The Overpopulation Myth

Nature & the Environment, Philosophy & Ethics, Politics & Public Debate

Just because Thanos erased half of all life in order to bring balance to the universe it doesn’t mean that everyone who is concerned about overpopulation is also an eco-fascist beset on subjugation and murder. It is quite probable that they’re simply anxious about the climate and ecological breakdown and see overpopulation as a legitimate cause. We needn’t assume to know any more than that; whom they blame, if they blame anyone, and what solutions they endorse we cannot assume to know. Sure, there is a distinct risk that arguments about overpopulation and their purported solutions can, and have been, subverted by fascist reasoning. However, concerns about overpopulation are not intrinsically fascist. On the contrary, in many cases such concerns are typically apolitical, much like “iceberg ahead!” implies “politics aside, we need to avert disaster!”. Such proclamations deserve our attention.

After all, the Malthusian premise that exponential human population growth will one day inevitably exceed Earth’s finite stock of resources is a compelling one. Just watch a few episodes of David Attenborough’s Our Planet and one will discover that we are already “totally out of balance with nature”.

In today’s prevailing global capitalist context, overpopulation is already in effect, for the logic of capitalism implies that we prosper today in lieu of living tomorrow.

Despite this present imbalance, however, there is an increasingly fashionable argument permeating amongst social thinkers contending that global society is maturing to a point where overpopulation needn’t be an issue of concern. Call this the Sub-Replacement Argument. This argument is made on the assumption that the ‘third-world’ societies predominantly responsible for global population growth, due to their (delayed) industrialisation and socio-economic development will soon have greater access to education and contraception (importantly, education and contraception are proven to be essential in reducing reproduction rates in developed countries). Couple this with current statistics showing that developed countries have a collective ‘sub-replacement fertility rate’ – meaning new generations are less populous than preceding generations – and there is a strong argument to suggest that: Once capitalism pulls Africa and Asia out of the third-world, they too will have sub-replacement fertility rates! Thus, their populations, just like those of the world’s better, more advanced nations, will begin to diminish and those cries of ‘global overpopulation!’ will all be in vain.

Nonetheless, this covertly neocolonial argument fails on two accounts. Firstly, the fact that now, during the human epoch – the Anthropocene – Earth is experiencing its 6th Great Extinction, at a rate 100 times faster than normal, we can be certain that the issue of overpopulation is already pressing. Even if the third-world does attain sub-replacement fertility rates in the not-too-distant future, it’s already too late; innumerable irreversible tragedies have already come to pass.

I implore you to rebel against yourself.

That being said, maybe what counts as ‘overpopulation’ differs depending upon what politico-economic system the term is applied. Indeed, one may argue that in the context of the currently prevailing system overpopulation is already underway because capitalism’s tautological requirement for growth guarantees exponential ecological degradation. This inevitable degradation inexorably leads to agricultural collapse and thus the Malthusian premise is a priori fulfilled. In accounting terms, we are already overpopulated; theoretically speaking, humans exceeded Earth’s finite stock of resources long ago, it’s just that the effects are yet to be properly experienced on a global scale.

Perhaps, therefore, in order to prevent that from happening, moreover to prevent it from getting worse, we should transform the system into one that doesn’t necessitate the decimation of ecosystems. It’s already blindingly obvious that this is what’s required in order to sufficiently mitigate the climate breakdown, so this makes sense, right?

YES! Yet, this is unfortunately where the Sub-Replacement Argument fails again. We cannot possibly assume that a post-capitalist world is necessarily capable of enabling third-world countries to meaningfully develop. It may be, but we cannot assume it will be. For it is quite possible that in such a world standards of living in third-world countries would stagnate, whilst standards of living would by necessity have to decrease in ‘developed’ countries. This could arguably lead to increasingly limited access to education and contraception worldwide. So, it is possible that even if we manage to overcome the climate breakdown, there could well be another existential crisis lurking in the shadows of the future: overpopulation.

This is the overpopulation myth, the myth that overpopulation isn’t a legitimate cause for concern, when of course it is. In today’s prevailing global capitalist context, overpopulation is already in effect, for the logic of capitalism implies that we prosper today in lieu of living tomorrow. And we cannot be sure how overpopulation might feature if our dreams for systematic change become a reality.

So, we are left with two options. We can choose either certain death-by-capitalism, whereby the climate breakdown and overpopulation will kill us; or we can choose a transition out of capitalism into the ominous unknown, the shadows, wherein overpopulation might kill us. I know which I’d choose. My question is what one would you choose? In any case, I implore you to rebel against yourself.


