Sunday, March 29, 2009

Thoughts On Overpopulation - Part 1

The April 2009 edition of Free Inquiry magazine has a number of articles addressing the issue of human population numbers and its impact on the environment and ultimately our quality of life. Unfortunately, only one article, by David and Marcia Pimentel, is available online.

The following sentence from the article by the Pimentels jumped out at me:

"To be able to ensure a reasonable standard of living, Americans will have to reduce their population and their consumption of goods and energy by one-half."

Without getting into whether the Pimentels are right or wrong, there is no way, absent genocide or a massive die-off from a lethal pandemic, that the populaton of the United States will ever be reduced to half its present level. Our current population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau's population clock, is approximately 306 million. The Census Bureau estimates that as early as 2039 our population will reach 400 million. So, those of us and our descendants who will be alive in 2039 will either have to endure an "unreasonable" standard of living or find a way of maintaining the standard of living that most of us are accustomed to today.

One of the things that makes me, and I suspect many other people, uncomfortable about population control is that it conjures up images of some self-annointed cabal of "experts" deciding how many children can be born and imposing draconian restrictions on us in order to make us live according to what they believe to be the planet's "carrying capacity."

Some environmental activists concerned about the adverse effects of human overpopulation advocate that couples have at best one, and no more than two, children, depending on whether or not the goal is voluntary population reduction or stabilization. Regular readers of this blog know that I am the father of two children. If my wife was the same age as me or younger than me, rather than being six years older than me, we might have tried for a third child and limited ourselves to that. But my wife's biological clock, and the need to maintain our sanity(!), meant that we would have only two children. So, by circumstance, my wife and I are contributing to a replacement level population.

I also happen to be the youngest of three brothers. I was born a year after the publication of Paul Ehrlich's provocative 1968 book The Population Bomb. If my mother and father had heeded the message of Ehrlich's book, I would not be here typing this post right now. Of course, if I didn't exist, 99.999% of humanity wouldn't miss me. But one person who definitely would be negatively impacted by my nonexistence would be my mother. My father died almost three years ago from complications resulting from surgery. As I wrote at the top of this paragraph, I am the youngest of three brothers. Also, as regular readers of this blog will recall, my two older brothers are not, to put it delicately, paragons of responsibility. Therefore, the burden of helping to care for my mother falls pretty much on my shoulders. In fact, my uncle, my mother's brother, contributes more than both of my brothers combined. So, it is safe to say that if I didn't exist, my mom's situation would be much worse than it is. My being alive and responsible makes the difference between my mom being able to live in her own home or living in a nursing home that would rapidly deplete her life savings.

It is a simple fact of life that as most people get older, they expect to be able to rely on at least one of their children to provide them with support and comfort in their later years. I don't doubt that my mom is not the only senior citizen in the United States whose most reliable offspring is the last one who was born. In cases like mine, it is because the other siblings lead troubled lives. In other cases, the first born might have been born retarded or with a serious birth defect, or perhaps might even have died or suffered a crippling injury.

To subordinate the human race to a concept like "carrying capacity" reduces us to just a statistic. Once you do that, then it is not such a big leap to implementing policies to reduce our numbers to fit somebody's calculation of this carrying capacity. If it is so important to reduce our population back down to one billion in the next 50 to 100 years, then why not find a way to introduce some disease into given areas of the world that are perceived as being overpopulated? Why not kill off the elderly? Because the plain, hard truth is that it is not likely that the human race will ever reach a broad consensus across the many nations and ethnicities of which it is comprised to voluntarily reduce its growth by having fewer children, and even if it could, it certainly would not happen within the time frame that the population doomsayers say it needs to be done.

Are there too many people on this planet stressing the Earth's ability to feed us and provide us all with a "reasonable" standard of living? Probably. I will get into that in Part 2. But suffice it to say that even if the answer to that question is yes, we are going to have to find a way to make it work for all of us.

The Spread of Christianity Part 1: In Hoc Signo Vinces

Everyone who is at least vaguely familiar with the history of Christianity and the Roman Empire knows the story. The emperor Constantine, shortly before engaging his rival Maxentius at the Battle of Milvian Bridge in the year 312, allegedly saw a vision in the sky of the Christian Cross above the words "In Hoc Signo Vinces", Latin for "by this sign, conquer." As the story goes, Constantine had his soldiers mark their shields with the sign of the cross, and they proceeded to defeat Maxentius. Constantine afterwards issued the Edict of Milan, officially putting an end to the persecution of Christians that had reached a crescendo under the reign of his predecessor Diocletian. From there onwards, Christianity embarked on what in hindsight seems to have been its inevitable march from a recognized faith in the empire to the official faith of the empire, the brief speedbump that was Julian's reign notwithstanding.

Constantine's victory and embrace of Christianity, while a major milestone in the history of the religion, was the first of what would prove to be a recognizeable pattern in the rise of the faith into the early Middle Ages. In other words, the spread of the teachings of Jesus Christ owed a great deal to emperors and kings being victorious in battles that resulted in the deaths of other people.

