Friday, February 19, 2016

I think we're in real trouble

~ Mitch Brenner, from Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds, 1963

Following is the transcript for my contribution to this week's installment of Extinction Radio.

Thank you Gene, and welcome listeners, to the 24th Dispatch From the Endocene.

As winter is drawing to a close, I thought I would quote from Silent Spring, which Rachel Carson published in 1962.  She described the changes to a bucolic town…

“...a strange blight crept over the area and everything began to change. Some evil spell had settled on the community: mysterious maladies swept the flocks of chickens; the cattle and sheep sickened and died. Everywhere was a shadow of death”.

About the birds, she wonders: “where had they gone? Many people spoke of them, puzzled and disturbed. The feeding stations in the backyards were deserted. The few birds seen anywhere were moribund; they trembled violently and could not fly. It was a spring without voices.”

Carson was concerned about DDT pervading the environment, and the chapter titled “And No Birds Sing” describes the misguided attempt to save elm trees in Michigan by spraying the insecticide, resulting in “a lethal trap in which each wave of migrating robins would be eliminated in about a week.”

Ironically, now both birds and trees of all species face much more widespread and insidious multiple threats.  The entire ecosystem is collapsing from a miasma of anthropogenic insults.  Carson was only one of the more recent Cassandras warning humanity of hubris and excess.  There is a long tradition in Greek myths, including the stories of Pandora, Icarus and Prometheus.   Even further back in time, in the 6th Century BC, Lao Tzu wrote in Tao Te Ching:

When man interferes with the Tao
      the sky becomes filthy,
      the earth becomes depleted,
      the equilibrium crumbles,
      creatures become extinct.


One articulate contemporary Cassandra is Madeline Weld, who is President of Population Institute Canada.  She penned one of the most succinct summaries of our predicament recently for the Montreal Gazette and summoned up Malthus.  I’m going to read it, and I’ll post a link at my blog Wit’s End, because it will surely come in handy when you are talking to those troublesome deniers at the office or around the dinner table.

Saturday marked the 250th anniversary of the birth of Thomas Robert Malthus. I would like to wish him many happy returns. 
And he does keep on returning, doesn’t he, despite those who say he is wrong or passé.
His Essay on the Principle of Population argued that, if left unchecked, human population growth would encounter limits: “The power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the Earth to produce subsistence for man.” He foresaw famine, disease and much suffering, especially among the poorest. But in addition to these “negative checks,” he also recognized “preventive checks” like limiting birthrates and later marriage. As a cleric, he advocated “the chaste postponement of marriage.” 
Some 218 years after the first edition of his controversial treatise was published, we are still arguing about it. In 1798, the world population was under one billion. Now it’s 7.4 billion and counting. For the last 40 years, it’s been increasing by one billion every 12 to 13 years. 
Some people say that’s no problem, that we’re better off than ever. The Green Revolution staved off the starvation in India predicted by Paul Ehrlich in The Population Bomb. Advances in agriculture, medicine and other technology have made us richer and healthier. The late Julian Simon even said that ever more people is a good thing, since humans are “the ultimate resource” and every mouth to feed comes with a pair of hands to work and a brain to solve problems. What could go wrong? 
But things are going seriously wrong. To provision our ever-growing population, we are, in Ehrlich’s words, turning the planet into a “feedlot for humanity.” We have taken over about one-third of its land surface and scoured its oceans, wiping out several major fisheries and depleting the rest. Our “solution” of farmed fish creates other problems. High-yield Green Revolution crops require pesticides, fertilizer and water; the first two are becoming more expensive, the last scarcer in many areas. 
Homo sapiens’ appetite is gargantuan. As we strive to get at dwindling resources for ever more people, we dig deeper into the Earth, blow the tops of mountains, divert rivers, cut down forests and pave over swaths of land. We fill the land, water, and air with our pollution. We’re driving record numbers of species to extinction and decimating others with activities from chemical poisoning to hunting for bushmeat, or simply by taking over their habitat. 
Greenhouse gases from our industry are changing the Earth’s climate, with such dangerous consequences as ocean acidification, rising sea levels and flooding, changes in rainfall patterns including in vital “breadbaskets,” and loss of forest cover.
While the word “sustainable” has become popular, growing human numbers and activities are anything but. Increasing awareness of our impact has led to developments in renewable energy, recycling, earth-friendly farming and more. There have also been spectacular advances in family planning. But powerful —notably religious — opposition has kept governments and international bodies from actively promoting small families and prevented hundreds of millions of women who would plan their families from having access to modern methods. 
Those who deny that overpopulation is a problem say the poor don’t consume much. Yet the poor want nothing more than to consume more, as proved by India and China. Who can blame them? And a burgeoning number of desperately poor people does have a major impact: they cut down forests to grow food, drain rivers, deplete aquifers, and overfish and over-hunt in their local area. But make these points and you’ll be accused of blaming the poor for the problems of the rich. 
We seem bound to learn the hard way that there really is a limit to how many people the Earth can support. 
We wish it weren’t so, but it really is starting to look as if Malthus was right.

