Welcome

June 18, 2009

This site is the archive of the Small Town Project, formerly at smalltownproject.org. For John Feeney’s current site, see johnfeeney.net.

(In importing the content to this blog, images were lost, though captions remain. (I’m not bothering to clean things up.)  Also, resource links formerly in the sidebar disappeared, but most can be found on the “Expanded, Annotated Links” page. All text content appears to have made the transfer successfully.)

Time to introduce a new site! After 18 months, Growth is Madness!, introduced below, began to take too much time away from writing for larger publications. To be able to focus on the latter, I’ve now settled into johnfeeney.net. It features a sampling of my writing, updates, information on speaking and interviews, and resources for those wishing to dig deeper into the core ecological issues confronting us. Stop by!

http://www.johnfeeney.net/

Growth is Madness! Launched!

December 21, 2006

I’m happy to announce that I have now launched a new weblog, Growth is Madness! This was the result of a great deal of thought. Though I had previously reported that I was planning a site which would be “uniquely participatory,” I decided to take another route. The site I originally had in mind is still on the back burner, but I believe it would require too much administrative work, and additional thought led me to question whether it would have the impact I’d thought it might. With blogging platforms becoming so easy to use and so sophisticated, I concluded that, for now, the most “bang for the buck,” would come from a new blog. But Growth is Madness! has a broader focus, aimed at disseminating information and promoting discussion of some of the most fundamental problems faced by human society today.

Those problems are population growth and corporate economic growth as they interact with growing per capita resource consumption levels. They are driving the looming ecological collapse of which scientists have been warning us for some time. Yet those with vested interests in shielding the public from the truth of these issues have done their job well. These topics are virtually ignored by the mainstream press.

As far as I know, Growth is Madness! is unique among weblogs in focusing specifically on these root causes of our ecological crisis. I hope that by providing well sourced information and discussion, Growth is Madness! will inspire others to take actions of their own to address these, the most pressing issues of our time. For me, it may become a springboard, as well, for other work aimed at addressing these issues. So stop by and see why growth really is madness.

http://growthmadness.org/

Update on Planned Site

October 7, 2006

My apologies for the long delay since I last posted here. In the previous entry, I mentioned that I planned a new website. I can report that while it is still a site in concept only, aspects of the plan have been refined, bringing it slightly closer to reality. I still need to do a good deal of research prior to site construction, but I’m more optimistic now that the project will come to be.

As I mentioned before, it will be a uniquely participatory site, aimed at prompting action to address a number of serious social and environmental issues. Once enough details are worked out I’ll be able to describe the site more concretely. With any luck, it won’t be so long before the next update. 😕

If you read this site regularly, you may have noticed a shift in focus. Recently, I’ve written less on topics of local interest and more on broader issues. This shift reflects a necessary change for the site. In about a month, my family and I will be moving to Colorado. I will therefore be unable to continue monitoring and commenting on growth in Mount Vernon and Lisbon.

Not to worry!
Rest assured, though, this site will not simply evaporate. All the content of the Small Town Project will remain online as a resource for anyone interested in growth issues, particularly as they arise in small towns like Mount Vernon and Lisbon. It may become an archive on another site, but will, in any event, remain available for some time through the smalltownproject.org address.

What’s next?
I plan, in the coming months, to begin work on a new website. I won’t go into detail right now because it’s currently just an idea which could change radically. I can say I expect it to deal in part with issues of growth and sprawl, but to be multifaceted, encompassing a number of other social and environmental problems. It will likely also be more participatory and oriented toward generating solutions. Finally, it will work in a way which may be unique. I’ve been unable to locate any other site which does what I have in mind.

If I’m able to create the site, you’ll have no problem finding it. For an extended period you’ll be automatically redirected there from this address (smalltownproject.org). Again, the plan could change, so I hope you’ll keep you checking in here in the coming months to see what develops.

Impact of the Small Town Project
It’s difficult to assess the precise impact this site has had with regard to development in Mt. Vernon and Lisbon. Certainly readership has grown steadily since we went online in September of ’05. October, the first full month online, saw about 2,400 visits. The numbers grew steadily, with the site currently averaging over 4,000 visits per month. Of course only some portion of those visitors are in the local area. The Small Town Project has visitors from around the world.

