Why did the environmental movement drop the issue of overpopulation?

[ This is most of the 27 page report. Beck and Kolankiewicz wrote this to explain why the environmental movement abandoned the goal of keeping population within the carrying capacity of U.S. resources. Systems ecologists such as Paul Erlich, David Pimentel and others estimate the U.S. can support about 100 to 150 million people without fossil fuels. That was the population during the Great Depression, when 1 in 4 Americans were farmers, yet even so, many people were hungry.

Alice Friedemann   www.energyskeptic.com  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report ]

Roy Beck & Leon Kolankiewicz. The Environmental Movement’s Retreat from Advocating U. S. Population Stabilization (1970-1998): A First Draft of History.

The years surrounding 1970 marked the coming of age of the modern environmental movement. As that movement enters its fourth decade, perhaps the most striking change is the virtual abandonment by national environmental groups of U.S. population stabilization as an actively pursued goal.

Population Issues and the 1970-Era Environmental Movement

How did the American environmental movement change so radically?

Around 1970, U.S. population and environmental issues were widely and publicly linked. In environmental “teach-ins” across America, college students of the time heard repetitious proclamations on the necessity of stopping U.S. population growth in order to reach environmental goals; and the most public of reasons for engaging population issues was to save the environment. The nation’s best-known population group, Zero Population Growth (ZPG)-founded by biologists concerned about the catastrophic impacts of ever more human beings on the biosphere-was outspokenly also an environmental group. And many of the nation’s largest environmental groups had or were considering “population control” as major planks of their environmental prescriptions for America.

As Stewart Udall (Secretary of the Interior during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations) wrote in The Quiet Crisis: “Dave Brower [executive director of the Sierra Club] expressed the consensus of the environmental movement on the subject in 1966 when he said, ‘We feel you don’t have a conservation policy unless you have a population policy.'”1 Brower encouraged Stanford University biologist and ZPG cofounder Paul Ehrlich to write The Population Bomb, published in 1968, which surpassed even Rachel Carson’s landmark work, Silent Spring, to become the best-selling ecology book of the 1960s. 2 Ehrlich’s polemic echoed and amplified population concerns earlier raised by two widely read books, both published in 1948: Our Plundered Planet, by Fairfield Osborn, chairman of the Conservation Foundation, and Road to Survival, by William Vogt, a former Audubon Society official who later became the national director of Planned Parenthood.3

The seeming consensus among leaders of the nascent environmental movement was paralleled, and bolstered, by widespread agreement among influential researchers and scholars in the natural sciences throughout the 1960s and 1970s.4 The importance attached to each country’s stopping its own population growth was not confined to the United States. In 1972, Great Britain’s leading environmental magazine, The Ecologist, published the hard-hitting Blueprint for Survival, supported by thirty-four distinguished biologists, ecologists, doctors, and economists, including Sir Julian Huxley, Peter Scott, and Sir Frank Fraser-Darling. With regard to population, the Blueprint stated: “First, governments must acknowledge the problem and declare their commitment to ending population growth; this commitment should also include an end to immigration.” 5

Organizers of the first Earth Day in 1970 note that U.S. population growth was a central theme.6 The nationwide celebration revealed a massive popular groundswell that helped spur Congress and the Nixon, Ford, and Carter administrations to enact a host of sweeping environmental laws and create a federal bureaucracy to implement and enforce those and others that had been pushed through in the 1960s. Two months after Earth Day, the First National Congress on Optimum Population and Environment convened in Chicago.7 Religious groups-especially the United Methodist Church and the Presbyterian Church- urged for ethical and moral reasons that the federal government adopt policies that would lead to a stabilized U.S. population. President Nixon addressed the nation about problems it would face if U.S. population growth continued unabated. On January 1, 1970, the president signed into law the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), 8 often referred to as the nation’s “environmental Magna Carta.” 9 In Title I of the act, the “Declaration of National Environmental Policy” began: “The Congress, recognizing the profound impact of man’s activity on the interrelations of all components of the environment, particularly the profound influences of population growth.” 10

Later in 1970, President Nixon and Congress jointly appointed environmental, labor, business, academic, demographic, population, and political representatives to a bipartisan Commission on Population Growth and the American Future, chaired by John D. Rockefeller III. Among its findings in 1972 was that it would be difficult to reach the environmental goals being established at the time unless the United States began stopping its population growth. Rockefeller wrote that “gradual stabilization of our population through voluntary means would contribute significantly to the nation’s ability to solve its problems.” 11

The Sierra Club, for example, in 1969 urged “the people of the United States to abandon population growth as a pattern and goal; to commit themselves to limit the total population of the United States in order to achieve a balance between population and resources; and to achieve a stable population no later than the year 1990.” 12

A large coalition of environmental groups in 1970 endorsed a resolution stating that “population growth is directly involved in the pollution and degradation of our environment-air, water, and land-and intensifies physical, psychological, social, political and economic problems to the extent that the well-being of individuals, the stability of society and our very survival are threatened.” The same groups committed themselves to “find, encourage and implement at the earliest possible time” the policies and attitudes that would bring about the stabilization of the U.S. population.13

Most of that interest had disappeared by 1998, however-but not because population growth had stopped or the problems it caused had been solved.

The Missing Issue in 1998

When the Society for Environmental Journalists held its annual conference in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in October 1998, urban sprawl was a recurring theme. And no wonder-U.S. population growth was every bit as potent a force in 1998 as it had been in 1970: some 2.5 million Americans were being added each year at a rate faster than some Third World countries and ten times faster than Europe. It was a volume of growth nearly matching that of the Baby Boom years that helped trigger the 1970-era environmental/population movement. The Earth Day 1970 vision of a stabilized American population within a generation had never materialized.

Yet population growth was strangely missing from most reporting on sprawl and from a popular session in which a panel of newspaper reporters and editors discussed their expansive coverage of the problems from, the causes of, and the solutions to urban sprawl in different parts of the country. The panelists talked about problematic zoning, planning and lifestyle choices, but not about the 25 million new residents added each decade-or the sheer amount of space required for their housing, worksites, schools, roads, recreation facilities, shopping centers, and other infrastructure. When challenged from the audience, all the panelists agreed that urban sprawl would be far less destructive without the massive population growth that was occurring in America. And they agreed that urban life and environmental losses would be immensely different if some 70 million people had not been added to the U.S. population since 1970.

In the late 1990s, as in 1970, the problems stemming from U.S. population growth were huge news. But the underlying population growth itself and its causes were barely being mentioned.

Journalists tend to look to competing interest groups to define the issues they cover. Business groups always have defined one end of the growth issue spectrum as they pushed for ever more population growth. At one time, environmental groups defined the other end by calling for no growth. By 1998, however, environmental groups no longer emphasized population growth as something a nation could choose or reject. When interviewed about sprawl, environmental leaders did not mention the population factor.

That was reflected in the back of the Chattanooga hotel room where the sprawl panel took place. There, a representative from the national Sierra Club headquarters had placed a display of literature from the Club’s major new campaign against urban sprawl. The highly publicized, multimillion-dollar campaign mentioned population growth only in passing, and then only to minimize its role. None of the materials suggested stabilizing U.S. population as one part of the solution to urban sprawl. The Sierra campaign instead focused its advocacy on creating more regulation and management of U. S. growth to ameliorate its adverse effects on the environment. And it assumed-and tacitly accepted-that the U.S. population would never stop growing.

Professor T. Michael Maher of the University of Southwestern Louisiana. He conducted a study of news coverage of urban sprawl, endangered species, and water shortages-all issues profoundly affected by population growth. In a random sample of 150 stories on those issues, he found only one which mentioned that part of the solution might be to try to stabilize the U.S. population.14

The journalists told Maher they were uncomfortable raising the population issue on their own. With the business and political establishments continuing to push for “more growth” and the environmental establishment now pushing for “smart growth,” the special-interest groups had defined a spectrum for the media that excluded “no growth” and “greatly reduced growth” from the range of available, acceptable options. Maher studied the membership materials for the nation’s environmental groups and discovered:

“Population is off the agenda for the purported leaders of the environmental movement.” 15

The authors have chosen 1998 as the end of the period being analyzed here because that was the year when the environmental movement erupted in a highly public battle over U.S. population issues. After more than two decades of dwindling interest in population issues, many of the old environmental guard from the 1970 era openly challenged the national leadership of two influential organizations, the Sierra Club and Zero Population Growth, to put U.S. population stabilization-and the reduction in immigration levels it entailed-back on the agenda. The Sierra Club and ZPG, once so outspoken in the 1970s on the urgency of U.S. stabilization, had each changed their policies in the two years prior to 1998 to dissociate themselves from this cause.

In 1998, the national Sierra Club leadership defeated those who tried to return their organization to its earlier pro-stabilization policy, which advocated both lower fertility and lower immigration. 16

Reviewing the Rejected “Foundational Formula” of 1970-Era Environmentalism

The retreat from stabilization advocacy by environmental groups in the 1990s directly contradicted the conclusion of the President’s Council on Sustainable Development in 1996. Established by President Clinton to follow through on the UN Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro (the “Earth Summit”), the council acknowledged the integral relationship between a stable population and sustainable development, observing that “clearly, human impact on the environment is a function of both population and consumption patterns.” and declaring the need to “move toward stabilization of the U.S. population.” 17

Such thinking was central to the environmental activism of the 1970 era because most environmentalists’ view of environmental quality was deeply shaped by what we will call here the “Foundational Formula” of the movement. That formula expressed the movement’s understanding of the problem it was tackling and of how to solve it. The 1990s environmental movement was fundamentally different from the 1970-era movement in that it had largely abandoned that Foundational Formula.

There are several ways of expressing the environmental impacts of humanity. One of the best known is the I=PAT equation offered by biologist Paul Ehrlich and physicist John Holdren: Environmental Impact (I) equals Population size (P) times Affluence, or consumption per person (A), times Technology, or damage per unit of consumption (T). 18

One doesn’t have to work with the Foundational Formula much to realize that changes in the Individual Impact and changes in the Population Size factor have roughly equal power over improving or deteriorating Total Environmental Impact. For example:

Increasing the Individual Impact by 30 percent while holding Population Size constant, would have a tremendously deleterious effect on the bay. And so would increasing Population Size by 30 percent (as Individual Impact is held constant). It really doesn’t matter which one is increased; the bay feels similar pain.

While most environmental groups averted their attention from the population issue, the U.S. population soared by more than 33 percent (nearly 70 million people) between 1970 and 1998-mostly because of increased immigration. The Census Bureau projects that, under current immigration policies, U.S. population will grow by yet another 50 percent over the next fifty years.

The worsening of the Population Size factor had in many respects negated the improvements in the Individual Impact factor. For instance, America’s lakes, rivers, and streams were to have become “fishable and swimmable,” according to the 1972 Clean Water Act. But after more than half a trillion dollars spent controlling water pollution (costs passed on to consumers and taxpayers), around 40 percent of U.S. surface waters still weren’t fishable and swimmable in the mid-1990s.20 The nation has more nitrogen oxide (a smog precursor) and more carbon dioxide (a greenhouse gas) emissions than thirty years ago, more endangered species and fewer wetlands.21

As Congress numerous times debated and approved policies that increased Population Size substantially, the major environmental groups stood silent.

Cause #1: U.S. Fertility Dropped Below Replacement-Level Rate in 1972

In 1972, the U.S. Total Fertility Rate fell to below the 2.1 births per woman that marks the replacement-level fertility rate. By 1976, fertility had hit an all-time low of 1.7 and hovered just above that for years. A common remembrance of aging population activists is their memory of the night in 1973 when TV broadcasters announced that the 1972 U.S. fertility rate had reached zero population growth. The American people apparently were profoundly confused by this announcement, with many believing the U.S. population problem had been solved. (In fact, because of what demographers call “population momentum,” it takes a country up to seventy years after the replacement-level fertility rate is reached to actually stop growing. But by 1972, the fertility rate had indeed declined to a level low enough to eventually produce zero population growth, as long as immigration remained reasonably low.) With zero population growth supposedly achieved (or at least approached), many people in the population movement may have felt their activism was no longer needed. Americans had reduced the size of the average family as far as was necessary. On average they were living up to the rallying cry of “stop at two.” Many activists shifted their former population energies into feminism, other aspects of conservation and environmentalism, or moved on to other pursuits altogether. “Full-Formula” environmentalism that dealt with both Individual Impact and Population Size factors shrank to a small core constituency as quickly as it had burst into a mass popular movement. The population committees of environmental groups lost popularity and significance or disbanded altogether.

The neglect of the population issue within organizations surely influenced new employees as they came on board during this period. Many of them probably never heard of the “full-Formula” environmental approach. They worked only on the Individual Impact side of the Formula. Many had little background in the natural sciences, resource conservation, or analytical/quantitative fields. To them, population advocacy may have looked like an external issue that could easily be left to external groups to handle.

Perhaps another factor was at work as well. The overwhelmingly non-Hispanic, white leadership of the environmental movement may have felt it was defensible to address population growth as long as the great bulk of this growth came from non-Hispanic whites, which it did during the Baby Boom. But the situation changed dramatically after 1972. From that year forward, the fertility of non-Hispanic whites was below the replacement rate, while that of black Americans and Latinos remained well above the replacement rate.22 To talk of fertility reductions after 1972 was to draw disproportionate attention to nonwhites. Certain minorities and their spokespersons- with long memories of disgraceful treatment by the white majority and acutely aware of their comparative powerlessness in American society-were deeply suspicious of possible hidden agendas in the population stabilization movement. As the Reverend Jesse Jackson told the Rockefeller Commission, “our community is suspect of any programs that would have the effect of either reducing or levelling off our population growth. Virtually all the security we have is in the number of children we produce.” 23 And Manuel Aragon, speaking in Spanish, declared to the Commission: “what we must do is to encourage large Mexican American families so that we will eventually be so numerous that the system will either respond or it will be overwhelmed.” 24

By the 1990s, a majority of the nation’s growth stemmed from sources other than non- Hispanic whites (especially Latin American and Asian immigrants and their offspring). Environmentalist leaders-proud and protective of their claim to the moral high ground- may have been reluctant to jeopardize this by venturing into the political minefield of the nation’s volatile racial/ethnic relations through appearing to point fingers at “outsiders,” “others,” or “people of color” as responsible for America’s ongoing problem with population growth.

Cause#2: Abortion and Contraceptive Politics Created Organized Opposition

In June 1960, the Food and Drug Administration approved oral contraceptives for sale. By the late 1960s, the Vatican and American Catholic leadership were engaged in a major counterattack on the growing use of contraceptives in the United States. They focused a considerable amount of their ire on groups advocating population control. Their focus made a certain sense from their point of view. Most population and environmental groups that called for stabilization also made explicit calls, not for abstinence or celibacy, but rather for more availability of reliable, safe contraceptives and sex education. Many of them also called for the legalization of abortion.

