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Archive for the ‘Environment’ Category

Hurricanes are getting much worse, thanks to global warming

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Not that anything will be done about it, but global warming is also affecting hurricane strength. David Leonhardt writes in the NY Times:

The frequency of severe hurricanes in the Atlantic Ocean has roughly doubled over the last two decades, and climate change appears to be the reason. Yet much of the conversation about Hurricane Dorian — including most media coverage — ignores climate change.

That’s a mistake. It’s akin to talking about lung cancer and being afraid to mention smoking, or talking about traffic deaths and being afraid to talk about drunken driving. Sure, no single road death can be attributed solely to drunken driving — and many people who drive under the influence of alcohol don’t crash — but you can’t talk meaningfully about vehicle crashes without talking about alcohol.

Climate change, likewise, doesn’t cause any one hurricane on its own, but it’s central to the story of the storms that are increasingly battering the Atlantic. Why are we pretending otherwise?

For more: I find the National Climate Assessment reports — cautious documents, written by a federal panel of scientists — to be helpful in understanding the role that climate change does (and doesn’t) play in influencing the weather. Those reports explain that the warming of the planet does not appear to be increasing the total number of hurricanes. But it does seem to be making those storms stronger and causing them to produce much more rain.

Warmer air and seawater cause storms “to rapidly reach and maintain very high intensity,” the scientists have written. Over the last few years, hurricane activity has been “anomalous and, in one case, unprecedented.”

Dorian became a Category 4 hurricane on Friday, before reaching Category 5 — the most severe designation — over the weekend and then falling back to Category 4 on Monday. Both Categories 4 and 5 qualify a hurricane as severe, and Dorian is the first Atlantic storm to reach that status this year. The heart of hurricane season often lasts from August to October.

From the 1960s through the 1990s, a typical year had only one severe hurricane. In this century, the average number has roughly doubled, as you can see in the chart above. And because global warming is intensifying, scientists expect the number of extreme storms to continue rising. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

3 September 2019 at 9:18 am

The Anthropologist of Artificial Intelligence

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In Quanta James Pavlus interviews Iyad Rahwan about the new field of study he is creating:

How do new scientific disciplines get started? For Iyad Rahwan, a computational social scientist with self-described “maverick” tendencies, it happened on a sunny afternoon in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in October 2017. Rahwan and Manuel Cebrian, a colleague from the MIT Media Lab, were sitting in Harvard Yard discussing how to best describe their preferred brand of multidisciplinary research. The rapid rise of artificial intelligence technology had generated new questions about the relationship between people and machines, which they had set out to explore. Rahwan, for example, had been exploring the question of ethical behavior for a self-driving car — should it swerve to avoid an oncoming SUV, even if it means hitting a cyclist? — in his Moral Machine experiment.

“I was good friends with Iain Couzin, one of the world’s foremost animal behaviorists,” Rahwan said, “and I thought, ‘Why isn’t he studying online bots? Why is it only computer scientists who are studying AI algorithms?’

“All of a sudden,” he continued, “it clicked: We’re studying behavior in a new ecosystem.”

Two years later, Rahwan, who now directs the Center for Humans and Machines at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development, has gathered 22 colleagues — from disciplines as diverse as robotics, computer science, sociology, cognitive psychology, evolutionary biology, artificial intelligence, anthropology and economics — to publish a paper in Nature calling for the inauguration of a new field of science called “machine behavior.”

Directly inspired by the Nobel Prize-winning biologist Nikolaas Tinbergen’s four questions — which analyzed animal behavior in terms of its function, mechanisms, biological development and evolutionary history — machine behavior aims to empirically investigate how artificial agents interact “in the wild” with human beings, their environments and each other. A machine behaviorist might study an AI-powered children’s toy, a news-ranking algorithm on a social media site, or a fleet of autonomous vehicles. But unlike the engineers who design and build these systems to optimize their performance according to internal specifications, a machine behaviorist observes them from the outside in — just as a field biologist studies flocking behavior in birds, or a behavioral economist observes how people save money for retirement.

“The reason why I like the term ‘behavior’ is that it emphasizes that the most important thing is the observable, rather than the unobservable, characteristics of these agents,” Rahwan said.