I do believe, though, this site has played a role in informing local debate about development. As an example, at the League of Women Voters sponsored debate on growth in February, I heard questions from the audience which suggested people had found ideas on the site. One question, for instance, referred to statistics precisely like those I described in discussing Paul Gottlieb’s study showing urban growth to be unrelated to per-capita economic growth. It’s my guess the question was prompted by the essay. More generally, I’m not sure the League would even have sponsored such a debate had it not been for the “noise” generated by this site. All in all, I do think the Small Town Project has generated some discussion and interest in growth related issues.

Update: Later in May it was announced that the city had commissioned a study of the fiscal impact of residential growth on Mount Vernon. If it is well conducted, this might provide some useful information. I’ve said here previously, however, that I am leery of the legitimacy of this study. Despite being the loudest voice in town concerning the problem of growth, I never heard anything about who recruited the economist conducting it, or whether he or those who recruited him may have an agenda to “prove” the worth of growth in M.V. This is small town politics, and I fear there is a real risk this study will find exactly what someone wants it to find. It is frightfully easy to hide the truth in numbers. Moreover, I’ve pointed out previously that there are multiple solid reasons to reject ongoing growth regardless of its fiscal impact. In fact, fiscal impact is minor among the many issues concerning the problem of growth. In any event, I’ve been told by residents that “noise” from The Small Town Project essentially prompted this study. I have no way to verify this, but it does seem to be another indication that this site played a role in at least prompting some sort of action. The precise nature of the study may or may not become apparent with time.

Take up the torch?
It would be great to see someone continue the work of this project after I leave. If you’d like to create a site with content or aims similar to those of the Small Town Project, feel free to contact me. I’d be glad to help with any information you might need to get started.

In the meantime, things will, of necessity, continue to slow down here. I’ll post on topics of interest when possible, and will provide updates concerning the new site. My thanks to those who have posted comments on the Small Town Project. You’ve contributed importantly to the site’s vitality. Please stay tuned!

My last post touched on the politics of climate change. Today, PRI’s program, To the Point, addressed the issue well. (You should be able to listen to the show in your preferred format from this page. Better, perhaps, is to download it as a podcast, which you can play on iTunes or other such software.)

I was especially glad to hear the comments of Mark Hertsgaard, environmental correspondent for The Nation magazine. Hertsgaard is forthright about Exxon’s (and others’) funding of disinformation campaigns to mislead both the public and lawmakers to believe the jury is out on anthropogenic global warming, and that we’d therefore better not rush to do anything about it. It’s good to know a larger audience is now hearing about these reprehensible tactics.

Whether as a result of such propaganda, corporate motives, or shear ignorance, the Bush administration appears to embrace the ridiculous notion that climate change is a “liberal hoax.” There’s much more on this in Hertsgaard’s Vanity Fair article, While Washington Slept.

Here’s a good link for Earth Day. Admittedly, it was the first link supplied by clicking today on Google’s logo. But it’s a good one, well designed with plenty of useful links and information.

By the way, here’s another link that was not far down the list on that first page of hits. I began reading it, and raised an eyebrow upon noticing that it’s an anti-environmental site. 👿

It is, of course, not the only such site. Big business and an array of groups opposed to government regulation of business (such as environmental regulation) have created plenty of sites containing anti-environmental propaganda, and trying, for instance, to muddy the waters about climate change. They want you to believe the jury is out on climate change, that there’s no solid evidence it is significantly human-caused.

A classic example is globalwarming.org, a site created by the so called “Cooler Heads Coalition.” It’s a big oil and big business front group which publishes bogus information on climate change in an authoritative looking package. On the site you can find lots of assertions which nearly any climate scientist will tell you are just flat wrong.

For legitimate information on climate change you might start with RealClimate, a site run by a group of working climate scientists, some of them quite prominent in the field. The few legitimate scientists (versus the total hacks) among the global warming “skeptics” often have ties to big oil.

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As an added bonus, Alternet features a nice article about a few heroes of the environmental movement.

The White House needs a subscription to Scientific American. The gap between science and society is profound and extraordinarily dangerous. — Jeffrey D. Sachs

In the recent essay, Will We Avert Ecological Collapse?, I led off with mention of Jeffrey Sachs’s keynote address at the State of the Planet conference at Columbia University. As as follow up, and because it’s really a great overview of the ecological challenges we face today, along with discussion of what we need to do to meet those challenges, I recommend listening to (or reading) Sachs’s actual address. This is the sort of material that can give you a general idea of the ecological issues we’re dealing with and the actions we need to take, without digging seriously into the scientific literature or reading whole books on the subject. (Though if a book is what you want, I can’t recommend highly enough Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update!)

