Palm Oil, Orangutans, and What the Heck are you Eating?

     Palm oil has become a scourge that humans have inflicted upon this planet. And its fallout is due as much to human overpopulation as it is to pure greed. What, you may ask, is palm oil? It is a cooking oil. It’s also used in many processed foods. Palm oil comes from the fruit of a very specific palm tree. And it’s cheap. It is also high in saturated fat. So why is it spreading like a bad rumor? Let us repeat. It’s cheap. Oh, one other thing; it’s evil.

     It grows in tropical areas. So do rainforests. So do animals that live in the rainforests. And so, worldwide, do human populations. Palm oil producers like to make money. Indigenous peoples who live in the rainforests are not worth much money. Neither are the animals. As for the forests themselves, their wood is worth a lot. It’s a perfect fit. Clear cut the trees, plant the oil palms, screw the local peoples, orangutans, rhinos, horn bills, and proboscis and red langur monkeys.

Palm oil plantation
Indonesian palm oil plantation. Photo: Indonesianpalmoil.com

     Big oil (no, not that “big oil”) companies, like BW Plantations, are especially fond of Asian Pacific locales like Borneo and Java in Indonesia to plant their palms. Indigenous tribes that depend on the forests are left out in the cold, free to look for menial work where they can find it. The plantations are so insidious that they can even threaten protected national parks.

     The winter 2012 edition of Panther, the periodical of the Rainforest Action Network, reports that Tantung Puting National Park in Borneo is being traumatized by encroachment of palm oil plantations as well as illegal mining and logging operations. With little or no buffer left around parts of the park, “The drainage canals along the edge of the plantations were filled with the dark black water of dissolved peat soil – highlighting the troubling reality that much of this plantation is on carbon-rich peat soils and thus emitting massive amounts of CO2 as it rots . . . It seemed the Indonesian law prohibiting conversion of deep peatlands was being violated.”

     In one instance, when BW Plantations cut down a community’s native rubber trees last year, it triggered a demonstration. Police arrested no one in spite of the fact that the company co-opted 5,300 acres of community land. The local community sent formal letters of complaint to the company, as well as the district, provincial and national governments. At the time of Panther’s publication there was no response and demonstration resumed..

     So, you may ask, how does this relate to overpopulation? There are more people than ever on the earth. Most of them use edible oils. Palm oil is now the most widely used. Other popular oils include soybean and corn. They are much less unhealthful than palm oil. Several Latin American countries, including powerhouse Brazil, have jumped into the soybean market, exporting their soy oil to Europe, China and other countries. But these Latin American countries don’t have clean hands in this process. Brazil is well along in decimating its own rainforests, savanna and jungle habitats with farms of various types, often displacing its indigenous communities with both lawful and unlawful development.

     In other words, these countries are doing what the United States did a long time ago when it displaced the Midwestern forests, prairies and Native Americans with large-scale corn and soybean farms.

     As a recent article on Slate.com put the question, “So should food processors use palm oil from Southeast Asia or soybean oil from Brazil?” While soybean oil is much less detrimental to health than is palm oil, the destruction of native habitat and indigenous human environment can be equally tragic.

     The most immediate need, of course, is for developing countries like Indonesia, Malaysia and Brazil to wake up and protect their primitive habitats. But as long as the world does not get the concept that there are way more than enough of us, we will continue to foul our own home. How sensible is that?

Overpopulation and Rampant Consumerism Stress Water Supplies, Which Will, in Turn, Stress Population

          Let’s start with a quote from the spring issue of Catalyst magazine: “Take the average amount of water flowing over Niagara Falls in a minute. Now triple it. That’s almost how much water U.S. power plants take in for cooling purposes every minute, on average. (If you have never seen Niagara, that’s a lot of H2O. Here, take a live look at the part known as Horseshoe Falls: http://www.niagarafallslive.com/niagara_falls_webcam.htm. The other part of Niagara is American Falls.)  At the same time, water demand is increasing and heat waves and drought are compounding the strain placed on vital freshwater supplies – a problem that global warming is projected to worsen.”

