Tag Archives: Canada

“Empty Planet – The Shock of Global Population Decline” by Darrell Bricker and John Ibbitson

Published 2019 by Crown Publishing, 240 pages plus footnotes and index.

This book (found at my public library) took me entirely by surprise, and caused me to look on climate change (and certain other social problems) differently, and with somewhat more optimism.

The authors discuss a future drop in human population, NOT (as has often been predicted) due to climate related calamity, but due to changes in human reproductive behavior. These changes comprise the “demographic transition”, defined in Chapter One, entitled “A Brief History of Population”. For eons, the human race simply struggled to survive. Following the retreat of the last Ice Age, agriculture allowed population to increase through a series of stages, beginning with high birth rate coupled with high death rate, moving through periods of imbalance and ending (in “developed” societies) with low birth rate, long life and low death rate. Bricker and Ibbitson believe the entire global population will arrive at the latter pattern within the next two or three generations. Hence, human population with stabilize relatively soon, and then continue to fall slowly.

Having grown up reading The Population Bomb and The Limits to Growth, I was startled by this book and read it very carefully. I’ve asked the opinion of friends and even my favorite demographer (a relative), and I eagerly await their responses.

Actually, I heard the warning call of this change a few years ago. In 2015, China reversed its “one child policy”. I was VERY surprised, and failed to recognize the significance of the change. Come to think of it, 25 years ago I heard a Russian woman described as a “hero mother” because she had TWO children. I didn’t understand what was behind this.

What do demographers measure, in addition to absolute population? Birth rate is crucial. How many babies does each woman have? “Replacement” is pegged at 2.1, to allow for the fact that not all children survive to become parents. At this point, it all starts to feel personal. I had two babies. So did my parents. But their parents had 7 and 3 surviving children! What changed? American families left the farm. (The post World War II baby boom, in case you are wondering, was an aberration.)

Bricker and Ibbitson attribute falling birth rates to the education and subsequent increased employment of women, and to urbanization. They consider these changes unlikely to be reversed.

I think Empty Planet went to press just before the flareup of immigration as a “hot button” topic in the US. It would help if people on both sides of the issue would settle down and read this book! Immigrants and refugees are not identical. Most people, most of the time, prefer to live where they were born.

What do Bricker and Ibbitson project for the future? Both are Canadian, and their other collaborative publication (The Big Shift, 2013) deals with Canadian politics and culture. They expect the future big winners (nations able to maintain their populations and to innovate) to be Canada, the African states and (maybe) the United States. “WHAT?!” you squawk. Better read the book!

At some point, an entirely new concept is introduced – the post national state. I’m still trying to get a grip on it.

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“Windfall – the Booming Business of Global Warming” by McKenzie Funk

This book (another grab from the “new arrivals” shelf) overwhelmed me. I am woefully ignorant about business and finance, and my ignorance increases with scale. Most of what Funk discusses is global in scope.

Funk is a journalist, and it is harder for me to evaluate his work than, for example, that of a scientist like Richard Primack (author of Walden Warming, see this blog, June 23, 2014). I feel like I need to enlist my local cast of experts about this book, and worry that in some subject areas, I don’t know anyone.

If you decide not to read this book, you should at least look at the seven-page epilogue, entitled “MAGICAL THINKING”. Towards the end, Funk states, “Climate change is often framed as a scientific or economic or environmental issue, not often enough as an issue of human justice.” Good point.

Funk divides climate impacts into three categories – melting (problems of the Arctic), drought and sea level rise. Four chapters are devoted to each of these subjects.

The warming of the arctic puts Canada in a position of incredible strategic importance. Canada will “benefit” in many ways (longer growing season, open Northwest Passage, etc) but I put “benefit” into quotes because so many complications can be foreseen. One is sovereignty. Will Canada become the 51st state of the US? What will happen if our perceived interests diverge? Will the US “let” Canada chart an independent course?

And what about Greenland? I was barely aware of it as a country. I thought I was doing well to have some acquaintance with Iceland! Will Greenland become an agricultural state? A major source of strategic minerals? A tourist Mecca? We can safely assume it will emerge from obscurity.

On the subject of drought, I found Funk’s chapter on the Sahara most interesting, because he considers both desertification and human migration. Are the Africans currently trying to get to Europe “climate refugees”? Under what circumstances will the countries of Europe decide to admit “climate refugees”, and how will they be integrated? Will the richer Northern countries help their poorer, more southerly neighbors (like, say, Malta) that often receive the largest number of undocumented refugees? Can workers from Africa fill important needs in the US or northern Europe?

Many questions, few answers…

In his chapters on “the deluge”, aka sea level rise, Funk considers some technological fixes that might allow adaptation to climate change. One is genetic engineering of insects (starting with the mosquito) to inhibit malaria and dengue, and keep the tropics livable. Most surprising (to me) and actually, maybe somewhat feasible is the introduction of sulfur dioxide into the upper atmosphere to mimic the cooling impact of volcanic eruptions. This is referred to as the “Mount Pinatubo” proposal, because of the cooling which followed Pinatubo’s 1991 eruption.

I recommend this book because most of us need to think and act “bigger” on climate change.

“Still Life: A Chief Inspector Gamache Novel” by Louise Penny

This mystery, part of a series (I don’t know how many books), takes place in Canada, and is highly atmospheric. The plot was overly complex for my taste, but I enjoyed the characters. One assumption was that a painting can convey a complex (accusatory) message. I wonder how many investigators would consider that? My impression is that, here in New Jersey land, most murders are stupid acts by stupid people, and investigators don’t get to exercise their critical intelligence very often.

When I describe a novel as “atmospheric”, I’m referring to culture, and this book explores an interesting aspect of Canadian culture, or rather bi-culture. Both French and English are official languages. I believe the educational system is directed towards bilingualism. The book occasionally explores the questions of relative status and power between the two cultural groups.. which he refers to as Francophone and Anglophone. Certainly the author believes that French speaking women are sharper dressers!

Last summer I met a woman from Massachusetts who grew up in Canada and, I believe, spoke French before she learned English. I’d love to run this book past her for critical commentary! When I need something to read at the beach, I’ll return to Louise Penny.