Nature puts a positive spin on the anthropocene

The scientific journal Nature raises the cheery prospect that The Anthropocene could raise biological diversity.

Before we start playing this masters of the ecosystem game, we should consider our own ecology. In his excellent book "Why Big Fierce Animals are Rare" Paul Colinvaux also considered the ecology of the human animal. Through most of human existence, we were rare, like wolves and bears, consistent with the niche that we occupied. But then, after the last ice age, the human animal used technological innovation to exploit ever more resources, shifting other species out of their habitats in order to further increase human population. The term "anthropocene" is just a euphemistic way of saying human overpopulation. But what is most evident is that while our numbers are sufficient to change the natural order, we are certainly not smart enough to be able to lay claim to any sort of sensible control.

Thus far, the human primate has shown a total lack of self control and when it comes to running ecology and evolution there is absolutely no evidence that we can do better than the blind workings of nature.

It is a total non-issue whether the "anthropocene" raises or diminishes diversity. The real issue is human overpopulation which has vanquished many of our planet-mates and is the cause of much poverty and misery.

Nature bemoans demise of the carbon tax, and silently lies

Another Nature article reports that scientists are on edge because the newly expected Australian Government has axed the carbon tax. I wondered if they were on edge because the tax was lining their pockets...

People are smarter than Nature seems to suggest. Find alternatives that are truly better than fossil fuel, people will adopt them in a flash. The problems are:

  1. A lack of better alternatives
  2. World population growth adding to a population that is already severely resource limited, even though this gargantuan population has already subsumed most of the planetary habitat that it is capable of utilizing. I'd like to see Nature write an editorial on that one. The simple fact of the matter is that fossil fuels would be nowhere near as damaging if the human population was within reasonable bounds --- then emission rates would be much lower and we could spare a respectable amount of habitat for natural ecosystems, some of which would capture carbon.
Carbon taxes are just a diversion, as pointless as puffing against the wind.

Both the Australian Labour Party (previous gov) and the Liberals (present gov) have dogmatically driven Australian population skywards. Witness the baby bonus. Australian population has never grown so fast --- calculated as the yearly increase in the total number of people living in Australia --- as it did under the previous Labour government. I'm just waiting to see what the new Liberal government will do to top them.

All environmental impacts increase with increasing human population. Pontificating about environmental matters without clearly stating the roles played by excessive human population amounts to indulging in what Mark Twain described as the silent lie.

Nature continues to silently lie

The scientific journal Nature is blaming the usual suspects in it's recent editorial: Climate negotiations soldier on. But they still won't admit the bleeding obvious.

If CO2 emissions are a problem and if people cause those CO2 emissions then it follows that human population growth is the primary cause of CO2-induced global warming (and just about every other environmental degradation).

Let us remember that at the start of the fossil fuel era the global human population was one tenth what it is now! So, how can any of these climate changers argue with a straight face that overpopulation isn't the main issue driving CO2 emissions --- not to mention all the other environmental degradation, habitat destruction and general ecological mayhem? So why is "population growth" never mentioned by the climate changers? Nature has a duty to report the pertinent truth, does it not? Not to state an obvious and most relevant fact amounts to what Mark Twain called a "silent lie". Science should be better than that.

It seems to me that these climate change conferences are just another excuse to blow hot air --- and burn jet fuel. Talking about hot air, Elizabeth May joined the Afghanistan delegation. What interesting company to keep... So what are the statistics for Afghanistan? Well, the fertility rate is more than 6 births per woman but the population growth rate is only 2.4% because they have opted (with a little help fom others) that population be limited by death and suffering.

The Nature article has the gall to criticize Japan. What gall! At least Japan has its population under control and there is every chance that Japans population might one day actually decline to a more reasonable number which is the first step towards controlling CO2 emissions and all other environmental degradation. This puts Japan well ahead of places like New Zealand, Australia, Canada, and the USA --- all of which are busting a gut to grow their populations as fast as possible.