A.C. Stark

Climate Change: The Elephant in the Room

Nature & the Environment, Politics & Public Debate

The elephant in the room is trampling all over us. Yet we’re still living, thinking and talking as though it were not there.

Climate change is so inescapable, so entangled within the definition of our politico-economic system, that to explore it, to educate about it, is to create a wide-spread existential crisis wherein the persistence of the very thing by which millions of us in some way identify and define ourselves – our culture – is perceived as both necessary for very short-term pleasure but morally abominable for the sake of those millions who have, are or will suffer and die as a consequence of it.

As such, discussions surrounding the climate breakdown are not being appropriately entertained by those in power (nor the media). They know that such discussions, if made publicly, would expose our economic system for what it really is (i.e., the root cause of the climate issue), and would certainly cause public outcry – they know that very well. However, maintained as a mere side issue, the realities of climate change will unlikely be exposed and the necessary changes never made. Those in power will retain their grip.

In reality, however, they are not psychopaths. They are not intentionally drowning, burning and starving people (though that is what they/we are all doing). They’re simply petrified to face up to the moral imperative. They’re fully aware of their irrationalities; they can feel the increasing pull of their inner cognitive dissonances. But to talk about climate change would require them to iron out their irrationalities, bring their subconscious biases to the fore, force them to realise their complicity in Othering, which would ultimately oblige them to change who they are. Regrettably, to many, that notion is more terrifying than the seemingly distant idea that our culture, in keeping with its very definition, is currently committing mass genocide (1, 2, 3, 4).

You see, it is not simply the case that people must accept climate change as a reality. We must also explore its causes and implications and talk about them and shout about them, and be outwardly furious with the forces that continue in trying to avert our eyes from them – even if this means that in so doing we ourselves suffer a little. For the sake of humanity, and for those you profess to love, be willing to challenge yourself. Be willing to talk about climate change. Further still, encourage it.

But the media is talking about climate change, is it not?  Yes, albeit sporadically and obtusely. The typical style of the ostensibly rare pieces of coverage concerning the relationship between climate change and, for example, Hurricane Irma or Harvey obstruct the wider conversation. That conversation would lead us to recognise that our deep-seated consumerism, our self-professed right to newer, better, more, is the cause of it all. (I suspect it’d also lead us to recognise that the depraved neo-liberal system in which we live is based on a theory of democratic “consent without consent”).

Many of the reports caveat that freak weather events are not caused by climate change (1, 2). This is extremely damaging for two reasons: Firstly, the inclusion of such caveats (regardless of whether such a report exaggerates that the increasing ferocity, frequency and consequent suffering to ‘natural disasters’ is directly linked to human-induced climate change) foolishly reassures already steadfast climate change sceptics. Secondly, and most importantly, this caveating deflects blame away from those who created the problem, i.e., us! – the post-industrial capitalist world. It serves to destroy our sense of agency, enabling us to reject responsibility. It solidifies climate change as a side issue, as something not deserving of inquiry or exposition, and ultimately promotes the damning political praxis of business as usual.

As long as the media persists in caveating, as long as we fail in holding those in power to account, and as long as we entertain the deluded idea that we and the culture by which we define ourselves is not the problem, the greater the catastrophes will become. It is our duty to start talking openly and candidly about the elephant in the room.


A.C. Stark

Recommended Reading
Introductory: 10 Billion;  2071: The World We’ll Leave Our Grandchildren
Advanced: Climate Change, Capitalism and Corporations;  Fossil Capital

Look Zoos Talking

Nature & the Environment

Blackfish stirred up a storm. The documentary exposed Sea World for the mistreatment of its captive orcas, its inhumane and sometimes fatal capture, breeding and training methods, its coercive staffing procedures, and the comprehensive duplicity of its senior management and public relations teams. In August 2015, almost two years after its release, Sea World reported an 84% drop in second-quarter profits. It’s stock prices have dramatically fallen. And in March of this year, in a desperate attempt to claw back a little credibility, the park announced the end of its whale breeding program. Hurrah!

But wait… Is this really enough? After all, the orcas remain in captivity, enclosed within tanks so small they’d have to swim well over 3000 lengths to match the distances they’d usually travel on a single day in the oceans. Reverberating throughout the tanks, their vocalisations cause disorientation and consequent unnecessary stress. Originating from different social groups, occasionally from distinct subspecies, they can be hostile towards one another. And as inherently social creatures, those that are subsequently separated develop chronic, sometimes manic, depression (as opposed to the regular state of despondency they’d experience if successfully socialised). As a result of all of this and much more orcas tend to live considerably shorter lives in captivity, with an average life expectancy of around 13 years, as opposed to the normal 30 or 50 (dependent on sex). So, clearly, captivity is far from the best place for these creatures.

