25 March 2010

Postconsumers - Finding the Satisfaction of Enough

Cartoon by Mike Swofford

Postconsumers was launched in January this year, and includes a lot of resources and information, including a brilliant cartoon gallery and an interactive handbook on how to Get Satisfied! You can also follow them on Facebook and on Twitter.

24 March 2010

Three Anathemas and You’re Out!

LOL! I like an economist with a sense of humour and irony...

'If some extractive natural subsector gets scarce, we will just substitute other sectors for it, and growth of the whole economy will continue, not into any restraining biospheric envelope, but into sidereal space presumably full of resource-bearing asteroids and friendly aliens eager to teach us how to grow forever into their territory.'

'...“let’s build a smarter planet,” IBM modestly suggests. How about some smarter economists first?'

'...Now, there is a real and important sense in which the original contribution of nature is indeed a “pie,” a pre-existing, undivided totality that we all share as an inheritance. It is not an aggregation of little tarts that we each baked ourselves...'

Excerpt from Solutions Journal, 10 February 2010

'A steady-state economy is incompatible with continuous growth—either positive or negative growth.

The goal of a steady state is to sustain a constant, sufficient stock of real wealth and people for a long time.

A downward spiral of negative growth, a depression such as we are entering now, is a failed-growth economy, not a steady-state economy.

Halting an accelerating downward spiral is necessary but is not the same thing as resuming continuous positive growth.

The growth economy now fails in two ways:

(1) positive growth becomes uneconomic in our full-world economy;

(2) negative growth, resulting from the bursting of financial bubbles inflated beyond physical limits, though temporarily necessary, soon becomes self-destructive.

That leaves a non-growing or steady-state economy as the only long-run alternative. The level of physical wealth that the biosphere can sustain in a steady state may well be below the present level. The fact that recent efforts at growth have resulted mainly in bubbles suggests that this is so. Nevertheless, current policies all aim for the full re-establishment of the growth economy. No one denies that our problems would be easier to solve if we were richer. The question is, does growth still make us richer, or is it now making us poorer?

I will spend a few more sentences cursing the darkness of growth but will then try to light ten little “policy candles” along the path to a steady state. Without a sufficiently dark background, the light of these candles is not visible in the false dawn projected by economists whose campaigning optimism never gives hope a chance to emerge from the shadows.

We have many problems (poverty, unemployment, environmental destruction, budget deficit, trade deficit, bailouts, bankruptcy, foreclosures, etc.), but apparently only one solution: economic growth, or as the pundits now like to say, “to grow the economy”— as if it were a potted plant.

But let us stop right there and ask two questions that all students should put to their economics professors.

First, there is a deep theorem in mathematics that says that when something grows, it gets bigger! How big can the economy get, Professor? How big is it now? How big should it be? And most pointedly, what makes economists think that growth (i.e., physical expansion of the economic subsystem into the finite, containing biosphere) is not already increasing environmental and social costs faster than production benefits, thereby becoming uneconomic growth, making us poorer, not richer?

After all, real GDP, the measure of so-called economic growth, does not separate costs from benefits, but rather conflates them as “economic activity.” How would we know when growth became uneconomic? Remedial and defensive activity becomes ever greater as we grow from an “empty-world” to a “full-world” economy, characterized by congestion, interference, displacement, depletion, and pollution. The defensive expenditures induced by these negatives are all added to GDP, not subtracted. Be prepared, students, for some hand waving, throat clearing, and subject changing. But don’t be bluffed.

Second question: do you then, Professor, see growth as a continuing process, desirable in itself, or as a temporary process required to reach a sufficient level of wealth that would thereafter be maintained more or less in a steady state?

At least 99% of modern neoclassical economists hold the growth-forever view. We have to go back to John Stuart Mill and the earlier classical economists to find serious treatment of the idea of a non-growing economy, the Stationary State. What makes modern economists so sure that the classical economists were wrong? Just dropping History of Economic Thought from the curriculum is not a refutation!

Here are some reasons to think that the classical economists were right:

A long-run norm of continuous growth could make sense only if one of the following three conditions were true:

  1. the economy is not an open subsystem of a finite and non-growing biophysical system,
  2. the economy is growing in a non-physical dimension, or
  3. the laws of thermodynamics do not hold.

Let us consider each of these three logical alternatives. (If you can think of a fourth one, please let me know.)

  1. Some economists in fact think of nature as the set of extractive subsectors of the economy (forests, fisheries, mines, wells, pastures, and even agriculture). The economy, not the ecosystem or biosphere, is seen as the whole; nature is a collection of parts. If the economy is the whole, then it is not a part of any larger thing or system that might restrain its expansion. If some extractive natural subsector gets scarce, we will just substitute other sectors for it, and growth of the whole economy will continue, not into any restraining biospheric envelope, but into sidereal space presumably full of resource-bearing asteroids and friendly aliens eager to teach us how to grow forever into their territory. Sources and sinks are considered infinite.

  2. Some economists say that what is growing in economic growth is value, and value is not reducible to physical units. The latter is true, of course, but that does not mean that value is independent of physics! After all, value is price times quantity, and quantity is always basically physical. Even services are always the service of something or somebody for some time period, and people who render services have to eat. The value unit of GDP is not dollars, but a dollar’s worth. A dollar’s worth of gasoline is a physical amount, currently about half a gallon. The aggregation of the dollar’s worth amounts of many different physical commodities (GDP) does not abolish the physicality of the measure, even though the aggregate can no longer be expressed in physical units... And it doesn’t help to speak instead of “value added” (by labor and capital) because we must ask, to what is the value added? The answer is natural resources, low-entropy matter/energy—not fairy dust or frog’s hair! Development (squeezing more welfare from the same throughput of resources) is a good thing. Growth (pushing more resources through a physically larger economy) is the problem. Limiting quantitative growth is the way to force qualitative development.

  3. If resources could be created out of nothing, and wastes could be annihilated into nothing, then we could have an ever-growing resource throughput by which to fuel the continuous growth of the economy. But the first law of thermodynamics says NO. Or if we could just recycle the same matter and energy through the economy faster and faster, we could keep growth going. The circular flow diagram seen in nearly all economics texts unfortunately comes very close to affirming this. But the second law of thermodynamics says NO.

So, if we can’t grow our way out of all problems, then maybe we should reconsider the logic and virtues of non-growth, the steady-state economy. And yet we see a refusal by neoclassical economists both to face common sense and to reconsider the ideas of the early classical economists—why?

I think the answer is distressingly simple. Without growth, the only way to cure poverty is through sharing. But redistribution is anathema. Without growth to push the hoped-for demographic transition, the only way to cure overpopulation is by population control. A second anathema. And without growth, the only way to increase funds to invest in environmental repair is by reducing current consumption. Anathema number three. Three anathemas and you’re out!

