The People vs. the Planet: Barry Vann on the Consequences of Climate Change

Oct 9, 2016

September 19, 2016

Host: Josh Zepps

220px-barry_promo_photoSince the beginning of humankind unpredictable forces of nature have been among our most dangerous threats: volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, tornados, hurricanes, and other disasters that trigger our fight-or-flight survival instincts. Pollution invoked climate change is exacerbating natural disasters and spurring unprecedented human migration. So when so many people are clamoring for safety and running for the hills, what does that mean for those who are already atop them?

Author and geographer Barry Vann explains what awaits the future of our planet and its human populations in his new book Forces of Nature: Our Quest to Conquer the Planet. In this fascinating yet sobering conversation with Josh Zepps, Vann elaborates on both the causes of migration as well as the outcomes of the population shifts to come. They discuss both the impact humans have had on our planet, and how our planet affects us in turn. Vann is optimistic that while society is prone to taking the path of least resistance, the conditions brought about by climate change will soon become so unbearable it will force us to make tough decisions that will be crucial for our survival.

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9 comments on “The People vs. the Planet: Barry Vann on the Consequences of Climate Change

  • Phil: Barry Vann did not address all the demographic issues that concern me either but his book necessarily conveys his concerns relevant to his field of expertise oblivious to the many other issues readers and critics may wish he had emphasized or explored. Simply put: he necessarily wrote the book he wrote not the book others wish he had written.

    To your points about global empowerment of women in general and reproductive empowerment in particular in developing countries, while we approve the gradual process, we must face grim realities. A college history professor told my class fifty years ago not to worry about solutions to overpopulation: “High birthrates are just a means for the world’s poor to provide social security (pensions) by procreating large numbers of children to insure care to elderly parents. As soon as governments provide pension benefits for the elderly, birthrates will fall.” (They have fallen impressively trending globally towards replacement fertility.) The fallacy is that the longer the gradual “empowerment” process takes the greater the incorrigible damage to the environment.

    My professor’s confident predictions came half a century ago. Then world population stood around 3.5 billion more than enough to settle earth’s inhabitable land surface, exploit resources, pollute and destroy ecological open spaces. Today we know that population will inevitably reach 10 billion, probably tripling the numbers that were in his head. “As Soon As X, Y, Z Happens” type of solutions are unrealistic and grounded in hope that keeps getting projected further and further into a nightmare future.

    We must take into account the fact that once people are born, the vast majority will want to reproduce themselves. When 10 to 11 billion people arrive on the planet, the disaster is not over just because world population may stabilize. The planet and its geography are stuck with these 10 billion (or more) as people justifiably insist on reproducing themselves (on average) for the foreseeable future. Leaders must call for non-draconian modest sub-replacement birthrates well before mid-century.



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  • Melvin

    “As Soon As X, Y, Z Happens” type of solutions are unrealistic and grounded in hope that keeps getting projected further and further into a nightmare future.

    This is exactly my complaint of your contention that population must be got under control first to sort out AGW. These levers for population management are sloooooowwww. We must accept that empowering women, making the desperately poor richer and their children’s health better to discourage the need for biddable slaves with spares, though morally essential now will take generations to show.

    The latest UN predictions have a median peak of 12.5bn at somewhere around 2100, declining after. We must pull all levers we can on this, whilst trying not to fall into a panic, to bring this forward and down and more sustainable . One of these levers that can most help is the double whammy of tech. 12.5bn is the more terrifying at American consumption levels. Tech, negawatts and renewable can quite dramatically drop our carbon footprint. The 7% year on year fall of carbon intensity of the Chinese makes whatever and whenever the population peak occurs the more survivable. Additionally as we have seen in terms of bringing wealth health and education to off grid communities negawatts and renewable technology is quite transformative, and rapidly so. These are rates of change well ahead of birth control policies and the like.

    Much more to say especially of food production and water supply, but defeated by time again.

    In the meantime, here’s Han Rosling to calm our nerves a little…

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FACK2knC08E



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  • Thanks, Phil. My wife and I watched the entire video streamed on our TV monitor and enjoyed it very much.
    Rosling is a brilliant, engaging intellectual and public speaker. Those of us who follow world demography developments are familiar with the statistics he cites -declines in population growth rates, infant mortality rates, and poverty rates and do not dispute arguments measuring rapid progress in these crucial areas of human welfare.

    I’ll write a critique covering some of Rosling’s blind sides in the next day or two. Past my bedtime.



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  • I learned a useful way of visualizing age structure with Dr. Rosling’s model of piled foam blocks. Each block represents one billion people in the main successive age cohorts 0-14, 15-29 and so forth. Rosling should have emphasized that his model represents the predicted model of a stabilized zero-growth population of 11 billion by 2100. The classic pyramid shape with larger cohorts of children at the bottom has been replaced by a rectangular semi-monolith with the same number of people in each cohort. This shape would be generally accurate up to age 50 for western nations with very low mortality before age 50. Rosling should have shown his age structure sloping toward a point more graphically around age 60 and older where significant mortality starts to kick in.

    The claim that “peak children” was achieved in 2000 at two billion is also misleading because it references a (UN) predicted model of population stability by 2100. He is stabilizing the number of children over a period of 88 years projected on one presumptive model of population growth. Though his model reflects current trends, we cannot assume that changes in birthrates over nine decades will not generate significantly more or less children. Peak children should be measured when the population actually stabilizes at zero growth and no one knows when that will occur.

