Wednesday, November 27, 2019


I've been looking at my copy of History of the Town of Middlebury in the County of Addison, Vermont, which is a reprint of the 1859 edition. There is a separate section on the history of Addison County, which I hadn't read before. In that there is a description of the early use of land here that answers some of the questions I had about why the Severance family moved to this neighborhood and what they did. When Samuel Severance, the eldest Severance son, came to East Middlebury in 1786, the area was mostly wilderness, and when Vermont became a state in 1791, the population of Middlebury was only 395. The rest of the Severance family moved to South Munger Street in the 1790's, and Enos, Samuel's younger brother, built this house in about 1798. The book says that the early settlers grew wheat, which was quite profitable initially, but by the 1820's they had depleted the soil and wheat became unprofitable due to falling yields. For this reason the settlers began to graze cattle in order to produce manure to fertilize the crops, but wheat production came to a halt after a weevil blight in 1829. After that, Merino sheep became popular for several years, making Addison County the largest producer of wool in the country.

As far as the Severances are concerned, I think that they must have depleted their soil in Northfield, Massachusetts prior to moving here, and then grew wheat in Middlebury like everyone else. The land that they bought is flat and for a time was suitable for crop cultivation. However, the Severances eventually abandoned farming, probably because of insufficient profitability. The land is now only good for grasses, and that it what is mostly grown on it today. The grasses are used for cattle feed, and the fields are fertilized with cattle manure. Dairy cows are probably the largest industry locally, and there are also beef cattle. At the moment, local farmers are having a hard time getting by as a result of low dairy prices. They are also facing restrictions, since their agricultural runoff is polluting Lake Champlain.

I've read all that I'm going to in Biological Extinction and am going to move on to other subjects. The news just confirmed my latest point, in that individual countries are not doing enough to stop global warming, i.e., things are going to get much worse before they get better, per the latest U.N. report. As usual, I'm not finding new reading material that looks promising. I think I'm going to give up on biographies of artists, because the two I've looked at (on Manet and Gauguin) aren't very exciting. For lack of anything better, I may read a biography of Denis Diderot, which at least would complement my readings on Jean-Jacques Rousseau. I have a hard time with reading material, because at this stage I find practically everything that is written for mass consumption to be a little simple-minded and commercially exploitative, whereas I don't really want to delve into most writing that is exclusively academic or extremely technical. I like writing that is informative but not too abstruse, and that is rarer than you might think. I guess that I'm similar to my readers, who seem to prefer my posts on literary and artistic matters to the more scientific ones. As far as fiction goes, I seem to have evolved into a post-fiction state of mind that may be permanent. Krasznahorkai has a new novel that I may skip.

While in most respects I'm getting really sick of this Trump phenomenon, it is still an extraordinary historical event. As the situation evolves, we are seeing that, not only do we have an incompetent president whose habits are essentially criminal, but that the Republican Party has decided to support him, because they are entirely dependent on the votes of the misguided voters who have been brainwashed for years by Fox News and other perverted news sources. The more Trump's life is exposed, the more he looks like a small-time crook – the kind of person who would normally have been in and out of jail several times by now or locked up permanently. If he hadn't had the financial resources handed to him by his father that allowed him to afford legal fights, he would never have got this far. This has sociological significance, because in previous eras Trump would probably have been taken out of commission by law enforcement well before now. This indicates that free speech and the news media have been ineffective at informing the public and brings into question the ability of people in the digital era to think clearly or recognize how they are being manipulated. Thus, my posts on human limitations and stupidity are not about hypothetical matters and are relevant to events that are playing out in real time.

The mouse situation has improved, as there have been no live mice spotted on the porch recently. William is able to use his new cat door in the basement, but so far he hasn't been using it much. I don't think he is comfortable with the new ramp and has not become accustomed to regular entry and exit through the basement. Although we had a strong blast of winter, with snow and unusually low temperatures, the weather has returned to normal, and most of the snow has melted. I think that once it gets cold again William will be more inclined to use the basement cat door when he's outside freezing and everyone has gone to bed. At the moment he still prefers to paw loudly at doors to get attention to come inside. He hasn't been catching much prey recently; the other day I rescued a live chipmunk that he was trying to bring in, and it got away.