Without growth, how will we build up arsenals to protect democracy (and remaining petroleum reserves)? How will we go to Mars and Saturn and “conquer” space? Where can technical progress come from if not from unintended spin-offs from the military and from space research?

Gnostic techno-fantasies of escaping Earth to outer space, partially turning off the sun to make more room for greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and abolishing disease and death itself feed on the perpetual-growth myth of no limits. Digital-brained techies, who have never heard of the problem of evil, see heaven on earth just around the corner: “let’s build a smarter planet,” IBM modestly suggests. How about some smarter economists first?

Without growth, we must find a different god to worship. The communist growth god has failed, but surely the capitalist growth god will not fail! Let’s jumpstart the GDP and the Dow Jones! Let’s build another tower of Babel with obfuscating technical terms like sub-prime mortgage, derivative, securitized investment vehicle, collateralized debt obligation, credit default swap, toxic assets, and insider slang like the “dead cat bounce.” (If you drop it from a high enough tower of Babel, even a dead cat will bounce enough to make some profit.)

Or, let us not do that. Let us ignore the anathemas and instead think about what policies would be required to move to a steady-state economy. They are a bit radical by present standards, but not nearly as unrealistic as any of the three alternatives given above for validating continuous growth.

Let us look briefly at ten specific policy proposals for moving to a steady-state economy, that is, an economy that maintains a constant metabolic flow of resources from depletion to pollution: a throughput that is within the assimilative and regenerative capacities of the ecosystem.

1. Cap-Auction-Trade Systems for Basic Resources

Caps limit biophysical scale by quotas on depletion or pollution, whichever is more limiting. Auctioning the quotas captures scarcity rents for equitable redistribution. Trade allows efficient allocation to highest uses. This policy has the advantage of transparency. There is a limit to the amount and rate of depletion and pollution that the economy can be allowed to impose on the ecosystem. Caps are quotas, limits to the throughput of basic resources, especially fossil fuels.

The quota usually should be applied at the input end because depletion is more spatially concentrated than pollution and hence easier to monitor. Also, the higher price of basic resources will induce their more economical use at each upstream stage of production. It may be that the effective limit in use of a resource comes from the pollution it causes rather than from depletion—no matter, we indirectly limit pollution by restricting depletion of the resource that ultimately is converted into wastes.Limiting barrels, tons, and cubic feet of carbon fuels extracted per time period will limit tons of CO2 emitted per time period. This scale limit serves the goal of biophysical sustainability.

Ownership of the quotas is initially public—the government auctions them to individuals and firms. The revenues go to the treasury and are used to replace regressive taxes, such as the payroll tax, and to reduce income tax on the lowest incomes. Once purchased at auction, the quotas can be freely bought and sold by third parties, just as can the resources whose rate of depletion they limit. The trading allows efficient allocation, the auction serves just distribution, and the cap serves the goal of sustainable scale. The same logic can be applied to limiting the off-take from fisheries and forests. With renewables, the quota should be set to approximate sustainable yield. For non-renewables, sustainable rates of absorption of resulting pollution or the rate of development of renewable substitutes may provide a criterion.

2. Ecological Tax Reform

Shift the tax base from value-added (labor and capital) to “that to which value is added,” namely the entropic throughput of resources extracted from nature (depletion) and returned to nature (pollution). This internalizes external costs and raises revenue more equitably. It prices the scarce, but previously un-priced, contribution of nature. Value-added is something we want to encourage, so stop taxing it. Depletion and pollution are things we want to discourage, so tax them. Ecological tax reform can be an alternative or a supplement to cap-auction-trade systems. Value-added is simultaneously created and distributed in the very process of production.

Therefore, economists argue that there is no “pie” to be independently distributed according to ethical principles. As Kenneth Boulding put it, instead of a pie, there are only a lot of little “tarts” consisting of the value added by different people or different countries that are blindly aggregated by statisticians into an abstract “pie” that doesn’t really exist as an undivided totality. To redistribute this imaginary pie, one should appeal to the generosity of those who baked larger tarts to share with those who baked smaller tarts, not to some invidious notion of equal participation in a fictitious common inheritance.

I have considerable sympathy with this view, as far as it goes. But it leaves out something very important.

In our one-eyed focus on value-added, we economists have neglected “that to which value is added,” namely the flow of resources and services from nature. “Value-added” by labor and capital has to be added to something, and the quality and quantity of that something are important. Now, there is a real and important sense in which the original contribution of nature is indeed a “pie,” a pre-existing, undivided totality that we all share as an inheritance. It is not an aggregation of little tarts that we each baked ourselves.

Rather it is the seed, soil, sunlight, and rain (not to mention the gene pools and suitable climate) from which the wheat and apples, converted into tarts by our labor and capital, grew. The claim for equal access to nature’s gifts is not the invidious coveting of what our neighbor accumulated through her own labor and abstinence. The focus of our demands for income to redistribute to the poor, therefore, should be on the value of nature’s contribution, the original value of that to which further value is added by labor and capital.

3. Limit the Range of Inequality in Income Distribution

Without aggregate growth, poverty reduction requires redistribution. Complete equality is unfair; unlimited inequality is unfair. So we need to seek fair limits to the range of inequality: a minimum income and a maximum income. The civil service, the military, and the university manage with a range of inequality that stays within a factor of 15 or 20. Corporate America has a range of 500 or more. Many industrial nations are below 25. Could we not limit the range to, say, 100, and see how it works? People who have reached the limit could either work for nothing at the margin if they enjoy their work or devote their extra time to hobbies or public service. The demand left unmet by those at the top will be filled by those who are below the maximum.

A sense of community, necessary for democracy, is hard to maintain across the vast income differences in the US. When rich and poor are separated by a factor of 500, they become almost different species. The main justification for such differences has been that they stimulate growth, which will one day make everyone rich. This may have had superficial plausibility in an empty world, but in our full world, it is a fairy tale. I have advocated for a maximum income as well as a minimum income for a long time. The idea has been very unpopular, but thanks to the banksters and their bonuses, it is now becoming more popular.

4. Free Up the Length of the Working Day, Week, and Year

We need to allow greater options for part-time or personal work. Full-time external employment for all is hard to provide without growth. Other industrial countries have much longer vacations and maternity leaves than the US. For the classical economists, the length of the working day was a key variable by which the worker (self-employed yeoman or artisan) balanced the marginal disutility of labor with the marginal utility of income and of leisure so as to maximize enjoyment of life. Under industrialism, the length of the working day became a parameter rather than a variable (and for Karl Marx was the key determinant of the rate of exploitation). We need to make it more of a variable, subject to choice by the worker. Milton Friedman wanted “Freedom to Choose”— OK, here is an important choice most of us are not allowed to make! And we should stop biasing the labor–leisure choice by using advertisements to stimulate more consumption and more labor to pay for it. Advertising should no longer be treated as a tax-deductible, ordinary expense of production.

