Social Imperative

[ Main Menu ]



Social Imperative



Date: Mon, 11 Nov 96
From: David Sims
Subject: Figure Four


    Down One

    Its quiet on the internet today, on this list at least. Must be the national holiday. Three days after my original posting about human vs. natural systems and human population, the Sept-Oct 1996 edition of Popline, the newsletter of the World Population News Service, arrived. Here are the four headline items in this edition:

    1. Congress Approves 'Metered' Population Budget. A $385 million international population bill is passed by Congress in the US. (The details are less important to our discussion.)

    2. Support for WPAW (World Population Awareness Week) is Growing. 300 organizations within 80 countries are working to publicize Oct. 27 - Nov. 2 as WPAW. For details, consult (Alicia Kelley).

    3. $150 Million Population Increase. World Bank lending for population and reproductive health in 1996 totals $598 million, a $150 million increase over last year.

    4. Food Security Tied to Overpopulation - Book Review. In Tough Choices: Facing the Challenge of Food Security, Lester Brown argues that while historically, food shortages have been addressed by adjusting farm policies to favor greater investment in agriculture, a fundamental shift must take place today. Now, we are compelled to "find a sustainble balance between ourselves and our natural support systems. By far, our greatest threat to food security is population growth". (The book is from W.W. Norton, 1996, 151 pp. $11.) This snapshot of current events in a newsletter on population control suggests that many people and some governments are already aware of the non-sustainability of our human population, and something is being done about it. I'm not in a position to predict a time-line for the human population, and I doubt we would find agreement on one, anyway. For the purposes of Ann Dale's thesis and getting on with other matters of concern within a Canadian context, I wonder if we could base our discussions on at least two assumptions. First, that concensus as to overpopulation will be achieved, and a goal will be set to reduce the human population to one third of what it is in 1996 within 500 years. This assumption doesn't preclude short term problems, some of them real to the 1996 situation. It allows us to work on a long term plan that is not all doom and gloom. Second, that the population of Canada will gradually decline until 2400 AD, then stabilize at 10 million people. If we adopt these assumptions, or variations thereof, we could begin dialogue on the shaping of a Canadian society that would not overtax the natural systems, but that, with careful management, could co-exist in a truly sustainable manner over millenia, not just decades.

    Any thoughts?

    David Sims ...



    Date: Tue, 12 Nov 1996
    From: John Middleton


      Up One

      Down One

      I am unfortunately many 1000s of kilometres distant from Ann's Figure 4 and related documents, so I apologize in advance to the group for statements that are out of context. Nevertheless I'm willing to risk some howlers to help David Sims to break radio silence. Three observations:

      1) For every statement about human population in the context of sustainability, there is, or ought to be, a corresponding statement about human consumption (the other side of the same coin). The old warhorse examples are familiar to us all. For example, Canada is a negligible contributor to the global human population, but using realistic figures for relative consumption (e.g. 40 to 1), we are a China-sized chunk of the populationXconsumption problem.

      2) Population (in the narrow sense) is not only births and deaths, but immigration and emigration as well. This is massively the case in Canada, and increasingly so in other parts of the world as well, whether classified under the heading of "immigration policy", "refugees", "urbanization" or whatever. Corollary - I am very skeptical that population policy can be dealt with, even in the narrow sense, on a national (rather than global) scale.

      3) "Narrow-sense" discussions of population policy are wildly unpopular in most parts of the world (for good reason - see point #1), and have largely disappeaed from global negotiations (e.g. see proceedings of Cairo conference on population and development, e.g. Canada is much more likely to have influence on the consumption side of the sustainability debate. Personal conclusion - I am not yet able to accept either of David's two assumptions, although they are very good for starting discussion. (For what it's worth, my guess for sustainable human population sizes would be at least an order of magnitude higher.)


