F O R U M O N P H Y S I C S & S O C I E T Y
of The American Physical Society 
April 2005



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Population and its Discontents, special issue of WorldWatch magazine, Sep/Oct 2004.

This review is being run simultaneously in Physics and Society and The Teacher's Clearinghouse Newsletter, with permission from both publications.

I suspect that many readers of The Teacher's Clearninghouse Newsletter are fans of WorldWatch magazine, published bi-monthly by the Worldwatch Institute. The Institute also publishes several annual items, including State of the World and Vital Signs. The Institute's work revolves around the transition to an environmentally sustainable and socially just society, and how to achieve it. The magazine appears to be an excellent teaching tool. I recommend it for high school libraries and classrooms, and for all general and university libraries.

Nearly this entire issue is given over to a sampling of11 articles on several population topics, yet, as the Editor's Introduction states, even at an expanded 60 pages "this issue will be inadequate." Authors include Worldwatch Institute researchers, demographers, university scientists, authors of books on population topics, and economists.

The lead article, "The Population Story…So Far," recounts the history of how we came to be 6.4 billion strong, and demographic challenges today. The UN mid-range estimate says we will number about 9 billion by 2050, and then shrink over the next century. Growth will come from the world's 48 least-developed nations, whose populations could triple by 2050, and from one developed nation: the USA. A major contributor to this unwanted growth is the suppression of women's rights and voices: Girls who marry young, often as young as 8 or 9, early childbearing (a leading cause of death for young women in developing countries), the AIDS assault on women (in 2003 women's rate of infection for the first time equaled men's), illiteracy (two-thirds of the world's illiterates are women), and the constraint, even in the USA, of women's reproductive rights--a constraint that is furthered by the USA's "global gag rule" tying population assistance to a taboo on any discussion of abortion. .

"The Hazards of Youth" looks at 100 countries where people are getting not only more numerous, but younger. "Youth bulges" burden these countries with violence and unrest. Tensions in the Middle East, where 65% of the population is under 25, are partly due to the unmet expectations of skilled youth, especially those raised in oil-rich nations where many young people receive good educations but then have little opportunity to use their skills. They then face three paths: migrate to the West, join fundamentalist groups, or enlist in guerrilla groups. The link between youth and violence is strong: Researchers find that nations in which young adults make up more than 40% of all adults were two-and-a-half times as likely as other nations to experience civil conflict during the 1990s.

"World Population, Agriculture, and Malnutrition," by noted scholar David Pimentel and Anne Wilson, notes that 3 billion people worldwide are already undernourished, increases of per-acre food production have not kept pace with population increases, the planet has virtually no more arable land or fresh water to spare, per-capita cropland has fallen by more than half since 1960, and per-capita grain production has been falling worldwide for 20 years.. The article studies the availability of cropland, water, and energy in some detail.

In "A Neo-Malthusian Looks at Fossil Fuels and Fertility," Virginia Deane Abernethy argues the unusual thesis that parents have fewer children if they anticipate hard times ahead, and hence the coming global oil scarcity could result in population growing less than the UN expects. She discusses four examples (Rwanda, Brazil, Egypt, Morocco) that she believes support her thesis, but doesn't mention several obvious counterexamples where economic expectations are low but birthrates are high (Pakistan, Congo, Ethiopia, Niger), and where economic expectations are relatively high but birthrates are low (most European nations).

"A generation comes of Age Under China's One-Child Policy" notes that without the 25-year-old one-child policy, China's population would now be 1.6 billion instead of 1.3 billion, and the population would finally stabilize at well above the 1.6 billion at which the country hopes to stabilize its population around 2050. Implementation of the policy varies, with rural peasant families offering the most opposition and generally granted the option of having a second child without penalty, and with urban couples willingly limiting themselves to one child. In Beijing and elsewhere, a second child is considered an expensive luxury for many middle-class couples. In some areas, implementation has been accompanied by heavy sanctions for non-compliance, including doubled health insurance costs and long-term income deductions and even forced abortions and sterilizations. During the past decade, China's policy has evolved away from such coercive measures and toward voluntary family planning, improved sex education, and health care. A chief criticism has been the implications of an aging society for old-age welfare support; it is a problem common to all aging societies, including Europe and the USA. Another concern is that the one-child policy and preference for males has widened the male-female ratio to 117:100 in 2000; interestingly, several rich Middle Eastern nations have even higher ratios, reaching as high as 186:100.