To conclude this Dispatch I would like to mention, for those who haven’t heard of it, a website called the Apocalypsi Library at the End of the World.  It’s meant to be a repository of all things doom, in categories ranging from art and music to science and philosophy.  The internet address is doom for dummies dot blogspot dot com.  I set it up a while ago as a resource that might be useful to those who are just encountering the bewildering issues and nomenclature around collapse and extinction, whether they arrive via concerns about peak oil, climate change, or from an economic perspective.  I haven’t updated it lately because the amount of new information and articles and scientific reports has become a staggering avalanche, but if you take a look and want to nominate a book, a blog, a painting or a movie, please email me and I’ll include it.

Thanks so much for listening.


  1. off to muir woods next month to pay last respects to the redwoods, what a species we be...

  2. another outstanding post, thank you. i love that quote from lao tzu. strange to live in such a constant state of cognitive dissonance: knowing that the ecosystem is imploding, living (going to work, raising two teens) as if it isn't. it's been a huge comfort actually to encounter your site (several years back) along with a couple of others. unlike most folks i interact with day to day, you're the opposite of oblivious. will check out the apocalypsi library and the madeline weld link.

  3. OFF TOPIC, but I think the following needs to be "shared" somewhere for further dissemination. However, please Gail, do what you will with this comment. In other words, you may delete it, move it, use it as the basis for your own future article, whatever... I won't mind one bit. :)

    Now that the "warning & caveat" are out of the way, I see you, Gail, had left comments on a couple of external threads I've just read today(26Feb). The first was on the most recent(?) article at Real Climate. However, the comment to which I want to focus attention is the one made by Hank Roberts (#37). I sincerely encourage everyone to click that link to his comment then click the link in his comment to the article by Bassis and Jacobs, "Diverse calving patterns linked to glacier geometry." (Note, that's the ONLY way I've found to gain "complimentary access" to the complete article by B&J, which I would deem a "must read.")

    Then I saw your comment on the latest(?) greenman(Peter Sinclair) interview with James Hansen in which the latter talks about the related "non-linear" dynamics of ice-shelves and glaciers. Another "must watch" for most anyone... with a couple of quibbles. First, I was a bit dismayed that Hansen didn't mention that rising sea-level will increase buoyant (aka "shear") forces on ice-shelves/tongues which will almost certainly lead to increasing rates of calving. Moreover, sea-level rise will also increase seabed water pressure which could lead to greater landward incursion of [warm-ish] water deeper (i.e., "upstream") under the ice-shelves and glaciers, adding to their acceleration of movement seaward and disintegration.


    2. Yep, that's the one I saw earlier and referenced, thanks for "correcting" my omission of that link! :)


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