Sunday, August 28, 2011

The population follows our production system

"On a global level, it is hardly a coincidence that populations level off at the same time that we see more and more limits to growth. " 

Source: after Chapman and Reiss 1995


Humans, like any other species that conquers a new habitat, shows an exponential population growth. What is unique for us is that we have been able to radically expand our ability to tame nature and other organisms and direct their production to our stomachs and our bodies. Instead of following a typical S-curve of growth, we have two times restarted population growth. The first time was with the introduction of agriculture, the so called Neolithic or agrarian revolution. Before that, our population grew mainly through expansion into larger and larger areas and into more and more ecological niches. Our role was more or less the same, we lived on the surpluses from other species, which we collected, hunted or fished depending on niche. Population growth was very low, perhaps just 0.001 percent per year (to be compared with 1.8 percent 1990). 12,000 years ago, we were probably less than ten million on the planet, and most likely, the ecological limits for further growth were reached. With the transition to agriculture, many more could be fed from a defined area, but not everywhere, as some parts of the world are not suitable for farming. A period of rapid growth ensued. In ten thousand years, the population grew 250 times. At the time of the industrial revolution, the population had reached the new ecological limits in many places in the world. Not so densely exploited areas were rapidly filling up with settlers from Europe, representing one third of the annual population growth of Europe. Through the deployment of huge amounts of fossil fuel, first coal followed by oil, we got the possibility to, once again, take a giant leap to new levels (Chapman and Reiss 1995, Livi-Bacci 1992).

Improvement in technology, could in each kind of society lead to some possibilities for expansion, e.g. spears and digging tools could allow hunter and gatherers to harvest a larger share of the surplus of their habitat; the introduction of crop rotations and other improved agriculture method could perhaps double or triple the yields, but it was only through employment of industrial technology that yields could increase tenfold. In the same way, improvements in technology has constantly expanded our ability to feed more and more people on the planet also during this industrial phase, but limits are now occurring from all sides. It is hard to see what could be a similar radical change of conditions which would allow us the make another giant leap in population. The options seem to be expansion to new planets; or the introduction of a totally managed planet, with abundant energy sources (e.g. solar or nuclear) and the production of synthetic food on a large scale. Failing any of those, we have to make the best out of what we know and have. Part of that is keeping the population on reasonable levels.

Too few is also not always good

While we can agree than the size of the population is a problem, there are many examples of how high population density forces a more sustainable use of the landscape than a sparse population. e.g. In Germany, Japan and Sweden it was first the exhaustion of, or the threat of exhaustion of, forest resources that compelled people to manage the forests properly and it was the increasing population that made farmers abandon the extractive practice of sod cutting to fertilise their soil (Radkau 2008). Similarly, regardless of how much environmentalists and foresters condemn swiddening agriculture, it will continue to be the norm until population density reaches a certain level, simply because it is the most comfortable, and secure, and also sustainable, way of getting a good return on  labour input. It is pointless to try to make poor farmers switch to other cultivation system before the productivity of the agro-ecosystems is threatened. Already the Egyptians, who operated a limited, but fertile land resource knew that it was beneficial to alternate cereals and fodder crops such as clover or alfa alfa (Mazoyer and Roudart 2006), but it was only under the pressure of population that crop rotations that integrated fodder production and grains became wide-spread in Europe. Similarly, it is the population density of China over a long period that made the Chinese utilise human excreta in an efficient way, while in sparsely populated Africa it was not in use. So while a big population in general is problematic, there are situation where it is not that bad, or at least where we have not managed well with low population.
Some of the ecosystems we have created are dependent on humans, and that with continued urbanization, we actually get more and more areas that are depopulated. Because we have not planned how these depopulated landscapes shall look like and work, societies end up paying farmer or entrepreneurs to ”maintain” the landscapes or preserve the ”cultural heritage”. And it is not only in high income countries this is a problem. Some areas with traditional rice paddies experience labour shortages to maintain the infrastructure. In 2007, I visited traditional farms in Bali and their main problem was that youth preferred to work in the tourism industry over farming. In that way the truly amazing landscape and culture was no longer sustainable as people voted with their feet for another life. If the terraces are not maintained, they will collapse from erosion, with potential devastating landslides as side effect.

Numbers are stabilizing

Forty-three countries, including Japan, Russia, Germany and Italy have populations that are stagnant or even decreasing. A larger group of countries, including China and the USA, has reached the stage where new families will be smaller. When next generation reaches fertile age, population will stabilize. The third group will have doubled its population from now to 2050. This group includes many of the African countries, such as Ethiopia, Congo and Uganda. The predictions of the UN have three alternatives for 2050, 10.8 billion, 9.2 billion or just below 8 billion. Most seem to bet on the middle alternative. That Malthus’ horror scenario of mass starvation has kept its appeal over two hundred years coincides with the start of the demographic transition of England following an unprecedented population explosion. And that pattern has been repeated in country after country, so in the same way as Ireland was the frightening example hundred-fifty years ago, Nigeria or Ethiopia are now. Studies of the demographic transition in the high income countries show a strikingly similar pattern in most countries. First death rates decline rapidly - and it is not primarily the old that live longer but more children that survive. This leads to very big cohorts of youth, reaching 35 percent to 40 percent of the population. When birth rates go down after a while, a big wave of people will reach the stages of young adults, mature adults and old people.

