Available Data and Reason Tell Us

Peter Seidel | November 6, 2018 | Leave a Comment Download as PDF

Favoured Trees | Flickr

Statistics from the United States government and the United Nations show us that we are bringing about dramatic changes in our Earth’s environment. Projecting these changes into the future shows that unless they are stopped, or mitigated humanity will be in serious trouble as time moves on.

Our planet, and even our species, has been here for a long time, but for us, reality is “right here right now.” Because we fail to see time and space on a larger scale everything in the scene before us seems just the same as it was yesterday. But it is not. Using the best data I could find in 2012 and converting annual changes into daily changes I came up with the following figures. We don’t notice that today there are roughly 218,000 more people on our planet than yesterday, or that 15,000 children will die today as a result of malnutrition; 67,000 acres of arable land will be seriously degraded or abandoned to agriculture; 33,000 acres of forest will be obliterated; desertification will claim nearly 3.9 square miles more of land in China; and water tables around the world will continue to drop.[1] While many Americans have heard such facts, few of us give them more than a fleeting thought, or grasp their significance. They just don’t sink in.

Merely to maintain the status quo, which includes a huge number of people living in utter misery, the Global Footprint Network estimates it would take 1.5 planets like ours to renewably produce all the resources humanity demands and to absorb its CO2 emissions today. Even if everyone lived like Europeans, who consume and pollute a lot less than Americans do, we would require the resources of almost 5 planets to reach sustainability today.[2] One can live off of the principal of a bank account for a while; likewise, we can get by with exploiting our planet and overlooking the plight of the unfortunate for a few more decades. And since we don’t personally see or feel what is happening, we are bothered little. Projecting these changes out into the future shows that we are headed for terrible trouble.

This paper discusses some things we can expect in our future and suggest ways that we can modify them. When we think of the future, at most we think of 2050 or 2100. Humans have been living on our planet for a long time. The period of time between Aristotle, George Washington, and us is a mere smidgen of that period. Unless we continue to mess things up, hopefully humanity will be here for an even longer time. With the rapid change that is taking place, it will not be long before a much larger population is living on a hotter planet with less arable land, less water that is more polluted and with far fewer species. There will be massive migrations of people from places that become uninhabitable to places that are already overcrowded. Current human behavior clearly shows the ways we are likely to react. Acting as we now do, there will be wars and genocide. Putting all these things together and reckoning with their interactions is considerably worse than the sum of them taken individually.

If we feel any responsibility for the continuation of our species, and the lives of our followers, we have to change soon. This will not be easy. Here are some thoughts on that:

“… Most of our genes date from the Stone Age or before. They could help us to live in the jungles of nature, but not in the jungles of civilization.” —The Club of Budapest’s Manifesto, 1996.

“Our brain evolved to meet the needs of hunting-gathering societies, not the complex civilization we have developed. Today we are ill-suited for the challenges we face, and those who hold power too often lack the mind and integrity needed to use it wisely.” —Peter Seidel, 2009.[3]

“We have created a Star Wars civilization with stone age emotions, medieval institutions, and godlike technology.” —Edward O. Wilson, 2012.[4]


We must understand that we have to move beyond our present behavior. Understanding and looking at the big picture will help. To understand the reasons behind what is happening and how we can change course, it will help to look at a formula developed in the 1970s by Paul Ehrlich and John Holdren called IPAT that explains a lot about our environmental problems.

IPAT stands for: I = P x A x T, where I = impact, P = population, A = affluence (consumption per capita), and T = technology. If, for example, everything stays the same but the world population, affluence, or the negative effects of technology doubles, humanity’s impact on the planet doubles.

These are difficulties that we must overcome. Unfortunately, most people respond to emotion more than reason, and our situation will become far worse before they are moved to take meaningful action. Discussing controlling population growth is taboo, and who will simplify their lifestyle? We put all our faith in technology such as solar energy and wind power. They and other conservation measures will help, however we must deal with all the IPAT factors to reduce our impact on the planet. Focusing on limited solutions, such as sustainable technology will not be enough. We must overcome these problems on all fronts. With our current thinking and the momentum of what is taking place today, the most serious consequences cannot be avoided. However, if we take our situation seriously and act as things get tighter, a smaller population may be able to survive on a planet that will be enjoyable to live on.

