Intellectually, the origins of degrowth are found in the Continental écologie politique of the 1970s. André Gorz spoke of décroissance in 1972, questioning the compatibility of capitalism with earth’s balance “for which … degrowth of material production is a necessary condition”. Unless we consider “equality without growth”, Gorz argued, we reduce socialism to nothing but “the continuation of capitalism by other means—an extension of middle-class values, lifestyles and social patterns”.
“Demain la décroissance” (tomorrow, degrowth) was the title of a 1979 translated collection of essays of Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, a Romanian émigré teaching in the US and a proto ecological economist who argued that economic growth accelerates entropy. These were the times of the oil crisis and the Club of Rome. For continental “red-green” thinkers, however, the question of limits to growth was first and foremost a political one. Unlike Malthusian concerns with resource depletion, overpopulation and collapse of the system, theirs was a desire for pulling the emergency brake on the train of capitalism, or, to quote Ursula LeGuin, “put a pig on the tracks of a one-way future consisting only of growth”. The slogan décroissance was revived in the early 2000s by activists in the city of Lyon in direct actions against mega-infrastructures and advertising. Serge Latouche, a professor of economic anthropology and vocal critic of development programmes in Africa, popularized it with his books, calling for an “end to sustainable development”. For French intellectual Paul Ariès, degrowth was a “missile word”, a subversive term that questioned the taken-for-granted desirability of growth-based development. A small but dedicated network of degrowthers sprang around the monthly La Decroissance magazine. The word registered in French political debates, with even a failed attempt for a degrowth political party.
From France, the new meme spread to Italy, Spain and Greece. In 2008, just before the Spanish crisis, Catalan degrowth activist Enric Duran “expropriated” 492,000 euros via loans from 39 banks. He gave the money to social movements, denouncing Spain’s speculative credit system and the fictitious growth it propelled.
Starting in Paris in 2008, a series of international gatherings—a mix of scientific conference with social forum—introduced degrowth to the English-speaking world. In September 2014, 3,500 researchers, students and activists met in Leipzig for the 4th International Conference on Degrowth. Activities spanned from panels on growth and climate change, Gramscian critiques of capitalism, or the 20-hour workweek, to civil disobedience outside a coal power plant and courses on how to make your own bread. Proliferating academic literature in peer-reviewed journals has buttressed key degrowth claims: the impossibility to avoid disastrous climate change with growth as usual; fundamental limits in decoupling resource use from growth; the disconnection between growth and improved wellbeing in advanced economies; the rising social and psychological costs of growth. Recent works highlight the imperative of compound growth for capitalism (what David Harvey called the most lethal of its contradictions), and explore how employment or equality could be sustained in post-capitalist economies without growth.
Policy proposals range from carbon caps and extraction moratoria to a basic citizens’ income, a reduced working week, a reclaim of resource commons and a debt jubilee, as well as a radical restructuring of the tax system with carbon instead of income taxes, salary caps, and capital taxes. By demanding the impossible, such “non-reformist reforms”, as Andre Gorz called them, call for systemic transformation (as Slavoj Žižek noted, social-democratic reforms are revolutionary in an era that capitalism can no longer accommodate them).
Politically, there is a clear understanding that system change is necessary, and that this requires a movement of movements, or an alliance of the dispossessed, including a coalition of the global social and environmental justice movements. Whereas degrowth is incompatible with capitalism, degrowth rejects also the illusion of a so-called “socialist growth”, whereby a rationally, centrally planned economy somehow magically will bring technological developments that will allow a reasonable growth without impinging upon the ecological conditions. In the spirit of Gorz, degrowthers take issue with fellow socialists who find it easier to imagine the end of the world or the end of capitalism, but for some inexplicable reason, not the end of growth.
For others “degrowth” signifies mostly an everyday (politicized) living practices. Our three-day degrowth forum in Athens in 2015 was attended by hundreds of participants: not only academics, environmental and human rights activists or members of Syriza, the Greens, and the “anti-authoritarian” Left, but also back-to-landers and organic farmers from rural Greece, and many of the “ground troopers” of the solidarity economy of peoples’ clinics and urban agriculture. In Barcelona, degrowth is symbolized in projects such as Can Masdeu, an occupied squat with a network of food gardens in the working-class neighbourhood of Nou Barris and a history of “right to housing” activism; or the Cooperativa Integral Catalana, a co-operative consisting of 600 members and 2,000 participants, which also functions as an umbrella for independent producers and consumers of organic food and artisanal products, houses eco-commune residents, and runs co-operative enterprises and regional networks of exchange that issue their own currencies.
Francois Schneider, instigator of the international conferences and founder of the Research & Degrowth think-tank in Paris (now in Barcelona), embodies degrowth’s hybridity: a PhD graduate in industrial ecology, he walked for a year with a donkey around France explaining degrowth to passers-by who stopped him bewildered. He lives now in Can Decreix, a bare-basics house on the French-Catalan border, a center of experimentation and education in frugal living.
Some speak of a grassroots degrowth “movement”, but the attendants of the conferences are not a cohesive group of people with a shared agenda or unified purpose, nor do we still reach the numbers of a movement. Unlike the “anti-globalization” movement, there is no WTO building to be stormed or free-trade treaty to be stopped. Degrowth offers a slogan that mobilizes, brings together, and gives meaning to a diverse range of people and movements without being their only, or even principal, horizon. It is a network of ideas, a vocabulary as we called it in our recent book, that more and more people feel speaks to their concerns.
Redistribution, not growth
A new Left has to be an ecological Left, or it won’t be left at all. Environmental change “changes everything” for the Left too, as Naomi Klein argued. Capitalism requires constant expansion, an expansion predicated on exploitation of humans and non-humans, that irreversibly damages the climate. A non-capitalist economy will have to sustain itself while contracting. But how can we redistribute or secure meaningful work without growth? There is not yet a concrete “economics of degrowth”. Lamentably, Keynesianism is the most powerful tool the Left, even the Marxist Left, has for dealing with issues of policy. But this is an economics of the 1930s when unlimited expansion was still possible and desirable.
Without a tide to raise all boats, it is the time to rethink which boat gets what. The Left’s response to Piketty’s r>g conundrum should not be “we will increase g”. After all, we always wanted to degrow r, i.e. reduce capital accumulation! Piketty himself, hardly an ecologist, does not believe in the possibility of higher growth. Redistribution is the central question for a 21st century without growth.
The Left has to liberate itself from the imaginary of growth. The growth of anything at a compound rate quickly turns towards infinity, an absurd and dangerous idea. Growth is an idea that is part and parcel of capitalism. It is the name the system gave to the dream it was producing, the dream of material plenty. GDP was invented to count war production, and evolved into an indicator “objectively” measuring and confirming the “success” of the US in the Cold war. Growth is what capitalism needs, knows, and does. As Gareth Dale notes, socialist politics were never about quantitative increases in abstract exchange value. They were about specifics, about concrete use values: employment, a decent wage, dignified conditions of living, a healthy environment, education, public health or clean water for all. All these need resources; but there is no reason why they would need a perpetual expansion of resources, 3% each year.
And here is a stronger claim: the things we in the Left would like to see “grow” would not bring aggregate growth (unless we totally redefined what we measure as economic activity, but this is then a play of words). Spreading wealth evenly, using more hands and minds than otherwise necessary, leaving environments and people idle, spending time to care for one another: all these are “taxes” on productivity and growth. We may as well be better off being less productive. But industrialization took off by concentrating surpluses in the hands of a few (capitalists or states), reinvesting profits for more growth; not by spreading the wealth to everyone or leaving the pastures and the fossils idle.
Changing the dreams
This may be too hard to swallow. After all, many of us often advocate for equality, democracy, full employment, a minimum wage, education, or renewables (you name it) in the name of growth. The belief is that an alternative to the capitalist system that has eyes only for profits will be more “rational” and do better what capitalism does, and even more. This is wrong politically: as Slavoj Žižek claims, the Left cannot exhaust itself to new ways of realizing the same dreams; it has to change the dreams themselves. It is also wrong factually. The “glorious” (sic) post-War era of reconstruction and catch-up is over. There are few indications that debt-fuelled Keynsianism, brown or green, capitalist or socialist, can revive it. This is independent of the fact that neoliberal austerity is disastrous. Redistribution, democracy and equality, yes; but not in the name of growth.
Degrowth revives the spirit of Enrico Berlinguer’s “revolutionary austerity”, an austerity born out of solidarity. The petrol that fuels our cars, heats our homes or even powers our hospitals and schools is the same that destroys livelihoods and forests in the Peruvian Amazon or Nigeria. We do not need the Pope to remind us that. The reason for a ‘sober’ life, as Berlinguer before or the Pope now calls it, is because our actions ‘here’ affect people and ecosystems ‘there’. Not because the capitalist machine is running out of things (Malthusians’ worry), or because, as the neoliberals want it, ‘we live beyond our means’ (by which they mean ‘we the 99%’ who use the services of the welfare state, not they the 1% who live by their capital). From a degrowth perspective, the issue is not that the Global North consumes more than it produces (or produces more than it consumes, à la Keynesians). The issue is that it produces and consumes more than what is necessary, at the expense of the Global and inner ‘South’, other beings, and future generations. Producing and consuming less will reduce the damage done to others. This is a question of social and environmental justice: a ‘shrink and redistribute’ from the global 1% (and to a lesser extent the 10%, which includes the middle classes of the EuroAmericas) to the rest. Such invocations of sober simplicity may resonate with dormant common senses about the ‘good life’ present in many cultures, East and West. It can recover the commonsensical critique of ‘excess’ from the grip of austerians, who hypocritically use it to justify their regressive policies.
Degrowth is a keyword circulating mostly among activists. In Greece and Spain, it resonates with anarcho-cooperativists and eco-communalists, including many in the youth bases of parties like Syriza or Podemos. It was a word present, though not dominant, in the occupied squares and the solidarity economies that spun off from them. Among Greens it has woken up old, pre-‘sustainable development’ divisions between radical ‘fundis’ and pragmatist ‘realos’. A sign of the re-radicalization of Europe’s Greens, Spain’s Equo, represented in the European Parliament, has endorsed explicitly a ‘post-growth’ agenda (its MEP writing in favor of degrowth). The national campaign of the UK Greens was also ‘post’ or ‘de’-growth in spirit, though not in name.
Calling for degrowth explicitly is electoral suicide in an environment dominated by corporate media. More groundwork is necessary to make degrowth a widespread common sense. For now, the closer a radical party gets to power, the more likely it is to disassociate itself from degrowth. Pablo Iglesias signed the degrowthist ‘last call’ manifesto. But as The Economist noted approvingly, as Podemos matured it left behind more ‘nutty’ ideas like ‘degrowth’ and ‘anti-capitalism’. The parallels with the New Left in Latin America are obvious. Correa or Morales were elected with the support of indigenous and ecological movements with philosophies similar to degrowth. Once in power, real-politik and growth-based redistributive politics dictated that capital be accomodated and the economy be fuelled by extractivism.
One would hope that at least New Left parties in Europe refrain from making growth their central objective. No doubt, crises reassert the imaginary of growth, this time as a progressive goal. A Podemos activist in Catalonia commented to me that “in the current crisis, we can only talk about growth”. And yet this is not totally true. It takes courage and imagination, but is not impossible. Barcelona en Comú won the elections of the city without mentioning growth once in its programme. This might have to do with the organic rooting of degrowth and associated ideas in Barcelona’s civil society and the flourishing, alternative solidarity economy of the city. Many of my friends and colleagues worked for the party’s programme, which commits to a citizens’ income, green taxes, reclaiming of green spaces, a municipal energy co-operative, less resource use and waste, or social housing. Among the first decisions of the new mayor, Ada Colau, were a moratorium on new hotels and an end to the bid for the 2026 Winter Olympics. Santi Villa, Catalonia’s minister for the environment until 2015 and an aspiring young conservative, accused her for leading “a party of degrowth” (omitting though that a few months back, and trying to stay on top of the latest international ideas in debates around climate change, he too had talked favorably of degrowth in Parliament).
Keynesianism without growth?
Podemos’ economic programme was drafted by two socialist-Keynesian economists (Vicenc Navarro and Juan Torres), who had frequently written opinion pieces against degrowth. Fortunately, it avoids clear references to growth. Might this signal room for a “Keynesianism without growth”? I have argued that it does. One can imagine fiscal and tax policies that shift resources in favor of the working classes and toward green, caring or alternative activities stimulating a low-intensity consumption by those in need, within an overall pattern of economic contraction. Hardly Keynes’ vision, but perhaps one apt for secularly stagnant economies.
Unlike a municipality, of course, whose fiscal responsibilities are limited, a nation without growth may have problems to finance its welfare services. At least in principle, however, I see no good reason why health or education costs have to grow at 2 or 3% per year (the rate of the supposed necessary growth). There is immense scope for saving by reversing outsourcing and expensive procurements, banning mega-projects, or decentralizing services, like preventative health or child care, sharing them with solidarity networks. Poorer countries such as Cuba and Costa Rica have world-class public health and education. Higher capital taxes can also offset revenue lost from degrowth. Welfare without growth is theoretically possible, but no Left party has dared to think what it would take to put it into practice. A major sticking point is debt. Without growth, debt as a percentage of GDP increases. Borrowing rates sky-rocket, as the likelihood of repayment declines. This is what makes a degrowth Keynesianism less plausible. Without growth, public debt has, sooner or later, to be restructured or eliminated either by decree or by inflation. There are historical precedents for this. But once done, it cannot be repeated. Without new debt, the room for fiscal expansion is limited.
The urgency of the public-debt question may explain differences between Spain and Greece. The rise of Syriza initially fuelled hopes for ‘another world’ becoming possible: the base, especially the youth, of the party consisted of greener ‘co-operativists’ who, akin to a degrowth spirit, bet on—an arguably not fully defined—‘solidarity economy’. All high cadres of the party, however, talked unreservedly in favor of growth, framing it as the alternative to austerity. In the negotiations with the Eurogroup there was a short-lived attempt to advance Joseph Stiglitz’s proposal for a ‘growth clause’: Greece would link debt repayments to growth. Such demands were deemed as ‘ultra-radical’; speaking of a solidarity economy without growth would be nuttier than nutty.