Why is population stabilizing?

It is perhaps a strange question, but it is much more remarkable that the demographic transition has taken place and that populations are not growing, than that there has been a population explosion. After all, we have been taught that the strongest driver of them all is to reproduce, to spread our genes. And why are populations stabilizing now and not hundred years earlier or hundred years later? Why is it not stabilizing in the countries where population is still growing? Is the reason technical, such as contraceptives; economic, such as increased wealth; human, such as improved education of women or is it social, perhaps a result of shift in values? It is interesting to understand what drivers which make individuals change their reproduction. There are actually very few reasons for why a European woman (or her possible partner) today only wants two children, while she wanted four some hundred years ago. It appears to completely contradict the socio-biological ideas that humans only act with the purpose to spread her genes. If that were the case, voluntary birth control would never occur. It is more a process of culture and values. For a long period, it was well known that smoking causes cancer and other diseases. Still it was a long and slow process until this insight led to a changed view on smoking and subsequent regulations. It is interesting that the view on smoking is now changing in all countries, also in countries where smoking is perhaps not a primary health problem (because people don’t live long enough to die from cancer). In the same way it appears that the regulation of populations have little to do with if the country is overpopulated or not. Sweden and the Netherlands stabilized their population more or less at the same time despite that the actual population density is very different, large tracts of Sweden are rather "underpopulated" if there is such a thing. So called soft factors, values and education, seem to play a big role here. At the same time, on a global level, it is hardly a coincidence that populations level off at the same time that we see more and more limits to growth. 

Extract from Garden Earth

Friday, August 26, 2011

Man: more dependent on nature than ever

"Production in the future will be more limited by the availability of fish than of boats or nets, by trees rather than chain saws and by the availability of topsoil rather than ploughs or genetically modified organism"

Conscious man, as a changer of his environment, is now fully able to wreck himself and that environment, with the very best of conscious intentions (Gregory Bateson[2])
Our growing population, market economy, capitalism, industrial technology and fossil fuel together form a force of such dignity that we can now speak about Antropocene, a development stage of the planet, where human influence has become a determining power for the whole planet, for the biosphere, for the atmosphere and even to the geosphere.  Despite industrialism, farming and other uses of landscape is at the core of almost all important debates, including those about global development. Many, yes most, environmental issues are multifaceted and can’t be properly understood in isolation. For instance, because of the bleaching impact of warmer water, elevated nutrient levels from pollution, over-fishing, sediment deposition arising from inland deforestation, acidification and other pressures, tropical coral reefs worldwide increasingly become algae-dominated with catastrophic loss of biodiversity and ecosystem functioning, threatening the livelihoods and food security of hundreds of millions of people (CBD 2010).

Many people say, or think, that industrialism has made us less dependent on nature. That is an illusion. On the contrary, current society is dependent on much bigger parts of nature than any previous society was. Hunter and gatherers were certainly dependent on nature, but they foraged on the surplus of limited parts of the ecosystems. They didn't use all the mineral and fossil resources that we do today; they were not dependent on a lot of physical infrastructure like we are and they used less of the ecosystem services. Even compared to the agriculture civilization that preceded us, we are as or more dependent on supply of product and services from nature. True, we produce a lot more per square meter, but we have increased the population so that the entire surplus is needed. There is no more food surplus today than before, rather the opposite. One difference is perhaps that we can today ship food from surplus areas to deficiency areas with the help of cheap fossil fuel and modern technology meaning that local food shortages should be less devastating. But the fact is that we don't do that. 1 billion is short of food despite all our progress. 

The illusion of that we are less dependent on nature is caused by that we live further away from nature. But that is distorting our perspective. The fact that we get electricity in cables and petrol from tubes in the petrol station doesn't mean that we are less dependent on nature for energy than the hunter sitting around the camp fire or the farmer putting another log on his hearth. 

Industrialism was introduced in order to profit from the labour embedded in manufacturing, and later moved into agriculture, fisheries and other nature resource based industries. There is a contradiction, however, that while the population goes through the ceiling; nature resources are getting scarcer and ecosystem services are stressed, we still act as if man-power is the most limiting resource that we need to save on, while wasting the others. The flaw of that perspective starts to show, first in the sectors that are directly using nature resources.  

Production in the future will be more limited by the availability of fish than of boats or nets, by trees rather than chain saws and by the availability of topsoil rather than ploughs or genetically modified organisms. The fact that things have “worked out well” so far should not be a big comfort. Even if industrialism has been around for 250 years and some of us believe (I don't) we live in a post-industrial society, the fact is that this explosion of resource use is fairly recent. In 1961 we used a little more than the earth's bio-capacity; in 2006 we used more 44 percent more than was available. The estimated annual environmental costs from global human activity is equating to 11% of global GDP in 2008 (UNEP-FI 2010). And at the same time we use so called environmental services provided by nature valued to two times the volume of the economy. The third part of what nature does for us, the real value of minerals and fossil fuel, has not been estimated at all[3]. An overall question is of course how do we calculate this and what do we want to accomplish by doing it.

