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by Albert Bates   
27 December 2012
We complain about the slow progress of the climate talks, but what about the even slower progress on efforts to curb semen emissions?

Consider this: each day the population of humans on the planet expands by more than 200,000. That is one good-sized city, complete with water, food, energy, transportation, communication and sanitation infrastructure. To feed that city may require, if storage and process losses are kept to a minimum, 1 million kilocalories every day - something like a 20-acre stockyard of cattle, a Tyson's poultry farm the size of a superdome, and a large fleet of Japanese fishing vessels seine-netting dolphins as they scour the dwindling ocean stores for tuna.

And the next day, you have to find somewhere to put another, while still feeding the first.

Today's global population size is at its peak in terms of the number of those alive today compared to the total number of people who have ever lived. One of the features of an exponential curve is that the squares keep doubling. But growth slows, and deaths catch up.

Imagine UN negotiators agreeing to an excise fee on babies - or a "birth tax," if you will. Suppose a prospective parent couple could purchase, for a small, but appreciating, price an indulgence that permitted them to have an extra child over and above the allotted number.

The rules of the exchange might require that privilege be gained at the expense of a fertile would-be-mother somewhere in a poorer, more desperate part of the world, who was willing to sell her quota right for the contract price, less broker fees. The transaction might be recorded on a Chicago Birth Exchange, let us say. It might be further insured, for verification purposes, by surgical removal of the donor's remaining fertile eggs. Thus the blessed couple would gain another child by picking some "low hanging fruit;" taking some population pressure off poorer countries and shouldering it in a wealthy country, better able to provide.

If we can agree that the "terrestrial parking space" on Earth - the land available for inhabitation - has already been exceeded (a fair assumption given unsustainable depletion rates for most natural resources), we'll need to set annual birth rations below equilibrium to force a gradual population contraction.

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Lets say we want to de-grow global population by 200,000 per day. It would take 70 years just to get back to where we were mid-20th century. Gauging available resources - most importantly a decline in the availability of the high-quality energy that we apply to satisfying food and water demands - we may not have 70 years. We may need to double down and de-grow by, say, 400,000 per day.

We needn't run all the numbers here, and it would be problematic, but we can just stipulate that a global quota could be set at "X children per fertile female-lifetime," and that would form the basis for the daily price in contracts negotiated on the Chicago Birth Exchange.

We are a long way from that kind of treaty.

And then, just imagine how it might fare in the US Senate, to say nothing of the Indian Parliament. The alternative, of course, is simply to let nature enforce her own quota, which she usually does by withholding food. Given our other failed negotiation- the Framework Convention on Climate Change - that outcome is in the pipeline. If Peak Oil, GMOs, or the collapsing global economy don't kill our industrial style of agriculture, killer storms and droughts will.

Working on the angle of changing agriculture from inefficient, energy-intensive, soil-destroying practices to alternative, organic and permacultural methods that use energy-saving human labor and build nutrient density in both soil and crops, we can only get so far. Studies suggest that going organic could boost global food supply a few percent, at best. Permaculturists and eco-agriculturists could redesign many large-field grain mines to rotate through food forests. They could replace concentrated cattle-feeding operations with free-range animals living sustainably within the confines of those rotations. This can support large populations, but not growing ones, and probably not 7 billion; maybe not even half that.

Sustainable agriculture will not involve genetic engineering. That way of hustling funds from governments, donors and shareholders to fund giant labs packed with biotech grad students is a blown meme - stick a fork in it. No genetically modified organism has ever demonstrated superiority to the natural organism it replaced, or solved any problem for which it was designed without creating more serious ones as a side effect. Period. It is a shuck.

So also is classical economics, that tells us demand creates supply, just wait for it. So is the claim that somehow technology can be substituted for cheap energy. Or that markets are neutral arbiters that will always separate grain from chaff. Stick a fork in all that nonsense.

No, the stark choice is between vasectomies and funerals. The sooner we get on with it, the better.

Wouldn't it be great if the kids taking to the street in Zuchotti Park, Plaza del Sol, or Doha all had their tubes sewn shut or eggs scraped? What if they wore that fact as a proud badge of personal freedom and planetary citizenship? What would that take? Celebrities? Suppose Chris Hedges, Julia Roberts, Julian Assange, Evo Morales, Naomi Klein, Shakira and Brad Pitt marched out of sterilization clinics sporting little blue ribbons.

Blue for that jewel of a planet that supports us, within limits.

