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114 thoughts on “Changing Climate, Changing Infections

  1. Fifi on sustainability:

    “Sustainability means the planet being able to keep on supporting and sustaining human life[.] … Sustaining the human population means that reproduction is necessary, having one or two children seems quite reasonable to me[.]”

    I’m not really worried about human reproduction. Whatever I think about it, it’s going to happen anyway. Kind of like worrying about the ethics or reasonableness of the sun rising in the east.

    So for me, sustainability has nothing to do with whether the 6.8 billion people on the planet today are reproducing fast enough. They are. There are going to be plenty of humans to go around whether I have children or not, so choosing to reproduce is not going to contribute to the preservation of the species and is not something to chalk up on my list of “things I did for the planet today.” However, as a person in a rich country, choosing to reproduce will ultimately mean fewer resources for children somewhere else. At this level of population, the pie is finite.

    Do you have any thoughts on sustainable choices that go beyond not having more than two children? I repeat: what choices can you make today that will lead you to a fossil-fuel independent life and that — if the same choices were made by everyone — not lead to massive deforestation?

    People do little things that make themselves feel good, they call it “sustainable” and then they get to avoid looking at the big picture. Let’s say I plant 50 trees for every flight I take. Lots of people would think that was saving the planet from global warming. It’s not. It might be reversing some deforestation — replacing a part of the carbon sink that was lost when the trees that were there before were cut down. But it does nothing to reverse all the CO2 that was released into the air from the fossil fuel that was burned on that flight. That’s simply a net increase. Period. (All the recoverable fossil fuel is going to be burned, you know that, right? It’s not a question of “if,” it’s a question of “when,” and most importantly of all, “by who.”)

    Eighty years from now, the planet will not be able to sustain 6.8 billion people. I think the forecast is that we’re due for nine billion. Something like that. If we’re merrily reproducing away on our goal to nine billion, what happens when we find ourself trying to feed ourselves from a five-billion people sized pie?

    Well, people will die. They will die from drought, hunger, disease and war. That’s what will happen. Eventually we will die back to the maximum limits the revised planet can support, and the five billion (or four or three or whatever) people remaining will live on the maxed-out planet. There will be a death for every birth (and there will be lots of births) and there will be no greener pastures to move to.

    Knowing that this is coming, what choices are you making today that are sustainable? Investing in climate-modification technologies, like sprinkling particles in the air or fertilizing the Antarctic oceans? (Reducing carbon emissions from fossil fuel doesn’t count, because it achieves nothing in terms of climate warming. If you don’t burn the fuel, someone else will.)

    Fifi returning the question:
    “What does sustainability mean to you?”

    Sustainability means something that, if everyone on the planet did it today, will still be available as an option for everyone on the planet eighty or two hundred or two thousand years from now.

    Burning firewood for heat and cooking? Nope, because then there won’t be any wood left after a few years. Protecting forests by burning fossil fuels for heat and cooking? Nope, because there won’t be any fossil fuels left in 200 years. Burning nuclear fuel for heat and cooking? Nope, because nuclear fuel will run out, and nuclear power plants are dependent on fossil fuel to build and maintain. Depending on solar energy for heat and cooking? Yes, if you mean solar ovens. No, if you mean photovoltaic panels. People in the north are severely limited in their ability to heat using only passive solar, so then all us northerners should move further south… where there is less water. So that’s not sustainable either.

    If you are getting the impression that I think that “sustainability” is a nice but meaningless word that people use to make themselves feel better, then you are right.

    Fifi returning the question bis:
    “Does [sustainability] mean eradicating humans?”

    Like I said, not an issue. Not gonna happen. From upthread: “Like the nice lady who said “I make beautiful babies. If the world is going to collapse because of too many babies, they might as well be beautiful and they might as well be mine.”

    I still can’t see anything to argue with in that logic. It’s completely rational. If I’d had children — which I wanted to do — it would have been with that logic.

    What I do argue with is people throwing around the word “sustainability” as if it meant something.

  2. Fifi on planetary limits:
    “As for the carrying capacity of the planet. We long ago surpassed what was once considered the limit[.]”