          The article is written by Climate and Energy Program analysts at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). In a nutshell, what it says is that our ever-increasing demand for electricity is stressing America’s fresh water supplies. Plants that burn fuel and use that heat to create steam, which in turn spin turbines to produce electricity, need water to boil and/or to cool the plants. But fresh water is not a limitless commodity. Tens of billions of gallons of water come from rivers, lakes, streams and aquifers. Much of that water is lost to evaporation. Almost half of the country’s electric power comes from coal. Coal sucks up two-thirds of that water. It also consumes (evaporation) two-thirds of the water lost to power generation.

          A watershed is the area of land where all of the water that is under it or drains off of it goes into the same place. It is where much of humanity derives its water supplies. When we add municipal, agricultural and power plant demand together, 400 of the country’s 2,106 watersheds (in 2008) experienced water supply stress; the point at which demand for water exceeds a critical threshold of the available supply.

Manatee Power Plant. Photo – Florida Power & Light

          Think about this. The water that leaves power plants and is returned to its sources is considerably warmer than the water that left those same sites. That’s because the water was used to cool the plants. And if the water is warm enough, it can devastate fish and other wildlife.

          Here is the good news. Some states, on average, do a much better job of managing water stresses than others. That means, within certain bounds, that there are ways of reducing power plant impacts. For example, plants in Michigan, Missouri, North Carolina and Virginia withdrew 40 to 55 times as much freshwater as those in California, Nevada and Utah.

          UCS makes five recommendations for reducing power demands’ impacts on fresh water supplies:

  • Plans for new generating plants should aim for low-water options including air-cooled (using fans for cooling) wind and solar. The latter two, however, have their own environmental drawbacks, including impacts on birds and wilderness wildlife, respectively.
  • Owners and operators of existing plants in water-stressed areas could consider retrofitting to low-water-use cooling. Plant Yates in Georgia added cooling towers, cutting water withdrawals by 93 percent and eliminating large fish kills. Harrington Station in Amarillo, Texas switched to treated wastewater cooling.
  • Engage a variety of stakeholders in power generation decisions. Fishermen, water resource managers, and mayors can all have input that leads to better outcomes for their constituents.
  • Reduce power plant carbon emissions. Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere increases greenhouse effects which alter climates. Increased heat, changing rain patterns, and droughts could have devastating effects.

           Research shows that water temperatures are rising in many lakes, streams and rivers. This makes water-cooled plants work even harder and use more water for cooling. And while adding cooling towers to coal plants, for example, reduces water use, it does not reduce carbon emissions.

          We feel, however, that UCS’s recommendations fall short. Once again, no one is talking about the elephant in the room. And it’s one mammoth pachyderm. That would be us humans. Our existence on this earth is what’s screwing everything up. But so few are willing to discuss it, either on a personal, political or societal level. When it comes to reproduction we need to cut back or cut it out. As we continue to proliferate and as we become addicted to gadgets, gizmos and garbage that suck power like electronic vampires, we are rushing headlong into an environmental future for which yet-unborn generations will pay the price. There are, after all, enough of us.

What are the Countries at the Climate Conference Thinking? Oops! There’s an Assumption.

Imagine that you are morbidly obese and that you are diabetic. You go to the doctor and she tells you what medications to take and what surgeries are available. But she never mentions what you can do stop and eventually reverse your symptoms. No mention of cutting calories, good nutrition, exercise or any of the other healthful habits that could stop the downward spiral or even reverse the problem.

Such a physician would be an unqualified failure at her job. Such is the 194-nation international conference going on right now in Durban, South Africa. The conference is the doctor, but it’s dealing only with the symptoms, not the cause of the problem. According to the Associated Press, the conference has reached the stage where real negotions take place. It’s called backroom negotiations. Big polluters like the United States, China and so-called emerging nations feel each other out.

Durban environmental conferencedemonstrators –           Photo courtesy Greenpeace

Most treaty accords don’t take place in public. The palaver part of the conference in which diplomats make public statements of intention took place last week. The Kyoto Protocol will expire next year. Under that 1997 agreement, nations committed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Hah!

The task now is to keep Kyoto alive. The European Union is making an effort to get major climate offenders to agree to binding pollution goals in exchange for the EU’s renewing its own commitments under the Kyoto Protocols. The EU – get a load of this – wants a commitment to begin negotiations now that would conclude within four years. The terms of that treaty would take effect five years later, in 2020. This would be one case where the numbers 2020 would indicate shortsightedness.

