The Greatest Compounding Risk of All

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xxxxxx
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The Greatest Compounding Risk of All

We are more comfortable with numbers than we are with emotions.  We use numbers to ring fence those emotions and put them in a logical context; making sense gives us a feeling of security.  In the collapsing economic system we use numbers to describe what is going on; emotion has only a vague role as in “restoring confidence” or “panic selling”.    Yet in the crisis that threatens to overwhelm the issues in the financial markets, the challenges in delivering healthcare and rebuilding our infrastructure, even the viability of governments and nations, emotion rules and numbers don’t seem to matter.

 

There are too many of us on the planet.   To be sure, there are some arguments about whether or not we have reached a population level that is ecologically unsustainable, but they are increasingly at the margins.  On a global basis we have overshot “carrying capacity” – the ability of the earth to provide sustenance for the number of people who inhabit it.  As with all compounding problems, this one is fairly recent in terms of human history and becoming more exacerbated with each passing day.  To provide some perspective, the number of human beings reached its first billion in 1800.  Since then we have added another 5.6 billion humans and the UN projects (we’ll get to the difference between a projection and a prediction in a moment) that by 2050 we will have reached 9.2 billion people.  That’s roughly a 40% increase in a little more than four decades.  The rate of increase is perhaps just as daunting as the overall number.

 

And yet we really don’t talk about this issue at all any more.  There are some fundamental reasons for this and they seem to be more intractable than the obstacles that predominate the headlines these days.

 

First, the explosion in population is taking place in areas of the world that are either economically depressed or in the early stages of providing a better standard of living for the people who inhabit them.  The more economically advanced countries actually are facing a population decline; a situation that is beginning to cause some consternation in terms of a dwindling tax base and the burden of entitlement programs for retirees.  So we are faced with the proposition that the economically well off will be telling the less well-off how they should behave. 

 

Second, there are religious strictures against the use of birth control in some major faiths and there are demands to increase the numbers of the faithful in others.  Again economics seem to play a central role as these rules are often ignored in countries where people have a higher standard of living but the power of faith and its dictates are difficult to address.

 

Third, there seems to be a direct correlation between the educational level of women and their access to and understanding of family planning and population growth.  Poorer countries tend to disenfranchise women; sometimes for cultural reasons, sometimes for religious reasons. 

 

There has been a reluctance to address these issues over the past decade because of the discomfort and, yes, political correctness.  A few alternate ideas have been proposed, but they don’t seem to survive much scrutiny.

 

There has been some discussion in environmental circles that the solution to the problem is not to control population but to curb consumption.  This argument has a certain appeal in an atmosphere where we are all feeling guilty about the consumerism that has contributed to our massive debt levels until you begin to look at the details.  In order for us to consume at a level that would get us down to the upper limits of sustainability we would have to descend to the same level as the citizens of Botswana or Uzbekistan.  At the projected rate of growth in 2050 that would drop to the level consumed in Nigeria.

Calculating the economic disruption that would take place should this approach even be attempted is essentially impossible; suffice it to say that it would be worse than even Nouriel Roubini could imagine.

 

Public policy efforts such as those in China are often met with objections by human rights activists.  We don’t like the idea of the state mandating the size of families.  Some of us have also adopted the position that any interference with a woman’s right to conceive is an attack on fundamental freedoms.

 

But back to those UN projections for a moment.  These numbers are developed using formulas that look at past events and project them into the future – sort of like the calculations that brought us mortgage backed securities and credit default swaps.  They don’t take into account serious ecological and/or pandemic events that could result from overpopulation.  They are at best an indicator of one of the many scenarios that could happen over the next 40 years.

 

Many in the economically advanced countries may want to ignore the problem given that their population numbers present a different problem and there are so many other issues that seem much more pressing,  But if we have learned anything in the past year it is that the connectivity that we have built makes it impossible to ignore problems based on distance.  Our financial systems connect us in ways that most of us weren’t aware of.  Our economies are inextricably linked with many of the raw materials necessary for economic activity coming from the less advantaged countries.  Perhaps more important, from an enlightened self-interested point of view, we have transferred a good deal of our back offices and software development to parts of the world where population growth is a serious problem.

 

During the month of February a large and growing group of scientists from around the world have agreed to speak out on the population problem in a variety of forums.  This commitment, managed under the umbrella of Global Population Speak Out (GPSO http://gpso.wordpress.com/  ) will provide a more in depth analysis of the problem and document some approaches that have had some success.  We all need to listen.