Then in 1973, in Roe v. Wade, the U.S. Supreme Court legalized abortion. That set off a much more intense campaign by the Catholic Church-and increasingly by conservative Protestants-against the whole of the population movement.

Abortion had been something of a minor issue within the population stabilization movement but was included because of the thought that fertility might not be brought to replacement level without the availability of abortion. As it turned out, legalized abortion was not a necessary component to reach replacement-level fertility. America reached its stabilization fertility goal the year before the Supreme Court legalized abortion.

But to the Catholic hierarchy and the pro-life movement, the legalized abortion and population stabilization causes have been inextricably linked. In the 1990s, it was still difficult for a pro-stabilization person or group to get a hearing among many Catholic and pro-life groups without being automatically considered an abortion apologist.

A number of leaders of philanthropic foundations and politicians involved with population efforts in the 1970s have said that active measures by Catholic bishops and the Vatican were the greatest barrier to moving population measures and in setting a national population policy. Congressman James Scheuer was a member of the 1972 Commission on Population Growth and the American Future. In 1992, he wrote that “the Vatican and others blocked any reasonable discussion of population problems.” 26 This opposition applied both nationally and internationally. In a 1993 interview, Milton P. Siegel, assistant director general of the World Health Organization from 1946 to 1970, indicated that “one way or another, sometimes surreptitiously, the Catholic church used its influence to defeat, if you will, any movement toward family planning or birth control.” 27

As population activists reported on the Catholic activism and criticized it, the population movement began to be tarred as anti-Catholic. Environmental groups seeking membership, funds, and support from a wide spectrum of Americans had good reason to stay out of population issues altogether rather than risk offending their own current and potential members who also were members of the largest religious denomination in America. Environmental groups with Catholic board members were known to use them as reasons for not being more involved in population issues.

Roman Catholic opposition, both from the Vatican itself and from American Catholic leaders, apparently played a key role in pressuring government policymakers as well. On May 5, 1972, gearing up for his reelection campaign, President Nixon publicly disavowed the recommendations of his own Commission on Population Growth and the American Future, which U.S. Catholic bishops had blasted for its permissive attitude toward contraception and abortion.28 Evidently still concerned about overpopulation, however, Nixon ordered a study in April 1974 of the national security implications of population growth.29 When the study was released in 1975, President Gerald Ford endorsed the findings of National Security Study Memorandum 200 (NSSM 200). The report strongly stated that exploding populations in the Third World would threaten the security of the United States. These threats would come from the destabilization of those countries’ economic, political, and ecological systems. Besides recommending helping those nations curb their population growth, NSSM 200 called on the United States to provide world leadership in population control by seeking to attain stabilization of its own population by the year 2000.

Although President Ford endorsed the NSSM 200, nothing ever became of it. Historians will want to study the literature that through the years since has made the case that NSSM 200 was never implemented because of meetings between Vatican officials and U.S. government officials of Roman Catholic background as well as a systematic campaign of pressure by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. “American policy [toward support of international family planning programs] was changed as a result of the Vatican’s not agreeing with our policy,” President Reagan’s ambassador to the Vatican told Time magazine.30 How much pressure was actually exerted is an important question to resolve.


Cause #3: Emergence of Women’s Issues as Priority Concern of Population Groups

Another likely reason environmental groups did not fully engage U.S. population issues in the 1980s and 1990s was that the groups that specialized in population issues drifted away from population stabilization and environmental protection as primary reasons for being.

By the 1990s, for example, Planned Parenthood no longer played any role in advocating for U.S. population stabilization to protect the environment. Its focus had narrowed to making sure that women had full access to the whole range of options concerning fertility and births. That had always been a primary mission of Planned Parenthood, but one of the major purposes of empowering women had once been to reduce U.S. population growth.

To understand these shifts, historians will need to look at the differing roots of the 1970-era population movement. While one root included people with high environmental consciousness, several roots did not. Many of the early population leaders were primarily concerned about health issues; others about development issues. Still others were predecessors of the modern feminist movement. The environmentalist angle tended to be pushed out front during the late 1960s as environmentalism reached mass popularity. But as environmentalists abandoned population issues in the 1970s, the population groups more and more de-emphasized their environmental motives. By the 1990s, some of the groups actually opposed helping the environment through population stabilization or reduction efforts. Christian Science Monitor correspondent George Moffett observed: “Women’s groups complain that overstating the consequences of rapid population growth has created a crisis atmosphere in some countries, which has led to human rights violations in the name of controlling fertility.” 31

This was in striking evidence at the 1994 UN International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo, Egypt. As Catholic lay theologian George Weigel observed, “Over the long haul . . . the most significant development at the Cairo Conference may have been a shift in controlling paradigms: from ‘population control’ to ‘the empowerment of women.'” 32 “The Cairo Programme contains hundreds of recommendations about women’s rights and other social issues but almost none about population,” wrote former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Environment and Population Affairs Lindsey Grant.33 The long international document from Cairo made no mention of the connections between population growth and the environmental ills of countries with growing populations.

This shift away from an overriding concern with population and environmental limits may be seen most importantly in the group Zero Population Growth (ZPG). In 1968, Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb ignited a national movement. Zero Population Growth was founded that same year to take advantage of the incredible publicity the book generated.

Hundreds of ZPG chapters sprang up overnight. ZPG’s first leaders were described as all being pro-environmentalist, pro-choice, and pro-family planning. In the beginning, ZPG had a motto, “Zero Population Growth is our name and our mission.” There were several large organizations dealing with population growth in other countries. But ZPG’s primary mission was explicitly to stabilize the U.S. population, according to members of the early ZPG boards of directors.34 That remained the stated mission through the 1980s.

In the 1970s, ZPG’s population policy recommendations covered every contribution to U.S. population growth. It included stands on contraceptives, sex education for teenagers, equality for women, abortion, opposition to illegal immigration, and a proposal to reduce legal immigration from about 400,000 a year to 150,000 a year by 1985 in order to reach zero population growth by 2008.35

ZPG started the modern immigration-reduction movement in the 1970s. After American fertility fell below the replacement-level rate, the ZPG board recognized that immigration was rising rapidly and would soon negate all the benefits of lower fertility. Even though immigration seemed separate from the family planning issues that had dominated precursor population organizations, ZPG tackled it squarely because it related to the issue of U.S. population stabilization, which was deemed essential to the health of the American environment. By the late 1970s, the ZPG leaders who were the most interested in immigration issues spun off a new organization called the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR). Their idea was that FAIR would take no stand on abortion and other controversial family planning issues in order to attract a wider constituency that would work for immigration reform not only for environmental reasons, but for economic relief for the working poor and taxpayers, for social cohesion, and for national security.


The ZPG leaders who left the ZPG board for FAIR also happened to be most of the people with the greatest interest in population as an environmental issue. That meant that those remaining on the board were more inclined toward the type of population movement that was rooted in family planning and women’s issues. While ZPG continued to have policies on U.S. stabilization and the environment-and produce some outstanding educational materials-these policies and programs got less and less staff and board attention as the 1980s progressed. New staff were hired less on the basis of their environmental expertise and commitment and more because of their commitment to women’s issues.

By 1996, ZPG was focused overwhelmingly on global population issues from the women’s empowerment perspective. A secondary focus was excessive consumption by Americans.36 The board removed the word “stabilize” from much of its literature and its Mission Statement. On October 25, 1997, the ZPG board substituted “slowing” for “stopping” so that it then advanced a goal of merely “slowing” U.S. and world population growth. ZPG’s president Judith Jacobsen wrote in the newsletter ZPG Reporter that the reason ZPG didn’t support creating U.S. policies to reduce domestic population growth was that population problems in Third World countries needed to be resolved first. She said that the “Cairo Conference taught us that changing the conditions of women’s lives is the most powerful answer” for population problems. She then gave a long list of ZPG’s essential commitments, none of which were population stabilization or environmental protection.37

Thus, just before its thirtieth anniversary, ZPG had severed its goals from its name and its founding mission-zero population growth. Also abandoned as a central concern was the protection of the American environment, which had been at the heart of ZPG’s founding. ZPG had not necessarily turned anti-environment or anti-stabilization, but it had evolved into an organization with different priorities.

Cause #4: Schism Between the Conservationist and New-Left Roots of the Movement Historians

Two of the roots go back a century: (1) The wilderness preservation movement was exemplified by John Muir, the National Parks, and, later, Wilderness Areas.38 (2) The resource conservation movement was exemplified by President Theodore Roosevelt, his chief forester Gifford Pinchot, and the National Forests.39 A third root of the modern environmental movement is much younger. It was an outgrowth of what was called New-Left politics with, in some cases, a strong strain of socialism, as espoused by its guru of the 1970 era, Barry Commoner. This root was given its greatest impetus with the 1962 publication of Silent Spring by naturalist Rachel Carson. Although Carson was deeply concerned about the unforeseen effects of pesticides and other man-made poisons being released indiscriminately into the natural environment, this third root of modern environmentalism came to focus more on urban and health issues such as air, water, and toxic contamination, as they affected the human environment. Commoner, in fact, criticized conservationists for putting wildlife ahead of human health. As journalist Mark Dowie writes: “The central concern of the new movement is human health. Its adherents consider wilderness preservation and environmental aesthetics worthy but overemphasized values. They are often derided by antitoxic activists as bourgeois obsessions.” 40

Having much in common with the emerging Green parties of Europe (social justice, peace, and ecology), the new “greens” of America joined with the wilderness preservationists and resource conservationists as the modern environmental movement was born in the 1960s. But the New Left greens held opposite views on population from those of most preservationists and conservationists. In his influential 1971 book The Closing Circle and elsewhere, Barry Commoner minimized the role of population as a cause of environmental problems. Commoner said the problems attributed to population growth were actually caused by unfair distribution of resources and by profitable technologies. Environmental degradation could be rectified by changing economic systems.41

Wilderness advocate and popular southwestern author Edward Abbey spoke for many when he said that “growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.” 42

It appears that the New Left greens tried to keep population issues off the Earth Day 1970 agenda. They lost. Conservationists and preservationists succeeded in retaining their fundamental tenet that there could be no long-term environmental preservation without limiting human numbers. The college students and young adults who were rushing into the movement at the time may have been more temperamentally inclined toward the antiwar, antiestablishment New Left greens, but the young new environmentalists-armed with millions of dog-eared copies of The Population Bomb-seemed overwhelmingly to accept the old-line conservationists’ assessment of population. Most of the new more-liberal environmental groups that were formed at the time rejected the New Left’s opposition to fighting never-ending population growth and joined with the conservationists on their population stances.

But the New Left wing of environmentalism reversed its losses in the 1990s, according to Earth First! co-founder Dave Foreman, one of the most publicized and aggressive players in the first twenty years of U.S. environmentalism.43 He said the New Left wing-which he called “Progressive Cornucopians”-established its antistabilization view as the dominant one in the national staffs and boards of many groups, including the Sierra Club.

On the winning side of the 1990s population policy conflict were people like Brad Erickson, coordinator of the Political Ecology Group (PEG), which played a key role in helping the Sierra Club board abandon its proscriptive population stabilization policy in 1996 and then fight off the pro-stabilization Sierra members in 1998.44 Erickson said the fight was a replay of the one at Earth Day 1970, which the New Left greens lost.45 He said the plan of the New Left greens in the 1960s had been to use the environmental issue as one of several they hoped would bloom into a full manifestation of a progressive movement far beyond the confines of traditional American economics and culture. But conservationists hijacked Earth Day, forced their population issues into it and the movement, and have limited the effectiveness of environmentalism ever since, Erickson explained. This view is shared by author Mark Dowie, who argues that population stabilization and immigration reform have retarded the transformation of conservation and preservation-oriented environmentalism into a movement for “environmental justice.”

Cause #5: Immigration-Protected by “Political Correctness”- Became the Chief Cause of U. S. Growth

Modifications in immigration law in 1965 inadvertently started a chain migration through extended family members that began to snowball during the 1970s. At the very time that American fertility fell to a level that would allow population stabilization within a matter of decades, immigration levels were rising rapidly.

By the 1980s, annual immigration had more than doubled and was running above 500,000 a year. By the 1990s, annual average legal immigration had surpassed a million. And that didn’t even include a net addition of 200,000 to 500,000 illegal aliens each year. By the end of the 1990s, immigrants and their offspring were contributing nearly 70 percent of U.S. population growth.47

If immigration and immigrant fertility had been at replacement-level rates since 1972- as had native-born fertility-the United States would never have grown above 250 million.48 Instead, U.S. population passed 270 million before the turn of the century. And the Census Bureau projected that current immigration and immigrant fertility were powerful enough to contribute to the United States surpassing 400 million soon after the year 2050-on the way past a billion.

The most aggressive group was Zero Population Growth-before it shifted away from being an environmental organization. A 1977 Washington Post story revealed the public way ZPG confronted immigration.49 Under the headline “Anti-Immigration Campaign Begun,” the story began: “The Zero Population Growth foundation is launching a nationwide campaign to generate public support for sharp curbs on both legal and illegal immigration to the United States.” It quoted Melanie Wirken, ZPG’s Washington lobbyist, saying the group favored a “drastic reduction in legal immigration” from levels that were then averaging about 400,000 a year. The article reported that ZPG was adding another lobbyist so that Wirken could devote all of her time to immigration issues.

The Sierra Club urged the federal government to conduct a thorough examination of U.S. immigration policies and their impact on U.S. population trends and how those trends affected the nation’s environmental resources. “All regions of the world must reach a balance between their populations and resources,” the Club added.50 Then in 1980, the Sierra Club testified before Father Hesburgh’s Select Committee on Immigration and Refugee Reform: “It is obvious that the numbers of immigrants the United States accepts affects our population size and growth rate. It is perhaps less well known the extent to which immigration policy, even more than the number of children per family, is the determinant of future numbers of Americans.” The Club said it is an “important question how many immigrants the United States wants to accept and the criteria we choose as the basis for answering that question.” In 1989, the Sierra National Population Committee declared that “immigration to the U.S. should be no greater than that which will permit achievement of population stabilization in the U.S.,” a policy confirmed by the Club’s Conservation Coordinating Committee.51 The immigration-reduction advocacy of the Sierra Club and ZPG beginning in the 1970s was affirmed in the Global 2000 Report to the President in 1981, which stated that the federal government should “develop a U.S. national population policy that includes attention to issues such as population stabilization, and . . . just, consistent, and workable immigration laws.” 52 It was reaffirmed in the 1996 report of the Population and Consumption Task Force of the President’s Council on Sustainable Development. The task force concluded: “This is a sensitive issue, but reducing immigration levels is a necessary part of population stabilization and the drive toward sustainability.” 53

The environmental movement of the late 1990s was willing to miss those environmental goals (and newer ones) for the sake of protecting a level of immigration that was four times higher than the tradition before the first Earth Day. What was it about the immigration issue that made environmental groups, by and large, meekly acquiesce to a level of immigration that clashed head-on with the fundamental goal of population stabilization? Years of pondering this question have led the authors to the conclusion that, of all the factors involved in the environmental movement’s retreat from U.S. population stabilization, the growing demographic influence of immigration is the single most important one.