Monday, November 25, 2019

Why We're in the Sixth Great Extinction and What It Means to Humanity

This is another essay in Biological Extinction, and was written by Partha Dasgupta and Paul Ehrlich. Dasgupta, as mentioned earlier, is the chairman of CSER, and Ehrlich is the well-known biologist who published The Population Bomb in 1968. I thought this essay was also worth mentioning, because it recounts the causes of the current reduction in biodiversity along with the likely consequences and mentions the type of economic accounting that may become necessary if technological advances don't come to the rescue soon. A lot of this is familiar ground, such as the effects of land use change, overharvesting, pollution and climate change. Biodiversity is presented as a requirement for human habitation rather than as an arbitrary ideal.

The following passage sums up most of the current situation:

Studying biogeochemical signatures over the last 11,000 years has provided a sketch of the human-induced evolution of soil nitrogen and phosphorus inventories (more specifically of polyaromatic hydrocarbons, polychlorinated biphenyls and pesticide residues) in sediments and ice (Waters, et al., 2016). The authors report a sharp increase in the middle of the twentieth century in the inventories. Their work shows that the now-famous figure of the 'hockey stick' (Mann, 2012) that characterises time series of atmospheric carbon emission also characterises a broad class of geochemical signatures, and signal a sharp increase in the rate of deterioration of Earth's life-support system. It has been proposed (Waters et al., 2016) that the mid-twentieth century should be regarded as the time we entered the era now widely named the Anthropocene. Not coincidentally, it roughly corresponds with the rapid expansion of the sixth mass extinction event.

These readings are consistent with macroeconomic statistics. World population in 1950 was 2.5 billion and global GDP was a bit over 7.5 trillion international dollars (at 2015 prices). The average person in the world was poor, with an annual income of a bit over 3000 international dollars. Since then the world has prospered materially beyond recognition. Life expectancy at birth has risen from a global average of 49 years to 71 years, population has increased to 7.5 billion and world output of final goods and services (global GDP) is now 110 trillion international dollars, meaning that per capita global income is about 15,000 international dollars. The proportion of the world's population in absolute poverty (regarded by the World Bank to be below 1.9 international dollars per day) has fallen so dramatically (it is now just over 10 per cent of  the world's population, down from about 50 per cent in 1980 but still, disgracefully, some 750 million individuals in a world replete with rich people), that enthusiasts predict that within a generation the blight will have been eliminated (Jamison et. al., 2013). Set against those achievements, however, is that the 15-fold increase in global output  over a 65-year period reflects not only the stresses to the Earth system in general and biodiversity in particular that we have just reviewed, but also that humanity's demands from the biosphere have for some time exceeded its capacity to supply them. 

But demand cannot exceed supply indefinitely. Translated into the language of equity, humanity's enormous success in recent decades is very likely to have been a down payment for future failure. The trade-off is between living standards today and living standards in the future. Our immediate success in raising the average standard of living has created a conflict between us and our descendants.

What I found the most interesting is the economic slant, which draws into question the reliance on GDP statistics, the almost universal measure of the success for any country:

GDP is incapable of saying much about future possibilities because of the qualifier 'gross', which signals that the depreciation of assets, especially degradation of the biosphere, is ignored. Nevertheless, GDP has assumed such a prominence in public discourse today, that if someone mentions 'economic growth', we know that they mean growth in GDP. Governments today regard GDP growth to be above all else on their list of objectives. The mainstream media extol it and the public succumb to it. That could be why it has become customary to regard an economy whose GDP is large as wealthy.

But that is to make a mistake. Because GDP is a flow (so many dollars worth of flow of goods and services in a year), whereas wealth is a stock (so many dollars worth of assets, period), it could be that a country produces lots of goods and services by running down its assets. Lack of depreciation in national accounts of natural resources in general, and of biodiversity in particular reflects this error....GDP could rise over a period of time even as an economy's wealth declines. But that could not go on forever, any more than one can continually write ever larger checks without paying attention to the balance of the account.

