Selfish Reasons to Eat Food . . . Or, Unselfish Reasons to Donate to Charities.

Bryan and one of his otherwise selfless issue

Economist Bryan Caplan recently published a book entitled Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids. And now he’s getting all kinds of media publicity for his preposterously named tome. We expected this to be a pamphlet-sized argument. Why? There are no reasons to have kids that aren’t selfish. Zilch, zip, zero. None!

            In fact, this cavalier attitude on the part of most parents that played a significant part in inspiring us to write our book, Enough of Us: Why we should think twice before making children.

            It’s like writing a book entitled Selfish Reasons to Eat Food, or Selfish Reasons to Stay Warm, or Selfish Reasons to Live in a Dwelling. Duh.

            Caplan implies that limiting the number of children parents plan to have may be selfish. “How can you focus exclusively on whether another child would make you happier? What about the child? Unless your child is truly unlucky, he will almost certainly be happy to be alive. Aren’t you?” asks Caplan in the introduction to his book.

            Mr. Caplan is clearly someone the Men in Black must capture and send back to his home planet of Yoorkydding. He actually believes that most people live happy lives unless they are “truly unlucky,” a term that, at the very least, requires some degree of definition. Even in relatively prosperous times, millions of Americans are profoundly insecure, broke, losing their homes victims of serious crimes, etc.

            TV talk shows are saturated with stories of childhood depression, bullying, cyber-bullying, high drop-out rates, inadequate education, two million adults living incarcerated, spousal abuse, divorce, broken homes, drug addiction . . . whew! We’re running out of mental breath.

            Two couples we know – educated, well-off, loving couples – have had daughters who went to prison. Others have had kids with drug addictions. Ellis has known four – count ‘em, four – people who have shot themselves in the head.

            Caplan goes on to proffer: “If you have to make yourself a little less happy to give a son or daughter the gift of life, shouldn’t you?” Hell no. Are you kidding? “Give a son or daughter . . .”? Give whom? They don’t yet exist. If you have not yet created that child, to whom are you giving the gift of life? And if the author’s reasoning maintains, then couples should keep having uncontracepted sex until the well runs dry, so to speak. After all, at what point do you start denying sons or daughters the gift of life, assuming you have the cash and living space?

Are all couples to become the Duggars, the Arkansas couple with 19 kids (the latest of whom was born premature with a series of medical complications as long as your arm and whose gestation almost killed his mother) who believe God wants them to procreate ad infinitum, environmentalists be darned (they’re pious people, so we don’t want to use offensive language)?

            A key problem overshadowing all of Caplan’s reasoning is the big picture. Many ecological and biological scientists estimate that by 2050 half a million species will go extinct, mostly due to human behavior bollixing up the planet. Paging Bryan Caplan . . .  Hell-o-o-o!

            To illustrate the shallowness of reasoning by so many parents, would-be parents, and parenting advocates, we present an excerpt from a review of Bryan Caplan’s book, written by Jonathan V. Last on The Wall Street Journal’s wsj.com. “It would be better for all of us if Americans had more children than they currently do. (The average college- educated woman today has just 1.7 babies over the course of her life, which is not enough to sustain America’s population in the long run.),” argues Last.

            There is a presumption here that sustaining America’s population is a good thing. In the first place, this shows just how unconscious of environmental issues so many Americans are. Secondly, thanks to immigration and increased longevity (whether or not those extra years are ones of quality) America has kept its population growing, along with all of the social and environmental problems that go with it.  We presume that Mr. Last, like so many others, believes that we need the Ponzi scheme of ever-increasing population to thrive in order that succeeding generations flourish.

            Enough of Us, in fact, disproves the contention that we must be fruitful and multiply ad nauseam in order to succeed as a society.

            If Caplan’s premise is that by not having children many Americans are being selfish, and that he alone is offering an alternative approach – one by which even those who are having children can be selfish – it sounds like he is living in the world of George Orwell’s 1984.  War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.

            There are Enough of Us.

Think Someday You’ll Want to Take Your Grandkids to see a Coral Reef? Lots of Luck!