Historians will find much to consider in the following possible explanations for the groups’ avoidance of immigration numbers:

  • Fear that immigration reduction would alienate “progressive” allies and be seen as racially insensitive

The primary lens through which most environmental leaders in the 1980s and 1990s seemed to view immigration was not an environmental-or labor-paradigm but a racial one. According to this paradigm, immigration often appeared to be about nonwhite people moving into a mostly white country, just as whites themselves had done to indigenous Native Americans in previous centuries. To propose reductions in immigration was not seen as reducing labor competition or population growth but as trying to protect the majority status of America’s white population. It was seen as rejecting nonwhite immigrants. 54

“The concept of immigration control has become contaminated in the minds of the new class by the ideas of racism, narrow self-seeking nationalism, and a bigoted preference for cultural homogeneity. . . . Their enthusiasm for anti-racism and international humanitarianism is often sincere but there are also social pressures supporting this sincere commitment and making apostasy difficult.” And later: “Ideologically correct attitudes to immigration have offered the warmth of in-group acceptance to supporters and the cold face of exclusion to dissenters.” 56 Similar analysis in the United States suggests that it is “politically incorrect” to talk of reducing immigration.

Taboos against challenging immigration policies are enforced by a “political correctness” that often is based on honorable sentiments tied to an individual’s personal connections to immigration. These sentiments are usually strongest among those with the most direct, and recent, immigrant experiences in their immediate families, i. e., those whose spouses, parents, grandparents, or aunts or uncles immigrated to the United States. Sensitivity is heightened still more for those who feel a strong personal identity as a member of ethnic groups-such as Irish, Italian, Greek, Slavic, Chinese, Japanese, or Jewish-whose members once fled persecution in other countries or who may have met with discrimination in this country. Even when such a person does recognize that U.S. population growth is problematic, and that immigration is a major contributor to it, he or she may well reason that it would be hypocritical, as a descendant of immigrants and indirect beneficiary of a generous immigration policy, to “close the door” even partially on any prospective immigrant. Dealing with immigration can become almost physically sickening for such people, who feel they must make a choice between environmental protection and their view of themselves as a part of an immigrant ethnic group. (For such Americans, their own ethnic group’s experiences seem to obscure the fact that more than 90 percent of present immigrants are not fleeing persecution or starvation but are simply seeking greater material prosperity.) Thus, the response of these Americans to the population dilemma may have more to do with their sense of ethnicity than any scientific analysis of environmental challenges.

One of the main reasons the Sierra Club leadership gave in 1998 for avoiding the immigration issue was that they dared not risk appearing to be racially insensitive. Executive Director Carl Pope acknowledged that the official endorsers of the referendum trying to confront immigration numbers did not have racially questionable motives. Rather, he admitted, they were esteemed Sierrans and environmental scholars, with distinguished records of environmental service to their country. In fact, Pope said, he used to agree with them that immigration should be cut for environmental reasons. But he changed his mind because he didn’t believe it possible to conduct a public discussion about immigration cuts without stirring up racial passions: “While it is theoretically possible to have a non-racial debate about immigration, it is not practically possible for an open organization like the Sierra Club to do so. . . . [Recent history in California has] caused me to change my view of whether it is possible for the Sierra Club to deal with the immigration issue in a way which would not implicate us in ethnic or racial polarization.” 57 Pope acknowledged that it was the opponents of stabilization who were injecting race into the discussion by publicly “lambasting the club as racist.” But the Sierra Club, he insisted, could not subject itself to those kinds of epithets merely in order to confront the full issue of U.S. population growth.58

ZPG’s president, Judith Jacobsen, addressed the racial issues in a letter to members:

“ZPG is already explicitly committed to building bridges to communities of color and working on immigrants’ rights as part of our long-held goal of improving the success of the population movement by expanding it to include a broad spectrum of American diversity. A policy to reduce legal immigration now would make this work impossible. We want ZPG to strengthen our ties to communities of color, not jeopardize them. In this way, we can build relationships, listen and refine our immigration policy and strategy as the public debate evolves.” 59 Jacobsen said the ZPG board voted to take no position on reduction of immigration, “with full knowledge of immigration’s important role in the U.S. population growth, both today and in the future.”

Then-ZPG President Dianne Dillon-Ridgely dismissed any concern about immigration’s contribution to the country’s population growth as illegitimate.60

ZPG Executive Director Peter Kostmayer, when questioned about immigration, told the audience: “Let me be frank. You are a wealthy, middle-class community, and if you concentrate on the issue of immigration as a way of controlling population, you won’t come off well. It just doesn’t work. The population movement has an unhappy history in this regard.” 61 About the same time, in a handwritten note to a ZPG member inquiring about the group’s immigration stance, Kostmayer wrote, “It would be so, so counterproductive to be perceived as antiimmigrant.” 62

  • The transformation of population and environment into global issues needing global solutions

In 1970, population growth often was discussed in terms of its threat to local or national environmental resources-in countries all over the world. The argument often went something like this: The cultures, traditions, religions, economies, health care, tax structures, and laws of each country create incentives for high birth rates. Each country has to make its own changes to bring down those birth rates to protect its own environmental resources, but nations also must act cooperatively in international efforts to provide financial and technical assistance to those nations requesting them. Because some of the problems of overpopulation are indeed global, each nation has a stake in every other nation moving toward population stabilization.

By the 1990s, most environmental group comments about population growth were that it was almost exclusively a global problem. Population growth rarely was described as a threat to localized environmental resources such as specific watersheds, landscapes, species’ habitats, estuaries, and aquifers. Rather, population growth usually was linked to global (or worldwide) environmental problems such as biodiversity losses, climate change, and the decline of the oceans.63

Under the new thinking, the population size of individual nations was not nearly as important as the size of the total global population. Certain top leaders of the environmental groups said this was a significant reason they no longer saw U.S. population stabilization per se as a priority goal. They especially lost interest in U. S. stabilization when in the 1990s long-term U.S. population growth was being driven almost entirely by people in other countries moving to the United States and having their above-replacement-level number of babies in America. In the ascendant “global” view, this migration wasn’t important because it was merely shifting the growth from one part of the globe to another; the global problem was not increasing because of it, they reasoned. The Sierra Club’s Carl Pope said: “I seriously doubt that anyone is in a position to calculate exactly which changes in immigration policy would minimize GLOBAL environmental stress.”

Executive Director Pope wrote in Asian Week that overpopulation and its effects on the environment are “fundamentally global problems; immigration is merely a local symptom. . . . Erecting fences to keep people out of this country does nothing to fix the planet’s predicament. It’s the equivalent of rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.” 66

  • Influence of human rights organizations

The influence of human rights groups and philosophies on environmental leaders may be another part of the explanation for why environmental groups were not willing to work for population stabilization in the 1990s. Michael Hanauer, a ZPG leader in the Boston chapter, who resigned from ZPG’s national board in 1998, pointed out that environmental groups no longer dealt with U.S. stabilization because “much of their roots, associations, history, knowledge, empathies and even networking was within the human rights movement. Offending these groups was not in the cards.” 67

Throughout the U.S. human rights community had arisen various concepts of the human right of poor workers to cross national borders if they could improve their economic condition by taking jobs in another country. Most U.S. human rights organizations-with the American Civil Liberties Union being the best-known example-actively lobbied against any reductions in immigration. Dozens of human rights organizations were formed specifically to advocate for the rights of immigrants and for immigration.

Environmental leaders in the 1990s increasingly worked in coalitions with the human rights groups, especially on international environmental, trade, and development issues and on antitoxics crusades. It appears that people moved easily back and forth between human rights and environmental jobs.

In the 1990s Sierra Club, for example, officials began to appoint people from human rights organizations to its National Population Committee. These individuals came from organizations which argued that population growth is not a cause of problems in the United States or the rest of the world. They opposed stabilization efforts before being appointed; they were among the most aggressive leaders in working to change the Sierra Club’s pro-stabilization policy and in fighting the referendum that failed to reestablish the policy.68

While the agendas of the human rights and environmental groups should not be seen as fundamentally at odds with each other, they nonetheless are not the same. The human rights agenda is about protecting freedoms and rights of individuals here and now. The environmental agenda since the inauguration of the conservation and preservation movements a century ago, and since its rejuvenation and reorientation in the 1960s, has been about protecting the natural and human environments, now and in perpetuity.

The human rights agenda is by necessity oriented toward the immediate needs of individuals. The environmental agenda has often also dealt with immediate threats but just as often works for goals that are far into the future.69

Human rights work is about people getting their full share of rights; its ideal is freedom. Environmental work is often about asking or forcing people to restrain their rights and freedoms in order to protect the natural world from human actions, so that people who are not yet born might someday be able to enjoy and prosper in a healthy, undiminished environment. The fact that human rights work and environmental work involve tensions between goals and philosophy does not mean that either of them must be seen as wrong or right.

  • Triumph of ethics of globalism over ethics of nationalism/internationalism

Globalism refers to elimination of the sovereign nation-state as a locus of community, loyalty, economy, laws, culture, and language. The heart of the difference between globalism and nationalism is an ethical viewpoint of whether a community has the right or even the responsibility to give priority attention to the members of its own community over people outside the community.71

That relates to whether a nation has the right to protect its own environmental resources before it succeeds in helping some other country to preserve its environment. Is it ethical to stabilize the population of one’s own country when other countries are still growing? Is it ethical to bar a human being who is alive today from immigrating and advancing economically if the reason for barring the immigration is to preserve the natural resources of the target country for the benefit of human beings not yet born?

The ethical basis of nationalism is as a community in which every member has a certain responsibility for everybody else in that community. The highest priority of a national government under the nationalist ethic is the members of that community. This has been the dominant ethical principle in the United States and most other nations in which the national government is expected to establish laws and regulations concerning trade, labor, capital, civil rights, and the environment based primarily on their effects on the people of its own nation.

The globalist ethic that we describe here is less communitarian and more individualistic. It gives a higher ethical value to the freedom of an individual (and by extension, the corporate bodies owned by individuals) to act with fewer or no restrictions by national governments. This ethic similarly unleashes workers around the world to cross borders to work in ways that maximize their incomes and unleashes corporations to move capital, goods, and labor in ways that maximize their profits.72 Under a globalist ethic, immigration policy should not be used to protect America’s poor if it blocks the economic improvement of even poorer workers from other countries.

One of the most common arguments by environmental opponents of U.S. population stabilization in 1998 was that it would be unethical to protect U.S. environmental resources and achieve U.S. population stabilization at the expense of workers and their families from other nations who would not be allowed to move here to better their lives. Another major argument was that stabilizing the U.S. population merely protected U.S. ecosystems at the expense of ecosystems in other countries where population would be higher because people weren’t allowed to emigrate.73

Under the more globalist ethic of the 1998 Sierra leaders (and the leaders of many other environmental organizations who publicly or privately supported them), it was seen as both selfish and futile for the United States to stabilize its own population before the rest of the world does. In fact, some leaders suggested that if some countries remain poor, Congress should not reduce immigration and U.S. population growth even when the rest of the world’s population does stabilize. Only when socioeconomic conditions in the rest of the world are high enough that foreign workers no longer want to move to the United States should this country be allowed to stabilize its population,

There is little sign that the leaders of those groups or their members did any calculations as to what it would take to achieve such grand goals of eliminating global poverty-or whether there was any practicality at all in the thought of raising the living standards of more than 4 billion impoverished Third World citizens high enough that they would not want to immigrate to the United States.

Daniel Quinn, author of Ishmael (something of a cult favorite among environmentalists), observed: “We have encouraged people to think that all we have to do to end our population expansion is to end economic and social injustice all over the world. This is a will-of-the-wisp because these are things that people have been striving to do for thousands of years without doing them. And why we think that this will be doable in the next few years is quite bizarre to me. They don’t recognize any of the biological realities involved.” 76 The most likely scenario, according to geopolitical elder statesman George F. Kennan, is that current quadrupled immigration to the United States will decline naturally “only when the levels of overpopulation and poverty in the United States are equal to those of the countries from which these people are now anxious to escape.”

  • Fear of demographic trends

Still another reason environmental groups didn’t want to tackle immigration numbers to slow U.S. population growth may have been their fear of changing demographics. As the population of foreign-born Americans and their children rose ever higher, they became an increasingly powerful political bloc whom many environmental leaders feared could thwart environmentalist initiatives and legislation if they perceived environmental groups to be hostile to immigration.

Particularly in California, where the foreign born and their children already comprise more than a third of the population, Sierra leaders worried aloud not only that advocating U.S. population stabilization might lose immigrants, their friends and family as supporters, but that sensitive political alliances with ethnic politicians could be jeopardized as well. The executive director of the California League of Conservation Voters-an organization immersed in state politics-pleaded with the Sierra Club not to “commit suicide over the immigration issue. This is something the environmental community cannot afford.” 78

In this fearful way of thinking, advocacy of immigration reduction to stabilize the population and protect the environment can only be seen by those ethnic or racial minorities whose numbers are significantly augmented by immigration as an attempt to prevent them from becoming a majority of the population in California during the next few years-and of the country later next century. Having their future power thus threatened by environmentalists, these groups would insist that their elected officials vote against environmental protection measures, according to the demographic-fear scenario.

There were some reasons for the environmental leaders to have adopted such a belief during the Sierra Club’s referendum campaign. They heard from some self-appointed immigrant spokespersons who made the threat of retaliation. And Sierra leaders may have drawn similar conclusions from a contingent of California Democratic state-level politicians, many of them Latinos, who directly challenged the Club to defeat the immigration-reduction referendum. “A position by the club to further limit immigration would be considered immigrant bashing by many elected officials of color wrote Santos Gomez (an appointed member of the Club’s National Population Committee) in a newspaper oped piece.80

If immigrants did retaliate, that would be something “the environmental community cannot afford.” It would not be a question of whether the environment could afford another doubling of the U.S. population but whether the environmental community could afford immigrant retaliation if environmentalists tried to stop the doubling. Protection of environmental institutions may have been placed ahead of protection of the environment itself.

  • The power of money

There were many observers-and players-in the 1990s who suggested that the shifts in population emphasis had more to do with the funding of environmental groups than any other factor.

With scores of environmental groups competing with each other for members and donors, each needs special programs and actions to distinguish itself. They also need programs that can yield short-term victories that they can tout to their donors. Even under very favorable circumstances, a campaign for U.S. population stabilization cannot achieve its goal for several decades. And the benefits are not easily seen at first. In contrast, many other environmental crusades bring about faster, more tangible results. Stabilizing population, on the other hand, doesn’t improve the environment; rather, it keeps environmental conditions from growing worse. You can’t photograph the bad things that you prevented-because they didn’t happen. Which direct-mail package is likely to raise more money: newspaper clippings about forcing the removal of a dam, cleaning up smog, and establishing a park, or a headline stating that the rate of population growth declined incrementally from the previous year? How much of this kind of thinking occurred inside the environmental groups?

