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Some Thoughts for the New President
by -- January 20th, 2017

The globalized future is upon us. We see it in the environment, where carbon dioxide emitted anywhere on Earth affects the climate for all of us, everywhere. We see it in rising sea level at your Palm Beach home, which reflects the melting of the glacial ice at the Earth’s poles. We see it in the global dispersion of mercury, which threatens our fisheries, already overtaxed by harvest.

Air travel and global trade allow us to get anywhere and to get something from everywhere within just a few hours. These are tremendous achievements.  But this globalization of transport affects our health, as new diseases such as Ebola and Zika are spread rapidly to unsuspecting people at home and abroad.  In forests, the emerald ash borer imported from Asia threatens to decimate white ash as an important forest tree in the East. Countless other native species are similarly threatened by exotic invasion from abroad.

Those who elected you, Mr. President, feel the globalization of the world’s economy and the ability of hardworking people in a far-off land to produce a competitive product at lower cost, putting Americans out of work.  These people are angry because their jobs have been outsourced, their kids can’t get into a decent college, and they see a differential privilege between the lives of a wealthy few and the disadvantaged many, whose kids are not likely to live better than their parents.  These people are the real losers, and no amount of wishful thinking will bring back their jobs in a globalized world.

All these are signs of a planet that is full or getting dangerously close to full very soon. Like populations of other species that ecologists have studied, the human species doesn’t feel good when the abundant resources are diminished by population growth, competition, and greed. We feel the diminished expectations that follow when the resource pie is divided into increasingly smaller pieces.

Countless ecological experiments show the demise of populations growing in a closed, finite environment, as resources are depleted, competition intensifies, and wastes accumulate.  On a full planet, it is impossible to stash the waste products of society somewhere where they don’t matter. As in studies of many animals, we may see migration of some human populations, but on a full planet, the potential for dispersal is limited.  We may resort to aggression, but war has never increased the carrying capacity of the planet for anyone.

Your supporters don’t like the idea that there is not a green valley just over the horizon that can sustain their past expectations of the good life on a limitless planet.  On a full planet, there is no green valley that awaits us.  In a connected and globalized world, we all compete in the same ecosystem.  And Darwin was right: all species, including us, have the capability to produce more offspring than needed, and only the most competitive will survive. The genie of economic globalization is out of the bottle and not going back in.

Perhaps it is time to realize that the four percent annual growth so cherished by economists is not sustainable on a fully connected planet.  We may see some productivity growth driven by automation and the ingenuity of the human spirit to produce new inventions for a better life. Solar energy may be one of these. But growth that depends on extraction of the Earth’s finite resources and adequate disposal of our wastes will diminish as our rising population divides the resource pie into smaller pieces that we do not want to share.

There is much to do to help sustain civilized life and a functional biosphere on a finite planet.  First and foremost, I urge you to base all your decisions on the best and most recent scientific analysis that you can find.  You may not have time or inclination to read much of the science yourself, but you should insist that all your agency chiefs follow it. There is nothing like facts to make your decisions the best they can be.  Scientists are not merely a special interest group.

Among actions you can take, the first is to support family planning efforts that may help reduce the rate of human population growth.  With fewer of us, there is a greater chance for a better life—the resource pie will not be so finely divided.  Second, adjustments by each of us will make it more likely to live with a lighter footprint on the planet, and to make it a better place for all.  A tax on the carbon emitted from fossil fuels is a good place to start. Third, we must foster the preservation of nature, which stabilizes the climate and offers healthy conditions conducive to human persistence. Rolling back regulations is a certain way to insure that we will use and pollute our portion of the resource pie more quickly, even if it makes some folks feel good.  A few more jobs today do not balance choking on dirty air tomorrow.

Finally, we must recognize that we are in an era where cooperation, not greed, must define our behavior. When the playground is full, it pays to play well together if we expect the game to go on.

 

References

Bliese, J.R.E.  1996.  The conservative case for the environment.  Intercollegiate Review 32: 28-36.

Burger, J.R. and 10 others. 2012.  The macroecology of sustainability.  PLoS Biology 10: e1001345

Kalof, L., T. Dietz, G. Guagnano and P.C. Stern. 2002.  Race, gender and environmentalism: the atypical values and beliefs of white men.   Race, Gender and Class 8: 1-19.

Krausmann, F., S. Gingrich, N. Eisenmenger, K.H. Erb, H. Haberl and M. Fischer-Kowalski. 2009.  Growth in global materials use, GDP and population during the 20th century.  Ecological Economics 68: 2696-2705.

Southwick, C.H. 1971. The biology and psychology of crowding in man and animals.  Ohio Journal of Science 71: 65-72.

7 Comments

  1. Paul Smith
    Jan 20, 2017

    What a terrific message, Bill. Thank you! I can only hope that our new administration will take your message to heart and consider your points as foundational to policies and legislation they will pursue. I’m not optimistic but gosh, I so much want to be surprised…

  2. Mary M Chadbourne
    Jan 20, 2017

    Thank you for directing us toward our better angels today of all days, Bill.

  3. Dave Hooper
    Jan 20, 2017

    Thanks, Bill. Well and simply put. I’ll be forwarding widely, and trying to reach beyond the realm of my typical circles.

  4. Lee E. Faber
    Jan 20, 2017

    Very, very elegantly presented, and so true. But are you preaching to the choir? Out here in Trump country, they dismiss science, and frankly don’t believe you. The problem as I see it is getting out of the academic bubble and getting into the muck with the “deplorables”.

  5. James Reynolds
    Jan 20, 2017

    Excellent article on such a depressing day. It seems the most pressing concern is how to engage and/or oppose such an administration. Take your statement that they should “support family planning efforts” – already the Republicans are axing funding to Planned Parenthood. I would like to see you write some pieces on the unintended consequences and counterintuitive nature of such short-sighted policies.

  6. Hildegarde Ayer
    Jan 20, 2017

    Bill, I am privileged to know you and I will pass this on to friends and family. Thank you for your courage and your wisdom.

  7. Ken Ross
    Jan 23, 2017

    Ken Ross Jan 22, 2017

    This is an excellent, thorough, sound, and plainly put general outline of the basic problem and most promising directions for solutions. As for the new leader, one should expect that he hasn’t the interest to read or listen to it, let alone the orientation of mind to see it as serious and useful. Others would, but that too is somewhat of a minefield.

    When Lyndon Johnson was President the US openly supported family planning both here and overseas. The long rightward march of politics since the 1960s has made population control so difficult to sell that years can pass between mentions of it even on National Public Radio. It runs afoul of conservative opposition to social engineering by government and evangelical or Tea Party religious beliefs. Democrats avoid it because it would invite rabid attacks that could sink them at the polls.

    The notion of choosing to live with more modest consumption runs smack into the most popular version of the American dream: ever-greater material consumption, and mainstream economic dogma appears to support this destructive fantasy. Similarly, believing and treating Earth as though it had no resource limits is most comforting.

    Reliance on science has a somewhat better chance of acceptance in that we can agree that it makes cars perform and extends Grandmother’s life, and might usefully apply to other tasks and questions. But in times of fear and uncertainty, reason goes out the window.

    Government, and therefore macropolitics, must be a central part of the solution to problems of such complexity and importance. It can also cause or worsen the problems. The better our schooling and understanding of civics and government, the more successful we will be in choosing, monitoring, and guiding our leaders in making sensible policy. Our present predicament may remind us that we should have paid more attention to Ben Franklin’s advice about civic duty.

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