It’s worth staying with the address till the end. Sachs does not deal with the the question of population growth, for instance, until late in the talk. When he does, however, he is forthright and, in my view, accurate.

From Peter H. Raven’s 2002 Presidential Address, American Association for the Advancement of Science:

Over 400 generations (10,000 years), our human population has grown from several million people to approximately 6.1 billion… We continue to depend on a series of ancient, genetically and socially determined habits and attitudes, many of which seem to have been more suitable for our hunter-gatherer ancestors. We must adopt new ways of thinking that will serve our descendants well in a world that is crowded beyond imagining… unless, of course, we destroy ourselves.

The world has been converted in an instant of time from a wild natural one to one in which humans, one of an estimated 10 million or more species, are consuming, wasting, or diverting an estimated 45% of the total net biological productivity on land and using more than half of the renewable fresh water.

I encourage you to read Raven’s full address. Dovetailing well with the last article I posted here, it provides an informative survey of the ecological state of the world as of 2002, a vision for the future, and of the role of science in achieving that vision.

Having been exploring many of the topics on which Raven touches, I found especially interesting his discussion of the “false prophets and charlatans” who write books and appear in the media to tell us everything is okay. They include Bjørn Lomborg assuring us climate change is not human-caused, and Julian Simon who insisted further population growth should be welcomed.

Revised, 4/8/06, 4/9/06

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The cataclysmic consequences of unsustainable development pose a challenge to the world that will make the war on terror seem a mere distraction.

One possible outcome of unchecked population growth One possible outcome of unchecked population growth. Image source: e-text population material

So begins a recent article summarizing what Jeffrey Sachs, director of the UN Millennium Project, told participants in a keynote address at the fourth biennial State of the Planet conference at Columbia University. The story didn’t make front page news, but it’s a sign the environmental plight we’re facing is beginning, at least, to emerge into the mainstream media. The message is that there is less time than most assume for the human species to address a collection of factors wreaking havoc on the environment. Those factors are headed by the interaction of population growth and growth of per captia resource consumption.

Understanding exponential growth
Let me explain. Lots of things are characterized by exponential growth. In the absence of intervening factors all animal populations (including humans), for instance, grow exponentially. Economic growth, as well, is often exponential. Population growth and economic growth combine, moreover, to drive the growth of our consumption of natural resources which, therefore, becomes exponential as well.

But how is exponential growth important? Well, when something grows exponentially, its growth will often look relatively unremarkable for a period of time. At a certain point, however, its geometric progression means that the growth suddenly becomes explosive — far more so than one would have guessed just a short time before that point.

An old French riddle makes this clear: Suppose you own a pond, at one end of which is a lily pad. The lily plant is growing and you know it will double in size each day. If it grows without interference, you know it will completely cover the pond in 30 days, blocking sunlight, causing a die-off of all life in the pond. You know that at some point you’ll have to devote a few days to dealing with the lily plant, and decide to wait to do so once until it has covered half the pond. How much time have you left yourself to save the pond from destruction?

To answer that, you have to know on what day the pond will be half covered. Contrary to intuition, that will be the 29th day. On the 30th day the plant will double in size, completely covering the pond. Therefore, you have left yourself only one day to save the pond! Could you have seen that coming just from watching the plant’s growth and using common sense to guess when you would really need to intervene? Not likely. Notice that on day 24 only 1.56% of the pond was covered. On day 28 the pond is 25% covered. Even that might not be particularly alarming. It would only become alarming if you should project accurately ahead to realize the lily’s growth had taken off like a rocket and had now exceeded your ability to intervene in time to save the pond.

Where we stand today
Sadly, when we look today at the human ecological footprint a good deal of evidence suggests we’re approaching day 30 faster than most people would think. World population growth and our rate of resource consumption (driven largely by economic growth) have been following an essentially exponential path. In recent years cultural and other factors have slowed the rate of population growth, but the growth is still exponential. [1] We’ve come to the kind of explosive growth seen in the last few days of the pond above.

The result has been unprecedented environmental destruction. We’re seeing climate change, depletion of the oceans’ fishes and coral reefs, profound effects of deforestation, a 1,000 fold increase in the normal rate of species extinction to a current conservative estimate of about 27 species per day (based on 1,000 species per million lost per year, and a conservative estimate of 10 million species), the global spread of chemical toxins throughout the environment, and many other environmental stresses. To make matters worse, we are also at a point of increased risk of disease purely as a result of our increased numbers in a time of great mobility.