The 1998 edition of the catalogue Environmental Grantmaking Foundations (82) listed

180 foundations that specified population as an area of environmental gift-giving. Yet these and most other foundations interested in underwriting population programs had a distinctly global perspective and were focused on family planning, women’s empowerment, and reproductive health issues. The experience of the 1990s showed that fewer than ten foundations in the entire country were willing and able to significantly fund nonprofit groups with a clear U.S. population stabilization agenda.

Then there is the possibility that corporate donors actively steered groups away from population issues. In his book Living Within Limits, Garrett Hardin asserted that the corporate and philanthropic foundations that funded the twentieth anniversary of Earth Day in 1990 let it be known that they would not look kindly on the event having a population emphasis.83 So in contrast to Earth Day 1970, there was none.

It may be that the greatest fear that corporations had of environmental groups was not the ostensible environmental regulations they advocated but a cutoff of U.S. population growth to fuel ever-expanding consumer markets, land development, and construction. In addition, those same forces had an intense self-interest in a growing labor pool to keep the cost of labor down. Corporate leaders knew that U.S. population growth would eventually come to a halt without continued high immigration. How many of those leaders had influence over corporate and foundation philanthropy to environmental groups? “As baby boomers age and domestic birthrates stagnate, only foreign-born workers will keep the labor pool growing. . . . Economic dynamism, in other words, will depend on a continuing stream of foreign-born workers,” opined an article in Business Week.84

During the Sierra Club battle over population policy in 1998, Sierra leaders warned that foundations and major individual donors had said that they would withdraw hundreds of thousands of dollars in previously pledged grants if the members of the Club took a stand in favor of reducing immigration.85

The Sierra Club national board also found itself in the previously unheard-of position of being endorsed by the Home Builders Association of Northern California. This development group applauded the position of the Sierra Club board to accept the current immigration level, which is projected to force California’s home-needing population to 50 million by 2025.86

Three well-endowed foundations-Pew, Turner, and Rockefeller-gave grants in support of a book whose very title, Beyond the Numbers: A Reader on Population, Consumption, and the Environment,87 reveals a shift away from sheer numbers of people as the primary concern. And in November 1995, in Washington, D.C., the Pew Global Stewardship Initiative co-sponsored a one-day “Roundtable Discussion on Global Migration, Population, and the Environment” with the nation’s main coalition supporting high immigration numbers (the National Immigration Forum). According to Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies, who was present, this meeting was “clearly an attempt to keep environmental groups from going off the reservation and supporting immigration cuts then being debated in Congress.”

Historians need to explain how an environmental issue as fundamental as U.S. population growth could have moved from center-stage within the American environmental movement to virtual obscurity in just twenty years. For the American environment itself, the ever-growing demographic pressures ignored by the environmental establishment showed no signs of abating on their own as the nation prepared to enter the twenty-first century.


  1. Steward L. Udall, The Quiet Crisis and the Next Generation (Salt Lake City, 1963, 1988),239.
  2. Paul R. Ehrlich, The Population Bomb (New York, 1968); Rachel L. Carson, Silent Spring(Boston, 1962).
  3. Stephen Fox, John Muir and His Legacy: The American Conservation Movement,

1890–1975 (Boston, 1981).

  1. Examples include the University of Georgia’s Eugene P. Odum, a leading ecologist and author of the textbook Fundamentals of Ecology (Philadelphia, 1971); the University of California–Davis’ Kenneth E. F. Watt, a pioneering systems modeler and author of Principles of Environmental Science (New York, 1973); the Conservation Foundation’s Raymond Dasmann, a zoologist and author of The Destruction of California (New York, 1965); the University of California–Berkeley’s Daniel B. Luten, a chemist, natural resource specialist, and author of Progress Against Growth (1986); and the University of California–Santa Barbara’s Garrett Hardin, a human ecologist, president of the Pacific Division of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and author of the most reprinted article ever—“The Tragedy of the Commons”—in the prestigious journal Science (13 December 1968).
  1. Edward Goldsmith, Robert Allen, Michael Allaby, John Davoll, and Sam Lawrence, A Blueprint for Survival (New York, 1972), 48. The authors were all editors of The Ecologist.
  1. Gaylord Nelson, personal communication, 1998. Former U.S. Senator Nelson is widely credited as the founder of Earth Day.
  1. Doug LaFollette et al., “U.S. Sustainable Population Policy Project—Planning Document,” unpublished, 20 June 1998. Doug LaFollette is Secretary of State of Wisconsin.
  2. PL 91-190; 83 Stat. 852, 42 U.S.C. 4321.
  3. R. B. Smythe, “The Historical Roots of NEPA,” in Environmental Policy and NEPA: Past, Present, and Future, ed. Ray Clark and Larry Canter (Boca Raton, 1997), 12.
  4. 42 U.S.C. 4331.
  5. Commission on Population Growth and the American Future, Population and the American Future (Washington, D.C., 1972). Excerpt above from transmittal letter.
  1. Sierra Club Board of Directors policy adopted, 3–4 May 1969.
  2. Resolution sponsored and circulated by ZPG; adopted by the Sierra Club on 4 June 1970.
  3. T. Michael Maher, “How and Why Journalists Avoid the Population-Environment Connection,” Population and Environment 18.4 (1997).
  1. T. Michael Maher, Personal communication with the author, 1998.
  2. Dirk Olin, “Divided We Fall? The Sierra Club’s debate over immigration may be just the beginning,” Outside 23 (July 1998).
  3. President’s Council on Sustainable Development, Sustainable America: A New Consensus for Prosperity, Opportunity, and a Healthy Environment (Washington, D.C., 1996). The council included representatives of a wide range of interests and backgrounds, including environmentalists, population activists, women’s groups, minorities, academics, and business leaders, as well as cabinet-level federal officials. Quotes from chapter 6 and chapter 1, respectively.
  1. Paul R. Ehrlich and John P. Holdren, “Impact of Population Growth,” Science 171 (1971), 1212–17.
  2. Mathis Wackernagel and William Rees, Our Ecological Footprint: Reducing Human Impact Upon the Earth (Philadelphia, 1996).
  3. Council on Environmental Quality, Environmental Quality: 25th Anniversary Report(Washington, D.C., 1997).
  1. Ibid.
  2. In 1970, the “black and other” Total Fertility Rate (TFR) was 3.0 (National Center for Health Statistics, Historical Statistics of the United States: Colonial Times to 1970 [1976]). By 1997, black fertility had fallen to 2.2, slightly above the general population’s replacement rate of 2.1. Overall Hispanic fertility even in 1997 stood at 3.0, well above replacement level. That of Mexican-born women residing in the U.S. was 3.3 (National Center for Health Statistics. 1999. National Vital Statistics Report, vol. 47, no. 18)—actually higher than the fertility rate of women in Mexico itself (2.9 in 1998 according to the U.S. Census Bureau at http://www.census.gov/cgibin/ipc/idbsum).
  1. See note 11 above, pp. 72–73.
  2. See note 11 above, p. 72.
  3. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, the TFR of non-Hispanic white females was 1.8 in 1997 (compared to 2.1 for replacement level). Using Census Bureau data, it can be calculated that in 1970, non-Hispanic whites comprised 83 percent of the U.S. population and accounted for approximately 78 percent of the births. By 1994, non-Hispanic whites comprised 74 percent of the population and accounted for 60 percent of the births. With immigration included (approximately 90 percent of which originates from non-European sources), the non-Hispanic white share of current population growth drops well below 50 percent. According to medium projections of the Census Bureau and the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences, non-Hispanic whites will account for 6 percent of the nation’s population growth between 1995 and 2050, blacks for 18 percent, Asians for 20 percent, and Hispanics for 54 percent (James P. Smith and Barry Edmonston, eds., The New Americans: Economic, Demographic, and Fiscal Effects of Immigration [Washington, D.C., 1997], table 3.7.) By 2050, non-Hispanic whites are projected to have declined to 51 percent of the U.S. population from 87 percent in 1950 (table 3.10, The New Americans).
  1. James Scheuer, “A Disappointing Outcome: United States and World Population Trends Since the Rockefeller Commission,” The Social Contract 2.4 (1992).
  2. “The Vatican and World Population Policy: An Interview with Milton P. Siegel,” The Humanist (March–April 1993).
  1. David Simcox, “Twenty Years Later: A Lost Opportunity,” The Social Contract 2.4 (1992).
  2. Stephen D. Mumford, The Life and Death of NSSM 200: How the Destruction of Political Will Doomed a U.S. Population Policy (Research Triangle Park, N.C., 1996).
  3. Carl Bernstein, “The Holy Alliance,” Time, 24 February 1992.
  4. George D. Moffett, Critical Masses: The Global Population Challenge (New York, 1994), 190.
  5. George Weigel, “What Really Happened at Cairo, and Why,” in The Nine Lives of Population Control, ed. Michael Cromartie (Washington, D.C., 1995), 145.
  1. Lindsey Grant, “Multiple Agendas and the Population Taboo.” Focus 7.3 (1997); reprinted from chapter 16 of Juggernaut: Growth on a Finite Planet (Santa Ana, Calif., 1996).
  2. Judy Kunofsky, post to on-line Sierra Club population forum, 1997. Dr. Kunofsky was on the ZPG Board of Directors from 1972 to 1984 and was president from 1977 to 1980; Joyce Tarnow, personal communication, 1998. Tarnow is president of Floridians for a Sustainable Population.
  3. Celia Evans Miller and Cynthia P. Green, “A U.S. Population Policy: ZPG’s Recommendations.” Zero Population Growth policy paper, 1976.
  1. Alan Kuper, “ZPG or ZCG?” E-mail to list, 10 April 1999. Kuper, a long-time Sierra member and one of the population activists who spearheaded the 1998 referendum, pointed out that seven out of ten questions on ZPG’s latest Earth Day quiz related to consumption. “Based on what I have, I’d say ZPG is promoting in classrooms across the US, reduction in consumption more than reduction in numbers.”
  1. Judith Jacobsen, “President’s Message,” ZPG Reporter, February 1998.
  2. Roderick Nash, Wilderness and the American Mind (New Haven, 1973 rev. ed. [1967]).
  3. Samuel P. Hays, Conservation and the Gospel of Efficiency: The ProgressiveConservation Movement, 1890–1920 (Cambridge, Mass., 1959, 1969); Douglas H. Strong, Dreamers and Defenders—American Conservationists (Lincoln, Neb., 1971, 1988).

40.Mark Dowie, Losing Ground: American Environmentalism at the Close of the Twentieth Century (Cambridge, Mass., 1995), 127.

  1. Barry Commoner, The Closing Circle (New York, 1971).
  2. James R. Hepworth and Gregory McNamee, Resist Much, Obey Little, Remembering Ed Abbey (San Francisco 1996), quote at p. 104, John F. Rohe, A Bicentennial Malthusian Essay:Conservation, Population, and the Indifference to Limits (Traverse City, Mich., 1997).
  1. Dave Foreman, “Progressive Cornucopianism,” Wild Earth 7.4 (1998).
  2. A 1998 fundraising letter from PEG claimed that “Sierra grassroots leaders told us that ‘The Sierra Club would not have won this vote without PEG,’” an assessment that PEG’sadversaries would probably agree is not far off the mark.
  1. Brad Erickson, personal interview, May 1998.
  2. See note 40 above.
  3. Steven A. Camarota, “Immigrants in the United States—1998: A Snapshot of America’s Foreign-born Population,” Backgrounder (Washington, D.C., 1999).

48.Poster Project for a Sustainable U.S. Environment, 1998. Based on Census Bureau data.

  1. Susan Jacoby, “Anti-Immigration Campaign Begun,” Washington Post, 8 May 1977.
  2. Sierra Club Board of Directors, “U.S. Population Policy and Immigration.” Adopted 6–7 May 1978.
  3. Sierra Club Population Report (Spring 1989).
  4. Gerald O. Barnye, “Global Future: Time to Act,” in The Global 2000 Report to the President. A report prepared for President Carter by the Council on Environmental Quality and U.S. Department of State, 1981, p. 11.
  1. President’s Council on Sustainable Development, Population and Consumption Task

Force Report (Washington, D.C., 1996).

