Hundreds of millions of people lack access to safe water and sanitation. Will the first U.N. conference on water in nearly 50 years make a difference?
Hundreds of millions of people lack access to safe water and sanitation. Will the first U.N. conference on water in nearly 50 years make a difference?
Insurers face a “crisis of confidence” as global warming makes weather events unpredictable and increases damage
The United Nations opened its first conference on water security in almost half a century with a plea to governments to better manage one of humanity’s shared resources
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Exciting news, people: Utopia is on the rise!
Space Commander Elon Musk has announced that His Magnificence (i.e., him) intends to construct his very own private town on 3,500 acres of farmland near his new Tesla plant southeast of Austin, Texas. More than a town, Musk explains that he will create utopia in Texas, promising an “ecological paradise” where his Tesla workers can live and do fun things like swimming, pickleball… and paying rent to him.
The gabillionaire is certainly rich enough to erect his own Muskopolis. But, alas, the “utopia” name is already taken. Indeed, I’ve been to Utopia, Texas, a small town west of San Antonio that was founded in 1855 by (cover your ears, Elon!) Swiss Socialists. Of course, history shows that a company town is ruled by the company, not by residents (much less socialists). And Musk has made clear at Tesla, Twitter, etc. that his personal whims rule over workers, consumers, our environment… and even truth.
Which brings us to that ecological worker’s paradise he’s promising. Even as one arm of his empire was extolling his vision of a Garden of Eden situated along the beauty of the Colorado River, another arm was scheming to pollute it! Musk is asking Texas’ corporate-controlled regulators to let him use the site to dump 140,000 gallons a day of his industrial wastewater into the Colorado.
Excuse me, but that turns Elon’s ecological paradise into a fraud. Worse, it adds up to Musk pouring 50 million gallons a year of his waste into the river, fouling the main water source for dozens of towns and hundreds of farms downstream.
Musk seeks to extend the long, sordid history in our country of company-town hucksters, and his latest Texas scam is proof that we should never trust a billionaire promising us paradise.
Scolding regular people for contributing to climate change is out of fashion. But scolding people for making new people is, apparently, totally fine. Many climate activists say the worst thing an individual can do, from an emissions perspective, is have kids. The climate-advocacy group Project Drawdown lists “family planning and education,” which are intended to lower fertility rates, as leading solutions to global warming. Naomi Oreskes, a Harvard historian and celebrated climate researcher, published an op-ed in Scientific American this month titled “Eight Billion People in the World Is a Crisis, Not an Achievement.”
[Trent McNamara: Liberal societies have dangerously low birth rates]
In recent years, many climate advocates have emphasized human population itself—as opposed to related factors such as consumption and technology—as the driving force behind environmental destruction. This is, at bottom, a very old idea that can be traced back to the 18th-century cleric Thomas Malthus. It is also analytically unsound and morally objectionable. Critics of overpopulation down through the ages have had a nasty habit of treating people less as individuals with value and agency than as sentient locusts.
Malthus argued against aid to poor Britons on the grounds that they consumed too many of the nation’s resources. In making his case, he semi-accurately described a particular kind of poverty that we still refer to as the “Malthusian trap” today. Agricultural productivity in poor societies is not high enough to support the population without significant labor input, so most people work on small subsistence farms to feed themselves and their families. The inescapably linear growth in the food supply could never outstrip the exponential growth in human populations, he argued.
But human societies have proved repeatedly that they can escape the Malthusian trap. Indeed, agricultural productivity has improved to support a British population seven times larger than in Malthus’s time and a global population eight times larger. As a result of these stubborn facts, most Malthusian imitators haven’t come out and said they’re Malthusians. And instead of focusing on famine, they have tended to emphasize humanity’s destruction of nature.
The Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich has been the world’s leading overpopulation hawk since the publication of his 1968 book, The Population Bomb. Ehrlich did warn about food shortages, but as an entomologist and a conservationist, his primary concern was our influence on the natural world. “The progressive deterioration of our environment may cause more death and misery than the food-population gap,” he wrote.