      John Middleton



      Date: Sun, 17 Nov 1996
      From: Ann Dale
      Subject: Figure 4


        Up One

        Down One

        With respect to Figure 4, I believe we are at the third diagram where the human activity systems are cumulatively approaching the biophysical limits of the biosphere. Evidence of this is manifested in threshold effects such as acid rain, ozone depletion, global warming and intensification of large urban areas. It is my contention that every nation has a population problem, if one considers population in the aggregate, population density and population distribution. Human numbers and their settlements particularly affect biodiversity when one looks at density and distribution. And then there is the social aspect, as many studies show a relationship between violence and population density. In the aggregate, it will only take 1700 years at present population rates, for our population growth to exceed the mass of the earth (Earle, IUCN Congress, Montreal). Population cannot be considered in isolation from consumption, and it is primarily the North American development model with growth seen as inherently good, that affects consumption. However, one can no longer safely say that North American societies are the primary evil, as developing countries now are adopting the North American development model and if they continue on their present pathway, will begin to emulate the consumption patterns of the North. (reference Gynne Dwyer documentary The Population Bomb). Furthermore, we have now created the situation where we have no feedback loop between the global economy and local consumption, supported by Rees' work on ecological footprints. It is obvious we are on a non-sustainable trajectory, and our systems for adapting to change are not working in the absence of feedback loops. It may well be that highly urbanized societies may not be able to reduce consumption? Shealagh, do you have any thoughts here from an ecological perspective? It seems to me that population and consumption are key drivers for unsustainability, but that the long-run problem is the structure of the polity and the society. I refer my colleagues to the diagram in question 16, that shows the impacts of positive and negative feedback loops for population growth. I wonder if Stephanie Cairns would like to comment here.

        If one looks at population and consumption as cultural systems, then both cultural systems (North and South) are unsustainable and both have to change. There is a political economy of fertility and a political economy of consumption, and we need to look at decoupling decisions of fertility and consumption from their cultural context. How to effect this decoupling is another matter?

        It may be by accepting the notion of biophysical limits, coupled with the idea of carrying capacity, at different scales, locally, regionally, nationally and globally may go some way, as Dale suggested. I disagree, however, that we should wait until we approach important boundaries, because of threshold effects leading to collapse, foreclosing off future options. As well, given the increasing interlocutory effects and the absence of feedback loops until we reach or near threshold, there must be a better way, given human ingenuity and innovation. I feel that Vitousek's work is a powerful metaphor, coupled with the concept of limits to the biosphere for getting people to look at their position within the world they inhabit, with the message that we are appropriating one-third to one-half of terrestrial NPP. Christine, can you provide a brief summary and reference of Pauley's findings for marine systems. It seems as if psychologically we can accept physical limits of the planet easier than accepting the concept of any limits on human behaviour!

        Another speaker at IUCN, Tariq Banuri from the Sustainable Development Policy Institute at Islambad, stated that land reform was male-dominated, and now perhaps, sustainable development is male-dominated. He suggested that the conflict in ways of thinking is also an impediment, in that the hypermasculine way of thinking is what has sustained past and current development.

        Dale Rothman raised an important point in item 5, in terms of approaches that have the broadest impact. There is an inverse relationship between a woman's education and the number, spacing and timing of her children. Similarly, there is an inverse relationship between a mother's education and infant mortality.

        It seems to me that we are dealing with issues of scale, space and place when we talk about population and consumption. All of which are underpinned by cultural systems and values.




        Date: Sun, 24 Nov 1996
        From: John Middleton


          Up One

          Down One

          Greetings (and by the way I now have a copy of Ann's discussion document). I think we are slipping into an imprecise use of language that will cause us problems later on: "urban" and "high consumption per capita" are not equivalent terms, and I will need more evidence than I have seen so far to accept that they are even empirically linked. On the surface, a good high-density city (and I am NOT talking about undefined suburban sprawl) can allow significantly reduced consumption, e.g. good public transit and walking replacing private cars, much better thermal efficiency of multi-unit buildings with common walls, direct human (granted, the indirect impacts have a larger weight) impact of X people concentrated into a small area rather than spread over a whole regional ecosystem, etc. Frequently in this discussion we will be using gut feelings about what "feels right" as a model for a sustainable system. This is right and good, and I will do it too. At the moment I am sharing a 20 m2 apartment in a ten-storey building in the centre of a city of a million people. Compared with my life in Canada (which is moderately frugal), I have a much reduced impact on the earth here - no car, no lawnmower, no air condicioner, etc., etc., at no reduction in quality of life (museums, theatres, plazas all within walking distance etc.).

