Climate, Consumption, and Self-Control

Global-Climate-Change3Looking down the rabbit hole

Fresno Bee, January 23, 2015

The earth’s climate is changing. Last year was among the hottest on record. And human population continues to grow. Current projections estimate that the human population will grow to around 11 billion by the end of the 21st century, reaching 9 billion well before then. That’s an increase of between 25% and 50% from the current population of 7 billion.

Imagine 100 people crowded into a warm room. Now put 25 or 50 more people in that space. Now imagine them all wanting to live and consume resources at the level that Americans enjoy. If the scientists are right, we are heading toward a hot and crowded future.

The good news is that by now nearly everyone admits that the climate is changing. President Barack Obama mentioned climate change in his State of the Union speech. Pope Francis will address the issue in an encyclical to be released this year. And the U.S. Senate voted 98-1 this week to affirm that climate change is real.

Unfortunately, 49 senators voted against the claim that human activity causes climate change. This includes Sen. James Inhofe, R-Oklahoma, chair of the Senate Environment Committee. According to Sen. Inhofe, the Bible shows that humans can’t cause climate change — only God can.

A similar sort of denial occurs with regard to population growth. Pope Francis said this week that people should not “breed like rabbits.” But Francis backtracked a bit, later in the week, explaining that every child is a gift from God.

One obvious solution to both issues is birth control. Unfortunately, this solution is often taken off the table on moral grounds. The Pope, for example, opposes artificial birth control, advocating only natural methods for controlling sexual urges and channeling them properly within marriage.

Birth control is not the only solution. Another solution would be to reduce consumption. We could fit more people onto our crowded planet if each person consumed less. This is especially true if those of us in the developed world consumed a whole lot less. The earth could support a large human population if we all became vegetarians and lived much more simply.

But the difficulty of this solution is clear. The vegetarian option runs counter to our culture’s love of meat. And the idea of simplifying our needs runs counter to capitalism, which is based upon a model of continuous growth.

Carnivores, Catholics and capitalists do not appear to be inclined to change their thinking. We are creatures of habit, who remain committed to old ideas, even when they no longer make sense in present contexts.

We are also not very good at controlling our desires. Our inability to restrain ourselves helps explain a lot: from credit card debt to obesity and addiction. We readily sacrifice long-term goods for short-term pleasures. This explains why birth control — whether artificial or natural — fails. In the heat of the moment, passion undermines good judgment.

Good judgment also encounters resistance from strong cultural forces that are slow to change. When ideology is connected to self-interest, profit, and political gamesmanship, it is even more difficult to respond rationally.

The big question here is whether human beings are rational enough and virtuous enough to regulate our own behavior. Perhaps we are not much better than the rabbits of the Pope’s memorable analogy. Rabbits will continue to breed until they outstrip their food source, at which point the population declines. If human beings are like rabbits — unable to limit our reproductive or consumptive behavior — we may be doomed to a similar fate.

We often continue blithely along, ignoring reason and morality. We don’t change until we run out of money, until we are rushed to the emergency room, or until our addictions destroy our lives. We may be more like rabbits than we like to believe.

The ultimate solution is to stop hopping along the bunny trail. We should restrain our sexual activity, curtail consumption, avoid greed and profligacy, and live in balance with the world. Those are old moral ideas that make even more sense in light of the contemporary science of ecology. But these ideas will only prevail when we stop living like rabbits and start behaving like rational human beings.

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With 7 Billion of us, Can We Keep Buying Nonstop?

With 7 Billion of us, Can We Keep Buying Nonstop?

Fresno Bee, November 5, 2011

It is difficult to balance individual liberty with concerns of a global nature.  We want to be free to consume and reproduce.  But the choices of free individuals add up, creating significant impacts.  This is especially true now that there are 7 billion human beings on earth—a number that will grow to 10 billion by the end of the century.

We passed the 7 billion mark on Halloween.  This is a kid-friendly holiday, which makes parents glad they have children.  But it also marks the beginning of the typical American over-consumption calendar.  Once the Halloween candy is gone, we turn to Thanksgiving gluttony and then on to Christmas overindulgence.  Imagine the environmental impact of 2 or 3 billion more people gorging themselves as we do every year.

Ecologist Madhu Katti, from Fresno State’s Biology Department put it this way in a recent post on his blog, “A Leaf Warbler’s Gleanings”: “There are many reasons to be worried about the consequences of having so many of us crowding this pale blue dot of a planet.  Especially if so many of us are keen to continue spending billions of dollars on seemingly cheap plastic junk.”  Common sense tells us that as population grows and consumption increases, we will hit a limit.

This point has been known, at least since the time of Thomas Malthus, the 18th Century economist.  Malthus is famous for arguing that as populations grow, they will suffer a dieback caused by environmental pressures.  He is infamous for hinting that it is wrong to support poor people since aid to the poor increases population in counter-productive ways.

So far, we have found technological solutions that have helped us avoid the grim Malthusian limit and reach the 7 billion mark: increased agricultural productivity, new sources of power, better medicine, etc.  But there may be a limit to technological solutions.  And as population and consumption grow, the Malthusian limit looms.

So what can we do?  Policies that use coercion to prevent people from reproducing are immoral.  The right to reproduce is very basic.  It would be wrong for the state to license reproduction or require sterilization.  The morally acceptable response to population pressure is to increase each individual’s sense of responsibility for reproduction.  Perhaps we could do the same for consumption.

This individualistic approach is, however, vexed by the problem of diffusion of responsibility.  When there are 7 billion other people involved, my own choices appear to be infinitesimally insignificant.  It is odd to demand that I should consider global population and environmental issues when thinking about my reproductive life or shopping patterns.

So where does that leave us?  Perhaps it helps to return to Malthus.  Malthus thought that one solution to the population problem was “moral restraint.”  He defined this as celibacy until marriage and refraining from marriage until one is ready to support a family.  Not only would this help to moderate population growth but Malthus also thought it would be good for women, since it would prevent the “evils and unhappiness” that arise from “promiscuous intercourse.”

Malthus was on the right track here, despite his prudish sense of sexual morality.  The key to population pressure is to find ways to empower and educate women, including giving them more control of their own reproductive lives.  Professor Katti explained it to me this way, “the empowerment of women and reduced infant mortality are the key factors” in slowing population growth.  Women choose to have fewer children when there is “greater economic security, better health, and some measure of control over their futures.”  This has helped to lower birth rates in industrialized countries as well as in places like Bangladesh.

So far, so good.  The further problem is that despite lowered birthrates, we continue to consume loads of cheap plastic junk.  Professor Katti continued, “we have figured out how to lower birth rates, but are far from tackling the wasteful consumerist lifestyle that is at the root of so many of our environmental problems.”

Is it possible that some version of “moral restraint” could work when it comes to consumption?  Instead of focusing on promiscuous intercourse, it may be time to begin thinking about how to limit promiscuous consumption.