The environmental stresses listed above are signs we have now overshot the earth’s carrying capacity. The addition of several billion humans and counting, and its impact on environmental systems nudges us steadily and quickly toward an ecological breaking point.

The need for coordinated worldwide efforts at analysis and intervention is now something we are foolish to ignore. Unfortunately most people are oblivious to the problem because they’re applying only common sense. If one merely looks around without doing some research or without a keen appreciation for exponential growth, the state of the “pond” might not yet appear so alarming. It might look like day 28, for instance. But what’s going to happen in just a “day” or two? To see this more clearly we need only look at a graph of human population growth over history:

Clearly, we are in the explosive growth phase! And with each step in that population growth comes the expected increase in environmental impact. That means we have little time left to take steps to avoid what may be profoundly regrettable worldwide societal and environmental consequences. Scientists have been warning us of the problem of population growth and the associated growth in our ecological footprint for some years now. They continue today. We are at a crucial time in human history.

What if we ignore this?
What if we don’t intervene? As Al Bartlett explains so clearly, population growth will stop. Exponential growth (or any kind of growth) cannot continue forever on a finite planet. At current or even slower rates, if nothing happened to stop it, humans would soon cover the planet with people jammed toe to toe. But things will happen. We are part of, and depend for our very lives on the ecosystem in which we live. Stress it too far and we will lose its support.

Population growth will stop, then, in one of two ways. Either nature will take over and choose its own methods for stopping population growth or we can act first and choose our own methods. Which would be preferable? Nature’s methods are not pleasant. They include such things as famine, disease, and war. We see this in animal species. They can result in die-offs of large numbers of a population, returning it to previous, sustainable levels.

If we wait to let nature take its course, moreover, we must contemplate the level of environmental loss we will by then have witnessed.

We have options
There’s another way. As humans we have the unique cognitive capacity to choose our own, less painful methods for ending population growth. We need to address important correlates of population growth such as poverty and the lack of opportunities for women in developing countries. As Meadows et al make clear, poverty causes population growth which causes poverty. We need, as well, national media campaigns and family planning programs.

Population growth in the U.S. is especially destructive to the worldwide environment as our per capita consumption of natural resources is among the highest in the world. So, with regard to environmental impact, adding one new U.S resident is like adding several people to a typical third world country. To respond to this, some experts believe the U.S. needs to implement some level of immigration reform. Understandably, this is a controversial point. At the time if this writing the contoversy is being played out on Capital Hill as lawmakers struggle with the immigration issue, and in the streets as massive numbers of marchers express opposition to proposed legislation.

Others contend that programs to reduce fertility rates here slightly should alone be sufficient to stabilize the population soon enough to avert disaster. This could likely be brought about through a diversion of less than 1% of the military budget to media campaigns and family planning services. In any case, at present we are barely addressing the problem in any way. We’re doing a smidgen more to address consumption levels, but woefully little there as well.

It’s easy enough to see that to reduce resource consumption we need to do more in familiar areas such as energy conservation while we commit much more to clean, renewable energy sources. Less obvious to most, and sounding like blasphemy to many, is the suggestion that we need to move away from the endless-growth imperative which dominates the corporate world. It’s a prime driver of our increasing ecological footprint. Our best bet may lie in aiming for for a healthy steady state economy.

We can do our part locally by ceasing activities such as the building of subdivisions which only accommodate population growth while encouraging our automobile dependency. If we do not take such actions now, if large scale programs are not soon initiated on national and global levels, our children and grandchildren may well be faced, at the least, with a markedly lower standard of living than we now enjoy. Perhaps more likely, they will be forced to deal with profoundly troubling social and environmental events resulting from ecological collapse. That is precisely the alarm Jeffrey Sachs is sounding. In his words, such a collapse is “the central challenge we face on the planet.” It’s time we recognize it.

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For an authoritative, highly readable discussion of the ideas in this essay, I recommend the book Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update

[1] On a positive note, the populations of some European countries have very recently come close to stabilizing or have actually stabilized. It’s a good step, but no credible projections see any similar stabilization for world population any sooner than about 2075. By then, world population is likely to have grown from the current 6.5 billion to about 8.9 billion according to the United Nations’s best guess, their medium scenario (large PDF). (It could range as high as 10.6 billion. or as low as 7.4 billion according to the high and low scenarios respectively.) Note that those projections are, of necessity, based on an assumption of no ecological collapse intervening before 2075. No meaningful projection could otherwise be made. The risk of such a collapse is a matter apart from the U.N.’s projections. The projections, moreover, may be optimistic.