In a description of a trip to New Delhi, he was vividly forthcoming about his distaste for the living, breathing individuals who make up a population:
People eating, people washing, people sleeping. People visiting, arguing, and screaming. People thrusting their hands through the taxi window, begging. People defecating and urinating. People clinging to buses. People herding animals. People, people, people, people.
If people, people, people are the primary threat to the natural world, what is the solution? Uncomfortable as it is to say, conservationist and eugenicist theories have long been intertwined. Indeed, in his newly published autobiography, Life: A Journey Through Science and Politics, Ehrlich credits the early-20th-century thinker William Vogt, whom he calls “a liberal conservationist,” as inspiration for his work on population. Here is how Vogt explained his proposal to offer “sterilization bonuses” to the poor:
Since such a bonus would appeal primarily to the world’s shiftless, it would probably have a favorable selective influence. From the point of view of society, it would certainly be preferable to pay permanently indigent individuals, many of whom would be physically and psychologically marginal, $50 or $100 rather than support their hordes of offspring that, by both genetic and social inheritance, would tend to perpetuate the fecklessness.
In the beginning of the previous century, there was simply no contradiction in being a “liberal conservationist” and being a eugenicist. Vogt was the national director for the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, which has recently reckoned with the eugenicist commitments of its founder, Margaret Sanger. The Sierra Club, which was initially led by a number of avowed eugenicists, commissioned Ehrlich to write The Population Bomb and for decades operated a program focused on ways to reduce fertility and immigration.
Now 90 years old, Ehrlich still takes pride in the work he did turning population growth into a global concern, even though the mass famine and pestilence that he predicted in the ’60s never came to pass.
“I must admit,” he writes in his autobiography, “that in 2019 I was pleased to find an article in a history journal that credited us ‘neo-Malthusians’ with stimulating ‘thinking of the planet as a whole and anticipating its future.’”
And Ehrlich remains a venerated figure. In January of this year, CBS featured Ehrlich on an episode of 60 Minutes on species extinction. The climate scientist Michael Mann called the memoir a “wide-ranging, wondrous, and pleasantly amusing account of his amazing life—as a scientist, thinker, communicator, influencer, and champion for a sustainable world.”
Intellectual descendants of Ehrlich’s in the environmental movement continue to sell old Malthusian wine in new bottles.
Oreskes draws attention to the same problem that Ehrlich did in his day: biodiversity loss associated with high-fertility, low-productivity societies caught in the Malthusian trap. Because subsistence farms have low yields, and because the farmers tend to rely on wood and other biomass for energy, they remain a major driver of deforestation, land-use change, and wildlife extirpation.
In Oreskes’s recent Scientific American op-ed, she acknowledges that her ideas have a tarnished legacy. “Population control is a vexing subject,” she writes, “because in the past it has generally been espoused by rich people (mostly men) instructing people in poor countries (mostly women) on how to behave.” Her workaround is to emphasize educational opportunities as a “reasonable” way to “slow growth.” In an email, Oreskes said that she does not consider herself a Malthusian and that she focuses on education “because we know that it can work, and unlike some other approaches it is good for women, and non-coercive.”
The Overpopulation Project (TOP) also highlights education, arguing that governments in every country should “make population and environmental issues and sex education part of the basic educational curriculum.” Likewise, Population Connection (formerly Zero Population Growth, which Ehrlich co-founded in 1968) develops “K-12 curricula and secondary education materials for teachers and professors so they can easily incorporate population studies into their classes.”
Access to education—in general, or to sex ed and “population studies” in particular—is certainly preferable to Vogt’s forced sterilization. But what about solutions to environmental decline that emphasize better growth instead of slower growth? Solutions such as modern energy infrastructure, high-productivity agriculture, and access to global markets?
