and indeed my original point. So long as the current situation persists, soil degradation – and the resulting environmental problems and food shortages – is going to continue as well.

    Saying “the rich and poor will be with us no matter what we do” is an idiotic and puerile “misinterpretation” of my point. At no point did I suggest abolishing all inequality, which is simply impractical in the extreme. A reduction of current inequality levels, both within nations like the US and UK, and between nations especially, would be a decent start. It’s not going to happen in a system where international companies are able to exploit a desperate workforce in the absence of fairtrade-style agreements and regulation. The effects can be seen in places like the Indus Valley in Pakistan; the salinization of those soils is the byproduct of intensive agricultural practices that use water faster than it can locally be replenished, for the sake of international companies that take the majority of the profit and can move elsewhere once local conditions have deteriorated.

    The “obsession” as you put it with overpopulation

    …is at best, acknowledging one of the factors at play in the issues of global warming, environmental damage, and the like. Like I said to Nitya above, it’s not that overpopulation isn’t an issue – it is – but it’s too easily used as a distraction from other factors such as excessive reliance on polluting industries, unsustainable practices, and the economic exploitation and deregulation that makes these problems possible. Your dismissal of campaigns against overconsumption – and environmentalism in general, it seems – is another example of the problem of excessively focusing on overpopulation: it underestimates the severity of either the problem under current conditions or the other factors that make that problem so bad. Sometimes both.

    has the virtue of focusing on one goal – stabilizing then reducing population over a period of 150 to 200 years by achieving a global average birthrate around 1.7 and a total world population between 3 and 3.5 billion down from the almost 10 billion estimated by the U.N.

    This isn’t exactly an overwhelming case. The fact that a goal is precise doesn’t exempt it from the aforementioned can of worms. How would you even begin such a project? Are we reducing every nation’s fertility rate, its absolute numbers, or its population density, or are we concentrating on the biggest populations, the highest fertility rates, or some combination of the two? How will it be implemented: with enforced sterilization, a global one-child policy, or a globalized economy? How are sex education, contraception, abortion, and other forms of birth control going to be implemented? What’s the projected resistance of each of these measures, what bureaucratic obstacles are there, who’s for and against, and what of the political, class, and international implications?

    I’m not expecting you to answer these questions, but I find it incredibly one-sided of you to act like a depopulation initiative is somehow a relatively easy option, especially when you’re uncharitable enough to compare some form of environmentalist campaign against overconsumption with an empty Miss America speech. Moreover, it fails to address the fact that depopulation initiatives won’t have a significant enough impact on such things as the carbon emissions that fuel global warming, both because depopulation would be too slow and because it would leave several other, more important, factors ignored. Lastly, if as you suggest global consumption and pollution were to increase via “longitudinal economic growth”, then the whole point of the depopulation initiative is undermined by the rise in consumption and pollution that would drown out whatever advantage depopulation gained. In short, not only is a focus on depopulation not going to solve most of the problem by itself, but it could easily undermine its own goal.



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  • Zeuglodon: Perhaps we are talking past each other. I believe that my “attacks” on your positions are mild while my general agreement is far stronger.

    “I join you in the ambition to distribute income more equitably, to develop fuel efficiencies or effective alternative fuels in manufacturing, transportation and residential use. I support conservation, recycling, tree planting and cleaning up soils and waterways. I agree that over-consumption (wasteful or harmful consumption) must be reduced and that public services – health, education and welfare should enjoy more funding from higher taxation on rich individuals and corporations. But we dive into a can of worms preaching this Utopian litany.”

    (Since you don’t know me personally, my little jibe involving Miss America was whimsical.)

    Technological innovation in carbon-neutral fuels which are effective, affordable, plentiful and universally available on a global economy of scale would go a long way toward extinguishing the problem of global warming but we search the horizon in vain for that ship to come in. We may be locked onto a warming planet for at least this century. Pollution, resource depletion, poverty, hunger, disease and ethnic sectarian warfare round out the short list of growing human misery.

    Barring sudden miraculous developments in science and technology combined with the outbreak of geopolitical altruism – the millions, perhaps billions, of projects, policies and programs necessary to achieve environmental sustainability will have to be implemented piecemeal in fits and starts over several centuries. Why not have nationally and internationally funded voluntary family planning programs functioning at the same time? 48 countries in the world have seen fertility drop to replacement and sub-replacement levels. Countries as diverse as Iran, China, and (almost) Mexico have followed the trend. Of course each country, supported as needed with international aid, will have to implement population reduction projects consistent with their own circumstances -interests and values.