He believes that studying machine behavior is imperative for two reasons. For one thing, autonomous systems are touching more aspects of people’s lives all the time, affecting everything from individual credit scores to the rise of extremist politics. But at the same time, the “behavioral” outcomes of these systems — like flash crashescaused by financial trading algorithms, or the rapid spread of disinformation on social media sites — are difficult for us to anticipate by examining machines’ code or construction alone.

“There’s this massively important aspect of machines that has nothing to do with how they’re built,” Rahwan said, “and has everything to do with what they do.”

Quanta spoke with Rahwan about the concept of machine behavior, why it deserves its own branch of science, and what it could teach us. The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Why are you calling for a new scientific discipline? Why does it need its own name?

This is a common plight of interdisciplinary science. I don’t think we’ve invented a new field so much as we’ve just labeled it. I think it’s in the air for sure. People have recognized that machines impact our lives, and with AI, increasingly those machines have agency. There’s a greater urgency to study how we interact with intelligent machines.

Naming this emerging field also legitimizes it. If you’re an economist or a psychologist, you’re a serious scientist studying the complex behavior of people and their agglomerations. But people might consider it less important to study machines in those systems as well.

So when we brought together this group and coined this term “machine behavior,” we’re basically telling the world that machines are now important actors in the world. Maybe they don’t have free will or any legal rights that we ascribe to humans, but they are nonetheless actors that impact the world in ways that we need to understand. And when people of high stature in those fields sign up [as co-authors] to this paper, that sends a very strong signal.

You mentioned free will. Why even call this phenomenon “behavior,” which seems to unnecessarily invite that association? Why not use a term like “functionality” or “operation”?

Some people have a problem with giving machines agency. For instance, Joanna Bryson from the University of Bath, she’s always outspoken against giving machines agency, because she thinks that then you’re removing agency and responsibility from human actors who may be misbehaving.

But for me, behavior doesn’t mean that it has agency [in the sense of free will]. We can study the behavior of single-celled organisms, or ants. “Behavior” doesn’t necessarily imply that a thing is super intelligent. It just means that our object of study isn’t static — it’s the dynamics of how this thing operates in the world, and the factors that determine these dynamics. So, does it have incentives? Does it get signals from the environment? Is the behavior something that is learned over time, or learned through some kind of copying mechanism?

Don’t the engineers who design these agents make those decisions? Aren’t they deterministically defining this behavior in advance?

They build the machines, program them, build the architecture of the neural networks and so on. They’re engineering, if you like, the “brain” and the “limbs” of these agents, and they do study the behavior to some extent, but only in a very limited way. Maybe by looking at how accurate they are at classifying things, or by testing them in a controlled environment. You build the machine to perform a particular task, and then you optimize your machine according to this metric.

But its behavior is an open-ended aspect. And it’s an unknown quantity. There are behaviors that manifest themselves across different timescales. So [when you’re building it] maybe you focus on short timescales, but you can only know that long-timescale behavior once you deploy these machines.

Imagine that machine behavior is suddenly a mature field. What does it let us understand or do better? . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

26 August 2019 at 4:12 pm

Identify nature app

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From Recomendo a newsletter I get:

Identify nature app

There is utility and pleasure in being able to identify wild creatures and plants. But it’s a steep learning curve. The fastest way I found to learn is via the iOS app Seek, which will identify flowers, plants, fungi, animals, bugs instantly. It’s kind of magical. You point your phone at the specimen and it tells you the species about 95% of the time (in North America). The other 5% it can often identify the family. Someone called it Shazam for nature. The app is patient; you can keep asking it to ID the same thing you asked about before and it will will answer again with no judgement. Seek is free; it was developed by folks who did iNaturalist, an app that uses crowdsourcing to identify species, but Seek uses machine learning to render the ID instantly. I’ve been impressed by how well this magic works. Kids and teachers love it. It gives them a superpower to name everything around them.

Written by LeisureGuy

25 August 2019 at 5:29 am

Six-minute lithium battery recharge for phones and cars on way

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Amazing. Mike Scialom writes in Cambridge Independent:

Echion Technologies, the Sawston-based battery specialist spun out of Cambridge University, is preparing to commercialise technology which has been trialled to allow charging times for both mobiles and electric cars to drop to six minutes.