The doctor in this instance does not seem to discuss – nay,
is apparently not even aware of – the causes of the patient’s illness. Even if we become ever more efficient per capita in our use of polluting energy, we are still growing, adding another billion people to the world’s  opulation by about 2025. Combine that with the growth of consumer societies that increasingly guzzle energy while we continue to destroy oxygen-producing forest land to accommodate grazing livestock, and we wonder how the Durban conference could possibly lead to reduced air pollution.

According to AP report, an EU delegate said that European delegates left disappointed after a private meeting with the Chinese. “Despite public declarations it would participate in a legally binding agreement in the future, China unequivocally told the EU it not accept binding targets for itself, said the delegate, speaking on conditions of anonymity.”

It is not within the purview of this blog to go into the intricacies of international political and diplomatic negotiations. But simply put, China wants firm commitments from the industrialized world, including financial and technological aid to poor countries, before it commits. The U.S. wants equal commitments from all nations to curb pollution. Japan and Russia, despite their declining populations – as well as Canada – have rejected Kyoto’s second commitment period, which will begin in 2013.

The George W. Bush administration withdrew the from the Kyoto accords in 2001. Rumors are circulating in Durban that Canada, too, may withdraw from Kyoto.

Alas, there is no doctor to tell these nations that they are too fat, that they are consuming too much and that they must go on a diet; a
reproduction diet. Instead of menu planning, nations need family planning. And they need to consume fewer calories. If the nations of the world don’t invest in energy efficiency and cut the fat, they will be compelled to suffer the consequences of healthcare bills they cannot pay.

The dilemma is that, if nations can’t agree on something as essential as not destroying our earthly home, how could we ever reach accord on limiting our reproductive “rights”? There are certainly enough of us, but we seem hell bent on driving future generations into a world they didn’t create but one they will have to pay for, in more ways than one.

 

 

Will Demand for Energy Lead to Fouling of Canada’s Wilderness?

There  may be more crude petroleum in Canada’s oil sands than in any other country except Saudi Arabia. In terms of burning of fossil fuels, we’ll sidestep any arguments about whether this is a good thing. We’ll also leave for another day a discussion of the impacts of building gas pipelines through The Mackenzie River Valley. Those pipelines from the northern edge of Canada will cut through the pristine  wilderness of the valley and would fuel the tar sand development in Alberta. There’s  more about this in our forthcoming book, Enough of Us.

Kitimat, BC and Douglas Channel - photo courtesy Kitimat Visitor Information Centre

Tar sands projects are projected to be the largest single addition  to Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions. A Canadian company, Enbridge, wants to  build a $6 billion pipeline project that would cut west to the town of Kitimat,  just south of the Alaska panhandle. In Kitimat the crude would be pumped aboard  crude-oil carrying ships, each about 1,100 feet long. Since Kitimat is not  directly on the ocean, the tankers would have to navigate down a narrow inlet  and then through a maze of islands to get to the open sea. Exxon Valdez,  anyone?

The First Nations (as in native Canadians) people are not happy.  Environmentalists are not happy. And the unique wildlife in the area won’t be  happy, either.

In March of 2006,  a ferry on a routine run hit a rock on the tip of one of  the islands. It sank. Two people aboard the ferry disappeared. The other 99  were rescued by local residents. While the tanker sits in Davy Jones’s locker,  a bit of its thousands of gallons of diesel fuel leaks out each day. The local  Gitg’at Nation is none too comfortable with the idea of ships more than twice  as long as the ferry plying local waters, laden with two million barrels of  oil. Can you blame them? Check out the August 2011 edition of National Geographic for photos and maps  of this beautiful wilderness, which includes the Great Bear Rainforest. This  forest includes the home of the “Spirit Bear” – the rare white black bear.

Right now, the United States is the only customer for Canada’s  sand oil. That oil is transported south through pipelines. The westbound  oil is for Asian markets. In fact, a Chinese company is helping to fund the  planning and permitting of the Northern Gateway pipeline.

A big political debate in the current presidential campaign is  over dependence on foreign oil. “Let’s use all our coal reserves; our  natural gas; our oil.” What no candidate dares to speak is the phrase, “Let’s  stop encouraging people to have more kids.” While we grant U.S. residents tax  credits, deductions and college benefits, we encourage human reproduction.  Let’s burn up our natural energy legacy. Let’s make it easier for Asian  countries to grow their populations and move them into the consumer class. And  let’s destroy nature’s beautiful legacy in the process.

