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The Numbers That Scare Me----And The Nightmare That Keeps Me Awake

Bill McKibben has recently unveiled some new "terrifying math" about global warming. But there are other numbers that terrify me more. My mother used to tell me to stop worrying, because it is not the things we worry about that usually get us, but the things we don't see coming. I think she was right.

Bill McKibben recently wrote about the “terrifying math” of global warming:

Climate Change

A third of the summer Arctic ice is gone and oceans are 30% more acidic.
We are already three-quarters along the road to the two-degree increase that we have been told is the tipping point beyond which runaway temperature increases follow.
We are on pace to exceed the 565 gigaton carbon “budget” left to keep us under the tipping point in just 16 years.
We are planning to burn oil, gas and coal reserves that would exceed this carbon budget by a factor of five.
To keep “under budget”, we must keep 80% of known hydrocarbons in the ground.

Yes, those numbers sound truly terrifying alright. But try these on for size:

Population Overshoot

October 31, 2011
7 billion humans on Planet Earth.
A thousand times more people than what there were through most of human history.

More humans are born every day than there are primates in the world.
Each day the world adds 220,000 people to its burden (a Saskatoon, Saskatchewan every day). Each day each Canadian--or an American---consumes over 100 lbs of minerals, metals and fuels---all non-renewable.
Each day as the pool of affordable and accessible minerals, metals and fuels shrinks, the number of people making a claim on them grows.
Each year a Canadian consumes the equivalent of 25 barrels of oil.

These numbers are scary. And solid.

Realists know that there is a difference between a LONG emergency and a PERMANENT one, and know therefore, that there can be no real preparation for de-industrialization. They know that they can hide from marauding hordes in a bunker, or in a remote re-localized community, but they cannot hide from scarcity. And they know that governments will pull out all stops to keep the industrial machine running. In retrospect, environmental sensibilities will seem like a quaint middle class indulgence of a people who didn't know what real hardship was all about. We will drill in children’s graveyards if we think it will keep us warm at night.

Arctic ice can melt. But so can human flesh in a thermonuclear war---or freeze after one.
Vanishing ice can send temperatures soaring, but nuclear winter can send them plummeting.
An old bush pilot said to me that if your plane is aloft and you notice that your engine is on fire, you don't care about what the needle on your fuel gauge says. You have to focus on putting that fire out. First things first. We have to address scarcity.

Connect these dots

Connect these dots. 2010--the Chinese spend over $4 billion to buy 9% of Syncrude as a part of their determined effort to gain more control of the Alberta tar sands project. Then in the summer of 2011, they launch their first aircraft carrier in determined effort to build up their fleet and grow their military muscle. Then this summer they spent over $15 billion to purchase control of Nexen Corporation, paying 61% more than share value, to gain an even bigger foothold in the Tar Sands. Given the scale of this commitment, a pipeline to the Pacific coast to serve the Chinese market is a certainty. If not soon, then later. Environmental concerns will be cast aside.

Final dot. China---an emerging superpower, and the US, an increasingly desperate and fading superpower, both crave tar sands oil. Is this not reminiscent of the conditions which led the Japanese to launch the desperately foolish attack on Pearl Harbor? How ironic it would be if it was the United States that would be placed in Japan's position in 1941?

These are things that keep me awake at night, not Glikson’s or Hansen's speculations regarding sea levels 50 years from now.


I feel that we are all sitting on a tinderbox, while across the world governments are stockpiling matches. As McKibben’s nightmare is unfolding with a quickening pace, mine has broken out into a sprint.

Let me summarize the forgoing perspective in point form:

1) The “down slope” experience is one of increasing scarcity.

2) Relocalization is just one moment in the down slope ( not the end condition).

3) Relocalized communities require isolation or insulation from roving pillagers, but there is no sanctuary from scarcity.

4) Governments are not going to help us get to sustainable communities. They are going spend every bit of monetary and natural capital trying to keep the overloaded system afloat.

5) The actions that concerned people (environmentalists) are taking to prevent the down slope are too weak to be meaningful.

6) In the end each person (each environmentalist) will desecrate everything to stay afloat.

7) You worry about rising waters and temperatures that will fry us. I worry about nuclear winter that will freeze us. But it is increasing scarcity that will trigger one of these two, and it is the problem that most deserves our focus.

8) Governments sold our resources to industry, and industry will sell them to the highest bidder. The lower bidder will resort to desperate measures to re-access lost resource streams.

9) The resulting conflict will drain resources from all both sides, resulting in further scarcity and death. Nuclear winter is the climate change that may kill us first.

Tim Murray
August 14, 2012

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I am with you 100%. But the day of Stand On Zanzibar, and Make Room, Make Room, Soylent Green, et cetera seem to have passed us. For some reason we seem to only want to focus on secondary effects these days.

I did take a course on ecology recently. The professsionals didn't seem fooled. They didn't scream about it, but if you read closely, you could see that they knew the underlying issue beneath all the other ones.

The unmet need of family planning in developing countries results in around 63 million unintended pregnancies and at least 26 million abortions every year - 60% of which are unsafe.

There are 222 million women around the world who want contraception but can’t access it. Of them, most are under 18 and live in the world’s poorest countries.

Global overpopulation is the root cause of many of today's conflicts, along with famine, poverty, childhood deaths, and displacement. There are no new frontiers on our planet to discover, no new continents to settle in, and no new colonies to plunder.

"The world is creating displacement faster than it is producing solutions," warned UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres in May 2012. It will be further exacerbated also by climate change.

The overflow of refugees could be minimized by increasing aid for family planning and preventing unwanted pregnancies. Rather than try and solve monumental human crises, it's more efficient, effective and logical to aim at addressing the root cause - global overpopulation.