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By Sherry Listgarten

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About this blog: Climate change, despite its outsized impact on the planet, is still an abstract concept to many of us. That needs to change. My hope is that readers of this blog will develop a better understanding of how our climate is evolving a...  (More)

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The Weird Thing about Population Growth

Uploaded: May 17, 2020
There are a lot of people on the planet, with more added every day. It took 200,000 years to get to one billion people, then only 200 years to get to 7 billion. We added one billion people in just the last twelve years. Earth is home to 7.8 billion people today, and is predicted to host 8.5 billion by 2030 and nearly 10 billion by 2050. It makes you wonder — can we just slow it down? Fewer people would consume fewer resources, making it easier to manage climate change. Isn’t reducing our population easier than transforming all of our energy, transportation, and building systems?


Source: Our World in Data

The high-income economies already have low birth rates, and in fact they have been well below the “replacement-level fertility” of 2.1 children for many years. (1)


The fertility rate (2) for high-income countries has been below replacement level since 1980. Source: United Nation’s population data

And that is a good thing for our climate, because the high-income economies are responsible for many more emissions than other regions.


High-income countries, in blue, are home to 16% of the population but produce 36% of global emissions. (These are reported as “territorial emissions,” which ignore international travel and goods consumed from other countries.) Source: Our World in Data

So what is causing all of this population growth? It must be China and India, right? But China has had low fertility for decades, and India is nearly there.


China’s fertility rate (2) has been below replacement level for decades. Source: United Nation’s population data


India’s fertility rate (2) will soon be below replacement level. Source: United Nation’s population data

So why is our population still growing so much? Parts of Africa, especially sub-Saharan Africa, still have large families.


The fertility rate (2) in sub-Sarahan Africa remains high. Source: United Nation’s population data

But it’s not a particularly dense area, and fertility rates are declining, so by 2050 it is projected to add “just” one billion people. Where are the other billion people coming from?

That is where the weirdness comes in. Population growth has inertia, or what is called “population momentum”. According to this overview of the concept, even if we were to instantly switch the planet’s fertility rate from today’s 2.5 to the replacement level of 2.1, and there were no change in mortality, we would still add more than a billion people by 2050. In other words, much of the projected population growth is “baked in”. How can that be?

As you know, a few things contribute to population growth. One of those is the fertility rate. More kids generally means more people. Another one is mortality rate. More deaths generally means fewer people. (3) One reason that China’s population increased despite a sharp drop in birth rate is that mortality went down at the same time due to improvements in health care.

But there is one other factor that affects global population growth, and that is the age structure of the existing population. If there are more young people than old people, then even with fertility rates at the replacement level of 2.1, births will exceed deaths for decades before the population stabilizes. And that is where Earth stands today. As the UN projects, “given the current youthful global age distribution, a substantial growth in human numbers over the remainder of the twenty-first century is nearly inevitable.”

You can see this most clearly by looking at “population pyramids”. (4) Here is what the world’s distribution looks like today. Age is on the vertical axis, with younger ages at the bottom. Each horizontal slice shows how many people are at that age, with males on the left in blue and females on the right in gold.


The world today has many more younger people than older people. Source: United Nation’s population data

Over time, the pyramid should get narrower at the bottom as families have fewer children. But for now, the shape of the pyramid means that births will outpace deaths for many years.

You can see this playing out in the country of India. The population was growing rapidly in the second half of last century, with a clear triangular shape to the population (more younger people) that grew in width (more people at each age). But growth has been slowing and the shape is gradually losing its taper.


India’s population has grown bigger but also less youthful over time, decreasing “population momentum”. Source: United Nation’s population data

Taken to an extreme, you can imagine an inverted pyramid in a country with a much older population. Such countries have negative population momentum — their population is decreasing and it will take a while for them to turn that around if they decide to. Japan is the canonical example of that, but you can see this happening in other places, like Italy.


Japan’s population is very senior, making it likely that Japan’s population will continue to decrease. Source: United Nation’s population data

In the context of climate change a decreasing population is a good thing. But economies worry about it because the workforce shrinks relative to the dependent age brackets (children and seniors), making the economy less productive. Countries like Hungary and Poland are offering “baby bonuses”, while others like Japan are encouraging immigration to offset the age imbalance. Alternatively, a recent paper suggests there is plenty of room to improve the productivity of the existing workforce, for example by improving education and making it easier for parents (especially mothers) to participate. The authors also stress the importance of integrating immigrants effectively into the workforce. Their models show that “neither of these two strategies (encouraging more babies or immigration) pursued within realistic bounds will have as much impact as possible changes in labor-force participation, improving educational attainment and better economic integration of immigrants.” We also know that automation can augment a shrinking workforce, though it’s not always easy.