Proposals of this sort, which Oreskes refers to derisively as “cornucopianism,” are the alternatives to Malthusianism that have proved effective across history. Rough contemporaries of Malthus, such as the Marquis de Condorcet, Karl Marx, and Friedrich Engels, argued that improvements in economic productivity would allow humans to grow enough food to meet rising population levels, and they were right. Vogt’s pessimism lost out to the ingenuity of, among others, the Nobel Peace Prize–winning agronomist Norman Borlaug, as the historian Charles Mann recounts in his 2018 book, The Wizard and the Prophet. Borlaug’s innovations in wheat and maize cultivation helped stave off the famines Vogt and other eugenicists had predicted. Ehrlich, infamously, lost a bet with the libertarian economist Julian Simon over resource scarcity. (Simon goes completely unmentioned in Ehrlich’s autobiography.) And “cornucopianism” can do more than fend off famine; it can serve conservationist ends. Thanks to innovation and technological decoupling, an average American today is more than twice as wealthy as an average American was the year The Population Bomb was published, yet generates 30 percent fewer carbon emissions and uses 50 percent less land for their diet.
Like Oreskes, the scientists at TOP and Population Connection insist that their proposed solutions to the population “problem” are noncoercive. They just want to nudge people in the direction of fewer people. Another of TOP’s priorities is to “reduce immigration numbers” to developed countries with low fertility rates. Additional ideas include proposals to lower government support for third and fourth children and for medical fertility treatments.
But Ehrlich said the same thing. “I’m against government interference in our lives,” he told an interviewer in 1970. How that sentiment squared with Ehrlich’s demands in The Population Bomb for “compulsory birth regulation” and “sterilizing all Indian males with three or more children” remains unclear. And it didn’t stop powerful institutions from taking his warnings about overpopulation literally as well as seriously. As Betsy Hartmann recounted in her 1987 exposé, Reproductive Rights and Wrongs, the Population Council, the International Planned Parenthood Federation, and other organizations funded fertility-reduction programs that, in tandem with sometimes coercive government policies, led to millions of sterilizations in China, India, Mexico, Bolivia, Peru, Indonesia, Bangladesh, and elsewhere. China’s one-child policy can be directly traced to Limits to Growth, the Club of Rome’s famous Malthusian screed warning of resource shortages and overpopulation.
When the problem is defined as too many carbon emissions, the solutions will be optimized to reduce emissions. When the problem is defined as too little education and bodily autonomy, solutions such as schooling and birth control make intuitive sense. When the problem is defined as too many people, the “solutions” will surely once again go far beyond the gentle, humane approaches that the neo-Malthusians emphasize. As The Atlantic’s Jerusalem Demsas put it, “Enough with the innuendo: If overpopulation is the hill you want to die on, then you’ve got to defend the implications.”
[Jerusalem Demsas: The people who hate people]
Fortunately, much of civil society has gotten wise to the new, friendly Malthusianism. Ehrlich’s appearance on 60 Minutes was met with widespread condemnation. Last year the Sierra Club shut down its long-standing population-control program, writing, “Contraception and family planning are not climate mitigation measures.”
And these concerns are being raised at a peculiar moment in human history. The total population of human beings on Earth is expected to peak and decline later this century, not because of war, famine, or disease, but because of secularly declining fertility. The challenges that nations including Germany, Korea, Japan, and even India and China are dealing with today is underpopulation, not overpopulation. Migrants, particularly those who are young and skilled, will be crucial to generating economic growth in these countries. This makes the neo-Malthusian dismissal of technology, infrastructure, and growth particularly troubling. Supporting an aging population will require an economic surplus that has traditionally been supplied by a favorable ratio of younger workers in the labor force to retirees. As that ratio reverses, it is not clear how infrastructure maintenance and social-services financing will fare.
Given that the Malthusian dream—a peak in global population—is already in sight, one might think that single-minded efforts to further suppress population growth would wane. But the old population-control movement is still alive and well today.
Humanity has had its “final warning” on the state of our climate, an alarming new scientific report states. Via The New Daily:
More than 300 scientists signed off on the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, with the most authoritative global body on climate change urging countries to “aim higher, act faster, or risk losing it all” in its final report of the 2020s.
