Why a shrinking human population is a good thing

30 06 2022

The other day I was asked to do an interview for a South Korean radio station about the declining-population “crisis”.

Therein lies the rub — there is no crisis.

While I think the interview went well (you can listen to it here), I didn’t have ample time to flesh out my arguments; I’ve decided to put them down in more detail here.

Probably the most important aspect that I didn’t even get a chance to cover is that globally, our economic system is essentially broken because we are forced to exist inside a paradigm that erroneously assumes Earth’s resources are infinite. They are not, as the global ecological footprint clearly shows.

To slow and perhaps even reverse climate change, as well as mitigate the extinction crisis underway, we are obliged to reduce consumption globally. Shrinking human populations will contribute to that goal (provided we simultaneously reduce per-capita consumption).

But that argument, no matter how defensible, is still not even remotely appreciated by most people. It is the aim of only a minority, most of whom have very little political power to engender change.

The oft-touted ‘crisis‘ of ageing populations is founded on the erroneous notion that it will lead to economic crises for the affected countries. Indeed, countries like South Korea and Japan have declining populations, others like Italy are stable and will be declining soon, and others like Australia are only growing because of net immigration.

The reason for the hyped-up panic generally comes down to the overly simplistic ‘dependency ratio‘, which has several different forms but generally compares the number of people in the labour force against those who have retired from it. The idea here is that once the number of people no longer in the labour force exceeds the number of those in the labour force, the latter can no longer support the entirety of the former.

This simplistic 1:1 relationship essentially assumes that you need one person working to support one retired person. Errrh. Right. Let’s look at this in more detail.

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Which countries are the ‘wealthiest’?

23 06 2022

Last week I wrote a post about various indices of country-level environmental performance, which I prefaced with a caveat that the data are a few years old.

This week I’m going to discuss national indices of economic performance and prosperity. There are indeed some surprises.

But standard metrics of economic performance at the national level almost universally fail to encapsulate the sustainable economic prosperity of its citizens. One could, for example, simply list the ‘wealthiest’ nations according to simple economic turnover by employing the standard, but wholly unsatisfactory metrics of gross domestic product (GDP) and gross national income (GNI). Even most economists admit that GDP and GNI are dreadful measures of ‘wealth’, and the differences between them are largely immaterial.

Top 5 ‘wealthiest’ nations according to per-capita gross national income: Qatar, Macao, Singapore, Kuwait, Luxembourg.

It is probably easier to view GDP as a speedometer, for it measures the speed with which an economy is contributing to the generation of goods and services (i.e., economic turnover), but it does not measure the loss of biodiversity, ecosystem services, and other environmental assets such as forests and mined resources, it does not measure the build-up of greenhouse gases or hormone-mimicking toxic chemicals, nor does it take depreciation of physical capital in our society’s infrastructure in account. As it turns out, GDP actually rises following environmental disasters such as a major oil spill because of the jobs created to clean up the mess, but it does not measure in any way the economic advantage of growing produce in your garden because the goods are not ‘traded’ in the standard market

Nor does GDP account for the disparity in wealth among a nation’s citizens, so even though most people might be poor, the existence of even a handful of billionaires can in fact raise a country’s GDP. The GDP metric is so unappealing that even the World Bank has tried to come up with better ways to measure wealth. Although it still falls short of measuring true wealth, ‘total wealth’ — measured as the present (discounted) value of future consumption that is ‘sustainable’ — tries to take into account a country’s present wealth minus damage to its non-renewable stock that is currently being exploited unsustainably (e.g., forests). As such, economic policies based on total wealth would be better able to ensure the long-term sustainability of a nation by including the ‘stock’ of existing capital that includes natural capital. 

Top 5 ‘wealthiest’ nations according to per-capita total wealth: Norway, Qatar, Switzerland, Luxembourg, Kuwait.

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Environmental damage kills children

1 10 2019

Yes, childrenairpollutionit’s a provocative title, I agree. But then again, it’s true.

But I don’t just mean in the most obvious ways. We already have good data showing that lack of access to clean water and sanitation kills children (especially in developing nations), that air pollution is a nasty killer of young children in particular, and now even climate change is starting to take its toll.

These aspects of child health aren’t very controversial, but when we talk about the larger suite of indicators of environmental ‘damage’, such as deforestation rates, species extinctions, and the overall reduction of ecosystem services, the empirical links to human health, and to children in particular, are far rarer.

This is why I’m proud to report the publication today of a paper on which I and team of wonderful collaborators (Sally Otto, Zia Mehrabi, Alicia Annamalay, Sam Heft-Neal, Zach Wagner, and Peter Le Souëf) have worked for several years.

I won’t lie — the path to publishing this paper was long and hard, I think mainly because it traversed so many different disciplines. But we persevered and today published the paper entitled ‘Testing the socioeconomic and environmental determinants of better child-health outcomes in Africa: a cross-sectional study among nations* in the journal BMJ Open.