The development could revolutionise the electric transport era, allowing electric car owners to recharge at any garage over a cup of coffee rather than having to stay close enough to recharge overnight at home.

The restrictions are being lifted thanks to technology which involves replacing graphite with a new material, possibly a compound – but Dr Jean De La Verpilliere isn’t saying what.

Echion is the brainchild of Dr De La Verpilliere. Two years ago, while studying for a PhD in nanoscience at the University of Cambridge, he created a material that could be used in lithium batteries. In 2017 – the final year of his phD – he founded Echion, with a focus and expertise on high performance materials innovations for lithium, or Li-ion, batteries. Echion “engages with chemicals and battery cell manufacturers to integrate its materials solutions into next-generation products”. Currently, materials are simply ‘dropped in’ to lithium battery infrastructure.

One of the materials is graphite, which Echion has replaced with its own material. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

24 August 2019 at 11:52 am

Why New York City Is On the Verge of Disaster

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Matt Stoller has a good albeit alarming column in Big:

Three Swords Over New York

Electrical blackouts are scary things. On July 13th of this year, New York City had a blackout that lasted for five hours. The subway stopped along several lines, people were trapped in elevators, Carnegie Hall and Broadway theaters shut down, and Jennifer Lopez was cut off in at her concert at Madison Square Garden.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio blamed Con Edison, the New York utility that manages most electric power in the city. And why shouldn’t they? Just before the blackout, Con Ed president Tim Cawley embarrassingly said, “By any measure, we are the most reliable electric delivery system in the United States.”

The next weekend, it happened again, this time in Brooklyn.

Blackouts in New York City reflect the politics of the time. In 1965, and then again in 1969, Con Edison had massive outages that inspired frustration with what Americans perceived as an overall breakdown of the New Deal order. In 1977, it got worse, and there was widespread looting during a city-wide blackout during the rolling New York City financial crisis. The Carter and then Reagan eras of deregulation and concentrated capital were in many ways framed against the old, over-regulated, and antiquated systems represented by Con Edison, and in a bigger sense, New York City of the 1970s. In New York, partial deregulation of utilities finally came in 1997, and with this deregulation came a reduction in the amount of auditing by New York regulators.

We are beyond the Reagan era, of course, because that system is breaking down. Every age gets the metaphorical crises it deserves, and New York’s came in 2012, when Hurricane Sandy hit the city and caused power outages across half the city. I was there, and at first everyone was really nice to each other. Within a few days, a Mad Max vibe began to creep into daily interactions. The lights came back on in time to get the city more or less back to normal, though not everywhere.

The storm was the immediate cause of the blackout, of course, but the storm took advantage of an electrical infrastructure weakened by years of poor investment choices. We know this because a few months after the storm, the Utility Workers of America, the union negotiating with Con Edison, released a report on the company’s operational practices, alleging that “Con Edison appears to operate its electric distribution system based on a policy of“run it until it fails.’”

The details of Con Ed’s operations are ugly. The union noted a lack of redundancy in voltage equipment, smart meters paid for by the stimulus that were never turned on, and a lack of basic supplies. “Our members have worked on cable so old,” said the report, “that it has paper insulation, and on utility poles that were installed in the 1930s and remain in service today.”

The company used to have a policy of keeping a “safety stockpile” of basic supplies on hand in the event of an emergency. No longer. So when Sandy hit, Con Ed ran out of utility ladders and utility cable. It had to rush order parts that did not work on Con Ed systems, including “entire truckloads of utility transformers” which the utility could not return “because of their specialized nature.”

Imagine that. Before Hurricane Sandy hit the city, Con Ed didn’t bother stocking up on ladders. Ouch.

Obviously the union wants to show how its workers are valuable and deserve higher compensation, but the report is consistent with what we’re seeing in corporate America more generally. The union’s motivations are also consistent with what the engineers at Boeing wanted, which was to do their job with integrity.

More broadly, what these new blackouts reflect is two things. First, they show the stresses that climate change are putting on our society. Sandy in 2012 and the heat waves in July pressured the electric grid. Second, they reflect how the short-term financialized mentality that is now pervasive among American policymakers and corporate leaders weakened the grid. It’s similar to what’s happening in Puerto Rico, where an electric grid ruined by years of corruption and financial pressure from bondholders was destroyed by a storm.