A solidarity economy
Some foreign commentators dreamed that a ‘No’ to the Troika and an exit from the euro would open the road for a degrowth transition and a solidarity economy. There was no political force, however, in Greece advocating this. The pro-drachma Left of Syriza, now a separate party called “Popular Unity” is ardently productivist, its leader having a dismal environmental record as Minister of Energy, including plans for new domestic coal production and fuel subsidies to industries. Despite the phenomenal expansion and the important achievements of the solidarity economy in Greece, this is still a marginal social movement (much smaller than in Spain), and its networks are insufficient for satisfying the population’s needs in case of a transitional period. A smooth economic contraction out of the euro is unlikely: it was precisely the fear of imported food or drug shortages and economic chaos in the interim period that scared Alexis Tsipras into signing a new memorandum. Countries like Japan, with fiscal and monetary independence, and an ability to issue and finance debt in their own currency, are better positioned to sustain employment and welfare without growth (Japan has not seen growth for more than 10 years, a decade “lost” only in the eyes of economists). But, of course, a capitalism without growth is inconceivable, and Japan tries as hard as possible to relaunch growth (with little success to date).
The impossibility of imaging political forces rising to power with a degrowth agenda makes some degrowthers argue that change can only come from the grassroots and not the state, through an “involuntary” path, whereby citizens will self-organize as the economy stagnates and lack of growth brings crisis. I agree that a degrowth transition is unlikely to be voluntary and take place in the name of “degrowth”; it will be a process of adaptation to the actual stagnation of the economy. I can’t see, however, how this can happen without also occupying the state, with a mutual reinforcement of civil and political society, grassroots practices, and new institutions.
No political party of the Left might dare to openly question growth, but I find it hard to see how in the long-term, willingly or not, the European Left (which, unlike its Latin American counterpart, cannot bank on a commodities bubble) can avoid thinking about how to manage without growth. Growth is not only ecologically unsustainable but, as economists openly admit (from Piketty to Lawrence Summers and the “secular stagnationists”), increasingly unlikely for advanced economies.
Capitalism without growth is savage. Degrowth is not a clear theory, plan, or political movement. Yet it is a hypothesis whose time has come; and one that the Left can no longer afford to avoid.
By the “back loop,” Wakefield is repurposing an idea from Canadian ecologist C.S. “Buzz” Holling. Holling discovered and then theorized that ecologies go through a process of “colonization,” stability, dissolution, and then reorganization. He came to this view first by observing succession processes in the woods after a forest fire. The sudden interruption of the fire led the stable state of the woods to dissolve, throwing open biological and ecological possibilities that led to a reorganization of the ecosystem after the fire. The back loop is the period of dissolution and creativity: ““Now suddenly,” wr[ote] Holling, “[is] the time where unexpected events happen. The accumulated resources are disassembled, broken down, left uncontrolled”” (p. 23).
Imagine a figure “8” on its side as a mobius strip. The lower left front facing curve is the period of “colonization.” The upper right front facing curve is the period of stability. The lower right back turning curve is the onset of the back loop – the period of dissolution. The upper left back facing curve is the period of reorganization. The back loop is thus a continuum of dissolution and reorganization.
What Wakefield proposes is that we view the “Anthropocene” through the figure of the back loop. The “Anthropocene” is the proposed name for the geological period wherein human activity becomes a main driver of planetary geology. Things like global warming and the likely onset of a the sixth mass extinction suggest that human beings are now a geological force, to echo the words of Dipesh Chakrabarty. Wakefield thinks that the concept of the back loop can be repurposed to help us understand the situation we are in. The build-up that has led humankind to be able to change the planet’s biochemistry and biological order was the period of planetary “colonization” and then stability. The onset of global warming and the beginning of what appear to be mass extinction cascades are the disruptive events of dissolution, the first half of the back loop. These disruptive events have implications for how we live:
“Practices of power and truth, dreaming and living, governing and shaping: such practices are as old as humans themselves. They are how we create our worlds, take them in hand and shape them. But what is happening to these practices of life as they enter the back loop?” (p. 12)
What is happening, Wakefield thinks, is that the powerful are trying to manage the disintegration of the ecological stability of our planet to preserve their power and its order. But as a moralist for our time who emerged out of anarcho-socialist Occupy, Wakefield urges us to break with the world the powerful seek to preserve and to transcend the dread of viewing the future as a period of ecological ruin: “It seems to me that the future belongs not to those who seek to govern or suffer the back loop, but to those who know what they love, and take that love as a starting point and new definition of security” (p. 78). Against a dying and conflicted world, she wants us to reinvent our lives.
Wakefield’s book is a call to view our lives as opening onto the second half of the back loop – the process of reorganization – while living through the dissolution of our world:
“My suggestion that we are in the back loop means that we have already crossed various tipping points …. [E]verything from social practices, technologies, and [conceptions of] truth to plants, animals, and places have become shaken out of their normal frameworks. We are free to move on new planes. And this should compel us to shift our perspective a bit” (p. 18).
I’m curious, Katherine, what you thought of all this.
KC: Wakefield draws on academic theory, film and even some posts on social media to suggest an approach for people working to carve out meaningful lives.
She divides her book into two parts with an interlude between them. In part one, she sets up the big picture frame of her view. She explains the back loop, how resilience theory is about managing life in a “safe operating space” that more or less preserves contemporary class-stratified consumer life, and then she lays out the challenge of moving beyond the safe operating space to embrace “post-apocalyptic” life through autonomous experimentation – taking up basic questions of life oneself and trying out novel ways of being as they feel right The second part of the book then looks at several in-depth examples of how people are already embracing dissolution and enacting affirmative change using experimentation instead of a single blueprint:
“Rather than offering imperative statements or laws to which life must constrain itself in order to survive, [the examples I’ve chosen to study] instead communicate to us that life in and beyond the back loop is something to be explored on one’s own terms” (p. 84).
Experimentation is personal, which is why all the examples – living and building on the water in Louisiana, CrossFit as a global phenomenon, and the singer Chronixx – are specific instantiations of experimentation that Wakefield has “lived or been close to” (p. 132). Whatever doesn’t work for us personally, we should abandon. It’s here that Wakefield goes big. She seems to think that “front loop” politics and philosophy might not work for us at allanymore:
“[T]he quest of philosophy and politics in the front loop overall was to determine being by giving it a name, a ground, or telos. In place of trust in one’s own intuitions, actions, or definitions of truth, codes of sovereign grounds are created, to which being and action will be required to refer themselves” (p. 59).
JBK: That is an allusion to the work of the late New School for Social Research philosopher Reiner Schürmann, whose work is still being discovered. Schürmann was a Heideggerian thinker who took Heidegger’s critique of metaphysics in the direction of politics. Wakefield seems to be saying that the politics and philosophy of the front loop has been a “metaphysics of presence,” which means both that it has been hierarchical and heteronomous – we find what makes sense by learning it from an authority outside ourselves – and that it has been static, resistant to becoming, trying to fix being in an eternal now.
KC: Interesting. If philosophy and politics do impose an order on us, then (Wakefield thinks) beginning from ourselves will help ordinary people find meaning. But I wonder if she neglects those things that are meaningful precisely because the individual is just one part of them: truth, planetary responsibility and universal principles. To live a good life, I can’t thoughtlessly believe, say, or do whatever I want. Far from inhibiting life, that makes it more meaningful.
Is there a way to begin from ourselves using autonomous experimentation, while also embracing what is bigger than ourselves?
JBK: That’s a good question. It pushes back a bit on Wakefield’s down-low Heideggerianism. And there’s a lot there to resist. Wakefield makes a number of unstudied or sloppy claims. She often grandstands and can be contradictory in the details. One of the main contradictions is to mix her anarcho-libertarianism with Schürmann’s Heideggerianism. For Schürmann, “an-archy” – life without a metaphysical ground – points toward what Rob Nichols called a “politics of historical ontology,” the historical study of our ways of being while working on them from within. But Wakefield’s book is at risk of repressing history by thinking that sheer willpower and ingenuity can tear us free of it. This is actually, for thinkers like Schürmann or Nichols, to remain entangled in a dualist metaphysics of will set over against reason. It’s to privilege “immediacy” when the way we approach everything is deeply mediated by what we’ve inherited historically.
Still, what Wakefield is doing with will – or as I will say, attitude – is interesting. It comes out in her freshest intuition: how to approach climate panic. She rallies us tokeep our spirits upabout global warming and to be defiant. Someone might think that this seems both wrong and absurd. How can we “be positive” about hundreds of millions of climate refugees, failed states, civil war, millions dead from viral vectors, crashing ecosystems, drought, and mass starvation? But Wakefield argues that some badass attitudeis spirited, beautiful, and sensible.
Take mellifluous Chronixx from Jamaica. She thinks he shows us human potential by always going farther and higher than our current or past selves. Going higher here means being more affirmative, more loving, more creative with whatever cards one has been dealt.
“Faced with a rifted reality where the old transcendents no longer work, … Chronixx actually disentangles himself, becomes his own ground. Whether it’s beer bottles as mics, palm trees as audience, ProTools or YouTube, colonial histories, fashion shoots, British football casual culture, the ocean’s waves or the sun’s heat—what Chronixx offers is a view of the possibilities present when we take up the world around us, without justification, moral or otherwise, to go beyond our given conditions. This is equally possible on an individual or shared basis. And it is something you can’t always see, touch, or read” (p. 121; note that she says “shared basis,” for it suggests something non-individualistic).
Granted, it’s not obvious what the “old transcendents” are in this passage, nor what is meant by “old” except that one isn’t creative enough to make some dogmas work now. Yet Khalik Allah seems to reinvigorate “old transcendents” in Black Mother (2018) when he returns to Jamaica and goes “most high,” mixing and repeating the “old transcendents” with a difference that passes beyond the visible. Nor does it seem likely that Wakefield wants to make way for someone who, say, goes on a killing spree “without justification, moral or otherwise” so as to “go beyond [their] given conditions” and affirm everything in a cosmic bloodbath.
After all, Chronixx does have a moral justification in his music and in his videos, implicit in the voice, tone, and framing of his song and step. He signalsthat he is a “good guy,” not dangerous, and is in touch with others. That is, he clearly manifests what Philippa Foot called “thick” moral sense. He sings and steps good soulfulness. Wakefield may not like the word “good,” because she has an allergy to the connotations it has in some people’s bad mouths, but that doesn’t mean the logic of goodness is not present all over Chronixx’s going higher and higher.
Also, Chronixx is working within a tradition of music, showing carefor it as he moves into its possibilities and expands them into something that can change. This is a micro-version, a “practice of freedom,” of what Nichols calls “historical ontology.” Wakefield’s use of Foucault’s “practices of freedom” is ahistorical, but someone like Chronixx is actually historical by way of his living tradition in song.
All this is confusing in Wakefield’s book. How historical should a “practice of freedom” be? Wakefield here seems modernist, even what Ariella Aïsha Azoulay calls “imperial.” Check out Wakefield’s emphasis on the “new”:
“To transform the world does not only entail material infrastructures but also calls desperately for new kinds of human beings” (p. 119)
What kind? The kind of human beings who are here and now, pointed toward the new with an excess of creative and loving energy. It’s contagious right? Stop being stuck. Don’t wait to be validated! Get out there and reshape your body, home, and soul. But in its lack of attention to history, this feels weirdly imperialist! Here comes extreme global warming, and it is going to wreck everything. Affirm it and leap into the void with your can-do attitude. Laugh not with hellfire with but with joy! How far can an attitude go?
KC: Wakefield draws on a fitness practice to demonstrate the importance of attitude. Athletes use “imagination, visualization, and mental rehearsal of both… as powerful tools for transforming performance” (p. 75). To complete a long run, for example, I might imagine every detail of crossing the finish line – and that’ll help me achieve it! In the same way, Wakefield thinks our attitude toward the end of civilization as we know it determines how we experience it.
This extension of visualization from athletic goals to defining realities verges on the unscientific, and the only supporting information for this jump comes from “experts on visualization and self-mastery” (p. 75, who these experts are isn’t explained, nor is there an endnote). But I think Wakefield, skeptical of truth and universal science, would rather urge us to consider the usefulness of visualization on a more personal level. From there, visualization seems useful because it allows normal people to enact themselves – ourselves – a phrase that I think captures Wakefield’s version of human agency that values our dreams as epistemic sources.
If our attitudes define reality, positive visualization seems a very sensible tool. Who would willingly define a horrible world to live in? But the negative, hateful messaging we consume about our changing planet does define it that way! Even Anthropocene thinkers spew negativity when they proclaim the end of progress, the end of people making their own destinies, the end of everything:
“[A]uthors like [Bruno] Latour [tell] us that no more dreams are possible, other than of managing disasters; that no other worlds are possible, other than this ruinous one in which we are enmeshed beyond our control” (p. 70).
Traditional Anthropocene discourse sucks the potential out of our futures. It also mimics “old transcendents” like Christianity. Negative messaging convinces people to hate themselves and their world, rather than seeing in themselves the ability to call forth the world to come.
But what Wakefield wants is this: instead of considering ourselves victims or a “hubristic cancer on the Earth” (p. 74) let’s visualize the possibilities of life by asking questions like “how… to live with nuclear contamination,” and “[h]ow to live with water” (p. 97, 83).
Faced with frequent flooding, Old River Landing – a small Louisiana town along an “old bend” (p. 93) of the Mississippi – chose to ask the latter question instead of evacuating. Wakefield writes about how their ad hoc answer included floating homes and boats to get around. These ended up being so common and successful that a local commented, “Everyone says, ‘I don’t know why the professors think [how we live] is such a big deal’” (p. 94).
Wakefield explains that this work and the attitudeunderneath it are much more valuable (and ordinary) than another neoliberal platitude about the poor being resilient enough for mere survival:
“[T]he water transforms [the] lives [of Old River Landing], affects and radically alters them. But [the people there] also assert a place for themselves within its ebbs and flows. In doing so, they make themselves less vulnerable…. The problem in this case is not … how to get by amidst negative conditions. Rather, it is how to continue what for the fishermen is their definition of the good life, the lifeway they have chosen, on their own terms” (pp. 95-96, emphasis added).
The issue is autonomy, not resignation! In response to your question, how far an attitude can go? The attitudes we choose can take us very far. We have the power to enact ourselves by visualizing the back loop as teeming with potential and by affirming whatever happens to us.
I still wonder, though: how should we view the very real suffering and vulnerability of others?
JBK: I think Wakefield’s implied answer is that we should approach the suffering of others with solidarity that empowers others to become as autonomous as they can be. We should do this with an attitude of defiant amor fati – acceptance of fate, facing toward the next moment and what good we can do in it. “Don’t cry – act.” Don’t worry – be scrappy.
Here is where I begin to feel Wakefield’s repression of history. The lament is a historical emotion, dreams are our histories bubbling up as they come into contact with the void, and bricolage – the makeshift making-do of anything – always draws on histories of making, repertoires of know-how and practice. Language itself innovates only in the spaces between its historical remembering, reaching into possibilities thrown ahead by its ingrained history of sense. It was Heidegger who made many of these points, among others! I do not see how we can work through the present without drawing in the past, carefully.