In  the 1990s First Nations people sold off their timber rights. When clear-cuts  became the norm, bear habitats disappeared, and salmon spawning grounds were  destroyed, environmentalists butted in. The battle raged on for 15 years,  involving the local natives, the tree huggers and the corporations. There is  now ecosystem based management and no logging. Now it’s about the tankers.

The  environmental group Pacific Wild is trying to protect the existing forests and  waterways. “It will become one of the biggest environmental battles Canada has  ever witnessed,” says co-founder Ian McAllister in National Geographic. “It’s going to be a bareknuckle fight.”

And  so it shall be. Sixty-one Canadian First Nations have declared their intent to  not allow the pipeline, although it’s not clear what their aboriginal rights  are in British Columbia. In the meantime, Enbridge is trying to get the nations  to buy into the project. “Buy into what” asks Gitg’at council member Cameron  Hill, “to selling our way of life? We live off food from the land and sea here.  We’ve been taught to respect what we take. That’s sustained us from time  immemorial. No amount of money can get us to change our position.”

We  call your attention to his use of the word “sustain.” As consumer societies  grow in number and wealth, we will sooner or later have to decide whether we  can sustain ourselves. In one month human population will reach seven billion.  To quote Bette Davis in All About Eve, “Fasten   your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy night.”

Lobsters, Sitcoms and Sustainability

Have you ever heard this argument, “If we don’t keep growing our population, there will be no one to take care of and pay for older generations.”? Presidential candidate and Texas governor Rick Perry calls Social Security a Ponzi scheme. Everyone seems, in their own ways, to be worried about shafting either upcoming or older generations.

Not many, however, seem the least bit concerned about leaving future generations one mess of a planet with all its associated problems, including financial and emotional stress as well as general upheaval.  Ever-increasing population around the world and human-induced climate change present terrible contingencies for the surface of our Earth and for the organisms that dwell on it.

We usually insert this disclaimer here: For those who do not believe that human behavior is a cause of global warming, we respect that opinion. But it is folly to deny that expanding population and increasing numbers of more financially well-off worldwide populations will lead to the
depletion of natural resources, freshwater supplies and biological diversity.

“Anyone who takes these environmental problems seriously has good reason to oppose the efforts of politicians, economists and the media to
promote higher birth rates – as well as those religious leaders, members of extended families, and others who urge pregnancy on women who have not chosen it for themselves,” asserts Worldwatch Institute official Robert Engelman in the institute’s 2010 State of the World edition.

While politicians appropriately worry about reductions in population making it problematic to support aging populations, such risks are more manageable challenges than combating human-induced environmental problems.

Engelman, in his essay, “Environmentally Sustainable Childbearing” evaluates the influences of modern culture on human reproduction. How is it that women in Afghanistan and Uganda average more than six kids each, while those in South Korea and Bosnia and Herzegovina average one? Is it the influence of culture or simply chance pregnancies from unprotected sex? Since China is the only country that discourages parenting large families, and since there is a general worldwide belief that parents have a basic human right to determine the number of children, what is influencing these choices?

Parts of the answer must lie with culture and economics. Worldwide fertility is currently at 2.5 children per woman, which is a bit higher than the 2.3 births per woman that would maintain current population. It’s interesting that those countries that offer potential parents a variety of  contraception along with an abortion option have fertility rates low enough to stop or reverse population growth (not including increases due to immigration in any particular country).

According to Engelman, the higher a woman’s educational level, the lower the number of children she produces. A survey published in the November, 2008 Pediatrics, indicates that the higher the exposure to sexual content on television, the greater the chance of teen pregnancy. (This should make MTV very proud – Jersey Shore anyone?)

“Combating such cultural influences thus can play an important role in lowering fertility and contributing to slower population growth. Moreover, there is evidence that media such as television and radio may contribute to lower fertility just as easily as to higher.” A study in St.
Lucia showed that when a radio soap opera advocated family planning, those who listened to the show were more likely to have smaller families. In other words, cultural influences have a meaningful impact on family size.

On the other hand, there is some evidence that economic incentives can influence fertility up or down. In the few years before 2010, American fertility was on the rise while families with kids were getting breaks like tax rebates and credits as well as increased education benefits.