Our population needs to stabilize and even decrease if we want to use our resources sustainably. As Drawdown and others have concluded, effective ways to do that are to educate girls and make family planning available to those who want it. Increasing urbanization in rural areas also helps since urban families prefer fewer, more educated children to large numbers of children raised to be rural laborers. But for a while, our population is likely to grow. Fortunately, we know how to address climate change even as we grow. Areas where population is already stabilizing, which tend to be high-emission regions like ours, need to focus on reducing emissions and consumption. Areas where population is growing need to ensure their growth is low-emission (and we should help them with that). We can make this work. In addition to managing our population growth, we need to employ different strategies in different regions depending on how they are growing (or not), and we need to be careful to maintain productivity as our population ages.

Notes and References
1. The World Resources Institute defines replacement level fertility as “the total fertility rate—the average number of children born per woman—at which a population exactly replaces itself from one generation to the next, without migration. This rate is roughly 2.1 children per woman for most countries, although it may modestly vary with mortality rates.”

2. The United Nations defines the “total fertility rate” as “The average number of live births a hypothetical cohort of women would have at the end of their reproductive period if they were subject during their whole lives to the fertility rates of a given period and if they were not subject to mortality. It is expressed as live births per woman.”

3. One possible exception to more deaths leading to fewer people is child mortality. When many children are dying, families tend to have more children.

4. You can find an excellent overview of population pyramids in this short YouTube video from TED-Ed.

5. The United Nations maintains a terrific website for population data.

Current Climate Data (April 2020)
Global impacts, US impacts, CO2 metric, Climate dashboard (updated annually)

April 2020 was the globe’s second warmest April in the 141-year NOAA global temperature dataset record. Only April 2016 was warmer. But much of North America did not feel the heat.


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Comments

 +   1 person likes this
Posted by education girls - worldwide, a resident of Palo Alto Orchards,
on May 17, 2020 at 8:41 am

Awwwww, geez, dear blogger....

A thousand words before the key phrase: "Fortunately, we know how to address climate change even as we grow."

Admirable research and great graphics, admittedly. The history of your blog has shown us, however, that a certain segment (some would label 'deniers' or 'concern trolls') will latch on to your charts and ignore the key lesson. They'll pontificate that we "MUST" reduce population before we address Climate Change.

Sigh.

Thanks also for repeating a most important point in any discussion of family planning: education of girls matters.


 +   5 people like this
Posted by a bit disappointed, a resident of Another Mountain View Neighborhood,
on May 18, 2020 at 4:23 pm

I was a bit disappointed in the take you had in this post. When we talk about population "needing to stabilize" and don't more clearly emphasize WHICH population segments (i.e. Global North) consume the most resources and are most responsible for contributing to climate change, it can be very harmful. I appreciate that you highlighted how many of the commonly espoused ideas of "China and India growing too fast" aren't true, but I still think more emphasis was needed on just HOW much more damaging an average American carbon footprint is than an average Indian carbon footprint. This article sums up a bit of what I'm trying to say: Web Link

Empowering women and working to provide better access to healthcare and family planning is of course a good thing, but we don't have to talk about "population control" as a reason to do those things.


 +   1 person likes this
Posted by Meee, a resident of Ventura,
on May 18, 2020 at 6:07 pm

Much of this is assumption based since hard data is hard to come by for fragile nations, which tend to have most growth potential. Similarly covid is poised to throw all data and models in the fire and we mandate count once in 10 years,many poorer nations failing even that. What we really need is proper census or well documented registry counting every 5 years. None of this is gonna happen if the status quo continues.


 +   9 people like this
Posted by TimR, a resident of Downtown North,
on May 18, 2020 at 9:49 pm

There's only one reason poor, rural people want to become urban and educated: to make money so they can consume more "stuff." First they want to trade the bicycle for a motorbike (as happened in China and is now happening throughout SE Asia), but as soon as that life goal is achieved, they want a car. And then nice clothes, and a bigger apartment with fancy things like refrigerators, washer and dryers, TV's, computers, etc. And, finally, the biggest item of all:air travel (current virus concerns aside) "Poor" is just another word for low carbon footprint, with "urban and educated" being the opposite. Yes, money and education reduce birth rates, but they also increase consumption. And right now, that's not very helpful when it comes to climate change. The US's goal from the 1970s of raising people out of poverty is who we got into our current emissions problem. And more of it won't get us out.