The same can be said of countless other animals held within zoological parks worldwide. I dare say most of them. (They frequently suffer from zoochosis, a psychological disorder with obsessive and repetitive behavioural symptoms such as pacing or rocking back and forth for up to hours at a time. We’ve all seen it). Yet if captivity is not appropriate for them, why do we persist in containing animals? Do zoos really have an honourable purpose?

Many people believe they do (1, 2). They argue that zoos intrigue and educate us and that they’re integral to conservation. Others contend that zoos are entirely immoral; that they’re nothing more than profit-seeking businesses. Having experienced Sea World’s spectacular facade first hand, as well as dozens of other zoos and animal parks worldwide, I sympathise more with the latter school of thought.

Undeniably, zoos are both inspirational and educational (though, the extent to which they are either is debatable). However, it’s difficult to see their importance to environmental conservation when the methods of conservation employed by even the world’s biggest and best zoos are so clearly inexpedient. Both collectively and individually zoos spend absurd amounts of money upgrading facilities. Money that could be better utilised towards protecting or enhancing the natural habitats and ecosystems from which their detainees were originally hijacked. For example, in March of 2007 London Zoo opened its state-of the-art gorilla enclosure, the Gorilla Kingdom, the construction of which cost somewhere in the region of £5.3M. Better yet, the Bronx Zoo recently spent over $43M on its Congo Gorilla Forest, an enclosure unprecedented in both scale and diversity (holding 400 animals from 55 different species). But this 6.5 acre glorified gorilla asylum still compares to no more than 0.026% of what its primary inhabitant’s, the western lowland gorillas, home territory can naturally span. In being concerned with zoology these organisations are without doubt completely aware of their inherent inadequacies; they’re fully aware that true conservation requires much more than they’re willing to offer.

As an organisation capable of offering far less but which gives so much more, consider Trees For Life in comparison. In 2008 the charity purchased the 10,000 acre Dundreggan estate in Glenmoriston of the Scottish Highlands for a mere sum of £1.65M. They have since worked hard to reforest the area, planting 30,000 trees per year, enabling local ecosystems to flourish free from the constant and intrusive glare of bolshie spectators (they understand that to properly conserve the natural world is to preserve the world in which animals live naturally, free from the constant bombardment of human intrigue and activity). With the money used to finance Gorilla Kingdom, London Zoo could have purchased Dundreggan three times over. Equivalently, the Bronx Zoo could have purchased it almost 19 times over. Why then did they not invest in something more worth while, something more in line with the environmental conservation they’re supposedly so integral to? Simply put, inexpediency is good for business. Indeed, if zoo’s were sufficiently expedient, then they’d cease to remain profitable.

But inexpediency isn’t the only problem concerning our zoos’ conservation efforts. Some general practices also are greatly condemnible, on the grounds that they directly conflict with the very concept of environmental conservation and demote animal welfare. For example, in order to manage genetics, populations or sometimes simply in order to feed their more predatory species, zoos cull animals that aren’t useful to them. Undeniably this is a deplorable practice, contrary to conservation, which if justifiable at all is so only on shallow economic grounds (12, 3, 4). Consider also the practice of keeping elephants. It has been repeatedly reported that elephants in captivity live on average less than half as long as their wild counter parts. Still, the vast majority of commercial zoos worldwide retain elephants as a main feature. Why? Well, elephants draw a lot of attention from spectators, bringing more people in through the gates, increasing revenues. Further still, consider the after-hours adult only events hosted by many of our favourite national zoos – such as London Zoo’s late night parties, Bristol Zoo’s Sunset Specials or it’s Big Night Out, or Edinburgh Zoo’s Summer Nights – all of which encourage their guests to partake in hedonistic activities whilst the zoo’s inhabitants are obliged to endure a night shift haunted by jesting, inebriated merry men and their wandering bands of louts and ladettes. How’s that zoochosis now, lion?! This is yet another practice accepted solely on the basis that it gets more people in through the gates. So, undoubtedly, for many zoo’s profits are a key factor in determining their practices. Moreover, profits clearly take precedence over conservation, to a degree by which the pursuit of them is often detrimental to the conservation efforts they’re purportedly intended to fund. Worse even still, this capitalistic culture has cultivated a zoo industry which further blurs the already hazy lines between what is and is not deemed morally acceptable in zoological practice, according to the normative framework laid down by our Secretary of State’s Standards of Modern Zoo Practice.