* * * * *

Albert Bates is author of The Biochar Solution (2010, New Society). and The Post-Petroleum Survival Guide and Cookbook: Recipes for Changing Times (2006, New Society). He directs and offers courses at the Ecovillage Training Center at The Farm, Summertown, Tennessee (ETC). His blog is peaksurfer.blogspot.com
To see his writings on this website, see Albert Bates on CultureChange.org

Further reading:

Population Is Popping: Why We Cover Our Ears and Eyes, by Jan Lundberg, April 2012

Population growth must be addressed with insight, by Michael Poremba and Jan Lundberg, March 2009

Review of Robert Engelman's Population, Nature, and What Women Want by John Wertime, July 2008

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Intensive crop culture for high population is unsustainable, Culture Change, Feb. 2008 (part 1)

Unsustainable soil mining: past, present and future, Culture Change. Feb. 2008 (part 2)

12,000 years of population graph courtesy survivalretreat.net

World oil and population graph courtesy Paul Chefurka, paulchefurka.ca May 2007

Comments (11)Add Comment
I love all of this but the egg-scraping part. Tube-tying should do the trick without messing up anyone's ovaries, thank you very much. Love the Vasectomies vs Funerals meme. Perfect. Good luck to us!
kelpie wilson
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This is about as likely to happen as it is for people like Albert Bates to stop flying to environmental conferences around the world.
Helen Highwater
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Not sure what this piece is supposed to be aimed at, but if advocating workable policies to help reduce population growth, and the associated burdens of a new 200 thousand population city equivalent per day, is among those goals, one possible improvement would be to "scrape" away the paragraphs after the first four and start the fifth with: "Imagine UN negotiators agreeing to guarantee safe quality primary and secondary school education for each of the (say roughly) 400 thousand new births per day." (Assuming the 200+ net growth results from on the order of 400 births less 200 deaths).

Most of those births are occurring in poorer, less developed countries. If richer countries contributed an amount for education per child equal to half what the U.S. currently spends on its primary and education, that would cost an annual total (for all the rich countries) equal to about the military budget of the U.S. alone. Universal education through at least secondary school would mean educating all girls as well as all boys, and there can be little doubt that better educated women will want more choices in adulthood, if not for themselves then at least for their own daughters. This in turn will lead women, particularly in the highest population growth areas, and for basically sound and sensible and socially beneficial reasons, to voluntarily want, and in many cases also actually have, a lot fewer children. Quality education cannot be established overnight, and the 200 thousand net new mouths to feed per day will not decline right away, and might even rise for some years, but will almost surely fall long term if all girls in the poorest countries are at least getting a decent education through about age 16 or 17. And this would be a straightforward, non-radical, affordable, feasible, and substantial step towards a more sustainable global human population.
Drew Keeling
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We in the US consume as much as 32 Kenyans. It's not necessarily the amount of children or those being born in poorer nations that's the issue. It's the populations of affluent countries we should be addressing....um, like us.
CarrotChasing
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would dare suggest that in lieu of taxes, and the ridiculous idea paying to educate all 3rds world women, we simply eliminate the subsidies to "we breed em, you feed em". No welfare, no immigration from 3rd world nations, no foodstamps and section 8 housing making it more lucrative for a poor gal to stay home instead of working at Walmart. (In Detroit, 2 of 5, Twelve year old girls gets preggers, simply to get welfare and get away from her own dysfunctional mother.) No famine relief except in cases of earthquake, etc. NO fertility doctors, no artificial insemination.

In cases of pregnancy in the western world, the female can a) decide to abort or, b) decide to have the male pay for 18 years. Allowing the male to have a vote in the unplanned pregnancy, would eliminate this attraction.

Begin to treat mother hood not as a right, but as a privlege to be earned. The present system is simply foster devolution culturally, as well as planetary doom.
joshua kinch
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Please note the revised fourth paragraph, done today after consultation between Albert Bates, Richard Register (Ecocity Builders) and me.
Wow, heavy comments here, thank-you all. I don't want to speak for Albert, but I'm sure he's familiar with all the arguments and info presented thus far in these comments.
As those relatively few of us, who are thoughtful enough to care, keep on talking and debating (indeed as we should), "Population Is Popping" (my article link above). - JL
depaver jan
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Since we are already well into overshoot, and have proven incapable of making timely successful global agreements to lessen either kind of emission, Nature is going to take care of the problem in her usual opportunistic messy way. How to return the bodies to the depleted ecosystem in the most beneficial way might be the most important decision we can make. Burning them into further CO2 emissions or burying them too deep for nutrient cycling merely maintains our fatal linear thinking.
Windship
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200,000 every day...this is scary :O
hector
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Demography, Territory & Law: The Rules of Animal and Human populations
by Sheila Newman
Kindle:
http://www.amazon.com/Demography-Territory-Law-populations-ebook/dp/B00ALE8YSA/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1356432147&sr=8-1&keywords=Rules+of+Animal+and+Human+populations