The essay also discusses the inequality built into the current state of affairs:

The World Bank in its World Development Indicators 2016 reports that the 1.4 billion people living in its list of high-income countries enjoy a per capita income of 40,700 international dollars. Thus, the richest 19 per cent of the world's population consume over 51 per cent of world income (57 trillion/110 trillion). Continuing to assume that humanity's impact on the biosphere is proportional to income, 51 per cent of that income can be attributed to 19 per cent of world population. If the UN's Sustainable Development Goals are to be met, consumption patterns in these countries have to alter substantially.

Consumption behavior is influenced by our urge to compete with others (Veblen's 'conspicuous consumption') and by our innate desire to conform. Each is a reflection of socially embedded consumption preferences for goods and services. As both drivers give rise to consumption externalities, the psychological cost to a person of a collective reduction in consumption is likely to be far less than what it would be if she were to reduce consumption unilaterally. The aggregate cost could even be negative, especially if the working poor were less poor relative to the working rich, as the former are far greater in number.

The authors' conclusion:

The short-range solutions to the problem of preserving biodiversity are many, and dealt with extensively in the literature of conservation biology (Sodhi and Ehrlich, 2010). But these will all prove to no avail unless the basic drivers of extermination – policies seeking economic growth at any cost – are addressed. Collectively addressing these are possibly the greatest challenges civilization has ever faced.

No mention is made in the essay of how the necessary changes might be made in the real political world, and that is something I find to be of concern. Organizations like CSER rely on world organizations such as the U.N., which have limited authority and are often ignored by wealthy countries. In the U.S. there are elements favoring the ideas of individual freedom and American exceptionalism: Americans in general tend to believe that they deserve everything they have and that there is no reason for them to make any sacrifices, particularly for poor people who live in countries that they couldn't find on a map and will never visit. Any American politician who campaigns by promoting austerity measures and reduced consumption is likely to lose. Dasgupta, in contrast, was born in Bangladesh and probably has a broader view in these matters than most Americans have ever had. If you accept the main ideas in the essay, it is difficult to see how the issues discussed could be resolved peacefully. Although some Americans would not object to sharing the resources of the biosphere, a much larger number would reject the idea vehemently. It would take a world government and the legal restriction of individual rights to enact the kinds of programs that would meaningfully sustain biodiversity, and that seems unlikely to emerge until a much more palpable deterioration of the biosphere has already occurred.

Thursday, November 21, 2019

Population: The Current State and Future Prospects

This is one of fourteen essays in Biological Extinction and was written by John Bongaarts. The essay is so comprehensive and succinct that I thought I would at least summarize it, because it presents in clear terms the current status and future trends in global population, and because this perspective is a good one for discussing major policy issues, though it does not extend into related areas such as climate change or geopolitics. Bongaarts is a demographer, and I found it interesting to see how regional population levels are framed by fertility rates related to relative degrees of participation in the Industrial Revolution.

Until modern times, women typically had six or seven children, and, because of diseases, famines, wars and infant mortality, the average life expectancy was thirty. When the Industrial Revolution occurred, life expectancies increased due to improved health and resources, and, with the introduction of women to the workforce, less time became available for childrearing. Eventually, with improved contraception methods, women chose to have fewer children, which allowed them to work and have greater control over their lives. What is interesting is that all regions are following a similar curve in which less-developed regions gradually reduce their fertility rates as their economies come to resemble more-developed regions. In the most-developed regions, the number of children per woman approaches two, and in some countries it has even fallen below that, meaning that, without immigration, their populations will decline.

While the world population increased only from about one billion in 1800 to about 2.3 billion in 1950, most of the world was still undeveloped in 1950, which helps explain why the population has since increased to about 7.7 billion – in just 69 years. Currently, the number of births per woman is slightly below two in Europe, about two in North America, slightly higher in Latin America and Asia and about five in Sub-Saharan Africa.  Thus, although population growth is approaching stability in most of the world, in Sub-Saharan Africa the number of children per woman will still be about three in 2050, which constitutes a continuing population explosion. Current estimates indicate that in 2100, the world population will be 11.21 billion, with 9.94 billion people in less-developed regions and 1.28 billion people in more-developed regions. The population of Sub-Saharan Africa will jump from .96 billion to 4.39 billion.

Bongaarts also mentions changes such as increased urbanization and problems associated with ageing populations. The former will put greater pressures on cities, while rural areas will stabilize. The latter will result in reduced workforces and insufficient resources to support the elderly. Healthcare and retirement systems will increasingly come under pressure, and this is already occurring in countries such as Japan and Italy, which have the lowest fertility rates.