5. Re-Regulate International Commerce

It is time for us to move away from free trade and free capital mobility and globalization. We should adopt compensating tariffs to protect efficient national policies of cost internalization from standards-lowering competition by foreign firms that are not required to count their full environmental and social costs.

This “new protectionism” is very different from the “old protectionism” that was designed to protect a truly inefficient domestic firm from a more efficient foreign firm. We cannot integrate with the global economy and at the same time have higher wages, environmental standards, and social safety nets than the rest of the world. Trade and capital mobility must be balanced and fair, not deregulated or “free.” Tariffs are also a good source of public revenue. This will run afoul of the WTO, so….

6. Downgrade the IMF/WB/WTO

...to something like Keynes’ original plan for a multilateral, payments-clearing union, charging penalty rates on surplus as well as deficit balances. Seek balance on current accounts, and thereby avoid large foreign debts and capital account transfers. For example, under Keynes’ plan, the US. would pay a penalty charge to the clearing union for its large deficit with the rest of the world, and China would also pay a similar penalty for its surplus. Both sides of the imbalance would be pressured to balance their current accounts by financial penalties and, if need be, by exchange rate adjustments relative to the clearing account unit, called “the bancor” by Keynes.

The bancor would serve as world reserve currency, a privilege that should not be enjoyed by any national currency. The bancor would be like gold under the gold standard, only you would not have to dig it out of the ground. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) preaches free trade based on comparative advantage and has done so for a long time. More recently, the IMF, World Bank (WB), and World Trade Organization (WTO) have started preaching the gospel of globalization, which, in addition to free trade, means free capital mobility internationally. The classical comparative advantage argument, however, explicitly assumes international capital immobility!

When confronted with this contradiction, the IMF waves its hands, suggests that you might be a xenophobe, and changes the subject. The IMF, WB, and WTO contradict themselves in service of the interests of transnational corporations. International capital mobility, coupled with free trade, allows corporations to escape from national regulation in the public interest, playing one nation against another. Since there is no global government, they are, in effect, uncontrolled. The nearest thing we have to a global government, IMF/World Bank/WTO, has shown no interest in regulating transnational capital for the common good.

7. Move Away from Fractional Reserve Banking Toward a System of 100% Reserve Requirements

This would put control of the money supply and seigniorage in the hands of government rather than private banks, which would no longer be able to create money out of nothing and lend it at interest. All quasi-bank financial institutions should be brought under this rule, regulated as commercial banks subject to 100% reserve requirements.

Banks would earn their profit by financial intermediation only, lending savers’ money for them (charging a loan rate higher than the rate paid to savings account depositors) and charging for checking, safekeeping, and other services. With 100% reserves, every dollar loaned to a borrower would be a dollar previously saved by a depositor, re-establishing the classical balance between abstinence and investment.

The government can pay its expenses by issuing more non-interest-bearing fiat money to make up for the eliminated bank-created, interest-bearing money. However, it can only do this up to a strict limit imposed by inflation. If the government issues more money than the public wants to hold, the public will trade it for goods, driving the price level up. As soon as the price index begins to rise, the government must print less and tax more. Thus a policy of maintaining a constant price index would govern the internal value of the dollar. The external value of the dollar could be left to freely fluctuating exchange rates (or preferably to the rate against the bancor in Keynes’ clearing union).

8. Stop Treating the Scarce As If It Were Non-Scarce, but Also Stop Treating the Non-Scarce As If It Were Scarce

We should enclose the remaining commons of rival natural capital (e.g. atmosphere, electromagnetic spectrum, public lands) in public trusts, and price them by a cap-auction-trade system, or by taxes, while freeing from private enclosure and prices the non-rival commonwealth of knowledge and information. Knowledge, unlike throughput, is not divided in the sharing, but multiplied. Once knowledge exists, the opportunity cost of sharing it is zero, and its allocative price should be zero.

International development aid should more and more take the form of freely and actively shared knowledge, along with small grants, and less and less the form of large, interest-bearing loans.

Sharing knowledge costs little, does not create un-repayable debts, and increases the productivity of the truly rival and scarce factors of production. Existing knowledge is the most important input to the production of new knowledge, and keeping it artificially scarce and expensive is perverse. Patent monopolies (also known as “intellectual property rights”) should be given for fewer “inventions” and for fewer years. Costs of production of new knowledge should, more and more, be publicly financed and then the knowledge freely shared.

9. Stabilize Population

We should be working toward a balance in which births plus in-migrants equals deaths plus out-migrants. This is controversial and difficult, but, as a start, contraception should be made available for voluntary use everywhere. And while each nation can debate whether it should accept many or few immigrants, and who should get priority, such a debate is rendered moot if immigration laws are not enforced.

We should support voluntary family planning and enforcement of reasonable immigration laws, democratically enacted. A lot of the pro-natalist and open-borders rhetoric claims to be motivated by generosity, but it is “generosity” at the expense of the US working class—a cheap labor policy. Progressives have been slow to understand this. The environmental movement began with a focus on population but has frequently given in to political correctness.

10. Reform National Accounts

GDP should be separated into a cost account and a benefits account. We could then compare them at the margin and stop throughput growth when marginal costs equal marginal benefits. In addition to this objective approach, we should recognize the importance of the subjective studies that show that, beyond a threshold, further GDP growth does not increase self-evaluated happiness. Beyond a level already reached in many countries, GDP growth delivers no more happiness but continues to generate depletion and pollution. At a minimum, we must not just assume that GDP growth is “economic growth,” but we must prove it. And we can start by trying to refute the mountain of contrary evidence.

While these policies will appear radical to many, it is worth remembering that they are amenable to gradual application. 100% reserves can be approached gradually, the range of distribution can be restricted gradually, caps can be adjusted gradually, and so on. Also, these measures are based on the conservative institutions of private property and decentralized market allocation. They simply recognize that private property loses its legitimacy if too unequally distributed and that markets lose their legitimacy if prices do not tell the whole truth about opportunity costs.

In addition, the macro-economy becomes an absurdity if its scale is structurally required to grow beyond the biophysical limits of the Earth. And well before reaching that radical physical limit, we are encountering the conservative economic limit in which extra costs of growth become greater than the extra benefits, ushering in the era of uneconomic growth, so far unrecognized.'

Believe Me - A Storytelling Manifesto for Changemakers & Innovators

Free e-book from Get Storied

'This Storytelling Manifesto for Change-Makers and Innovators takes you on a three act journey that explores: How Ideas Become Reality, Engaging the Status Quo, and Finding Relevance.


