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Overpopulation, vegans eating plastic, and the housing bubble PDF Print E-mail
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by Jan Lundberg   
13 December 2005
Culture Change Letter #117

Overpopulation and depopulation are like almost no other "unmentionable" subjects because they evoke major speculation, fears and strong opinions. As we are constantly using "ten Earth’s" worth of the planet's useable photosynthetic energy in the industrial age, by drawing upon the ancient solar deposits known as fossil fuels, this could indicate we are ten times overpopulated as ecological carrying capacity would allow.

But "too many people" sounds antisocial and harsh. Some folk like having so many "companions" (strangers around). Cities are commonly thought to be the greatest thing on Earth, despite such grave drawbacks as there being little public space anymore that isn’t fenced or paved.

No one wants to lessen the collective burden by being the one to "check out." Even so, some of us are looking at massive, involuntary die-off as a consequence of fast-dwindling petroleum for growing and distributing food. The bursting of the housing bubble could actually result from depopulation: fewer people in the cities as a result of starvation or an exodus to the rural areas.

In the collapse of the Soviet Union, one way the urban populations coped with food shortage was to take day trips to the countryside to plant and harvest. One stimulus for this strategy was seeing the food trucks pulling into town only to stop at the outskirts: they could stop and let people buy everything the truck had then and there. There was no need to drive the trucks further into the city, and this saved fuel too. Houses nearer the center of town were obviously less valuable under austere conditions.

What the particular food is all about can make a difference. For example, there is great concern that the increased meat eating in China puts a strain on world food supplies because animal farming uses so much grain and petroleum. This and other considerations point to vegetarianism and veganism as the only reasonable course.

On Amtrak coming back to the West Coast during my peak-oil speaking tour last month, I went to the dining car somewhere in Riverside County. The stark, arid beauty of the outdoors was rapidly giving way to tasteless urban sprawl. I just wanted breakfast and to enjoy real dishes and utensils. But because I tried to order just coffee and biscuits as well as any vegetarian food, and not bacon and eggs, I was denied service and was advised to go to the Snack Car. When I said I was vegetarian, I was asked if I would eat eggs. I said no, and was told I was a vegan and thus was banished to the Junk Food Car.

There everything is heavily packaged, nothing is organic, and plastics are microwaved around the food they cling to. A vegan would to better to eat the regular animal-based fare in the dining car from both the health and waste standpoints. A gourmet might as well eat in either car, if taste is all that matters. Of greatest concern is that Amtrak no longer recycles anything, unless we can trust them to sort through all the garbage and refuse that’s thrown together in thousands of huge plastic garbage bags each day.

Vegans eat no animal products of any kind, and many of them go further by refusing any leather clothing or accessories. It is most laudable to protect animals and to avoid eating factory-farm and high-cholesterol foods. Many vegans believe that there is no human overpopulation problem; to many a vegan it’s simply a matter of diet and changing agricultural policy.

However, a vegan may not be getting ahead in the health sweepstakes if he or she allows no end of plastic chemical exposure from plastic wrapping, disposable utensils, bottled water in plastic, using PVC pipes, and eats from canned foods containing plastic lining in caps and cans that have estrogen imitators. It is the latter that is also in popular Nalgene water bottles. And few people know that food wrap is PVC and therefore highly toxic.

A vegan who engages in the above practices and relies on petroleum for polyester clothing, or drives a car, or buys "organic" products shipped from great distances (increasingly in plastic packaging) is not only harming him/herself but harms the world. Some of this behavior is often based on ignorance. After all, society has kept the lid on the plastic plague. It has been sold as technological progress and essential convenience in a fast-paced world.

Making studies on toxic chemicals are unpopular with funders and institutions, but more reports are just starting to appear in printed media about plastics pollution of the oceans and our bodies. These reports never attack plastics in general nor petroleum. The interests of polluting industries and the technofix industries to come are always represented. People often just want to know, "what plastics are safer and when will plant plastics take over the market?" These questions are dead ends, as previous Culture Change reports have explained.

Without dwelling on academia’s shortcomings or censorship in corporate media, we can heighten our general awareness and take action. However, we must start addressing a dilemma such as plastic veganism as a case of yet another social movement of a narrow focus that does not fully address petroleum. In this age of war for oil, peaking global extraction of oil, and climate distortion from petroleum, many worthy causes such as rights for minorities are unfortunately becoming subsumed in the tsunami of petrocollapse.

Not to pick on vegans, let us imagine an ethical vegan is also active in composting, recycling, growing food in the community, protesting war, and conserving energy in electricity and transportation. This is beautiful, and who can criticize -- except those threatened by behavior that makes them feel guilty?