  1. Emil Guillermo, “The Sierra Club’s Nativist Faction,” San Francisco Examiner, 17 December 1997.
  1. Robert Reich, The Work of Nations: A Blueprint for the Future (New York, 1991).
  2. Katherine Betts, The Great Divide: Immigration Politics in Australia (Sydney, 1999), 5, 29.
  3. Carl Pope, on-line post to Sierra members, 1997.
  4. Club leaders appeared unaware of or unimpressed by the numerous surveys over the years which have indicated that majorities of most minorities favor reduced immigration levels. For instance, in a February 1996 Roper poll, 73 percent of blacks and 52 percent of Hispanics favored cutting immigration to 300,000 or fewer annually. The 1993 Latino National Political Survey, largest ever done of this ethnic group in the United States, found that 7 in 10 Latino respondents—higher than the percentage of “Anglos”—thought there were “too many immigrants.” A Hispanic USA Research Group poll (1993) found that three-quarters of Hispanics believed fewer immigrants should be admitted. A majority of Asian-American voters in California cast ballots in favor of Proposition 187 in 1994. Findings such as these should have allayed the Club leadership’s ostensible fears that even a principled stand against (what Club icon David Brower termed) “overimmigration” strictly on environmental grounds would spark a minority backlash. But they did not. It may well be that the Club establishment cared more about the opinions of minority elites and self-appointed “leaders” than they did about rank-and-file minority opinion.
  1. See note 37 above.
  2. Personal communication from an individual present at the conference, 1999.
  3. Georgia C. DuBose, “ZPG official says law, local action can cut population.” The Journal (Martinsburg, W.Va.), 29 March 1998.
  4. Peter Kostmayer, letter to ZPG member, 30 March 1998.
  5. A prime example of this global view is Al Gore’s 1992 book Earth in the Balance (Boston, 1992). In 1998 Vice-President Gore again explicitly linked population growth to global issues when he touted increased family-planning support as one means of combating global warming.
  6. Carl Pope, post to on-line Sierra Club population forum, 16 December 1997.
  7. Brock Evans, “The Sierra Club Ballot Referendum on Immigration, Population, and the Environment.” Focus 8.1 (1998). Evans is the executive director of the Endangered Species Coalition, and a former vice-president for National Issues of the National Audubon Society, associate executive director of the Sierra Club, 1981 recipient of the Club’s highest honor (the John Muir Award), and a 1984 candidate for Congress from the state of Washington.
  8. Carl Pope, “Think Globally, Act Sensibly—Immigration is not the problem.” Asian Week (San Francisco), 2 April 1998. The irony of using the Titanic analogy to represent overpopulation and immigration is that if the HMS Titanic’s bulkheads had been sealed and reached all the way up (a standard feature in ships nowadays) instead of just part way, the ship might have been saved from sinking because in-rushing ocean water would have been confined to several compartments instead of spilling over the top of each bulkhead into subsequent ones. (The Titanic could flood four compartments and still float. It breached five.) Thus, the opposite conclusion can be drawn from this maritime tragedy, namely, that barriers between distinct nation-states may well be essential to preventing one country’s failure to address overpopulation from becoming the whole world’s failure. Economist and philosopher Kenneth Boulding (author of “The Economics of the Coming Spaceship Earth”), in another of his insightful essays, wrote that what really disturbed him was the possibility of converting the world from a place of many experiments into one giant, global experiment.
  9. Michael Hanauer, “Why Domestic Environmental Organizations Won’t Visibly Advocate Domestic Population Stabilization,” draft of unpublished manuscript, 1999.
  10. See note 43.
  11. See note 67 above.
  12. See note 67 above.
  13. Roy Beck, “Sorting Through Humanitarian Clashes in Immigration Policy,” paper presented at the Annual National Conference on Applied Ethics, California State University at Long Beach, 1997.
  1. For more detailed descriptions and critiques of corporate globalism, see Sir James Goldsmith, “Global Free Trade and GATT,” Focus 5.1 (1995), excerpted from his book Le Piege; Herman E. Daly, “Against Free Trade and Economic Orthodoxy,” The Oxford International Review (Summer 1995); idem, “Globalism, Internationalism, and National Defense,” Focus 9.1 (1999); Jerry Mander and Edward Goldsmith, eds., The Case Against the Global Economy: And for a Turn Toward the Local (San Francisco, 1997); and David Korten, When Corporations Rule the World (West Hartford, Conn., and San Francisco, 1995).
  1. In a 1998 post to the on-line Sierra Club population forum, Executive Director Carl Pope cited a hypothetical example of 100,000 peasants moving from the Guatemalan highlands to the Peten rainforest (also in Guatemala) versus their moving to Los Angeles, and concluded that the former was worse for the global environment. Similarly, environmental filmmaker and author Michael Tobias (World War III: Population and the Biosphere at the Millennium [Santa Fe, 1994]), when questioned after a 1994 Los Angeles speech on overpopulation, said he would favor relocating people from rapidly-growing tropical countries with high and threatened biodiversity to countries like the United States with less biodiversity, although he admitted this idea was “quixotic.”
  2. ZPG Reporter, February 1998.
  3. William Branigin, “Sierra Club Votes for Neutrality on Immigration: Population Issue ‘Intensely Debated,’” Washington Post, 26 April 1998; John H. Cushman Jr., “Sierra Club Rejects Move to Oppose Immigration,” New York Times, 26 April 1998.
  4. Daniel Quinn and Alan D. Thornhill, “Food Production and Population Growth,” video documentary supported by the Foundation for Contemporary Theology (Houston, 1998).
  5. George F. Kennan, Around the Cragged Hill: A Personal and Political Philosophy (New York, 1993).
  6. John H. Cushman Jr., “An Uncomfortable Debate Fuels a Sierra Club Election,” New York Times, 5 April 1998.
  7. Ben Zuckerman, “Will the Sierra Club Be Hurt If the Ballot Question Passes?” in Population and the Sierra Club: A Discussion of Issues About the Upcoming Referendum, ed. Alan Kuper, Dick Schneider, and Ben Zuckerman (1998), 8-page discussion paper distributed by Sierrans for U.S. Population Stabilization.
  1. Santos Gomez, op-ed in San Francisco Chronicle, 17 November 1998.
  2. Home Builders Association of Northern California, “Behind the Sierra Club Vote on Curbing Immigration: Do Environmentalists Risk Alienating the Fastest-growing Ethnic Group in California?” HBA News 21.1 (February 1998).
  1. Rochester, N.Y., Resources for Global Sustainability.
  2. Garrett Hardin, Living Within Limits (New York, 1993).
  3. Howard Gleckman, “A Rich Stew in the Melting Pot,” Business Week, 31 August 1998.
  4. Alan Kuper, personal communication based on meeting with Sierra Club executive director, 1998.
  1. See note 81 above.
  2. Laurie Ann Mazur, ed., Beyond the Numbers: A Reader on Population, Consumption, and the Environment (Washington, D.C., 1994).
  3. Mark Krikorian, personal communication, 1999.


Lindsey Grant, “Multiple Agendas and the Population Taboo.” Focus 7.3 (1997); reprinted from chapter 16 of Juggernaut: Growth on a Finite Planet (Santa Ana, Calif., 1996).

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70 million people may need emergency food in 2017

Emergency food assistance needs unprecedented as Famine threatens four countries. January 25, 2017. Famine Early Warnings systems network (fews.net)

The Famine Early Warning Systems Network is a leading provider of early warning and analysis on food insecurity. Created by USAID in 1985 to help decision-makers plan for humanitarian crises, FEWS NET provides evidence-based analysis on some 35 countries. Implementing team members include NASA, NOAA, USDA, and USGS, along with Chemonics International Inc. and Kimetrica

Figure 1. Estimated population in need of emergency food assistance (2015-2017)Sources: FEWS NET, OCHA, Southern Africa RVAC
Note: Fiscal years run from October 1 through September 30. See Figure 2 for illustration of countries included in these estimates

The combined magnitude, severity, and geographic scope of anticipated emergency food assistance needs during 2017 is unprecedented in recent decades. Given persistent conflict, severe drought, and economic instability, FEWS NET estimates that 70 million people, across 45 countries, will require emergency food assistance this year. Four countries – Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan, and Yemen – face a credible risk of Famine (IPC Phase 5). In order to save lives, continued efforts to resolve conflict and improve humanitarian access are essential. In addition, given the scale of anticipated need, donors and implementing partners should allocate available financial and human resources to those areas where the most severe food insecurity is likely.

Food insecurity during 2017 will be driven primarily by three factors. Most importantly, persistent conflict is disrupting livelihoods, limiting trade, and restricting humanitarian access across many regions, including the Lake Chad Basin, the Central African Republic, Sudan, South Sudan, the Great Lakes Region, Somalia, Yemen, Ukraine, Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. A second important driver is drought, especially those driven by the 2015/16 El Niño and the 2016/17 La Niña. In Southern Africa and the Horn of Africa, significantly below-average rainfall has sharply reduced crop harvests and severely limited the availability of water and pasture for livestock. In Central Asia, snowfall to date has also been below average, potentially limiting the water available for irrigated agriculture during 2017. Finally, economic instability, related to conflict, a decline in foreign reserves due to low global commodity prices, and associated currency depreciation have contributed to very high staple food prices in Nigeria, Malawi, Mozambique, South Sudan, and Yemen.

As a result of these principal drivers, FEWS NET estimates that 70 million people  across 45 countries, will face Crisis (IPC Phase 3) or worse acute food insecurity and will require emergency food assistance during 2017 (Figure 2). This marks the second consecutive year of extremely large needs, with the size of the acutely food insecure population roughly 40 percent higher than in 2015 (Figure 1). The countries likely to have the largest acutely food insecure populations during 2017 are Yemen, Syria, South Sudan, and Malawi. Together, these four countries account for roughly one-third of the total population in need of emergency food assistance.

In addition to the sheer size of the food insecure population, a persistent lack of access to adequate food and income over the past three years has left households in the worst-affected countries with little ability to manage future shocks. Given this reduced capacity to cope and the possibility that additional shocks will occur, four countries face a credible risk of Famine (IPC Phase 5) during 2017. In Nigeria, evidence suggests that Famine occurred in 2016 and could be ongoing. In both Yemen and South Sudan the combination of persistent conflict, economic instability, and restricted humanitarian access makes Famine possible over the coming year. Finally in Somalia, a failure of the October to December 2016 Deyr rains and a forecast of poor spring rains threaten a repeat of 2011 when Famine led to the deaths of 260,000 Somalis. Emergency (IPC Phase 4), characterized by large food gaps, significant increases in the prevalence of acute malnutrition, and excess mortality among children, is also anticipated in southern areas of Malawi, Zimbabwe, Sudan, and Madagascar if adequate assistance is not provided.

Figure 2. Estimated peak size of the population in need of emergency food assistance during FY2017Sources: FEWS NET, OCHA, Southern Africa RVAC

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Robert Rapier on why “fuel from CO2” breakthrough won’t work

Robert Rapier. Oct 27, 2016.  Ethanol From Carbon Dioxide Is Still A Losing Proposition. energytrendinsider.com

If I told you that I had created a process to extract pure gold from seawater, you might deem it an amazing accomplishment. If I issued a press release stating these facts, it very well could go viral.

In fact, the oceans do contain an estimated 20 million tons of dissolved gold, worth close to a quadrillion dollars at the current spot market price. But you may have noticed that I have omitted a very important fact.

I haven’t mentioned how much it costs to produce a troy ounce of gold using the process I have designed. That seems like an important detail, so I explain that the production cost is only $50,000 or so per ounce (which today is worth about $1,265), but I am sure that with enough investment dollars — and maybe a few government subsidies — I can get that cost down to something more reasonable. (This is how we subsidize some advanced biofuels where production costs are an order of magnitude above what could be considered economical).

Readers immediately understand the problem. You don’t spend more to produce something than you can sell it for. But change the equation to energy instead of money and people suddenly forget that lesson. Or they fail to recognize that is what is taking place.

That brings me to the point of today’s article, one I’m forced to reiterate often: in the world of energy as in most others, there is no free lunch.

Earlier this month a research paper was published by the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) called “High-Selectivity Electrochemical Conversion of CO2 to Ethanol using a Copper Nanoparticle/N-Doped Graphene Electrode.” The paper reports on some truly interesting science, and the researchers were measured and cautious in their conclusions.

But something got lost in translation as media outlets sought to portray this as a “holy grail,” “game changer,” “major breakthrough” or “solution to climate change.” The benefits, one story said, were unimaginable. Part of the problem, in my opinion, is that the press release from the Department of Energy was titled Scientists Accidentally Turned CO2 Into Ethanol.

The word “accidental” plays into the misconception people have of how science is done. Many take the romantic view that game-changing, eureka discoveries are merely awaiting the next lucky accident, so when they read this headline the translation becomes something like “New Discovery Solves Climate Change.”

That’s because the public loves its energy miracles. People love the idea of a car that can run on water or the car that gets 400 miles per gallon (which of course GM and Ford suppressed) or the magic pill you can pop in your tank that greatly enhances fuel efficiency. So it isn’t surprising that this kind of story goes viral (in notable contrast to the articles debunking these viral stories.)

In order to understand what’s really going on, let’s consider a fundamental principle of thermodynamics.

If you burn something containing a combination of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen — e.g., gasoline, ethanol, wood, natural gas — that combustion reaction is going to produce heat, carbon dioxide and water. These are the combustion products.

It is possible to reverse the combustion reaction and convert that water and carbon dioxide back into fuel. But you have to add heat. A lot of heat. How much? More than you can get from burning the fuel in the first place. No new catalyst, and no discovery, accidental or otherwise, can get around that fundamental issue without overturning scientific laws observed and confirmed over 150 years.

Given that, what can we say immediately about this process? Going back to the fundamentals of thermodynamics, we can say, without a doubt, that the process consumes more energy than it produces. In other words, to produce 1 British thermal unit (BTU) of ethanol will require the initial consumption of more than 1 BTU of energy (and generate CO2 emissions.) The resulting 1 BTU of ethanol would ultimately be consumed. The net effect once the ethanol is consumed is more than 2 BTUs’ worth of emissions per BTU of ethanol produced. Or, to be blunt, unless the process can be run on excess renewable or nuclear power (more on that below), converting carbon dioxide into ethanol would actually worsen net carbon dioxide emissions.

Now the researchers involved certainly know this. They actually acknowledged in the paper that the process is unlikely to be economically viable. To my knowledge they haven’t intentionally misled anyone.

But the public has been misled in the retelling of the story. I have heard this research presented as “an efficient way of removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.” No, that’s not at all what the researchers claimed. They claimed a Faradaic efficiency in the process of 63%. In other words, 63% of the electricity used in process was utilized in the reaction. They further said that 84% of what was produced was ethanol. That’s the “high-selectivity” part of the title.

But that says nothing at all about the energy consumption required to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere so it can participate in this reaction. That is an enormous energy cost because carbon dioxide exists at only 400 parts per million in the atmosphere. Or in the case of passive removal (which is what plants do by means of photosynthesis), the process is very slow.

The high Faradaic efficiency and selectivity also provide little information about the overall energy requirements to turn purified carbon dioxide into purified ethanol, but we already know that it’s more than the energy contained in the ethanol. And it could be a lot more, and that could result in a lot more carbon dioxide emissions.

There is a way that a process like this that is an energy sink could be viable, and that would be if you had cheap, surplus energy that might otherwise be wasted. For example, if a wind farm or nuclear plant produced far more electricity than the grid could handle, you could envision dumping the excess power into such a process. That could in theory reduce carbon dioxide emissions, but there are a lot of caveats that would warrant a longer discussion. Such an intermittent process brings up its own set of issues, and then there’s the question of whether that would really be the best use of the surplus energy.

The bottom line here is if someone presents a scheme for turning air, water, or carbon dioxide into fuel, it is necessarily consumes more energy than it produces. It is an energy sink.

Now, I need to get back to processing ocean water, just as soon as I finish writing this grant proposal for the process.

Posted in Biofuels, Biomass EROI, Far Out, Optimism & Critical Thinking, Other Experts | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Richard Heinberg: Will the US really be a major energy exporter?

[ I read this the day it was published (January 16, 2017) at resilience.org here, but thought it would be interesting to post in the future to see if the EIA predictions were as optimistic as Heinberg and Hughes thought they were.  

Although oil prices are low now, that’s mostly due to much of the world not recovered from the 2008 financial crash, and 11 out of 12 recessions/depressions have been caused by high oil prices, after which the prices drop for a while.

This just in from the February 13, 2017 ASPO Newsletter: Observers are starting to note that while the US shale industry, aided by generous loans from Wall Street, is rebounding quickly the US oil majors that are dependent on increasing expensive offshore oil production are not doing well. In fact, some observers are calling the financial situation at ExxonMobil, Chevron, and ConocoPhillips (The big three) “dreadful.”  The net income of these companies is down from $80 billion in 2012 to $3.7 billion last year, with no significant improvement in sight. Their free cash flow now is negative, and the situation would have been even worse if they had not reduced their capital expenditures from $87 billion in 2013 to $46 billion in 2016. Reductions of this size do not bode well for their oil production five years from now given the rate at which offshore deposits deplete due to heavy use of water flooding to drive up production. Moreover, as “solid” corporations, these companies felt obligated to pay out $21.4 billion in dividends last year that were not covered by cash flow. In the last three years, these companies have been selling off assets and have increased long-term debt from $40 to $95 billion to cover capital expenditures and dividends.

