Better lives

In the Boston Globe, Jeff Jacoby writes about Indur Goklany’s The Improving State of the World,

Take food. Since 1950, the world’s population has soared by more than 150 percent. Yet food has become so abundant that global food prices (in real terms) have plunged 75 percent. Over the past generation, chronic undernourishment in poor countries has been slashed from 37 percent to 17 percent, while in the United States, staples such as potatoes and flour have dropped in price (relative to income) by more than 80 percent.

Or take infant mortality. Before industrialization, children died before reaching their first birthday at a rate exceeding 200 per 1,000 live births, or more than one in five. “In the United States as late as 1900,” Goklany writes, “infant mortality was about 160; but by 2004 it had declined to 6.6.” In developing countries, the fall in mortality rates began later, but is occurring more quickly. In China, infant mortality has plunged from 195 to below 30 in the past 50 years.

Life expectancy? From 31 years in 1900, it was up to 66.8 worldwide in 2003.

Health? We are more likely to be disease-free today than our forebears were a century ago. And the onset of chronic illness has been significantly delayed — by nearly eight years for cancer, nine years for heart diseases, and 11 years for respiratory diseases.

Education, child labor, clean air, freedom, famine, leisure time, global poverty — Goklany shows that by almost any yardstick you choose, humanity thrives as never before. Living standards do not fall as population rises. On the contrary: Where there are free markets and free minds — economic growth and technology — human progress and hope are all but guaranteed.

“Humanity, though more populous and still imperfect, has never been in better condition,” he writes.

The Quartenary Conundrum

The Quartenary Conundrum is this: While current empirical and theoretical ecological forecasts suggest that many species could be at risk from global warming, during the recent ice ages surprisingly few species became extinct.

In a recent paper in BioScience, Forecasting the Effects of Global Warming on Biodiversity (pdf), Daniel Botkin et al. state that

Fossil evidence and recent ecological and genetic research, along with specific problems with present forecasting methods, lead us to believe that current projections of extinction rates are overestimates. Previous work has failed to adequately take into account mechanisms of persistence. […]

Until recently, it was thought that past temperature changes were no more rapid than 1 degree Celsius (°C) per millennium, but recent information from both Greenland and Antarctica, which goes back approximately 400,000 years, indicates that there have been many intervals of very rapid temperature change, as judged by shifts in oxygen isotope ratios. Some of the most dramatic changes (e.g., 7°C to 12°C within approximately 50 years; Macdougall 2006) are actually of greater amplitude than anything projected for the immediate future. […]

What, then, is the answer to the Quaternary conundrum? The answer appears to lie in part with the ability of species to survive in local “cryptic” refugia, that is, to exist in a patchy, disturbed environment whose complexity allows faster migration than forecast for a continuous landscape, within which species move only at a single rate. The answer also lies in part with greater genetic heterogeneity within species, including local adaptations,which allows rapid evolution. For example, populations close to latitudinal borders are likely to be better adapted to some environmental changes than the average genotype. However, the conundrum is not completely solved, and some important genetic research suggests that species are more vulnerable than the fossil record indicates. A fuller solution to the conundrum will be important for improving forecasts of climate change effects on biodiversity.

HT Carl Zimmer.

Note that this is not a call for complacency, it is a call for better models of climate change effects on extinctions.

Mass urbanization

On Economist’s View Mark Thoma writes about the millions of people moving from the countryside to the cities in poor countries, quoting an op-ed piece in the Los Angeles Times,

Mega-cities, mega-problems

Billions in the developing world are shifting from rural to urban areas, bringing poverty to dangerous new levels…

Their misery will spill beyond their borders, and if that happens, our urban age risks becoming a global nightmare.

The writer has got it wrong. It is not migration to cities that bring poverty to dangerous levels. People move from country to city because they are less poor in the city. Poverty is more visible in cities, but is is extremely rare to see starving people in cities even in very poor countries. When you see starving people, it’s in the countryside.

One reason that the urban poor are better off than the rural poor is that ruling elites are afraid of angry urban slum dwellers “spilling beyond their borders”. Rural slums are no threat.

Too many people on the planet?

Tim Haab on Environmental Economics quotes a strangely retro article from Columbus Dispatch. It is like reading something from the days of the Club of Rome, Limits to Growth, and The Population Bomb,

“Right now, Earth’s carrying capacity is thought to be somewhere in the range of 4 billion to 5 billion people.

There are 6.5 billion of us.”

The Earth’s land surface is 148,939,100 km². If we were all still Palaeolithic hunter-gatherers, we would need at least 10 km² per person. So the carrying capacity of Planet Earth was at most 14,893,910 people using hunting and gathering technology.

Technology doesn’t remain constant.

The last stand of the orangutan


The distribution of the orangutan on Borneo.

From The Last Stand of the Orangutan – State of emergency: illegal logging, fire and palm oil in Indonesia’s national parks (pdf).

A UNEP rapid response assessment prepared for the 2007 UNEP Governing Council. The survival of orangutans and other rain forest wildlife in Indonesia is seriously endangered by illegal logging, forest fires including those associated with the rapid spread of oil palm plantations, illegal hunting and trade.

Forest fire and deforestation in Indonesia are also resulting in substantial emissions of carbon dioxide, in addition to the decrease in habitat for Orangutan and other keystone species of the rain forests of Borneo and Sumatra. The smoke from the burning forests are spreading over Southeast Asia in the summers. As burnt forest areas are left open, they are commonly claimed for rubber and palm oil plantations, thus permanently reducing the available habitat…

More here. Maps and graphics from the report here.

The downside of the boom in China

From Der Spiegel (via inkbluesky),

China’s Poison for the Planet

Can the environment withstand China’s growing economic might? As one of the planet’s worst polluters, Beijing’s ecological sins are creating problems on a global scale. Many countries are now feeling the consequences.

The cloud of dirt was hard to make out from the ground, but at an altitude of 10,000 meters (32,808 feet), the scientists could see the gigantic mass of ozone, dust and soot with the naked eye. In a specially outfitted aircraft taking off from Munich airport, they surveyed a brownish mixture stretching from Germany all the way to the Mediterranean Sea.

These kinds of clouds float above Europe for most of the year and they’ve traveled far to get there. By analyzing the makeup of particles in the cloud, European scientists were able to identify its origin. “There was a whole bunch from China in there,” says Andreas Stohl, a 38-year-old from the Norwegian Institute for Air Research.

Read the story here.