Sunday, December 28, 2014

False Narratives on Population and Resource Depletion

"Choosing to have a child you can't take care of is like farting in an elevator. Sure you got it out, but now it's everyone else's problem."  -Richard Jeni

This article I came across depresses me in so many ways.  It's a clear example of the kind of mindset that's leading all of us into a world of hurt.  I'm not really sure if this author truly believes his own BS or if this is more of an intentional propaganda piece to reinforce the idea that the status quo is stable (I suspect more of the latter given the tone and status-quo friendly nature of the piece), but either way it's a perfect example of the uselessness of the mainstream media in general, and CNBC in particular:

“We just learned that the U.S. birthrate fell for the sixth straight year in 2013 to an all-time low.
Pardon me for sounding a bit alarmist, but this is really bad news for our economy, our society, and all of civilization.
Let's start with the economy. I know a lot of us have been brainwashed into thinking that our natural and manufactured resources are shrinking. We're often told that we have a choice of either radically reducing our consumption or our population or we'll eventually run out of water, energy, and food.
Excuse me, but this is hogwash.
That's because we heard the same thing in 1714, or 1814, and probably the year 10,000 B.C.  And they were wrong then too.”

Actually in many cases, they weren’t wrong.  Does he not realize how many civilizations, some of them rather complex, have collapsed at least in part because of lack of resources or resource depletion?  Try looking into Jared Diamond's book "Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed" for starters.  If our energy supplies are not in danger of eventual depletion, perhaps the author could explain why we are drilling in more expensive and difficult oil formations (shale, tar sands, and deep-water), or mining lower quality (and ultimately dirtier) coal for power generation?  These companies don't do these things on a whim or for the mere challenge of it, they do it because there are less of the easy or high quality resources available.

The idiocy continues:
“What's the biggest reason that the doomsayers about the end of the world's resources have always been wrong on?
The answer is that some members of those growing populations decided not to give up and came up with new ideas, technologies and resources to replace and improve living conditions. I'm talking about the people who have come up with the technologies to desalinate water, terrace mountainsides, drain swamps and fight disease with vaccinations and sewage treatment. I'm talking about the people who came up with kerosene to replace whale blubber, petroleum to replace kerosene, natural gas to replace petroleum, and so on and so on.”

Is that desalinization ‘miracle’ helping out the California farmers being devastated by drought?  For that matter, name one example of a usable energy source on the horizon that is not only as transportable and energy dense as oil, but is able to meet just half of our total energy needs?  You can’t because it doesn’t exist.  And those people who harp on about a ‘hydrogen economy’ solving our power needs seem blissfully unaware that on our planet hydrogen is ultimately a form of energy storage, and that still needs to be created from other forms of energy.  I like solar energy, but it cannot fulfill all our energy needs by a long-shot.  Even the most promising technologies, such as nuclear energy using thorium, have inherent limitations.  Technology cannot create energy, it can only help harness existing forms of energy or transform said energy to other forms of energy.  Technology is great in that it can help us better utilize what we HAVE, but it can’t create energy out of nothing.  And in case the author is unaware, as big as it is, the Earth is a finite system with ultimately finite resources.  The only way to get to truly have growth that lasts centuries is to have most of that growth occur beyond the boundaries of our planet, and even that has a multitude of extraordinary challenges, most of which we aren't ready for yet (partly because of politics and partly because some advances simply take time to mature).  We should be stretching beyond the boundaries of our planet, but not because of unthinking adherence to the 'growth is good' mantra.

And notice how the author equates having less children as ‘giving up’ on coming up with new ideas, technologies, and ways to harness resources?  This ‘less children bad, more children good’ kind of black and white thinking totally ignores the other social and economic factors that play into technological progress and breakthroughs.  What's better for technological progress... a planet with maybe 5 billion people where half of them are intelligent and/or motivated enough to advance technological progress, or a planet of 15 billion people with only 5% of said 'thinkers and doers' and the remaining 95% of them having the intellectual and social graces of Clevon from Idiocracy?

He goes on to say:
“All of the above came courtesy of humans. Reduce their number, and you also reduce your chances for the great innovations that make life better for the humans already on the planet and make life more comfortable and possible for billions more to join us.
In short, people are our greatest resource. Economic growth cannot occur without human growth. And this is not a problem that can simply be solved by increasing immigration.”