In the wake of the disintegration of the Western Empire in the latter half of the fifth century (which some people mistakenly attribute to Christianity itself), the Catholic Church was the only "Roman" institution that remained. In order for the Church to survive and prosper, it needed the Germanic kings who occupied the former Roman territories to convert to Christianity and be baptized in the Church. Filling the power vacuum left by the collapse of Roman authority in Gaul (modern day France) was the kingdom of the Franks under its aggressively expansionist ruler Clovis.

While the wife of Clovis was a Catholic, Clovis himself was not quite prepared at first to take the plunge. Then, in the thick of battle against the Alamanni in the year 496, Clovis is said to have called upon Jesus Christ and promised to to be baptized if he was victorious. As it turned out, Clovis won the battle and eventually fulfilled his promise to be baptized. His decision was momentous not only for Christianity in general, but for Catholicism in particular, as at that time in history the Catholic Church was in competition with what it deemed to be the heresy of Arianism.

The story would repeat itself in post-Roman Britain. From Richard Fletcher's The Barbarian Conversions, "The contemporary written sources bearing upon the conversion of kings prompt reflection on a number of themes. First, we observe the repeated assurance that acceptance of Christianity will bring victory, wide dominion, fame and riches. This is what Germanic kings wanted to hear, because their primary activity was war." (Text bolded for emphasis)

From the standpoint of the Church, in order to be able to proselytize in a given territory, it needed to curry the favor of the local ruler. If a warrior king could be convinced that his success in battle was due to the support of the Christian god, then that king would allow himself to be baptized and encourage his subjects to follow suit. And struggles with neighboring pagan kings would not simply be a conflict over territory or wealth, but literally a war between the forces of good and evil.

Prior to Constantine's victory at Milvian Bridge, Christianity was more of a grassroots movement. It spread and gained adherents in spite of the position of the Roman government. But from Constantine onward, Christianity became an instrument of state policy. Thus, with the disintegration of Roman governmental authority in Western Europe, the Church sought to continue this pattern by marrying itself to the barbarian kings, which in turn paved the way for spreading the faith to their subjects. What started out as a faith that spread from the bottom-up had turned into a top-down affair that relied on good, old fashioned brute force.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Ooops! I Totally Forgot!

Yeah, that's right. Shame on me. I totally forgot to participate in Earth Hour, wherein from 8:30 to 9:30 local time, participants turn off the power to all nonessential items in their home. To be honest, I meant to. But around 7:30 I had to go to my mom's to fill up her electronic pill dispenser for the following week, pay some of her bills, and take out the trash. Between all that and chatting with her for a short while, all thoughts of dimming lights had vacated my head. I had also neglected to tell my wife, who was home with the kids, so she had no inkling. Not that she would have cared anyway, as she knew nothing about it at all.

Oh well, there's always next year.

Kudos to those who did participate though. While it is just a purely symbolic gesture, its promoters have their heart in the right place. If you can do it, you do. If you can't, or, in my case, you forget, you don't.

What annoys me are these mostly right wing jerkoffs with the maturity of a seventh grader who see the event as an occasion to gleefully turn on ALL of the lights and appliances in their homes out of sheer spite. Way to go guys. I swear, some of these conservative dickheads seem to get such a thrill out of acting in a way to purposefully offend people they deride as liberals that I get the impression that they might even cut off their own penises if they thought it would offend a liberal. Well, I for one would be very offended if they did that, so I guess they had better start looking for some clean, sharp blades.

What I Have Been Reading

Yeah, I know, I have been an absentee blogger lately. I just can't seem to find the time to sit down and crank out substantive posts, nor did I want to do lazy posts where you just link to some article and write "Check out this craziness."

Anyway, one of the things I have been doing lately is reading lots of books. One I just finished is Why Evolution Is True by Jerry Coyne. Coyne, a professor at the University of Chicago, has given us a useful primer on evolution and the evidence that supports it to the extent that Coyne feels confident enough to label evolution "true."

Of course, this book will not persuade die-hard Biblical Literalists or Harun Yahya types. In fact, in the opening of Chapter 9, Coyne describes how after he gave a presentation a few years ago to a group of businessmen in Chicago, one of the members of the audience went up to him and said, "I found your evidence for evolution very convincing-but I still don't believe it." This book is not for people like that. Instead, Why Evolution Is True serves as a useful primer for lay persons such as myself who are interested in science but do not have an educational background in biology and evolutionary theory.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

So Much For Turkey Power

Several weeks ago, I read The Long Emergency by James Kunstler. Kunstler is a critic of suburbia and in addition to his books, he has a blog with the rather blunt title Clusterfuck Nation.