 

National Geographic

April 2011 National Geographic

As the recent tsunami that hit Japan shows, oceans can be really monstrous. In a darkly poetic way, it seems that the Pacific (how ironic a moniker) was pissed about all the wildlife devastation Japan has wreaked upon the Earth’s sea creatures and decided to get even. But the same oceans that have inflicted devastation upon humans over the centuries are in turn vulnerable to man’s environmental evils.

     This year we have been following, and supporting, National Geographic magazine’s coverage of, and warnings about, Earth’s human population reaching seven billion. Along with that population, and the long-term growth of the world’s middle classes, comes the limitless spewing of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and its consequent absorption by the oceans. The chemistry of the seas involves a very delicate balance of pH, the scale by which we measure acidity and alkalinity. Add COto seawater and you lower its pH value, making it more acidic. Hence, NG’s April report is entitled “The Acid Sea.”

     According to NG journalist Elizabeth Kolbert, our atmosphere has higher COconcentrations now than it has in perhaps a million years, thanks to the advent of the industrial revolution. Burning of coal, natural gas, petroleum and other fossil fuels, as well as the destruction of forests, have led to the emitting of 500 billion tons of CO2 . How much is 500 billion tons? We can quantify it, but not actually imagine it. Picture a little Smart automobile with a driver in it. Imagine 1,000 such vehicles. Now imagine one thousand clones of that group of one thousand. You now have a million. Now imagine one thousand of that group of one million. Now imagine 250 of that group of one thousand times one thousand times one thousand. That’s how much the CO2  we have added to the atmosphere weighs. And a huge portion of it is absorbed by our oceans and lakes. That cannot happen without screwing things up BIG time.

     Off the Mediterranean island of Castello Araganese, vents on the seafloor emit bubbles of carbon dioxide. The CO2 dissolves to form carbonic acid. Close to these vents there is enough acid to change the chemistry of the seawater and adjacent ecosystem. Plants and animals that normally carry other organisms on their blades and shells, respectively, are barren of any such symbiotic relationships.    Marine biologist Jason Hall-Spencer of England’s University of Plymouth says that acidification that has taken place near Castello Aragonese is gradually occurring across the world’s oceans. In other words, the effluent from China’s coal burning power plants and America’s tailpipes will, by as soon as 2050, be spreading who-knows-what kind of mayhem throughout undersea ecosystems.

       “In the 1990s an international team of scientists undertook a massive research project that . . . showed that the oceans have absorbed 30 percent of CO2 released by humans over the past two centuries. They continue to absorb roughly a million tons every hour,” writes Kolbert.

     Let’s look at some of the impacts this acidification will have. As sea life, from microscopic to enormous, adapts to changes in seawater chemistry, food webs, biodiversity, fisheries and the organisms themselves will change. Pteropods, tiny swimming snails that are a food supply for fish, whales and birds in the Arctic and Antarctic, are experiencing changes in the growth rate of their shells.

     Certain organisms, called calcifers, have difficulty forming their shells and skeletons, which are made of calcium carbonate. Of great concern is the destiny of coral reefs, the breeding ground for species numbering in the millions. Could this mark the end for future Spongebob Squarepantses (sp. spungabobbi pantelone quadretto)?

     Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution is quoted as saying, “Corals build the architecture of the ecosystem, and it’s pretty clear if they go, the whole ecosystem goes.” In addition to acidification, corals have been threatened by warming water temperatures, which induce so-called “bleaching” that turns the corals white and kills many of them. When overfishing removes species that graze among the corals, the reefs can be blanketed with algae. Agricultural runoff then fertilizes the algae, accelerating their growth and discombobulating the reef’s ecology. Probably due to a combination of these factors, Caribbean coral cover declined by an incredible 80 percent between 1977 and 2001.

     A thin layer of tiny calcium carbonate-covered animals called coral polyps covers the surface of a reef . Kolbert explains: “CO2 levels rise, carbonate ions become scarcer and corals have to expend more energy to collect them.” This retards reef growth, making it hard for them to keep up with the erosion caused by organisms that eat away at the reef’s surface. If  reef growth cannot keep up with erosion, it begins to crumble. There is good reason to fear that by 2050 the world’s reefs will reach the tipping point.