Nature still continues to silently lie

Yet another Nature editorial waxes dire warnings about climate change, this time it seems there is a Water risk as world warms. Author, Quirin Schiermeier baldly states:
"The modellers found that climate-driven changes in evaporation, precipitation and run-off will result in a 40% increase in the number of people worldwide who must make do with less than 500 cubic metres of water per year"
This seems to contradict basic physics, as I know it. I would have thought that a warmer planet would have more evaporation and more rainfall --- the evaporation being greater over the ocean and rain being greater on land, where people live. (Of course, patterns precipitation and runoff might change. More about that, later.) Truly, the driest times were ice ages and in present times the driest continent is frozen Antarctica. I figured that I'd best read the PNAS publication by Schewe et al. (2013) to see where my thinking had gone awry.

Reading through that article, I came across the essential result:

"Population growth plays a major role in this increase in water scarcity because it reduces per-capita availability even with unchanged resources."
Global warming merely provides a 40% perturbation on top of the effect of population growth.

So it seems that my thinking was not wrong at all. Rather, Quirin Schiermeier has erred. I'd like to think that the error was simply accidental, perhaps a careless act by an over-worked writer. But the Editors of Nature seem to make a habit of attributing the problems caused by overpopulation to climate change. I'm beginning to suspect that they have an agenda. Do they work for the Pope, like Mary Robinson?

Overall, I'd have to commend Mr Schewe for not entirely neglecting the impact of population. On the other hand, since the main driver of water scarcity is population, I can't help but wonder why his article was not entitled:

"Many climate change models show that population is the major cause of water scarcity"
Further, Mr Schewe might have extended his analysis to include the fact that at the start of the fossil fuel era the global population was less than 1 billion. If population had not grown, carbon emissions would be greatly smaller today and much more of the landscape would have been left in a natural state, further reducing emissions and perhaps even providing a sink. The point is that climate change is, itself, mostly caused by overpopulation.

When it comes to hydrology, Plato made the pertinent observation thousands of years ago:

"What now remains compared to what then existed is like the skeleton of a sick man, all the fat and soft earth having washed away... [The land] was enriched by yearly rains, which were not lost to it, as now, by flowing from bare land into the sea; but the soil was deep, and therein received the water, and kept it in the loamy earth... feeding springs and streams running everywhere. Now only abandoned shrines remain to show where springs once flowed."
Environmental devastation (and human misery) caused by overpopulation, then as now...

In my view, science is nothing if it is not honest.
You be the judge: Is "climate change science" an oxymoron?

This time, Nature actually lies

Ophelia Deroy writes in the journal Nature:
As the world searches for a more sustainable future for its growing population, there is increasing interest in getting more people to eat insects.
It is a mathematical fact that growth cannot be sustained. Any suggestion that growth can be sustained is a lie and anyone who makes such suggestions is either a nincompoop or an outright liar.

Ophelia is just one of a great many would-be policy-makers who presume to change the diet of "Westerners" in order to "convert people to more sustainable lifestyles". Others of her ilk would make us vegetarians.

They all have the same whining tone that world food insecurity is to be blamed upon meat-eating Westerners.

The solution is always the discovery of some "new food" or some technological innovation to increase the food supply. Well, how's that worked out so far?

Technological innovation only makes us more ecologically and socially impoverished when population expands until the constraint of scarcity.

There may well be more food to be had if we all ate lower on the food chain and consumed insects. But so long as population continues to grow, eating lower on the food chain simply becomes just another way to more completely consume the resources of our planet.

NOT mandatory population controls

I don't advocate "mandatory population controls" --- although I acknowledge that they seem to have been proved effective in China. I've thought about this issue a great deal and it is simply not possible for me to fully explain my reasoning in a brief document. At the risk of being overly simplistic, I think that the excessive population growth is not a natural thing for our species. Rather it is the result of a litany of maladaptive, coercive practices that actively promote excessive population growth.

I won't name the villains in this matter of coercion --- except to note that Augustus Caesar was an early example: applying a punitive tax to couples who did not have children. Given the role that reproduction played in Romes conquering ways, one can understand the reason for the tax (as well as the functionality of the bread dole that Roman Emperors so dutifully attended to).

As a 1950's child of remote New Zealand, I well recall the dogmatic call to "Populate or Perish". Such maxims are total bullshit, of course, but they had a certain resonance given the recent experience of Japanese expansionism and a continuing threat from a billion hostile Asians to the north. And to this day political power and military power are associated with massive population. Religious leaders doggedly continue to force population growth in order to expand their power --- the most aggregious being Islamic and Christian. Upon reflection, we might consider how little has changed in some 2000 years since Augustus, our modern leaders play exactly the same game.

