I disagree with Hightower.

What you will find here is: a centrist's view of current events;
a collection of thoughts, arguments, and observations
that I have found appealing and/or amusing over the years;
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Thursday, December 16, 2010

When the middle isn't the middle.

E.O. Wilson, the Harvard biologist, expert on ants and species destruction generally, was interviewed by Elizabeth Kolbert, science writer for the New Yorker, in the Winter issue of onearth, magazine of the Natural Resources Council. Wilson, who is very concerned about the disappearance of species (and the rate at which this is currently happening) sees this problem as more crucial to human survival than any other issue, including climate change, pollution, etc.

He told the following story which might amuse the mathematicians who frequent this blog as well as folks who think that a moderate or "middle of the road" course on issues affecting the human future on this planet is possible. [I realize that moderate and middle of the road are not synonymous--but many understand them to be.] The story is called "the French riddle of the 29th day of lilly pads" and goes like this: "There is a pond with one lilly pad. The number lily pads doubles every day. The pond will fill up by the 30th day. On what day is the pond half full? (Ans: the 29th day)"

The rate at which the lilly pads grow, says Wilson, corresponds to the rate at which species on which we depend and on which the biological life of the planet depends, decrease.

What then is the "middle of the road" position on planetary displacement of homo sapiens?


  1. I am against the displacement of our species.

    I expect that position will be held by the left wingnuts, the right wingnuts, and all parties in between.

    I think such problems should be approached by looking for the root causes.
    The post didn't explain why these other species are going extinct, but I expect that a large part of it is loss of habitat. We are crowding “everybody” out.

    There are too many of us.

    I think that this is something that this problem has in common with excessive energy usage, climate change, and probably others. Any proposal that does not address this aspect is just spitting into the wind. Whenever people present these dire problems, ask yourself, "What would this problem look like if there were only one billion of us on the planet instead of what we have which is 6 billion going on 15 billion." You can add to that the fact that less than half of those 6 billion are currently living the high energy life of those in the developed world. Perhaps the others will react to the arrival of the modern world by saying, “Gee, those who got here first are using too much of the world’s resources I guess we and our children will have to continue to live in the low energy preindustrial world.” I don’t think that we should count on that.

    The silly response that I usually get to the proposition that 1 billion of us would be a much more appropriate human population for the world is, "Well, who are you going to kill?"

    The answer, of course, is no one.

    The sensible response is, "How are you going to get there?" The answer, of course, is attrition. Start looking for every way possible to discourage reproduction so that in the future we do not have to limit it by law like the Chinese did.

    Is that going to be a quick solution? No. Something has to go with it. But it has to be part of any real solution. If someone offers you a solution that does not involve population reduction, then I am going to bet that that solution is part of a program that they would advocate with or without this problem. Like Rahm Emmanual said, “Never let a crisis go to waste.”

  2. KW makes a good point about the meaning of the "middle." To many, moderate and middle of the road are synonymous, the former referring (I think) to something like highly valuing reason over partisanship and latter referring to a desire to always split the difference to avoid conflicts. Conflicting ideas are inevitable. How you resolve the conflicts is the question. As I understand it, the Yellow Armadillo Way is a sober, reasoned view of the conflict that seeks to avoid partisan (ideological?) distractions. (Wayne, do I hear an, "Ahh, yes grasshopper"?)

    I understand there are good reasons for partisanship. In part, for anyone desiring higher office, it is almost an absolute necessity in our current political environment. But it seems to me the discourse is increasingly driven by excessive or hyper-partisanship. And that feels to me like an inevitable consequence of the current construction of our political system. Two reforms that might change the game sufficiently to diminish the importance of partisanship and increase the importance of moderate discourse are: open primaries and reform in districting. (Whether ending the filibuster in the Senate would also help accomplish this end, I'm not so sure.)

    I understand that some are committed to partisanship and see no problem with it (Bill Maher, for example, who exults in the exit from the Senate of the moderate Evan Bayh). But I have diminishing confidence in the ability of our hyper-partisan system to address BIG problems -- deficit growth; population growth; and yes species loss and environmental losses of other kinds.

  3. KW makes a good point that middling, split the difference positions might do nothing to address something so big and systemic as species loss. I think Wayne's answer -- that we need to be serious about population growth -- is moderate in the best sense and spot on.

    I am one of the mathematicians that KW mentions. Species loss is not something I've talked about with my students -- thanks to KW that's something I might do. Very often, however, I do raise the issue of population growth. It is eerie how well an exponential growth curve fits the data for world population over the course of the 20th century. Then we entertain the question: Where is this growth curve taking us? It's a little disconcerting. Will one-child policies become common? What natural or unnatural forces will cause the curve to bend downward? Wars? Famine? The Apocalypse? On the optimistic side we talk about declining populations in Western countries, where there are not enough young people to replace the former generation of workers. This is good, at least, from the point of view of those of us who think population attrition is by and large a good thing.

    Prosperity -- or at least the importance of careers -- does seem to have a big impact on population growth. Bill Clinton makes this point in a slightly different way. He contends that to curb population growth and encourage prosperity you need to educate women and promote women's rights around the globe. Seems like a good position that should be part of any sensible foreign policy.

    I'll offer a couple of other much smaller things: Support for gay marriage and abortion rights. These are certainly controversial. But I support them in part because they are small encouragements against our tendency to over-populate.

  4. Sorry I'm "flooding the zone" here, but...

    On the issue of population attrition, I started to wonder whether tax credits for NOT having children would be something I would support. But then, I suppose there's no point to such a policy, since the population growth problem is not really here in the US -- where I understand growth is attributed to immigration -- but elsewhere around the planet.