    Since we discussed per capita pollution and consumption at length, it is simple to calculate that expanding population from 6 billion in 2000 to 9.5 billion in 2050, the world will have added 3.5 billion per-capita-units of pollution and consumption (variably measured by country) by mid-century. Why not work toward population control while cleaning up the planet? Not either or. BOTH.



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  • Technological innovation in carbon-neutral fuels which are effective, affordable, plentiful and universally available on a global economy of scale would go a long way toward extinguishing the problem of global warming but we search the horizon in vain for that ship to come in.

    Weren’t you paying attention? The technological innovation has already been done. As the IPCC reports show, the policies and measures have been available for years, even decades, as has the consensus on the impact of modern industrial activities on global warming. The ship is already here. The problem has consistently been a combination of political feet-dragging or outright opposition to any move in the direction of carbon reduction, and a calculated campaign by corporations, lobbyists, and their affiliates in politics, interested scientific organisations (usually those relating to geology and fossil fuels), and (usually) the conservative left’s political and religious agendas, to spread misinformation and confusion on the issue among the voting public.

    Nor is the situation necessarily doomed to slow action. Another form of corporate subversion has been the proposal for the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, which when it was leaked was fiercely opposed by the public, including petitions and pressure being applied to the governments to rescind the proposal. While I don’t profess to much optimism as to how soon a similar response can galvanize the US, China, Australia, and the EU to take stronger action against carbon than present, I don’t rule out an improved situation over the next few decades, not centuries.

    Why not have nationally and internationally funded voluntary family planning programs functioning at the same time?… Why not work toward population control while cleaning up the planet? Not either or. BOTH.

    What on Earth made you think I thought any differently? As early as my first comment to you, and even in the comment to Nitya, which you even quoted from last time, I made it clear I thought overpopulation was a contributing factor. My point was that it wasn’t the most significant factor, and I’ve already explained why. My other point was that reducing overpopulation wasn’t as simple as you made it out to be.

    48 countries in the world have seen fertility drop to replacement and sub-replacement levels.

    Which should have been the hint that overpopulation wasn’t the biggest factor on environmental damage, since the latter continues to increase, in spite of the lower fertility rate of the very countries which are contributing the most to greenhouse gas emissions alone.

    Since we discussed per capita pollution and consumption at length, it is simple to calculate that expanding population from 6 billion in 2000 to 9.5 billion in 2050, the world will have added 3.5 billion per-capita-units of pollution and consumption (variably measured by country) by mid-century.

    And this is precisely where the focus on overpopulation goes wrong. Not all people are equal when it comes to their carbon footprint. The vast majority of the population increase over the next few decades up to 2100 is going to happen in countries with higher fertility rates, which also tend to be those countries which contribute the least to environmental damage such as global warming. By contrast, the countries with the lower fertility rates tend to be those countries which contribute the most, since they’re usually the affluent ones in Europe, North America, Southeast Asia, and Australia. While it would certainly become a problem if the polluting and damaging industries present in or serving the interests of the affluent countries expanded to serve developing countries as well, the existing system can accomplish an increasingly worse scale of environmental destruction without that happening.

    In farming alone, the ruthless practices of industrial-scale agriculture and horticulture degrade large tracts of arable land, so the practice is usually followed by clearing forest and other natural habitat to make way for more arable land, with the same result. Monoculture is usually the method of choice, not because of yield increase (organic and traditional mixed crops produce higher yields), but because it’s more convenient for management. Pesticides and other forms of chemical control are regularly applied, often in spite of the increased health risks towards the farmers themselves. Companies contribute further by shipping stock back and forth, even all over the globe, after the cheapest places to perform each step required to make the stock presentable to the market, thus increasing the carbon footprint. This isn’t to feed billions, mind: this is to feed a few hundreds or tens of millions who eat beefburgers, fries, and basically enough food to cause an “obesity epidemic”, a good chunk of which gets thrown out after its sell-by-date. The resulting waste is then often dumped into landfills that cause further damage locally through leakages of toxic gas.

    I concede a reduction in the demand would mitigate some of these problems, in some cases perhaps to a safe level, but hopefully you appreciate that it wouldn’t contribute enough to the process as a whole. It would slow down the rate of soil degradation and landfill creation, and potentially decrease the damage applied by chemicals, but it would do little for the miles clocked up by transport, and the wasteful process’s disruption of ecosystems would merely be delayed.