 

I am indebted to John Feeney for much of the population information in this piece.  For more information visit his website at: http://www.johnfeeney.net/

 

For additional information see:

http://candobetter.org/node/983

 

http://www.prb.org/Publications/Datasheets/2008/2008wpds.aspx

 

http://growthmadness.org/2007/01/13/the-un-population-report-misunderstood-and-misused/

 

Nichoman's picture
Nichoman
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Re: The Greatest Compounding Risk of All

Bill..

Agree.  But this as you outlined is a taboo subject for societal, religious, nationalistic reasons.  These dogma's must be comprehensively addressed and overcome to make progress.  This effort must start there...similar to Crash Course in some regards.

Nichoman

cedar's picture
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Re: The Greatest Compounding Risk of All

Bill,

Thank you for writing about this important topic.

In my less enlightened days I felt that providing economic aid was a waste of money because it would result in a population increase, thus negating our aid.

I have since read that this belief may be untrue. The argument goes that with an improved standard of living the child & adolescent mortality rate drops, and parents have fewer children as their confidence increases that a child will survive. In addition, improved education (particularly for women) results in a lower birth rate.

Two questions:

1) Does anyone know the truth about the relationship between birth rate and standard of living in developing countries?

2) Does anyone know the truth about the impact on total consumption? In other words, if due to an increasing standard of living, consumption per capita increases and birth rate drops, what happens to total consumption? It seems to me that this is an important ratio analogous to EROEI that we should understand and could be helpful for deciding on the best investments for our planet.

Rob

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Rosemary Sims
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Re: The Greatest Compounding Risk of All

Cedar, whose standard of living?  The American standard?  I think we'd best be looking toward a completely different set of standards for the future. I mean where labor is honored and integrated into our necessarily much smaller societies.  You seem to be working from newer, consumer ideals when you talk about "standard of living".  I've seen much human knowledge lost forever because of our standards of living, especially those that destroyed our original American cultures, and I hope that we can shed those consumer based standards.  Talk to any Blackfoot.  Or old time Cajun. 

Bill, I appreciate so much your global consciousness and most of all your obvious concern for all human beings. However, it doesn't seem too practical to me for our immediate future when change may happen so very rapidly and threaten each individual's literal survival.  I believe you are talking about that change and its ramifications to our current societal structure, aren't you?  I remember so well at the beginning of the Viet Nam war throwing newspapers angrily around my living room, screaming that we needed to do something.  It was when I threw away my tv forever and took to action on my own streets.  And I remember most vividly standing outside a Chinese restaurant in New Orleans with my coworkers and seeing that our Vice-President had resigned.  My world as I knew it had ended. The shock of seeing that in the post-Eisenhower era (I had not been following the endless news of Watergate) made me change my priorities in life.  I realized in one moment that I had little control over major events like this, or global events or even statewide events and decided to focus instead on the local and the real problems in which I could effect some change, which I was eventually able to do under some amazingly bizarre political characters here in LA.  

It may be best for us all to do that now. 

Your comments focus on and seem to derive from a scenerio of the way things are now, the current governmental and economic structure, the current philosophy of human ideals, with countries taking care of others the world over.  I believe our future world will be very different, more local in its perspective, well, I guess in its very specific survival.  I focus my own energies within the Parish within which I live and the village I've chosen to be when it all finally unwinds.  In turbulent times, with world structures and institutions and even whole countries crumbling, it seems the practical thing to do.  To my way of thinking, to spread one's energies so far afield is useless.  As when there were people literally dying of thirst (a simple water drop) in Chalmette, LA while everybody discussed and spun and planned what should be done for the overall crisis of Katrina.  In situations like that, anything else but clear and decisive action is merely a distraction, or political manipulation.  I don't think we can afford to do that in human terms right now.

Chris has told us in his non-threatening way what is going to happen, and still we deny it.

Rosemary

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Re: The Greatest Compounding Risk of All

It's frustating how taboo this subject seems to be.  When I bring up rising population as an important factor affecting our future people typically seem to think I'm advocating some sort of population control measures.  I have to insist that all I'm doing at this time is identifying it as a "concern" (obviously it's a huge problem) but I'm not offering any solutions yet.  But when I ask what happens when deer overpopulate an area, they nod in understanding.

We, at least in this country, haven't faced up to issues like peak oil because we really haven't been inconvenienced yet; e.g., we can still get gas almost all the time to fill our cars.  Similarly, I'm afraid no one is going to tackle population issues until it truly begans to impact our daily lives.  And by then, according the exponential function, it's probably too late. 

