Thursday, October 24, 2013

Overpopulation Is Still the Problem




Alon Tal





Overpopulation remains the leading driver of hunger, desertification, species depletion and a range of social maladies across the planet. Recently, a spate of op-ed essays have filled the pages of some of world's top newspapers and blogs -- from the Guardian to the New York Times -- challenged this view, declaring that overpopulations is not, nor has ever been, a problem. To make progress in the most recent round of the age-old debate between technological optimists and Malthusian realists, it's important to establish criteria and characterize consequences.
On what basis are these newest cornucopian assurances made? In the New York Timespiece, for instance, Ellis Erle asserts that after studying the ecology of agriculture in China and talking to archaeologists, he reached the conclusion that technologies have always been able to overcome any anticipated exceedance of carrying capacity. A key corroboration marshaled for this view refers to a retrospective assessment of Chinese farming by archaeologists. It purportedly claims that new and more efficient technologies invariably enabled local farmers to overcome any anticipated exceedance of carrying capacity.
If food security is the criterion, it is particularly ironic that arguments are based on China. Anyone with a teaspoon of historic sensibilities about the country's environmental history might want to mention its long litany of famines which occurred precisely because carrying capacities were consistently outstripped by a growing population.
Conservative estimates report that China's most recent food crisis, between 1958 and 1961, led to the starvation of over twenty million people, in part due to the erosion of China's natural capital. Uncontrolled human fertility led to a depletion of the land's fertility. Previous famines were worse. Over the years, hundreds of millions died a horrible death of hunger. Their misery should teach a sobering lesson about insouciant disregard for the balance between human numbers and natural resources.
Chinese one-child policy has been tough medicine, and implementation was clearly flawed. But it also prevented the next round of famines that would have taken far more lives had China continued to race forward and became a nation of two billion. Even so, China today still needs to bolster local food supply by attaining lands overseas.
It gives little satisfaction for sustainable population advocates to point out that the past twenty years saw an estimated 200 million hunger-related deaths worldwide. Relatively few occurred in countries where population was stable. The U.N. reports that today one in eight people in the world suffers chronic undernourishment. Almost without exception, they live in developing regions, where most of the planet's population growth continues apace. If family planning had been energetically promoted years ago, enormous suffering could have been avoided.
Present global trends will lead to a doubling of the world's urban areas by 2050. That means that cities, mostly in developing countries, will expand from 3 to 6 percent of all-ice free land. It also means that 10 to 15 percent of lands farmed today would be taken out of production. In a perfect world we would have better ways of distributing surplus food to famine stricken regions or promoting land reform to optimize food production. But for the foreseeable future we will be living in a very imperfect world where communities need to take care of themselves and maintain sustainable populations.
Overpopulation is not just about food shortages and human suffering. Ecologists explain that the collapse in global biodiversity is also linked to overpopulation. China, Mexico and Brazil have been singled out as extreme cases of species loss. Brazil's population grew four fold during the past sixty years; little wonder the Amazon is feeling the pressure. Mexico and China's growth is comparable.
Israel offers a microcosm of the global situation: A meeting point of three continents, at the middle of the twentieth century, this tiny country was still home to an astonishing assemblage of mammals, birds and reptiles. That's because in 1949 there were one million people living in Israel. Today there are eight million. The equation is simple: more people means less wildlife. Accordingly, about a third of the country's 115 indigenous mammal species today are either endangered or critically endangered. The amphibian population is almost entirely extirpated.
Israel has a remarkable program of conservation and its powerful Nature and Parks Authority set aside 25% of the country for reserves. But growing human settlement continues to fragment habitats and undermine the benefits that nature provides. These go far beyond any individual organism. When humans encroach on open spaces, they also lose the free services that nature provides: filters for clean water, protection from hurricanes, natural pollinators, soil integrity and recreational resources. The rapid rise in populations also tends to sabotage basic social services: schools are crowded, medical care overwhelmed, the legal system backed up, transportation gridlock unbearable and accessible housing inadequate. Infrastructure has a very hard keeping up with relentless growth.
Technological Pollyannas suggest that today's technologies mean that we in the West needn't be concerned. But of course we should. There are global limits that affect us all. Even Israel, whose ultra-hi-tech agriculture probably yields more "crop per drop" than any other country is only able to produce 45% of the calories required for its growing population.
The good news is that public policy matters and can reduce overpopulation. Many countries, from Bangladesh and Iran to Singapore and Thailand adopted policies that incentify small families, make birth control available, provide better social security and most of all -- empower women. The results are remarkable, showing that trend need not be destiny. As population began to stabilize, the drop in undernourished people in Asia and the Pacific went down from 23.7 percent to 13.9 percent. The quality of education, housing and health improved as a matter course. 
It is time to realize that there is a tradeoff between "quality of life" and "quantity of life." In a planet with limited resources -- sustainable growth is an oxymoron. Of course humanity could all shift to vegan diets, forgo national parks and crowd in a few more billion people, hoping that new levels of efficiency will allow us to survive. But it is well to ask if this really is the kind of world that we want? There is much we can do to reduce the suffering caused by human population growth. But recognizing that overpopulation is a perilous problem constitutes a critical first step.