    Correct. Using fossil fuels. Which will become more expensive and scarce.

    “[A]s it stands, if food and resources were fairly distributed we wouldn’t have world hunger.”

    Correct. Do you have a plan for ensuring the fair distribution of increasingly scarce food and resources as people migrate out of desertified, previously agricultural areas?

  3. Fifi on parenting:
    “More than anything else, I support people who have children actually caring about those children (be they biological or adopted) and the kind of world they’ll inherit.”

    That makes infinitely more sense than what you said earlier, which was that you supported people you like spreading their genes.

  4. micheleinmichigan says:

    FiFi – I’ve read your comments. Perhaps if you click my links you will understand that saying something is a eugenics statement is not claiming the commenter is a Nazis. Yes, Nazism is the most extreme and tragic end of the spectrum. More common are the ideas of encouraging or discouraging reproduction based on desired or undesired characteristics.

    So, you can say “I am happy that my friend had a child because I love her and I love children” without it being a eugenics statement. The statement “I am happy my friend had a child because it benefits the gene pool” becomes eugenics. In fact the idea that any reproductive choice should be made in order to benefit the human gene pool is eugenics. The problem with it is that it infringes on what most people consider to be basic human rights.

    Laws are the most obvious way this can be a human rights violation, but government or other groups have at times used propaganda to encourage or discourage people with certain attributes to reproduce more or less. This is why I am concerned with statements that are more socially driven, because when it reaches a certain point, social pressure can create very real human rights violations.

    The Britannica link before ends on this note (when referencing how eugenics has become a hurdle in the advancement of genetic testing). Which I like.

    “Today, our decisions about genetic testing and how to act on the results of these tests are personal—they are not dictated by laws, there are no imposed pressures. As a result, our freedom of choice, among the most fundamental of our privileges, determines the “natural selection” of the human species.”

    http://www.britannica.com/blogs/2009/02/beyond-darwin-eugenics-social-darwinism-and-the-social-theory-of-the-natural-selection-of-humans/

  5. Fifi says:

    Alison – “What I do argue with is people throwing around the word “sustainability” as if it meant something.”

    So do you, essentially, think “sustainability” is a hollow word without meaning? And do you think there’s no way for humans to live in a sustainable way on the planet?

    And, yes, I support people I like who are ethical and intelligent (in my subjective opinion) having one or two children and I actually extend that support to them in various practical ways. That doesn’t mean I’m against people I don’t like having kids (or think it’s my place to make other people’s choices in this matter, as if I could!) I also support people I like and am friends with who have children with mental of physical disabilities. I’m less supportive of the choices made by people I like who are my friends but aren’t really particularly ethical or intelligent, or who have psychological or emotional issues that make them destructive parents (though kids are remarkably resilient). I know and like, and am friends with, a diversity of people – not only those who I share values with or who are particularly intelligent (there are other qualities that make them worthwhile people to be friends with in my opinion) or even those who are entirely ethical according to what I consider ethical behavior.

    We can discuss the ethics, value and problematics of genetic manipulation if you’d like – there are some important conversations to be had around these kinds of issues and that are being had in science and medical ethics already. However, one has to get past the Godwin reflex to be able to have a rational conversation about what we are already doing, have done in the past and how it’s turned out, and how we are going to use or restrain this technology.

  6. micheleinmichigan says:

    FiFi”(I understand that you somehow think your having adopted children of different genetic heritage than yourself is relevant here since you bring it up, how do you see it being relevant to what I said? And do you take issue with Alison’s beliefs that having kids is unsustainable since you have kids? Or do you see yourself as being somehow ethically superior to people who have and raise genetic children?”

    I only see it relevant in so far as it make my personal experience different than that of most people. My statement was.

    “Maybe as a Caucasian parent of two Asian children, I hear a lot of this stuff that others don’t. So what’s not on the average person’s radar is a loud and annoying beep for me.”

    I am allowing that I may hear more of these kinds of statements than others, that is parents of similar looking children or people without children. I’m not sure that I do, but maybe.