          I don't imagine many members of this group will share my enthusiasm for city life, and that's fine. However, to the extent that gut-level feelings inform our thoughts (and that's inevitable), we should have our guts talk to each other.

          Finally, if I am NOT allowed dense cities in my vision of a sustainable world, then I agree that the world is already vastly overpopulated, as the impact on biodiversity of current urban populations being re-distributed into low-density rural areas is too horrible to contemplate.


          John Middleton



          Date:Tue, 26 Nov 1996
          From: Christine Massey
          Subject: Pauly and consumption


            Up One

            Down One

            Thanks to everyone for an interesting discussion so far.

            In her last email, Ann asked me to report on Pauly's findings for marine cosystems that complement Vitousek et al.'s findings for terrestrial NPP. The reference is D. Pauly and V. Christensen, "Primary production required to sustain global fisheries' published in Nature, vol. 374, March 16, 1995, pp. 255-257. (See also Pauly, "One hundred million tonnes of fish, and fisheries research" Fisheries Research 25 (1996) 25-38). Pauly and Christensen report that the primary production required (PPR) to sustain the world's fisheries is 8% of global aquatic primary production. This global average, however, masks some significant ranges, particulary with respect to the impact of our fisheries on the continental shelves. Pauly and Christensen place the PPR for continental shelves at 25-35% as compared to the much lower 2% PPR for open ocean systems.

            I want to pursue the idea that we need to tackle consumption in industrialized countries and that we need to "decouple" consumption from notions of well-being. If we measure well-being with health indicators, WHO data suggest a leveling off of life expectancy gains and other social and health indicators beyond $10,000 per annum (figures in "international dollars" based on purchasing power). This suggests that significant decreases in the consumption patterns of the "developed" world would not necessarily lead to a commensurate decrease in either population health or individual well-being if the quality of the social environment were maintained. The most commonly cited example of this data in action is the Indian region of Kerala where residents have achieved "First World" levels in a variety of social indicators (female literacy and life expectancy are two examples) with a fraction of the First World consumption levels and resultant "ecological footprint". Our challenge in the industrialized world becomes to discover the human needs fulfilled by consumption and to explore how they might otherwise be satisfied.

            A research group at UBC, the Task Force on Healthy and Sustainable Communities, has been exploring the idea of "social caring capacity", or what we at the Institute have called "resocialization", where social capital is used to substitute for the natural capital consumed in economic activities. Social capital refers to a whole collection of characteristics of a social grouping or community - its resilience in adapting to change, systems of governance, education, personal interactions, informal economy activities, etc.

            This concern with the revitalization of our communities speaks to John Middleton's comments regarding cities. I also include denser cities in my vision of a sustainable future, but we have much work to do to make cities desirable places to live. Part of this can be addressed with technical solutions that address built form, transportation etc. but a large part has to do with making cities into real "communities" which are satisfying, safe and healthy places to live. These

            Granted, social caring capacity, social capital and community are all fuzzy notions at this time and the means to achieve this substition of social capital for natural capital are equally unclear. But I welcome any thoughts that this group might have on the fruitfulness of this line of inquiry and action.

            cm ---- Christine Massey Sustainable Development Research Institute (SDRI) UBC, Vancouver, BC CANADA V6T 1Z4
            voice: 604/822-9376 fax: 822-9191
            Date: Wed, 27 Nov 1996
            From: John Middleton
            Subject: Christine's message


              Up One

              Down One

              Christine mentions WHO figures putting a threshold on the wealth/benefit relationship at about $10,000 (carefully defined). Another similar example is the Human Development Index of the UNDP (see their various annual reports). I do not have their report in front of me, but I recall a highly non-linear relationship, with income sharply discounted above a threshold even lower than $10,000.

              I always find the Human Development Index gives good food for thought. It is an index which always puts Canada at or near the top of the list, ahead of richer countries, so it has national relevance for decision makers. Interestingly Canada's position slips significantly when adjusted for gender equity, another recurring theme in this discussion, and slips again when adjusted for social equity.