As businesses more than anything else, their agendas are fundamentally at odds with environmental conservation. The problems associated with Sea World are not unique. They’re  wide spread. They’re happening right under our noses, on our shores, committed by our zoos and adventure parks. But this doesn’t necessarily mean that there isn’t a place for zoos in the contemporary world, only that we need to drastically reevaluate the standards of practice by which they are run – something which hasn’t been done here in the UK for decades! (Some zoos are doing this off their own backs (1, 2) while some governments, such as Costa Rica’s, are closing zoos down altogether).

Ultimately, here in the UK, we’re deeply in need of a comprehensive review of our Standards of Practice. Furthermore, as individuals, we ought to consider whether our zoos are currently worthy of our attendance fees. I myself will boycott them all. And I implore you to do the same.

A.C. Stark

 

 

 

 

Vertical Farming: A Huge Piece to a Gigantic Puzzle

Nature & the Environment

Our beloved British landscape is withering. It’s on its knees, begging for relief. It’s pleading for freedom, longing to be rewilded. The countryside is dying. With less than 3% of Britain built uponthis is a difficult truth to accept. But our country, celebrated for its ostensible natural beauty, is almost entirely engineered. It is, quite paradoxically, exceptionally unnatural.

The farmlands, which constitute a significant portion of the patchwork-landscape we call our countryside, are barren. They’re agricultural deserts; wastelands, inhospitable to a huge fraction of our native fauna. The handful of creatures capable of living a solemn existence resultantly overwhelm the heaths and woodlands and are persecuted as if they were at fault. Yet, we made our country this way.

Man-made monocultures specialising in crops inedible to pollinators (particularly our chief pollinators, the beesbecome impotent as they fail to house the creatures upon which their cross-fertilisation relies. Those crops which could otherwise provide nourishment are usually doused with pesticides, poisoning their prospective residents, killing them. With 87% of all flowering plants relying on pollinators these methods of farming are ecologically disastrous, and broadly so. Causing drastic reductions in pollinator populations, and thus reducing pollination in our few remaining non-agricultural countryside areas, they foster environments incapable of sustaining even moderate levels of wildlife.

But more than just damaging to ecosystems, these farming methods are both operationally and economically unsustainable (especially given the projected growth of our population). After all, “[c]rops relying on animals for pollination account for about $1 trillion of the world’s $3 trillion annual sales of agricultural produce”.

The Chinese are already having to adapt to this reality. With bees entirely extinct in certain regions of China, many farms have resorted to hand-pollination. That is, equipped with feather-tipped paintbrushes, labourers young and old are forced to pollinate every single flower individually by hand. An exhausting, inevitably underpaid and, frankly, unnecessary task. But the problem is not exclusive to China. Almond farmers within central California, relied upon for some 82% of the worlds Almond produce, spend $290 million annually hiring bee hives in order to make up for the lack of natural pollinators. Unsurprisingly, the majority of these costs are passed down to the consumers.

Considering that wild bees are capable of providing pollination services for free, these measures are nothing short of farcical. What a phenomenally effective way to waste money – destroy the natural, free and sufficient processes and then pay to replace them. Yet these examples outline fiscal procedures soon to be employed domestically, unless drastic action is taken.

Another paradigmatic example of how we are destroying our countryside, which is attracting more and more attention thanks to the work of George Monbiot and Chris Packham, is seen in the state of our highlands, hillsides and woodlands. As a result of having to keep their lands in ‘good agricultural and environmental condition’ (as mentioned in my previous post, Ramble On) farmers are literally paid – with public money, nonetheless – to prevent the growth of vegetation. Their sheep ransack our pastures, preventing woodlands from advancing, reducing the availability of potential habitats, preventing the growth of our most effective natural carbon capture and storage sinks. All the while these farms are paid subsidies in order to remain economically profitable. Its a fiscal, ecological, climatic nightmare.

We need to fundamentally rethink how we approach farming, making it compatible with an economics which doesn’t take the environment for granted (an environmental economics‘ – see Tony Juniper’s ‘What Has Nature Ever Done For Us?’  for a fantastic introduction). Do I have the answer? No. Most definitely not. This deeply complex issue has nuances too delicate to mention upon without sufficient research and deliberation. But I do believe that a huge piece to this gigantic puzzle has already been discovered. And it’s called vertical farming.

Vertical farming, as a component of urban agriculture, is the practice of producing food in vertically stacked layers, integrated within urban structures. The general idea is to bring agriculture into the urban sphere, for the benefits this offers are unprecedented. Grown inside controlled environments, crops require no protection against ‘pests’ and thus produce no contaminated runoff. Internal climate control enables year-round, rather than seasonal, harvesting of crops – creating more and cheaper produce. Situated inside buildings, crops are inherently protected against severe weather events. They also use less than 10% of the water typically required in open-field farming. And, most notably, vertical farming radically reduces the amount of fossil fuels required in the production and transportation of the harvests as their produce is locally consumed.