NOT technology fixes

The great technological gains made in the 20th Century cause many to look for technological fixes. Charles Weber writes:
I see no reason why many climate water problems can not be much ameliorated by intelligent management of water both before and after the water reaches the soil, including pumping it into water tables through large, clean gravel filled deep holes.
But let us not forget that we have gotten into this water crises in spite of all that great 20th century technology. The technological fixes proposed by Charles would be very expensive to scale to the magnitude of the problem that must be addressed.

Reforestation might be a more natural way (and a more scalable way) to take care of such matters. Unfortunately, the demands of continued population growth work in the other direction --- removing forest.

Generally, technological fixes have a nasty habit of coming with their own adverse environmental consequences. Certainly, if a technological fix serves to facilitate further population increase then this will serve to ultimately amplify environmental damage, human misery and carnage of our planetmates.

Yet again, Nature silently lies

Nature is gung-ho about GM crops to provide the planet's growing population with a sustainable food supply. This is sort of patent nonsense flys in the face of recent history and known ecology.

For the last 200 years we have had one innovation after another which increased the quantity of food production. All that has happened is that population has grown so that poverty remains --- exactly as Malthus said it would. (Read his essay, not the distortions that others make of it.)

GM crops will not solve the problem, they will only increase its scale. Unless, perchance, those GM crops grow contraceptives...

Nature Makes Myths

Nature spins the apparent fact that human population is not growing exponentially to dismiss concerns about population growth and overpopulation in general. I'm going to quote every sentence of this drivel (authored by Megan Scudellari and edited by Brendan Maher) and set the record straight.
Fears about overpopulation began with Reverend Thomas Malthus in 1798, who predicted that unchecked exponential population growth would lead to famine and poverty.
It is true that Malthus observed that populations tend to grow exponentially whenever resources or some other factor is not limiting such growth. That was a powerful insight and it was a key plank that Darwin used in his formulation of evolution by natural selection. It is equally clear than neither Scudellari nor Maher have actually read what Malthus wrote. Malthus was concerned about the poverty of many people who lived in his time. He used his powerful insight to explain that poverty in terms of population growing to a point where it became constrained by privation.
But the human population has not and is not growing exponentially and is unlikely to do so, says Joel Cohen, a populations researcher at the Rockefeller University in New York City. The world's population is now growing at just half the rate it was before 1965. Today there are an estimated 7.3 billion people, and that is projected to reach 9.7 billion by 2050.
OK, first we need to know what the exponential function is. Here is a formulae for human population P growing exponentially with respect to time t.
P = P0*eg*t
Here P0 is the initial population at time t=0. There is a lot that a mathematician would say about e but here it is enough to say that e=2.7183. We would say that g is the growth rate of the population.

The question as to whether or not population is growing exponentially is moot. If g=0 then the population does not change but we could still say that it is growing exponentially with growth rate 0. Similarly, if g is a negative number then it still grows exponentially but the convention is to say that it actually decays exponentially at a rate that is the absolute value of g, that is to say at a decay rate |g|.

All that the likes of Scudellari and Cohen are saying is that growth rate g is not a constant. In particular, that growth rate is becoming smaller as the population grows. Well, that's no different from what Malthus said!

The thing that sets Malthus way ahead of the likes of Scudellari and Cohen is this:

There is another more mathematical point. Malthus was talking about geometric growth which is the more correct equation to apply to organisms. Exponential growth strictly applies to things that are continuous and infinitely differentiable. Human population is made up of individuals and isn't even differentiable once, let alone infinitely.

As for projections of a population of 9.7 billion by 2050? Well, we can only hope that the people who made those projections know more than Scudellari!

Predicting some future calamity due to population growth is a waste of breath. Look honestly at the world of the now and past and you will see the scourge of overpopulation. Malthus was honest. Scudellari, Maher, and Cohen are not.