Engelman uses the example of a study done in the Mexican fishing village of Quintana Roo. As lobster harvests declined, contraceptive use became universal in the village. The reason? The people of the village decided to preserve their fishing resource for future generations.

And how’s this for a kicker: villagers ascribed their own reproductive approaches to the influence of U.S. soap operas that depicted small families. Satellite TV, surprisingly, “may play a constructive role by spreading an idea – a small family norm – that contributes to environmental sustainability more powerfully than the messages about (how) wealth and consumption might undermine it.”

Our point is this: If we have leadership in America that is willing to step up and introduce economic incentives to reduce fertility and urge the glorification of sustainability, the United States will help the world make significant first steps to turn around our headlong rush to overpopulation and consequent unsustainability.

We Need Lots of Increased Food Production – and Soon

In the three hours since we first logged into the Population Institute web site, approximately 36,000 babies were born. That, according to P.I.’s population meter.  In other words, allowing for deaths during that period, the Earth’s population increased by about 19,000, the population of Weatherford, Texas, a suburb of Ft. Worth. Hello to the new Weatherford.

Current projections put the world’s human population at 9.1 billion, just 39 years after it reaches seven billion two months from now. With food staples prices now rising sharply, how will the world cope with ever-increasing demand as the population grows by 30 percent?

In an October 2009 report, the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), an agency of the U.N., warned a food production increase of 70 percent is necessary by mid-century if humanity is to avoid widespread famine. Why the increase? Demographers expect larger, more urban and richer populations that will demand more food. Add to that the fact that millions of people live hungry now, and you have the formula for a need for much greater food production.

The report advised that there is a need for greater production per unit of land as well as a need to increase the amount of productive land. What’s more, the biofuel market adds competition to food production. Eveery acre used to grow biofuels is not producing food. While output of cereal crops is increasing, the rate of growth has been declining. “What,” you may say, “does this have to do with me?”

Plenty. While America is going through political meltdown and economic debility, there has been clamor in the House of Representatives to cut family planning funding. Evidently, the same factions that opposed funding the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), and supported the Global Gag Rule – which prohibited family planning funding for any foreign organizations that also provided abortion counseling during the George W. Bush Administration – are back on the warpath. In other words, let family planning and contraception, and other programs that prevent abortion, be damned.

It seems to us that the inmates are trying to run the asylum. There are those who argue that the Bush Administration – due to its upside-down policies – actually caused tens of thousands of abortions by denying those in need in poor countries education and contraception to reduce the number of pregnancies.

Farm Drought in Australia – photo courtesy Australian Government

We cannot depend on our dysfunctional federal government to live up to its once-great potential and assist those in poorer countries in becoming better at family planning and in agricultural efficiency. Add to that, according to the FAO report, while the United States is second only to China in screwing up our atmosphere, it is the people of the Southern Hemisphere who are most likely to get the royal shaft as a result of climate change.

Australia has been suffering through an extraordinarily long severe drought while parts of the country recently had record flood-producing rainfall. Whether it is related to long-term climate change is anyone’s guess at this point.

But is it right that the poorest people of Africa, South America and southern island nations should likely suffer the consequences of climate change and poverty while America – one of the scoundrels in this piece – shies away from its ethical obligations?

We guess that once serious inflation hits and Americans are forced to compete for expensive agricultural commodities, we will suddenly see the light and realize it is to our own benefit to aid those who want their piece of the pie.

So, what can you do? Log onto a search engine. Learn about environmental problems that relate to population issues and support organizations that are knocking on the noggins of the Capitol’s blockheads. Let your senators and representatives know how you feel.

While America’s short-term problems are sad and dismaying, the world’s environmental problems are here for the long run. If you have kids or grandkids, ask yourself this question: “Which is a greater concern for me, leaving my descendants a national debt or leaving them a shadow of the planet we once knew?”

And since we Americans are, pound for pound, the world’s greatest environmental villains, shouldn’t we think about whether there is Enough of Us?

The United States Isn’t all That Big, so What’s the big Whoop?

            While Ellis was rummaging through a file, he came across an article from the June 2010 edition of The Reporter, Population Connection’s monthly magazine. It contained a series of factoids about the American way of life – and its impacts – that we found fascinating. We found these data to be worthy illustrations of why there are Enough of Us, and why it really does make sense for us to think twice before conceiving little new Americans. We updated any information for which we could find more recent data. Here goes:

            The size of a new American home is approximately 2,400 square feet, depending on whose statistics you believe. In 1950, it was 983 square feet. In 1980 it was about 1,700. Since family size now is smaller than it was back then, it seems the larger the middle classes grow, the larger their houses. And that means more power usage for heating, cooling, lighting and the like, especially when you calculate that very few people had air conditioning back in the day.