     We wonder what future generations will think of their antecedents who had let – or, more precisely, been the catalyst for – such a dramatic world change; a change the likes of which no human generation had ever before caused.

     And it’s not just corals. There are thousands of other calcifers that carbon dioxide impacts; clams, oysters, sea stars, sea urchins, and on and on. “Changes at the bottom of the marine food web . . . will inevitably affect the animals higher up,” including their physiology. And while there have been periods in the Earth’s history when CO2 levels have been higher, the ecology of prehistoric times may have been quite different, and the current rate of change may be the essential variable that impacts most.

     We must reduce our CO2 emissions. But with expanding demand on energy, a Congress hell-bent on using fossil fuels, increasing agricultural demands, and an expanding world population, the future of the seas looks bleak to us.

      As journalist Kolbert puts it: “At the moment, corals and pteropods are lined up against a global economy built on cheap fossil fuels. It’s not a fair fight.”

Two Follow-ups: Family planning saved in the new budget and Fresno is actually inching toward nuclear power

Artist rendering of Fresno County Nuclear plant - Courtesy Fresno Nuclear Energy Group

Last week we used Fresno, California as an example of a fairly big city – away from geologic fault lines and a large body of water – that might be a safer venue for a nuclear power plant than many of the America’s current plants. We made up the example to show how increased populations are causing increasing energy demands for which there are no ready solutions.

            Due either to inadequate research or – and this is what we prefer to think – tremendous political instincts, two days after we published our blog, the Fresno Nuclear Energy Group (FNEG) and AREVA, a manufacturer of solar steam generators, announced they have signed a contract to initiate the first phase in the development of an advanced clean energy park in western Fresno County.

            It’s FNEG’s ambition to include water treatment facilities powered by nuclear reactors within the same park. Western Fresno County has groundwater that contains high concentrations of salt. FNEG hopes to get around California’s moratorium on nuclear electricity-generating plants by designating its facility as a water treatment facility.

            Really? Fresno is a population, if not an economic, boomtown. And whatever you call the proposed nuclear plant, it’s still going to produce energy in order to accommodate ever-increasing populations. People are migrating from several of California’s high-priced metropolitan areas in order to settle in the Central Valley. Fresno, once simply an agricultural center, is now a city of half a million. And with its relatively cold winters and baking summers, it consumes lots of energy.

Item number two: Whatever insanity is going on in the two policy branches of the federal government, a few bits of reason prevailed. We wrote recently about the insane reasoning of some of the anti-abortion forces in the House. The lunacy does not refer to their anti-abortion positions. It relates to the concept that in order to stem the frequency of abortions, we should curtail funding for family planning. The flag bearer for this mad notion is Representative Mike Pence (R-Indiana). Here is how his reasoning works, “works” if that’s what you want to call it: Planned Parenthood performs abortions, primarily for  poor folks cannot afford another child. Therefore Planned Parenthood should lose its federal funding. This will help stem the tide of abortions. Here is why this reasoning is faulty. Oh, what the heck, let’s be honest, this reasoning is nuts.

Planned Parenthood gets no money from the government to perform abortions. Such funding has been outlawed since the 1976 Hyde Amendment was enacted into law. It has been revised to allow abortion funding only for women who have been raped, are the victims of incest, or whose lives would be endangered without the procedure.  According to Planned Parenthood, approximately 96 percent of its expenditures goes to family planning and women’s health services. The latter includes various cancer screenings. Abortion costs are made through non-governmental fundraising.

            So what is behind Pence’s reasoning? We can think of only two causes. Either he is cynically grandstanding for his constituents and trying to look like a pillar of morality, or behind his very distinguished countenance, lies the brain of the Mad Hatter. Each American pays about $1.07 per year to help Planned Parenthood save women’s lives and prevent unwanted pregnancies, many of which would lead to abortions. After all, if a woman becomes pregnant with a child she does not want, she is a candidate for abortion.

House Speaker John Boehner. Rep. Mike Pence at left.

            In other words, Pence and his followers think that by denying women family planning, there will be fewer abortions. Say what?