    My reasons for adopting are varied and personal. Although I am very happy with my decision, I don’t feel it makes me superior. I feel I have the same right and obligation as anyone else to call someone on a statement I find questionable.

  7. micheleinmichigan says:

    Alison, “What I do argue with is people throwing around the word “sustainability” as if it meant something.”

    Well, not that I completely disagree with you. Yes, in the broad picture what you say is inevitable, but I would still rather people used the fabric grocery bags, or use public transport or buy the high MPG car over the SUV, look at wind/solar/hydrogen power, etc. If it takes throwing around the word sustainability or green or earth friendly to increase the number of people doing these kinds of things I’m okay with it. But I get your point, we do little things to rationalize our big things and it all doesn’t balance out.

    Look on the bright side… Oh well, All the bright side scenarios are quite dark, so I won’t go that route.

  8. Fifi says:

    Fifi – “[A]s it stands, if food and resources were fairly distributed we wouldn’t have world hunger.”

    Alison – “Correct. Do you have a plan for ensuring the fair distribution of increasingly scarce food and resources as people migrate out of desertified, previously agricultural areas?”

    Er, is correct/incorrect decided by whether I agree or disagree with you! Do you think you have all the answers here? I certainly don’t! I’m no messiah and I’m making no claims to have ultimate solutions (of any kind) for the world’s current or future problems. I’m merely pointing out that a great deal of our issues vis a vis world hunger and sustainability are systemic and due to social values. Do I believe these can be changed? Yes, social, economic and political systems, and cultural values, are created and implemented/perpetuated by humans so we can potentially change them. Will we? Who knows? Is it worth trying, even if it’s just in small ways that are dwarfed by the magnitude of the issues we face? I think so but that’s just a personal opinion and a philosophical stance towards living that I’ve chosen. Whether humans get it together or not, or if we just create increasing suffering for ourselves, is far outside of my control or power. That said, I believe it’s worth doing what I can and am happy when I see other people doing constructive things to try to create cultures of sustainability and sustainable systems. Not that I’m enveloped in a cloud of smug or think any of us are “saving the world”. The planet will do fine whether we’re here or not so sustainability is all about sustaining the human species to me.

  9. michele on bright side scenarios:
    “I would still rather people used the fabric grocery bags, or use public transport or buy the high MPG car over the SUV, look at wind/solar/hydrogen power, etc.”

    Sure. I do all of those things too, and of course I think my decisions are very good and everyone should emulate them. ;>)

    If I were completely nihilistic I would bring natural gas into the house and get a nice gas range. But the wars that are being fought over fossil fuels — and that will escalate — revolt me. I want nothing as little as convenient to do with those wars. I live in an area where electricity is hydro, so I keep my electric range.

    Who am I fooling — I’m still using 1000 times as many resources as a peasant in the high Andes. I make my little gestures anyway, even though I know I’m just shaking my fist at the darkness.

    I just don’t think that entitles me to judge other people who skip the little gestures, just as I don’t think the little gestures entitle me or anyone else to feel smug or virtuous.

    (Have we all seen Serial Mom?)

  10. micheleinmichigan says:

    (Have we all seen Serial Mom?)

    took me a google second, but yes :) Now I will have to watch it again, though.

  11. Fifi on economic imbalances:
    “I’m merely pointing out that a great deal of our issues vis a vis world hunger and sustainability are systemic and due to social values. Do I believe these can be changed? Yes, social, economic and political systems, and cultural values, are created and implemented/perpetuated by humans so we can potentially change them.”

    See, I don’t. I think people are more open and flexible when they feel less threatened. So to me, saying that more people are going to be threatened with drought and hunger, and that people are going to be migrating from desertified (previously marginal) areas into marginal (previously fertile) areas is saying that there is going to be less tolerance, more stress, more violence, more scapegoating, more border wars, more all-out wars, more genocide.

    If we can’t manage equitable distribution of resources when there could be enough for all of us, I don’t think we’re all of a sudden going to see the light when there isn’t enough any more. So I think that the theoretical possiblity of redistribution in the present actually argues against the scenario of us all happily and equitably sharing the pie when the planet’s main agricultural producing regions run out of water and very few can afford fertilizer.

