Climate Change

Birth Rates and Population Growth: How Many People can the Planet Support?

Screen Shot 2019-01-03 at 11.31.10 AM.png

When we talk about the future of democracy, the future of social institutions, and the future of the environment, we recognize that there are some trend lines that run beneath all three and these trends will have a driving impact one each future individually and on all of them combined.

One of these may seem, at a glance, to be the simplest trend line of all: fertility and birthrates.

The bottom line on birthrates looks simple at a glance. Measuring the number of literal people in the world is easier than aggregating all the complex metrics that contribute to, say, the global economy. How fast is the population increasing? Is it too fast or not fast enough for sustainability?

But of course nothing is as simple as it seems. A rapidly falling birthrate in one country may generate worries about that country’s tax and labor base, but globally, this drop may be offset by a spike in another region that welcomes a burgeoning labor force but worries about resource availability.

Are there too many people? Are there not enough people? A yes or no answer simply won’t suffice.

The best way to get to the bottom of this puzzle is to gather all the data available—not one trend line, but dozens of them—and draw what conclusions we can by weighing each against the others. In the US, the population has trended precipitously upward in recent decades, but much of the increase has been due to immigration, not birth. In good news for the environment, US birthrates have slowly trended down, but not in all age demographics.  

And before we can cheer or worry over a specific data point, it’s a good idea to settle on a shared definition of “sustainable” rates. Those who would like to see a robust labor force see gloom in every dip, but those concerned about water resources in southwestern population centers might worry if birthrates inch too high before water and agricultural problems can be solved.

And of course, the subject of “correct” family size is both emotional and personal, even as personal decisions, cultural trends, and the reasons behind the trends shift from year to year. For example, some women may choose to have fewer children than they actually want due to economic pressures and concerns about college tuition and childcare costs. But within a year or decade, specific concerns give way to others, and the priorities and life-stage of a potential parent evolve and change over time. Throughout the fertile years of a person’s life, factors that drive birth decisions change as the landscape changes.

But as it happens, each person’s decision to have children will have a long-term impact on all of us. That impact is hidden somewhere in a vast field of population data.

Here are a few quick fertility-trend overviews provided by the Pew Research Center:

http://www.pewresearch.org/topics/birth-rate-and-fertility/

Here’s a review of total birth rates by country in 2018 from the World Population Review:

http://worldpopulationreview.com/countries/total-fertility-rate/

Here are a few policy suggestions to combat declining birth rates, provided by the NIH:

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4255510/

Here’s an HHS manuscript summarizing research on the links between population and the environment:

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2792934/

For more ways to engage with this topic and support our efforts to build a sustainable world, contact the team at Just Atonement.

December 2018: A Brief Review of Global Developments

This week, there are so many developments of special interest to Just Atonement taking place around the world that it’s difficult for us to keep up. So we’ve distilled just a few of these events and noteworthy items and summarized them here.

UN COP24 Takeaways

Monday December 3rd marks the opening of the UN COP24 Climate Change conference, in which UN Secretary General Antonio Gutierrez will address a large audience of world leaders gathered to discuss strategies climate action. His early message can be broken down into four key points. First, Gutierrez delivered a call for greater ambition in the generation of renewable energy. “If we fail (to reduce emissions by 45 percent before 2030) the Arctic and Antarctic will continue to melt, corals will bleach and then die, the oceans will rise, more people will die from air pollution, water scarcity will plague a significant proportion of humanity, and the cost of disasters will skyrocket.”

Second, Gutierrez emphasized the importance of creating implementation guidelines in order to build trust among nations. More will be encouraged to act if others are also taking action. For item three, he stressed that adequate funding must be procured for climate action, and four, he emphasized that social and economic action on climate change result in benefits, not burdens. It remains to be seen how this message will be received by world leaders. Here’s a longer summary of the discussion.

Conditions in Yemen

What has previously been documented as the “worst humanitarian crisis in the world” is now also considered the largest food security crisis in the world, according to UN officials. Populations cut off from resources by conflict in and around Yemen’s port city of Hudaydah are facing deadly threats of hunger and malnutrition.  The Under-Secretary- General of the UN, Mark Lowcock, examined the situation and has reported and reiterated that only a political solution can end the crisis. Please read more here.

Oil Drilling in the Arctic

While some national governments are working hard to develop renewable energy and slow reliance on fossil fuels, the Trump administration is doing the opposite, specifically regarding the prospect of drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and a neighboring area in Alaska known as the National Petroleum Reserve. In both areas, Republicans in congress are working with corporate interests in the state of Alaska to rush through environmental assessment studies, roll back protective regulations, and issue drilling permits as fast as possible, hoping to unlock increased oil production along the Alaskan Coast. Learn more about the destructive race for Alaskan oil that appears to be undergoing a rapid acceleration by clicking here.

For more information on important current developments in the areas that affect our work the most, contact the team at Just Atonement. As always, we’re working every day to protect a just, safe, and democratic future for all people despite the unique challenges of our century.



Migrant Caravans and Climate Change

Here in the Just Atonement blog, we’ve spoken at length about the effects of climate change on human migration. As the planet warms, ecosystems are shifting unpredictably and sea levels are rising. As a result, coastal communities are facing enormous economic and lifestyle changes, and those who live further inland are dealing with droughts, storm systems, and water management issues. But there’s one population that will—and has already—felt the first serious impact of changing ecosystems: farmers.

Here’s an insightful article from the Guardian that addresses one example of this: the “migrant caravan” that appears to be moving north from central and south America this fall.