What I see you pointing to is the missing soulfulness and practicality in Wakefield’s work. Lost in the grief of our hearts, rituals, words well-worn, practices and histories of commiseration and healing all help us do justice to the lost. In the chaos of a community coming apart, inherited symbols and meanings, tried and true and trusted means of making collective decisions, sensible orders of authority based on experience help us find the way through.Without turning to traditions, we are doomed in a different way.
KC: I found Wakefield’s belief in the potential of everyday people convincing. Some sort of democratization seems necessary as trust in the cultural and political elite disintegrates today through the fissures in the Antarctic’s ice sheets:
“The claims to governmental mastery of the world and human life are being washed away by rising seas and unprecedentedly powerful storms—as much as by Twitter feeds” (p. 30).
Blueprints from political and cultural institutions are less authoritative, just one option among many. We are now freed to find our own ways in the unknown. But we are not starting from scratch:
“[A]s we explore our own paths, the back and front loop offer a wealth of resources from which we can draw as suits us. This includes [the] Styrofoam [used for Old River Landing’s amphibious architecture] and includes philosophy. Maybe Foucault, great thinker of the 20th century, still helps us comprehend our now. Maybe not. In other cases, perhaps it is our own experience that leads to the best insights. There is no one way, no tools that are pure and clean. Nor others that are off-limits” (p. 129).
Wakefield thinks we should draw on tools from the back and front loop – our context and our history, respectively – as though we are selecting goods from a shelf. But the relationship is not so one-sided: the tools that are available allow us to make sense of one way of things, but not others, and in so doing they constitute us. We can become more autonomous in our own constitutions through critical reflection about what makes sense to us and why, but this cannot achieve a complete severance from our circumstances, not least because we can only engage in critical reflection using more tools we gather or create from context and history.
Think about when Wakefield discusses infrastructures. Infrastructures define the most basic facts of our life; they constitute us too. But now that infrastructures are unable to shield us from threats – or becomes a threat itself! – we see how contingent and socially constructed our infrastructure is. We realize that we can organize living differently. For instance, when Wakefield discusses Open Source Ecology (OSE), which provides public information about machines that anyone can use to create their own civilization, OSE neither distances us from our circumstances nor holds us in the past; rather, it gives the power of infrastructure to ordinary people who, freed from corporate profiteering, can then choose their own ways of being and justify their choices to themselves. At experimentation’s best, the process of justification is at least personally accountable, and it makes way for critical reflection on our ways of being. Each experimenter is seen as having the capacity – and the right – for self-determination.
Nevertheless, many schools do teach about climate change and there is certainly curriculum justification for doing so (for example, in the Australian Curriculum for Civics and Citizenship, Ethical Understanding, and Sustainability). There are also plenty of opportunities to weave climate change content into the teaching of topics across diverse disciplines. On the co-curricular front, there has been increasing support for student-led climate action initiatives in schools, especially since the explosion of the school climate strike movement in 2019. Many school leaders and individual teachers want to do more, but feel constrained unless there is a perceived demand from parents.
In the immediate aftermath of the 2020 bushfires, that demand rose considerably. Concerned parents began asking questions about what and how their children were learning about climate change. This, in turn, instigated conversations within school communities about children’s rising eco-anxiety and climate grief, and the kinds of teaching and learning programs needed in this time of global climate crisis.
And then there was COVID-19.
As schools turned their attention to the challenges of remote learning, any momentum that had been building around climate change education slowed to a virtual standstill. At the same time, the early weeks of lockdown revealed important insights about schooling and education. Appreciation for the challenge of teachers’ work and the vital role of schools was widely expressed. But parents were also witnessing first-hand the menial busy-work that occupied much of their children’s time. In contrast, many observed the simple pleasures and substantial learning opportunities provided by a couple of hours spent with their kids outside in the garden, away from screens.
At a macro level, it is my view that we need significant systemic change that redefines the very purpose of schooling. At the micro level of the individual educator, we must reimagine what it means to be a teacher in these times, and to think of ourselves as Climate Change Educators and Climate Justice Educators. What exactly does this mean? And what would it look like in practice?
Climate Change Education might sound pretty straightforward, but it extends far beyond teaching the scientific facts of climate change. It is also about teaching the knowledges, skills, and attitudes that will support deep adaptation to their future lives, which will inevitably look very different from those we are living now. For example, students might develop conceptual understanding of topics such as biodiversity and the circular economy, gain practical skills in food production and waste management, and cultivate attitudes of collaboration, compassion, and inclusivity.
But if they are to have any credibility as Climate Justice Educators, teachers must also consider the moral lessons young people learn — both tacitly and explicitly — through the structures of our educational institutions and their daily experiences of schooling. They must lead by example and be willing to fight for structural and cultural change. This might include advocacy for assessment regimes that value cooperation over competition, pedagogies premised on ethical care instead of quality assurance, and curriculum that encourages a love of the natural world and empathy for the plight of people and planet.
There are different age-appropriate ways to support students’ learning in this time of global climate crisis. Through participation in youth climate activism, many older students are already engaged in independent learning, research, and even leadership. Pedagogical approaches that position these students as experts offer a powerful form of allyship through which teachers can support youth-led climate action without inadvertently making young people feel responsible for solving problems they did not create.
Whatever their age, ‘shielding’ children from the reality of climate change is not the way to go. In fact, children’s eco-anxiety is often connected to the mistrust that arises when they observe the adults in their lives going about their business in ways incommensurate with the magnitude of the threat we face. Conversely, their feelings of helplessness and overwhelm often subside when they find their voices and start taking action against perceived injustices and indifference.
If this work is to be done, it will have to be driven by schools and communities. And it can only be enacted by classroom teachers who feel empowered to embrace their responsibilities as teachers of climate change and climate justice. This will require a significant commitment to structural change and ongoing professional learning that supports teachers to rethink their identities and redefine their practice.
Dr Rachel Forgasz lives and works on the unceded lands of the Boon Wurrung and Wurundjeri peoples. She acknowledges that climate justice in Australia (and across the globe) is inextricably linked with First Nations justice.
Rachel is a senior lecturer in the Faculty of Education at Monash University where she has turned the attention of her research and community engagement to questions about education in the context of global climate crisis. In 2019, she developed the Climate 7 framework for families, schools, and communities making the transition to climate consciousness. Rachel is currently supporting the implementation of Climate 7 in a number of schools and community settings. You can contact her at Rachel@climate7.com
This essay presents some observations on how the Earth’s climate has changed during the era of satellite observations beginning in 1979 when it became possible to see the planet as a whole world has changed through that time. The observations of how our planet has changed are real. What they are telling us about our future is open for interpretation. The majority of climate scientists think they paint a picture of a rapidly warming (at least in any geological or ecological sense) world, where the rate of warming over the last few years has been accelerating.
Our world’s climate is a chaotic and highly complex system. As such it is impossible to make exact predictions how climate will change over the next few years or decades. However, we can consider how climate may continue to change in terms of risk. This is discussed in the concluding Section 7. How should we react to the observed global warming? The observations show a growing risk to human society from runaway global warming, and they beg explanation. Arguably climate variation in the Arctic Region, and especially the area of the Arctic Ocean drives global climates through its effects on the location and behavior of the Northern Hemisphere’s jet streams (see A Rough Guide to the Jet Stream: what it is, how it works and how it is responding to enhanced Arctic warming) and ocean currents extending through the Atlantic Ocean from the Arctic to Antarctic and from there into the Pacific. For an explanation of how this can be see Wikipedia’s Thermohaline Circulation and Shutdown of Thermohaline Circulation, and also Section 5.3, below. It is also the case that the Arctic as a whole appears to be warming at something like twice the rate of the rest of the planet.
This essay focuses on observations of what appears to be the start of runaway warming in the Arctic that may have profound effects on global climates over the next few years; and a plausible cause – the warming driven release of methane gas from permafrost forming a strong greenhouse cap over the Arctic Ocean. Evidence shows that over the last few years winter cooling over the Arctic Ocean has been significantly retarded when the sun is below the horizon for months at a time when heat absorbed over summers with 24 hour daylight should be radiating away to outer space. However, during the late autumn and winter over the last two to three years, monthly average temperatures over large areas of the Arctic Ocean have been as much as 20+ °C!! hotter than the 1989-2000 baseline averages for the same months.
The observations summarized here are based on computerized analyses of many millions of data points collected per day covering the entirety of the satellite era, beginning in 1979. To encapsulate summaries with the minimum of text and numeric data, I have used a number of animated maps where primary data is encoded in color. Changes in this data over time intervals ranging from days to months and years are shown as a stack of gif images forming short movies.
To me, in addition to a continuing rise in arctic temperatures, the most conspicuous indication that we may have passed a tipping point where arctic warming is increasing at an ever faster rate as shown by the graph below. This depicts changes in the areas (extents) covered by sea ice on the whole planet. Over the half year on each day of the year the area of the globe covered by sea ice has been by far the lowest it has ever been in the satellite era for those days and from 7 January until around 9-10 March – a period of two whole months – there has been less sea ice on the planet since the previous record low recorded in mid February 2016. Such a major deviation from “normal” indicates there are currently some serious climate changes taking place in the world.
Figure 1 – Data from the US National Snow and Ice Data Center for 23 April 2017 plotted by Wipneus. Click here for the most up-to-date plot of this graph and related graphs and explanation.) The red shaded area of the graph highlights daily extents lower than any low extent recorded in any previous year since 1978. The inset graph shows changes in the deviations from the mean value over the last 10 years. In November 2016 this reached nearly 8 standard deviations(σ), with the current reading around 4 standard deviations – where there is a chance of less than about 1 in 15,000 that such a deviation could occur by chance. The value is now hovering between 3σ and 4σ.
After introducing the agencies that collect and plot the climate observations, I’ll explore the observational data supporting these findings in more detail.
2. Global monitoring agencies
Several government agencies around the world use various observational tools to measure weather. These include simple recording thermometers measuring ground and air temperature together with wind speeds and direction and cloud cover at designated weather stations, balloon lifted radiosondes to plot temperature profiles of the atmosphere above the weather stations, similar measurements made by ships and floating buoys at sea, and a variety of satellite-based remote sensing systems . Together with electronic communications and automated data processing their daily and more frequent readings provide a global picture of weather and climate.
The kinds of observations collected include temperature at a variety of heights above the ground, sea surface temperature, precipitation and clouds, location and depths of ice on land and over the ocean, mean sea level pressure and pressure at a variety of elevations above mean sea level, precipitable water, surface winds, jet stream winds and a variety of other variables collected on a more limited basis, such as concentrations of various kinds of gases in the atmosphere. These observations provide input for a variety of weather prediction and climate change models where values and changes can be visualized on a global basis.
3. How is global climate change measured and visualized?
Although daily variations in local weather are to some degree governed by changes in regional and global climates, weather observations recorded by instruments at single locations are generally poor indicators of broad-scale climate variation. For example, global warming or cooling may cause jet streams or ocean currents to change in ways that move the average local temperatures in opposite directions to the larger scale temperature trends.
Only by plotting measurements from all available sensors systems meeting appropriate quality criteria can we map regional and global weather patterns. And only by tracking changes in these large-scale weather patterns over a number of years can we construct long-term climate changes globally. To maintain consistency and accuracy, climate scientists periodically review the instrumentation and locales of the weather stations used for climate measurements to adjust for factors such as, e.g., moves of the stations or increasing urbanization around the stations.
In the satellite era, remote sensing platforms orbiting around the planet collect data for constructing global maps of temperature, humidity, extent of snow and ice, wind, waves, currents, and various other variables affecting climate. Continuing cross comparison between satellite observations and records from instruments in the atmosphere or on the planetary surface helps to ensure that the various sensors are measuring the same things and to help ensure that the older instrumental records are coherent with the current satellite + instrumental observations. Also, the development of supercomputer systems able to process the hundreds of millions of data points collected every day has removed a lot of subjective bias in analyzing the data to produce products visualizing climate variation as illustrated below.
When considering changing temperatures over time, the concept of an “anomaly” – the deviation of the value for a specific geographic location and time or period compared to the value at the same location averaged over .a specified “baseline” period is used to represent the change (see also Wikipedia). The animated graphic below compares the computed annual average temperature at each pixel on the map with the computed average temperature over the baseline period of 1979-2000.
I have prepared animations unique to the present document using the GNU Image Manipulation Program (GIMP). Most of the animations use daily and monthly maps of global temperature anomalies plotted from NASA data by the Climate Change Institute at the University of Maine. These maps and a variety of others can be accessed on http://cci-reanalyzer.org/. Temperatures refer to air temperatures measured at 2 meters above sea level (temperatures of mountainous regions are adjusted to the sea-level reference height using well known and understood physical laws). The range of anomalies charted range from -4 °C below baseline (bright lavender) to +4 °C above baseline (bright red). One animation and some of the static maps are sourced from WeatherBELL.
Animations show the changing nature of the yearly average temperature anomalies over the period of satellite observations beginning in 1979.
Figure 2 – Annual temperature anomalies over the planet from 1987 to 2015 compared to a 1979-2000 baseline (Click graphic for animation / click Back when finished viewing). The year for each image is shown at the upper right corner of the map. Years with strong El Niños are indicated by the streak of brownish to red (i.e., warmer) water extending west along the equator from South America as shown in the 1979-200 image. Strong La Niña conditions are indicated by the streak of blue (i.e., cooler) water extending west from South America. The animation shows that In the baseline years (through about the year 2000) there are only relatively small positive and negative deviations over most of the planet, with perhaps a higher frequency of extremely negative anomalies. As the end of the sequence is approached (i.e., after ~2000), positive anomalies become more extreme and more wide-spread, with large areas in the Arctic showing temperature anomalies of 4 °C or more. WeatherBell’s anomaly map for 2016 shows large areas over the Arctic Ocean 5 – 7 °C above a 1981 to 2010 baseline that is already slightly warmer than ClimateRenalyzer’s 1979-2000 baseline.
The animation above is what climatic warming looks like on a global scale. Watching the changes in detail, note that the area of the Arctic Ocean around Novaya Zemlya Islands off northwestern Siberia (the area near lower right hand corner of the following polar projection map) remains persistently hot from around 2005 through 2015 (i.e. 3-4+ °C hotter over the whole year than the average temperature recorded for the 21 baseline years). (Click the links in the figure caption below the map to identify the locations of the geographic features referenced).