Since there have been nations the world’s people have been burdened with the leadership of many self-selected greedy egomaniacs. Today this is extremely dangerous, we are destroying the environment that supports us and in possession of massive numbers of weapons that dwarf the bomb used at Hiroshima.

In these difficult, dangerous times nations should have the most intelligent, informed, competent, ethical individuals available to lead them—and these leaders should understand and do their very best to deal with the problems before them. This is hardly the case. Sadly, many of those in power have spent their lives and energy on politicking and gaining and holding power, and have little interest in or understanding of subjects important for sustainability like science. Their judgments are largely based on their personal agenda, psychological drives, pressure from interest groups, their limited concerns for what they see as important, and expediency. Unfortunately, those who pursue power or wealth are often successful at gaining them. Subsequently, the world is largely run by people focused on politicking and personal gain with little understanding of or interest in the environmental problems bearing down on us. They focus on “here-now-and-me.” They surround themselves with luxury and isolate themselves from the difficult realities most people face. When they seek advice, instead of going to the wisest, most knowledgeable individuals, they turn to those who share their agenda and narrow concerns. Fortunately, there are other leaders, but they are overwhelmed by the activities of the selfish and ignorant.

Superior individuals who have the qualities that should make them good leaders in our current complex world are not likely to run for or gain office. We thus have a mechanism that fills positions of power with people who can effectively deal with each other in their dog-eat-dog world, but are poorly equipped to understand, and have little interest in, the complexity of many matters affecting our future. For some, the campaign, beating an opponent, and holding power override their interest in the job itself.

Adlai Stevenson, an unsuccessful candidate for president, when interviewed by Bill Moyers commented, “By the time a man is elected president he is no longer worthy of the office.”  The economist Kenneth Boulding, who was interested in the selection process, held a similar opinion. “There is indeed a principle which I have called the ‘dismal theorem of political science’—that most of the skills which lead to the rise to power unfit people to exercise it.”[i] It is tragic that at a crucial time like this, such people are in control.

While we cannot change the human mind, a group of wise, well known, internationally respected, broadly educated and concerned scholars, could join together to establish minimum standards in knowledge, mental stability, and ethical history, and demand that these factors are considered in the selection of important political leaders. Leadership should be an opportunity to help humanity, not to satisfy one’s ego or for self-enrichment. Creating common standards for leaders will allow society to, over time, do a better job in choosing its leaders.

What I have presented here is very grim. I welcome and look forward to hearing more positive conclusions for the situation I have described above, and I especially welcome ideas that can help steer us onto a constructive course.

Peter Seidel was an architect at a Chicago architectural firm, famous for the most environmentally destructive all glass skyscrapers, when he read geochemist Harrison Brown’s 1954 book “The Challenge of Man’s Future.” Reading Brown’s book prompted Seidel to do an about-face and become an environmental architect and urban planner. When he realized this work would not have the impact he had hoped for, he started writing books about humanity’s relationship to the environment. You can learn more about Peter and his publications here.

The MAHB Blog is a venture of the Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere. Questions should be directed to joan@mahbonline.org


[1] Most of these numbers from, or derived from: Brown, Lester R., Full Planet, Empty Plates (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2012).

[2] http://www.footprintnetwork.org/en/index.php/GFN/page/world_footprint/

[3] “Is It Inevitable That Evolution Self-Destruct?” Futures, Elsevier, Amsterdam, Vol. 41, No. 10, Dec. 2009, p. 754.

[4] Edward O. Wilson, The Social Conquest of Earth, 2012, New York: Liveright Publishing, a division of W.W. Norton, p. 7.