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Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Glacier melting over a 47-year period has led to formation of seven new glacial lakes in western Himalayas


Preliminary findings of an ongoing study by researchers from IIT, Bombay, showed that glacier lakes underwent continuous changes between 1963 and 2010. Geographical Information System (GIS) tools and high resolution remote sensing technology were used to delineate glacier lakes situated in inaccessible Himalayan terrain. In all, 15 large glacier lakes situated at an elevation between 4069 meters to 5252 meters were chosen for monitoring the changes that occurred.
Continuous ice-melting due to glacier recession (loss of ice due to excess melting) caused the formation of seven new lakes near the mouth of the glaciers. These were formed as moraine-dammed lakes and the glacier-lake area was estimated to have increased approximately by 2591 sq.meters during the 47-year period. Moraine is a depositional feature of glacier. As the glacier starts moving, it accumulates small rocks, debris, ice fragments and soil.
There was no significant change in the area of eight other glacier lakes which were situated at a higher altitude and not created by melting. According to Farjana Sikandar Birajdar, lead author of the study, the melting of glaciers would reduce the ice mass balance even as it resulted in formation of new lakes with loose moraine. This in turn could lead to a sudden breach of the unstable moraine dams and the phenomenon of glacial lake outburst floods (GLOF), posing a serious hazard to settlements downstream. She said many previous studies in the Himayalan region revealed that the rate of melting was increasing. If the same trend continued, glaciers would vanish in the long-term, adversely impacting the storage of freshwater resources as also hydro-power generation.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Taxation the Medieval Ages Style - A case study: Bhutan, seems very similar to developed Italy