            So let us all be grateful that whatever other nonsense is going on in Washington, at least this policy that would lead to increased abortions was dropped from the final budget agreement. Why is this important? During the George W. Bush presidency he refused to spend allocated funds to help family planning around the world. Bush’s thinking was identical to Pence’s. The result was increased abortions among residents of poorer countries, making Bush one of the most pro-abortion (not pro-choice) presidents – by default – of all time.

            As next year’s budget comes to the fore, as it soon will, let’s hope President Obama and the pro-family planning constituency in Congress continue to carry the ball for the prevention of unwanted pregnancies . . . and abortions.

Are Wealthy Countries to Blame for Somalia Piracy?

Somali pirates commandeering Ukrainian cargo ship

            In part, yes. Somalia is a relatively small country but it has the longest coastline on the African continent. You know Somalia. It has almost no working governmental institutions. It is the locale of Blackhawk Down. And it’s the home of all those pirates who commandeer ships and take hostages for millions in ransom.

            Humans love fish, to the point of endangering many of the world’s food fish species along with the so-called by-catch that gets caught up in nets and drag lines. Much of Somalia’s economy once depended on local fishermen heading into the nearby Indian Ocean and Gulf of Aden in search of catch. Then came the large fishing vessels from industrialized countries. And away went much of the local fishing industry as the big boats decimated local fisheries. So while wealthy nations are able to supply their own sushi bars and fish markets, the people of Somalia have lost access to their own seafood.

            According to Population Connection president John Seager, cod fishing off Newfoundland, Canada was banned after the total cod catch dropped 99 percent between 1990 and 1994. That’s when some European ships turned their sites to the other side of the Suez Canal and started reaping harvests in the Indian Ocean. “A UN report concluded that illegal fishing in Somali waters by foreign trawlers costs that impoverished African nation some $300 million annually. A modest sum perhaps by Western standards, but huge for Somalia, where the per capita GDP (gross domestic product) hovers around $600.”[1]

            Piracy in Somalia started when fishermen went after small foreign fishing boats. The pirates held the boats and crews for ransom. From there, the brigandage grew in size and scope. Now the pirates’ prey includes freighters and oil tankers. The buccaneers are now fishing in more treacherous waters.

            “Some experts project the global destruction of all ocean fishing within 40 years as human population continues to soar,” says Seager.

            You may have heard of the threats to shark populations worldwide as populations are decimated in quest of fins for shark fin soup, a Chinese delicacy that is served in the United States as well as China and other locales with ethnic Chinese populations. In other words, where there are people there is environmental and wildlife degradation, and that includes the Earth’s oceans.

            “But wait,” you may say, “America’s population isn’t growing anywhere near as fast as it is in other parts of the world.” To which we say, “Even if you’re at the beach, get your head out of the sand.” We rich Americans are eating fish. Lots of fish. Even “filet o’ fish.”

We can afford it. We are pigs (although we’re not sure that swine eat seafood).     So what’s the answer? How about if American consumers, and their government, set an example? How about if we stop chomping on everything – literally and figuratively – in the marketplace, that we can get our hands, and choppers, on? Let’s try population stabilization. Then we can show the rest of the world our example. We can say, “Hey, look at us! We slowed down our reproductive rate. We eat less seafood . . . and lots of other stuff that hurts the environment. Follow us!”

            We need to regard the circumstances and needs not only of the less-fortunate among us; we need to regard our impact on our beautiful planetary mother and all her inhabitants. As political economist Thomas Malthus pointed out two centuries ago, “The histories of mankind are histories only of the higher classes.” We need to regard the circumstances of the world’s poor. And as middle classes grow in proportion in industrialized countries we need to keep an eye on the behavior of these “higher” classes before they hold the whole world hostage. In Short, there are Enough of Us.


[1] John Seager, “From the President,” The Reporter, January 2011, inside cover.

Why are Worldwide Food Prices Skyrocketing?

 

Nepal food crisis, August 2009. Photo Courtesy Center for American Progress Action Fund

   Chapter 6 of our book, Enough of Us: Why we should think twice before making Children, deals with human sustainability. In it we discuss the global food crisis. Some of the friends to whom we showed the book doubted there is really such a crisis.

            Walk into any supermarket and the abundance of food that we take for granted – if you really look at it – borders on the obscene. But a recent article in The Week magazine (March 4, 2011) points out some amazing facts.