'Believe Me presents 15 storytelling axioms that can shift how you think about the world. In this quick and provocative read, you’ll explore a new mindset for better relating to others in this new age of communications. If you’re trying to influence, persuade, or convince others to believe in your message, you’ll want to read this book.

If You Want to Change the World, Change Your Story

The storytelling axioms in Believe Me are time-tested principles for achieving lasting change in your organization or community.

Each axiom is supported by examples and inspiring quotes from recognized luminaries, including: Barack Obama, Seth Godin, Gloria Steinem, Tom Peters, and Joseph Campbell. Believe Me will equip you with the knowledge you need in order to create change at the deepest levels. Knowledge like:

  • What people really buy (hint: it’s not the product, service, or idea you’re selling)…
  • What causes the power of your story to grow exponentially…
  • What do the stories from all great leaders have in common…'

You Can't Change Anything You Hate

Excerpt from Get Storied, 15 March 2010

'Change is the new business as usual.

It seems everywhere I turn I see a world in flux, in change, under seismic shift. Its easy to feel like you don’t know what’s the real ground you stand on. Because the old ways of doing, the old ways of navigating, and the old ways of communicating – are past their expiration date.

Like me, I bet you’re really curious about the process of change. I hope you’ve read Dan and Chip Heath’s latest book Switch...

They introduce a wonderful metaphor that they carry throughout the book: the rider, the elephant, and the path. The rider is our conscious mind – it tries to direct the show. The elephant is our unconscious and emotional landscape which really runs the show. The path is just that, and you need to have a sense of which direction to steer the elephant...

Switch offers great context for one of my own personal axioms: “you can’t change anything you hate.” Think about that. Whether you’re trying to lose weight, deal with someone’s behavior, or change the way your company does business, negative emotion is the deal-breaker. Considering I’ve put back on those extra twenty pounds in the last few months, I’m still working on this one. We’ve become a culture of self-righteous indignation – whether that’s yelling at your spouse for not washing the dishes or yelling at some part of society that needs to act in a different way. When are we going to realize that “s/he who yells loudest doesn’t win?”

When you communicate or frame your change story from a place of anger, fear, or judgment – you’re triggering the reptilian part of the brain in the mind of your audience. We’ve all heard of “fight or flight”, its a basic survival mechanism. By challenging your audience and pointing out their flaws, they will respond in one of two ways – (1) fight: who the hell are you to tell me!?…, or (2) flight: you stick your head in the sand and look the other way. Either way, the very thing you’re trying to change has been activated and triggered to preserve its survival. If you turn to judgment, you’ll have a much harder time getting the change to stick.

In my storytelling manifesto Believe Me I explore this idea further:

In any given situation, a dominant story already exists. Who controls this story? It might be your biggest competitor, a recognized adversary, or the established social norm. You need to crack the existing code before you can socialize your own story into reality.

The trick is not to confront or challenge the status quo head-on. Rarely does anything productive emerge from gruesome hand-to-hand combat. And yet so many people trying to effect change or innovation prepare themselves for battle.

The moment you question and challenge someone else’s beliefs, the debate is over—before it’s even started. You must instead nurture and seduce your new story’s acceptance. Do not judge or negate the established storylines. They have played an important role serving the social order. Perhaps, the old story has outgrown its utility or relevance, which is why your new story can find fertile ground. Just look for the cracks where new flowers can sprout and blossom.

Whatever constraints you perceive in the existing market are usually connected to the old story. Look for the bigger story—the more universal human story that cuts across old boundaries, limits, and categories. Break free from mental slavery and you’ve completely redefined the problem. With this shift in perspective, the solution is often much easier to achieve.

Instead of engaging the reptilian brain, connect at the limbic level, the sphere of emotion. Psychologists say there are two basic emotions; fear and love. When your story engages people from a place of love and acceptance, a new kind of relationship is possible.

Here’s a new term for you – “emotional overhead”. Got it from my new friend Jerry Michalski. What a great word, Jerry! If you’re feeling exhausted, my guess is its probably more emotional than physical. Whenever we go through change, and part of us is resisting the process (we’re scared, uncomfortable, feeling judged, etc…), it creates piles of stress. I usually feel it as big giant pillars of concrete on my shoulders. All that stress is expressed as emotional overhead. It drags us down, it makes us tired, it limits our sense of possibility.

You can’t be in the flow, when you’re overwhelmed with emotional overhead. Lets be honest, we don’t do such a good job of acknowledging, much less releasing all that emotional overhead. And all that weight is quite demanding. It often shows up as the urge to eat that whole pint of ice cream, order that extra cocktail, play with one’s crackberry, spend six hours at the gym…

Emotions are simply calling for our attention. The more we ignore them, the louder they’ll start yelling, kicking, and screaming. How much are emotions in charge of your life?

Consider your sources of stress. Its usually either you worrying about the past or fretting about the future. If you are truly present, in the moment; and I mean really present, most stress melts away. If you can change your relationship with the past and the future, you can accomplish anything. That’s something for all of us to practice. I know I can be so busy doing all the time, that I forget the being part of the equation. Its in the process of being, that the obsessive chains of attachment start to loosen. Now just consider, the story implications!

...Learning how to re-story your situation or your organization is a fundamental process in releasing emotional overhead. All that emotion is what weights us down. If you can create more space and lower all those drag co-efficients, you’ll be ready to step if not leap into your new story.'

23 March 2010

The Problems With The Problem

Pulls no punches, makes some salient points...

Excerpt from The Population Elephant, January 2009

'...Unfortunately, in today's world, we are content to address only the consequences of the The Problem - climate change, energy depletion, food shortages, etc. This is the same classic mistake that a physician makes in treating only the patient's symptoms, and ignoring the fundamental disease.

So then, the million dollar question is: "Why aren't we addressing the real problem?"

First - A brutally honest reality check is necessary

World population stands at over 6 billion today. Every four days one million more people are added. Reasonable projections put world population at between 9 -11 billion by 2050. Rocket science is not required to understand what that implies for the host of issues (symptoms) listed above.

CO2 emissions are causing global warming. This is a fact. Many in the scientific community propose that an 80% reduction in CO2 emissions by 2050 is necessary to forestall the extreme consequences of global warming. But how can this be done when at the same time we are adding 3, 4, or even 5 billion more people to the world?

Get real - it can't!

Likewise for energy and food consumption - the addition of billions of people means that these commodities will dramatically increase in consumption. But these are finite resources, already we are far above sustainable levels. So, can this go on forever?

Get real - it can't!

Can the use of new light bulbs, hybrid cars, cloth grocery bags, and mass transit offset the sharply upward consumption demand that will come from both the increasing world population and the dramatically increasing standard of living of the existing populations in developing countries like India and China? No way!

Get real - it can't!

So why aren't the sirens blaring, why isn't the alarm sounding, why isn't this even being discussed?