The blackouts in July show that the problems revealed during Sandy have not been fixed. I spent time this weekend going through some of Con Edison’s investor documents. And what I found is similar to what I found with Boeing. That is, this is a company focused on financial returns more than engineering integrity. Mainly what I noticed, and this is a fairly trivial observation, is that while Con Ed promised to radically improve its operations after the disaster, what it actually did is increase its dividend every single year and pay its CEO $10 million. I suspect the blackouts last month are one of the results.

But a dysfunctional Con Edison is just the first problem with New York City’s infrastructure.

The second big problem is the Hudson tunnel, the nation’s busiest railroad route, connecting New York City to New Jersey. The tunnel was built in 1910 and is on the verge of collapse. In 2009, as part of the stimulus, there was the money to rebuild what everyone knows is the most important piece of crumbling infrastructure in America. But then- New Jersey Governor Chris Christie killed it to attack Obama and promote himself as a Presidential candidate, Obama didn’t do anything about it, and Trump has refused to move forward on a new attempt. Concrete is falling apart in the remaining tube.

In other words, a good chunk of New York’s transportation infrastructure could collapse, at any point.

But beyond the political choice, contracting in America is insanely expensive and difficult. The high speed rail in California promised in the stimulus is basically dead, even though that did get approval, because costs ballooned. So even if we wanted to fix the Hudson tunnel, it would cost far too much to do so.

I don’t have a good analysis of why construction is so expensive in America, but this is my thesis in a picture.


To put it into words, the problem we have is corruption in the government contracting world, aided by immense amounts of useless overpaid make work. In 2011, an antitrust attorney did a report on how we overpay for government contracting. In service of ‘shrinking government,’ policymakers chose to set up a system where instead of hiring an engineer as a government employee for, say, $120,000 a year, they paid a consulting firm like Booz Allen $500,000 a year for a similar engineer. The resulting system is both more expensive and more bureaucratic.

Here’s one example I grabbed from a public government contracting schedule. The rate negotiated by the government’s General Services Administration for Boston Consulting Group is $33,063.75/week to get a single relatively junior contractor.

Most top tier management consulting is useless. It boils down to telling executives they should raise prices or avoid taxes in a fancy way, helping one faction in a corporation win an internal battle against another, or aiding a cowardly leader do something he or she knows she should do but is afraid of doing without outside validation. It’s highly overpaid make-work, which is why the movie Office Space resonated.

This corruption wasn’t that bad until the 1990s, when Bill Clinton and Al Gore introduced their ‘reinventing government initiative,’ which transferred large amounts of government work to overpaid private contractors. They bragged the size of government didn’t grow, even as they were building a slothful, incompetent, and highly corrupt shadow government in place of the relatively functional public system they took over. This trend of offshoring wasn’t just Federal, but state-level as well. Twenty five years later we’re dealing with a government that can’t govern.

Aside from Con Ed, and the Hudson tunnel, there’s a third problem facing New York City. Food. New York’s food supply nearly turned into a crisis during Sandy, largely because of corporation consolidation. Here’s Siddhartha Mahanta in 2013:

Until relatively recently, most of the food that wound up in New Yorkers’ stomachs came from the farms of upstate New York, Connecticut, and New Jersey. Even Brooklyn and Queens helped out, for a long while registering as the nation’s two biggest vegetable-producing counties.

When that locally grown food got to New York, it tended to stay around longer, sitting in warehouses for perhaps weeks at a time.

Now, New Yorkers rely chiefly on food from across the country, or the other side of the world. And to complicate matters, in recent decades the big companies that run these systems have radically altered how they manage the flow of this food through their supply chains. Most of the private companies that now dominate the distribution of food in America, like Walmart and Sysco, keep much smaller inventories than in years past, sized to meet immediate demand under stable conditions—a strategy known as “just-in-time.” Analysts, in fact, expect Sysco—a major presence in the New York region—to continue cutting down an already super-lean supply chain operation.

In other words, the food on New York’s shelves flows through supply lines that stretch much further than ever before. And there’s a lot less of it along the way.

In other words, we have pooled risk in hidden ways and masked that with the appearance of financial profits. At Boeing it means the company was generating gobs of cash, but planes started crashing. In New York City, that means residents are vulnerable to losing electricity and food, and to transit collapses. Pretty important stuff, no?

