Overpopulation Is Still the Problem | Alon Tal

Overpopulation remains the leading driver of hunger, desertification, species depletion and a range of social maladies across the planet. Recently, a spate of op-ed essays have filled the pages of some of world’s top newspapers and blogs — from the Guardian to the New York Times — challenged this view, declaring that overpopulations is not, nor has ever been, a problem. To make progress in the most recent round of the age-old debate between technological optimists and Malthusian realists, it’s important to establish criteria and characterize consequences.

On what basis are these newest cornucopian assurances made? In the New York Times piece, for instance, Ellis Erle asserts that after studying the ecology of agriculture in China and talking to archaeologists, he reached the conclusion that technologies have always been able to overcome any anticipated exceedance of carrying capacity. A key corroboration marshaled for this view refers to a retrospective assessment of Chinese farming by archaeologists. It purportedly claims that new and more efficient technologies invariably enabled local farmers to overcome any anticipated exceedance of carrying capacity.

On what basis are these newest cornucopian assurances made? In the New York Times piece, for instance, Ellis Erle asserts that after studying the ecology of agriculture in China and talking to archaeologists, he reached the conclusion that technologies have always been able to overcome any anticipated exceedance of carrying capacity. A key corroboration marshaled for this view refers to a retrospective assessment of Chinese farming by archaeologists. It purportedly claims that new and more efficient technologies invariably enabled local farmers to overcome any anticipated exceedance of carrying capacity.

Conservative estimates report that China’s most recent food crisis, between 1958 and 1961, led to the starvation of over twenty million people, in part due to the erosion of China’s natural capital. Uncontrolled human fertility led to a depletion of the land’s fertility. Previous famines were worse. Over the years, hundreds of millions died a horrible death of hunger. Their misery should teach a sobering lesson about insouciant disregard for the balance between human numbers and natural resources.

Conservative estimates report that China’s most recent food crisis, between 1958 and 1961, led to the starvation of over twenty million people, in part due to the erosion of China’s natural capital. Uncontrolled human fertility led to a depletion of the land’s fertility. Previous famines were worse. Over the years, hundreds of millions died a horrible death of hunger. Their misery should teach a sobering lesson about insouciant disregard for the balance between human numbers and natural resources.

Read more at The Huffington Post

Overpopulation: Why ingenuity alone won’t save us – latimes.com

We are running out of tricks to squeeze more from a planet already bursting its seams.

Children at Dadaab receive a supplemental meal in an effort to give them caloric intake they need to grow and survive. (Los Angeles Times)

It’s easy to grasp that in a national park, balance must be maintained between predators and prey, lest the ecosystem crash. But when we’re talking about our own species, it gets harder. The notion that there are limits to how much humanity this parkland called Earth can bear doesn’t sit easy with us.

The “nature” part of human nature includes making more copies of ourselves, to ensure our genetic and cultural survival. As that instinct comes in handy for building mighty nations and dominant religions, we’ve set about filling the Earth, rarely worrying that it might one day overfill. Even after population quadrupled in the 20th century, placing unprecedented stress on the planet, it’s hard for some to accept that there might be too many of us for our own good.

A recent essay in the New York Times by University of Maryland geographer Erle C. Ellis, argued that population growth is actually the mother of invention, that it inspires new technologies to sustain ever more humans and to coax more from the land. And as Pope Benedict XVI wrote in his 2009 encyclical “Caritas in Veritate,” “On this Earth there is room for everyone … through hard work and creativity.”

In 2011, I visited the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy of Sciences, which had warned in 1994 that it was “unthinkable to sustain indefinitely a birthrate beyond 2.3 children per couple…. The contrary demographic consequences would be unsustainable to the point of absurdity.” Nevertheless, the church still encouraged population growth.

With a billion humans already malnourished, I asked the academy’s director where would we get food for nearly 10 billion by midcentury? Clearing more forests for farming would be disastrous. Beset by floods and erosion, China alone has been spending $40 billion to put trees back. And force-feeding crops with chemistry has backfired on us, with nitrogen runoff that fouls rivers, deadens New Jersey-sized chunks of the oceans and emits large quantities of two greenhouse gases: carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide.