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National commitment to conservation brings biodiversity benefits

16 06 2015

united-nations-dayWhat makes some conservation endeavours successful where so many fail to protect biodiversity? Or, how long is a piece of string?

Yes, it’s a difficult question because it’s not just about the biology – such as resilience and area relationships – in fact, it’s probably more about the socio-economic setting that will ultimately dictate how the biodiversity in any particular area fares in response to disturbance.

In the case of protected areas (that I’ll just refer to as ‘reserves’ for the remainder of this post), there’s been a lot of work done about the things that make them ‘work’ (or not) in terms of biodiversity preservation. Yes, we can measure investment, how much the community supports and is involved with the reserve, how much emphasis is put on enforcement, the types of management done within (and outside) of the reserves, et ceteraet cetera. All of these things can (and have to some extent) been correlated with indices of the fate of the biodiversity within reserves, such as rates and patterns of deforestation, the amount of illegal hunting, and the survival probability of particular taxa.

But the problem with these indices is that there are just indices – they probably do not encapsulate the overall ‘health’ of the biodiversity within a reserve (be that trends in the overall abundance of organisms, the resilience of the community as a whole to future disturbances, or the combined phylogenetic diversity of the ecosystem). This is because there are few long-term monitoring programmes of sufficient taxonomic and temporal breadth to summarise these components of complex ecosystems (i.e., ecology is complex). It’s no real surprise, and even though we should put a lot more emphasis on targeted, efficient, long-term biodiversity monitoring inside and outside of all major biodiversity reserves, the cold, hard truth of it is that we’ll never manage to get the required systems in place. Humanity just doesn’t value it enough. Read the rest of this entry »

Biowealth – a lexical leap forward for biodiversity appreciation

17 12 2010

Here’s a little idea I’ve been kicking around in my head that I’d like to invite you to debate. Call it an ‘Open Thread’ in the spirit of BraveNewClimate.com’s successful series.

© The Economist

Let’s face it, ‘biodiversity’ is a slippery and abstract concept for most people. Hell, even most ecologists have a hard time describing what biodiversity means. To the uninitiated, it seems simple enough. It’s just the number of species, isn’t it?

Well, no. It isn’t.

Unfortunately, it’s far, far more complicated. First, the somewhat arbitrary pigeon-holing of organisms into Linnaean taxonomic boxes doesn’t really do justice to the genetic gradients within species, among populations and even between individuals. We use the pigeon-hole taxonomy because it’s convenient, that’s all. Sure, molecular genetics has revolutionised the concept, but to most people, a kangaroo is a kangaroo, a robin is a robin and an earthworm is an earthworm. Hierarchical Linnaean taxonomy prevails.

Then there’s the more prickly issue of α, β and γ diversity. α diversity essentially quantifies species richness within a particular area, whereas β diversity is the difference in α diversity between ecosystems. γ diversity is used to measure overall diversity for the different constituent ecosystems of a region. Scale is very, very important (see our recent book chapter for more on this). Read the rest of this entry »

Unbounded economic growth destroying biodiversity

16 08 2010

…we can’t have more of everything instantaneously

…increasing takeover of the ecosystem is the necessary consequence of the physical growth of the macroeconomy

…consider telling the economist to go to hell

Herman Daly

© M. Leunig

Last month I had the privilege of listening to Rob Dietz of the Centre for Advancement of the Steady State Economy (CASSE) when attending the 2010 International Congress for Conservation Biology. He introduced the CASSE and their mandate – to promote stable or mildly fluctuating levels in population and consumption of energy and materials. This is the steady-state economy.

I’ve hinted before that our essentially linear economy (natural resource exploitation -> transport -> manufacturer -> redistribution -> sale -> consumption/use -> disposal (discussed in a very easy-to-understand way in the Story of Stuff) is not sustainable in the long term because of the finite resource base of the planet (think trees, coal, oil, arable land). My colleagues and I have even shown analyses based on hard data demonstrating that total wealth is the ultimate driver of environmental degradation at the country scale.

So, it is my opinion (and a growing number of others‘) that we need a new way of measuring economic prosperity, or the world will enter a state of permanent financial crisis. The mantra of constant economic growth is simply unrealistic as our human populations continue to expand. This is a very simplistic statement and on the surface an apparently impossible goal; however, people who put together the CASSE believe it is achievable.

It is for this reason that I have been communicating with Rob Dietz and others at CASSE about reposting some of their excellent essays on ConservationBytes.com. Please feel free to comment here on the subject matter because the CASSE people will be monitoring. I hope we can expand the readership and support base, and eventually start to convince politicians that growth will eventually kill us and a good slice of the planet’s biodiversity.

So with that, here’s the first repost by Professor Herman Daly entitled “Opportunity Cost of Growth“: Read the rest of this entry »

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