Is there a single environmental cause which can hope to succeed in the long run, if the battle for population control is lost? To paraphrase Ben Franklin:
"All Environmentalists Have Two Causes - Their Own, and Population Control". Population control is synergistic with every environmental group's "own issue".

"Environmentalism" comprises a highly fragmented, even atomized, movement. It is really an umbrella-word, like "charities", covering a multitude of groups with more or less parallel interests that compete for funds and for people. Except for an automatic sympathy toward and unwillingness to criticize any group identified as "environmentalist", they have little positive interaction with each other. Some causes attract scientifically literate adherents; others attract true believers whose alarmism and overclaiming embarrass the entire movement.

The fragmentation is probably inevitable, given the wide range of causes within the Cause. A look at the list of discussion groups on the EnviroLink website illustrates the range of issues under the umbrella. Issues such as preservation of coral reefs, or of the marine environment generally, are different in  both kind and degree from the preservation of a highly localized species or bit of habitat. Do opponents of Global Warming forfeit their environmentalist status if they are neutral about animal rights? Are the "rights" of domesticated animals properly an environmental issue at all?

Little synergy seems possible. It is hard to imagine any action on behalf of African wildlife that would be relevant to ozone-layer depletion, or that would advance wastewater management. Even within the narrow world of air pollution control, diesel particulate emissions and acid rain have little in common. One comes from mobile, the other from stationary, sources. They are produced from different fuels burned by different industries for different purposes, in technologically unrelated combustion chambers that are manufactured by companies at opposite ends of the industrial spectrum. What practical connection could either possibly have with Soil Erosion, say, or Overfishing, or Toxic Waste?

Environmental issues that harm people or cripple industries can command public attention without change in underlying social attitudes or priorities. They attract support from people who do not think of themselves as environmentalists, because it can be shown to be cost-effective in purely economic terms. Issues which affect unpopulated, economically unimportant, or distant regions require a conversion to "environmentalism".

Most people have some familiarity with compound interest. They've seen the asronomical current value of one dollar deposited at a modest rate of interest by Benjamin Franklin two hundred years ago. The compound interest effect - exponentials - led Malthus to his "Dismal Theorem": the lot of most of mankind had been, was then, and would always be, to live in misery on the edge of starvation. Any improvement which allowed living standards to rise above subsistence would be absorbed by population, restoring the equilibrium to the subsistence level. Changes which caused standards to fall below subsistence would result in die-offs, again restoring the dismal equilibrium.

In this century, the American economist Kenneth Boulding extended Malthus's ideas, and proposed what he called the Utterly Dismal Theorem: any excess above subsistence due to technological advances and organizational improvements, would ultimately increase the total number of people facing and dying from malnutrition-related diseases and starvation. We are the locusts. The Theorem accurately describes the experience and present situation of much of the third world.

Even now, in many parts of the world, the constantly increasing number of humans absorbs all or most of any increase in output. People could be living a lot better. Every third world country has available to it without a dime of royalty the entire Western technology through 1982.

Population pressures create urgent political and economic problems, that take prededence over environmental issues. Opportunities are squandered, and crucial options are foreclosed. Hungry people don't worry about environmental issues. Current needs are paramount. They will eat their seed grain, and cut forests that have provided food and fuel for generations.

People, and governments, haven't yet internalized the significance of the compound interest effect. The danger is that population - locally or globally - will pass an invisible threshhold and fall irrevocably into a feedback spiral of famine and political chaos. Hunger fosters political disintegration. The environment is no more an issue to warlords pressed to feed their armies, than to the farmers whom they tax below subsistence in order to do it.

Population dynamics have been well characterized for many species under controlled experimental conditions, and in the wild. Given adequate food and habitat, population grows exponentially. Eventually, resource bottlenecks slow or even halt the growth, and the numbers stabilize for one, or at most a few, generations. The population collapses. Following the collapse, population may fluctuate wildly, with local extinction. Eventually, surviving populations enter upon a new period of exponential growth.

Today, sadly, population control stands as just one among the many environmental causes, vying to outshout the others in the environmentalist bazaar.  That status that does not represent its the true relation to them. Because the hopes of all environmental causes rest upon successful population control it should be possible to mobilize effort from every corner of fragmented "environmentalism", and to concentrate the numbers and muscle necessary to impact population trends. Otherwise, all other environmental objectives become mere pipe dreams.


Copyright(C) 1998, 2000 by Jonathan Marin


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PART 2 will look at:
Being selective about Issues, Opponents and Allies.
Every environmentalist program costs somebody something.
Determining who they are, how much it costs them, and how powerful an opponent they can be.
Many envorinmentalist programs create potential profit opportunities. Assessing who, how much, and their recruitability and value as allies.

Environmentalist alarmism:
Overclaiming the data.
Specious arguments about environmental dangers, based on unsupported "facts".
Dangerous allies:
Animal Rights advocates.
Protectors of questionable "species".
Alienating nautral allies (e.g. The effect on the professional and amateur astronomy communities of championing the squirrels of Mt. Graham).

Maintaining credibility with public, and with potential supporters in government and academia. Earning the right to serious attention.
Public relations damage to all environmentalists.
Loss of access.
Prioritization. Forestalling doubts about common sense and judgment. Grist for the anti-environmentalist straw-man mill.
Easy targets for ad hominem: "Juvenile", "Cry wolf".

"Tragedy of the Commons" issues.
When free goods become common goods.
Thresholds where rising prices accelerate due to scarcity of protected resource, creating incentives that:
attract new exploiters of the resource,
powerful constituencies opposing passage and enforcement of controls, and
corruption that undermines enforcement efforts.

Copyright(C) 1998, 1999, 2000 by Jonathan Marin


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Adoptionopoly - The Board Game You Play in the Dark

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Ailanthus - A Poem about Adoptees

This page is maintained by Jonathan Marin
Last modified on March 2, 2000