The answer, I was told, would be through increased yields using new genetically modified crops from the centers of the Green Revolution: the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center in Texcoco, Mexico, and the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines.

The Green Revolution’s high-yield, genetically selected strains more than doubled grain harvests during the 1960s. It is often cited as having triumphed over dire predictions of famines caused by population growth outpacing food production, which were famously made by economist Thomas Robert Malthus in “An Essay on the Principle of Population” and echoed by his latter-day analogues, Paul and Anne Ehrlich, who wrote “The Population Bomb.”

However, when I went to the maize center in Texcoco and to the rice institute in the Philippines, I found no food scientists who agreed with that triumphalist scenario. Instead, I learned, Green Revolution founder Norman Borlaug had warned in his 1970 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech that his work essentially had only bought the world time to resolve overpopulation.

Read more at the Los Angeles Times

Alan Weisman: Just by existing, we’re contributing to the problem – Salon.com

The only way we can keep living on Earth, the author writes in his new book, is if there are fewer of us

Alan Weisman (Credit: Bill Steen)

In his 2007 book “The World Without Us,” Alan Weisman took on an ambitious thought experiment: What if mankind were to suddenly disappear from the planet? It was an apocalyptic scenario, to be sure, but it arguably pales in comparison to the alternative: What if, instead of going anywhere, we just keep making more of ourselves?

“Countdown,” which hits shelves today, takes on that scenario, as a reality that’s quickly approaching. This time, the question for Weisman isn’t just about what could happen — it’s about what we could possibly do to prevent it.

Technology isn’t going to fix this problem, Weisman found. And though the book’s subtitle is phrased as a question (“Our Last, Best Hope for a Future on Earth?”) the answer is clear: If we want to keep going, he argues, there needs to be fewer of us. Weisman spoke with Salon about our cross-cultural impulse to be fruitful and multiply, and his quest to find a more sustainable mantra for humanity. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Read more at Salon.com

Saudi women emerging

published 1-20-2013

A week ago, Saudi Arabia saw something that people in the kingdom often talk about but rarely witness — a potentially important political reform.

King Abdullah announced Jan. 11 that 30 women would join the kingdom’s Shura Council, a consultative body of 150 persons, and that women henceforth would hold 20 percent of the seats. Skeptics cautioned that it’s a symbolic move, since this is an advisory group that doesn’t actually enact any legislation. But it’s a powerful symbol, according to men and women here.

When Abdullah first signaled his plan to name women to the council, a Saudi cleric said it would be “haram,” or forbidden under Islam. The king went ahead and announced the 30 appointees, saying that he had consulted the Senior Ulema Council, the religious body whose approval is one of the pillars of the Saudi monarchy.

A Westerner here told me that, last weekend, several dozen conservative Saudis gathered near Abdullah’s palace to complain, but he wouldn’t see them.

It’s understandable why conservatives would be upset: If Saudi women are deemed worthy of joining the body that advises the king on sensitive matters, it’s harder to justify the many limits on their rights.

I met here last week with Hayat Sindi, a scientist who is one of the newly appointed Shura members. She took her doctorate in biotechnology from Cambridge in 2001, and in the years since she has been a visiting scholar at Harvard, launched two companies and helped run a third.

“I feel the solution for the Middle East is based on women and youth,” she says. Listening to her story of insistent, determined accomplishment, it’s hard to disagree.

Read more at Ya Libnan.

Egypt, Turkey, and the Future of Middle East Democracy

First published July 25, 2013

Aside from the fact that religious fundamentalism and the democratic ideal are polar opposites, Islamist leaders like Morsi and Erdogan, who have professed to be democrats, just can’t help it. When backed into a corner politically, they are forced to reveal their true disdain for popular opinion, which is the very basis of democracy. Fairness and equality are not factors in their calculus.

Religious fundamentalism is absolutist. Democracy is populist. Reconciliation of these does not seem a logical possibility. The idea of fundamentalist Islamic democracies is the world’s latest political version of a “good used car.” It looks nice on the lot. The salesman does a good job describing its virtues. But it just doesn’t run very well, and it is likely to leave you stranded some place you don’t want to be.