In fact, the opposite is happening. There have been several recent opinion pieces in the Boston Globe and the New York Times expressing the belief that we have a problem with decreasing population! Absurd.

Why then is overpopulation not discussed? The Problem, it turns out, has many fatal problems of its own:

Five Fatal Problems with The Problem

1. There is no money in it

Going "Green" is a huge industry. Thousands of companies are trying to sell you efficient light bulbs, hybrid cars, cloth grocery bags, solar panels and a host of other gimmicks and gadgets.

Alternative energy sources need massive investments in capital expenditures and research and development.

Government grants to universities, venture capital, bond issues, etc., all create a whirlwind of financial activity.

Money is to be made everywhere. And with these massive financial opportunities come huge profits, well financed lobbyists, publicity, and media creation. Indeed, the media explosion surrounding "going green" is a major industry all by itself. Everyone benefits financially by "going green". Though, in the end, it is not a solution. At best, it will only modestly delay the dire consequences of our current over-consumption.

But, conversely, who would benefit financially from reducing the Earth's population? No one! There is absolutely no money to be made in the one and only solution - fewer people.

So - one problem with The Problem is that it is a pauper, and therefore has no friends.

2. Not my problem - the short term view

The United Nations provides the basic population projections that everyone else quotes. There is some arbitrariness necessary to create these models. For instance, the year 2050 is the endpoint for their current set of projections for no reason other than it is a convenient round number.

Almost every article written about population growth quotes the figure of 9 billion people by 2050 (though the UN projects other possible 2050 outcomes of 7, 11, even 13 billion). And then the reader of the article goes: "So what, I won't be around by then." As if the problem won't happen until 2050.

I can't speak for the rest of the world, but I would strongly assert that in the United States, the "event horizon" for concern about the future, is short and getting shorter. A major problem that arrives in 2050 is too far away for most people to even think about, much less do anything about.

Not only that, but you can't reduce The Problem to a short time frame and have it make sense to the average person. To say that there will be two million more of us on the planet in just a little over a week (a true statistic) also gets a big "So what?" "These two million newcomers aren't in my neighborhood, so why should I care?"

Unfortunately, even though the problem won't manifest itself for several decades, the solutions must begin now!

So - one problem with The Problem is that by the time it becomes obvious to the average person, it will be way too late.

3. The world's fundamental systems oppose it

Today there are three dominant systems that define and control the culture of human beings - democracy, capitalism, and religion. And unfortunately, all three of these fundamental systems work against addressing The Problem.

Democracy, to our great benefit, allows us the freedom to make certain personal choices. Among those is the choice of how many children we are allowed to have. No democratic government would even consider limiting that choice - because, at the first opportunity, they would be voted out of office. Simply put - it is impossible to imagine a situation where any mandate resembling population management could be enacted under a democracy.

Capitalism requires growth. Anything other than growth in consumption and demand under capitalism is considered bad - a recession, or worst case, a depression. But, The Problem is only solved by a declining population and declining consumption - or negative growth. It would be hard to conceive of a model of capitalism that could "succeed" under such a deliberate, sustained, long term, decrease in demand.

Imagine how capitalism would function if population declined steadily over several decades to levels approaching one billion people. The excess quantities of goods alone (think of housing) would virtually eliminate demand and eliminate the incentive for the constant struggle to achieve the ever bigger income. Capitalism, at least as we know it today, simply wouldn't work in a declining population scenario.

Organized religion's primary goal, like living organisms themselves, is to continue to exist. Religions always strive to increase the flock, whether by conversion or by birth. And in today's world, they have even become competitive with one another to see who has the bigger numbers and thereby will "rule" here on Earth.

What would happen to the Catholic Church if each Catholic couple only had one child? It would shrink dramatically - heaven forbid! That is why they continue with their completely irrational stand against birth control.

And all religions work to obfuscate The Problem by proposing bizarre superstitions like the rapture. We will all be taken up into heaven soon, so why worry? Or even more simply: Worry not, God will solve this problem.

All religions work actively, aggressively, and with massive resources, to discredit any hint of activity that might be construed as population management. Considering the influence that the world's religions have in today's world, it is assured that The Problem will never be allowed to be addressed in any meaningful way.

As proof that these three fundamental systems work against a solution, look no further than China. The only successful approach to population management in the world is China's "one child per family" mandate. Without this program, China alone would have several hundred million more people today, and perhaps a billion more by 2050.

As it is, China's population will increase by only 100 million by 2050 - in contrast, India will increase by almost 600 million in the same timeframe. China's policy is by any reasonable measure, a great success. And yet, it is relentlessly attacked, here and abroad.

And now, with the dramatic rise of capitalism in China, internal attacks on the one-child policy are beginning. The capitalists in China are raising concerns about whether a declining young demographic can "support" (read - continue to grow consumer demand) an aging population. And concerns are being raised about China's internal market not growing fast enough. If China's one-child policy is ever watered down or eliminated, it will be because of this increasing pressure from the pro-growth, new Chinese capitalists.

So - one problem with The Problem is that it requires a godless socialist dictatorship in power in order to mandate any actual action.

4. The Problem has no voice

It is hard to think of any issue in today's media saturated world that doesn't have several advocacy groups speaking and lobbying for or against it. If you are a newcomer to this population debate, I am certain that you assume that an issue as important as The Problem has many powerful voices advocating for population management, sustainable population goals, etc. Unfortunately - you would be wrong.

But, you say, surely the environmental groups all support population management and sustainable population goals? After all, isn't their primary responsibility the health of the Earth's ecosystem? Well, once upon a time they did, but … no more - not even one of them.

More remarkably, the group created solely for this purpose - ZPG (Zero Population Growth) - its name identifying its position - began turning away from any specific population management agenda in the 1990's. And now, it has even abandoned its own name! (Too confusing to have a name that says "Zero Population Growth" when that is no longer your position, I guess.) It is now called "The Population Connection" - a happy name, sounding like an arm of "Sesame Street". Now it specializes in educating young people.

There are several reasons given for this complete abandonment of the issue by the very groups that strive to protect the planet - starting, once again, with money.

For the reasons stated above, The Problem has no friends. And no friends, means no money from contributions, memberships, grants, etc. In fact, many grant-giving entities would shy away from any organization that advocates positions directly opposed to such powerful institutions as the Catholic Church. So, no mater how important The Problem is, if it doesn't generate any income (or might even cost money and members), the big environmental
groups have no use for it.

And in addition, as it turns out, The Problem runs afoul of several Liberal sacred cows (just an FYI - I'm a knee-jerk liberal personally, so don't think this piece is some kind of veiled right-wing political agenda - it is not).

Understand, the big environmental groups are primarily American institutions, and so they generally take an American perspective. Population management from a solely American position (specifically - managing America's population) becomes then a discussion of immigration policy, or of minority fertility rates. Since the Liberal "politically correct" tradition is to not offend any minority groups, serious population management strategies cannot be discussed.