Figure 3 – Geography of the Arctic region (modified from Nordpil – the red line is the 10 °C isotherm). Land masses serving as geographic markers in and around the Arctic Ocean include Alaska, the Canadian Archipelago, Greenland, Svalbard/Spitsbergen (between Greenland and Novaya Zemlya), the Franz Josef Land Archipelago (north of Novaya Zemlya), Severnaya Zemlya (east of Novaya Zemlya to the north of central Siberia) and the New Siberian Islands (an archipelago north of Eastern Siberia). Links above and below describe and show in more detail the geographic locations of the named markers. Subdivisions of the Arctic Ocean that are often open water during the summer include the Bering Strait (connection to the Pacific Ocean between Siberia and Alaska), Chukchi Sea (north of Bering Strait between Siberia and Alaska), Beaufort Sea (north of Alaska and Canada between the Chukchi Sea and the Canadian Archipelago), Wandel Sea (north of Fram Strait) – Fram Strait (between Greenland and Svalbard – the only deep water connection between the Arctic Ocean)- Greenland Sea (south of Fram Strait), Barents Sea (between Norway, Svalbard, Franz Josef Land, Novaya Zemlya and Russia), Kara Sea (between Novaya Zemlya, Franz Josef Land, Severnya Zemlya, and Siberia), Laptev Sea (between Severnya Zemlya and New Siberian Islands), and the East Siberian Sea (north of eastern Siberia, between the New Siberian Islands and Wrangel Island/Chukchi Sea).
Given the way that the Mercator projection used for the animation above greatly exaggerates the polar regions, it is difficult to understand the actual geographic extent of the polar anomalies. Most of the remaining temperature and ice cover observations will be depicted on a planetary globe rather than flat maps. This shows the Arctic Ocean in truer perspective.
4.1. Arctic temperature anomalies
Looking down on the North Pole, the first global view animates the anomalies in yearly average temperatures for each year from 1979 through 2015: Over the baseline period from 1987 through 2000, moderately cooler and moderately warmer periods are about even over the Arctic Ocean. Beginning around 2005 anomalously hot areas over the Arctic become larger and more frequent. In 2015 – then the hottest year on record for the planet, much of the area over the Arctic Ocean is at least 4 °C warmer than average for the baseline period.
Figure 4- ANNUAL: Animated polar view of annual anomalies in the yearly average temperature of the Northern Hemisphere for each year from 1979 through 2015 compared to the average temperature for the baseline period 1979-2000 (Click graphic for animation / click Back when finished viewing). The year covered by each image, e.g., Ann 1979, is displayed in upper right corner of each image. (Climate Reanalyzer).
Counterintuitively, the greatest contribution to the annual anomalies for the Arctic Ocean is from excessively warm autumn and winter months (the “dark season”), when there is no solar heating because the Sun is below the horizon for most of the time.
Summer anomalies over the Arctic Ocean are generally not extreme over the entire period 1989 through 2015 because the region receives virtually the same amount of solar energy each year and excess heat retained by a stronger greenhouse cap is probably absorbed by the increased melting of sea ice. One gram of liquid water heated by 1 °C absorbs one calorie; but it takes ~80 calories to turn one gram of ice at 0 °C into liquid water at 0 °C !
However, over the autumn months of September, October and November the average heat anomaly for the season begins to increase markedly in the years after ~2000. Note that the temperature scale on the map extends to ±5 °C, and that in the later years areas of the brightest red may have heat anomalies in excess of 5 °C. The next two global animations show the autumn and winter anomalies from 1979 to 2015. The increasing heat anomalies over the Arctic, and especially the Arctic Ocean are consistent with the apparent development of a greenhouse cap in the current century.
Figure 5 – AUTUMN: Animated polar view of annual anomalies in the average temperature of the Northern Hemisphere for the autumn period inclusive of the calendar months of September, October, and November of each year from 1979-2015 compared to the average temperature for the 1979-2000 baseline period (Click graphic for animation / click Back when finished viewing ). The period covered by each image, e.g., SON 1979, is displayed in upper right corner of each image (Climate Reanalyzer).
The situation is similar for December, January, and February as shown below, when sunlight never reaches the pole (the sun doesn’t rise over the pole before the vernal equinox, around March 20).
Figure 6 – WINTER: Animated polar view of annual anomalies in the average temperature of the Northern Hemisphere for the Winter period inclusive of the calendar months of December, January, and February of each year from 1979-2015 compared to the average temperature for the 1979-2000 baseline period (Click graphic for animation / click Back when finished viewing). The period covered by each image, e.g., DJF 1979-1980, is displayed in upper right corner of each image (Climate Reanalyzer).
To explore the temporal changes in these anomalies more sedately, go to Climate Reanalyzer’s Monthly Maps, and set the following boxes from their defaults: Parameter = Mean Temperature 2m; Projection = Globe; Region = Northern Hemisphere; Month (options are annual, specific month, 3 monthly period – DJF, MAM, JJA, SON); Start/End = years); Span (Single/Multiple: Multiple gives you the opportunity to set a span of years); Plot Type (Average/Difference: average shown the average temperature for the selected period; Difference shows the temperature anomaly for the first span compared to the selected baseline span you select).
Climate Reanalyzer’s Daily Reanalysis Maps provide a tool for observing animations of daily temperature variations over a period of a selected month. This is updated a couple of weeks after the end of each month. 5-day Forecast Outlook Maps gives you a tool for projecting the average weather over the next five days.
The trends of greatly increasing temperatures over the Arctic Ocean in autumn and winter observed through the end of 2015 grew even more extreme in 2016. These are animated on the WeatherBELL map, where the Month to Date plot is updated daily until the month is completed, and the next month’s plot begins.
Figure 7 – Anomalies in average temperature over the world for each month of the calendar since January 2016 through March 2017 compared to averages for the same months in the baseline years 1979-2010. ((Click graphic for animation / click Back when finished viewing – WeatherBELL data).
Note that WeatherBELL uses a somewhat warmer baseline (1981-2010) for measuring its anomalies compared to Climate Reanalyzer’s 1979-2000 baseline. Orange and brownish red areas in the arctic represent anomalies between 1 and 7 °C, grey to white are anomalies between 7 and 10 °C, white to pinkish red are 11 to 16 °C hotter than the baseline for the same month. The maximum anomalies shown are +16 °C.
Last year, 2016, was the hottest year on record since temperatures were recorded, for the third year in a row (see NASA, NOAA Data Show 2016 Warmest Year on Record Globally). As shown in the animation above, January 2016 temperature anomalies for significant areas over the Arctic Ocean north of Scandanavia and western Siberia averaged +10° or more above the baseline, with small areas between Svalbard and Franz Josef Land Archipelago and between Franz Josef and Novaya Zemlya as warm as +15° above the baseline. In February the extent of these warm areas increased significantly, followed by March with very similar distributions to those observed in January. In April and May the magnitude of the anomalies diminished to +4-6°, and almost disappeared in June, July and August. In September much of the area over the Arctic Ocean showed an anomaly of +3-5°. In October the average anomaly over much of the Ocean was 5-11° above the baseline. In November the monthly average anomaly ranged an insane 10-16° above the baseline. In December) the polar area above latitude 80 or so still averaged 10-12° warmer than the baseline with some exceptionally warm spikes. In January and February 2017 there will still patches that averaged 11° above the baseline around Novaya Zemlya, and in March the 10-11° patch extended south into north-central Siberia and out into the Arctic Ocean north of eastern Siberia.
In the animation, also note the switch from El Niño conditions that existed in the beginning of 2016 (indicated by the reddish streak of warmth extending west along the Equator from South America) to La Niña in April and May (when a blue streak begins to replace the red west of South America) and continues for the rest of the year. By January 2017 there are already hints of a new El Niño forming along the Equator west of Peru that becomes stronger in February and March – the shortest interval between El Niños known to date. The high ocean temperatures off Peru led to extensive and unseasonal flooding in Peru.
Figure 8 – Daily mean temperature variation in the high Arctic (above 80° N) from 1958 to 24 April 2017 compared to a 1958-2002 baseline – (Danish Meteorological Institute). (Click graphic for animation / click Return when finished viewing. The solid red line is the calculated mean temperature over the high Arctic in degrees above absolute zero (°K). The solid green line is the baseline temperature variation over a 1958-2002 baseline. The horizontal blue line is the 0 °C melting temperature for ice. From 1958 to 2000 the frame rate is one second per year – demonstrating only slight and random variations from the average temperature for the day over the year. From 2000 to 2010 the frame rate is two seconds per year, and from 2011 to the present it is 3 seconds per year. In 2002 the algorithm for plotting the temperatures was changed and the two systems were run in parallel for half of the year. Both plots are shown, which accounts for the doubling of the variation line for that year. Note that there is little difference between the two algorithms. From 2010 to 2017 the frame rate is three seconds per year. In 2012 the daily temperatures begin to deviate significantly from the long-term average behavior. In 2016 winter temperatures were averaged a good 10 °C higher than the long term average.
What this long time series shows is actually quite important. Aside from variations due to weather fluctuations and a slight random variation around the the long term averages, the behavior of temperatures in the high Arctic above 80° N latitude remained fairly stable through around the year 2000. Then, beginning around 2005 dark period temperatures began rising with a considerable acceleration in the rate of temperature increase around 2012. By 2016 the average anomaly was an insane 10 °C over the long term average. 2017 so far is also quite hot.
In March 2017 there are large anomalies over the Arctic Ocean north of eastern Siberia (up to +10-11 °C) over western and eastern Siberia mainland and most of Antarctica are also anomalously warm. Only Alaska and western Canada are cool (between -4 and -2 °C). El Nino conditions are beginning to be evident along the equator west of Peru (see also Section 4.2 – Today’s weather), and in March there was a significant amount of warm water along Australia’s east coast that contributed to the severity of Severe Tropical Cyclone Debbie that lashed 1,300 km of the eastern seaboard and slopes with category 4 winds and catastrophic flooding.
Figure 9 – Global average temperature anomalies for the first 23 days of April 2017 relative to the 1981-2010 baseline for the same period. (WeatherBELL) . Note the significantly warm (7-9 °C) anomaly over the Arctic Ocean north of eastern Siberia. The only significantly cool area is Greenland. The Tasman Sea east of Australia shows a cooling possibly left over from Ex Tropical Cyclone Debbie cooling the surface waters by mixing them with cooler deeper water. There are signs of a developing El Nino in the Eastern Pacific along the Equator off Peru. The Ross Sea off Antarctica has the hottest anomaly for the time period on the planet.
The striking warming of the air over the Arctic Ocean and adjacent continental margins has consequences. Arctic sea ice is disappearing at an accelerating rate, with new minimum areas of ice coverage being reached almost every September.
For more than a year, every time I update this document, today’s weather shows no signs that global warming has stopped. In fact, the usual outlook is noticeably worse. ClimateReanalyzer provides a good window on our changing weather. “Today’s Weather Maps” displays the latest information for a range of weather/climate variables: Temperature, Temperature Anomaly, Sea Surface T Anomaly, Precipitation & Clouds, Mean Sea Level Pressure, Precipitable Water, Surface Wind, Jetstream Wind, Sea Ice & Snow.
Two of these plots are represented here, with comments on associated weather events.
Figure 10 – Global Temperature Anomalies for “Today”, 7 April 2017 (ClimateReanalyzer). Note the the large heat anomaly (> 13 °C) over Arctic Ocean north of eastern Siberia and North America. In the Southern Hemisphere there is a strong >20 °C anomaly over the Ross Ice Shelf and adjacent West Antarctica..
Figure 11 – Global Sea Surface Temperature Anomalies for “Today”, 7 April 2017 (ClimateReanalyzer). Note the warm water (> +2 °C) along the edge of the Arctic Ocean ice cap from north of Iceland eastward north of Norway and European Russia where it will be actively melting oceanic ice,. Most areas of the tropical and subtropical oceans show considerable heating, with a particularly warm patch off south eastern Australia. .
4.3. Polar sea ice
The unprecedented heating of the Arctic as shown in the observations above is associated with (as a cause?) an equally unprecedented melting of the cap of sea ice floating on the Arctic Ocean. This is shown over the period from the minimum of September 1984 through September 2016 in an animated video from the US National Astronautics and Space Administration (NASA).
Figure 12 – The remarkable loss of Arctic sea ice over the period from Sept. 1984 to Sept 2010 Note: the age of the ice is indicated by how white it is. The thinnest, year old ice is shown as grey, the thickest ice, 5 or more years old is shown in bright white. (Click picture above for NASA’s animation and narration).
Figure 13 – Thinning of the ice cover: snapshots for 7 March 2012 to 2017. 7 March was this year’s maximum extent. (Click graphic for animation / click Return when finished viewing) These shots are selected from CICE ice thickness – Snapshot Archive. Even by 2014, 5 m thick ice is almost gone and 3 m thick ice is substantially diminished. In the 2017 snapshot all ice thicker than 3 m (green) has virtually disappeared except hard along the north coast of the Canadian Archipelago and Greenland. This year on 7 March over two thirds of the iced over area of the Arctic ocean is covered by ice that is less than one and a half meters thick (lavender to dark blue and grey).
The anomalously warm arctic has impeded autumn and winter ice formation in 2016-2017 compared to previous years as shown in the National Snow and Ice Center’s most recent plots of ice extent. Sea ice in the Arctic and the Antarctic set record low extents every day in December 2016 and January 2017 so far, continuing the pattern that began in November (NSIDC Arctic Sea Ice News and Analysis – 5 Jan 2017; see again the Fig. 1 ). March 7 recorded the lowest Arctic extent ever recorded (NSIDC Arctic Sea Ice News and Analysis – 22 Mar 2017) with the average for the month also the lowest ever recorded (NSIDC Arctic Sea Ice News and Analysis – 11 April 2017) Please note that all of the following graphs of sea ice coverage are based on detailed satellite observations as mapped using 25 km x 25 km grid cells.
Not only are this year’s extents at or close to record lows, but much of the existing ice is fragmented with a lot of exposed ocean within the extent, as shown on the maps of sea ice concentration next:
Arctic melting is speeding up in April under increasing sunlight, the extent of the ice is essentially tied for the lowest for this date. Profound effects have also been observed over the last year on the thickness of ice on the Arctic Ocean in that almost all ice thicker than 2.5 meters has disappeared from the ocean as shown in Fig. 16. The PIOMAS graph (Fig. 17) shows the impact this melting has had on the total volume of Arctic ice.
Figure 16 – Ice thicker than 2.5 meters has disappeared between 2016 and 2017 (CICE ice thickness – Snapshot Archive). Although the extent of the Arctic ice after the winter maximum begins to shrink in March, over the Arctic Ocean the thickest ice is seen towards the end of April. In 2016 over half the surface of the 90-180° W quadrant was covered by ice thicker than 2.5 meters. Excepting only thick ice piled up on the shores of the Canadian Archipelago and northern Greenland, one year later there was no ice left in the Arctic thicker than 2.5 meters. Also, around half of the remaining ice is now less than 1.7 meters thick..