 +   2 people like this
Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on May 19, 2020 at 9:45 am

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

@abit and TimR: Thanks for bringing up consumption, which is the complement to population. Tim makes this interesting claim:

"Poor" is just another word for low carbon footprint, with "urban and educated" being the opposite.

Since we need to reduce our emissions across the board, you could read this as saying that the US and other wealthy countries should become poor again. Alternatively, you could say that while the above has been true, we need to change it. People should be able to live urban, educated, well-off, and low-footprint lifestyles. @TimR, is that what you are trying to say? That implies that the wealthy countries need to transform to low-emissions, and the poorer countries need to grow in a low-footprint way.

Here is a map of where per-capita emissions are highest. And keep in mind this does not include trade and international travel, which I expect would make the dark areas even darker.


 +   6 people like this
Posted by The REAL Reasons, a resident of Barron Park,
on May 20, 2020 at 8:47 am

Whatever happened to the classic Malthusian model in regards to population control?

Disease, infant mortality, age and war were the primary control factors but much has changed.

Modern medical science has increased lifespans from age-related diseases & infant deaths.

Countries do not engage in mass global warfare anymore.

Underdeveloped/3rd world countries at one time had high disease & infant mortality rates + most adults did not live long. Thanks to international medical teams, this control factor is no longer in place.

Modern industrial countries have learned that economic warfare is far more profitable than using bullets thus fewer people are dying on the battlefields.

Conclusion...

(1) A high birth rate + high infant mortality + early adult deaths = controlled population growth.

(2) A high birth rate + unchecked diseases = controlled population growth.

(3) A low birth rate + low infant mortality + increased aging = a population increase.

(4) A low birth rate + reduced diseases = a population increase.

Solution (albeit a simple one at that)...

If one is an inhabitant of a modern, industrial society & concerned about excessive population numbers perhaps consider: (1) not having any children (or maybe just one), (2) adopting a needy child from a 3rd world/underdeveloped country, (3) practicing some form of birth control (i.e. abstinence, birth control pills or vasectomies).

And if one is an inhabitant of a 3rd world/underdeveloped society & concerned about excessive population numbers...perhaps consider the above recommendations as well and AVOID all missionaries who are merely seeking mass conversions in order to generate more church tithings.

A cultural anthropology professor in college once stressed that primitive societies are often converted to poor underdeveloped countries (i.e. peasantry) by self-serving missionaries promoting their dogma and cash flow.

The Catholic & Mormon churches are prime examples as they are among the two wealthiest organized religions in the entire world via missionary work and Latin America is a prime example.

Charity begins at home.




 +   2 people like this
Posted by The REAL Reasons, , a resident of Barron Park,
on May 20, 2020 at 8:52 am

Addendum...

It should also be noted that the two aforementioned religions stress having large families but if one cannot afford to = a bad idea given the potential & increased poverty factors.


 +   1 person likes this
Posted by pearl, a resident of another community,
on May 20, 2020 at 11:17 am

pearl is a registered user.

Read this book:

The Population Bomb by Dr. Paul Ehrlich of Stanford
Web Link


 +   1 person likes this
Posted by alarmed, a resident of another community,
on May 20, 2020 at 2:38 pm

[Post removed.]


 +  Like this comment
Posted by CrescentParkAnon., a resident of Crescent Park,
on May 20, 2020 at 3:30 pm

A lot of important things to think about here. The
problem is that individuals thinking about things
doesn't really seem to do lead to any action, only
reaction that supports a political status quo that
is almost all of the problem.

So much emotional reaction and illogic in the comments
and a kind of retaliatory nastiness, like -

> They'll pontificate that we "MUST" reduce population
> before we address Climate Change.

Arguing a point by using the connotation of the word
pontificate as some kind of logical premise.

What we, the human race, are doing on a global level
is no more intelligent than rats who overbreed their
environment, but we are doing it to the whole planet,
and use our force to prove our logic, or illogic as
it may be, to argue with reality.

For example in the self-assumed most advanced country
in the world our government is muzzling people with
opinions derived from scientific facts it doesn't
like to support foolish consumption and control of
wealth. The subject of population control is not
even on the radar as something that can be talked
about.