Aha, so here we get to the real issue… economic growth requires human (population) growth.  The author is correct here more or less, but I bet he never asks himself WHY we need economic growth or even if it’s always a good thing.  The real reason that economic growth is so important to us is that our current debt-based monetary system requires constant and exponential growth in order to stay stable.  So in essence he is saying we need population growth to sustain economic growth, which is a requirement only because of the particular debt-based monetary system we use.  The problem is we operate in a finite environment, and while technological cleverness can make us more efficient or introduce substitutes for certain requirements, eventually you will run out of something.  Silly notion here, but why can’t we simply change our monetary and economic system to suit the reality of our situation (i.e. that our world is ultimately finite and sometimes stability or even reduction in size of our economies might be called for)?  I would rather have more resources spread amongst a smaller population than less resources to distribute amongst a huge population.  But if the author thinks that's still a good thing, I invite him to replace his steak, chicken, or pork with bugs, because that might be what's for dinner if we pursue growth at all costs.

The author continues:
“That's because there's a societal price we're paying in this country for having fewer children later in life. Just about every parent I know will tell you that the moment their first child was born was the moment they truly accepted the responsibility of their own adulthood to the fullest. That's a moment I'm willing to delay for teenagers — we generally don't want them becoming parents that young. But when we start seeing more 25- to 45-year-olds who clearly haven't yet grown up yet, I get concerned.”

Horse***t!  Having a child does NOT universally instill greater sense of maturity or responsibility.   In SOME people like myself it may reinforce an existing sense of responsibility, but there are a hell of a lot of people who don’t do anything differently and act like the same irresponsible jackasses they always were.  And besides, there are many paths to maturity and responsibility besides raising a child.  I would argue that starting and running a business could be just as or more conducive to promoting responsibility and maturity.  And even should we accept the author’s assertion as a hard fact, then a couple having just one child is enough.  Two or three or more children wouldn’t make an appreciable difference, would it?

And that's not all. Our growth as a society is stunted when fewer children are around to induce maturity and better behavior in the rest of us — even if we're not parents. Don't we all endeavor to behave a bit better and safer in front of kids? Fewer children means more aimless and purposeless young adults, more violence, and more war. The excellent novel-turned-feature film "Children of Men" featured a chilling portrayal of a world with no birth rate and how it would descend into a nuclear holocaust.”
Again more black-and-white thinking, this time with a large helping of slippery-slope thinking and a garnish of fear.  If less children leads to more violence and more war, how do you explain Japan or South Korea or Singapore?  Their birthrates have become rather low, and I don’t see those societies breaking out in widespread violence and criminality, do you?  Yet much of the Middle East and central Africa, where there are high birth rates in excess of the world average of 2.5 children per woman, are increasingly violent and war-torn regions.  Yes there are other factors at work, but that is my whole point that the author's assertion is extraordinarily weak in the face of other trends and social factors.  The author is simply talking out of his ass here.  Especially considering his only ‘evidence’ comes from citing a fictional story portraying an extreme example of a near-zero birthrate.  

Later in the article the author goes off on family-friendly policies and social welfare and all that.  He has valid points on some of those, but those are tangents that lead off into the political weeds.  My primary criticism is the implicit assumption that growth is always good and it should be our top priority.

Before the accusation is leveled at me, I am not a proponent of population control by any stretch.  I want people to have the freedom to make their own informed decisions, and I think that with a better informed population, most people will voluntarily make family choices that lead to the global population stabilizing.  I'm also not anti-kid and not one of those handful of douchebags that looks down on the couples they call 'breeders'.  I have two children myself and I do feel richer having them in my life.  But my wife and I have these children because we can afford to raise them, and we also choose to stop at 2 kids because that's the number we're comfortable with financially and in regards to the larger issue of population growth (in terms of being under the population replacement fertility rate of ~2.1 children per woman in the developed world).  If a couple doesn't want kids for whatever reason, I respect their choice and I think others should too.  If a couple wants 3, 4, or more children AND it is within their means and their local environment to support that, more power to them as well.  But to encourage people to have more children simply because the monetary and economic system we are using needs that to stay stable?  That is irresponsible on an epic level.

The author has a right to publish his opinion, and even though I heartily disagree with his article, I would not advocate censoring him.  Even when it appears to be more of a propaganda piece meant to keep people ignorant.  But I sure as hell will exercise my right to expose this article for the irresponsible and factually-deficient piece of propaganda BS that it is.

On a final note, I think cartoonist Berke Breathed of Bloom County, Outland, and Opus fame says it best here:

No comments:

Post a Comment