The low amount of sea ice at both poles means that the oceans will be absorbing much more heat energy from the sun than would be normal for this time of year – to encourage even more melting of the ice, as shown in the next graphic.
Figure 18 – The “albedo effect” (Arctic News). Snow and ice reflect around 90% of the solar energy striking them. Open water or dark soil generally absorb around 90% of the solar energy they receive. The absorbed energy heats the absorbing medium, increasing its temperature until there is a balance between heat leaving the area via conduction, convection, or radiation.
The net effect for this time of year from from the energy absorbed by the oceans in the summer is to impede freezing (in the Arctic) or to continue melting (in the Antarctic). Given that much of the remaining ice even in early stages of the melting season is quite thin (under 2 m thick), it will be readily fragmented by wind and waves to speed melting. Except for the thick ice along the shorelines of the Canadian Archipelago and northern Greenland, it is possible we will see an ice-free Arctic Ocean for a while this summer or next. If the reduction in volume compared to the previous lows shown in Fig. 17 continues through the rest of the year through September (around 2,000 km3) that would leave only around 1,800 km3 of ice on the ocean. Given that fragmented ice melts faster, it could be even less. While the ocean is mostly ice-free summer warmth will no longer be absorbed by the melting process (see Fig. 8), and the air temperatures in the high Arctic are likely to become substantially warmer – causing who knows what knock-on effects.
The heat anomalies in the Arctic are clearly slowing the rate at which new ice forms, even leading to an episode of net melting from December 18 through December 25 – at a time of year when the sun was below the horizon and could not contribute solar energy to add heat to the system. This suggests that major changes are taking place in the weather systems that normally lead to a rapid freeze-up of the Arctic Ocean. We can speculate where the anomalous heating comes from:
Water currents, e.g., the Gulf Stream may be hotter or flowing faster and further north than it usually does in the area between Svalbard and Scandanavia/Russia. However, a flow of warm water from the Pacific is limited by the shallow depth and narrow width of the Bering Strait
Southerly winds may be bringing more heat into the Arctic.
A stronger greenhouse cap over the Arctic. Water and ice have very high heat capacities, and cool via convection (transfer of heat from warmer to cooler air or water), or radiation (Arctic winters are generally stable and clear, allowing virtually all radiant energy given off by water or ice to escape to outer space). However, if the Arctic region is capped by a strong greenhouse layer, radiant energy given off by freezing water and continuing radiation from ice still close to the freezing point kept “warm” by the conduction of heat from the still liquid ocean under the ice will be trapped in the atmosphere to impede cooling of the surface as indicated by anomalously high air temperatures in the Arctic. Water vapor/clouds, CO2, and methane can all contribute to a stronger greenhouse cap.
5. Some relevant phenomena
As mentioned in the introduction to this essay, climate conditions in the Arctic drive world climates via their impacts on the Northern Hemisphere’s jet stream winds and ocean currents. In this section I will review some of these drivers and feedbacks affecting them.
5.1. Complexity theory: non-linearity, negative and positive feedback, and chaos
Local weather is the consequence of the interactions of a multitude of variables in a dynamic and complex physical-chemical system involving the sun, Earth’s atmosphere, oceans and other water bodies, the land and components of the biosphere that determine local temperatures, winds, and precipitation. Meteorologists aided by supercomputer models and the statistical analysis of many years of historical evidence that can be used to constrain the models now understand this complexity well enough to give reasonably accurate predictions up to several days in advance.
It is very difficult to model the behavior of weather systems because there are many interacting variables, and few if any of these interactions behave in a linear fashion (i.e., “linearity” is where there is a strict proportionality between the value of a any “independent” variable and the value of a variable it controls). Systems that include interactions that are not linear are termed “nonlinear systems“). Also, the values of a fair number of climate variables feed back on themselves, such that an increase in the one variable may cause changes in other variables that in turn affect the value of the first variable.
“Positive feedback” is the case where a change in the first variable causes other changes that feed back onto itself so as to cause the variable to change at a still faster rate. In other words positive feedback amplifies the extent of the change in either direction.
“Negative feedback” is where the change feeds back on itself to actually reduce or damp the rate of positive or negative change.
Nonlinear dynamic systems with positive and negative feedback are often termed as chaotic. What this means is that no two repetitions starting from the virtually identical initial conditions will be similar after a significant period of time (say a month where real climates are concerned). On the other hand, the range of variation in important climate parameters seem to be constrained to stay within approximate boundaries – such that the large scale behavior of climate systems can be modelled in probabilistic terms.
5.2. Jet streams and the polar vortex
Under “normal” conditions as understood in the era of scientific climatology, a strong vortex of winds forms in the stratosphere above the Arctic Ocean, with dry stratospheric air drawn down into a high pressure region encircled by a tight vortex of low level easterly winds blowing outward from the periphery of the vortex. When the vortex forms the freezing stratospheric air grows warmer as it slowly descends, preventing cloud formation (but it is still very cold compared to the temperatures of ice, snow, ocean and continental) and allowing the easy radiation of heat to space enabling rapid cooling of ice and water on the surface of the Ocean. As long as the high Arctic remains much colder than lands to the south the polar vortex remains strong and maintains a “tight” and nearly circular arctic jet stream as a wall between the air mass of the frigid Arctic winter and the warmer lands and oceans to the south.
Figure 19 – The Polar Vortex. A strong polar vortex (1) leads to rapid freezing of the Arctic Ocean due to descending dry and frigid air and the rapid radiation of heat stored in the open ocean and recently frozen ice to outer space. If the vortex weakens it can break down (2-4) allowing major allowing icy air to flow south. Snow insulates sea ice and the land allowing cold air flowing south from a weak vortex to become even colder, bringing extreme cold air to temperate zones of the continents. (Eco West)
Under “normal” conditions the jet stream forms regular north-south meanders of moderate amplitude that progress eastward around the planet driving weather systems before them. This is called “zonal flow” (see image below). Arctic air masses are held north of the jet stream, while the hotter tropical air is held to the south.
Figure 20 – Typical zonal (red) and meridional (orange) jet stream paths superimposed on part of the Northern Hemisphere (Mason 2013). The relatively small north-south waves in zonal flows progress from west to east around the polar region and help to form a stable barrier between polar and temperate air masses. Extreme meridionality slows or even stops the eastward progression of waves and can bring very cold air flooding a long way south from the Arctic while warm air is able in a different sector to force its way into the far north to cause prolonged cold/wet and hot/dry spells in the respective sectors.
With a reduced temperature difference between arctic and temperate latitudes (e.g., as a consequence of arctic warming) the meanders increase and may even break off as separate vortexes in what is called “meridional flow”. More significantly, the eastward progress of the meanders may slow or even stop. Arctic air can then flow southward on the north side of meanders as far as the sub tropics, and tropical air can be brought well up into the arctic zone on the south side of north extending meanders.
What is even more damaging is that these extreme weather conditions can persist in the same area for many days or even weeks, causing severe stress and to people and natural ecosystems from the record high or low temperatures. In winter, during these southern excursions over continents insulated by snow, the air can become substantially colder that it was over the Arctic Ocean. Also, under these meridional conditions large masses of warm air can be brought as far north as the Arctic Ocean where they add still more heat to the system to further reduce average temperature differences.
5.3. Thermohaline circulation and ocean currents
Global ocean currents are also of major importance in governing global climates due to the capacity of water to absorb, move, and release very large amounts of heat around the planet.
Basically, aside from prevailing winds pushing along surface water, the overall current system is driven by the physical fact that salty cold water is substantially heavier/denser than hotter and fresher water. The dense salty and cold water sinks to the bottom of the ocean and fresher and warmer water is pulled in to replace it.
The saltiest water forms in the Atlantic Ocean due to the continued evaporation in the hot tropics and subtropics (Mediterranean water is saltier but little of this reaches the Atlantic). This salty Atlantic water is still hot enough to flow north over the top of fresher but cooler waters until it reaches the Arctic where the salty water eventually cools enough to sink to the bottom. The cold salty water forms a deep current that flows south as far as the Antarctic where it then flows eastward along the bottoms of the Indian and Pacific Oceans where it gradually mixes and warms enough to again become surface water flowing into the Atlantic from the Pacific (to the west) and Indian Ocean (from the east). Along the way, as the Gulf Stream, the warm current substantially warms the East Coast of the USA, southern Canada, western Europe and northern Scandanavia.
The important consideration here is that the whole circulation pattern is driven by the fact that the salty warm water becomes cold enough in the Arctic that it sinks to the bottom to draw in more surface water. If the surface water in this region becomes too fresh (due to the melting of glacial ice – especially of the Greenland Ice Cap) and warmer (due to a general warming of the Atlantic side of the Arctic Ocean) due to global warming, the water will stop sinking and the thermohaline circulation will diminish, stop, or perhaps even begin to work in reverse. This would have catastrophic climate effects on continental areas currently warmed by the Gulf Stream that may then become very much colder in winter. Detailed explanations and discussions are provided by Wikipedia’s Thermohaline Circulation, and Shutdown of Thermohaline Circulation; Carbon Brief’s The Atlantic ‘conveyor belt’ and climate: 10 years of the RAPID project; and Real Climate’s The underestimated danger of a breakdown of the Gulf Stream System.
5.4. Other feedbacks
The most obvious positive feedback affecting the melting of sea ice is the interaction between summer sun and the ice: As sea ice melts less solar energy is reflected back to space and more is absorbed to warm the adjacent ocean. The warmer sea water speeds melting of more sea ice. As shown below, as the Arctic Ocean becomes more open due to rapid melting of the sea ice larger waves can form that assist in the breaking up and melting of sea ice. The graphic shows some of the less obvious sources of positive feedback that may contribute to a rapid breakup of the remaining sea ice – possibly over only a couple of years, and even faster arctic warming than we have contemplated.
Figure 22 – A Canadian view of potential sources of positive feedback that may lead to a chaotically rapid increase in the rate of melting of arctic sea and glacial ice. (Alternatives Journal)
6. Where are we now and how did we get here?
6.1. What the observations seem to tell us
The vast multitude of climate observations summarized above provide overwhelming evidence that the global, and especially arctic climates are rapidly warming at geologically unprecedented rates that may have accelerated markedly over the last 2-5 years. Coincident with this is a rapidly accelerating shrinkage in the extent, area, and volume of polar sea ice to what was in the first three months of 2017 the lowest levels that have been measured during the satellite era beginning in 1979 (see Fig 1).
Although not discussed in this essay, there is plenty of evidence in the news and on the web that the increasing temperatures have produced high frequencies of extreme weather events such as droughts, extensive wildfires (especially in Canadian and Russian boreal forests), and ecosystem collapses (Californian oak and pine forests, kelp forests, coral reef and mangrove systems, tropical peat forests – e.g., Indonesia, central Africa). Arguably, much of the recent disorder in Syria, other areas of the Middle East, and Africa is a consequence of the drought-induced collapse of subsistence agricultural ecosystems.
6.2. Greenhouse gasses: H2O, CO2 and methane (CH4)
Atmospheric water vapor (H2O) is the most important natural (as opposed to man-made) greenhouse gas, accounting for about two-thirds of the natural greenhouse effect. However, its role in climates and its response to changing global temperature are difficult to assess because many of the processes involved in its spatial and temporal distribution are still poorly understood.
Figure 23 – Atmospheric components contributing to the greenhouse effect. Dotted and dashed lines depict the fractional response for single-addition and single-subtraction of individual gases to either an empty or full-component reference atmosphere, respectively. Solid black lines are the scaled averages of the dashed and dotted line fractional response results. The sum of the fractional responses must add up to the total greenhouse effect. The reference model atmosphere is for 1980 conditions. (Wikipedia)
Modeling found that water vapor accounts for about ~50% of the Earth’s greenhouse effect, with clouds contributing ~25%, carbon dioxide ~20%, and the minor greenhouse gases (GHGs) and aerosols accounting for the remaining ~5%, as shown in Fig. 23. As explained below and in Fig. 24, the strength of the local H2O greenhouse effect and the potential amount of precipitation depend on the amount of water in the atmosphere both as water vapor and as visible clouds, roughly measured as “precipitable water“. It is also important to know that when H2O vapor condenses into cloud or rain droplets the process of condensation releases a large amount of heat (heat of condensation). Similarly, when water evaporates from cloud droplets, the ground, or the ocean it absorbs heat from its surroundings. (see enthalpy of vaporization). CO2, methane and other “non-precipitable” greenhouse gases only account for ~25% of the total greenhouse effect, but it is these non-condensing GHGs that actually control the strength of the greenhouse effect because the contributions from water vapor and cloud depend on temperature dependent sources of evaporation, and as such, only provide amplification. Because carbon dioxide accounts for 80% of the non-condensing GHG forcing in the current climate atmosphere, atmospheric carbon dioxide and methane are primary controls governing the Earth’s temperature (Schmidt, et al. 2010. The attribution of the present-day total greenhouse effect)
The figure below is a view of atmospheric precipitable water in a typical Northern Hemisphere winter. Note that large areas of the polar regions are extremely dry – essentially cloudless with comparatively little water to contribute to a greenhouse cap. With close to zero H2O vapor or clouds in the atmosphere only the non-condensing gases (mainly CO2 and methane) will be contributing to any greenhouse.
Figure 24 – Global distribution of precipitable water in deep winter on 21 February 2017. Note that the low levels of atmospheric moisture in the Arctic winter will not contribute to any polar greenhouse cap that may exist. Note also that there is an atmospheric river impinging on Southern California.
However variation in the amount of the H2O-based greenhouse (especially in the dark times of the arctic winter) will contribute significant positive feedback (i.e. to increase warming) to the greenhouse potential of other greenhouse gases present in the arctic atmosphere. How this works is described by Burt, et. al., 2016 – Dark Warming, as summarized in the next graphic:
Figure 25 – Schematic of the ice–insulation and “winter monsoon feedbacks”, which operate during the “dark season” when there is no direct solar heating (modified from Burt, et. al., 2016). As the arctic greenhouse traps more heat over the arctic more ice will melt and more precipitable water will both contribute to increasing the amount of greenhouse warming. As discussed below, other gases, e.g., CO2, methane, etc. are involved in other feedbacks contributing to warming.
To reverse the positive feedback from warming, we have to do something to reduce the net greenhouse.
CO2 and to some degree, methane, are the only parameters under human control. They must be reduced enough to cancel out other contributors that humans cannot control such as H2O and methane released from geological sources such as peat bogs and melting permafrost. As will be seen, we may soon be reaching a point of no return where even zero carbon emissions would be insufficient to actually reduce the greenhouse being enhanced by non-anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. The next image (Fig. 26), links to a NASA video modeling changes in CO and CO2 concentrations over the course of 2006 from natural and human generated emissions and absorptions. Fig. 27 links to an NOAA, Earth System Research Laboratory animation tracing the historical variation on CO2 concentration from 800,000 years ago through glacial, interglacial, postglacial and industrial eras up to the present.