But this idea that a democracy has been undone is precisely the starting premise of the Western liberal media and political establishment and the cause of so much principled handwringing: An Egyptian Islamic democracy has been killed in the cradle. How tragic! No, actually, it was stillborn. Because a democracy born of religious fundamentalism is the offspring of an unnatural union.

What we have in the Middle East today, especially in Turkey and Egypt, is a clash of two temporal cultures. One looking anxiously to its past failures and another to the possibility of a more prosperous and liberal future. Turkey is the most successful Muslim country in the world for the same reason that America is the world’s most successful Christian majority state. It is a fact rife with historical irony, and one that illuminates the way forward to the development of true Islamic democracies: That the success of Turkey has in large measure been due to its historic, constitutional separation of religion and the political state.

One need not look far to see what the future of Egypt would have looked like under Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood. For Islamists like these, the ruse of democratic elections is a means to an end. In Turkey, the people talk of Erdogan “pulling a Putin,” that is, of changing the constitution to perpetuate his own hold on power by allowing himself to become president.

Turkey has more journalists in jail than any other country on Earth, including China and Russia, and twice as many journalists in jail as Syria! College and high school students who protested in the streets have been arrested in government raids, held without legal counsel, and are being indicted on “terrorism” charges. Seriously. Soon, many of Turkey’s former top military officers, who were imprisoned years ago on bogus conspiracy charges fabricated by the AKP, will be put on trial as traitors.

Freedom is being slowly, systematically crushed in Turkey by an Islamist regime that cares nothing for democratic ideals. With each passing day, Turkey becomes more and more like Iran. Where is the Western outrage? What about Turkish democracy?

In Egypt, the Islamists have murdered Christians, blamed women for their own gang rapes, and repeatedly violated the Egyptian constitution and judicial injunctions, even while attempting to replace judges who did not please them, in order to ramrod through a constitution hostile to the most fundamental principles of democracy, like respect for women’s and minority rights. In stark contrast, when the opposition group Tamarod called for more demonstrations a couple of weeks ago, only a few hundred people showed up. The opposition protests that ousted Morsi were comparatively peaceful. It is the Muslim Brotherhood that has repeatedly called for violent, massive public demonstrations. It is the Islamists who have refused abatement.

Western critics of the Egyptian military’s actions betray their ignorance of the fact that there is an enormous difference between having a democratically elected leader–which is itself debatable in Egypt’s case–and having a democratic government. It’s disappointing that so many Americans don’t seem to know the difference. As I told a friend of mine in Egypt today, Thomas Jefferson believed that when any government demonstrates an open hostility to the will of the people that it is the right of the people to institute new government. It is the ideal of an Egyptian democracy that our American critics have romanticized in their high-minded protestations, while the fact that the Egyptian people were faced with the prospect of living under a repressive Islamist dictatorship does not seem to have concerned them. Democracy is not just about form; it is also about content.

New Islamist Bloc Declares Opposition to National Coalition and US Strategy

By Aron Lund for Syria Comment
Sept. 24, 2013

Abdelaziz Salame, the highest political leader of the Tawhid Brigade in Aleppo, has issued a statement online where he claims to speak for 13 different rebel factions. You can see the video or read it in Arabic here. The statement is titled “communiqué number one” – making it slightly ominous right off the bat – and what it purports to do is to gut Western strategy on Syria and put an end to the exiled opposition.

The statements has four points, some of them a little rambling. My summary:

– All military and civilian forces should unify their ranks in an “Islamic framwork” which is based on “the rule of sharia and making it the sole source of legislation”.

– The undersigned feel that they can only be represented by those who lived and sacrificed for the revolution.

– Therefore, they say, they are not represented by the exile groups. They go on to specify that this applies to the National Coalition and the planned exile government of Ahmed Touma, stressing that these groups “do not represent them” and they “do not recognize them”.

– In closing, the undersigned call on everyone to unite and avoid conflict, and so on, and so on.

The following groups are listed as signatories to the statement.

1. Jabhat al-Nosra
2. Islamic Ahrar al-Sham Movement
3. Tawhid Brigade
4. Islam BrigadeIslamic Dawn Movement
5. Suqour al-Sham Brigades
6. Islamic Dawn Movement
7. Islamic Light Movement
8. Noureddin al-Zengi Battalions
9. Haqq Brigade – Homs
10. Furqan Brigade – Quneitra
11. Fa-staqim Kama Ummirat Gathering – Aleppo
12. 19th Division
13. Ansar Brigade

Who are these people?