Those who make a living by growing food and other commercial goods appear to be providing early indicators of the changes that are yet to come for the rest of us. As farm landscapes and water resources shift, these people are among the first to feel the lifestyle and economic effects. And in many cases, these lifestyle changes are already pushing farmers, families and communities onto the road and into new geographic regions. As we’ve discussed in earlier blogs, this will mean massive numbers of people leaving one culture and entering another, with political and social impacts that are so far difficult to measure and predict.

How will the new arrivals be treated in their destination areas? Will they find assimilation and acceptance? Will they be easily able to move across political and cultural borders? When the do cross these borders, how will they reestablish themselves in their new lands, and how will they make a living?

Over the long term, the question we’ll all need to face is simple (though the factors that influence the answer are terribly complex): Can we navigate waves of human migration crisscrossing the surface of the planet while avoiding wars and political upheaval? Can we manage these changes without attacking each other? When migration takes place, it tends to bring fear, confusion, language and cultural barriers, and skirmishes over what are perceived as limited resources. Who has the right to these resources? Who belongs and who does not?

But migration also brings some incredible and positive tendencies, results that are not only essential to our ability to survive and thrive, but in fact have given us most of the things we celebrate about humanity: innovation, new ideas, connection, friendship and family, and the ability to grow and change as the world changes around us. As the planet shifts, will inevitable massive migrations bring out the best or the worst in all of us? We are witnessing the answer as we speak.  

Contact our team at Just Atonement to learn more. Find out how you can help us move toward our goal of a safer, wiser, more vibrant and sustainable world.  


Climate Change and Art

Here at Just Atonement, we typically consider the battle against climate change (the effort to prevent a critical two degree increase in planetary temperature) in terms of policy and legal action. In our blog, we review statements made by international organizations like the UN, and we discuss actions taken by public and private groups to limit society’s dependence on the burning of fossil fuels.

We recognize that fighting climate change is a multi-pronged effort, and the largest and most effective moves will likely be made at the highest levels of legal and political influence. For instance, when large municipalities (like New York City or the state of California) fund the exploration of sustainable fuel sources or increase tax shares on gas and oil companies, these moves create a larger impact than an individual person’s decision to recycle, drive a hybrid car, forego meat, or rein in their personal consumption habits.

All of us play a role, and every role matters, even though sometimes some roles seem to matter more than others. And when the impact of our own role seems to disappear in the grand scheme, this can lead to a host of existential frustrations and challenging mental exercises. These exercises, in turn, can push us toward larger questions about our role in the world and the purpose of our existence. If we follow this trail for a while, we find ourselves in a new place: a place of art.

An important intersection has opened up in the overlay between art and climate change. We don’t know what this means or where it will take us—Nobody does! But art, by nature, opens doors for us into new ways of thinking, new forms of action, new perspectives and new ways of looking at the same old world. Art expands us internally, pushing out and shifting the walls that define who we think we are and what we’re supposed to be doing here. And as it changes our inner lives, it also changes what we do, how we live, and how we impact the world outside of ourselves.

Check out this organization called Artists and Climate Change, and review the group’s latest series of interviews with artists who turn their attention to this issue.

Then take a look at this series of 12 contemporary artists who have contributed climate change-related works to this review in the NY Times Style Magazine.

And then of course, consider developing a project of your own that can demonstrate what these larger questions mean to you personally. If you have work to share with us—from photography to painting to writing or dance—please let us know!

Climate Change and the US: Where to Move?

Screen Shot 2018-09-27 at 3.49.46 PM.png

This article published in the Guardian, while a bit sensational in tone, raises a question that many of us have been contemplating as the climate changes, weather becomes volatile, and policy actions fail to materialize: If certain parts of the United States become uncomfortable or uninhabitable, where will the occupants of those places migrate to? If our region of the country experiences untenable heat waves or flooding that we can’t properly insure our homes against, many of us may decide to move. But when we recognize that it’s time to pack up and go, how will we choose a destination?

For many of us, this remains a simple thought exercise. Our jobs, families and home equity determine our location for us, and we haven’t yet experienced any storms, fires or floods that have the power to permanently drive us out. But for those who live on vulnerable coastlines, the question takes on growing significance every year. And according to the researchers who contributed to the article, the answer can be summed up roughly in two directions: North and west.

Dangers Facing Southern and Coastal Homes

While Florida has experienced a sharp upward curve in population over the past few decades, most of the southern tip of the state will experience rising sea levels, increasing floods and a general increase in water-related damage and threats. Insuring homes in southern Florida will become more difficult and expensive, and most of what we now recognize as the coast will become submerged over the next ten years. The Gulf Coast will also become increasingly subject to flooding and storm damage, and the integrity of the coastline will become increasingly inappropriate for construction with every passing year as sea levels continue to rise. So Florida and Gulf Coast states are due for a population drift northward, in some cases to inland cities and in many cases out of the region altogether.

Why Go West?

Portland University climate change expert Vivak Shandas recommends destinations “above the 42nd parallel”, or the line that divides NY and PA in the east and Oregon and CA in the west. Moving north provides a buffer against blistering heat waves, and heading west can remove the threat of rising seas and property damage from elevated water tables. According to Shandas and also Jesse Kenan, a climate expert at Harvard, plenty of population centers inland and relatively close to the Great Lakes will offer a perfect refuge, especially those that fall east or west of the tornado corridors in the great plains.

Another things to consider: proactive municipal decisions that are likely to protect citizens from personal and financial damage. New York City, for example, appears geographically vulnerable (it’s a small island), but massive investments recently poured into infrastructure and flood protection are likely to minimize dangers over the long term. By contrast, unprepared urban areas will suffer a double impact as unrestrained flooding and storms drive residents away and weaken population and tax bases.

We don’t know what the future holds for population centers around the world, but the decision to move is often deeply personal. When the time comes to relocate, financial resources, family mobility, and destination choices will all play a critical role. Read more here.