In my opinion, China is doing the right thing by
controlling their population. The rest of the world
are dangerous delusional and mistake the use of more
energy and resources as intelligence and righteousness.
If not for immigration the US would have a lightly
less than replacement population rate, but one of
the reasons some people are anti- immigration is the
growth rate of certain segments of the population.

We justify all our failures and inabilities by calling
them freedoms.

Humans are such slow learners on these subjects that
as a whole, in me opinion, it is wrong for us to
call ourselves intelligent. And intelligent species
would deal with problems and threats in a predictive,
rational way, and there is simply no way the world,
any country or any group can claim that we as a
species are doing that.

> If one is an inhabitant of a modern, industrial
> society & concerned about excessive > population
> numbers perhaps consider: (1) not having any children
> (or maybe just one)

The problem is that we think in little dissociated
chunks like this. There is a logic to this idea,
but it seems wrong in general in the sense that
political change usually comes from the classes that
cause whatever problem brings about that change. I
don't think you can claim either way that reducing
the pool of educated empowered people will somehow
help solve what is a global inherent problems in all
humanity. It is the same logic as recycling will
solve our resource problem - it just doesn't.

To me the outlook for our species, and all the rest
of life on this planet that is dependent on human
behavior, intelligence and resources management is
so dim it is practically pitch black. This pandemic
that we are all facing right now is a very clear
picture of how ineffective we are at dealing with
something that if we were actually employing
intelligence to guide our behavior is something we've
known about for decades and done almost nothing
about.

> Our population needs to stabilize and even decrease
> if we want to use our > resources sustainably.

I'd say drastically decrease. Instead of citing
Drawdown, I would point to the E. O. Wilson book
Half-Earth: Our Planet's Fight for Life, 2016.

The idea that nature can survive in little pockets
like Central Park for example in the middle of massive
unsustainable development or ruin is just foolish
and wrong. It is nature that should be surrounding
small pockets of human industrial development. We
just do not seem to get that it is suicide to base
our basic theme and meme of living on war, and then
think that is somehow "natural".


 +   4 people like this
Posted by Mike, a resident of Professorville,
on May 20, 2020 at 3:31 pm

@ pearl:

I read The Population Bomb in 1969, along with such other garbage as Famine 1975! (yes, the title included the "!"; and Paul Erlich lavishly praised it) and several other forgettable tomes, as required for my college freshman year seminar. They conned me for a while, as they did so many others, especially with their sensationalist style. Their projections were laughingly wrong in more ways than I care to elaborate now. Please don't encourage others to read this thoroughly discredited book.

To Sherry:

I appreciate your columns and analysis, including this one. A couple of quibbles:

- In the intro, you ask "It makes you wonder " can we just slow it (population growth) down?", but it takes a while (and many charts) before leading to the inescapable and obvious answer: we not only can, we have been slowing population growth, and for many decades now! World population is probably going to top off and begin to decline in our children's lifetime.

- The first chart is very misleading to the average person, who cannot comprehend a time span of 12,000 years. A chart of world population over the average person's lifetime (say the last 80 years or so) would elicit a more hopeful and realistic conclusion -- that the "curve has flattened" dramatically over the last 50 years.


 +   2 people like this
Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on May 20, 2020 at 4:00 pm

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

Great comments! I will respond more later, but to Mike's point, yes, although population is increasing by about the same amount each year (around 80 million), the rate of increase (aka population growth) as a percentage of the total population has been slowing for decades. The population curve is now linear rather than exponential. I'm sorry that I wasn't clear on that, I will look to see if there is wording I can fix. I wouldn't say that we have flattened the curve yet -- it's still linear -- but we are getting there. Here are some charts showing that, or click on this link to see the numbers. The first chart shows the world population, evening out around the end of the century. The second shows the annual population growth rate as a percentage of the total population, which has been decreasing for decades. When the growth rate hits zero, the population has stopped growing (the population curve has flattened).




 +   1 person likes this
Posted by CrescentParkAnon., a resident of Crescent Park,
on May 20, 2020 at 5:17 pm

I don't really think it is fair to pile on Paul Ehrlich and his book "The Population Bomb". After all Ehrlich was trying to do the impossible and predict the future given vague realities we half knew in the past.