 

xxxxxx's picture
xxxxxx
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Posts: 32
Re: The Greatest Compounding Risk of All

Dear Rosemary,

 

I read your comment last night and wanted to take the evening to think through my response and thoughts.  What I am reminded of is the admonition that metaphysics has made for thousands of years – that we can only see 1% or reality; all the rest is hidden behind curtains and in darkness.  And then along come the astrophysicists a little while ago and tell us that we can only see 4% of reality – and the rest is dark energy and dark matter.  Must be a rounding error somewhere over the ages, but what it says to me that on a good day we are all in the tall grass in terms of definitively understanding what is going on and what is going to happen.

 

I don’t’ take that to mean that we should either sink into perpetual meditation or, on the other hand revert back to drugs, sex and rock and roll (although that is tempting some days).  We all have to show up and do the best we can to expand our awareness and understanding, but I think a big dose of humility and a sense of gratitude that we get the chance to play out the string is more than useful.

 

It sounds as though we are contemporaries.  I was involved in the monthly marches in DC – active but couldn’t categorize myself as radical.  The Nixon years broke something in this country and the recent administration raised the level of that behavior that Marx described when he said “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.”  I share your frustration at what has happened to us all over the last three and a half decades and I think you are right that our focus needs to be on those we know and those we love – at the end of the day the only person that we can change is ourselves.

But I would also invite you to consider that the information in the Crash Course is a projection, not a prediction (much as the information in the UN report cited in my piece).  There is not doubt in my mind that the fiat currencies will crash and that a debt based monetary system is unsustainable, particularly in an economic context that can no longer be based on exponential growth.  Some things will fall apart, but other ideas and systems will be created and I have to think, given the connectedness that you and I share as you read this, that it will not just be at the local level.

Politicians follow, they don’t lead.  The good ones (and I do have a sense that we have one of the better ones in the Presidency) give people permission to behave in a certain way.  Bush gave us permission to be greedy and self-centered.  Obama is clearly laying out a framework to give us permission to sacrifice and share the burden.  I am not so naïve as to think that he will abolish the Federal Reserve next Wednesday; neither he nor most of the country has reached a level of understanding where that is even on the table.  But we ought to allow ourselves the potential that things will not only fall apart but that they will also come together.  I think one of the statements that Chris makes at the beginning of the Crash Course is that he reserves the right to change his mind.  We all ought to give ourselves that gift

Bill

Rosemary Sims's picture
Rosemary Sims
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Re: The Greatest Compounding Risk of All

Yes,  we are contemporaries and while you were marching on DC, I was preparing to be the first white teacher in a black high school. Nasty experience with racism from both whites and blacks, but it solidified my idea that politics and life in general is really quite an interesting game.  That is when I began to wonder why we played it and came to the same conclusion as in your first two paragraphs.  There were other things happening too at that time, too, that speeded things up for me.  But I did not yet realize that I was what needed to change.  I had to go through a bit more nastiness.

Yes, the Nixon years broke us hard, but sometimes it is not so easy to lose what one has learned the hard way, especially when it has to do with human beings, no?

 

Metaphysics in my estimation has always had it right.  But depending on the current fads in the world's societies, it is not always held in such high esteem which makes it really hard to learn about.  I can remember as a small child wondering how somebody doing an atrocious thing to another could not reasonably understand how they had hurt somebody else, however slightly or grandly, or why they had done so (but I soon lost my scientific bent, which was clearly demonstrated later in life).  To me at that time it was only common sense.   It was only much later in my life that it all made sense to me:  human life is really irreconcilable simply because it is human beings conducting it.  The question of why we are here to experience this at all is of course popularly a matter of religion.  I will not go into what I believe about religions evolving over the years, but I will say that having studied religions earlier in my life, there is no doubt in my mind that all have been corrupted by having been perpetuated by humans and their insatiable egos.  And I do believe that all such institutions, including the medical, governmental and financial institutions are also corrupted, most of them beyond repair.  But I am always forced to go back and ask that basic question "Why are we here", "What is the purpose of life?"  And then I realize that I have been distracted by illusions.

 

I do not believe that "all politicians follow" anymore than I believe in 100% sheeples .  Because I believe so strongly that there is enormous change about to come, I have great hope that someone will emerge who can lead us through devastation,  and I hope it will be ourselves.  I am seeing some inklings of this, although they are hard to judge rationally or intuitively at this point.  I will not limit myself in hoping that it is Obama.  It could be anybody. 

I think it is really hard not to be distracted by the detail of life right now.  If we could do the prudent things our gut tells us to do, I really think we will all be fine.  It helps to understand that life is by its nature not a permanent contract and that the new/old idea of the "fountain of youth" is a fallacy. There is not a human being who has ever lived on the earth who has not died. 

Rosemary

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