Finally, Bongaarts discusses the importance of family planning from a policy standpoint. Family planning is an effective tool for reducing population increases in less-developed regions, where many women are not aware of their options. He concludes by saying:

Assisting couples to achieve their reproductive preferences is a compassionate act that promotes responsible parenthood and improves the lives of women, their children and their communities, especially among the poor and most vulnerable sections of society. The resulting decline in unplanned births also enhances prospects for poverty reduction and moderates the increasingly harmful impact of human activities on the natural environment.

I appreciated this essay because it concisely states the pertinent facts of population growth and touches on some of the policy measures that can be taken to alleviate increasing pressures. Often, population growth is discussed in far more nebulous terms, and it is less apparent that actions can be taken that affect future outcomes. Perhaps I like the essay because the framework falls within my preferred worldview, which emphasizes the biological aspects of mankind and rejects most ideology. I think there are several equally informative essays in this book, and I intend to discuss them separately.

Tuesday, November 12, 2019


I looked over Time and the Generations: Population Ethics for a Diminished Planet, by Partha Dasgupta, who is the chairman of the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk (CSER). The main essay is "Birth and Death," which was originally presented as the Kenneth Arrow Lecture at Columbia University in 2011. It has since been revised, and the book includes some responses. Dasgupta occupies an odd position in academia, with a primary interest in economics accompanied by an interest in philosophy, along with other areas such as climate change. I am not going to offer my normal review, because I don't want to take the time to read it carefully. Although Dasgupta's aims seem admirable, my initial reaction was that the subject matter is far more complex than can be handled effectively in economics or philosophy, and, unfortunately, this seems to me like a good example of intellectual overreach. I retain a certain mistrust of the contemporary fields of both economics and philosophy. A better starting point, I think, would be biology, which is scarcely mentioned. Dasgupta's mathematics-centric economics results in a questionable formula for deriving the optimum population for humans on the planet, and the philosophy descends from what I think of as obsolete writings on utilitarianism dating from the late nineteenth century. I wish Dasgupta luck, but this does not seem to me to be a promising avenue for solving actual world problems or, for that matter, developing interesting ideas. I think that the project is so academic and theoretical that it would be dead on arrival in policy circles. At leading universities in England, philosophy still retains a status that vastly exceeds its value, and Dasgupta apparently has been sucked into it. It is unfortunate that CSER is so completely academic in structure, because that drives away original thinkers. England's best thinkers have been scientists such as Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin, not philosophers such as Bertrand Russell or economists such as John Maynard Keynes. In the U.S., philosophy is practically a dead subject, and economics is disproportionately important only because it is the academic branch of the well-funded cult of capitalism. I think that sticking to real science can provide the best picture of where the world is headed, and that picture is what is needed to produce appropriate responses. To some extent, the mathematical modeling done by Dasgupta resembles the rationalist oversimplification in the Chicago school of economics, which I discussed recently. As I've noted previously, mathematically precocious researchers tend to become disproportionately rewarded in their fields. I am reminded of the old saying, "When your only tool is a hammer, everything looks like a nail."

The other book I have is a collection of essays, with Partha Dasgupta as one of the three editors. The title is Biological Extinction: New Perspectives. The essays were presented at a workshop on biological extinction in 2017. Several of the contributors have scientific backgrounds, only a few have economics backgrounds and none have philosophy backgrounds, so on the whole the book is more appealing to me. I will probably comment on some of the individual essays as I read them, if that seems warranted. I became aware of both of these books because I am on a CSER email list.

Today we got about six inches of snow, and I just cleared the driveway for the first time since last winter. I am alone in the house at the moment and have been working on a project to allow William to enter and exit the house on his own. That involved installing a cat door in the basement and a wooden ramp for him to climb up to his outdoor cat house, which is located underneath a bay window. Because William is nocturnal, he is usually out during most of the night, but in winter, when it's snowy outside, he spends more time in the house and wakes me up in the middle of the night. Since he doesn't hunt as much in winter, I'm hoping that he won't start bringing live mice or other animals into the house. I am trying to help him, because it's not his fault that he's wild, and I usually get along fine with him. The other house member – the one who wanted a pet – dislikes William and would have got rid of him long ago if I hadn't taken responsibility for him. 