Well-known economist Herman Daly, author of "Beyond Growth" and other books advocating that economics take account of Earth's "natural capital," writes here on "Population, Migration, and Globalization." He argues that globalization and internationalization are totally different concepts of world development. Internationalization involves a desirable cooperation among stable nations, while globalization involves not only the free mobility of capital and goods but also, in effect, the uncontrolled migration of vast labor pools from regions of rapid population growth with tragic impacts on national economies. Few demographers have noticed that the current flow of goods and capital are equivalent to a free flow of labor and are driven by the same economic forces that would determine labor migration, if labor were free to migrate. The result is a "race to the bottom" that reduces wages and social standards across countries to the lowest common denominator. Thus globalization leads not to a more cooperative world community but to its opposite: global stresses and strains leading to failed nations and international conflict. Furthermore, "global economic integration and growth, far from bringing a halt to population growth, will be the means by which the consequences of overpopulation in the third world are generalized to the globe as a whole." 

Since I've already used too much space, I'll just list the remaining articles: "Population, Family Planning, and the Future of Africa," "Population and Coastal Resources in the Philippines," "The Economic Conundrum of an Aging Population," "Low Fertility and Sustainability" (a calm look at the "problem" of an older-aged society), "The Positive Side of the Older Populations to Come," and "Global Population Reduction: Confronting the Inevitable" (argues for reduction to a global population of 1-3 billion).

Art Hobson
University of Arkansas

Our Final Hour, by Martin Rees,

Basic Books, New York, 2003, 228 pp., ISBN 0-465-06862-6

“Our Final Hour”, authored by eminent physicist-cosmologist Sir Martin Rees (England’s Astronomer Royal), discusses various ways in which human civilization, and/or human existence, can be catastrophically impacted or even terminated. One of his conclusions is that “the odds are no better than fifty-fifty that our present civilization will survive to the end of the present century”; if this seems shocking, he opines that those odds are not much less favorable than the odds we had of surviving the second half of the last century without a massive nuclear weapons exchange.  

But the “meat” of the book is in the detailed scenarios he describes and analyzes. In a chapter on “technology shock” he speculates about nanotechnology, with computers altering human beings with brain transplants, or creating super-intelligent robots which take over the world and extend their influence to outer space. But he also emphasizes the unpredictability of our rapid scientific advances, citing historic prediction failures like Rutherford’s that there could be no practical application of nuclear energy, and von Neumann’s that there would be no need for more than a few computing machines in the entire country. Moreover, unpredictable social and political developments greatly increase the uncertainty.

In a less speculative chapter on “post-2000 threats”, Rees assesses the use of nuclear weapons by terrorists, and several potential biological weapons: smallpox, engineered viruses which suppress our immunity, bacteria resistant to antibiotics, etc. He tells us that he has outstanding a $1000 bet that by 2020, there will be an instance of bio-error or bio-terror that will kill a million people. After 2020, he says, manipulations of viruses and cells will become commonplace, and there can be unintended consequences. As one example, self replicating nanomachines could, in a very short time, consume all of the global resources needed for life.

The chapter on “slowing down science” points out approaches to doing that, but thoughtfully suggests some of the problems these actions may cause. A chapter on asteroid or comet impacts on Earth includes an analysis of magnitude of effects versus probability, and considers possible counter-measures. A chapter on “perpetrators and palliatives” treats potentially fatal problems arising from the ability of a single individual to kill millions by utilizing genetics, biotechnology, computer networks, etc. It may be decided that intrusive surveillance, mind-altering drugs, or injected hormones are necessary to control the situation, and the author speculates on their potentially far-reaching consequences. We can’t count on influential people acting rationally: He says that James Watt, the Reagan cabinet member responsible for environment and energy policies, was a religious fanatic who believed the world would soon end so there was no need to protect the environment or conserve energy!

Rees presents lots of science along with substantial imaginative speculation and philosophy. For example, he considers the possibility of an experiment with a high energy accelerator (1) creating a black hole that sucks everything on Earth (and beyond) into it, or (2) reassembling quarks into a “strangelet” which contagiously converts anything it encounters into strange matter, or (3) inducing a phase transition that rips the fabric of space resulting in an ever-expanding bubble of vacuum in which atoms cannot exist. Is this reason enough to refrain from very high energy heavy ion collision experiments? Since there would be no conscious human suffering in such scenarios, would they really be tragedies? Should scientific activities not be undertaken if there is an extremely harmful speculative outcome that is extremely unlikely? He notes that before the atomic bomb, and later the hydrogen bomb, was tested, there was serious concern that the high temperatures generated might induce strongly exothermal nuclear reactions between nitrogen atoms in the air, leading to a chain reaction that rapidly consumes the Earth’s atmosphere.

There is lots of discussion about risks from global warming, super-volcanoes, new diseases, laboratory errors, terrorism, etc. There are chapters on the possibility of extraterrestrial intelligent life, and on the potential for humankind to escape from an inhospitable Earth to survive elsewhere.

“Our Final Hour” is short (188 pages) is very readable, and of utmost interest and importance. Rees is both thoughtful and authoritative in the subjects he treats. I therefore recommend this book highly to scientists and laymen alike.