Moreover, entwined within all of these advantages is a grand opportunity. An opportunity to return some our countryside back to nature. An opportunity to rewild our deserted landscape, or to at least allow it to rewild itself. An opportunity for nature to re-establish itself naturally. Pollinators, big and small, could greatly prosper and, with them, our wildlife could flourish.

With less demands upon rural farms, we could utilise unneeded land. We could reforest vast areas and allow natural floodplains to return. All the while we’d tremendously increase the capacity of our carbon capture and storage sinks, helping the fight against climate change or/and mitigate its effects. There’d be room for urban developments. Room for new towns, new houses, new opportunities to create jobs, to redistribute wealth. Vertical farming provides so many solutions.

Despite being relatively young an idea, vertical farms are already starting to spring up around the world. However, no government or city is yet committed to, nor explicitly supports, a complete transformation of their agricultural infrastructures. I expect most of them are too scared or lazy to seriously consider fundamental change. Who knows what our government here in Britain thinks of the idea. But I reckon it’s about time we asked them.

An agricultural reform is needed now more than ever. Let’s save ourselves from the inevitable collapse of our current agricultural system. If we’re lucky, we might just liberate our countryside in the process. Let’s give Britain a new lease of life.

A.C. Stark

 

 

 

Why Ethics Should Centralise Around Nature

Philosophy & Ethics

Call me a misanthrope, but there isn’t one ethics that is universally valid. The Golden Rule, in all its forms, has proven time and time again to be problematic. Even the principles laid down by Kant are tenuously justified, as he puts the cart before the horses at the earliest stages of his Groundworks in order to give personhood centre stage. A similar error is made by Mill when he prescribes welfare as the primary subject of any truly ethical endeavour. The problem is, in order to discover an ethics you need something to deduce it from. And that something is invariably described as intrinsically valuable, worthy of eternal pursuit. But, I dare to say, it’s never sufficiently justified as being so. Why? Well, precisely because nothing is, nor can anything be intrinsically valuable. Not personhood, not consciousness, not welfare, not happiness. So far as the universe is concerned, everything just is. Nothing is more significant than anything else. Value is allocated, not discovered. This is why no ethics is universally valid.

So, the story of ethics is different to how we’ve been led to believe. No subject of an ethics, nor any ethics itself is intrinsically valuable. They are, for all intents and purposes, valuable only instrumentally. They are valuable for the sake of a concept. In the case of knowledge, intellect, consciousness, that concept is personhood. In the case of happiness, that concept is well-being. This is why contending ethical principles are inherently contradictory. From differing ambitions arise conflict. So maybe we’re asking the wrong questions. Indeed, searching for a universal ethics seems entirely futile.

Maybe what we ought to ask is whether anything is fundamental to the essence of all conceivable ethical paradigms. Is it possible that we might discover something which is valuable for the sake of ethics itself? Well I believe some such thing exists. Where is it? What is it? It’s glaring us all in the face. Just how ethicists and philosophers over the past few millennia have managed to miss it bemuses me. Nature. It’s nature! Surely nature is the ground from which the groundworks of any ethics ought to start.What is essential to performing an ethics? What is essential to personhood, to well-being? Nature. The existence of ethical agents, subjects and concepts themselves require it. Well-being and happiness do too. Nature, in its fragile contingent state, provides the conditions necessary for them to subsist. So nature must be the fundamental foundation to all ethics.

It is plain to see, for me at least, that the existence of all ethical paradigms, however valid or invalid, are attributable only to nature. Nature allows them to exist. The principles and paradigms that have been discovered are attributable to the specific natural conditions of this world from which their manufacturers were born. To uphold the values of any ethics we must enable the continued existence of those specific natural conditions. Far from being a universal ethics itself, that is just a fact. The delicate equilibrium of nature’s properties preserve us; they’re integral to our being. As Derek Parfit and many other contemporaries would undoubtedly agree, any ethics which is self-defeating is repugnant. So, any ethics which contradicts this fact is repugnant also.

Whatever your perspective on life, however you see the world – left-wing, right-wing, theist, atheist, optimist, pessimist, whatever! – in order to realise an ethics,  in order to do ethics, you must first embrace nature. The catalogue of reasons to pay reverence to nature has a new member. Nature gave ethics. It’s time to give ethics nature.

A.C. Stark