            Fat cat Americans (and we do mean fat) spend about seven percent of their incomes on food. But Egyptians, for example, spend one quarter of their income on food. In January the price of wheat worldwide was twice what it was the previous June. Whether or not climate change is real, there has been a plethora of lousy weather across the globe. A historic heat wave in Russia destroyed half of its wheat crop last summer. Monumental rain storms devastated corn crops in Iowa and Illinois, the two states with the greatest production. Epic flooding ruined Australia’s wheat crop. A drought in Northern China resulted in a dustbowl. Now China is importing wheat.

            All these factors contribute to skyrocketing staple food prices. And that has resulted in an additional 44 million people living below poverty levels in the past year.

            But wait, as entertainer Al Jolson was famous for saying, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet! The population of the world increases each day by more than the population of Durham, North Carolina. Next month, the Earth’s human population will hit seven billion. Add to that 219,000 new humans, net, each day.

            And they need to eat. Not only that, but more people are entering the middle class. And that means they’ll have appetites for things that until now were the domains of rich Americans like us. They want meat and dairy products. According to PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), it takes as much as 16 pounds of grain to produce one pound of meat. It takes more than 2,400 gallons of water to produce 1 pound of meat, while growing 1 pound of wheat only requires 25 gallons. But we’ll deal with water issues another day, as we will deal with energy.issues relating to grain and livestock.

            China now consumes twice the meat that the United States does, but only a fraction of our consumption per person. And then there’s fuel-versus-food. Year to year more of our corn and other grains are going into fuel production.

            In the last three years ethanol production has risen by one third. Where does ethanol come from? If your answer is, “The gas station,” go to the back of the class. In fact, 40 percent U.S. corn production goes into ethanol, which goes into gasoline. That’s enough food to feed everyone in the United States, Canada, and Australia for a year.

            According to the The Week article, this past year’s extreme weather is likely to become the new normal. And while overpumped aquifers are being drained away in the grain belts of the Western United States, China, India and the Middle East, agricultural experts expect demand for agricultural products to soar over the next four decades.

            The recent revolutions in Egypt and other North African countries are partially related to the cost – or shortages – of basic foods. Will food shortages lead to more hunger, poverty and even food riots? Who knows?

            But we Americans are rich. So why should we give a damn? Let’s keep driving cars, eating like pigs, consuming the world’s resources and producing more fat-cat babies. After all, it’s not our problem.

Cancun, Climate Change and . . . not Much!

 

United Nations Conference on Climate Change in Cancun, Mexico

            In mid-December, delegates from 193 countries met in Cancun Mexico and agree on a framework for carbon emissions, one of the primary causes of climate change.

This was a follow-up to the 2009 Copenhagen conference. What came out of Cancun was an agreement for the wealthiest nations to finance a “Green Climate Fund” that will provide $100 billion annually to compensate poor countries for the costs of reducing their emissions. The fund would also compensate the poorer nations for preserving their rainforests (you know, the ones that are being leveled in order to provide the wealthy countries with wood and with the crops being planted in their stead). In addition, it would provide for a United Nations monitoring system for emissions reduction.

            The first problem with this agreement is that it doesn’t have to go into effect until 2020. Second, will this go the way of so many other agreements that never quite happen, as in, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions”?

            So, while somewhere off in the distant future lies a vague promise of doing some stuff related to reducing some of the destruction caused by our need for fuel, lumber, crops, meat, roads palm oil and who knows what-the-hell, nobody seems to be dealing with 800-pund gorilla sitting on top of the elephant in the room.

            The Kyoto Protocols did little if anything. Same for Copenhagen. Now this. After all, is the U.S. Congress ever going to fund worldwide climate programs when it will barely even restrict pollution in America? And even if we reduce our per capita consumption in the industrialized world, what good will that do if the human population keeps growing?

            No one – but no one – seems to be talking about the number one cause of climate change, or global warming, or catastrophic atmospheric conditions or whatever you want to call it. It’s people. We’re destroying the planet. But politicians are flat-out chicken when it comes to talking about baby making.

            There are too many of us already, especially in the industrialized nations – you know, the ones who are going to compensate the developing nations for financing the reduction of their emissions.