Ehrlich got it broadly right, or put it this way, if he was an expert and made predictions like this as in for punditry or financial investments the track record of people making precise predictions is very close to zero, and those who get it are mostly just lucky. That is, in a popular book setting he was the first to popularize and apply Darwinian and Malthusian understanding to the human population - in a way that was not threatening and was accepted. Just that is an amazing accomplishment if you think about it. That is about as much of a shift in thinking as Galileo going from Earth to Sun centric view of the world.

The quality of the reasoning of bringing up Erich to discredit him, to then claim superior authority now because someone can, in hindsight, attack the popular work of a guy from 1968 ... really, that reasoning is insulting to the audience's intelligence.


 +   1 person likes this
Posted by CrescentParkAnon., a resident of Crescent Park,
on May 20, 2020 at 5:29 pm

WRT population, what about per-capita deaths over time. That is, in the different eras of the past we would assume that a higher or lower percentage of any given population would die in any given year.

Trying to balance looking at the factors that cause this, what are the major factors that are slowing down of our population growth, and are they factors that could be called byproducts of Malthusian factors or because we humans intelligently choose to limit our numbers in reaction to 50 years of wide understanding of population and Malthus ideas?

I'd have to posit it is all in relation to maximum possible growth as defined by any culture. It would be hard to actually have produced more people, so in no way did we actually learn anything and then plan and react intelligently in response, proving my point that human beings are not really intelligent and are not likely to learn to change to be more intelligent in the future.


 +   4 people like this
Posted by Margaret Sanger, a resident of Old Palo Alto,
on May 20, 2020 at 5:50 pm

[Post removed.]


 +   1 person likes this
Posted by Mike, a resident of Professorville,
on May 20, 2020 at 11:50 pm

Sherry, you're right in the mathematical sense that the curve is technically not flattened until the growth rate is 0. I was using the "flatten the curve" term as it's been popularized in the Covid sense recently, which is to reduce the rate of growth, from rapid exponential to something much lower; that is what we have been doing since the 1970's. And it's actually today a lower rate of growth than linear -- every year, the population increases by fewer people than the year before. And to think this has happened in such a tiny period of time (a couple of generations) after the preceding 12,000 years of unbridled growth is to me astounding.

(And also consider that in the past 30 years the world's childhood mortality rate has dropped by well over 50%, and the % of people living in dire poverty has dropped from 36% to under 9% -- should give one a more optimistic perspective on what can and will be accomplished further, in these and other areas of world concern, such as climate change.)


 +   1 person likes this
Posted by musical, a resident of Palo Verde,
on May 21, 2020 at 9:16 am

^ I think absolute world population increased just as much this year as it did 20 years ago or 50 years ago.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on May 21, 2020 at 9:37 am

It was announced in the last few days that the birth rate in the US was the lowest it has been in 35 years for last year.

I wonder how that will change this year and next? With all the people sheltering in place at home... I expect an increased birth rate worldwide as a result of the pandemic. Population numbers unaffected, but the birth rate to rise everywhere.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on May 22, 2020 at 11:51 am

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

These are terrific comments and thoughts. Here are a few responses FWIW...

@TheREAL -- You mention ways to reduce population, but I’m curious what your thoughts are on the relative importance of population vs carbon intensity. Population is dropping in developed countries, and given how high per capita emissions are in those places, reducing carbon intensity seems to be the way to go. In the developing world, where population is growing, ensuring that growth is low-carbon seems pretty important, while also determining how best to stabilize the population. No?

@CPA -- Yeah, it can be hard to view our collective behavior as intelligent at times. I’m curious where you find hope. Are there things going well, somewhere in the world, and how would you expand on that? I love EO Wilson’s idea, but I’d (unfortunately) consider it an aspiration rather than a practical suggestion. One of the things I hope to write about some time is environmental idealism vs pragmatism, which I think you might find interesting.

@Several -- I haven’t read the Population Bomb. There’s lots of discussion on the book. Here is one place that seems pretty balanced.

@CPA -- Your question about death rates is a great one. You can find some information on the UN site, but it can be hard to know if death rates go down because the proportion of young people is growing or because people are healthier. I think the better metric is life expectancy, which you can also find there, and has been steadily increasing, though at a slower rate now than earlier.

You ask why fertility rates are going down. Great question! My understanding is that it is due to a variety of things: (1) lower child mortality (leads parents to have fewer kids); (2) increased urbanization (kids cost more and aren't needed for manual labor); (3) availability of birth control; (4) more women in the workplace (families start later).