Imagine, new houses are now two-and-a-half times the size they were 60 years ago. The only bright note is that the average new house last year was about 50 square feet smaller than they were a year or two previously.

Computers and other toxic e-waste - photo courtesy Greenpeace

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, in 2008, we generated 3.16 million tons of ewaste in the U.S. Of this amount, only 430,000 tons or 13.6 percent was recycled. The rest was trashed – in landfills or incinerators. The total generated increased from 3.01 million tons of e‐waste generated in 2007, but the recovery rate stayed at 13.6 percent. Selected consumer electronics include products such as TVs, VCRs, DVD players, video cameras, stereo systems, telephones, and computer equipment.

Globally, each year we generate 20-50 million tons of electronic waste.

It would take more than five Earths to be able to sustain world population if everyone consumed resources at the same rate as does the United States. At the consumption rate of France or the United Kingdom, it would take 3.1 Earths. In case you’re interested, for
Spain, Germany or Japan it would take 3.0, 2.5 or 2.4 Earths, respectively.

To put it another way, we – especially Americans – are generating a lot of toxic crap and we’re too damn lazy to even recycle it.

 

According to the U.S. Bureau of Transit Statistics, for 2006 there were almost 251 million registered passenger vehicles. Of these, 135 million were classified as automobiles, while 99 million were classified as “Other 2 axle, 4 tire vehicles,” presumably SUVs and pick-up trucks. Add to that almost seven million motorcycles. As of 2007, there were 1.2 vehicles per licensed driver in the United States, according to the Department of Energy.

 

The world’s richest half-billion people – that’s about seven percent of the global population – are responsible for half of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions. The poorest 50 percent are responsible for just seven percent of emissions. This is known as environmental injustice.

 

According to the Worldwatch Institute, global meat consumption I s expected to grow at an annual rate of two percent until 2015. The growth in meat consumption is likely to be most dramatic in developing countries where meat eating is a sign of prosperity.

China now consumes half the world’s pork. Meat production is one of the environment’s greatest polluters. Brazil follows the U.S. as the number two consumer of beef.

 

We wonder how many would-be parents think twice about these issues before procreating.

 

 

 

Tata may Mean “So long” in Britain, but it Means “Hello Wheels,” in India

Tata Nano

The May 23, 2011 edition of the Christian Science Monitor features an entire 14-page section on the world’s rising middle-class population. This is a good thing in terms of short-term improvements in quality of life for those who benefit from the largesse. But think of the consequences.

India’s middle class is larger than the entire population of the U.S.A. But, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), which promotes policies intended to improve the economic and social well-being of people around the world, by 2050 about 30 percent of the global middle class will live in India. More than 20 percent will be in China. In other words more than half of the world’s middle class will be located in just those two countries. So what?

Here’s what. The United States, right now, uses about a quarter of the Earth’s fossil fuels. But we make up less than one in 20 of all the planet’s Earthlings. And we are desperate for more atmosphere-choking, species-threatening, and water-polluting fossil fuels. Yet, automobile manufacturers are practically tripping over themselves to get their share of the Indian rupee, Chinese yuan, and Brazilian real.

China is already the world’s biggest auto market. Within 10 years it is likely to have a car market twice the size of the American market. Yow!

India’s Tata Motors is producing the Tata Nano (as in really small) that sells for about $3,000. Okay, so it’s had a few problems like cars bursting into flames and reliability issues, but Tata is no nano company; it’s big and it’s not likely to go the way of the Yugo. It already owns Jaguar and Land Rover. China’s Geely owns Saab.

So let’s say that the electric Chevy Volt and Nissan Leaf are the cars of the future, along with hybrids. While we are conserving fuel used by each vehicle, the demand for cars, trucks and everything in between is liable to skyrocket. Likely result: demand for contaminating, environmentally destructive fuels continues to rise.