    I appreciate with your latest comment that you understand this side of things, but just remember which of us leapt straight to the overpopulation conclusion with their opening comment. If you retract that position now, though, I guess I have little else to comment on.



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  • “Weren’t you paying attention? The technological innovation has already been done. As the IPCC reports show, the policies and measures have been available for years, even decades, as has the consensus on the impact of modern industrial activities on global warming. The ship is already here. The problem has consistently been a combination of political feet-dragging or outright opposition to any move in the direction of carbon reduction, and a calculated campaign by corporations, lobbyists, and their affiliates in politics, interested scientific organisations (usually those relating to geology and fossil fuels), and (usually) the conservative left’s political and religious agendas, to spread misinformation and confusion on the issue among the voting public.”

    “The problem has consistently been a combination of…[ insert “my” political views here ] and the solution is obviously [ insert insistence on ridding the world of corporate and governmental greed and corruption here]. There is truth in this, but there is also the sweet taste of wish-fulfillment combined with the sour taste of conspiracy theory. Neither you nor I; IPCC reports nor lobbyists are going to solve the world’s problems with simple settled truth, tidy reforms, and monolithic mandates.

    If world problems (not the problem) can be generalized more accurately, in my view, they emerge from the clash of multiple interest groups, geopolitical rivalries, the conflicts between individuals and nations for scarce resources, and above all the struggle to raise standards of living. This generalization allows for specific mitigation of specific problems but cannot predict how the pragmatic varieties of human misery, discontent and conflict on a planet of 9 to 10 billion will play out or find comprehensive remedies in coming centuries.

    Several observations on topic ( derived from another thread):

    To date some technological innovations have mitigated global warming whereas national projects, especially in the developing world, to grow economies have exacerbated climate change since 1990. Yes the world’s motorists drive a handful of hybrids and electric cars; thorium, hydrogen, wind and solar have been mulled over and sometimes implemented to make a “difference.” On balance these innovations have had limited affect on annual carbon dioxide emissions which have increased 61% since 1990. China leads world production in cutting-edge wind and solar power while also leading the world in pollution from burning coal. The paradox highlights the challenges that still stump science and technology. Alternative fuels or sources of power have proven ineffective on global economies of scale and simply cannot yet compete with fossil fuels. They are expensive, geography specific (wind and solar), and above all so limited in power output that they cannot put a dent in rising demand for heavy mechanical energy in the short to mid term.

    Huge new reserves of oil and natural gas have been discovered offshore, under (melting) arctic ice, or accessible now through fracking and oil sands extraction technology. As supplies increase prices will fall and demand will rise. The fossil fuel infrastructure will grow “fatter” and more pervasive in the global marketplace until inevitable contraction in the supply of nonrenewable energy resources drives up prices again.

    The argument blaming “overconsumption” in developed nations as the principle cause for global warming, poverty etc. while useful for condemning wasteful, harmful or conspicuous consumption is vague and more fatally subject to the law of diminishing returns. Certainly per capita consumption in affluent countries can be reduced by recycling, fuel efficiencies and reasonable downsizing but such measures cannot obviate the reality that people in developed countries are ‘richer” and live “better” than people in “poor” countries because the former consume more goods and services made possible through the consumption of more energy. I mourn for undernourished or malnourished children living in a hut with a single light bulb which goes out for hours during daily blackouts. Nonetheless like everyone I cannot consider their privations every time I enjoy a sumptuous meal at a restaurant, turn on my plasma big screen TV or air conditioner; turn the ignition key in my car or board a plane to fly to the east coast. Nitya is right: “I drive a car! I heat my house! I use products with gay abandon just like every other inhabitant of a first world country.”

    In order to abbreviate the wrap-up, I assure you that my interest in human population issues goes back decades and is not a “leap” spontaneously sparked by the discussion. If humankind can implement voluntary family planning within a cooperative plan at the national and international level to reduce world population over several centuries many of the “problems’ we’ve hashed over will progressively begin to clear up. (I agree that reducing population to 2.5 to 3.5 billion will not in itself constitute a panacea. Much work will always remain to be done in other areas.) Trying to run around like a wet hen, trying to find the resources to distribute in support of more and more people immiserated on a polluted planet of 9 to 10 + billion souls is an exercise in futility.



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