    And KW, actually I am (along with Stephen Colbert) a "hetero sapien" and not a "homo sapien". Not that there's anything wrong with that. :-)

  5. Trying to see yourself in the "center" when you are advocating the very opposite path that the overwhelming majority would prefer to follow is delusional.

    Pro growth thinking immerses us all. It fits nicely into the plans of the young couple moving to the bright new suburb, the multitude of businesses scheming to increase their market share, the university president looking for a place to build more dorms and the chain store looking for the next area where a growing populace will guarantee success.

    Where will you find serious thinkers considering how to reduce anything? Certainly not the "Quiver Full" movement. Maybe China a generation ago before they embraced the western commitment to open markets.

    Six billion declining to one billion without cataclysm? Dream on ... but don't think you are anywhere near the center.

  6. Perhaps Michael did not notice that it was offered as a long term factor that would be part of a general approach.

    "You may say that I'm a dreamer,
    but I'm not the only one." John Lennon

  7. The Population Bomb published in 1968 warned of people dying in the 70s and 80s of starvation because of overpopulation. Here we have added another interesting twist to human survival, that being the effect that species extinction combined with over population will have on survival of the human species. Shall I panic or have another beer? Of course I could panic AND have another beer. Either way its “beer”. Was there a problem here?

    The lily pad story suggests that we could go to bed tonight with a minor problem (50%) and wake up with a major (100% the pods is full) problem tomorrow. It is entirely possible. Seriously, I think species extinction and overpopulation are very serious concerns that need to be addressed; however, I have no panic button. I was born that way.

  8. I certainly agree with your notion that human population growth is a problem, but the predisposition of people as a whole is toward greater population.

    Trying to envision something as simple as rescinding the child tax credit provision is difficult in the current environment. Actual actions discouraging population growth just seem unlikely and perhaps unrealistic.

    Certainly they would not seem reflective of current popular sentiment.

    Regarding Lennon's lyric I guess it would be a cheap shot to say "yeah, and see where it got him."

  9. I very much appreciate the thoughtful and/or serious responses to my comments on species and human decline. Blogs maybe a good idea after all.

    While I do think, with Michael, that population growth is a very serious problem that needs to be addressed if we are to survive as a civilized human species, my larger philosophical point was to question whether or not a "middle of the road" position is possible on some very serious issues such as this one. Are there some problems that simply cannot be addressed by a gradual, moderate, or give and take approach?? Don't know for sure, but the problems posed by overpopulation and global climate change might be the ones that put all yellow armadillos philosophers to the test??

  10. Questions of War and Peace would not leave much room in the middle.

    I have not thought of the term centrist as defining a position in the same way as left and right do. Sometimes you can split the difference but I had simply noticed that, like Evan Bayh and Lindsey Graham, sometimes I leaned one way and sometimes the other. So maybe I should think of myself as a leaner rather than a centrist.

    I will be reviewing my view on the meaning and purpose of centrism. Perhaps we could follow Rob's suggestion and define the YAW, the Yellow Armadillo Way.

    One thing that I am sure of though, is that I am not here to win arguments. My main purpose in holding this conversation is to increase understanding.

    That has happened for me today.

    Thanks for playing.

  11. So here's where I am after reading all of your comments...

    I agree with Michael that there's not much will out there for serious discussion of the problem of population growth. And a "pro-attrition" position is not "centrist" in the sense of somehow splitting the difference of left and right or in the sense of representing a majority or even large minority view.

    I very much agree with KW that some (many? most?) hard questions might not be addressable by "middling," just-so, compromise positions. However, it also seems to me that a less partisan legislative environment is more likely to actually address hard questions than what we've got right now.

    I agree with Wayne (and I think KW) that a moderate approach, or Yellow Armadillo Way, is not necessarily one that is committed to the middling compromise. Rather, it is a commitment to a deeper understanding of issues and a willingness to embrace reasonable solutions independent of partisan concerns.

    I agree with Tom that perhaps the problem of population growth (and some of the concomitant environmental problems?) is not as dire as it might at first appear. The population curve is bending downward dramatically in many Western countries and this appears to be a natural consequence of prosperity and of opportunities for women. To the extent that many developing countries are signing onto this prosperity program (and can be encouraged to do so), there is much hope for population attrition in coming centuries.

    And I also agree with Tom about the importance of beer. When are you going to be coming up this way?

  12. So, getting back to KW’s original question about the middle of the road. Perhaps this is an instance where the middle of the road is a non meaningful concept. With extinctions/population growth/climate change there are those who think the pond will be full tomorrow morning and there are those who don’t believe there is a lily pad problem at all. My perception is that there are not many in between.

    Perhaps I could take the liberty of interpreting “middle of the road” as a reasonable stance. Somewhere between panic and do nothing. I believe there is a lot of good science that has been hijacked and distorted by those on both sides of the extinctions/population growth/climate change argument. For example Al Gore quoted good science in saying that sea levels could rise 3-22 inches in the next century if the current (as of the date he made his film) warming trend continued. Then he blew it by showing slides of Florida after a 30 foot rise in sea level. Few remember the 3-22 inch scientific prediction. The other side does no better.

    So here is my suggestion for a reasonable stance. Well, actually, I don’t have one. I could say don’t panic, act only non biased science, be cautious of information presented by those with an agenda, be vigilant in identifying pseudoscience, when in doubt rely on common sense, take personal responsibility for making things better and when the science indicates action is necessary – act. But, while that might sound reasonable it is NOT reasonable to expect people to act in that manner.

    I think KW’s question is still open.