They say what goes on in Las Vegas stays in Las Vegas, which means the funny things people do there shouldn't be taken back home. But the funny things that the Thimphu municipality get exported with the use of a single extra grey cell, to all other places. Maybe people in other dzongkhags think that all the brains must be in Thimphu so then all their plans must be perfect.
Inflation in Bhutan has never been low, hovering around 5-7%. The banks give interest of about 7% for your long term loans which means you lose money by keeping it in the bank. They lend it out for 14-16% and keep all your profit. But with the inflation reaching 13%, our cash value is going down faster than ever before.
In the midst of this, our decision makers, the people with blinders on, totally focussed only on their own department, as if things are not interconnected, have been raising land taxes and other taxes. Yes I totally agree that municipalities and local governments do have the authority and the right as well as obligation to raise taxes for the public good. But what I find unacceptable is that they raise taxes and then use the money by investing in totally unproductive enterprises.
For example, do they really need a multi-story parking lot? Do need to employ and keep hundreds of daily workers and pay their daily wages and benefits to do and redo the same work all year long. Example, cleaning the road drains and then throwing the muck just next to the drain. The first rainfall throws it all back into the drain and thus justifies the perennial need of these workers. They keeping blacktopping the roads only to have to do them again. As if it is not bad enough, they often dig up their own roads because they forgot something. They built an expressway with a very funny steel divider which keeps getting crashed into and before its repaired the barrier keeps getting stolen and then they again buy new ones and put them back in. Imagine if they had spent that money on providing roads to people in the town who don't even have a basic road!
The thing with any bureaucracy is that if there is money, it will be spent. There's a law written about that sort of thing. But the thing with a municipality is that even if there is no money, they can raise it by increasing taxes and they are doing it!
If only there was RTI we would know exactly where the money is going and how many times they are doing the same works! Why must the owner of an inaccessible plot of land in the jungles of serbithang pay more taxes so that Norzin Lam can have more lights or have better blacktopping every year? Makes no sense to me and sounds very inequitable. Now that they have totally maxxed out the use of their land and not left enough for parking, the TCC is going to raise more taxes from everybody to build them a multi-story parking facility!
But my main point is that though the tax may not be too high, for some it is. Thimphu's brainstorm of an idea has now reached gelephu where the income levels are much lower. Without they asking for it, many farmers now fall under the municipal boundary. They now have to pay real cash out of their pockets. Where will this money come if they don't sell their land?
Those who can make do will only feel further justified in jacking up the prices of whatever they make their living off of. A taxi driver will pressured to charge more, a farmer will feel pressured to charge more for his produce, a house owner will feel pressured and justified to charge a higher rent. These are not rational thoughts. Just like a truck driver adds 30% to his hire rate everytime the fuel prices goes up, even though the fuel price add only 2% to his total cost. These irrational reactions to external stimuli like taxes is what adds to inflation. There is no point arguing that it is irrational. That's how the economy works.
The losers of course are those who have to pay more taxes but don't get the benefits from the taxes, like those living in the hinterland that some planner decided now falls into the urban setting.
But inflation has now become a serious problem in Bhutan. Let's wake up and find ways to control it. Use taxes only at the BST level (indirect) and control the direct ones. Our economy is not strong enough. Only some people have become rich. Most others remain as as they were 10 years ago.

Researchers identify present day Turkey as origin of Indo-European languages


 By using novel methods developed for tracing the origins of virus outbreaks, researchers say they have identified present-day Turkey as the homeland of the Indo-European language family. The international team, led by Quentin Atkinson, a senior lecturer at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, used computational methods analyzing words from more than 100 ancient and contemporary languages, as well as geographical and historical data. By doing so, the scientists say they have pinned down the origin, about 8,000 years ago, of the largest global language to the region of Anatolia. 

 The results, published in Friday’s issue of the magazine Science, coincide with the “Anatolian hypothesis.” Based on archeological data, it states that Indo-European languages spread with the expansion of agriculture from Anatolia, beginning 8,000 to 9,500 years ago. The prevailing theory among linguists, however, is the “Steppe hypothesis,” explained Michael Dunn, a linguist the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen, Netherlands. The hypothesis is based primarily on an approach to reconstruct the ancestral language. By doing so, linguists have found that most Indo-European languages have related words for “wheel” and “wagon.” This points to the steppes of present-day Russia, 6,000 years ago, as the birthplace of the language family, because this is where the widespread use of chariots, an important technological advance, is thought to have originated. “Archeologists and linguists have had different favorite theories on the language origins,” said Dunn, a co-author of the recent paper. “But now, new research like ours provides linguistic support for the Anatolian hypothesis.” The present study builds upon previous work from Atkinson that came to similar conclusions in 2003. It did not, however, include geographical data, as the new study does. The study is the first to use the novel methods on the Indo-European languages, a family of more than 400 tongues including English, Persian and Hindi. The languages are spoken on every continent by a total of 3 billion people. “This paper provides strong statistical evidence that unequivocally supports the Anatolian hypothesis,” said Andrew Kitchen, a postdoctoral scholar at Pennsylvania State University, who uses similar research methods. Yet Dunn does not expect the controversy to be settled, as supporters of the Steppe hypothesis continue collecting evidence strengthening their line of thought. “These things take a lot of time in science, but in the long run, I would bet on our theory,” Dunn said. “You just can’t explain away the data.”