The alleged signatories make up a major part of the northern rebel force, plus big chunks also of the Homs and Damascus rebel scene, as well as a bit of it elsewhere. Some of them are among the biggest armed groups in the country, and I’m thinking now mostly of numbers one through five. All together, they control at least a few tens of thousand fighters, and if you trust their own estimates (don’t) it must be way above 50,000 fighters.

Most of the major insurgent alliances are included. Liwa al-Tawhid, Liwa al-Islam and Suqour al-Sham are in both the Western- and Gulf-backed Supreme Military Council (SMC a.k.a. FSA) and the SILF, sort-of-moderate Islamists. Ahrar al-Sham and Haqq are in the SIF, very hardline Islamists. Jabhat al-Nosra, of course, is an al-Qaida faction. Noureddin al-Zengi are in the Asala wa-Tanmiya alliance (which is led by quietist salafis, more or less) as well as in the SMC. And so on. More groups may join, but already at this stage, it looks – on paper, at least – like the most powerful insurgent alliance in Syria.

Read more at Syria Comment

Jack The Ripper Mystery Solved? Cold Case Investigation Implicates German Sailor Carl Feigenbaum

“With the Vigilance Committee in the East End: A Suspicious Character” from The Illustrated London News, 13 October 1888

For just over 125 years, the mystery of the Jack the Ripper serial murders has been fodder for books, movies and periodic re-openings of the unsolved cases. But after years of investigation, a retired detective is confident he has finally found the culprit behind some, if not all, of the killings attributed to the infamous “Jack.”

Past attempts to identify the man who supposedly terrorized London in the late 19th century have implicated artist Vincent Van Gogh, Alice in Wonderland author Lewis Carroll and even relatives of Queen Victoria. But retired homicide detective Trevor Marriott says that after 11 years of investigation, he believes German merchant sailor Carl Feigenbaum committed an unknown number of the murders.

Marriott, who hails from Bedfordshire, England, told British site Express that he came to his conclusion via old-school document analysis and high-tech forensic science. He also said he found that Hollywood and myth have “distorted” many facts of the case over the years.

What does appear to be true is that between Aug. 31, 1888, and Nov. 9, 1888, five women — Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes and Mary Jane Kelly — were stabbed to death within one-fourth of a mile from each other in the Whitechapel neighborhood of London, reports CBS News. Some accounts claim the victims were disemboweled post-mortem; most assume a number of the victims were prostitutes and were all killed by the same man.

The former policeman’s quest to uncover the truth has not always been an easy one. He took Scotland Yard to court in 2011 in a costly effort to force the agency to hand over thousands of pages of notes and tips from informants, reports The Telegraph.

By that time, Marriott had begun to zero in on Feigenbaum, a sailor whose ships often docked near the neighborhood where many of the unsolved murders occurred, according to Express.

Read more at The Huffington Post

Hardscrabble: A Different Woody Guthrie

Woody Guthrie’s birthplace, Okfuskee County, Oklahoma.

For Barack Obama’s 2008 inauguration celebration, Pete Seeger, his grandson Tao Rodriguez-Seeger, Bruce Springsteen, and a chorus of young Americans sang Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land.” At Seeger’s insistence, they sang all of the original verses, not just the chorus’s familiar evocations of natural splendors. They sang, “Nobody living can ever stop me / As I go walking that freedom highway.” They sang about gazing at their fellow citizens lining up “in the shadow of the steeple, by the relief office.” And they sang about a sign reading “private property,” whose blank reverse side “was made for you and me.” Standing at the Lincoln Memorial, with the eyes of the nation upon them, they reclaimed America for its poorest citizens.

Woody Guthrie wrote “This Land is Your Land” in 1940, when he was sick of hearing Kate Smith belt “God Bless America” over the airwaves on a daily basis. Nowadays “This Land is Your Land” is an alternative national anthem, and its author, a communist Oklahoma balladeer, has been enshrined as a patron saint of American music. Guthrie never attained anything like superstar status during his lifetime, but as Springsteen put it in his keynote address at last year’s South by Southwest festival, “Sometimes things that come from the outside, they make their way in, to become a part of the beating heart of the nation.”