Vegans are always up for an interesting debate. Just point out to them that our species evolved eating meat as omnivores, and that animals such as the salmon and caribou are sacred and staple foods to many tribes. Such meat eating went on for untold millennia and provided excellent, concentrated nutrition. Ah, but the hunters and gatherers who lived as they did are not the ones killing and consuming most animals today, of course. Yet, there can be some meat consumption by the average American that is not factory-farm and is local and organic. All parts of the animal should be used, and the animal thanked or acknowledged as it is killed as humanely as possible, as traditional tribes did.

John Robbins wrote the ground-breaking Diet for a New America. His statistics on how many, many more times the energy and water are required for meat production as opposed to grain and bean production – for the same amount of protein – blew minds and started a movement. Even before the Alliance for a Paving Moratorium focused on the atrocious road-kill from cars, Robbins joined our Alliance and knew that society needed to focus on petroleum that is not just related to modern conventional crop production.

Supermarket Katrina The fear among peak oilists is that there is no viable alternative, for now, to the supermarket-agribusiness food system. But Culture Change editor moth urges us to consider,

"Common myths that claim we need industrial agriculture to sustain this large population may not be accurate if we factor in the success of organic urban farming in Cuba and the traditional ecological knowledge of indigenous Americans. Groups like Food Not Lawns advise people in suburbia to convert their lawns to gardens and grow symbiotic crops like maize, beans and squash."

While we can hope and pray that's possible, almost no planning is readying people for petrocollapse -- it will be like a Katrina hitting the supermarkets and their sources of food and energy.

Culture Change (successor to the Alliance as well as the Auto-Free Times) incorporated the population factor into our work soon after our founding. I was engaged to review Beyond Oil: The Threat to Food and Fuel in the Coming Decades for Virginia Abernethy and the journal she edited, Population and Environment. It immediately became clear to me that petroleum is feeding people and will let them down shortly. The coming crisis is rooted in our denial that our whole way of life and the course of civilization have been gravely mistaken. But there are practical reasons for high U.S. population growth and the denial that we are overpopulated:

Growth: the economy’s addiction

The United States has faster population growth than any other industrial country, and is the only such nation growing besides Britain. The source for the most of the growth in both countries is immigration and immigrants’ higher birth rate. In the U.S. the number of legal immigrants is about as large as the number of illegal immigrants, about three million per year total for the two varieties. Between January 2000 and March 2005, 7.9 million new immigrants (legal and illegal) settled in the country, making it the highest five-year period of immigration in the nation’s history.

Immigrant women have more births than those who remain in their country of origin. Once in the United States, Mexican women, for example, average approximately 3.5 children after arriving here, compared to slightly over 2 births per woman among the native-born. As per capita petroleum consumption is highest in the U.S., perceived wealth and economic opportunity ("growth") contribute to a sense of being able to care for additional children, according to Virginia Abernethy in her book Population Politics.

If more American consumers are bad news for the planet, and social services and the physical infrastructure are being stretched too thin by growth, why does legal immigration go on and on for the last quarter century at historically very high levels?

The reasons are (1) powerful corporations want an ever-expanding labor pool so as to keep workers’ wages down, and (2) an expanding consumer base means more widgets and gizmos will be sold whether they are needed or not. The major low-wage employers thus enjoy not just high legal immigration levels but much illegal immigration as well.

The big corporations and extremely rich donors and their lobbyists run Congressional priorities far more than the citizenry does. Consumer spending is acknowledged as the largest part of the economy. This spending is being kept going nowadays solely by smoke and mirrors, as debt is used to buy more stuff for the American home than income is used. Borrowed money is therefore fueling the current extension of economic growth. For anyone to crow that this is good, or that the economy is strong, means he or she is a lying politician or a Wall Street flack.

Economics drives politics, so reformers of politics are up against a current of what now is a mighty river out of control.

We must change our culture by rejecting growth as dangerous. The Earth is finite, and we have already gone way down the path of mega-extinctions of species. However, many conscious activists are convinced that there is no overpopulation problem. They believe that the distribution of wealth is where the whole problem lies. It is true that the world would be a different and more fair place if billions of dollars were allocated to the poor instead of for war on the poor. It’s shocking that for the 2006 tax cuts for the top 5% of the U.S.’s wealthy citizens, about 20 million people could be provided with health care and 17 million students given university scholarships. Despite the truth of what money could buy if spent wisely, it is vital that more people question the wealth to be redistributed, as Richard Register does when he points out that "a piece of the pie" may mean something negative if it’s an arsenic pie.