    Credible projections have shown significant variance. Around 2000 the UN was predicting a medium variant of 9.3 billion for 2050; in 2015 that was upped to 9.7 billion. Another non-profit population studies organization in the U.S., the Population Reference Bureau, puts the figure around 9.9 billion. In the late 1990s demographers held out hope that world population might stabilize under 9 billion. Today it is virtually certain that the 10 billion mark will be achieved around 2060.

    Time and space permitting, more thoughts later



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  • Hans Rosling makes an understandable error for the layman but is unforgivable for the statistician – probably an unconscious tactic to persuade the lay audience of his honestly held optimism. He separates comparisons of rate of growth from the growing base on which the rate is calculated. Exponential growth rates like any growth rate depend on the base on which it is calculated. Suppose you ask which city is likely to be larger 40 years from today: A city that doubles in population every decade for 40 years or a city that grows 1% per year? But you do disclose the base population of the cities you specify. City A has an initial base of 200,000 to be doubled 4 times. City B has an initial base of 3,000,000 (three million) to be increased 1% compounded 40 times. City A will increase through four cycles of doubling to 3,200,000. City B will increase at an annual compound growth rate of only 1% to 7,466,591. If population growth stabilizes in both cities at the forty-year mark, City B will still be twice the size of City A, despite the advantage of exponential growth, because of the huge difference in the respective initial bases.

    Small variance in growth rates against a large base over time will have the same effect on population. Suppose population stabilizes at 10 billion (10,000,000,000) around 2060. World total fertility rate ( average lifetime average live births per woman) show either a small increase or decrease of .1 ( plus or minus one tenth child on average per woman). Assuming a generation to be 30 years, in 4 generations (120 years) population will increase to 12,155,062,500 (an increase of about 2.16 billion) or decrease to 8,145,062,500 (a decrease of ( 1.9 billion). Relative to the world population of 6 billion in 2000, the increase to 12.16 billion will be a doubling disaster; the decrease to 8.15 billion, though helpful, will still leave human population at a significantly perilous level propelling the ongoing degradation of the natural and human environment.



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  • Melvin #5
    Oct 15, 2016 at 3:50 pm

    City A has an initial base of 200,000 to be doubled 4 times. City B has an initial base of 3,000,000 (three million) to be increased 1% compounded 40 times. City A will increase through four cycles of doubling to 3,200,000. City B will increase at an annual compound growth rate of only 1% to 7,466,591. If population growth stabilizes in both cities at the forty-year mark, City B will still be twice the size of City A, despite the advantage of exponential growth, because of the huge difference in the respective initial bases.

    Of course if both cites are on low-lying coasts, the ice caps continue to melt rapidly, the sea-levels rise, and the power of storms and size of sea-surges increase, both cities may have a human population of zero – although the marine species may increase!

    http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2015/02/climate-change-economics/florida-coast-map



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  • And so we come full circle to the wise counsel of Barry Vann (please listen to the interview). Only 25% of the earth’s land surface is habitable and only a fraction of that offers desirable destinations for expanding populations, usually cities located on or near coasts. Following the pattern of China, the countryside will cascade populations into urban areas seeking gainful employment as the subsistence farming economy falters then fails. Mega-cities will spring up like mushrooms trying to manage the needs of 20 million, 30 million, 40 million people. Traffic, traffic, traffic will overwhelm infrastructure, housing shortages will herd the human animal into pig pens. Barring the rapid spread of zero-emissions vehicles, power plants and factories, the air will become choked with pollution along with the throngs who breath it despite mitigation efforts. The labor market for hundreds of millions who scratched on rural patches of ground, worked produce stands or hauled water buckets will leave huge swaths of unemployment through these ranks of unskilled and semi-skilled manual laborers.

    Cities will push overflowing human habitats further into deserts, woodlands, grazing pastures and once rich farmlands. Rivers and aquifers will be taxed dry to irrigate fields, and provide water supplies for cities more and more distant from the source. Oh, and did I mention global warming gases emitted at toxic levels whether stabilized, moderately reduced, or increasing?

    The pain that the majority of homo Sapiens will suffer is what it is. We’ve failed as a species to keep our reproductive excess within manageable parameters. Still it is not too late for rational people to promote a longer term survival-sustainability perspective of several centuries, to speak up and form a consensus that birthrates must be brought down worldwide in the near future to sub-replacement levels for us to weather the storm with the effective cooperation of science and technology.



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  • @#6 – Of course if both cites are on low-lying coasts, the ice caps continue to melt rapidly, the sea-levels rise, and the power of storms and size of sea-surges increase, both cities may have a human population of zero – although the marine species may increase!

    http://www.climatecentral.org/news/us-with-10-feet-of-sea-level-rise-17428
    More than half of the area of 40 large cities (population over 50,000) is less than 10 feet above the high tide line, from Virginia Beach and Miami (the largest affected), down to Hoboken, N.J. (smallest). Twenty-seven of the cities are in Florida, where one-third of all current housing sits below the critical line — including 85 percent in Miami-Dade and Broward counties. Each of these counties is more threatened than any whole state outside of Florida – and each sits on bedrock filled with holes, rendering defense by seawalls or levees almost impossible.

    By the metric of most people living on land less than 10 ft above the high tide line, New York City is most threatened in the long run, with a low-lying population count of more than 700,000. Sixteen other cities, including New Orleans, La.; Norfolk, Va.; Stockton, Calif.; Boston, Mass.; St. Petersburg, Fla.; and Jacksonville, Fla.; are on the list of places with more than 100,000 people below the line.



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