            Hybrid cars, fluorescent bulbs and “Energy Star” appliances aren’t going to do the trick. What might do the trick is cutting the world’s 7 billion population in half. Last night we saw a PBS News Hour report on efforts to help Ethiopian women get better natal survival rates. How ironic that western societies are working to help people who live in squalor and abject poverty to have greater neonatal survival, while doing little to provide meaningful family planning. For eight years President George W. Bush stopped all funding for U.S. Agency for International Development family planning programs. He did the same for the United Nations Population Fund.

            Our politicians, particularly in Congress, are beyond cynical. In the name of small government or conservatism or free enterprise, they will gamble that our environment – the very air we breathe and water we drink – could go to hell . . . but paved with good intentions.

            To learn more about overpopulation visit www.populationconnection.org, or www.populationinstitute.org.

            Happy New Year to all.

Do People Cause Climate Change?

 

The debate rages on. Global warming – real or not? Do we humans cause it? Is it a political issue?

It’s hard to believe that anyone in Congress believes that global warming isn’t for real. There doesn’t seem to be much serious evidence that the surface of our planet is not warming. And while there is overwhelming evidence that humans are – at the very least – contributing to it, it’s marginally easier to accept the argument that human behavior is not contributing to it.

But what if – by some miracle – there were sudden consensus on climate change – and Congress decided to take drastic action starting on January 1? We’d still be behind the eight ball. Back to that pessimistic prediction in a moment.

Today the soon-to-be Republican majority in the House of Representatives decided to scrap the Select Committee on Global Warming. “We have pledged to save the taxpayers’ money by reducing waste and duplication in Congress,” said Michael Steel, speaking for House speaker-elect John Boehner.

            “The Select Committee on Global Warming was created by Democrats simply to provide political cover to pass their job-killing national energy tax. It is unnecessary, and taxpayers will not have to fund it in the 112th Congress.”

            On this Web site – and in our book Enough of Us – we try to stay out of partisan politics. So let’s frame the debate in another way. There are those in Congress who are worried about leaving future generations with an enormous national debt. Very considerate. And saving today’s grandchildren a penny apiece by killing this committee is a very generous gesture.

Beijing Smog Photo courtesy Kevin Dooley

            Let’s say, just for argument’s sake, that global warming is real. Are the same people who are unwilling to burden future generations with their grandparents’ national credit card debt willing to take the chance that they will leave those same progeny with a virtually unlivable environment?

            If we were to balance the national budget tomorrow, but allow our air, oceans, freshwater, flora, fauna, plains, mountains and natural resources to go to hell in a handbasket, how much would we be burdening those future generations, both in quality of life and in financial costs?

            It seems to us that the national debt naysayers – Democrat and Republican – are, ironically, making an enormous bet against the actuality of – and the responsibility for – climate change. Congress has been investigating, debating and discounting global warming for years. If they are right, bully for them. But if they are wrong, the United States, by far the world’s greatest per capita polluter, will be left in the dust as an environmental global leader.

            Since its inception in 2007, the Select Committee has held more than 75 hearings focusing on the impacts of global warming, ending America’s reliance on foreign oil, and the creation of jobs in the clean energy sector.

            However, the committee is not empowered to write clean energy or climate legislation. Such legislation traditionally originates in the House Energy and Climate Committee and the Natural Resources Committee. Since the Republicans will take over those committees in 2011, and with everyone in that party tripping over themselves to prove how far to the right they are, things are looking bleak for reform. And if global warming is what the vast majority of scientists and energy experts say it is, things look even bleaker for future generations of Americans who will have to foot that bill.

            Back to that eight ball we mentioned. As long as our population continues to increase, we might never improve upon our production of climate changing waste. That’s because as we create greater efficiencies in clean energy production, agriculture waste, and any variety of industrial pollution, the demands of consumer society will continue to due to our increasing population.

            The global warming elephant in the room is us. People. Americans. And everyone else in he world. But if we live in denial about climate change, and about how overpopulated we already are, we cannot lead the world in becoming more environmentally efficient.

            Wouldn’t it be ironic if China one day eclipses us in that arena and the United States is then referred to as a Second World country?