@Mike -- Yes, great point. Many aspects of fertility and mortality have changed quickly. Iran is an example of that. The fertility rate plummeted there faster than anyone expected, due to very effective government-sponsored family planning initiatives.


On that basis, some think fertility rates will drop faster than the UN anticipates in sub-Saharan Africa. Indeed, the UN recently revised its estimates downwards. I guess what matters are the goals of the countries in sub-Saharan Africa and the incentives they see.

@Resident -- A pandemic baby boom? Or maybe people are too worried about their ability to afford kids? I don’t know…

FWIW, one of the main things I learned from writing this blog was how important it is that we plan for aging populations by doing more to build a productive workforce. I never really understood that, but the difference between (say) Sweden and Italy in that regard is pretty big. I’m not sure where the US and/or California specifically lines up but it’d be interesting to learn more…

Anyway, thanks everyone for the really thoughtful comments on a tricky issue.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by CrescentParkAnon., a resident of Crescent Park,
on May 22, 2020 at 7:11 pm

Sherry
>> @CPA -- Yeah, it can be hard to view our collective behavior as intelligent at times. I'm curious where you find hope.

The behavior of humanity as a whole simply cannot be viewed as intelligent. We are
mistaking tricks we have learned from the ability to record experience and behavior
of nature in order to gain military, economic and political advantage for some group
with intelligence. Thinking holistically is simply too much for our brains, and giving
up power or resources too much for our selfish egos.

The issue is reminiscent to me of the theory of nuclear winter. That is, if any of the
world's major super-powers decide to have a nuclear war exchange of a certain level
they will bring disaster down on the rest of the whole world whether they participated
or not and regardless of where they are. This is on the level of the fundamentalist
Christians faith in the end of the world as the harbinger of God's return to the world,
it is pure insanity to think the world's problems will be magically resolved.

I have very little hope, except perhaps the level of hope I might muster by buying a lottery
ticket. Maybe in the 1000+ year range if humanity can survive and finally evolve some
real intelligence but that would require the average person to have intelligence over and
above what we today would call genius. The current human condition dictates that by
the time we get old and wise we are discounted and die. God must really hate us. The
older I get the more I realize that all the trends and all the newer information we get all
tends to converge and all in the deadly direction. Being alive at this time is bittersweet
because there is a lot left to enjoy and appreciate, but the writing is on the wall.

I would however love to be wrong and once never knows what is possible.


 +   1 person likes this
Posted by CrescentParkAnon., a resident of Crescent Park,
on May 22, 2020 at 7:25 pm

What I meant by the death rate is has anyone tracks the demographics
of death, that is, what is the difference in the death rate of people of
different ages relative to what it was when we did not have the pandemic.

One interesting statistic or rule that I have run into is that the longer
you live ( within a certain window ) the longer you will live. That is if
you live to your 60's you are more likely live to your 70's, and if you
make it to your 70's you will likely live to your 90's.

They are implying already by looking back at death rates pre-pandemic
that we can assume statistical increases in this year's death rate for any
given group is due to the pandemic, and thus are assuming that more
people than we really know of are dying due to C-19 than just those
whose cause of death is determined in the hospitals or morgues to be
due to C-19.

Also that "we" are assuming that "we" are lowering our reproduction rate
consciously and not just due to behavioral reactions to economic influences.
I don't think we are not behaving responsibly and altruistically in planning
our families. For example, when gas prices go down people still go back to
buying big gas guzzlers ... even today.

One reason I find individual's choices to altruistically be vegan, or not drive
cars, or recycle or any number of behavioral changes do not matter to me
because they are token efforts that in the long run, and I say this sadly, just
do not mean much or do much.

Where are the philosopher kings when we need them? Hardly matters
anyway since the could not get elected.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on May 22, 2020 at 9:49 pm

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

@CPA, you say: "One reason I find individual's choices to altruistically be vegan, or not drive cars, or recycle or any number of behavioral changes do not matter to me because they are token efforts that in the long run, and I say this sadly, just do not mean much or do much."

FWIW, no surprise, but I don't agree :) In fact, I think that is exactly how change happens -- people acting according to their beliefs, other people seeing those actions, relating to them, and doing the same.

I don't think of changing one's behavior in this way as "altruism" either. I think of it as living in a way that is consistent with your values. Or at least trying to head in that direction. Are you being "altruistic" in contributing constructively to this online conversation? Am I being "altruistic" in writing this blog? No. We are trying to do what we think is important, what matters, what we think might have an impact.