Where all this leaves us in the next decade depends on many variables. Unless oil prices go considerably higher in the next year or so, we are unlike to see much improvement in the offshore oil situation and therefore the prospects of the big oil companies. We currently have a shale oil boomlet in the US with oil prices below $60 a barrel. The industry continues to convince Wall Street that they have the potential to be profitable, but outside observers are skeptical. In the last two years. the shale oil industry has survived by drilling in only the best, most productive spots that will soon be disappearing and driving costs much higher. They are also surviving at the expense of the oil services industry which has been providing services at little or no profit. We are already hearing that in the booming Permian Basin costs are rising much faster than oil prices.

Alice Friedemann   www.energyskeptic.com  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report ]

Richard Heinberg. 2017. Will the U.S. really be a major energy exporter?

The analytical arm of the U.S. Department of Energy now says the United States will become a major energy exporter in a few years. Will this eventually prove to have been an accurate prediction?

Their forecast is based on the Energy Information Administration (EIA)’s Annual Energy Outlook (AEO) for 2017, released on January 5th. In the publication’s Reference Case scenario, America is energy self-sufficient by 2026 and a net exporter thereafter.

Prominent news organizations have understandably reported the EIA forecast uncritically: after all, to question it might seem to require independent and sophisticated data analysis. Nevertheless, it should be noted that past AEO reports have erred, often spectacularly. 

To its credit, the EIA regularly publishes its own retrospective analyses in which it compares its previous forecasts with subsequent data. All one has to do is read a few of these “how’d we do?” analysis to confirm that the Annual Energy Outlook reports repeatedly over-estimate fossil fuel consumption and carbon dioxide emissions. The EIA also misses at forecasting oil prices. In 2005 the agency predicted in its Reference Case that oil prices would lie within the $25-$30 per barrel range in the years from 2010 to 2015, with gasoline prices staying at about $1.50 per gallon. Actual prices hovered around $100 per barrel for oil ($3.50/gallon for gasoline) for nearly three years during that period. In its “high oil price case” the EIA projected $48/barrel by 2025. But today $48 is considered a low price for oil—too low, indeed, for the industry to be profitable (and inflation doesn’t account for the hike in the industry’s break-even price). The EIA has also shown a consistent pattern of over-estimating coal consumption and electricity demand.

Oil predictions

The AEO includes a Low Oil Price scenario, in which U.S. production slowly drifts downward to about 7 million barrels per day by 2040; a Reference Case, which has production sailing along at over 10 mb/d (higher than current output); and a High Resource and Technology scenario, which sees oil production soaring to about 17 mb/d—far more than any country has ever produced. The U.S. currently uses over 19 mb/d, so even if the High Resource and Technology scenario were to eventuate, the nation would likely still remain a net importer, depending on how oil demand evolves.


Source: U.S Energy Information Administration, Annual Energy Outlook 2017, p. 41.

There are several moving parts here, including: oil resources; oil prices; the health of the overall economy, which would impact oil demand and prices; and the prospect of new government policies (under the Trump administration and future administrations) that could facilitate oil production.

Oil resources are large; what matters is the size of the portion of those resources that can be recovered at a financial and energy profit. As the EIA acknowledges, the key to the growth or decline of future U.S. petroleum output lies with tight oil produced by hydrofracturing and horizontal drilling (conventional U.S. oil has been in decline for decades). Tight oil happens to be a subject that my organization, Post Carbon Institute (PCI), has assessed with independent and sophisticated data analysis. Earth scientist David Hughes, in his most up-to-date PCI report on U.S. tight oil, assigns recent EIA forecasts (especially for the Bakken play) a “very high optimism bias.” That’s a polite way of saying that, on the basis of the best available data, these forecasts have a very low probability of being borne out.

In order for U.S. tight oil production to significantly recover (it’s currently down by over 15 percent from its peak in 2015)—much less to grow to levels commensurate even with the more modest EIA forecasts—the industry desperately needs higher prices to incentivize much higher drilling rates. After all, for producers U.S. tight oil is some of the highest-cost oil in the world; that’s partly because continuously high rates of drilling are required, since individual wells deplete rapidly. The industry has suggested that cost-cutting efforts have made tight oil profitable at about $60 per barrel (roughly $7 higher than the current WTI price). But much of that cost cutting was due to high-grading (drilling only in the so-called “sweet spots,” which are quickly being exhausted), and to rate-cutting by oil services companies that rent equipment and expertise. High-grading is not sustainable, and whenever oil prices recover oil services companies will surely again demand higher rates. Therefore, we might also assign the industry’s profitability target of $60 a “high optimism bias.” Real profitability probably lies in the $100 range or above. But at that level oil prices impact the overall economy; one of the results is a reduction in demand, which leads back to lower prices. In other words, the petroleum market is in a situation characterized by systemic price volatility. The AEO deals with this momentous reality (which is whipsawing the oil industry and the economy at large) by simply ignoring it.

Technology continues to evolve (today a typical rig can drill more wells per unit of time than in the past), helping to lower drilling costs somewhat. However, Hughes’s analysis suggests that improvements in technology are reaching the law of diminishing returns after significant advances in 2010-2015, and that high-grading and reduction in service costs have actually played a larger role in reducing breakeven costs since the price plunge in 2014—and probably cannot be counted on to very substantially change oilfield economics in years to come.

What about Trump’s policies? An executive branch dominated by oil-friendly officials like Rex Tillerson and Rick Perry, together with a supportive Republican Congress, could rescind regulations and open up federal lands for exploration. But even major actions along these lines might do relatively little to alter oil company balance sheets now deeply in the red. Again, oil prices are the prime mover.

Taking all this into account, it appears that even the EIA’s Low Oil Price scenario may turn out to be highly optimistic. In almost any realistically conceivable instance, the nation will remain a significant oil importer.

Natural Gas

Hopes for the United States to become a “major energy exporter” realistically hinge almost entirely on prospects for much higher levels of production for natural gas. Prior to the shale gas bonanza of the past few years, U.S. natural gas production was in a slow but inexorable decline—but fracking made the U.S. briefly self-sufficient in gas and the world’s largest natural gas producer. Over half of the nation’s gas now comes from shale resources.


Source: U.S Energy Information Administration, Annual Energy Outlook 2017, p. 53.

In the EIA’s High Price scenario, natural gas production more than doubles by 2040, enabling very large export volumes. In the Reference Case, production increases by about a third. Even in its Low Resource and Technology scenario, the EIA projects U.S. gas production in 2040 as remaining at about its current level.

How realistic is any of this? David Hughes has been analyzing shale gas data carefully since 2011, documenting the rapid decline rates of shale gas wells and mapping possible and actual drilling sites. His 2016 Shale Gas Reality Check notes that “Actual shale gas production overall has declined by 4.7% since peaking in February 2016. All major shale plays have peaked and older plays, like the Barnett and Haynesville, are down 38% and 52%, respectively.” Yet each new AEO in recent years has increased its play-by-play estimates of future shale gas production, sometimes by as much as 60 percent. In other words, just as shale gas production rates have been slowing and beginning to decline, the EIA has doubled down on its “optimism bias.”

Again, prices are critical to understanding what’s going on, and where things will go from here. Just about everyone agrees that producers oversupplied the market in recent years, driving prices down to levels at which shale drillers were losing money on every cubic foot of gas they produced. Low interest rates helped drillers make up for negative free cash flow by enabling them to take on very large debt loads. Still, it’s truly remarkable how long the shale bubble kept inflating. But bubbles, by their very nature, eventually pop—and after they do, it can be hard to lure investors back.

Hughes notes that “The EIA drilling rates in AEO2016 require a little over one million wells to be drilled between 2015 and 2040. At an average cost of $6 million each that represents an investment of $6 trillion.” Who is going to pony up such colossal sums without expectation of profit?

Higher natural gas prices would make more shale drilling profitable. And of course, the main reason for the U.S. to export natural gas (at least from the standpoint of producers) would be to take advantage of higher gas prices overseas, though that would force Americans to compete with consumers elsewhere, thus raising domestic prices. But higher natural gas prices would have economic impacts, one of which would be to reduce domestic demand. In fact natural gas prices are not higher overseas, if one takes into account the $5 per thousand cubic feet that it costs to transport the gas by tanker.

American LNG export terminals are therefore a bad idea financially; their rationale hinges entirely on the accuracy of EIA reports like this one.)

Then there’s the bottom-line question: Are U.S. shale gas resources sufficient to realize the EIA’s production scenarios? Given per-well decline rates, the required drilling rates, the geographic variability in resource quality, and the number of possible well locations, Hughes is skeptical:

“My ‘very high’ optimism bias rating for the overall EIA AEO2016 reference case shale gas projections is based on the fundamentals given what is known from an analysis of well quality and production data from subareas within each play. A final note on this optimism is Figure 25 [below], which shows that the EIA assumes that production will begin to grow strongly starting in 2017, despite a 37% decline in drilling rate from peak levels in 2014. Tight oil and shale gas production are collectively forecast to grow 88% from 2014 levels to all-time highs by 2040, while drilling rates remain below 2014 levels to 2040, with only a modest increase in price.”


Source: J. David Hughes, 2016 Shale Gas Reality Check, Post Carbon Institute.

These remarks, published just weeks ago in response to AEO2016, are equally applicable to the EIA’s newly released AEO2017 report. Unless U.S. natural gas production increases very substantially above current (declining) levels, there will be no surplus gas to export. And it’s hard to see where that very substantial increase could come from.


The EIA expects that coal production will continue a slow but gradual decline, falling 0.7 percent per year through 2050. Declining coal consumption is largely due to increased use of natural gas in domestic electricity generation.


Source: U.S Energy Information Administration, Annual Energy Outlook 2017, p. 83.

Assuming the trend of trading coal for gas continues, this would free up more coal for export. However, coal use is declining in other nations as well (notably the UK).

The U.S. is already a coal exporter (about 70 million tons per year—less than 1% of world consumption). But coal export capacity is limited, and so is the global market. While U.S. coal exports may grow somewhat over the short term, the longer-term trend is clear: the coal industry is dying. As noted above, this is partly due to a nearly worldwide move away from coal and toward natural gas and renewables for power generation. If natural gas prices increase greatly, this trend might reverse temporarily. But a comeback for coal would have to confront the fact that, as the best coals are mined, the industry is having to dig deeper and mine lower-quality resources, at higher costs. And the cost of electricity from renewables is falling fast. This is not a propitious economic environment for greatly boosting coal exports.

*          *          *

So, overall, how credible is the claim that the U.S. is on the verge of becoming a major energy exporter? Not very. In the most pessimistic scenarios cited in the EIA’s AEO2017 report, the U.S. remains a net energy importer. But as we have seen, even some of those most pessimistic scenarios probably suffer from high optimism bias.

The authors of the report should have included a scenario in which tight oil and shale gas production decline at rates commensurate with a realistic assessment of per-well decline rates, geographic resource variability, and numbers of possible drilling sites. Had it done so, the resulting chart would have shown the nation with declining overall oil and gas supplies. Net energy exports could not occur under such a scenario.

The timing of the release of AEO2017 is interesting. Typically the EIA publishes its AEO report later in the year; for example, it released the final version of AEO2016 in September. Could the agency be seeking to curry favor with the incoming administration, which is promising more energy production and exports? There’s no way to know, of course.

However, it seems likely that whatever optimism bias currently exists in the EIA will only increase under Trump/Perry stewardship. Already outgoing Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz has announced a new “scientific integrity” policy to deter the Trump administration from gagging or firing employees who worked on climate change and other controversial energy issues. It seems likely that pressure could likewise come to bear on energy supply analysts to hike their optimism to unprecedented levels.

In any case, we at Post Carbon Institute will continue to check the figures and provide an independent analytic voice.


Posted in How Much Left, Natural Gas, Oil & Gas Fracked, Richard Heinberg | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

Oil shortages and climate change may lead to refugee camps even in the U.S. and Europe

[ Will refugee camps be the cities of tomorrow in the U.S. and other developed nations? As oil shortages disrupt supply chains; food shortages grow larger every year from climate change, topsoil erosion, and shortages of natural-gas fertilizer; and rising sea levels displace millions, what other choice besides refugee camps will governments have? 

The alternative is mass migrations overwhelming areas that are still managing to cope, disease, starvation, militias raiding homes and ransacking them for food, and other social disorder. 

Refugee camps, Hoovervilles — call them what you will — are a way to concentrate people in a small area where it is easier to provide food and other aid, and keep other areas not in crisis yet from being overwhelmed by evacuees. 

There are of course, other choices. When Japan saw the U.S. was about to cut off their oil supplies, they started World War II.  When North Korea stopped receiving oil and food aid, they built nuclear weapons to blackmail other nations for aid, and only a small elite lives well while millions have died and tens of millions suffer.  Other ways governments have coped in the past are concentration camps and collective farms.  So however dismal a refugee camp might appear to be, it sure beats the alternatives.

Although the article below is about refugees who have fled their home country,  tomorrow’s refugees will be climate change and energy and natural resource shortage refugees. For example, as heat, drought, lack of water, and a lack of 24 x 7 electricity prevent air-conditioners from working, many in Arizona will flee to other states.  Hurricanes and sea level rise will swamp homes, refineries, nuclear power plants, and electricity generation, sending millions in coastal states inland.

Maybe its time for local governments to plan for permanent refugee camps and  have plenty of birth control pills on hand so that the misery doesn’t continue to grow at a time when everything else is shrinking.

Alice Friedemann   www.energyskeptic.com  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts:  KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report ]

Kurt Kohlstedt.  2015-12-1. Cities of Tomorrow: Refugee Camps Require Longer-Term Thinking. weburbanist


Former mayor of the world’s second-largest refugee camp, humanitarian Kilian Kleinschmidt notes “the average stay today in a camp is 17 years. That’s a generation.” These places need to be recognized as what they are: “cities of tomorrow,” not the temporary spaces we like to imagine. “In the Middle East, we were building camps: storage facilities for people. But the refugees were building a city,” Kleinschmidt said in an interview. Short-term thinking on camp infrastructure leads to perpetually poor conditions, all based on myopic optimism regarding the intended lifespan of these places.

Many refugees may never be able return home, and that reality needs to be realized and incorporated into solutions. Treating their situation as temporary or reversible puts people into a kind of existential limbo; inhabitants of these interstitial places can neither return to their normal routines nor move forward with their lives.. On the one hand, assert experts like Kleinschmidt, planners need build up refugee camps to be durable and sufficient places in their own right. On the other, they also need to move refugee migrants toward countries and regions where they will end up virtuously integrated into struggling economies, including (though controversially): areas of nearby Europe with unused housing and high labor needs.

refugee housing

Beyond providing more thoroughly for essentials, Kleinschmidt sees additional opportunities to enable refugees with new technologies: “With a [3D-printing] Fab Lab people could produce anything they need – a house, a car, a bicycle, generating their own energy, whatever,” he said. Unfortunately, governmental bureaucracies and aid organizations are reluctant to push boundaries and try new approaches. More fundamentally: they frequently fail to recognize the need for robust solutions that help facilitate refugees who are themselves working hard to create real places for living.

refugee housing ikea

“I think we have reached the dead end almost where the humanitarian agencies cannot cope with the crisis,” he said. “We’re doing humanitarian aid as we did 70 years ago after the second world war. Nothing has changed.” Kleinschmidt worked with the United Nations and their High Commission for Refugees for 25 years before starting an independent consultancy that continues to address humanitarian issues around the globe.