Over the last decade or so, Woody Guthrie’s place in that heart has seemed increasingly secure. In addition to his own recordings, you can now hear at least nine new albums of his material—much of it previously unknown and set to music by a new generation of artists such as Wilco, Billy Bragg, and the Klezmatics. By all accounts Guthrie’s archives hold troves of other unpublished materials. He was a remarkably prolific writer. He’d hammer away at his typewriter, often composing lyrics before bothering to think about melodies. He wrote voluminous letters, essays, scripts for his various radio appearances, and weekly columns for a communist newspaper. He wrote the first 25 pages of his masterful, fictionalized 1943 autobiography Bound for Glory in a single day. The night after he met his first child, he wrote her a 70-page poem.

Last year was the centennial of Guthrie’s birth, and amidst the flurry of tributes came the announcement that a new Guthrie novel had been discovered: House of Earth. Guthrie had begun writing it in 1946 and was thought to have given up after a single chapter. But three more chapters recently showed up in the papers of the filmmaker Irving Lerner, and earlier this year, the whole thing was trotted out by Infinitum Nihil, a new publishing imprint that HarperCollins has put under the charge of the actor Johnny Depp.

Read more at the Boston Review

With global influence, Turkey matters

The Committee to Protect Journalists promotes press freedom worldwide by defending the rights of journalists to report the news without fear of reprisal. Founded in 1981, CPJ takes action when journalists are censored, jailed, kidnapped, or killed for their work, without regard to political ideology. In its defense of journalists, CPJ protects the rights of all people to access independent sources of information – an essential part of a free society.

Turkey is hardly a press freedom paradise, but what makes the country so exciting for journalists is the amount of news it generates on any given day. The domestic story is huge, with near-daily street protests, the booming economy beginning to sag, and the prospect of regional conflict looming with Syria. And Istanbul is a base for the international press covering not only Turkey but also Syria, Iraq and Egypt.

All of this means that it is not hard to get a crowd of journalists together in Istanbul, especially if you’re buying the drinks. The talk inevitably turns to not only of what is being reported but what is not.

CPJ’s classification of Turkey as the world’s leading jailer of journalists was last year’s headline. The use of broad anti-terror laws to criminalize critical expression has long been a key component of the Turkish government strategy to suppress the Kurdish media as well as leftist and nationalist groups that it alleges are trying to topple the government.

The situation today is actually worse than it was when CPJ’s comprehensive press freedom report was issued in October 2012. In June, when street clashes over the destruction of Gezi Park morphed into broader demonstrations, journalists covering the protests became frequent targets of police abuse. During CPJ’s visit to Turkey last week, I met with one journalist, Hüseyin Gökhan Biçici, of the broadcaster IMC, who described how police detained him, ripped off his gas mask, and repeatedly beat him with clubs, focusing on his genitals.

But most mainstream journalists don’t fear being beaten or jailed. Instead, they fear losing their jobs.

The primary means of media control and manipulation involves indirect methods, such as pressure on media owners whose complex business interests depend on government support. There are widespread reports of phone calls from government advisers resulting in a particular journalist being fired or hired. The Turkish Union of Journalists reports that dozens of journalists have lost their jobs.

Read more at The Huffington Post

The Failure of Republican Economics

Those clinging to Bush-era ideologies and illusions show they simply do not understand economics.

Last Modified: 06 Aug 2012 18:51

Former US President George W Bush’s new book might be poorly timed [GALLO/GETTY]

What’s wrong with this picture? The George W Bush Institute has just released a book, The 4% Solution: Unleashing the Economic Growth America Needs with a foreword by former President George W Bush. A better question would be, what’s not wrong with this picture? It’s not just the matter of timing – the former Republican president releasing a book just as the current Republican nominee is struggling to establish his own identity and political bona fides. Nor is it simply the additional embarrassment that the book’s subject is economics, which Mitt Romney pretends to be an expert on. It’s not even just the fact that Bush had his chance at producing four per cent growth for eight long years and never once managed to even come close. In fact, he only managed three isolated quarters when the economy grew that rapidly.