My Dad feels much the same way that you do. He's French, so he has a tendency towards Gallic fatalism... My feeling is that attitude is a self-fulfilling prophecy. I would hope to encourage more agency, and urge people to act in a way that is consistent with their values and that they are proud to explain to their children and grandchildren. Once you care, it's not much of a step further to act in accordance with that, even with a small step. It's not an act of futility. Or an act of altruism. It's an act of agency. And those acts magnify.


 +   4 people like this
Posted by The REAL Reasons, a resident of Barron Park,
on May 23, 2020 at 9:06 am

This conversation topic came up the other evening and as I pondered it, I became more indifferent...

I read somewhere that human life on Earth was estimated to last another 750 years (give or take a couple of decades).

That's roughly 28-30 generations or in present reference, going back in time to the signing of the Magna Carta.

Should we really concern ourselves with what transpires in 750 years? The folks back in 1200-something could have cared less about our problems/issues today.

One or two generations might be worthy of consideration but if you have ever been to a cemetery, there are a lot of forgotten gravesites as families eventually branch out & the dead drift into oblivion. Perhaps that is why the curious resort to Ancestry.com.

In any event, I came to the conclusion that whatever REMOTELY happens 750 years from now (i.e. global extinction, supernova, natural disasters etc.)...

Who really cares?




 +   1 person likes this
Posted by Special, a resident of Midtown,
on May 23, 2020 at 11:25 am

Special is a registered user.

In a perfect world there would be a special planet set aside just for nihilists.


 +   2 people like this
Posted by The REAL Reasons, a resident of Barron Park,
on May 24, 2020 at 8:49 am

> "In a perfect world there would be a special planet set aside just for nihilists."

^ Perfect worlds do not exist...most likely one of the primary explanations for substance abuse.

Perception is reality and no one can walk in another person's shoes.

Nihilism aside, everything has its own 'shelf life' and so there's no need to be worried or concerned over spilt milk 750 years ago or 750 years in the future.

History always repeats itself one way or the other & Earthly conditions will always be subject to environmental change.

Natural selection + survival of the fittest aspects apply so perhaps maybe 750 years from now only those species that have adapted will still be around.

In the meantime, it's probably best to focus on the timeframes we actually live in.


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Posted by Mark Weiss, a resident of Downtown North,
on May 24, 2020 at 8:57 pm

Mark Weiss is a registered user.

Hi, Sherry:
Excuse me -- ok, delete me -- if this is too personal or estoeric. Two points:
1) There is a concert event version of "Drawdown" which, like your link, is based on the writings of Paul Hawken. It is by Beth Custer of San Francisco and I hosted a live version of it here at Palo Alto Arts Center (sic) about a year ago;
Web Link

2) my wife and I are a childless couple, and newlyweds, going on three years actually, but we spoil a dog who, coincidentally or not, we inherited from the widow of a Stanford science professor, he and she(humans) would have weekly lunches with Dr and Dr Ehrlich, the ones cited above. Actually, Terry met Susan at the 7:30 mass, so go figure!
It takes all type, 2 to 8 billion, to keep this world spinning! Metaphorically. It will likely preserve the motion long after we tranmogrify back to star dust.


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Posted by Mark Weiss, a resident of Downtown North,
on May 24, 2020 at 9:05 pm

Mark Weiss is a registered user.

Here's a 3 min clip of Beth featuring voice, clarinet, piano, cello, violin and percussion.

Web Link

PS I meant "types" not "type" and "transmogrify" in the sense of change. Maybe I will change the dog's name to "Dusty" in honor of John and Susan and my own parents.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Mike, a resident of Professorville,
on May 26, 2020 at 3:39 pm

Specifically for CPA, but generally for anyone:

Rather than reading some 50 year old book of incredibly inaccurate and horribly pessimistic predictions (sorry, CPA, Erlich did not get it "broadly right" -- he wasn't anywhere close to right), read the late Swede Hans Rosling's book (finished by his son after his death) Factfulness: Ten Reasons We're Wrong About the World--and Why Things Are Better Than You Think.

Rosling's TED Talks (and his use of graphics to convey facts about economic/health/social development around the world) were unforgettable. They, and this book, are a great support for optimists, and a schooling for cynics -- all done using facts, not ideas, guesses or beliefs.


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