              --- John Middleton, profesor visitante
              Date: Tue, 25 Feb 1997
              From: Nina-Marie Lister
              Subject: On Money & SD


                Up One

                Down One

                Hello all,

                Ann suggested that I post this. I was worried that it might seem too tangential, but I suppose in our search for emergent novelty we should look to novels too! I was struck by the sentiment in this excerpt from "Lady Chatterly's Lover"-a timelessness to the lament over consumerism. I realised, after reading this and then reading some of the recent postings on values, labels and the defintion of SD, that not much has changed in the last century. D.H. Lawrence captures one of the key barriers to SD quite nicely with this:


                From Lady Chatterly's Lover:

                "If you could only tell them that living and spending isn't the same thing! But it's no good. If only they were educated to live instead of earn and spend they could manage very happily on 25 shillings. If the men wore scarlet trousers as I said, they wouldn't think so much of money: if they could dance and hop and skip and sing and swagger and be handsome, they could do with very little cash. And amuse the women themselves, and be amused by the women. They ought to learn to be naked and handsome, and to sing in a mass and dance the old group dances, and carve the stools they sit on and embroider their own emblems. Then they wouldn't need money-train the people to be able to live and live in handsomeness without needing to spend. But you can't do it. They've all one track minds nowadays. Whereas the mass of people oughtn't even to try to think because they can't. They should be alive and frisky and acknowledge the great god Pan. But they're dead. And it needs money. Money poisons you when you've got it and starves you when you haven't."

                Lady Chatterley

                Back again later this week,




                Date: Mon, 24 Mar 1997
                From: John Middleton
                Subject: Re: Odds and Sodds


                  Up One

                  Greetings all;

                  Why the silence recently? Certainly not boredom, at least from my point of view. Temporary overload from less important but more pressing obligations at this time of year is at least part of the problem (for me). My greatest obstacle, though, is an uncomfortable sense of wheels being reinvented. Let me try to explain.

                  In June of this year, the UN General Assembly will have a special High Level session to analyse implementation of Agenda 21 five years after Rio (more than a decade after Brundtland, a quarter-century after Stockholm). In the last five years, Sustainable Development has been exhaustively (or at least exhaustingly) examined by bureaucrats, diplomats, politicians, and NGOs, in hundreds of thousands of pages of documentation, in many high-level conferences (Rio, Cairo, Copenhagen, Beijing, Barbados, Istanbul, etc.) including the three biggest UN conferences ever held (Rio, Copenhagen, Beijing). Some of this work (not all of course) has been brilliant and eloquent, in my view. The Canadian government, among many others, has been deeply involved in shaping the debate, often for the good, and has signed formal committments to implement any number of specific elements of SD. The great majority of this activity has focussed on the social elements of SD.

                  A convenient summary of progress to date can be had from the "Declaration of Santa Cruz de los Andes". This was produced by the Organization of American States (which includes Canada now of course) at their summit meeting on SD in September of 1996. The declaration speaks very clearly of environment, economy, and society as the three pillars of a better quality (not quantity) of life for the people of the hemisphere, and of many other elements of the global consensus on SD. It's as good a summary of modern thinking on SD as any I have seen.

                  Meanwhile, the same governments (ours included) were meeting in Singapore in the context of the World Trade Organization (the succesor to GATT), and producing the Singapore Declaration, slightly less than half a century after the organization of this train-of-thought with the Bretton Woods conferences of 1948. It will curl the toes of anyone reading this message. It speaks of the quest for "growth, employment, and development", in that order, as three separate goals, rejects with emphasis any attempts to interfere with the competitive advantage provided to many countries by their low salaries, and rejects environmental barriers to trade with the statement that growth is the unique road to SD.

                  Lest you think I am making this up, I commend your attention to both documents (available at these sights respectively):



                  My point is this. There are many fascinating subtleties to be discussed about SD, but there are huge, crude chasms of distinctions between it and the paradigm dominating decisions by our government and most others in the world today. If the real state of the world is our concern, should our efforts not be focussed more on implementation than on conceptual reformulations? (or have I just slipped into multiple stereotypes?)

                  Chau, and welcome to Autumn, or Spring, as the case may be.


                  [back to top]