It’s all that and much, much more. Because Republicans in general are downright terrible at producing four per cent growth, while Democrats are relatively good at it. In fact, since FDR took office in the depths of the Great Depression, Democratic presidents have produced four per cent annual growth an average of three out of every five years – 60.5 per cent of the time – while Republican presidents have only managed it a little more than one year out of every four – 27.8 per cent of the time. With figures like that, it’s a no-brainer: the best thing you can do to produce four per cent growth is to vote for a Democrat for president.

Fastest years of economic growth

The five fastest years of economic growth all took place under a Democratic president. His name was Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In fact, the 11 fastest years of economic growth all took place under Roosevelt or Truman. Democrats presided over 16 of the 20 fastest-growing years, 22 of the fastest-growing 30 years, and 28 of the fastest-growing 40 years. There have only been 36 years in which growth has actually topped four per cent, and Democrats were in charge during 26 of them.

“Republicans love to idolise Ronald Reagan – even though they’d never nominate him if he were running today.”

George W Bush was in charge during zero of them. His best year clocked in at 3.5 per cent growth – in 41st place.

Bill Clinton did it five times out of eight. And Clinton produced that better record while turning massive federal deficits into a surplus, while Reagan almost tripled the federal deficit during his two terms.

In fact, since Reagan took office in 1980, Republican presidents have only produced four per cent growth or better 20 per cent of the time, compared with 45.5 per cent of the time under Democrats.

Republicans like to argue that they are the party of business and therefore the party of economic growth. Democrats are the party of economic redistribution. Republicans grow the pie, Democrats cut it up. This is what Republicans argue, and the so-called “liberal media” largely echoes their message. But the facts simply don’t add up.

Since 1932, growth under Democrats has averaged 4.8 per cent annually, while growth under Republicans has averaged just 2.7 per cent. For a two-term presidency, this amounts to a growth rate almost double under the Democrat: 45.5 per cent growth, compared with 23.8 per cent growth under the Republican. And if it’s sustained growth, year after year that you’re looking for – the sort of growth that Bush is dishonestly promising, the results are even more lopsided.

When’s the last time since 1929 that a Republican president presided over four straight years of four per cent GDP growth? The answer is simple: Never. When’s the last time a Democrat did it? Bill Clinton, from 1997 through 2000. Democrats also put together four or more years of four per cent + GDP under Kennedy/Johnson (five years: 1962-66) and FDR – twice. First was a four-year stretch from 1934-1937, followed by a six-year stretch, 1939 to 1944.

The only year FDR missed four per cent + GDP growth over an 11-year span was 1938, the year he fell prey to the rhetoric of deficit hawks and cut back spending to try to balance the budget. It scared the bejesus out of folks, fearful that the Great Recession would return full force and Roosevelt never considered it again. But that budget-slashing disaster is exactly the same “solution” that Republicans are pushing today – and demonising Obama because he’s reluctant to go along with them.

Obama recently told CBS News that there was a significant difference between running a business and running an economy:

“When some people question why I would challenge his Bain record, the point I’ve made there in the past is, if you’re a head of a large private equity firm or hedge fund, your job is to make money. It’s not to create jobs. It’s not even to create a successful business – it’s to make sure that you’re maximising returns for your investor. Now that’s appropriate. That’s part of the American way. That’s part of the system. But that doesn’t necessarily make you qualified to think about the economy as a whole, because as president, my job is to think about the workers. My job is to think about communities, where jobs have been outsourced.”

Tax cuts for high earners

This is a valid point, and economist Paul Krugman justly backed him up, his point that “business is not economics” linking to a 1996 paper where he makes the larger argument about the systemic differences between a micro-economic and a macro-economic view of the economy – that is, that “a country is not a company”.

In fact, Democrats are so much better at growing the economy that even super-wealthy Republicans do better when a Democrat is in the White House. Attention has repeatedly been focused on the Bush tax cuts for high-income Americans. But those tax lower tax rates pale in comparison to the much stronger income growth under Clinton. So what if you’re paying four per cent more in taxes, if you’re earning way more than you otherwise would?

Paul Rosenberg is the senior editor of Random Lengths News, a bi-weekly alternative community newspaper.

Read more at Al Jazeera