Yet beliefs that the rate of population growth will lead to some doomsday scenario have been continually perpetuated. Celebrated physicist Albert Bartlett, for example, gave more than 1,742 lectures on exponential human population growth and the dire consequences starting in 1969.
Al Bartlett understood the exponential function. He was not predicting a doomsday. He merely pointed out that we have two options: Yes, Al Bartlett's message was highly simplified. Not simplified enough for Scudellari to fathom.
The world's population also has enough to eat. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the rate of global food production outstrips the growth of the population. People grow enough calories in cereals alone to feed between 10 billion and 12 billion people. Yet hunger and malnutrition persist worldwide. This is because about 55% of the food grown is divided between feeding cattle, making fuel and other materials or going to waste, says Cohen. And what remains is not evenly distributed --- the rich have plenty, the poor have little. Likewise, water is not scarce on a global scale, even though 1.2 billion people live in areas where it is.
If the world's population didn't have enough to eat then the world's population would not have grown so large. Overpopulation is the reason that not everyone is well provided for. People are not total idiots (Cohen excepted, perhaps). They occupy the best places first. An ecologist might say that people who live in an abundant niche live well. If the population continues to grow beyond what can be sustained by the best places, then some will be forced to live in not such good places. This is just one of many ways in which continued population growth causes poverty.

As for water shortages. The amount of water has not substantially changed. Indeed, if global warming is real then we might expect both more evaporation and more precipitation. If there is a shortage, it is because in many places the population has grown to a point where there are too many people for available water. Nature has lied about water before.

"Overpopulation is really not overpopulation. It's a question about poverty," says Nicholas Eberstadt, a demographer at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank based in Washington DC. Yet instead of examining why poverty exists and how to sustainably support a growing population, he says, social scientists and biologists talk past each other, debating definitions and causes of overpopulation.
A demographer from a conservative think tank says: "Overpopulation is really not overpopulation. It's a question about poverty," Well, an ecologist would recognize that when a population grows to a point where resources become difficult to obtain then the result is privation. Of course we are talking about a conservative think tank. That is to say, the very people who are intrinsically wedded to an economic theory that is predicated upon growth, a religious model of more growth, and a political model of more growth.

As for all this stuff about poverty being because resources are not uniformly distributed. Well, you may as well complain about the the temperature of the Earth not being a uniform 16 oC everywhere! Ecologists have understood this stuff for a very long time. Some others wish it were not so and so they refuse to know.

Cohen adds that "even people who know the facts use it as an excuse not to pay attention to the problems we have right now", pointing to the example of economic systems that favour the wealthy.
OK, this seems to be a plaintive cry for communism, or at least egalitarianism. Overpopulation is a driver of human behaviour.

Population growth rate spiked in back in the 1950's and 1960's. It happened because resources had been made more available by newly-blossoming technologies. For the same reason, there was a shift towards egalitarianism. Now the trend is in the opposite direction. Why?

Ecology and Evolution informs us about competition within a species. We see also this in our everyday lives. You probably had to compete with others in order to get your job. You compete with others to obtain a house. If someone else can pay more, they get it. And, of course, there is breeding competition. You are here today because your ancestors had genes that enabled them to compete well in the games of breeding and making a living.

We also cooperate. A group that cooperates well can out compete another that cooperates poorly.

When resources are abundant and available, there are a lot of ways to make a living. An ecologist would say that there are a lot of niches. Providing there are many more niches than people, we can be sure than most people will have the option of occupying a satisfying niche. Perhaps a niche like Cohen's Professorship? The egalitarian ideal becomes achievable. Human behaviour adapts to that possibility.

As the population expands, some people who would want to be a Professor simply can't get such a job. Some of them will end up driving a taxi. Others may serve coffee. The egalitarian ideal becomes unachievable. Human behaviour adapts to that impossibility.

But wait, it gets worse. Ember and Ember show that the expectation of resource scarcity leads to war and a society that has been at war becomes a more violent society. Thus, overpopulation casts a very long shadow on human behaviour.

Of course everyone expects that when you stick too many rats in a cage, things get nasty. That's why we have town bylaws --- because people don't always behave well when they are crowded together. More crowding, more laws. After drifting around in a lifeboat for long enough, the sailors started eating each other. Crowding, privation, fuck the law!

Way back around 1980 Paul Colinvaux arrived at the same results as Ember and Ember by reasoning from a solid biological foundation: "Why Big Fierce Animals Are Rare" and "Fates of Nations: a biological theory of history". Such things are not "politically correct". It seems that that whole branch of science has basically stalled. Indeed, from what I read in Nature, it may have gone way backwards...