Figure 26 – NASA image of variations in CO2 concentrations around the world based on sources of emission (generally the darkest red areas) and absorption (generally the lightest colored areas). (Goddard Media Studios). Click here for A Year in the Life of Earth’s CO2) that shows the yearly cycle of emission and absorption.
Figure 27 – Animated history of CO2 concentrations from 800,000 years BP to January 2016. Click the graphic to begin the animation. As it begins, the left panel shows the annual variations CO2 concentrations at various latitudes from the South Pole to (blue dot) through Mauna Loa (red dot) to measuring locations in the Arctic. Open dots are various other locations. The top part of right panel shows a map of monitoring locations and the date. The lower part of the right panel shows a graph of the variation in CO2 concentration from January 1979 when measurements at the South Pole began to the current date. When January 2016 is reached, the Mauna Loa curve is traced backward to 1958 when recordings were started by Charles D. Keeling. When 1958 is reached, CO2 concentration for earlier dates is then measured from gas bubbles trapped in radioactively dated Antarctic ice core slices, the oldest of which goes back 800,000 years before present. This shows how extraordinarily rapidly CO2 concentrations have risen in the Industrial Age from a maximum of 300 ppm any time prior to the beginning of the Industrial Era when humans began burning fossil fuels on an industrial scale to over 400 ppm now. As shown in the credits organizations from many nations contributed the data summarized here. (NOAA, Earth System Research Laboratory, Trends in Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide)
CO2 and H2O are not the only gases contributing to changes in the strength of the greenhouse. Although it is measured in parts per billion (ppb) rather than parts per million (ppm), methane (CH4) is between 20 and 80 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than CO2 (depending on the time period under consideration). Its concentration in the atmosphere is also rising much faster than CO2. In the industrial era, CO2 concentration rose from around 275 ppm to the current level of more than 400 ppm – an increase of around 46% during this time. In the same period methane rose from 700 to around 1850 ppb (= 1.85 ppm) – around 164% of the original value depending on what year was taken as the baseline. (see Fig. 28).
We have a reasonable understanding of sources and sinks for anthropogenic and non-anthropogenic CO2. Some of the atmospheric methane has clearly been released as the result of human activities, e.g., the raising of cattle and other ruminants, mining and drilling for oil and gas, leakage from a variety of other industrial activities etc. The fast rise in methane concentrations in parallel with the expansion in animal husbandry and industrial activities suggests that its rise in atmospheric concentration is also a consequence of human activities. However, compared to CO2 which has a atmospheric lifetime of many centuries because it is “permanently” removed from from the atmosphere/biosphere only by relatively slow geological processes, methane has a short lifetime (around 10 years) before it is degraded by hydroxide radicals and sunlight into CO2 and water.
As shown in Fig. 29, over the period from ~1980 the atmospheric concentration of CO2 has been rising at an accelerating rate, while the concentration of methane plateaued from 1989 through around 2007. This suggests that the rates of methane emission and degradation were in approximate equilibrium during this period. Beginning around 2008 the concentration of methane again began to rise more or less in step with the increasing temperature anomalies in the Arctic around 2008 (See Fig. 4 and Fig. 8). It is possible that a rapidly growing fraction of methane began to be released around that time from peat bogs in the boreal forests and permafrost under tundra and the Arctic Ocean that were exposed a times of lower sea levels during the ice ages.
Figure 29 -. Rising concentrations of CO2 and methane in the atmosphere from ~1980 to January 2017 as measured at Mauna Loa, Hawaii and Cape Grim, Tasmania, Australia. Both sites have been selected to record baseline measurements because because they are as far removed as practical from local sources of CO2 and methane production. The cyclic variation in CO2 concentrations is due to the absorption of the gas by plants during the growing season and then release as they decay over autumn and winter. The variation in methane is a consequence of its light induced breakdown in spring and summer compared to its stability and continuing emissions during the dark seasons. (Mauna Loa observations from NOAA Earth System Research Laboratory Trends in Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide and Carbon Cycle Gases, MLO, Methane. Cape Grim observations from CSIRO, Cape Grim Greenhouse Gas Data.)
Fig. 30 shows the degree to which different gases released by human activities contribute to the greenhouse effect. CO2 makes the largest contribution, followed by methane. Fig. 31 shows how much the forcing from each gas has increased between 1980 and 2015.
Figure 31 – Changes in radiative forcing by greenhouse gases between 1980 and 2015. (US EPA – Climate Change Indicators: Climate Forcing.
Fig. 32 is a dense graph summarizing a lot of information. The annual maxima and minima of methane concentration tend to increase year on year, with a suggestion that the rate of increase begins to accelerate around 2006. The valleys in the front extending from the south pole to around the equator show annual minima autumn and maxima in spring. This is that because of shorter day lengths methane accumulates faster in winter than it breaks down and summer sunlight drives the chemical processes that oxidize methane into CO2 and water. The broad picture in the northern hemisphere where the seasons are reversed is the same. However, the most significant observation is that the highest concentration of methane occurs over the Arctic Ocean, where the concentration is also rising the fastest, with the lowest rise and rate of rise over Antarctica. This suggests that most methane is released in high latitudes where its rate of release exceeds its rate of decomposition. Decomposition rates are highest under the equatorial sun, but the increasing concentrations of methane still spill over the Equator into the southern hemisphere to drive rising concentrations even at the South Pole.
Figure 32 – Changes in the global distribution of methane from 1996 through 2013. The x-axis (left-right) plots each month from 1996 through 2013, the y-axis (in-out) plots latitude from the north pole to the south pole, and the z-axis plots methane concentration in nanomoles/mole (= parts per billion).
6.3. Arctic Methane
The obvious conclusion here is that the major source of methane emissions is in the industrial north, and probably even from the basically non-industrialized high Arctic. The actual sources of methane emission have not been as well studied and quantified as CO2 emissions, but it appears that major arctic sources may be emissions methane from anaerobic fermentation and CO2 in boreal peat and tundra bogs, and the release of “fossil” CO2 and methane stored as ice-like hydrates (= clathrates) in permafrost laid down on land and shallow continental shelves during low sea-level periods of the ice ages as these warm and melt in the increasingly hot Arctic. Rates of greenhouse gas release from all of these sources increase with rising temperatures. Of these, methane is the least well understood.
Aside from forest bogs, an unknown proportion Arctic methane is probably emitted from thawing permafrost above and below the ocean surface – especially in areas that received organic rich sediment during the last glacial era when sea levels were some 100 to 200 m lower than they are today. The distribution of land based permafrost is shown here:
Figure 33 – Distribution of arctic permafrost (from NASA Earth Observatory’s Methane Matters).
The following pictures from the Siberian arctic and their associated articles suggest this kind of outgassing may prove to be a major issue for continuing life as we know it.
Figure 34 – The hillock visible here is actually a bubble of methane trapped under the tundra (The Siberian Times – 22 Jul 2016). This dome was like jelly to walk on, and filled with meltwater and methane gas. After removing the layer of grass, when sampled the air around it proved to be full of methane gas. “The carbon dioxide (CO2) concentration released was 20 times above the norm, while the methane(CH4) level was 200 times higher”.
Figure 35 – This is probably the same crater as depicted in the illustrations below. “The vent has many features similar to a volcano. A central vent surrounded by debris ejected from it that forms the parapet. Initially the parapet will have been much larger (taller) and made up of ice blocks that have subsequently melted” (Mearns, 2015 – On the Origin of a Permafrost Vent on Yamal Peninsula, Russia).
Figure 36 – Some hillocks, called pingos, are formed by the expansion of a column of ice within the permafrost that may also contain ice-like CO2 and methane hydrates (The Siberian Times – 10 July 2015). If the ice melts (increasingly likely with rising arctic temperatures), and the melting hydrates release gas, the gas pressure may cause the pingo to blow out spewing water, mud, and ice along with the released gases, leaving a hole like shown here that leaves easy access to the atmosphere for further emissions, and that gradually fills with debris. The blowholes eventually degrade into the millions of deep circular lakes in the tundra.
Figure 37 – A highly pitted landscape covered with water-filled permafrost “blow”holes on the tundra of the Yamal Peninsula (Yamalsky District, Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug, Russia – Google Maps 68°50’59.3″N+69°50’23.7″E – I have enhanced the brightness and contrast to clarify the image). The meandering streams collect and eventually conduct meltwater out of the landscape. The dark blue lakes are those that are still deep – not yet filled in by debris. The smallish lake – third in a near vertical straight row of five in the lower middle of the picture is ~170 m in diameter. There are also smaller similarly structured blowholes (such as those illustrated above, e.g., Fig. 35) down to the resolution of Google Maps.
Permafrost is known to store large amounts of CO2 and methane in ice-like hydrates that decompose into water and gas at temperatures around the freezing point. As heat from the warming climate penetrates ever deeper into the soil the ice and clathrates in the solid permafrost melt and turn into semi-liquid mush that releases any stored gasses as bubbles that can reach the atmosphere when the gas-filled structure bursts or collapses. From the evidence on the permafrost landscapes, where the permafrost layer is thick enough this gas appears to reach the atmosphere in an vigorous eruption, blowing out blocks of ice, water and gasses to leave a deep pit that soon fills with meltwater and debris leaving deep ponds as shown in the sequence of pictures above. These pitted landscapes can can easily be found as I have done here in Fig. 37 using Google Maps in Earth mode in alluvial deposits around the Arctic in Alaska, Canada, and Russia/Siberia.
The amount of greenhouse gas released per year by this process is very poorly quantified, with estimates ranging over two factors of 10. Ruppel and Kessler in a 2017 preprint of an open access article, “The Interaction of Climate Change and Methane Hydrates” published by the American Geophysical Union in Reviews of Geophysics present from a conservative point of view the current range of understanding and opinions regarding the relationships between currently frozen methane and global warming.
The review’s conclusions are worth quoting verbatim:
On the contemporary Earth, gas hydrate is dissociating in specific terrains in response to post-LGM [Last Glacial Maximum] climate change and probably also due to warming since the onset of the Industrial Age. Nevertheless, there is no conclusive proof that the released methane is entering the atmosphere at a level that is detectable against the background of ~555 Tg yr-1 CH4 emissions. The IPCC estimates are not based on direct measurements of methane fluxes from dissociating gas hydrates, and many numerical models adopt simplifications that do not fully account for sinks, the actual distribution of gas hydrates, or other factors, resulting in probable overestimation of emissions to the ocean-atmosphere system. The new generation of models based on ocean circulation dynamics holds the greatest promise for robustly predicting the fate of gas hydrates under climate change scenarios [Kretschmer et al., 2015] and could be improved further with better incorporation of sinks.
At high latitudes, the key factors contributing to overestimation of the contribution of gas hydrate dissociation to atmospheric CH4 concentrations are the assumption that permafrost-associated gas hydrates are more abundant and widely distributed than is probably the case [Ruppel, 2015] and the extrapolation to the entire Arctic Ocean of CH4 emissions measured in one area. Appealing to gas hydrates as the source for CH4 emissions on high-latitude continental shelves lends a certain exoticism to the results, but also feeds catastrophic scenarios. Since there is no proof that gas hydrate dissociation plays a role in shelfal [sic] CH4 emissions and several widespread and shallower sources of CH4 could drive most releases, greater caution is necessary.
At present we do not know how much of a threat is represented by the emissions of methane from non-anthropogenic sources in the arctic because too little research has been done to accurately quantify either the magnitude of the emissions or how much methane more methane would be released as a consequence of atmospheric and ocean warming. We know that all of the rate of methane emissions from a variety of different will increase with rising temperatures, and that the addition of more methane to the polar atmosphere will cause temperatures to rise still faster. However, we know too little to quantify the positive feedback on the overall global warming process in terms of either the rate or magnitude of the additional warming.[my emphasis] For marine settings, the emerging research underscores the vulnerability of upper continental slope hydrates to ongoing and future dissociation in response to warming intermediate waters. In light of predictions that thousands of methane seeps remain to be discovered [Boetius and Wenzhofer, 2013; Skarke et al., 2014] on the world‘s continental margins, surveys should focus on identifying sites of possible upper continental slope gas hydrate breakdown and degassing. Such research should better constrain hydrate reservoir dynamics, CH4 release, and carbon cycling in response to climate forcing. As on the circum-Arctic Ocean shelves, it is important to continue investigating the source of CH4 emissions on upper continental slope to prevent attributing too much to hydrate dynamics, and establishing clear linkages between CH4 emissions and known gas hydrates is critical for proving the climate-hydrates interaction. At the same time, focused paleoceanographic studies should also constrain bottom water temperature changes on upper slopes since 20 ka, the critical period for placing present-day emissions in the context of post-LGM climate and oceanographic changes.
The authors’ views here regarding current methane emissions are conservative, but accepting of the limited knowledge presently available relating to the problem. However, they clearly identify the fact that the rate of methane release is likely to increase considerably as the atmosphere and oceans grow warmer and speed the melting of permafrost on land and on the continental shelves.
Regarding the question of whether this non-anthropogenic source of methane is contributing to polar warming now, I remind readers of the observational data reflected in the accelerating increase in Arctic temperatures in the current century and the persistent location in the sunless months of the year of the most extreme and stable anomalies over the permafrost of sedimentary areas of the high Arctic of North America and Siberia and the adjacent continental shelves. To me this suggests that a strong greenhouse cap is forming over these regions in autumn and winter, trapping heat from ocean and ice that would otherwise radiate away to outer space as was the case in the 20th Century.
The the material presented above summarizes a vast array of observational data regarding global climate change – especially changes in average temperatures over time. The observations are from government and institutional sources I trust and respect and are fully live-linked to their sources which explain how the data have been collected and processed to produce the summaries I present here. How we should react to these and similar observations depends on how we assess adverse risks that may be a consequence of possible future climate changes that can be projected from the observations.
7.1. Engineers and project managers have to assess risks
Engineers and managers of all kinds of projects have developed some useful tools to help them think about, assess and quantify the range of possible physical and financial risks to operators, owners, and the general public associated with the engineered product, project or event in order to assess the viability of the project and the potential consequences if it should fail. (Risk analysis was one of the disciplines I had to understand and apply in my work for Tenix Defence – designer and builder of the ten ANZAC frigates for Australia and New Zealand – as a knowledge management systems analyst, designer and implementer.)