Andrew Cuomo, the current Governor of New York, is part of the problem. His defining experience, in my view, was . . .

Continue reading.

We are going to see some extremely ugly happenings in NYC in the near future. It is being set up to fail. The people of NYC are assuming that things that are certain to happen cannot happen. It’s a sword-of-Damocles situation with the single hair holding the sword stretching to the breaking point, which is nigh.

Written by LeisureGuy

20 August 2019 at 2:26 pm

If Everyone Ate Beans Instead of Beef

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James Hamblin writes in the Atlantic:

Ecoanxiety is an emerging condition. Named in 2011, the American Psychological Association recently described it as the dread and helplessness that come with “watching the slow and seemingly irrevocable impacts of climate change unfold, and worrying about the future for oneself, children, and later generations.”

It’s not a formal diagnosis. Anxiety is traditionally defined by an outsized stress response to a given stimulus. In this case, the stimulus is real, as are the deleterious effects of stress on the body.

This sort of disposition toward ecological-based distress does not pair well with a president who has denied the reality of the basis for this anxiety. Donald Trump has called climate change a fabrication on the part of “the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.” He has also led the United States to become the only G20 country that will not honor the Paris Climate Accord, and who has appointed fossil-fuel advocates to lead the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Agency.

For people who experience climate-related anxiety, this all serves as a sort of exacerbation by presidential gaslight. The remedy for a condition like this is knowing what can be done to mitigate environmental degradation, from within in a country singularly committed to it.

Like what?

Helen Harwatt is a researcher trained in environmental nutrition, a field focused on developing food systems that balance human health and sustainability. She’s interested in policy, but realistic about how much progress can be expected under the aforementioned leadership. So she and colleagues have done research on maximizing the impacts of individuals. As with so many things in life and health, that tends to come down to food.

Recently Harwatt and a team of scientists from Oregon State University, Bard College, and Loma Linda University calculated just what would happen if every American made one dietary change: substituting beans for beef. They found that if everyone were willing and able to do that—hypothetically—the U.S. could still come close to meeting its 2020 greenhouse-gas emission goals, pledged by President Barack Obama in 2009.

That is, even if nothing about our energy infrastructure or transportation system changed—and even if people kept eating chicken and pork and eggs and cheese—this one dietary change could achieve somewhere between 46 and 74 percent of the reductions needed to meet the target.

“I think there’s genuinely a lack of awareness about how much impact this sort of change can have,” Harwatt told me. There have been analyses in the past about the environmental impacts of veganism and vegetarianism, but this study is novel for the idea that a person’s dedication to the cause doesn’t have to be complete in order to matter. A relatively small, single-food substitution could be the most powerful change a person makes in terms of their lifetime environmental impact—more so than downsizing one’s car, or being vigilant about turning off light bulbs, and certainly more than quitting showering.

To understand why the climate impact of beef alone is so large, note that the image at the top of this story is a sea of soybeans in a silo in the Brazilian Amazon rainforest. The beans belong to a feed lot that holds 38,000 cattle, the growth and fattening of which means dispensing 900 metric tons of feed every day. Which is to say that these beans will be eaten by cows, and the cows will convert the beans to meat, and the humans will eat the meat. In the process, the cows will emit much greenhouse gas, and they will consume far more calories in beans than they will yield in meat, meaning far more clearcutting of forests to farm cattle feed than would be necessary if the beans above were simply eaten by people.

This inefficient process happens on a massive scale. Brazil, the world’s largest exporter of red meat, holds around 212 million cattle. (In June, the U.S. temporarily suspended imports of beef from Brazil due to abscesses, collections of pus, in the meat.) According to the United Nations, 33 percent of arable land on Earth is used to grow feed for livestock. Even more, 26 percent of the ice-free terrestrial surface of Earth is used for grazing livestock. In all, almost a third of the land on Earth is used to produce meat and animal products.

This means much less deforestation and land degradation if so many plant crops weren’t run through the digestive tracts of cattle. If Americans traded their beef for beans, the researchers found, that would free up 42 percent of U.S. crop land.

“The real beauty of this kind of thing is that climate impact doesn’t have to be policy-driven,” said Harwatt. “It can just be a positive, empowering thing for consumers to see that they can make a significant impact by doing something as simple as eating beans instead of beef.”