Some Americans kid themselves into thinking that because they have bought a hybrid Toyota Highlander or Chevy Tahoe SUV, or a Lexus LS 600h, they are doing the  Earth and their pocketbooks (does anyone actually use “pocketbook” anymore?) a large favor. So many hybrids are not worth the gas they’re guzzling, either in terms of purchase price or environmental impact.

If we are to truly save this planet, both in terms of fuel consumption, environmental impact, demands on governments (think of the needs for roads, railroads, and airports), and mental health (think of the time spent sitting in rush hour traffic), we must stop ourselves from reproducing at current rates. We cannot afford to wait until human population levels off – as demographers project – at the end of this century.

Things are bad enough already at seven billion humans. Leveling off at 10 billion should make us think twice before making more children. While the Earth is heating up it would be very cool for America to lead the way, both by example and by influencing other nations.

All the political talk is seems to be about what kind of national debt we will be saddling future generations with. That’s small potatoes compared with the environmental and lifestyle deficits we are rushing into headlong. It’s more than any debt we could fix with economic reforms.

Drop That Toothpick – Our Forests are Disappearing!

Clearcut land in Madagascar

Deforestation in Madagascar - Photo courtesy Wildmadagascar.org

We came across an alarming environmental report recently, and it’s enough to make you think that we humans, and especially Americans, are completely nuts; except that the wild sources of nuts themselves are disappearing too, so to speak.

We’re talking about trees. Forests in particular. They’re disappearing and we are the ones cutting them down. A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (we know, when a title starts with the word “Proceedings,” it promises to be as exciting as egg whites) shows that between 2000 and 2005, the gross forest cover loss (GFCL) was more than three percent of the world’s total forest trees.

            The greatest total loss – surprise, surprise – was in North America. Let’s put this in real terms. The loss of forests during that five-year period was 1,011,000 square kilometers (Km2), about 390,000 square miles. How big is that? It’s almost 2 ½ time the size of California or almost 1 ½ times the size of Texas . . . Texas! That’s how much forest disappeared from the world in that five year period.

        And how is the U.S. performing? Of the countries with more than 1,000,000 Km2 of forest cover, we have had the greatest proportional GFCL. Brazil lost the largest total forest area. So what does all of this have to do with the objectives of this web site? Human behavior is the main cause of deforestation. We cut down forests, including extra-valuable rainforests for many reasons, including:

¨       wood for timber used in construction, furniture and the like;

¨       for making fires;

¨       clearing land for cattle grazing and for small and large farm agriculture;

¨       land for subsistence farmers who have nowhere else to live.

¨       Human-caused forest fires.

     According to Greenpeace, we are destroying ancient forests at a historically unprecedented rate.  Forest loss means a loss of the world’s biodiversity. “The current extinction rate of plant and animals species is around 1,000 times faster than it was in pre-human times and this will increase to 10,000 times faster by 2050.” This is likely to be part of the sixth major extermination event in the Earth’s history. Larger animals are disappearing. Sources of oxygen are being depleted. Even future wonder drugs may be nipped in the bud as we speak.

       We just had our kitchen refaced. That means we replaced drawers and cabinet doors and the framing of the cabinet fronts. We left the upper and lower cabinets intact. We did not commit to this minimal modernizing project without a sense of dread and guilt. How much, we wondered, did we contribute to the destruction of northeastern U.S. maple trees? We would like to get a new TV stand for our living room. Particle board is inexpensive and uses wood waste and glue. But it’s heavy and can chip more easily than wood. Wood looks authentic and has rich grain, and is usually the material of choice. But dare we? Aren’t we environmentally conscious consumers who want to lessen our impact on the environment? So here’s what we ask: Next time you think of acquiringsomething made of rosewood, or mahogany or some other exotic wood, think twice; next time you consider beef from Brazil or Argentina, think twice; next time you consider buying a product containing imported palm oil, think twice; and next time you consider adding to America’s expanding consumerist population, think twice.

       As humans proliferate and as those masses move into middle classes around the world, they will demand more “stuff.” That stuff includes wood; it includes roads to transport the stuff; and it includes meat, which may mean the clearing of more forests in order to graze livestock.

      All this while we disregard the world we leave for future generations. Generations that will be too large for the earth to accommodate.