Thinking about project risks generally begins by creating a rectangular matrix for each identified risk, involving the dimensions of “likelihood” (probability of occurrence) and “consequences” (magnitude or cost if the risk happens) – see Risk Management.. Normally there are five degrees of likelihood – from rare to almost certain, and four of consequences – from insignificant to catastrophic. Given the nature of the possible risks associated with climate change, I have added a sixth level of consequence – “existential”, as explained in the slide graphics below (see Wikipedia on Permian-Triassic Extinction Event and Mass Extinctions).
If the adverse consequences of a risk are unlikely and are insignificant or minor if they happen, it may be most cost effective to “ignore” the risks, and simply remediate any problems that arise if/when the adverse event being considered happens. On the other hand if the risk is high (or extreme), and if there is any possibility that the adverse event will happen, then the organization may well decide not to proceed with the project (i.e., to avoid the risk), or, alternatively, decide to spend what is required to mitigate (i.e., to remove) the possibility to ensure that the event cannot happen.
And then there are existential risks where the adverse consequence being considered may possibly cause the extinction of the organization, country, or even most or all of humanity, we are well advised to do everything possible to ensure that the adverse event doesn’t happen. For example nuclear war is an existential risk for a nation. It would be utter MAD-ness to organize a nuclear strike against another well equipped nuclear power with second-strike capability, because this would lead to a high probability that the nation that launched the first strike would be obliterated. Because the consequences would be so bad for all the parties involved and much of the remainder of the world as well, no nation to now has been mad enough to start a nuclear war. Hence the Cold War doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction.
7.2. Analyzing the risk of runaway global warming
It is not my purpose here to present a complete risk analysis for Arctic warming, but only to highlight that that there is a potential for runaway warming in the Arctic that exists as an existential risk for humanity through likely cascading effects (as discussed above) on the global climate. The global average temperature has already increased by around one degree centigrade/Celsius since the mid 1930s, and by significantly more than that in the Arctic – especially over the Arctic Ocean since regular satellite observations began in 1979 to fill in the gaps between the sparse records offered by the small number of land stations, research vessels and weather buoys. Given the nature of positive feedbacks already discussed above, this is likely to trigger accelerating rises in Arctic temperatures:
higher water and air temperatures melt more sea, glacial ice faster and snow on the land
reduced summer ice cover and arctic snow on land leads to absorption of more heat to increase temperatures of ocean and overlying air to melt still more ice and snow
reduced temperature differences between Arctic and temperate zones weakens the polar vortex, changing zonal jet streams regularly progressing to the east, into the slowly progressing meridional jet streams meander widely and sometimes stop that bring hot and moist tropical air up to the Arctic and colder dry air down into the subtropics that may force temperatures into extremes that may last for days trap extreme temperatures over localities for days or even weeks a time to trigger floods, wildfires in boreal forests, droughts and other extreme weather
wildfires deposit black ash on snow and ice, encouraging further heat absorption and melting
warmer, fresher fresher ocean water from melting ice and snow plus increasing solar heating reduces thermohaline circulation, allowing still more summer heating and the Arctic, while allowing local sea level rises and colder temperatures in western Europe and northeast USA
changing sea levels and reductions in the mass of ice caps and glaciers are likely to trigger local volcanism
higher temperatures lead to more rapid melting of permafrost on land and on shallow continental shelves, releasing stored but likely large amounts of greenhouse gases stored in sediments during the ice ages, trapping absorbed summer heat in the atmosphere into and perhaps even through the dark winter months.
The illustration below summarizes the risk to humans if we cannot reduce the existing greenhouse cap over the Arctic faster than it is being increased by these geophysical processes in order to allow cooling and the freezing of more ice to proceed.
Could something like this actually happen to humanity? There is actually reasonably good evidence that runaway warming in the past has caused mass extinctions of life on Earth. A strong case has been made than the Permian-Triassic Extinction Event was caused by runaway warming at least partially as a result of a major methane belch from the oceans. It was the our planet’s worst extinction event, when some 96% of all marine species and 70% of terrestrial vertebrate species disappeared. It is the only known mass extinction of insects: some 57% of all families and 83% of all genera. Presumably, because of the great reduction in biodiversity, it took significantly longer than after any other extinction event for diversity to recover – possibly as much as 10 million years.
Carbon dioxide derived from Siberian Trap volcanism with its δ13C value of about −6‰ would bring about a warming of about 6 °C and a shift in marine carbonate 13C values by about −2‰.The rapid addition of isotopically lighter methane (∼−60‰) to the global atmosphere and hydrosphere would bump up the aver-age global temperature to well above 29 °C, and afteoxidationsthe 13C signature in marine carbonates would record carbon isotope compositions ranging from −2 to −7‰.
The emission of carbon dioxide from volcanic deposits may have started the world onto the road of mass extinction, but it was the release of methane from shelf sediments and permafrost hydrates that was the ultimate cause for the catastrophic biotic event at the end Permian.
The observational data presented in this essay provide strong evidence that significant Arctic warming has already begun that is apparently accelerating, suggesting that the ice-albedo feedback and polar vortex feedbacks are already operating, and that others may also have begun. Given (1) that the potential feedbacks mentioned here are all based on well established physics, geophysics and climatology, and (2) that they appear to be ongoing at the present time, it is entirely reasonable to assess the risk of adverse consequences to humanity as being existential.
The single most telling observation as to how far along this process we are is the catastrophic drop in the overall volume/mass of sea ice left on the planet as exemplified by the annually shrinking volume of Arctic ice shown by the following summary graphic from ArctischePinguin. For the period of 1979 through 2001 the average MAXIMUM volume of ice was 30,000 km3. From this year’s trend the peak would appear to be around 21,000 km3, which will be about 1,500 km3 lower than last year’s peak then tied to be the record low peak. Wipneus’s extrapolations of what appears to be an exponentially decreasing volume suggests that the Arctic Ocean may be ice free by the summer of 2020 – or perhaps even this year! Obviously, the actual minimum volumes of ice for each year bounce around above and below the trend line, so the first ice free summer could happen even sooner (or later) than when the trend line reaches zero. Nevertheless, if our planet loses its Arctic ice cap for even a short time that will probably be a unique event since at least since the last interglacial. The impact on temperate zone climates is not likely to be minor.
Figure 41 – Monthly variations in the total volume of sea ice on the Arctic Ocean from 1979 through 4 April 2017 as measured in thousands of cubic kms. Arctische Pinguin – PIOMAS / PIOMAS Daily Arctic Ice Volume)
In other words, the danger of extremely adverse consequences to our species if we deny or ignore the threat and do nothing to mitigate it can be ranked in three dimensions as:
Probability: likely to almost certain
Severity: catastrophic to extinction
Time scale: near to imminent (i.e., within the normal lifespan of at least some people now living)
Figure 42 – Ranking the risk of runaway global warming in three dimensions. Above danger assessment adds a third dimension, i.e. time scale. A 5 – 10°C temperature rise could eventuate within one decade and this also makes the danger imminent, adding further weight to the need to start taking comprehensive and effective action. (Arctic News – The Threat Of Arctic Albedo Change).
My conclusion from what appears to be undeniable evidence canvassed in this essay is that we have already passed the tipping point where we had any hope of stopping warming at 2 or even 3 °C, and urgently need to focus on greatly improving our scientific understanding and learning learning how to live with and survive decades of rapid heating, and to develop global geoengineering tools to actively remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere before most life on the planet (including ourselves) is exterminated by heat stroke and starvation in collapsing ecosystems.
Human population growth is slowing down, but there is no end in sight: we are due to reach 11 billion towards the end of this century, and to continue expanding our numbers well into the next. This article discusses why focusing on the rate of population growth as the central problem amounts to a mistaken and misleading approach to thinking about the issue, as does the suggestion that we should aim to “stabilize” population size. Our current population size is already unsustainable, which poses great risks to human beings and wildlife alike. The aim must be to reverse human population growth rather than merely to slow it down or lock it in at some arbitrary, unsustainable size.
High fertility rates are largely a product of social norms. But social norms can change, and this is a powerful argument for active and honest dialogue about the problem of unsustainable human population growth.
Human numbers were relatively stable during thousands of years, slowly edging up until reaching our first billion around 1804. After this, growth accelerated, then exploded. By 1927, when beloved naturalist Sir David Attenborough was a baby, humanity had already notched up the second billion. By the time Attenborough narrated the first Life on Earth series in the late 1970s, our numbers had more than doubled again. We are now on course for to reach our third doubling by 2023; there will be 8 billion of us then. Population growth is slowing down, but there is no end in sight: we are due to reach 11 billion towards the end of this century and to continue expanding our numbers well into the next. The number of people added to this planet every year (~80 million) has not changed much since the late 1970s, but it translates into an ever-smaller rate of growth because our absolute numbers are getting larger and larger. For many, this means there is no problem left to solve.
In this article, I briefly discuss how problematising population growth in terms of the speed of growth amounts to a mistaken and misleading approach to thinking about the issue, as do suggestions that we should aim to “stabilise” population size (whether at the national or global level). Population size is not a neutral factor and poses great risks to human beings and wildlife alike. Logically and morally, the aim must be to reverse population growth rather than to merely slow it down or lock it in at arbitrary, unsustainable size. High fertility rates are largely a product of social norms. But social norms can change, and this is a powerful argument for active and honest engagement with the problematic of population growth by scientists, activists and policy-makers.
First, a clarification. In this paper I criticize rhetorical arguments about the problematic of population growth which are frequently put forward by economists, futurists, and policy-makers, but sometimes also by natural scientists and even population concern activists. Any of these actors might be motivated by political expediency, ideological commitment, or a sincere belief that their positions are empirically sound. Whether or not genuinely endorsed by those who proffer them, the arguments I attack are commonly presented to the public as though they represent sound reasons for dismissing concern about population growth, and this is a problem. As I attempt to demonstrate, even a fairly cursory examination shows these arguments to be fallacious. I make no claim that my criticisms or counter-arguments are novel. On the contrary, I take the logical and moral incongruences I identify as fairly self-evident to anyone who has given serious thought to the subject of population and sustainability.
The future of population growth is not set in stone. But if we get the problem wrong, we are bound to misunderstand our options about what can or should to be done to mitigate the risks to all life on this planet, both human and wild.
Too fast, or too much growth?
Concerns about population growth are often articulated in terms of the growth being too fast. Supposedly, we should aim at slowing down growth or stabilising our numbers. In its most intellectually reprehensible incarnation, this framing of the problem translates into the argument that there is nothing to worry about because the rate of population growth is already slowing down. The easiest way to solve a complex ethical and practical problem, as ever, is to deny that it exists.
Current declines in fertility rates are neither irreversible nor inevitable, which is why multiple UN population projections have had to be adjusted upwards in recent years. But more importantly, the rhetoric of “slower growth” or “stable population size” erroneously and misleadingly implies that population size is a neutral factor. If a “stable” population is an ideal outcome, or at least a population that is not growing as fast, then it must follow that any population size is fine; the problem is merely that there is change, or the change is too fast. But this is not the case, however much it may suit one’s ideological inclinations or political aims.
From an environmental sustainability perspective, what matters is the current and cumulative effect of absolute population size, not the rate at which our numbers grow. It makes a great deal of difference to the prospects for human security and wellbeing, and for wildlife survival, if our population is 2 billion, 7 billion, 11 billion or, indeed, 16 billion. Whether a population is sustainable turns on how many consumers there are, consuming as they can be realistically expected to consume. If there are more consumers than can be sustained, the risks will turn principally on how many more and for how long there is an imbalance.
The risks from an unsustainable pattern of resources use do not crystallise overnight. Consider a situation where your one and only source of livelihood is withdrawals from a bank account into which someone placed a large deposit (precise amount unknown). Even if you repeatedly withdraw from the account more than it is earning in interest rates, it may take a long time to empty the account completely; you may come to think it will never happen, even though it is the logical end-point of your trajectory. You may be a very optimistic person who is counting on interest rates going up in future, or on finding a way to diminish your withdrawals before the capital is completely gone. (Another way of looking at it, of course, is that you are reckless with your finances.) But for the time being, your withdrawals are unsustainable. They do not stop being unsustainable because things might change in future. The longer the unsustainable withdrawals go on for, the harder it becomes for you to mitigate the risk that you’ll run out of money. In particular, the longer you keep up your unsustainable withdrawals, the less leeway you’ll have to deal with unexpected expenses, falling interest rates, or simply having misjudged how much there is in the account. As with our planet’s resources, there is no safety net in this thought experiment.
I am quite willing to concede that, from the perspective of provision of public services, the speed of population growth is indeed an independent problem. Rapid population growth can create something of a Red Queen race for societies, where continuously increased public expenditure is needed simply to keep up with growing demand for school places, hospital beds, housing, sanitation, public transport, etc.
But in so far as one accepts that at least some needful resources are finite and depletable – in so far as one accepts that sustainability is or can be an issue independently of the capacity of social structures to adapt to population growth – then it simply cannot be logically supposed that the solution lies in ensuring growth eventually stops, yielding a stable population size. That a population’s size is stable in no way entails sustainability. It may be sustainable, or it may be far too large. This turns on a range of factors, most notably on how big that ‘stable’ population is and on the state of the resource base on which it depends.
Framing population stabilisation as a policy goal – independently of any sustainability assessment – is simply false and bound to mislead the public about the nature of the problem. It reflects an unthinking acceptance of the premise that populations must not shrink, that whatever arbitrary size a population grows to must be locked in and accommodated somehow. The fear of population “decline” or “ageing” is primal and tribal, reflecting macho anxieties of a bygone era where survival was about how many young men one could round up for waging war or fighting off invasions. It makes no sense in today’s world, where the main threats to the long-term viability of human societies are ultimately rooted on there being too many of us, men and women, young and old, doing damage simply by peacefully leading our own lives.
Population, affluence and technology
It is trivially true that the environmental impact of any given population size is modulated by affluence and by the technology available (in addition to cultural and institutional particularities). This broadly corresponds to the familiar “IPAT identity” formula: impact = population x affluence x technology. However, it is often mistakenly assumed that more advanced technology translates into a reduced impact, or that people living in poverty have next to no environmental impact or will remain poor for ever.
Technology can be used to increase efficiency in resource use, allowing us to make more with less. But it can also be used to extract resources faster and more cheaply, masking their scarcity, encouraging overuse, or otherwise accelerating resource depletion. As the Aldo Leopold put it nearly 70 years ago, “few educated people realize that the marvellous advances in technique made during recent decades are improvements in the pump, rather than the well.” There is mounting evidence that the predominant relationship between technology and resource use is one of improvements to the pump, that is, facilitating their extraction rather than creating more resources. A related phenomenon is described in economics as Jevons’ paradox, where greater technological efficiency in the use of a resource ultimately increases its overall consumption. In addition, technology can also be used to convert one environmental problem into another, for example where freshwater scarcity is “resolved” via desalination plants that consume vast amounts of fossil fuels, decimate marine life, or generate serious pollution.