She and her colleagues conclude in the journal Climatic Change: “While not currently recognized as a climate policy option, the ‘beans for beef’ scenario offers significant climate change mitigation and other environmental benefits, illustrating the high potential of animal to plant food shifts.”

The beans for beef scenario is, it seems, upon us.

“I think it’s such an easy-to-grasp concept that it could be less challenging than a whole dietary shift,” said Harwatt. The words vegetarian and vegan . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

19 August 2019 at 2:27 pm

The Population Bust: Demographic Decline and the End of Capitalism as We Know It

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Zachary Karabell writes in Foreign Affairs:

For most of human history, the world’s population grew so slowly that for most people alive, it would have felt static. Between the year 1 and 1700, the human population went from about 200 million to about 600 million; by 1800, it had barely hit one billion. Then, the population exploded, first in the United Kingdom and the United States, next in much of the rest of Europe, and eventually in Asia. By the late 1920s, it had hit two billion. It reached three billion around 1960 and then four billion around 1975. It has nearly doubled since then. There are now some 7.6 billion people living on the planet.

Just as much of the world has come to see rapid population growth as normal and expected, the trends are shifting again, this time into reverse. Most parts of the world are witnessing sharp and sudden contractions in either birthrates or absolute population. The only thing preventing the population in many countries from shrinking more quickly is that death rates are also falling, because people everywhere are living longer. These oscillations are not easy for any society to manage. “Rapid population acceleration and deceleration send shockwaves around the world wherever they occur and have shaped history in ways that are rarely appreciated,” the demographer Paul Morland writes in The Human Tide, his new history of demographics. Morland does not quite believe that “demography is destiny,” as the old adage mistakenly attributed to the French philosopher Auguste Comte would have it. Nor do Darrell Bricker and John Ibbitson, the authors of Empty Planet, a new book on the rapidly shifting demographics of the twenty-first century. But demographics are clearly part of destiny. If their role first in the rise of the West and now in the rise of the rest has been underappreciated, the potential consequences of plateauing and then shrinking populations in the decades ahead are almost wholly ignored.

The mismatch between expectations of a rapidly growing global population (and all the attendant effects on climate, capitalism, and geopolitics) and the reality of both slowing growth rates and absolute contraction is so great that it will pose a considerable threat in the decades ahead. Governments worldwide have evolved to meet the challenge of managing more people, not fewer and not older. Capitalism as a system is particularly vulnerable to a world of less population expansion; a significant portion of the economic growth that has driven capitalism over the past several centuries may have been simply a derivative of more people and younger people consuming more stuff. If the world ahead has fewer people, will there be any real economic growth? We are not only unprepared to answer that question; we are not even starting to ask it.

At the heart of The Human Tide and Empty Planet, as well as demography in general, is the odd yet compelling work of the eighteenth-century British scholar Thomas Malthus. Malthus’ 1798 Essay on the Principle of Populationargued that growing numbers of people were a looming threat to social and political stability. He was convinced that humans were destined to produce more people than the world could feed, dooming most of society to suffer from food scarcity while the very rich made sure their needs were met. In Malthus’ dire view, that would lead to starvation, privation, and war, which would eventually lead to population contraction, and then the depressing cycle would begin again.

Yet just as Malthus reached his conclusions, the world changed. Increased crop yields, improvements in sanitation, and accelerated urbanization led not to an endless cycle of impoverishment and contraction but to an explosion of global population in the nineteenth century. Morland provides a rigorous and detailed account of how, in the nineteenth century, global population reached its breakout from millennia of prior human history, during which the population had been stagnant, contracting, or inching forward. He starts with the observation that the population begins to grow rapidly when infant mortality declines. Eventually, fertility falls in response to lower infant mortality—but there is a considerable lag, which explains why societies in the modern world can experience such sharp and extreme surges in population. In other words, while infant mortality is high, women tend to give birth to many children, expecting at least some of them to die before reaching maturity. When infant mortality begins to drop, it takes several generations before fertility does, too. So a woman who gives birth to six children suddenly has six children who survive to adulthood instead of, say, three. Her daughters might also have six children each before the next generation of women adjusts, deciding to have smaller families.