Posted in Refugee Camps | Tagged , , | 10 Comments

Ugo Bardi: Turn CO2 into ethanol

Ugo Bardi. October 22, 2016. The mother of all promises and how science failed to maintain it. Cassandra’s Legacy.

The latest scientific claim that went viral on the web is about a catalyst able to turn CO2 directly into ethanol. It is likely that many people understood as a miracle that would remove the dreaded CO2 from the air and transform it into something useful at little or no cost.

Yet, if you look at the original article, you will find nothing that suggests that this catalyst is ready for practical, real-world applications. There are no data about how long it can last in operating conditions, nor there are calculations that would tell us how efficient would be the whole process, considering that one has to saturate the electrolyte with CO2. The authors themselves state that “The overpotential (which might be lowered with the proper electrolyte, and by separating the hydrogen production to another catalyst) probably precludes economic viability for this catalyst.” So, we have something that works in the lab, which is fine, of course, but we should never forget that the graveyard of failed inventions is littered with tombstones with the inscription “in the lab, it worked.”

In the discussion that took place on Facebook about this story, some people asked me why I was criticizing this paper so much; after all, they said, it is a legitimate research report. It is true, but the problem is another one. What is the public supposed to think about this?

Most people will see only the press release and they lack the intellectual tools needed to understand and evaluate the original. And from the press release hey will understand that scientists are making a new claim of a further scientific miracle that will solve some important problem at some unspecified moment in the future. And then, they will see that the whole story will be forgotten and the problems of climate, pollution, depletion, etc., will still be there; worse than before.

It is true that the myth of the scientific miracle is stubborn, mainly because it is a comfortable myth: nobody has to do anything except giving some money to our priests in white coats. But that can’t last forever. Science, as all human enterprises, doesn’t live in a vacuum, it lives on its reputation. People believe that science can do something good for them because science has done that in the past. But this reputation is being tarnished a little bit every time some hyped scientific claim falls into oblivion, as it is destined to do. The reserve of trust that science has accumulated in the past is not infinite.

Already today, you can see the decline of the reputation of science with the many people who believe that no man ever never walked on the moon. Even worse, you can see it with those (nearly 50% of the American public) who believe that human-caused climate change is an elaborate hoax created by a cabal of evil scientists who are only interested in their fat research grants.

So, what happens when the reserve of trust in science runs out for good? I don’t know, but wouldn’t it be a good thing for scientists to be a little more humble and stop promising things they know they can’t maintain?

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Why vultures are so important — and dying off

University of Utah. May 5, 2016. Why vultures matter—and what we lose if they’re gone.

Original paper: Evan R. Buechley et al, The avian scavenger crisis: Looming extinctions, trophic cascades, and loss of critical ecosystem functions, Biological Conservation (2016).Vultures in some parts of the world are in danger of disappearing. And according to a new report from University of Utah biologists, such a loss would have serious consequences for ecosystems and human populations alike.

The primary threat to , according to the report published today in Biological Conservation, is the presence of toxins in the carrion they consume. On many continents, vultures are the unfortunate victims of poisoned carcasses—especially impactful because dozens—or even hundreds—of vultures can feast on a single carcass. Populations of most vulture species around the world are now either declining or on the brink of extinction.Losses of vultures can allow other scavengers to flourish, and proliferation of such scavengers could bring bacteria and viruses from carcasses into human cities.

Risk factors for decline

In 2004, the authors noted that vultures were the single most threatened group of birds. Now, more than a decade later, they have examined factors affecting the extinction risk of more than 100 bird species, including 22 species of vultures, which eat carrion exclusively, and other scavenging birds that have broader diets.  Their results suggest there are several traits that probably contribute to vultures’ extinction risk, including their large body masses, slow reproductive rates and highly specialized diets. The greatest external threat to vultures, however, is poisoning.

Poisoning on three continents

Poisoning is the greatest facing vultures, and impacts 88 percent of threatened vulture species. The poisons come in many forms.

In North America, the California condor, a vulture, experienced sharp declines until only 22 individuals remained by 1982. The leading cause of decline? Toxic lead bullet fragments in the gut piles left behind by hunters after animals had been field-dressed. Intensive conservation efforts helped the species to rebound. The condors now number well over 400, and range over large areas of California, Arizona, Utah and Baja California, Mexico.

In the mid-1990s India experienced a precipitous vulture decline, with more than 95 percent of vultures disappearing by the early 2000s. “That was a massive collapse that led a lot of people to really focus more attention on vultures,” Buechley says. The cause was eventually traced to diclofenac, a veterinary anti-inflammatory drug that relieved pain in cattle, but proved highly toxic to vultures. Hundreds of vultures would flock to each cattle carcass. And if the cow had recently been treated with diclofenac, hundreds of vultures would die. Because of this highly gregarious feeding behavior, less than one percent of cattle carcasses contaminated with diclofenac could account for the steep vulture decline. Fortunately, international cooperation led to a total ban on veterinary diclofenac use. Buechley says the numbers of vultures have stabilized, and are now showing signs of slowly increasing.

Now, the center of the vulture crisis is in sub-Saharan Africa. “In Africa, it’s a lot more challenging,” Buechley says. “It’s a darker story.” Potent newly affordable poisons are used to control predatory pests, such as lions or jackals. The poisons are so toxic that they can cascade through ecosystems: birds, mammals and insects are often found littering the area around these poisoned carcasses. But, as the predominant scavenger, vultures take the brunt of the poisoning and face the largest number of casualties. For example, an elephant carcass poisoned in Namibia in 2007 killed as many as 600 vultures. In other cases, vultures are the victims of poachers who poison carcasses so that vultures do not give away the location of illegally taken animals. “Vultures are taking the hit, indirectly, for a lot of this human-wildlife conflict, as well as the illegal trade in animal parts,” Buechley says. This crisis, unfortunately, is ongoing.Rise of the facultative scavengers

In vultures’ absence, other scavenger populations increase to take advantage of all of the uneaten carrion. By some estimates, in Central America, South America and Africa, vultures eat more meat than all predators combined. Without vultures, animals that eat carrion as a part of their diet (called facultative scavengers, as opposed to vultures, which eat only carrion) proliferate to take advantage of the available nutrients in a dead carcass. “There are a ton of nutrients in carrion that are going to be taken advantage of by something,” Buechley says.

Crows, rats, dogs—any of these species can suddenly become abundant and dominant, to the point of crowding out the remaining vultures. Hundreds of vultures on a carcass can easily frighten away packs of dogs, ?ekercio?lu says. But when only a few vultures are left, the dogs can rule.

Such changes in populations of certain animal groups can upset the balance of food webs. “All these facultative scavengers are also predators, and so they also go out and eat other organisms too,” Buechley says. “You have this cascading effect.”

Human impacts

The impact of vultures’ declines are not limited to the realm of ecology, however. Vultures are highly efficient consumers of carrion, sometimes locating and consuming carcasses within an hour, before other forms of decay can set in. And vultures’ stomachs are highly acidic, killing nearly all bacteria or viruses that may be present in carrion. Combined with the fact that vultures rarely come in contact with humans, vultures serve as a barrier to prevent diseases from proliferating in dead animals and spreading to humans. Other facultative scavengers are not so adapted, and could pass along those diseases into , as many are already fixtures in cities.For example, following the decline of vultures, India experienced a strong uptick in feral dogs —by an estimated seven million. The increase in dogs, potentially feeding on disease-ridden carcasses, is thought to have at least partially caused the rabies outbreak that was estimated to have killed 48,000 people from 1992-2006 in India—deaths that may have been avoided if not for the disappearance of vultures.Members of the Parsi sect of Zoroastrianism experienced a different impact. For thousands of years, the Parsi people have placed their dead on exposed mountaintops or tall towers for vultures to consume. The practice is called “sky burial.”But with few vultures and unable to properly handle their dead, the Parsis experienced a crisis within the faith. Some constructed captive vulture aviaries. Others talked about desiccating bodies using focused solar mirrors. The Parsis’ plight exemplifies the vultures’ role in south Asian society—and the various impacts if the vultures aren’t there.

Learning from the past

Although the vulture crisis in Africa is ongoing, Buechley can predict what the outcome will be, based on previous experiences in India. Crows, gulls, rats and dogs will boom. And the rabies outbreak in India may just be a prologue, because several sub-Saharan Africa countries already have the highest per-capita rabies infection rates in the world. Rabies is only one of the many potential diseases that vultures had helped regulate.Why vultures matter—and what we lose if they’re gone

Buechley notes that the poisoning that is killing vultures is also affecting many other organisms throughout ecosystems. But vultures are the most sensitive canaries in ecological coal mines. The story of the California condor shows that recovery is possible, but at a high cost that countries in the developing world may not be able to pay.”It’s good news and bad news,” ?ekercio?lu says. “It shows that we can bring back these scavengers. But the bad news is that once we get to these numbers, it costs tens of millions of dollars and decades to bring them back. You don’t want to go there. And once you go there, we can afford to save only a few species.”So, Buechley argues, “the better solution is to invest in vulture conservation here and now, in order to stem incalculable damage from trophic cascades and increased human disease burden in the developing world

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Steam powered farm tractors

[ Steam engines weren’t very efficient, 10 to 20% at best, which is why they went away beginning around 1920 when oil-powered engines came along.  At the very best steam engines for transportation reached 10 to 20% efficiency. They were almost universally powered by coal, mostly by locomotives and stationary engines in factories. Only in America for a few decades was there so much wood that steam boats and locomotives burned wood rather than coal, until deforestation east of the Mississippi forced coal to be used, and a few decades later around 1920 oil combustion engines became more powerful, efficient, far less dangerous, and cheaper and the steam engines that remain are steam turbines used to generate electricity, not to move vehicles.

Steam turbines to generate electricity are very efficient — the best can be 45%.  But since trucks run on diesel fuel and can’t be electrified with batteries or catenary, and biomass doesn’t scale up enough to produce electricity, I am mainly interested in steam engines burning biomass as a long-term replacement for diesel-engines for trucks in the future.

Biomass won’t scale up for vehicle and factory steam engines in the future for the same reason it didn’t in the past, the wood will run out quickly. Forests can take decades to grow back, since photosynthesis is inefficient, with about  a half percent of new biomass added per year. 

Further limiting biomass steam engines is that post carbon they will depend on horses, like they did in the past, to haul biomass fuel and water to the steam engine. Each horse needs an average of 5 acres to provide its food, land which is now used to produce human food.

Meanwhile, post fossil fuels, wood will also be needed for nearly everything – heating and cooking, homes and buildings, furniture and flooring, tools, roofs, and so on. It will be needed to make charcoal to make iron, bricks, metals, ceramics, and so on.

In fact, biomass depletion (especially deforestation) is one of the main reasons past civilizations have failed for the past 5,000 years (see one of my favorite books: John Perlin’s “A forest journey”.  And not just because there isn’t enough biomass.  When you cut down forests, topsoil blows and washes away, and agricultural production declines. War ships can no longer be built to trade or steal trees elsewhere.

Steam-powered vehicles are so inefficient I wasn’t going to ever cover them.  But after several interviews about my book “When Trucks Stop Running”, several readers commented that we’ll use steam engines in the future.

Which reminded me of that one reason why the energy crisis isn’t feared by anyone is that it’s like Bop-a-mole.  Even if you succeed in convincing someone that solar PV power won’t be able to replace oil because it has a low EROI (too low to replace itself let alone provide power for everything else), is too seasonal, requires too much non-existent energy storage, and so on, most people will reason: but there’s still wind power, hydrogen, geothermal, wave and tidal, hydropower, natural gas and so on.  Given the reduction of news and conversation to ten-second soundbites, the pressure to be optimistic about everything all the time (the scientists will come up with something!), and lack of scientific  education, I don’t expect to ever make a dent in the general ignorance on energy and natural resource matters, but I don’t mind. This site is meant for the very small percent of people who, like me, want to understand reality regardless of how depressing it may be.  An even smaller subset of them will actually make different choices about career and where to live than they might have otherwise, choices that may saves their lives in the bottleneck ahead. So good luck to anyone who has read this far! ]

Alice Friedemann   www.energyskeptic.com  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts:  KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report ]

Brandon Knapp. 2000. How Steam Power Revolutionized the Farm in America. Yesterday’s Tractors.

As the American farm entered the 1800s, its main source of power came from three animals-the horse, the mule, or the ox. The average farm worked by horses was 100 acres, and a farmer walked 8 miles per acre to plow his fields (with a walking plow) at the average speed of 1 1/2 mph. With 100 acres, the farmer walked 800 miles to plow his fields. And he still had to plant the crop, and cultivate! For wheat and other crops the grain had to be separated from the chaff with a machine called the thresher. The thresher was powered by a power sweep, which was turned by horses. Everything depended on the strength and durability of humans and horses.

In 1849, things began to change. Some of the first portable steam engines for farm use were built in this year, in Philadelphia. They only provided belt power for machines like the thresher. There were three sizes-4, 10, and 30 horsepower. The 4-hp model sold for $625 and the 30-hp model sold for $2300. That was a lot of money back then! These machines were also heavy; the 4-hp model weighed two tons, or 1000 pounds per horsepower!

These machines were pulled from field to field by horses. The steam engine provided steady power, it didn’t tire after hard work, and it only was “fed” when it worked; instead of all year round, like animals. Yet these machines were still crude, and a low steam pressure of 50 to 90 p.s.i. limited the amount of work that could be done.

Over the next few years, the steam pressure would be steadily increased with better quality material and construction of the boilers. However the greatest change of the steam engine would make it unforgettable for the next 150 years-“Self Propelled” steam engines began their debut in 1855. At first they were just a normal “Portable” engine, with chains or gears connecting the crankshaft and the rear wheels. They couldn’t even steer! They still needed horses to turn. But the self-propelled engine could also pull its thresher behind it.

If a steam engine could pull a thresher, it could also pull another type of load-the plow. In 1855, a “steam plow” was used by its inventor Obed Hussey. In 1858, Joseph Fawkes used his 30-hp engine; named “Lancaster”, for a plowing demonstration at the Illinois State Fair. The engine and plow were then taken to the U.S. Agricultural Society’s contest in Chicago where it won the championship. The steam engine that could be used for plowing, pulling, belt work, or other uses became known as the Steam Traction Engine.