But the killer blow for population management advocacy has probably come from the women's-rights movement. Women have made incredible progress toward equality in this country in just the last forty years. The women's rights movement is now a large and powerful force. And one of the foundational rights of women, is the right to personally control their own reproductive choices. Obviously, this is in direct conflict with most population management solutions (China's one-child policy, for example).

Population lore even puts a time and place when the women's movement usurped any meaningful population management advocacy. In 1994, at the U.N. International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo, the paradigm for population management dramatically shifted from "population control" to "the empowerment of women". Virtually all environmental advocacy groups now promote the education and empowerment of women as the only acceptable population management strategy.

Now the world, facing a horrifying disaster in the making, is left with only a grassroots effort by handful of individuals with personal websites trying to sound the alarm.

So - one problem with The Problem is that no one speaks for it.

5. There is no positive approach (spin) to solving The Problem

Our culture thrives on optimism. We believe that every problem must have a positive solution. I recently watched Al Gore's newest version of his global warming slide show. The first third of the presentation now emphasizes how optimistic Mr. Gore is about both our ability to fix the problem, and how positive the fix would be for us - a true win-win - problem solved, and a richer world to boot.

Politics works the same way. To the politician, all situations, all problems have a wonderful and positive solution. Perhaps the last politician to even remotely suggest that things will get worse and stay that way, was Jimmy Carter, and he was roundly criticized for his "negative" approach, not to mention being roundly defeated in the next election.

But there is a simple and obvious solution to The Problem - one that has been tested and proven to work - one that causes no unnecessary harm to anyone - and one that costs absolutely nothing: the one-child per female policy. If implemented today, calculations show that world population would be reduced to a sustainable level of 1 - 2 billion people on earth by 2100. Within one hundred years the problem would be solved at no cost, and no harm - so simple.

But the one-child solution is considered completely onerous by almost all cultures on this planet. To almost everyone, it is a terrible choice, with difficult and frightening possible consequences that would require a rewiring of our thinking. No positive spin can be applied to this solution - except that in a hundred years, people will still be here and will be living on an increasingly healthier planet.

So - one (last) problem with The Problem is that the only reasonable solution is the worst possible choice - except for all the others.'

Minds of Mountainfilm: Interview with Artist Chris Jordan

Excerpt from The Conversation, 22 March 2010

'...I’ve spent the last seven years of my work focused on that question: what is the role of the individual in an overwhelmingly enormous and complex global culture? And maybe that’s actually another simpler question in disguise: “Do I matter?”

I think that’s one of the central questions facing humanity right now, that we each have to grapple with as individuals. What we decide internally, each one of us, adds up to a collective attitude that has unbelievable power. If people can feel that, if they look deeply into this question and find that they do matter, then they’ll figure out what to do next. It’s not up to me or anyone else to tell them.

Each of us is 1/6.7 billionth of the world’s population. That’s a really, really small number that’s very hard to come to terms with. The Green Movement and others posit the importance of the individual and individual efforts. They have all these beautiful quotes like Margaret Mead’s about never doubting the power of one person to make a difference.

I don’t negate the truth of that sentiment but I do think there’s another half of the picture that’s being ignored or obscured, at our peril. And that’s this feeling of not mattering. I think almost all of us carry that feeling – I know I do. Whether we acknowledge that or not, it’s there, as evidenced by our wasteful daily behaviors.

As an analogy, think of an old-fashioned gauge with a needle, that can either point left or right. On one side, the reading is: I matter. I’m a contributing, valuable member of the human community, and every detail of my life is important. On the other side, the reading is: I don’t matter. I can be however uncaring and wasteful as I want to because I’m too small to make any difference. My problem is that my needle jumps back and forth all the time.

I think the challenge is to get us to behave as if we matter, even when our needles point to the side that says we don’t matter. Because the truth is, our small behaviors really do add up. As proof, just look at the world we live in: it’s the product of hundreds of millions of people each behaving as if we don’t matter. The result is a catastrophe, which we have all participated in creating. And so it turns out, so far, that we all mattered without even realizing it. Each one of us really has made a difference, perhaps in a bigger way than we have the courage to admit to ourselves. I think once more people feel that, they’ll know what to do, or they’ll care enough to find out.

How do you see media – be it film, photography, art, etc. – serving as a catalyst for positive change?

We’re at a place right now where human culture has never been before – at the threshold of instantaneous global mass communication. It’s communication that takes many different forms, from phones to TV, NetFlix and streaming media, radio, the blogosphere, email, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and so on. This mass connectivity is the key ingredient that many futurists believe will lead to the emergence of global collective intelligence. Which will lead, in turn, to conscious global, collective decision-making – something that hasn’t ever happened before. It’s one of the few things in the world that I’m optimistic about – the transformational power of media. But of course the power doesn’t lie in the media itself; that’s just a tool. The power lies with us...'

22 March 2010

Solar Power All Through The Night

From the Urban Ecology Australia newsletter, March 2010

I don't know much about this, does anyone know if this is a definite way to destroy this 'renewables can't meet baseload power needs' argument?

'‘Baseload’ solar power; once a distant dream, is now a reality.

While solar electricity was once limited to when the sun was shining, solar thermal energy can now operate 24 hours a day, even at night, with an ingenious and cheap storage method utilising molten salt.

“There are plants in Spain operating with energy storage right now, providing electricity all night long” Matthew Wright, Beyond Zero Emissions Executive Director said.

“Most Australians are not aware of this technology, even though it has the capacity to revolutionise the way Australia produces electricity and eliminate global warming pollution from coal”.

Molten salt storage uses common salts, such as potassium nitrate, which are readily available and non-toxic. Using the sun’s energy, these salts are heated to high temperatures and stored in insulated storage tanks. When electricity is needed, the heat in the molten salt is used to create steam to turn a turbine. This sort of electricity is dispatchable, meaning it can be sent out on-demand at any time of day, so it can replace the baseload electricity made from burning fossil fuels.

“The arguments for needing coal, gas or nuclear power to provide our electricity needs in a modern economy are completely false. Solar thermal power with storage is proven technology, which will reliably provide the backbone of modern 100 per cent renewable electricity grids.” Wright said.

“The EU has been investing in the solar thermal storage power sector for more than a decade. The US, Middle East and North Africa have proposals in the pipeline that, combined, are five times greater than Australia’s total coalfired electricity capacity. Spain has 15,500MW of solar thermal plants approved through the planning process, more than enough to power all of NSW, and 34 massive power plants are under construction right now.

Wright said, “Australia is the country with one of the best solar resources in the world. We have some of the best researchers in this area too. Despite this, the Rudd Government remains in thrall to the coal lobby, investing in dead-end fantasies like carbon capture and storage (clean coal), while other countries develop their solar thermal expertise and manufacturing. The Spanish Government is supporting solar thermal power with a serious feed-in tariff for large-scale solar installations, and we should be doing the same here.”