Wednesday, November 6, 2019


This morning I hiked up to Abbey Pond, which is on the trail closest to the house, for the second time this year. Although there are no scenic vistas, there is the pond, with beaver lodges and a beaver dam. One benefit is that it isn't popular with hikers, and usually no one else is to be seen. There is a good view of Robert Frost Mountain, which actually consists of two peaks if you count the one that we can see from our house. This time there wasn't a moose around, but I did see a bobcat at fairly close range – about fifty yards – on the way back. I took along a gun for protection for the first time, because there have been a few incidents recently. Over the summer, people were attacked at two different locations by rabid coyotes, and in October, two hikers were attacked by five large bear hounds. The dogs seem to have been interested in the hikers' poodle and injured both the poodle and the woman who was trying to protect it. At times the hikers thought they were going to die. The ordeal ended after about half an hour when one of the hunters showed up. They had been tracking the dogs through their GPS collars and saw that they had something cornered. This is a major news story locally, because state law permits hunting dogs to run freely in packs, and in this case the owner may only receive the equivalent of a ticket. If something were to happen to me while I was up there alone, there would be no help: the nearest person would be miles away, and there is no cell reception.

When we moved to Vermont, I thought that I would be doing much more hiking than I actually have. Unfortunately, I usually go alone, since my only possible hiking companion hates insects, doesn't like to sweat and prefers knitting. I haven't been to any of the major peaks in Vermont, some of which contain entirely different biomes, resembling alpine tundra at their summits. However, I'm not a hiking fanatic, like the people around here who climb all of the 46 high peaks in the Adirondacks or hike the entire length of the Long Trail, which runs from Massachusetts to Canada. I just like to be outdoors, see the scenery and get my heart rate up occasionally. Today I had it up to 180 beats per minute and didn't die! The Abbey Pond trail is fairly steep in places, with a total ascent of 1260 feet. Of course, that is nothing compared to newer ranges that are more than twice as high. At one time, about 450 million years ago, the Green Mountains were much taller, but they've eroded down to 4000 feet.

The mouse saga continues. The mice involved are either white-footed mice or deer mice, which look very similar to each other. Perhaps because of improved growing conditions for oaks and other plants, there is more mouse food available than usual, such as acorns, and there may be a local mouse population explosion. I know this because I find new mouse remains on the porch almost daily. William also continues to bring in live mice, which he releases and chases around the porch. When they climb the screens to escape, he sometimes follows after them, damaging the screens, and I repair them often. My latest solution has been to open small holes next to the screen frames on the porch floor so that the mice can escape without any climbing. This doesn't guarantee their survival, but will probably reduce screen damage. I also hope to spend less time removing live mice from the porch. I appreciate the reader who signed me up for a Stoelting catalog for research equipment involving mice, but I don't need it. That seemed like a highbrow joke.

In Vermont, the change from autumn to winter is usually abrupt. We are still eating fresh tomatoes, carrots and kale from the garden, yet it is snowing tomorrow. In very short order, I had to clear the leaves from the yard, mow the lawn one last time, service the yard equipment for the winter, put away the outdoor furniture and clean up parts of the garden. I will have to put on my snow tires soon. Comparatively, the transitions from winter to spring, spring to summer and summer to fall are slow and indistinct.

It looks as if the world is finally closing in on Donald Trump. Of course, I am delighted by the impeachment proceedings. There is still a chance that he will get through this in one piece, but as time goes on that seems unlikely. The Ukraine quid pro quo event has already been proven beyond any reasonable doubt, and that alone is sufficient to have him removed from office. If Republicans continue to support him in the Senate and he isn't removed, his popularity among the general public has probably already declined enough that he wouldn't be reelected. He would definitely lose the popular vote, and his electoral college vote only needs to decline slightly for him to lose. Many people throughout the country hate him, and he is even unpopular in his hometown, New York City. He has now changed his legal residence to Florida, and apropos of that I really enjoyed this satirical video.

I have a couple of books to read. One is on biological extinction and the other is on population ethics. These are academic books with dense prose, and I'm not sure yet how much time I'll spend on them, though the subjects are definitely important.