[2]       Gregory Bateson (1904 – 1980), British social scientist and communication theoretician.
[3]       Ecologist Jeff Dukes calculates that there is 98 tons of biological material embedded in one gallon of oil. Expressed in another way, the daily use of fossil fuel in the world corresponds to the total biomass growth in a year  (Siegel 2003). 

Extract from Garden Earth

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Increase happiness productivity

An increase of the absolute income with a certain sum does a lot more good – results in more well-being – for a poor person than for a rich. One could discuss  the “happiness productivity” of a certain resource i.e. how should we use a resource to deliver as much happiness, or satisfaction or well-being as possible. Compare a litre of water in the swimming-pool of a rich person with the same litre used for drinking or for cooking the daily beans for a poor[1]. Isn't this perspective in itself enough to make us argue in favour of global redistribution of resources? It is clear from what has been discussed that increased material wealth doesn't lead to more well-being, on the contrary, it appears that our quest for more things are not only threatening our space on earth, but ultimately also our own well-being. There is no reason to moralise over this; considering that scarcity was our companion for millennia, we have had no need to develop mechanisms, individually or at the level of society, to limit consumption. But now we see the damage clearly, for our physical environment, for our society and for us as individuals. We have to change both the values that hail consumption and the economic system that has this consumption as its driving force and at the same time amplifies consumption. And those two are strongly linked, one feeds into the other, therefore they need to be tackled simultaneously. Inequality adds to the equation by leading to that people are more frustrated than they would be in a more just society. To compensate for this frustration they consume. Not only that, inequality itself drives comparison and competition, which had growth as its main expression. 

[1]       To make things worse, the cost of one litre of water that you have to carry by hand is often higher in the slums in developing countries than one litre conveniently poured from the tap by the rich, and the quality of the water is also mostly better for the rich. So the poor are triple discriminated against.

Extract from Garden Earth

Monday, August 22, 2011

More power to the consumers or?

Has powered over the food chain moved from farmers to consumers or from farmers to huge corporations? 


The power in the food chain has moved further and further away from farmers. It has on the one hand  been lost to input suppliers who now control most of the factors of production, financial capital, manufactured capital and all sorts of inputs such as seeds, pesticides and fertilisers. The market share of the four biggest[1] seed companies went from 23 percent (1997) to 33 percent (2004) and for pesticides from 47 percent to 60 percent. Many companies (Monsanto, DuPont, Syngenta and Bayer) work in both segments. One company, Monsanto, has 91 percent of the market for GMO soy beans. 

There are, very roughly, 25 million coffee farmers in the world, while 40 percent of the trade and 45 percent of the roasting is made by the four biggest companies. Simultaneously as coffee consumption doubled during the 1990s, the coffee producing countries share of the price decreased from one third to ten percent. The trend is the same for cocoa and tea (World Bank 2007). This pattern is not unique for developing country produce; it is basically the same all over the planet. Eighty percent of the meat market in the USA is controlled by four companies; three companies control 80 percent of the maize export and 65 percent of the soy export; four companies control 60 percent of the domestic grain market. Many companies integrate production both ‘upstream’ and ‘downstream’[2], e.g. by contract farming. Most of the transnational companies in the food sector are from the USA or Western Europe (USDA 2005). 

One could say that the power over food has moved from farmers first to raw material traders (e.g. Cargill); thereafter to food processing giants like Nestlé and Unilever and now finally to multiple retailers. This is also expressed by the spread of supermarket owned brands; private labels. The retail share of private labels among food products has reached 50-60 percent in Switzerland and 20-40 percent in most other Western European countries (Regmi and Gehlhar 2005). The revenue of the world's four biggest multiple retailers was year 2005 for Wal-mart (USA) US$339 billion; Carrefour (France) US$117 billion; Ahold (Netherlands) US$80 billion and Tesco (UK) US$72 billion. Wal-mart was the biggest company of all categories in the world measured in sales, with sales of US$408 billion 2009 (Forbes 2010). The dominance of the retailers is almost total. That the power in this way has moved further away from farmers should mean – at least in theory – that it has moved closer to consumers. But consumers are easily manipulated by advertising, so the much heralded "consumer power" and "voting with the wallet" is to a large extent one of the modern myths of our world.

[1]       This measure, CR4 (the market share of the four biggest), is a common measure of concentration in a given sector- With a CR4 above forty percent the market might be subject to harmful limitations in competition. 
[2]       This terminology is used regarding value-chains and supply-chains, where ’upstream’ denotes something ’earlier’ in the process, e.g. a supplier and ’downstream refers to those ’after’ a process, e.g. a buyer.