“Solar thermal power with storage will soon be cheaper than new coal-fired power stations according to US Department of Energy projections. The Australian Government should be positioning Australia at the forefront of the renewable energy revolution by planning for a transition to 100% renewable energy. Unfortunately the Federal Solar Flagships Program is shaping up to be a failure, with guidelines skewed to favour 1980s style daytime-only solar plants rather than the newer standard of “baseload” solar thermal storage plants that are being built now in Europe and the USA”. Wright concluded.

For further comment: Matthew Wright, 0421 616 733'

Go-Get Car Sharing

From the Urban Ecology Australia newsletter, March 2010

'The GoGet/Urban Ecology Australia joint initiative began in August 2008 with 2 Toyota Yaris’ strategically sited in ‘pods’ in Sturt Street outside Christie Walk.

In the last 18 months memberships have doubled, the Adelaide fleet has increased to 4 (including 1 station wagon). Pods are now also located in Lights View (NE subdivision) and Hutt Street, city.

One of the lesser known effects of the global financial crisis has been a re-evaluation of transport use among families, with a resultant increase in patronage of public transport and an exploration of car share/cycling/walking as options.

Commercial car share has been ‘picked up’ by urban dwellers as a viable cost-effective alternative to owning a second car!

Cars can be booked online or via the phone in hourly ‘blocks’ of time, a special smart card opens the car, an onboard computer records time and kms, until returned to its pod.

Payment is on a monthly basis (for time/kms) without costs of registration, insurance, petrol and maintenance.

Increasingly, developers of apartments in CBD or inner-city areas, are opting to include dedicated car share spaces in their development proposals, because high site costs make it no longer viable to provide one (let alone two) car spaces per unit. Many prospective buyers are electing to ‘value-add’ to the internal features of an apartment, MINUS A CAR SPACE, where there is access to car share.

Councils are responding positively to this trend towards car share quotas within development proposals as a way of reducing congestion and pollution as well as reducing the need for car park infrastructure.

For more information or to join GoGet, go to http://www.goget.com.au

Calling Planet Birth

Excerpt from The Guardian, 13 February 2010

'Family size has become the great unmentionable of the campaign for more environmentally friendly lifestyles

Twelve years ago, the American author Bill ­McKibben published a short book entitled Maybe One: A Personal And Environmental Argument For Much Smaller Families...

He might as well have called for the enforced sterilisation of all men and women of procreating age, along with the outlawing of Father Christmas and the Tooth Fairy. The New York Times called him "sanctimonious" and "holier-than-thou". The Wall Street Journal labelled him an "extremist" (their specific objection was that he hadn't mentioned nuclear power as a way to combat global warming, even though Maybe One is a book about parenting). "So much false information, so many bad ideas, in so few pages," another reviewer fumed. Speaking after publication, McKibben observed that Maybe One's subject matter was "the last remaining taboo thing to talk about" and in this case the cliché seemed justified.

In 1998, most people weren't willing to consider any significant lifestyle changes for environmental reasons, let alone cutting back on kids. Much has changed since then, of course, both in terms of the consensus on the threat posed by climate change, and our willingness to make sacrifices in the face of it. But one thing has not: you still won't hear any major environmental campaign group in Britain or the US arguing that, in addition to flying less and recycling more, middle-class westerners should be having fewer children to save the planet. Even commentators who warn of the evils of overpopulation, proudly trumpeting their willingness to raise controversial issues in defiance of "political correctness", only rarely emphasise the notion that we – rather than those in the developing world – might consider doing less of the populating. For several thorny reasons, family size has become the great unmentionable of the campaign for more environmentally friendly lifestyles. And yet, in the end, it may be the only one that really counts.

Trying to understand the debate about population and the climate sometimes feels like peering into a kaleidoscope while drunk. Directly contradictory claims, that can't both be true at the same time, are advanced as if they were facts. Weird allegiances are created: George Monbiot and American creationists, for example, are roughly equally contemptuous of organisations such as the Optimum Population Trust; supporters of reproductive rights find common cause with anti-abortionists. You come across nutty-sounding fringe groups like the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement, but then you phone its founder, Les Knight – he's a supply teacher, based on America's west coast, and can only talk during breaks between lessons – only to discover that he isn't nutty at all, but in fact rather sane and self-deprecating. (He simply wants people to choose not to breed. "Eventually we'll be extinct anyway, but it would be so much nicer if we phased ourselves out through natural attrition," Knight told me affably. "You know – the way a company reduces its workforce without firing anyone.")

For all the confusion and sensitivities that ­surround the subject, though, the basic facts are clear. If you live in Britain or the US in 2010, there is nothing you can do to reduce your impact on the environment that even comes close to the effects of having one fewer child.

This makes intuitive sense: every new human is a new consumer with their own carbon footprint, along with their own potentially limitless chain of descendants. The year before last, two researchers at Oregon State University, Paul Murtaugh and Michael Schlax, set about trying to put a figure on the idea of "carbon legacy", and last summer their results were published in the journal Global Environmental Change. Murtaugh and Schlax started from a simple premise. Assume, they said, that if a woman and a man have a baby, they're each responsible for 50% of that child's lifetime carbon dioxide emissions; and if that child has its own child, the original two parents each bear 25% of the responsibility for their grandchild's emissions, and so on down the generations. For how many tonnes, on average, would each original parent end up being responsible?

There are two important obstacles in performing this calculation. The first is that you don't know what will happen to per capita emission rates in the future: worldwide, they'll almost certainly rise, but in many ­western countries they're likely to fall, as energy-efficiency measures kick in. The second is that you don't know what will happen to fertility rates: you can't know whether your great-great-granddaughter will give birth to one new carbon-emitter, or two, or six, or zero. So for fertility rates, Murtaugh and Schlax used UN population predictions. (In the experiment, some of the hypothetical family trees eventually died out; others were stopped after a predetermined time.) And for per capita emissions, they used three different scenarios: an optimistic one, in which per capita emissions fell, a pessimistic one in which they rose, and a compromise one, in which they stayed constant.

The headline result was astonishing. Under the constant scenario, an American who forgoes having a child would save 9,441 tonnes of CO2 – almost six times, on average, the amount of CO2 they would emit in their own lifetime, or the equivalent of making around 2,550 return aero­plane trips between London and New York. If the same American drove a more fuel-efficient car, drastically reduced his or her driving, installed energy-efficient windows, used energy-efficient lightbulbs, replaced a household refrigerator, and recycled all household paper, glass and metal, he or she would save fewer than 500 tonnes.