    Fifi, I’m not saying you should have an answer. I know I don’t have one. Acting as if there’s an answer is a completely sane way to bring meaning to our choices, as is living for today.

    I find the framing these issues as a “predicament” vs a “problem” to be useful. I don’t know whether we all have the liberal arts educations that would make this framing (yawn) trivial. I don’t and the framing is helpful to me.

    http://sharonastyk.com/2009/08/23/the-pedagogy-of-collapse/

    “[O]ur crisis of depletion is in fact, not, as it is commonly presented, a problem, with potential solutions. It is rather [...] a predicament, a situation we simply face, which cannot be solved. The obvious model predicament is death – something that can be addressed and handled in a whole host of ways, some productive, some not, but that can never be solved – we all die. How we approach our deaths, how we view them, the contexts in which they occur – these details matter enormously, but none of them approach the status of solution, eliminating the basic problem.”

    If I judge someone for their unsustainable choices, then I am classifying our common crisis as a problem with a solution (choices I have defined as sustainable) that they are not choosing.

    If I recognize that we are all facing a common predicament, then that frees me to not worry about whether someone else recycles their plastic. Fundamentally, that has no effect on the predicament.

  12. micheleinmichigan says:

    “[O]ur crisis of depletion is in fact, not, as it is commonly presented, a problem, with potential solutions. It is rather [...] a predicament, a situation we simply face, which cannot be solved.”

    Although someone could argue about the inevitability of collapse*, I find this an incredibly useful way to look of things. I had already gotten partway there, mentally comparing using less gas with exercising more to maintain health, but this quote really brings clarity to that train of thought. Thanks.

    *That person isn’t me. but, I’m sure someone could.

  13. Fifi says:

    Alison – “See, I don’t. I think people are more open and flexible when they feel less threatened.”

    I’m not going to make any generalizations here since my experience has shown that some people can be more flexible when they feel safe but some people are more likely to act when they feel threatened or that there’s a crisis. I’m not sure there’s much point debating this since, at the moment, it seems like we’re merely sharing personal opinions about human nature.

    Alison – “If I judge someone for their unsustainable choices, then I am classifying our common crisis as a problem with a solution (choices I have defined as sustainable) that they are not choosing.”

    I’m not sure if calling it a “predicament” instead of a “problem” makes much difference but, hey, if it makes you feel better why not? ;-) I have no idea whether humans will get it together, we haven’t historically when faced with civilizations collapsing so our track record isn’t that good. I highly doubt we’ll be able to reverse the climate changes that are in motion, that doesn’t mean we can’t still find a way to live in the world as it changes that involves less instead of more unnecessary suffering. As far as judging goes, you seemed quite keen to judge me so, while we all like to believe we’re non-judgmental I’m not really sure anyone is entirely non-judgmental (even the Dalai Lama is judgmental about homosexuality) or that it’s even an entirely desirable situation (or even cognitively possible). Peer pressure – which can be applied in constructive and positive ways despite how it’s often talked about in a negative context – is a pretty useful tool in getting humans to change behavior since we’re social animals. I don’t see the point in blaming anyone – it seems to me that a lot of our issues are systemic – but discerning what is and isn’t constructive or destructive behavior vis a vis a predicament or problem can be useful if we’re not just going to throw up our hands.

    For instance, while I understand the cycle of abuse and how people come to abuse children, that doesn’t mean that I don’t discern that their actions are antisocial and destructive, and judge them as being unfit parents. I can have compassion for the individual while still judging their behavior as being unethical, antisocial and destructive. All that said, we’re getting into pretty personal/subjective territory here and far from facts or science.

  14. Fifi on human nature:
    “I’m not going to make any generalizations here since my experience has shown that some people can be more flexible when they feel safe but some people are more likely to act when they feel threatened or that there’s a crisis.”

    Count me in as one of those unlikely to act unless there’s a crisis!

    Geoengineering is one of those things unlikely to happen as long as everyone still feels safe.

    Ditto genocide.

    Implementing geoengineering will be an action available to a few people.

    Implementing genocide will be an action available to many more.

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