Tag Archives: politics of ignorance

Demography Made Simple

I have grown weary of listening to radio and TV new announcers discuss the human population problem. I think a primer of a few principles of population arithmetic might be useful to remind us where we ecologists sit in these discussions. The problem centres on the issue of eternal growth and then the transition of any population from a growing one to a stable one. I concentrate here on human populations but the results apply to any long-lived species.

I list four empirical principles of demography.

  1. No population can continue growing without limit. This generalization is rock solid, so it would be good to keep mentioning it to sceptics of the following generalizations.
  2. Populations grow when births and immigration exceed deaths and emigration. If we consider the entire global human population, emigration and immigration disappear since we have not yet colonized space. Populations stabilize when births equal deaths.
  3. A population that moves from a growth phase to a stable phase must change in age structure. Every stable population must contain fewer young persons and more older persons.
  4. These changes in age structure have enormous implications for our requirements for hospitals, doctors, schools, teachers, and social support agencies. These changes are almost completely predicable for humans and should not come as a surprise to politicians.
  5. Pushing the panic button because a particular population like that of Japan is stabilizing and could even decline slightly may be useful for economists wishing for infinite growth but should be recognized as an expected event for every country in the future.

The bottom line is that we have the knowledge and the ability to plan for the cessation of human population growth. Many good books have been written to make these points and we need to keep repeating them. That many people do not understand the simple arithmetic of population change is a worry, and we should all try to communicate these 5 simple principles to all who will listen.

Cafaro, P., and Crist, E. 2012. Life on the Brink: Environmentalists Confront Overpopulation. University of Georgia Press, Athens, Georgia. 342 pp. ISBN: 978-0-8203-4385-3

Daly, H.E., and Farley, J. 2011. Ecological Economics: Principles and Applications. 2nd ed. Island Press, Washington, D.C. 509 pp. ISBN: 978-1-5972-6681-9

Washington, H. 2015. Demystifying Sustainability: Towards Real Solutions. Routledge, New York. 222 pp. ISBN: 978-1138812697

Open Letter from a Scientist to a Bureaucrat

Let us assume for the moment that I am a scientist who has worked in a government research organization for 25 years under a series of bureaucrats. I have just retired and the object of this letter is to tell a bureaucrat what is good and what is bad about the bureaucratic government system. If you work in a perfect government system, perhaps you do not need to read further.

Dear Sir/Madam:

I would like to offer you some free advice that comes from a scientist who has worked in government for many years. This is presumptuous to be sure in light of our relative positions, but I feel you might benefit from some notes from the trenches.

First, science should never be organized in a top-down manner. We ecologists know about trophic cascades and the consequences it has for the lower trophic levels. You should not tell us what to do because you know nothing about the subject matter of the science, in this case ecology. I note especially that an MBA does not confer infinite wisdom on science matters. So I suggest you consider organizing things bottom-up. Your job is to provide scientists with the technical support, the funding, and the facilities to do their work. I note that this does not preclude you providing us with general areas of science in which we are expected to do our research. If our general position is to study the effectiveness of pollination in California crops, you should not tolerate us going to Africa to study elephant ecology. We appreciate that the government has at least some general ideas of what is critical to study. If they do not, it would be advisable to gather a group of scientists to discuss what the critical problems are in a particular area of science. Scientists do not work in closed rooms and do have a general understanding of what is happening in their field.

Second, do not muzzle us about anything scientific. We do not work for you or for the current government but we do work for the people of Canada or Australia or whatever country, and our mandate is to speak out on scientific questions, to provide evidence based policy guidance and to educate the public when errors are promulgated by people who know nothing about what they speak. This could well include government ministers who are known at least on occasion to utter complete nonsense. Our job is not to support the government’s policies of the day but to provide evidence about scientific questions. In general we scientists do not see government ministers crying out that they know more about brain surgery than trained doctors, so we think the same attitude ought to be taken toward ecologists.

Third, ask your scientists about the time frame of their scientific studies. Most bureaucrats seem to think that, since the world was created in 7 days, scientific work ought to take no more than a year or two or perhaps three. We would like to tell you that many, perhaps most, important ecological questions involve a time frame of 10 years or more, and some require continuous funding and support for periods in excess of 50 years. You apparently did not ask medical scientists to stop working on cancer or malaria after 3 years or even 50 years, so we are uncertain why ecologists should be kept to short time frames for their research. Ecological research is perhaps the most difficult of all the sciences, so if we do not find answers in a few years it is not because we are not working hard enough.

Finally, ask your scientists to publish in national and international journals because that is the corner stone for judging scientific progress. We do not mind having rules about rates of publication. And as a spur please fund your scientists to go to scientific meetings to present their results to the scientific world. And have them communicate to the public what they are doing and what they have found. After all the public pays, so why should they not hear about what has come of their tax dollars.

Your job, in a nutshell, is to support your scientists not to hinder them, to encourage their work, and to speak to the higher levels of government about why funding science is important. And to (at least on occasion) protest about government policies that are not based on scientific evidence. If you are successful in all of this, the people of your country will be the better for it. On the other hand, you may be headed for early retirement if you follow my advice.

I wish you success.

Sincerely yours,

A.B.C. Jones PhD, DSc, FRS, FAA
Retired

In Praise of Luddites

We are certainly in the midst of a new era of luddites but instead of the original concept of a person opposed to technology that would reduce jobs, we now have luddites in politics opposed to scientific information. Not that this is terribly new historically but it seems to be part of a new conservative government agenda. The operating principle of the new luddites is quite simple: what you do not know cannot hurt you. This principle is illustrated every day by a person typing a text message as they walk across a busy road intersection, but it has now been adopted by several governments in western countries. The politicians involved of course would never recognize themselves as luddites but would argue that they are responsible spenders of the taxpayers money. When a large government agency faces a budget cut, what is more responsible than to cut out people who do the environmental work. Close down scientific research stations. Reduce funding for environmental monitoring. Eliminate the need for environmental impact studies. After all what environmental scientist of recent time has ever given good news to the government or indeed done anything to increase GNP. Since environmental problems are large-scale, long-term issues, they need not be dealt with today or even in the next 6 months. The result is that today we are locked in an arms race with environmental scientists arguing that we should do something now about climate change, species under threat, or other ecological problems, and the political world arguing that we can deal with these issues later after we increase economic growth. Since a large part of the research effort that explores environmental trends comes from the government, a simple way to turn down the thermostat is to reduce funding to environmental science and to prevent government scientists from talking to the public.

We awake only when there is an environmental disaster that cannot be covered up. This is a bit like thinking about getting fire insurance once you realize your house is on fire, not exactly forward planning. So we too often continue down the path of the luddite, with elections being fought over the economy with barely a mention of the environment. At a meeting of first nations people recently the opening statement was that we are responsible for the next 7 generations following us, the grandchildren of our grandchildren. What politician could say this with a straight face these days? Don’t worry, she’ll be right.