The burgeoning of global population in the past two centuries followed almost precisely the patterns of industrialization, modernization, and, crucially, urbanization. It started in the United Kingdom at the end of the nineteenth century (hence the concerns of Malthus), before spreading to the United States and then France and Germany. The trend next hit Japan, India, and China and made its way to Latin America. It finally arrived in sub-Saharan Africa, which has seen its population surge thanks to improvements in medicine and sanitation but has not yet enjoyed the full fruits of industrialization and a rapidly growing middle class.

With the population explosion came a new wave of Malthusian fears, epitomized by the 1968 book The Population Bomb, by Paul Ehrlich, a biologist at Stanford University. Ehrlich argued that plummeting death rates had created an untenable situation of too many people who could not be fed or housed. “The battle to feed all of humanity is over,” he wrote. “In the 1970’s the world will undergo famines—hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked on now.”

Ehrlich’s prophecy, of course, proved wrong, for reasons that Bricker and Ibbitson elegantly chart in Empty Planet. The green revolution, a series of innovations in agriculture that began in the early twentieth century, accelerated such that crop yields expanded to meet humankind’s needs. Moreover, governments around the world managed to remediate the worst effects of pollution and environmental degradation, at least in terms of daily living standards in multiple megacities, such as Beijing, Cairo, Mexico City, and New Delhi. These cities face acute challenges related to depleted water tables and industrial pollution, but there has been no crisis akin to what was anticipated.

Yet visions of dystopic population bombs remain deeply entrenched, including at the center of global population calculations: in the forecasts routinely issued by the United Nations. Today, the UN predicts that global population will reach nearly ten billion by 2050. Judging from the evidence presented in Morland’s and Bricker and Ibbitson’s books, it seems likely that this estimate is too high, perhaps substantially. It’s not that anyone is purposely inflating the numbers. Governmental and international statistical agencies do not turn on a dime; they use formulas and assumptions that took years to formalize and will take years to alter. Until very recently, the population assumptions built into most models accurately reflected what was happening. But the sudden ebb of both birthrates and absolute population growth has happened too quickly for the models to adjust in real time. As Bricker and Ibbitson explain, “The UN is employing a faulty model based on assumptions that worked in the past but that may not apply in the future.”

Population expectations aren’t merely of academic interest; they are a key element in how most societies and analysts think about the future of war and conflict. More acutely, they drive fears about climate change and environmental stability—especially as an emerging middle class numbering in the billions demands electricity, food, and all the other accoutrements of modern life and therefore produces more emissions and places greater strain on farms with nutrient-depleted soil and evaporating aquifers. Combined with warming-induced droughts, storms, and shifting weather patterns, these trends would appear to line up for some truly bad times ahead.

Except, argue Bricker and Ibbitson, those numbers and all the doomsday scenarios associated with them are likely wrong. As they write, “We do not face the challenge of a population bomb but a population bust—a relentless, generation-after-generation culling of the human herd.” Already, the signs of the coming bust are clear, at least according to the data that Bricker and Ibbitson marshal. Almost every country in Europe now has a fertility rate below the 2.1 births per woman that is needed to maintain a static population. The UN notes that in some European countries, the birthrate has increased in the past decade. But that has merely pushed the overall European birthrate up from 1.5 to 1.6, which means that the population of Europe will still grow older in the coming decades and contract as new births fail to compensate for deaths. That trend is well under way in Japan, whose population has already crested, and in Russia, where the same trends, plus high mortality rates for men, have led to a decline in the population.

What is striking is that the population bust is going global almost as quickly as the population boom did in the twentieth century. Fertility rates in China and India, which together account for nearly 40 percent of the world’s people, are now at or below replacement levels. So, too, are fertility rates in other populous countries, such as Brazil, Malaysia, Mexico, and Thailand. Sub-Saharan Africa remains an outlier in terms of demographics, as do some countries in the Middle East and South Asia, such as Pakistan, but in those places, as well, it is only a matter of time before they catch up, given that more women are becoming educated, more children are surviving their early years, and more people are moving to cities.

Morland, who, unlike Bricker and Ibbitson, is a demographer by training, is skeptical that humanity is on the cusp of a tectonic reversal in population trends. He agrees that . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Written by LeisureGuy

18 August 2019 at 3:39 pm

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