Then, development of the steam engine slowed as the Civil War began. Most industry was used to produce weapons of war. However, the Armies required more food, and the Armies took many men from their farms at the same time. The few men and women left on the farms needed to use technology to keep up with demand. So the small number of steam engines (mostly portable types) became more popular. Yet the war kept farmers from getting the technology they wanted. It would have to wait until after the war…

After the war, steam engines steadily improved in technology and quality. Many different types and manufacturers of engines sprung up. Case, one of the largest manufacturers of steam engines, made its first engine in 1876. Port Huron began in 1882. In 1880, a patent was issued for a steering devise; the steam engine could make itself turn! Then came the invention of the clutch (very high technology!). Steam pressures of 150 p.s.i. became commonplace. Work was easier for the farmer as the steam engine pulled the plow, and turned the belt to thresh the grain.

The steam traction engine’s popularity soared during the 1890s. But, so did the horse’s. Just as the Eli Whitney’s cotton gin needed more slaves; the steam engine required more horses. The steam traction engine could plow, haul huge loads, and power the threshing machine all day. It needed plenty of fuel and water, which was brought by horses. The increased amount of tilled land needed to be planted, and cultivated, which the steam engine was too big to do. Although the steam engine made horses unneeded for some big jobs, more horses were needed for many others.

Groups of farmers formed “threshing rings” in order to pay for the costs of an engine and thresher. It was very expensive; a 110 hp engine from Case could cost over $3000! The farmers began to realize that the steam engine, while useful, still didn’t keep expenses down enough (when you add horses to the bill) to make them useful to the small farmer. Only larger farms could afford them. As the “newfangled” gasoline engines became more reliable, and smaller, they began to cut into the steam engine’s market. From 1900 and on the steam engine became less popular. In 1924 came the Farmall, a gas tractor that could do all the jobs on the farm. It was the final nail in the coffin. Steam production stopped a few years later. A few steam engines worked ’till World War Two. Then many were lost in the scrap drives. Not too many are around today, and you can only see them at antique tractor shows. Yet, when they are there, you notice them. Just look for the plumes of coal/wood smoke, and listen for the whistles. They still are impressive!

Interesting Information

President Abraham Lincoln said in 1859-“The successful application of steampower to farm work is a desideratum-especially a steam plow. To be successful, it must, all things considered, plow better than can be done by animal power. It must do all the work as well, and cheaper, or more rapidly, so as to get through more perfectly in season; or in some way afford an advantage over plowing with animals, else it is no success.”

Horsepower in steam engines was first measured with the formula, 1hp for every 10-14 square feet of boiler surface. But this formula was outdated by the increase of steam pressures in the engines, yet the formula was used until 1911. Then a new measurement-brake horsepower (which was measured on a Prony Brake-type dynamometer). An engine from 1908, which was advertised as 30hp, might be advertised as a 100hp engine in 1912! Some ads had both types of horsepower rating, such as 30-100hp.

Steam engines exploded every day in the U.S. in the early 1900s. For a plain steam traction engine-the boiler holds 52 cubic feet of water, and 26 cubic feet of steam at 150 psi. That 26 cubic feet of steam at 150 psi weighs 9.73 lbs, but holds 1,300,000 foot pounds of energy. The 52 cubic feet of water is at 366° F. It holds 38,000,000 foot pounds of energy. When the boiler fails, it releases enough energy (from the steam and water) to send a one-pound object straight up 7,500 miles (into orbit). Or a 7,500 pound object (the traction engine) one mile up!

Some reader comments:

  • The early farms were not 100 acres in size, most of them were much closer to 40 acres, and probably less than 20 acres was actually plowed under, so the theory of a farmer walking 800 miles just to get the plowing done is a bit far-fetched. A farm of 100 acres would have been quite an operation and would have required several hired men.
  • This was a good report but the dates are misleading. plowing with traction engines did not start until about 1876 when case introduced the first traction engine.


Ertel, Patrick W. American Steam Tractors.  1997.

Halberstadt, Hans. Steam Tractors. 1996. Iron Will. Reiman Publications, L.P., 1997.

Letourneau, Peter. Vintage Case Tractors. 1997.

Macmillan, Don., and Jones, Russell. John Deere Tractors and Equipment, Volume One 1837-1959. American Society of Agricultural Engineers, 1988.

Moorhouse, Robert. The Illustrated History of Tractors. Quintet Publishing Limited, 1996.

Norbeck, Jack. Encyclopedia of American Steam Traction Engines. Crestline Publishing Co., 1976.

Posted in Biomass-powered Steam Engines | Tagged , , , , | 6 Comments

Wind and solar need natural gas to balance intermittent, variable, and seasonal power

[ The highest wind states are getting to be enormously dependent on natural gas to balance wind and solar as this EIA article about California below shows.  Yet conventional natural gas has peaked — half our natural gas– and is declining at 5% a year.  Shale “fracked” natural gas is expected to peak by 2020, and can decline by 80% within a few years, and is already $400 billion in debt. Natural gas is not only balancing wind and solar, but it also provides base load power (running most of the time for 24 hours), and medium load (from 7 am to 6 pm on week days). On top of that, natural gas has been replacing coal and nuclear plants, and expected to do so even more in the future.  Add in a growing population and natural gas will be declining at a much faster rate in the future than it has already. LNG import facilities aren’t a solution either. They take years to build and cost many billions of dollars, are fought tooth and nail by the ports where they’ll be put (the public sees them as an explosive bomb), and make us even more dependent on foreign nations.

Yet the LCOE costs of wind and solar look “cheap” because they don’t include Natural Gas LCOE, yet they rely nearly 100% on natural gas (to a smaller extent balancing can be done with biomass and (pumped) hydropower, but hydroelectric isn’t considered dispatchable because it’s seasonal and held back for agriculture, drinking water, and ecological needs.

Limits to natural gas mean limits to wind and solar penetration as well, since utility-scale battery storage and compressed air energy storage are far from commercial.

Alice Friedemann   www.energyskeptic.com  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts:  KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity]

Energy Information Administration. September 7, 2016.Natural gas generation and electricity imports used to follow load in California

graph of hourly average CAISO electricity production, as explained in the article text

Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, California Independent System Operator (CAISO) as accessed through ABB Velocity Suite

The California Independent System Operator (CAISO), the entity responsible for maintaining the balance between supply and demand for electricity throughout most of the state, where demand peaks in the late afternoon or early evening on summer days. Because of differences in the hourly output of certain electricity generators, some of which are nearly constant (nuclear) and some of which can vary considerably during the day (solar, wind), output from mainly natural gas and electricity imports from other regions are used to balance overall electricity supply and demand in the region.

Thermal generation in CAISO, mostly comes from natural gas, contributes the largest share of electricity generation in CAISO and has the widest range in hourly generation. Based on hourly data in June, July, and August, on the average summer day in 2016, in-region thermal power output ranged between 7.3 gigawatts and 15.2 gigawatts (GW). Over the entire summer, hourly thermal power output was as high as 25.6 GW at 5:00 p.m. on July 27, when total system demand was high, and was as low as 2.6 GW at 9:00 a.m. on June 12, an hour when demand was relatively low and renewables output was relatively high.

The only nuclear facility in CAISO, Diablo Canyon, consistently provided about 2.2 GW of power. Large hydroelectric facilities combined for about 2.3 GW to 4.8 GW of power on a typical day. Hydroelectric facilities, the most flexible renewable sources, were generally dispatched to coincide with electricity demand, meaning output was often highest during hours of peak electricity demand and lowest during times of low electricity demand.

graph of hourly CAISO electricity production by fuel type, as explained in the article text

Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, California Independent System Operator (CAISO) as accessed through ABB Velocity Suite

Some renewable fuels have more variable levels of output, particularly wind and solar. Most of CAISO’s utility-scale solar generation comes from solar photovoltaic systems, whose output is dependent on sunlight during daylight hours. The CAISO area includes a few solar thermal facilities, some of which have energy storage that allows them to produce electricity after the sun has gone down, but these generators make up a relatively small portion of CAISO’s solar output. On an average summer day, utility-scale solar output ranged from 0 GW to 7.6 GW, the largest range among renewable fuels and the only fuel to have many hours without any output.

graph of hourly CAISO electricity production for selected renewable fuels, as explained in the article text

Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, California Independent System Operator (CAISO) as accessed through ABB Velocity Suite

Wind generators provided about 2.2 GW on average, but they ranged from near zero (0.06 GW) to more than 4 GW several times during the summer. Wind output is often at its lowest point during the middle of the day, when solar output is near its highest. Geothermal, biomass, biogas, and small hydroelectric facilities had lower but more consistent output with relatively small differences between their highest and lowest hourly output.

Electricity imports are another option to supplement electricity produced by in-region sources to balance total supply with system load. Data from EIA’s new electric system operating tool show electricity trades among different balancing authorities. CAISO imports electricity from nearby regions such as the Northwest and Southwest. On an average summer day, these imports range between 6.5 GW and 9.4 GW.


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The global threat of invasive species to marine biodiversity

Molnar, J. L., et al. 2008. Assessing the global threat of invasive species to marine biodiversity. Frontiers in ecology and the environment #6

Although invasive species are widely recognized as a major threat to marine biodiversity, there has been no quantitative global assessment of their impacts and routes of introduction. Here, we report initial results from the first such global assessment. Drawing from over 350 databases and other sources, we synthesized information on 329 marine invasive species, including their distribution, impacts on biodiversity, and introduction pathways. Initial analyses show that only 16% of marine ecoregions have no reported marine invasions, and even that figure may be inflated due to under-reporting.

International shipping, followed by aquaculture, represent the major means of introduction.

Invasive species have transformed marine habitats around the world. The most harmful of these invaders displace native species, change community structure and food webs, and alter fundamental processes, such as nutrient cycling and sedimentation.

Alien invasives have damaged economies by diminishing fisheries, fouling ships’ hulls, and clogging intake pipes. Some can even directly impact human health by causing disease.


We defined “harmful” invasive species as those having ecological impact scores of 3 or 4 (disrupting multiple species or wider ecosystems). Using this definition, 57% of species in our database are harmful, ranging from 47% of cnidarians to 84% of plants

Our data reveal high levels of invasion in the following ecoregions:

  • Northern California, including San Francisco Bay (n = 85 species, 66% of which are harmful),
  • Hawaiian Islands (73, 42%)
  • North Sea (73, 64%)
  • Levantine Sea in the eastern Mediterranean (72, 50%).

Realms that feature the highest degree of invasion are:

  • Temperate Northern Atlantic (240, 57%)
  • Temperate Northern Pacific (123, 63%)
  • Eastern Indo-Pacific (76, 45%).

The least invaded realms are the Southern and Arctic Oceans (1, 100%, and 9, 56%, respectively).

More than 80% of species were introduced unintentionally. The most common pathway for 60 marine species in the database was shipping (ballast and/or fouling; 228 species, 57% of50which are harmful). Of the 205 species with more detailed shipping pathway information, 39% are known to have been, or are likely to have been transported only by ship fouling, 31% are transported only by ballast,30and 31% are transported by either ship foul ing or ballast. The aquaculture industry is the next most common pathway (13420 species, 64% of which are harmful;

Each invasive species was assigned a score (where data allowed) for the following categories: ecological impact, geographic extent, invasive potential, and management difficulty (Panel 1). The “ecological impact” score measures the severity of the impact of a species on the viability and integrity of native species and natural biodiversity. For example, the green alga, Caulerpa taxifolia, was assigned the highest ecological impact score (4), based on its ability to outcompete native species and reduce overall biodiversity (Jousson et al. 2000). The sea slug, Godiva quadricolor, was conservatively assigned a lower score (2), because its only known impact is feeding on one taxon – other sea slugs – with no wider effects documented (Hewitt et al. 2002). The ecological impact score was assigned globally for each species, not for specific occurrences.

Ecological impact:

  • 4 – Disrupts entire ecosystem processes with wider abiotic influences
  • 3 – Disrupts multiple species, some wider ecosystem function, and/or keystone species or species of high conservation value (eg threatened species)
  • 2 – Disrupts single species with little or no wider ecosystem impact
  • 1 – Little or no disruption
  • U – Unknown or not enough information to determine score

Geographic extent

  • 4 – Multi-ecoregion
  • 3 – Ecoregion
  • 2 – Local ecosystem/sub-ecoregion
  • 1 – Single site
  • U – Unknown or not enough information to determine score

Invasive potential

  • 4 – Currently/recently spreading rapidly (doubling in < 10 years) and/or high potential for future rapid spread
  • 3 – Currently/recently spreading less rapidly and/or potential for future less rapid spread 2 – Established/present, but not currently spreading and high potential for future spread
  • 1 – Established/present, but not currently spreading and/or low potential for future spread U – Unknown or not enough information to determine score

Management difficulty

  • 4 – Irreversible and/or cannot be contained or controlled
  • 3 – Reversible with difficulty and/or can be controlled with significant ongoing management
  • 2 – Reversible with some difficulty and/or can be controlled with periodic management
  • 1 – Easily reversible, with no ongoing management necessary (eradication)
  • U – Unknown or not enough information to determine score

We have compiled information from over 350 data sources. The database now includes 329 marine invasive species, with at least one species documented in 194 ecoregions (84% of the world’s 232 marine ecoregions; Figure 1).

The dominant groups of species in our database are crustaceans (59 species), mollusks (54), algae (46), fish (38), annelids (31), plants (19), and cnidarians (17). We scored all 329 species for ecological impact and geographic extent. The mean ecological impact score was 2.55 (SD = 1.04) – halfway between “disrupts single species with little or no wider ecosystem impact” and “disrupts multiple species, some wider ecosystem function. Most species have been found in multiple ecoregions (mean geographic extent score of 3.98, SD = 0.19). We scored 324 species for invasive potential, with a mean score of 2.05 (SD = 1.03; “established/present…high potential for future spread”). The 268 species scored for management difficulty had a mean of 3.56 (SD = 0.71), indicating that most are difficult if not impossible to remove or control.

Do your own research:

ocean-invasive-links-1 ocean-invasive-links-2

University of Tartu: Benthic Invertebrates www.sea.ee/Sektorid/merebioloogia/MASE/Benthic_invertebrates.htm

USGS’s Florida Integrated Science Center – Gainesville http://cars.er.usgs.gov/Nonindigenous_Species/nonindigenous_species.html

USGS’s Marine Nuisance Species http://woodshole.er.usgs.gov/project-pages/stellwagen/didemnum/

WA State Noxious Weed Control Board’s Information www.nwcb.wa.gov/weed_info/Written_findings/Spartina_anglica.html about common cordgrass (Spartina anglica)

Weed Information Sheet: Hygrophila costata www.portstephens.local-e.nsw.gov.au/files/46654/File/Hygrophila_info_sheet.pdf

Why do jellyfish sting? (author: B Galil) www.ocean.org.il/Eng/Focus/Jellyfish.asp

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