Kudos Again to National Geographic – Bangladesh as a Study in Climate Change

We both enjoy visiting exotic places. In the near future we hope to add to our travel resume . . . big time. Over the years we have learned that the term “exotic” is a relative one. If you are a Zimbabwean, having elephants for neighbors isn’t all that unique. But having the New York City subway system running under your apartment building might be. One place we don’t expect to add to our itinerary – especially after reading the current National Geographic magazine – is Bangladesh, one of the world’s most crowded, and poverty-ridden, countries.

            Bangladeshis’ lifestyles are pretty much at the whim of climate and sea changes. And it would be hard to convince a resident of Dhaka, its capital and largest city, that climate isn’t changing. So, although almost none of the climate change affecting Bangladesh is of its own making – Americans use something like 80 times the atmosphere-screwing energy, per capita, as Bangladeshis – they are intimately affected by the consequences of too many people; and too many relatively rich, fossil fuel-sucking individuals. 

            As part of its year-long series “Seven Billion,” about overpopulation, National Geographic reporter Don Belt offers a snapshot (and lots of fascinating pictures from photographer Jonas Bendiksen) in the May 2011 issue of the unique lifestyles that climate variations have induced in that country. Imagine a little more than half the population of the United States living in a country the size of Georgia, with  most of the population living in, and adjacent to, a huge river delta that is subject to rising and falling ocean levels. Now you’re getting a rough idea what Bangladesh’s geography and demographics are about. Those water levels change in accordance not only with tides, but cyclones, monsoons, and chronically rising sea levels.

            Within 40 years, Bangladesh’s population is likely to increase from its current 164 million to 220 million – the U.S. population in 1977.

            Now, stir this into the pot: a significant portion of its landmass is likely to be underwater by 2050. As global warming melts the Arctic ice cap, the seas, in this case, the Indian Ocean,  will likely rise a few feet. That, in turn, will flood out 10 to 30 million Bangladeshis, making them part of a quarter-billion climate refugees worldwide, many of whom, like those in Bangladesh, coming from poor, low-lying countries. Demographers are already calling this the largest mass migration in human history.

Bangladesh flooding. Photo courtesy Inhabitat.org

                        This will drive rural agricultural dwellers into the big, overcrowded cities. Dhaka is already one of the largest, most densely populated, and slum strewn cities in the world. The migration, according to Maj. Gen. Muniruzzaman of the Bangladesh Institute of Peace and Security Studies, “will overwhelm not just our limited land and resources, but our government, our institutions, and our borders.”

            Except for its southern shoreline, Bangladesh is almost totally surrounded by India’s long eastern arm. Flooding may motivate climate refugees to illegally cross the border into India. India is so fearful of such an influx, that it is building a barbed wire security fence along the 2,500 mile border. Sound familiar? India has already shot people attempting to cross the border illegally.

            For information sake alone, we strongly urge our readers to peruse the NG article about the totally unique weather-driven chronically migratory lifestyles of millions of poor Bangladeshis. The stories go too far afield for us to cover here. The descriptions and photos are downright fascinating and eye-opening. But here is one situation we cannot resist sharing. The mangrove forests of its southwestern coast are under increasing population and environmental pressures. This has forced the resident tiger population to look for easier prey. The coastal town of Munshiganj, whose farms have been invaded by periodic influxes of saltwater, is rebuilding once again. But its residents have suffered fatal attacks by the tigers which, like the town’s residents, have been victimized by fearsome weather events.

            So what does this have to do with us Americans? As Samir Ranjan Gayen, executive director of a Munshiganj non-governmental organization says, “You should take a picture of this place and show it to people driving big cars in your country. Tell them it’s a preview of what south Florida will look like in 40 years.” In other words, if humans keep polluting the air with any variety of emissions that further global warming (and no one does that better than Americans), the seas will continue to rise and we will be screwing ourselves, especially those of us who live in low-lying coastal communities. And remember, many of America’s largest metropolitan areas lie on or near the seas.

            As the world’s middle classes increase, the demand for all kinds of goods rises as well, further contributing to the  deterioration of our ecosystem. There are quite simply too many people.  And there is an irony in Bangladesh that is, and will expand to, much more of the developing world. The government has greatly expanded education, knowing that educated people produce fewer children. As fertility rates have declined, health care has expanded. So while families are producing fewer kids, infant mortality has dropped by more than 50 percent since 1990. So in spite of smaller families, Bangladesh sees its population grow.

            The lesson here is: we are all residents of this planet. We share an interlinking ecosystem. And there are Enough of Us; in fact, too many.