The IPCC Climate Change 2023: Synthesis Report, compiled by hundreds of scientists from 67 countries, was released on Monday, and it draws together the contributions of the IPSS’s sixth assessment cycle.
Before the report’s release, the Climate Council warned the world is at serious risk of climate catastrophes such as irreversible loss of coral reefs, loss of alpine species, collapse of forests in southern Australia, loss of kelp forests, rises in sea levels, more severe fire weather and fatal heatwaves.
“Australians are already being harmed by climate impacts like worsening extreme weather, but we can substantially limit further harms by moving swiftly beyond fossil fuels and getting greenhouse gas emissions to plummet this decade,” the council said.
This story was originally published by the Guardian and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.
The world is facing an imminent water crisis, with demand expected to outstrip the supply of fresh water by 40 percent by the end of this decade, experts have said on the eve of a crucial UN water summit.
Governments must urgently stop subsidizing the extraction and overuse of water through misdirected agricultural subsidies, and industries from mining to manufacturing must be made to overhaul their wasteful practices, according to a landmark report on the economics of water.
Nations must start to manage water as a global common good, because most countries are highly dependent on their neighbors for water supplies, and overuse, pollution, and the climate crisis threaten water supplies globally, the report’s authors say.
Johan Rockstrom, the director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and co-chair of the Global Commission on the Economics of Water, and a lead author of the report, told the Guardian the world’s neglect of water resources was leading to disaster. “The scientific evidence is that we have a water crisis. We are misusing water, polluting water, and changing the whole global hydrological cycle, through what we are doing to the climate. It’s a triple crisis.”
“There will be no agricultural revolution unless we fix water,” said lead author Johan Rockstrom. “And we never talk about water.”
Rockstrom’s fellow Global Commission on the Economics of Water co-chair Mariana Mazzucato, a professor at University College London and also a lead author of the report, added: “We need a much more proactive, and ambitious, common good approach. We have to put justice and equity at the centre of this, it’s not just a technological or finance problem.”
The report marks the first time the global water system has been scrutinized comprehensively and its value to countries—and the risks to their prosperity if water is neglected—laid out in clear terms. Like with the Stern review of the economics of the climate crisis in 2006 and the Dasgupta review of the economics of biodiversity in 2021, the report authors hope to highlight the crisis in a way that policymakers and economists can recognize.
Many governments still do not realize how interdependent they are when it comes to water, according to Rockstrom. Most countries depend for about half of their water supply on the evaporation of water from neighboring countries—known as “green” water because it is held in soils and delivered from transpiration in forests and other ecosystems, when plants take up water from the soil and release vapor into the air from their leaves.
The report sets out seven key recommendations, including reshaping the global governance of water resources, scaling up investment in water management through public-private partnerships, pricing water properly and establishing “just water partnerships” to raise finance for water projects in developing and middle-income countries.
More than $700 billion of subsidies globally go to agriculture and water each year and these often fuel excessive water consumption. Water leakage must also be urgently addressed, the report found, and restoring freshwater systems such as wetlands should be another priority.
“It’s quite remarkable that we use safe, fresh water to carry excreta, urine, nitrogen, and phosphorus.”
Water is fundamental to the climate crisis and the global food crisis. “There will be no agricultural revolution unless we fix water,” said Rockstrom. “Behind all these challenges we are facing, there’s always water, and we never talk about water.”
Many of the ways in which water is used are inefficient and in need of change, with Rockstrom pointing to developed countries’ sewage systems. “It’s quite remarkable that we use safe, fresh water to carry excreta, urine, nitrogen, phosphorus—and then need to have inefficient wastewater treatment plants that leak 30 percent of all the nutrients into downstream aquatic ecosystems and destroy them and cause dead zones. We’re really cheating ourselves in terms of this linear, waterborne modern system of dealing with waste. There are massive innovations required.”
The UN water summit, led by the governments of the Netherlands and Tajikistan, will take place in New York on 22 March. World leaders are invited but only a few are expected to attend, with most countries to be represented by ministers or high-ranking officials. It will mark the first time in more than four decades the UN has met to discuss water, with previous attempts stymied by governments reluctant to countenance any form of international governance of the resource.