"The Rules of Animal and Human Populations establishes and explores a theory that there are distinct and predictable patterns of dispersal in all species, including humans and that, in human societies, these patterns affect the size of populations and the nature of economies and political systems. It looks at the rules common to traditional societies bound to particular localities, contrasting them broadly with modern settler states which have abstract concepts of membership and huge populations largely unrooted to locality and land.

The book begins by describing the social costs of infrastructure expansion and population growth in economic growth systems in some modern societies. After reviewing population theories, it introduces a new theory of an additional function of genetic diversity in two chapters that look at impacts on fertility opportunities of the Westermarck Effect and incest avoidance in non-human species. A final chapter compares these with kinship restrictions and non-sale of land in Pacific Islander and other traditional social systems. We learn that modern societies ignore these traditions at their peril and that Anglophone systems with rapidly growing populations a seeming norm are quite different from those of continental Europe, where population growth is slowing. We come to understand that our destinies and societies are still very dependent on who we are, whom we marry, how far away we live from our parents and whether we inherit, buy or rent, plus the transport we use.
Most economic demographic theory begins with the industrial revolution as its norm, ignoring the exceptionality and relative transience of this period and treating other species and the natural environment as ‘externals’. Although informed by ‘collapse’ theory (Tainter) Newman is interested in what keeps some societies going for thousands of years. She finds that stable populations are not limited to hunter gatherer communities. Newman’s completely new take on the 'riddle' of Easter Island which will surprise everyone."

Also available as paperback here: http://www.lulu.com/shop/sheil...96914.html
Queenie Alexander
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It suggests ideological blinders if someone were to treat population as irrelevant and focus only on per capita consumption. But this articles comes close to the opposite, focusing mostly on population and underplaying per capita consumption.

What Mother Nature (or Father Laws-of-Physics) care about is PC where P is population, and C is per capita consumption. It doesn't matter what P and C are individually, it's only the product that counts, if we are asking the central question of: what is the total amount of resources used (oil, acres of land etc)

Those who focus exclusively (or almost exclusively) on just C or just P have ideological blinders (not to mention blinders that see organic and permaculture matter, but forget that plant-based diet matters too, because that's an inconvenient truth)

Those who focus mostly on P will almost never, ever bother telling you that progress has been made on P, with the annual growth rate down from about 2% per year to about 1% per year. Is that enough? No, of course not, we need to bring the annual growth rate at least down to 0%/year, as our goal, but it's come a long way and the same **cannot** be said about C. In fact, not only is the rate of increase of P going down, but for C the rate of increase is not only not something that's happened but every politician explicitly says they will work hard to keep per-capita consumption increasing forever and ever. That's far worse than the position about populations. Politicians don't say or do enough, but they are not so extreme as to say, "my explicit goal is to deliberately work hard to keep population growing forever and ever, and in fact, to try to increase the *rate* of growth of population to try to make it increase even faster than it is increasing today" As inadequate as population policies and discussions are, this is not what politicians say. But that's the analog of exactly what politicians are saying and doing for per capita consumption. This is just one way (I could name others) in which C is more dire a threat than P, since in the case of P we're at least moving in the right direction and at least a significant portion of politicians admit it needs to be dealt with. The same is not true about C. Yet the physical reality of the burden. on the planet is equal to the product of P times C.

Time to talk (at least) as much and focus (at least) as much energy on ways of ending the increase of C as on P. Time to talk and take action (in a way that is a Steady State Economy instead of causing economic recession and hardship) on C, per capita resource consumption, both the global average, and in developed and developing countries taken as blocks, with policies geared to the specifics of each.
EconomicDemocracy
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Our past record of preservation, competition, war, and even genocide is proof enough that we will NOT make the right choices in time. There is no reason whatsoever for any optimism.

Using our own history as a guide then, it is very clear what will happen.

While this may seem pessimistic, it is simply based upon our track record. Hopium suggests that we can "hope" for something else, but fantasy isn't what this article is about.
Survival Acres
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