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Ihere spam is Igbo for “I love you”

Sitting there in the back, in plain sight, draped in his ceremonial Babar garb, squeezing into one of those 1950-molded-laminate chairs, was that elephant.

Last week, in A Tyranny of Time, we spoke of flygskam, or “flight shaming,” the movement to voluntarily forego air travel for the sake of a habitable climate. On behalf of those of us who still reluctantly board non-biofueled air carriers, I look forward to the day when we hear this announcement in the departure lounge:

For those needing extra time to board, active duty service members, conscientious objectors and those with vasectomies, you are welcome to board now and thanks for your service.

Skipping the part about conscientious objectors being of equal or superior service to their nation as are service members, please notice that voluntary sterilization should also be a singular honor in these times.

This past week was Climate Action Week, held each year in connection with the convening of the UN General Assembly in New York with many of the world’s heads of state in attendance. After an opening day devoted to climate pleas, each of those heads or their surrogates trooped to the stage to deliver a 5 minute oration. While occasionally stirring, most of those were very predictable. Many took the opportunity to elevate their commitment to cope with climate change, and nearly all of the wealthier members raised their contribution to the Green Climate Fund.

Not once did anyone mention the elephant in the room.

Sitting there in the back, in plain sight, draped in his ceremonial Babar garb, squeezing into one of those 1950-molded-laminate chairs, was that elephant. He never took the podium and everyone simply ignored him.

If you want to call him by another name, it would be population. Of course, he was spoken of indirectly, many times, as is the custom when you have an elephant in the room. When Bangladesh spoke of how much effort it has made to raise levees to ward off killer monsoons and mudslides, it was really speaking of how much effort was required to spare 165 million people from the climate consequences created by 165 million people. I don’t want to pick on Bangladesh, because it has actually been bringing its birth-rate down over the past several decades, to presently 2.1 births per woman.

Two-point-one is generally considered replacement rate, but is it really? Thanks in no small measure to humanitarian aid (and we can as humans do no less), Bangladesh has increased life-expectancy to 72.5 years, which means that a girl born today can expect by the time she is 25 to have had her 2.1 children, and if one was a girl, by the time the mother turns 50 that girl will have produced her 2.1 children, and then by the time the original mother dies at 72.5, she may be fortunate enough to have lived with her great-granddaughter. In other words, one girl becomes a population of four in a single lifetime, and the same is of course true for fathers and sons.

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Instead of singling out poor Bangladesh, which is at least attempting population control, let’s turn to another country, Nigeria. Nigeria has only 20% more people than Bangladesh and twice as much land, much more of it arable, so it should be somewhat better off. And yet, Nigeria is expected to surpass the population of the United States by 2050, thirty years from now. Forty-three percent of the population is under age 14, meaning that generation is on the cusp of a baby boom. Fifty-three percent of the population are capable of bearing children now. The national fertility average is 5 births per woman. Life expectancy is 59.3 years (61.1 for women), meaning that if the average woman has her first child at 20 (as is the case), she will live to meet many of her 125 grandchildren — more if her life-expectancy can be increased over the next 60 years.

As Albert Bartlett said, “The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our failure to understand the exponential function.”

When we consider what will be required to reverse climate change and return us to the comfortable Holocene during which complex mammals such as ourselves could evolve, we need to remember that for as long as we have been civilized, caloric supply and population have been a stable pair. Affluence begets more children and an easily accessible energy supply begets affluence. Population growth tracks perfectly our exploitation of firewood, peat, whale oil, coal, crude oil, gas and nuclear energy to increase the availability of food, water and shelter. It might be imagined that low-cost renewables could keep this going, but the net energy produced is the key factor. You have to life-cycle cost the manufacturing, maintenance, and replacement of various system components before you can be confident renewables will evenly replace the fossil era we’ve grown accustomed to.

We should recall that at one time the world did successfully run almost entirely on renewable energy. It was called the pre-industrial era, and global population was approximately 1 billion.

A 2019 study by the University of Leeds published in Nature Energy concluded that renewables and fossil sources are now approaching rough parity, at three-to-one energy out to energy in. It is expected that fossil efficiency may well decline further, even while renewable efficiency increases. We should recall that at the dawn of the industrial era, fossil fuels supplied 100:1 energy out to energy in, or roughly one old barrel used to produce oil yielded 100 new barrels to the economy. Now we are scraping the bottom of the well, trying to extract oil from shale.

At the same time, the production cost of renewables is declining, meaning their net energy efficiency will keep rising. The authors say, “Once the renewable infrastructure is built and dependency on fossil fuel decreases, the energy-return-on-investment for renewable sources should go up. This must be considered for future policy and energy infrastructure investments decisions, not only to meet climate change mitigation commitments but to ensure society continues to have access to the energy it needs.”

While certainly better than three-to-one energy returned on energy invested, even 10:1 dreamt of by renewable energy developers is hardly the 100 to one at the start of the industrial revolution and still far short of the 30:1 ratio that prevailed for most of the past hundred years (global oil production was 20:1 as recently as 2009). The world is going to experience a decline in net energy availability. If we are at 3:1 for all fossil sources now, that decline is already well underway.

How efficient must energy capture be in order for civilization to thrive? In a seminal paper in Energies a decade ago. Hall, Balogh, and Murphy concluded that the Kung bushmen of the Kalahari could sustain an EROI of 10:1 (10 Kcal returned for their own 1 Kcal invested) but were fragile in hard times and could not expand their numbers or build cities. Through extended analysis of world domestic production reliance on sustained energy inputs, the authors concluded that any economic system needs a minimum of 3:1 return on energy in order to sustain itself, but net available energy at this level “is only a bare minimum for civilization. It would allow only for energy to run transportation or related systems, but would leave little discretionary surplus for all the things we value about civilization: art, medicine, education and so on; i.e. things that use energy but do not contribute directly to getting more energy or other resources.” If the Kalahari bushmen are any indication, even 10:1 will not be good enough.

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And therein lies the rub. If society fails to ensure it has access to the energy it requires, it can lose more than art, medicine, education and so on — it can no longer produce enough food, housing, clothing or water to supply its population and it undergoes a population crash. Rapid onset climate change exacerbates the challenge.

However, were population to be voluntarily reduced in an orderly fashion, such as by adoption of sub-replacement fertility, it becomes easier to supply food, housing, clothing or water with less energy, and climate change is also mitigated. Twenty-five countries are now at sub-zero growth, ranging from Italy (-0.04% per year) to Puerto Rico (-3.29%, in part because of Hurricane Maria). Germany would be in negative population territory based on birthrate but is at +0.48% because of Syrian refugees.

If the UN delegates were more interested in talking to the elephant, they could be imagining a decline slope for the next 30 years that parallels the decline in fossil fuels. Population neutrality by 2030 (8 billion), a decline to 1990 levels (5 billion) by mid-century and back to pre-industrial concentrations (1 billion) by end of century.

Then we might have a serious chance to reverse climate change, biodiversity loss, and plastic pollution of the ocean.

Nations have a poor record of accomplishing these kinds of cultural changes. The push-back from their citizens is usually the limiting factor. Maybe what is needed is spermaskam, or ihere spam in Nigerian Igbo. Greta?


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Emergency Planetary Technician and Climate Science Wonk — using naturopathic remedies to recover the Holocene without geoengineering or ponzinomics.

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