There is indeed a lot of food grown and wasted, but it must be remembered it is all via petroleum. Grain crops are also petroleum intensive, and almost all top soil is being lost at an alarming rate. It is too late to simply change some policies in land-use in order to feed everyone indefinitely. It is alarming that even a solar-powered tractor and organic farming use more energy than can be produced renewably on site, according to Wes Jackson’s research at The Land Institute.

Industrial agriculture has vast consequences beyond the bad treatment of animals and the diminishing topsoil. A modern example links survival of native species that are traditional food supplies to subsidized ranching and what author Daniel Quinn calls totalitarian agriculture:

"The sagebrush of Nevada's Great Basin ecosystem is drought tolerant and the preferred food of pronghorn antelope. Pronghorn antelope have evolved the ability to digest and gain nutrients from the sagebrush leaves. Cattle, sheep and other domesticated range animals are unable to glean any nutritional value from sagebrush. As a result, the ranchers clear out sagebrush and attempt to plant alfalfa, something cattle can eat. Since alfalfa needs more water than the desert can provide, the inland draining rivers of Nevada (Humboldt, Walker, etc..) are diverted from their streambed and used to irrigate the alfalfa fields (along with pesticides, herbicides, fertilizer runoff). These rivers would normally reach their final destination of several large inland lakes/wetlands (Walker Lake, Humboldt Sink, Pyramid Lake, etc..) all part of the former inland ocean called Lake Lahontan. Some ancient fish (cui-cui, Lahontan cutthroat) survived from Lake Lahontan and continue to migrate and spawn in these rivers. The result of rivers' being drained is increased salinity and drought, threatening the survival of these ancient fishes." -- moth

Even if the world were made up of benevolent vegans who did not even step on an ant, there are two stumbling blocks for high population: ecological carrying capacity and the web of life. Not only vegans but countless social-justice advocates believe there is no problem with population size. Fortunately, when it is pointed out to them that we cannot take over the whole planet for human beings because we depend on other species thriving as well, this usually gives them pause. Still it is hard for most people to question official projections of 10 or 12 billion humans this century. But once this impossibility is questioned, one can logically back off from believing 6.5 billion is a sustainable number. The world may be able to sustain one billion people (if the ecosystem is not too degraded already), according to some studies (David Pimentel, Cornell University).

Veganism is not a cure for overpopulation. If all the Bangladeshis and Indians went vegan overnight, this would not remove the many intense problems these poor nations grapple with. Granted, the high rate of veganism already in the Subcontinent is better than a low rate. The U.S. uses 300 times as many resources as Bangladeshis, for the nearly 300 million Americans (over)eating and consuming their way to global hell. Clearly, more U.S. consumers, of whatever color of skin, are bad news for the planet.

Commentator Alexander Cockburn cares much for the environment and is an excellent critic of the government on various issues. But he believes (last we knew) that anyone concerned about overpopulation must be a racist elitist – simply because, as he wrote, "Malthus was a capitalist pig." The corporate media are delighted to expose "racism" in tainting anyone concerned about excessive immigration by claiming it is the color of skin that disturbs. Corporations including oil companies are behind a few immigrant-rights nonprofit organizations. There is nothing wrong with immigrants having all the rights that anyone else has, but does the whole population (native born and foreign born) have the right or reasonable basis to consume and consume and consume?

To stabilize our numbers from immigration is to focus on the legal immigration, as it is so much easier to control. As for security, the 9-11 highjackers were all here legally and were even visible, so there should not be a huge push to put up the border fence with Mexico as has been approved by a U.S. judge in San Diego this week. There is a need for a Mexican to become a refugee when U.S. policies have hurt farmers in Mexico. But there could be U.S. refugees flocking to Mexico soon: People will just be pushing the fences down from the U.S. side when petrocollapse and/or climate change hit.

It is said there is no leadership in this country, but be assured that there is leadership that makes sure the population keeps growing. Once here, everyone’s rights can be stomped on in the police state or a FEMA-emergency event. The War on Terror (of Terror?) was promised by Vice President Cheney to not end in our lifetime. Thanks to population growth and the violent effects of crowding, the police state (from the Patriot Act, Republican Supreme Court decisions, etc.) will also never expire; the regime will attempt to get stronger as the system strains prior to the probable downfall of the U.S. come petrocollapse.

As Jared Diamond pointed out in Guns, Germs and Steel, any population size larger than a village starts to need laws and regulations so that random violence can be minimized and strangers can settle disputes. Conversely, in a band or tribe any dispute is dealt with quickly by people known to the disputants.

Overpopulation has personal costs

My anecdote of the Amtrak vegan-enforcers reflects a one-size-fits-all bureaucratic system. It would not happen if we were not so numerous as to need guidelines and pre-answers to consumer needs. Consumerism would not exist without high population.