Bernard L. Cohen
University of Pittsburgh

Abrupt Climate Change: Inevitable Surprises by the National Research Council, National Academy Press, Washington, D.C., 2002, 230 pp., ISBN 0-309-07434-7, hardcover $49.95.

In the past few years, a virtual scientific consensus has occurred over the issue of global climate change. Strong scientific evidence indicates that climate change is happening, and that the cause is significantly tied to human actions, namely, the modification of the atmosphere by the addition of greenhouse gases. While most climate modeling studies have focused on a doubled greenhouse gas scenario over the next hundred years, the approach assumes that the Earth responds gradually and smoothly to climate forcing. These models have estimated gradual temperature increases of 1.5 to 4.5 degrees C in a century.  However, the study of paleoclimatology provides strong evidence that past climate change has not been gradual or smooth. The mismatch provides the impetus for this National Research Council study, the subtitle "inevitable surprises," and the climate issues discussed in this book.

The material is based on the results of several workshops focused on past evidence of abrupt climate change, mechanisms that cause such change, and related economic, ecological and social impacts. The list of participants includes many of the top scholars and researchers in the field. This final report reflects the authoring committee's judgment after extensive independent review following established NRC guidelines. The book therefore provides a reliable guide to the current knowledge and thinking of the expert scientific community on this topic, and is primarily aimed at policymakers.

The book's contents are divided up into an executive summary, followed by six chapters, including: the definition of abrupt climate change; evidence of past abrupt climate change; processes and mechanisms; global warming as a trigger for abrupt climate change; economic and ecological impacts; and the committee's findings and recommendations. Also included is an extensive list of references (32 pages), and appendices describing the committee, staff, workshops, and participants. An acronym list completes the book. In the center of the book are 8 pages of color photos that describe important studies and results.

Abrupt climate change occurs when a climate system is forced across a threshold, triggering a new climate state. The rate of change is determined by the internal behavior of the climate system and is faster than the cause itself. Practically, there is much evidence that abrupt global climate change has occurred in the past. Indeed, there is good reason to believe that abrupt change is intrinsic to the climate system, both regionally and globally. This view provides a different paradigm of climate change, one that is somewhat distressing, given the greenhouse gas forcing currently being applied to the planet. It also raises a series of questions about our ability to understand and predict such change. 

The book examines past evidence of abrupt climate change through study of paleoclimatic proxy data of many types, with particular emphasis on the well-studied Younger Dryas era when sudden temperature changes of up to 8 oC per decade occurred. However, the Holocene era (the last 10,000 years) is also extensively described in terms of floods, droughts, the Little Ice Age, the Medieval Warm Period, and various El Nino/ Southern Oscillation events. A summary of patterns of climate variability observed during the past century of instrumental records is detailed as well. Unfortunately, data is relatively incomplete for parts of the climate system during abrupt climate changes of the past, even over the past 100 years.

The search for mechanisms also suffers from a lack of appropriate data. There are several very different possible explanations of abrupt climate change. These include rapid varying external forcing of the system (for instance, massive sudden discharges of freshwater from disintegrating ice sheets), slow forcing that crosses a threshold leading to rapid system changes (for instance, collapse of ice dams holding meltwater lakes), and spontaneous climate transitions in a chaotic system. In addition, solar forcing, glacial discharges, clathrate (methane) release, and sea ice changes are also potentially implicated in various past sudden climate changes. The concern today is that rapid greenhouse gas forcing enhances the chances for both abrupt and large changes in climate, regionally and globally.

The three chapters on past climate change, possible mechanisms, and on global warming as a trigger form the scientific heart of the book. This material is not light reading; without considerable background in this area, you will find the discussion both difficult and at times confusing. Part of the confusion emerges from the inherent complexity of climate interactions, and the fact that little is known about the causes of previous abrupt climate changes. Nonetheless, the material is not presented very clearly. This is unfortunate because this is an important book, one that should be understood not only by policymakers and climate scientists, but also by other scientists and, to the extent possible, by the educated lay public. The science could be clearer and the text made more accessible to the non-specialist by adding appendices providing definitions of scientific terms and a brief description of fundamental concepts used in climate science.

Because current ecological and economic assessments of climate change assume gradual climate change, abrupt climate change would probably provide much larger impacts than are currently envisioned. Adaptation to sudden changes will be much more expensive and exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, for certain impact areas and countries. For better estimates of these ecological and economic impacts, abrupt climate change models are required.

The book's recommendations are clear and sound: Develop much greater understanding of abrupt climate change processes by collecting additional paleoclimatic data and improving modeling; develop procedures for getting realistic estimates of the probability of extreme climate events; finally, identify and implement "no regrets" strategies to reduce our vulnerability to sudden climate change. This book sets off a serious alarm. The likelihood of abrupt climate change must be taken much more seriously. Are the policymakers in this country listening?

Dr. William J. Makofske
Ramapo College of NJ