The gist of Kunstler's argument in The Long Emergency is that the American suburban lifestyle will soon become unsustainable because it depends on a finite supply of cheap oil to sustain it. "The key to understanding what is about to happen to us," he writes on page 24, "is contained in the concept of global oil production peak. This is the point at which we have extracted half of all the oil that has ever existed in the world-the half that was easiest to get, the half that was most economically obtained, the half that was the highest quality and cheapest to refine."

With that, what Kunstler derides as our "happy motoring" way of life and the days of the "3,000 mile caesar salad" will soon be coming to an end. But what about alternatives to fossile fuels like wind power, solar power or biofuels? Nonsense, retorts Kunstler. "Based on everything we know right now, no combination of so-called alternative fuels or energy procedures will allow us to maintain daily life in the United States the way we have been accustomed to running it under the regime of oil." Why? "To some degree, all of the non-fossil fuel energy sources actually depend on an underlying fossil fuel economy. You can't manufacture metal wind turbines using wind energy technology. You can't make lead-acid storage batteries for solar electric systems using any known solar energy system."

But in the chapter that Kunstler devotes to deconstructing fossil fuel alternatives, the part that I found the most amusing was where he writes about a company called Changing World Technologies, which claimed that it could make oil from turkey guts via a process called thermal depolymerization. "The company's first commercially scaled plant, a $20 million installation in Carthage, Missouri, was built next to a ConAgra Foods Butterball Turkey processing factory. Company spokespersons claimed that they would ultimately make oil by this method for $10 a barrel in 2003 dollars." This made me think of the end of the first Back to the Future movie, wherein Doc Brown powers his flying Delorean with the McFly family's household trash. Kunstler goes on to to dismiss it with "Anything that sounds too good to be true usually is."

And, as recent events demonstrated, it was too good to be true. Last week I read this article, which reported that Changing World Technologies was filing for bankruptcy. From the article:

Renewable diesel fuel from the Carthage plant cost more than $11.18 a gallon to make, yet Changing World was only able to sell it for an average $1.19 last year, the filings reported. Since it began operations in 1999, the company posted accumulated losses of $117.9 million, including $60 million in the last three years.

The Carthage plant also was the subject of odor complaints from residents and state officials, who hit it with a cease-and-desist order and fines and required odor-reducing retrofits. The plant suffered from regular shutdowns - it was 80 percent operational at best, the company said. When it wasn't operating, Changing World had to pay to "divert or dispose of [turkey parts] that we received but were unable to store or process."

The claim that the plant would also be able to self-produce all the fuel needed to heat the diesel-making animal parts turned out to be optimistic. Last year alone, the company spent $900,000 to buy natural gas, nearly 7 percent of its total cost of goods sold.

In a 2004 Newsday interview, Appel predicted the company would have 10 big plants across the United States by 2009.

So, it looks like leftover turkey parts are not going to help us reduce our dependence on imported oil.

Back to Kunstler, I can't say if the dire picture he paints for us is going to come to pass or not. Generally being optimistic by nature, I like to think that we will find a way to muddle through. And yet, at the same time, if I as an atheist am skeptical about faith claims when it comes to religion, shouldn't I also be skeptical about having faith that some technological solution will be found that will provide us and our children with cheap and abundant clean energy in the coming decades? The answer of course is yes, I should be skeptical, though I would not assume the worst either. At the very least, I can do my part to try and reduce my use of fossil fuels and educate myself on energy issues so that I can be an informed advocate.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Premature Friday Funnies: The Appropriate Response to Anti-Semitism

One of my favorite movies from the early 1980's was Bad Boys, starring a young Sean Penn in a stark departure from his previous role as the stoner surfer dude Jeff Spicoli in Fast Times At Ridgement High.

Bad Boys is largely set within the confines of a facility for hardcore juvenile delinquents. As good as Penn's performance was in the movie, the most memorable character in the movie is the intelligent but twisted Jewish misfit named Horowitz, who shares a cell with Penn's character.

Below is a funny scene from the movie wherein Horowitz retaliates when the alpha male bully of the inmates, the towering Viking Lofgren (played by Clancy Brown) taunts him with anti-semitic language. As crazy as Horowitz is, you just gotta love his ballsy, take no-shit response to someone who physically outmatches him.

Isn't It Strange?

Inspired by the recent chain e-mail I received the other day, which I discussed in this post, I have decided to write my own version of "Isn't It Strange?" Here it goes:

It's strange, isn't it, that atheists and non-religious people can behave just as morally as religious people, but only in the context of religion does it seem normal when:

People walk around in public once a year with ashes smeared on their foreheads:

When men walk about in public dressed like this:

When women walk around in public dressed like this:

When people do their dishes using scouring pads like this*:

Isn't it strange?

*Not only are there color coded scrub pads so that observant Jews don't accidentally use the same scrub pad to clean a dish that contained a meat product and a dish that contained a dairy product, I also noticed that my local Shoprite sells color coded oven mitts too! Take away the religious justification for this, and we're talking about obsessive-compulsive behavior. So, what do you call it when people behave like this to appease a god that does not even exist?