We see examples of overpopulation each day, but none dare call it that. When the line is too long at the post office or bank, why not call it overpopulation? When the area code is split into two, or there’s a new zip code for more people, is it overpopulation? Not strictly, but it is due to growth of population and perhaps overcrowding.

When we face senseless urban violence, and feel no one will come to our aid so as to remain uninvolved and more secure, chalk it up to overcrowding and growth. What we need is community and familiarity with our neighbors. This means relatively small community size.

Once in Los Angeles’s Coliseum in 1972, for a concert of Sly and the Family Stone and the Bee Gees (no disco then!), I was getting my seat way up on the bleachers and a young man belligerently pushed me almost down the stairs. Without thinking I looked at him and said "I’m sorry." I immediately realized that I had done nothing wrong, and by his expression it seemed he had done this because I was of a different color of skin, that of the oppressor. Crowds in huge cities are a powder keg waiting to happen, and the spark will be severe petroleum shortage.

In Yellow Springs, Ohio, site of Antioch College and national peak oil conferences, there are only 5,000 people living in the whole place, with a large ecological preserve adjacent. I was in the tiny downtown one nice afternoon and saw what might be an eight-year old girl on her bike alone on the sidewalk. I was jarred by the uncommon sight that used to be completely common everywhere in the U.S. If another thousand people move to Yellow Springs, maybe the parents of little solo bike riders will start feeling they must clamp down on their children’s freedom.

Conclusion:

While veganism and other good causes are vital both for personal fulfillment and teaching others to live more lightly and compassionately on the Earth, such movements may serve primarily as a "remembered practice" when the survivors of petrocollapse are picking up the pieces and trying to live sustainably. The Earth cannot sustain today’s population of humans, and there is no sign of a concerted size-reduction except perhaps through the worst kinds of crimes and policies that may reduce further the carrying capacity of the planet for humans and most other life.

It is conceivable that a backlash against a major instance of nuclear weapon/waste mismanagement could result in a complete replacement of today’s rulers, resulting in saner policies and more humane, planned population reduction. However, we all may have run out of time for that. So perhaps the best hope is that petrocollapse -- and the advent of a more nature-respecting culture that would follow -- will bring about stable population size. Meanwhile, the housing bubble will burst soon, most likely in the context of massive socioeconomic upheaval due to severe energy shortage.

* * * * *

Announcements: Jan Lundberg will do an hour radio show on Dec. 15, 3 p.m. Eastern Standard (U.S.) Time, live web streaming at http://www.kpoo.com - or listen in the San Francisco Bay area at 89.5 FM. The program is called Reality Sandwich, co-hosted by Julie and Martin Matthews with others such as Jan.

DVDs are available for the Oct. 5th Petrocollapse Conference held in New York City. Please order via (1) PayPal at our funding page or (2) at address below, and make sure your mailing address is included. Cost: $22 which includes Media Mail delivery for 2 disks. Non-US addresses add $10. See and hear such speakers as James Howard Kunstler, Mike Ruppert, and many more, as well as our press conference in Manhattan. Visit http://www.culturechange.org/funding.htm or mail check or money order to Culture Change at P.O. Box 4347, Arcata, CA 95518 USA.
See roster of speakers at http://www.petrocollapse.org/

Further Reading and Links:

Population Politics: The Choices that Shape Our Future, by Virginia Abernethy, Ph.D. (1993, Plenum Press).

Overpopulation: Resources for Understanding and Taking Action (page at Culture Change website): http://www.culturechange.org/overpopulation_resources.html

Beyond Oil: The Threat to Food and Fuel in the Coming Decades, a book and econometric model by John Gever, Robert Kaufmann, David Skole, and Charles Vorosmarty (University Press of Colorado, 1991)

Diet for a New America, by John Robbins of EarthSave: http://www.earthsave.org/about.htm

Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change a book by William Catton (1982, University of Illinois Press): excerpt at http://dieoff.org/page15.htm

The Land Institute (Wes Jackson, founder) http://www.landinstitute.org/

Paul Goettlich’s Mindfully.org, a vast website for plastics information: http://mindfully.org/Plastic/plastic.htm

War on Plastics (Culture Change Letter #82): http://www.culturechange.org/e-letter-plastics.html

"Our Synthetic Sea": order DVD through Algalita Marine Research Foundation: http://www.algalita.org

Budget potentials if reform worked: http://www.nationalpriorities.org/

The Center for Immigration Studies: http://www.cis.org/articles/2005/back1405.html
CIS's "Population Growth, Immigration, and the Problem of Sprawl": http://www.cis.org/articles/2003/sprawl.html

Richard Register is at http://www.ecocitybuilders.org/

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