Affluence is a similarly multivalent factor. A wealthier population will typically consume much more than a poorer population of the same size, but will also be better able to invest into the development of new technologies that may reduce their impact on resources – or amplify it. But there is nothing inherently “environmentally friendly” about poverty. In much of the world, those who are struggling to find opportunities in the formal economy will turn to extractivist activities to make a living for themselves and their families, often to devastating results: empty forests where most wildlife has been hunted down, rampant deforestation for wood fuel and growing food, overfished rivers and bays. In addition, it is clear that some environments are better able to support larger human populations than others. Poverty-stricken, rapidly growing populations are too often found in drought-prone, resource-poor, fragile environments such as the Sahel and the Horn of Africa. In such areas, mere subsistence activities are enough to over-exploit natural resources, driving desertification and worsening the already chronic food insecurity.
The contribution of population size to our environmental impact is comparatively unambiguous. For any given level of affluence, use of technology, or environmental constraints, and regardless of which way these factors pull, a smaller population size will mean a smaller environmental impact, slower resource depletion, and a greater range of alternatives for coping with resource scarcity (for example, relocating elsewhere). Conversely, a bigger population will have a greater environmental impact, a faster rate of resource depletion, fewer alternatives for coping with scarcity due to the concatenation of multiple scarcities and to greater competition for resources, and a greater number of human lives at risk than what would otherwise be the case.
Population size always matters, and in today’s world, a smaller population is a more resilient one.
The irrelevance of current food production
It is often suggested that we ought not to worry about population growth because we already produce enough food to feed 10 billion people. Supposedly we can, or should, let population growth run its course, whatever it may prove to be, because we are safe on the food front. There are at least three reasons why this reasoning is fallacious.
First, answering the question of how much food is produced now is not answering the question of how much food we can expect to produce over the foreseeable future. Current resource use in agriculture is unsustainable, and this is without taking into account the potentially devastating impact of climate change. Discussions about food waste and expansion of the agricultural frontier typically ignore the reality that not all waste can be prevented, that most productive land worldwide is already in use for agriculture, and that what is left is natural habitat that supports important ecosystem services and provides critical sanctuary for what remains of the world’s wildlife.
Secondly, even if it were possible to sustainably produce enough food to feed a population of 10 or even 11 billion – and we have no reason to be confident it will be – food production is not the only issue. People’s ability to earn a livelihood matters to their ability to secure enough food and other basic resources for themselves and their families, to their ability to live lives of dignity, and to the fiscal sustainability of their societies. The International Labour Office has been chronicling a global trend towards higher unemployment and underemployment for years, due to job creation not keeping up with growth in the number of new labour market entrants. This has particularly affected younger workers, reflecting the morally problematic asymmetry of all population growth externalities: the costs and risks of population growth are typically worse for younger generations than for the older generations who have made the choices that created or added to the risks. As if these population growth-driven trends were not enough of a threat to the livelihoods of younger generations, in recent years there has been growing concern about the scope for developments in artificial intelligence to cause unprecedented levels of unemployment without concomitant creation of new jobs for those displaced, potentially vastly aggravating fiscal unsustainability problems that are already widespread.
And thirdly, even if it were possible to secure food and decent livelihoods for 11 billion people, our population may keep on growing well past that already enormous size. This is the trajectory indicated by the latest UN population projections sees the global population continuing to grow well into the 22nd century, and its projected size for 2100 might prove optimistic. Population projections for countries experiencing high fertility are particularly uncertain; these are the countries which are projected to drive the bulk of global population growth from 2050 onwards. Even slightly slower than anticipated fertility declines could result in a much larger population size. The UN’s “high” variant projection assumes fertility rates will remain half a child higher, on average, than the “medium” variant. This yields a 2100 population of over 16 billion. It may be thought that the high variant assumes an increase in fertility; on the contrary, it still builds in a substantial reduction in fertility rates relative to today’s levels. A straightforward extrapolation of current fertility rates would yield a population of well over 25 billion by 2100.
While many remain steadfastly optimistic about the prospects for producing enough food to feed 11 billion in a climate changed world with damaged soils and not enough water, this author is not aware of any credible proposals for feeding a world of 16 billion or more.
Our current population’s impact on the natural resources on which we depend suggests 7 billion is already an unsustainable population size. Further population growth will increase systemic risks to food security and livelihoods, in particular climate change, mounting unemployment and sub-employment, degradation of agricultural soils, overfishing, and freshwater scarcity.
The Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change recognises population growth as a primary driver of climate change, along with economic growth. The IPCC warns that climate change may have severe impacts on food security via higher temperatures, precipitation changes, increased frequency of extreme weather events, the spread of new pests and ocean acidification. Estimates suggest that some 200 million people could be displaced by climate change over the next 40 years. Food production is a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions and a dominant force behind diversity loss, degradation of land and depletion of freshwater sources, among other serious environmental impacts. Simultaneously, agriculture is the most weather-dependant of all human activities, and extensively reliant on the same natural resources and ecosystem services it is degrading.
The Food and Agricultural Organisation identifies population growth and economic growth as the primary drivers of the ongoing loss and degradation of agricultural soils, which in turn is a major threat to food security. Global marine fisheries landings have been declining since the late 1980s due to overfishing. The FAO’s analysis of assessed stocks has found a downward trend in biologically sustainable fish stocks since 1974; some 30% of fisheries are already overfished and a further 60% are “fully fished”, with pressures on fish stocks largely driven by population growth (but also economic growth). Around 1.4 billion people live in areas where ground water is being drawn at a faster rate than it can be replenished. The UN projects that almost half the world’s population will be living in areas of high water stress by 2030, potentially displacing as many as 700 million people. Water scarcity is driven principally by population growth and – what else – economic growth, is set to be worsened by climate change, and is thought to be a major driver of armed conflict, in particular in Africa. Some of the most water stressed countries are also experiencing very high population growth rates. The UN estimates that nearly 80% of the jobs constituting the global workforce depend on access to an adequate water supply.
Population growth contributes to and amplifies every one of these risks while increasing the number of people exposed to those risks. In addition, by expanding the reach and intensity of human pressures on the natural environment, human population growth poses an existential threat to countless other species.
The most recent doubling of our numbers was accompanied by a loss of over half of wildlife numbers, driven by destruction of natural habitats and harvesting of wildlife to meet human needs and aggravated by environmental fouling from human activities. This involves a combination of thinning of wildlife populations and eradication of countless species. A sixth mass extinction event is ongoing, the worst spate of species loss since the Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction event that saw the end of non-avian dinosaurs and many other lineages of life. Even if our human population eventually stops growing and shrinks back to a sustainable size, the species pushed to extinction along the way will be lost forever.
Those of a particularly extreme speciesist or anthropocentric moral outlook may believe that there is no inherent wrong in causing other species to go extinct. Let us assume, for the sake of argument, that the interests of human beings are the only moral considerations that count. Even then, humanity’s impact on the natural world is a serious moral wrong of reckless risking of livelihoods and safety nets. Many millions of people in Africa, Asia and Latin America rely on wildlife resources for their livelihoods and as a buffer to see them through times of hardship, such as unemployment and crop failures. More generally, the world’s poor are often highly dependent on natural resources for their livelihoods, and the most vulnerable to the effects of defaunation and environmental degradation.
For those of us who reject anthropocentrism, or at least do not endorse such an extreme version of it, the permanent loss of biodiversity is a profound moral wrong to the species being annihilated by humanity’s reckless expansionist project. It is also a moral wrong to future generations, condemned to live in a biologically impoverished world where such iconic fauna as elephants, sea turtles, snow leopards, orangutans, rhinos, gorillas and tigers no longer exist in the wild, or at all.
Ideas, values, and behaviours
When we accept a large risk, we must have in mind an even greater benefit that justifies taking that risk, or else we are behaving irrationally and recklessly. Most people should be able to recognise that it is wrong to expose younger and future generations to enormous risks, and bring entire lineages of life to an end, for as trivial a reason as our reluctance to adjust our own behaviour and attitudes in response to changing circumstances, or as disreputable a reason as treating children and wildlife as means to the ends of today’s parents and consumers. We are supposedly a rational species. We have been aware of population growth for decades, and reliable and inexpensive birth control methods have been available for over 50 years. And yet, we hold on to the idea that cultural and individual preferences about family size should be left to drift along, as if the future of humanity and of countless other creatures was not sufficiently important to warrant conscious effort to mitigate population growth.
Where population growth is acknowledged to be a problem, it is commonly suggested that the way to address it is by educating girls, tackling gender discrimination or lifting people out of poverty. Ensuring women and girls are treated with equal respect and afforded the same educational and economic opportunities as men and boys is a matter of justice and basic human decency. The same applies to efforts to secure for everyone the at least the minimum material resources needed for lives free from fear and want. However, it is important to note that tackling gender inequality and absolute poverty are neither preconditions to fertility declines nor reliable ways to achieve declines that are as deep and fast as they need to be to adequately mitigate unsustainable population trajectories. Conversely, high fertility rates pose a formidable obstacle to securing improvements to gender equality and to economic and educational opportunities.
Women who are unable to control their bodies can be confidently predicted to bear more children than those who can, and education tends to make larger families less appealing. But it would be a mistake to surmise that women having large families necessarily do so out of ignorance or because they have no choice. It seems more likely that ideas about the role of women and the (instrumental versus intrinsic) value of children spring from the same socio-cultural fountain as preferences about family size. The weight of the evidence suggests the most important factors driving population growth today are persistent preferences for larger family sizes and unintended births resulting from non-use of contraception even where it is available, often due to cultural/religious objections. Both factors are amenable to changes in values and social norms that have a tremendous bearing on individual attitudes and reproductive behaviour, as exemplified by the many successful ideational change campaigns employing entertaining television and radio shows.
But the case for changes in values and social norms is undermined whenever and wherever those best placed to understand and explain the risks that are driven or aggravated by population growth stay silent on it, and even more so if the only voices speaking on population are pro-natalist ideologues representing capitalist, patriarchal or religious interests. An unconscionable population +-taboo has developed whereby scientists, activists and policy makers talk around population growth and gloss over or omit reference to the need for smaller family sizes when discussing climate change, food or livelihood insecurity, loss of biodiversity and environmental degradation. In doing so, these actors are complicit in creating an environmentally impoverished world in which many millions, possibly billions of people may starve, become displaced, or have no hope of securing decent livelihoods. This needs to change.
What can be done?
Fundamentally, we must foster a shared sense of responsibility for the size of our human population, and adjust our behaviours and ways of thinking. In the oft-quoted words of Stanislaw Jerzy Lec, no snowflake in an avalanche ever feels responsible. But we all are. Even the childless by choice are still consumers, and as social beings we all make a contribution, however small, to what ideas live or die.
The logical and ethical response to unsustainable population growth is to reject the primitive rhetoric that irrationally fears population de-growth and ageing while embracing speculative gambles with our collective futures. It is to confront those who promote population growth on the ethically repugnant premise that human beings exist to serve the needs of a supposedly ever-growing capitalist economy, or the political goals of religious leaders. It is to embrace, rather than fear, sub-replacement fertility.
In order for younger and future generations to have a shot at decent lives in a world that is not an environmental wasteland, social ideas about what a normal family looks like need to change. A one-child family ideal is a very small family indeed, but one that prioritises the life chances of children, the long-term stability of human societies, and the survival of the world’s wildlife over the immediate preferences and desires of prospective parents. This is what makes sense, and how it should be.
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 See United Nations (2015) and Gerland et al (2014)
 In the original (and rather more eloquent) words of Paul and Anne Ehrlich (1990: 37-40): “Overpopulation is defined by the animals that occupy the turf, behaving as they normally behave, not by a hypothetical group that might be substituted for them.”
 Holdren and Ehrlich (1974); Ehrlich and Ehrlich (1990).
 See for example The World Economic Forum’s 2017 report on global risks, which (as with previous reports) ranks fiscal unsustainability and unemployment/underemployment, along with a host of man-made environmental and humanitarian crises, as high impact, high likelihood risks.
 There was no “business as usual” (constant fertility) graph in the UN’s 2015 projections, perhaps because the BAU graph in the 2012 projections was thought to be alarmistic. It is fair to say that a human population of over 25 billion is improbable.
 See Campbell and Bedford (2009) for a useful summary.
 See Garenne (2012) and Grant (2015) for sobering data on the limited impact of education on fertility rates in Sub-Saharan Africa, and Myrskylä et al (2009) on how advanced levels of socio-economic development can reverse fertility declines.
 The population of many Sub-Saharan African countries is set to at least quintuple over this century (See UN, 2015), greatly depressing the scope for those societies to provide decent education and livelihood opportunities for rapidly enlarging cohorts of young people. See for example McNay (2005), Ashraf et al (2013), and Grant (2015). See also Anderson and Kohler (2015) and Recoules (2011) on how low fertility may boost gender equality and how gender equality may in turn boost fertility rates. The relationship between fertility and gender equality appears to be far more complex than commonly assumed.
 Westoff (2010); Bongaarts (2011); Bongaarts and Casterline (2013); Madsen (2015). See also INS and ICF International (2013).
 This reflects the difference between unmet demand and unmet need for contraception. Where a woman would like to avoid pregnancy but does not intend to use contraception, there is unmet need but no unmet demand. For example, 65% of people in Pakistan, 54% of people in Nigeria and 52% of people in Ghana personally believe that using contraceptives is morally unacceptable; it does not necessarily follow that very large families are wanted [See Poushter (2014) and Pew (2014)]. A recent review of demographic and health surveys [Sedgh et al, 2016] found that a substantial proportion of women in developing countries did not seek family planning services even though they wanted to avoid pregnancy. Opposition to contraception was cited as a reason by 23% of those women, particularly among married women, while lack of knowledge or access to contraception, was cited by fewer than 10% of respondents. The same study confirmed that a preference for large family sizes remains the norm across most of Africa. See also Casterline and Agyei-Mensah (2017). Even if all women who have an unmet need for contraception used it, fertility in sub-Saharan Africa in particular would remain well above replacement levels [Bongaarts, 2011]. One of the most often encountered forms of instrumental valuing of children is parent’s expectation of financial support in old age. Unsurprisingly, there seems to be a robust correlation between increased social security benefits and reduced fertility rates – see Boldrin et al (2015).
 See for example Westoff and Koffman (2011), Basten (2009), Ashton et al (2015)
 See for example Mora (2014), Coole (2013), Campbell and Bedford (2009), Campbell (2007), Betts (2004), Orenstein (2004), Butler (2004); Beck and Kolankiewicz (2000), Grimes (1998), Maher (1997), Catton Jr, 1996.