The Oregon study didn't run the numbers for Britain, where per capita carbon emissions are already about half as big as in the US. (This isn't down to personal virtue: it's mainly because so many of our power stations use gas instead of coal.) But in every other country they examined – including Japan, where per capita emissions are similar to Britain's – the environmental effects of not having a child were similarly vast. Even if every emissions target recommended by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change were to be successfully implemented – the ­"optimistic scenario" – an American could still save 562 tonnes of CO2 by having one fewer child, while a Japanese person could save 233 tonnes.

Leaving aside the complexities of global population issues, then, wouldn't it make sense for British environmental groups to suggest that well-off westerners might like to consider smaller families? John Sauven, the executive director of Greenpeace UK, concedes that it's a "no-brainer" that a smaller population would place a smaller burden on the planet. But he's reluctant to contemplate a Greenpeace campaign; in any case, he says, among environmentally conscious people in his demographic, "my sense is that nearly all of us have had two children or fewer". Franny Armstrong, who runs the 10:10 campaign, which is backed by the Guardian, says the topic came up in the planning stages of the project, but was abandoned. "We did have the discussion. But we decided it couldn't work, because of the timescale. 10:10 is a short-term campaign about reductions you can make in 2010."

Besides, a decade after Bill McKibben published Maybe One, we're apparently still not ready to contemplate its message. "10:10 is a populist campaign. It's about doing the easy things first," Armstrong says. "I completely agree that [family size] is the elephant in the room. But we need one of the big thinkers, a George Monbiot or a Naomi Klein, to go first, before anyone else is going to say it. To use that as a message in a populist ­campaign, right now? It would absolutely destroy the whole campaign."

The fundamental problem with the topic of influencing population levels is that almost everybody – no matter what their politics or other beliefs – has a very good reason to avoid discussing it. If you don't believe in climate change, it's yet more irrelevant, busybodyish meddling. If you're broadly leftwing or progressive, as are most people strongly committed to reducing their own environmental impact, it's awkward, because raising the issue seems to shift responsibility from the developed countries, which bear most historical responsibility for climate damage, to the develop­ing world, where population growth is most rapid. And for anti-immigration voices on the right, the whole idea seems backwards: they worry that Europe's population – by which they usually mean its white population – isn't growing fast enough, so promot­ing smaller families is perverse. Above all, perhaps, there's the simple fact that family size seems such an intensely personal matter, beyond the legitimate scope of politics or public campaigns. Just mentioning it feels somehow inappropriate.

There's another awkward truth: historical predictions of catastrophic population explosions have tended to be badly wrong, from Malthus in the 1700s, to Paul Ehrlich in the 1960s, to the UN Population Fund, which predicted in 1987 that a world population of 5bn would mean the world "could degenerate into disaster". (The number is now well over 6.7bn.) Nearly everyone, meanwhile, is troubled by the notion of coercion: China's "one-child policy", promoted by Chinese politicians at Copenhagen as a solution to the climate crisis, has resulted in numerous reports of forced sterilisation and abortion, and rumours of infanticide. Supporters of reproductive choice are understandably appalled. Then again, trying to achieve a similar end by voluntary means, by making family planning more widespread, draws fury from the other side of the spectrum: pro-life campaigners, who fear a surge in abortions.

A recent study by the Optimum Population Trust (OPT) estimated that saving a tonne of CO2 costs only $7 if the money is spent on family planning; to achieve the same by means of solar power would cost $51. The finding paralysed environmental organisations, especially in America, where even the hint of increased funding for abortion carries huge political costs. "I don't know how to say 'no comment' emphatically enough," David Hamilton, of the US green group the Sierra Club, told the Washington Post. (He had reason to be reticent: the Sierra Club suffered its own encounter with the tangled politics of population in 2004 when a group of population-control advocates tried to stage a takeover. On that occasion, just to confuse matters further, those attempting the takeover were fiercely opposed to immigration, on the grounds that immigrants to the US develop bigger carbon footprints once they get there.)

Strictly speaking, though, none of this ought to be relevant to the parenting decisions of the average climate-conscious Briton. Perhaps the OPT is a brave voice in the wilderness – "Nobody else wants to put their head above the parapet," says Simon Ross, an OPT trustee – or perhaps, as George Monbiot says, they're a "congregation of no ones" – a gaggle of post-reproductive white middle-class men trying to shift attention to the one part of the climate problem for which they're not responsible. Either way, from the point of view of climate change, choosing to have one fewer child – especially if you live in a high-consumption society – remains a Very Good Thing Indeed.

And yet even that more narrowly focused topic seems to provoke a surprising degree of fury. Two years ago, Sarah Irving, then a journalist at Ethical Consumer magazine, was one of several people featured in a Daily Mail article on couples who had taken the small-family idea to its logical conclusion, opting to have no children at all. (The Mail article is inadvertently hilarious, so baffled are its authors by the concept of voluntary childlessness; one woman's decision to have an abortion on environmental grounds is described as "the reversal of nature" and "the denial of motherhood".) "There were people who went to the lengths of finding my personal email address to say things like, 'Why don't you just kill yourself?' " Irving says, even though she was specifically quoted in the article as saying she'd never dream of telling other people whether or not to have children. "Generally speaking, if you're talking about having no children at all, you're still regarded as barmy or selfish. Or you get the patronising, 'Oh, you know, you'll change your mind.' "

Prejudice remains, too, against the idea of having only one child, even though McKibben's book is at its strongest in his tour of the research that shows no evidence that a singleton childhood is detrimental: indeed, there are some indications that only children are more sociable and intellectually capable than their peers, because families with more children have to make their time, energy and money spread further. But the hostility to both childlessness and one-child families explains why the OPT's campaign targeting British people is called Stop At Two. (The Voluntary Human Extinction Movement objects strongly: "Rather than stop at two, we should stop at once," says Les Knight.) And even the Stop At Two position caused a minor furore last year when Jonathon Porritt, the veteran environmentalist and then a government adviser on sustainability, told an interviewer, "I think we will work our way towards a position that says that having more than two children is irresponsible." "This seems to be the same old thing: save the world but kill a human," said the pro-life campaigner Josephine Quintavalle, following her own unique brand of logic, while Ann Widdecombe labelled Porritt "absolutely barmy"...

More radical visions persist, though. Alan Weisman's 2007 bestseller, The World Without Us, pictures the earth in the hypothetical weeks after humanity vanishes – as weeds and then trees start to break through the pavements and wild animals began to take up residence again in the midst of abandoned cities. It's a paradisiacal vision, yet also a terrifying one, and Weisman isn't recommending that we try to bring it about. He reaches a slightly more modest conclusion: the world would easily heal, he argues, if each person brought a maximum of one child into it. (This is intended as a thought-experiment and an inspiration, not a call for coercive policies.) By 2075, the human presence on earth would have been reduced by half...'