Henk Ovink, a special envoy for international water affairs for the Netherlands, told the Guardian the conference was crucial. “If we are to have a hope of solving our climate crisis, our biodiversity crisis and other global challenges on food, energy and health, we need to radically change our approach in how we value and manage water,” he said. “[This] is the best opportunity we have to put water at the centre of global action to ensure people, crops and the environment continue to have the water they need.”
Seven calls to action on water
A helicopter prepares to make a water drop as smoke billows along the Fraser River Valley near Lytton, British Columbia, Canada, on July 2, 2021. (James MacDonald / Bloomberg via Getty Images)
There is a scene in the 1998 movie about two modern-day teens trapped in an idyllic 1950s TV show, Pleasantville, in which Tobey McGuire’s character runs into a firehouse to tell the firemen that an actual fire has broken out. The firemen, who in their perfect, scripted television world only ever rescue kittens, stare blankly at McGuire from their dinner table, as he yells “Fire!,” over and over again. They have zero existing framework to even understand the basic concept of “fire,” let alone take action to contain it.
It’s a really funny moment. But if you talk to any climate scientist, writer, or activist these days, they will tell you that this is what they face in reality.
Climate events every day make it clear that the escalation is happening much faster and more violently than anyone anticipated. Britain crossed 40°C (104°F) last summer, causing homes to burst into flames; trees have started growing in the Arctic circle; water is drying up in the American Southwest and across the globe at a startling rate; and it is all but certain that we will cross 1.5°C warming in the next two years. And on and on.
A recent piece in the Guardian by Roger Harrabin describes a disconcerting encounter he had with a renowned scientist:
The heat phenomenon in the Canadian town of Lytton, for instance, produced a “dome” of trapped heat that cranked up the temperature to 49.6C. Wildfires raged and the town was razed. I broke the news to one of the Royal Society’s leading members, Prof Sir Brian Hoskins, but at first he did not believe me. Then he said: “Oh, my god, that’s really scary.”
Extreme change is happening much, much faster than we thought. Water and food shortages are already here. With dozens of events — including the frequency of winter tornadoes tripling in the American South — popping up every day, it’s clear we are dealing with a “right now” time frame. Nonetheless, governments, leaders of industry, the banking world, and large swaths of the news media have so far reacted like the blank-faced firemen in Pleasantville.
Just earlier this week, the Biden administration signaled that it would approve the Willow oil drilling project on federal land, a project that will release over nine million metric tons of carbon into the atmosphere — the equivalent of putting an additional two million cars onto the road. The administration is doing it under the Jamie Dimon–backed premise that more fossil fuels are required in order to eliminate fossil fuels.
At first blush, every aspect of this move reads as madness. But I believe this decision, and the almost total lack of curiosity or concern surrounding it, demonstrates something much more dangerous than foolishness or imbalance. It shows that many entrenched political forces can only understand the rapid warming of the planet as just another issue that polls indicate some people are concerned about. For these leaders, the climate crisis is placed neatly against traditional concerns, such as the economy, rising gas prices, or an angered donor class. It’s a level of institutional blindness and warped incentives that should scare the crap out of all of us.
Let me be clear: I’m not saying that leaders, CEOs, or media members who fail to take in the reality of this consequential moment are necessarily all “bad people,” but instead were selected by and have thrived in a reality that no longer exists.
And I’m not being hyperbolic. Humans have never lived in a climate with this much carbon. It’s been two million years since the earth’s atmosphere had the level of greenhouse gases that scientists are currently reporting.
Can our institutions account for their blind spots and pivot to the moment we’re in?
It’s certainly not looking good lately. But the scene that follows Maguire yelling “Fire!” in Pleasantville shows his character turning on a never-before-used hose from the fire truck to finally put out the blaze.
“So that’s what that’s for!” says the fireman next to him.
Government leaders, the media, and heads of industry need to stop living in a world that fits their needs and feels familiar, and start living in the world as it is. The alternative is unimaginably grim.