Email this to someoneTweet about this on TwitterShare on FacebookShare on LinkedIn
The views and opinions expressed through the MAHB Website are those of the contributing authors and do not necessarily reflect an official position of the MAHB. The MAHB aims to share a range of perspectives and welcomes the discussions that they prompt.
  • johnmerryman

    I don’t think we can viably propose oughts, before understanding the is.
    We have a fairly complex knowledge of the world around us and our knowledge expands at an ever increasing rate, yet the basis of our worldview goes back millennia. I think various assumptions have been built into this worldview, that need examination.
    First and foremost, as mobile organisms, which learned to narrate our lives to each other and build civilizations around these histories, we see time as the present “moving” past to future, yet the reality is that change turns future to past. There is only this present state of whatever forms the “conserved” energy expresses. Plants and other animals only live in the present, as being distracted from it would be detrimental. Time is an effect of action, like temperature. We evolved in a thermodynamic environment and these feedback loops are far more explanatory of our reality than the narrative sequence of time. The past informs the present, while the present consumes the past.
    As narrative is foundational to civilization, those stories most repeated are those with the most conclusive and informative narrative arcs. Which has created the impression that life is about the destination or goal, rather than the journey and the relationships of the present. From this we get everything from materialism, to monotheism, to singularities and theories of everything. That there is some final, distilled, bottom line state. On the other hand, reality is more a balance of forces and the contrasts and context they create. For instance the political dichotomy of liberalism and conservatism correspond to organic social energies pushing out, while the resulting civil and cultural forms coalesce in. Occasionally though, these forms need review.
    For instance, a spiritual absolute, the source of consciousness, would not be an ideal of wisdom and judgement, from which humanity fell, but the essence of sentience from which life rises. That element of being bubbling up through us all. The essence of desire, rather than the objects of desire. Consciousness, rather than the thoughts it manifests. Consciousness goes past to future thoughts, while the thoughts go future to past. It is just that organized religion evolved out of the need to give the community a common sense of right and wrong and bonding, without indulging the totality of desires this sense will dream. Wisdom, rather than emotion.
    In order to function as a whole, the community needs a basic contract and that is the role of money. It is an voucher system. When society was small, economics was reciprocal, as it was more efficient to share, than individually hoard, but as they grew, systems of accounting became necessary. It is just that now, this tool has become a god, because we experience it as quantified hope and treat it as a commodity to be mined from society, not the contract holding it together. Then those in charge find it easier to issue more money, as unfulfillable promises, than make society more functional. Especially as those with the most wield the most power.
    Money is a medium of accounting, not a store of value. For instance, in the body, blood is the medium and fat is the store. Or for cars, roads are the medium and parking lots are the store. As it is now, we are destroying actual value in order to extract its notational, abstracted value, to store in the financial system. We destroy the future, in order to save for it.
    We all save for the same general reasons, from raising children to retirement. If we invested in these as community assets, in stronger societies and environments, rather than trying to save for them individually, we would go back to economics as reciprocal and circular.
    This might sound farfetched, but we need a plan B.

  • Dana Visalli

    It is always good to see the I=PAT formula reiterated, it is simple and understandable–although almost no one grasps the implications. And surely most would agree that this conversation has been going on for decades.
    A couple of interesting quotes: Paul Craig Roberts has an essay out today, ‘What is This Election About?’ He writes, ‘My conclusion is that America is doomed. The people, with few exceptions, are not smart enough to continue to exist.’ In general terms I think he is right; it’s no one’s fault, we just seem to be incapable of ecological literacy; people are not even the slightest bit interested.
    And, William Catton described our ‘progress trap’ so eloquently in his 1980 book ‘Overshoot,’ the subtitle of which seems to say it all: ‘The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change.’ In the preface he points out, ‘We are in no way protected from the consequences of our actions by remaining confused about the ecological meaning of our humanness, ignorant of ecological processes, and unmindful of the ecological aspects of history.’

    • JohnTaves

      I=PAT is useless. Nothing is measurable in that formula except P. Within P is an exponential that attempts to explode P to infinity.

      How many babies we average is the one and only variable that matters yet it is invisible in that formula.

      This formula (x-2)/x is useful. It is the rate that children must die when we average x babies.

  • Gene Bellinger is encouraging the systems thinking networks to communicate via stories. The general public does not relate to charts and statistics, but requires simple metaphors for sense making. One such discussion, already higher up in cognitive capacity, is the issue of carrying capacity. How many people can the planet support?

    Earth overshoot day this year fell on Aug. 1 (check overshootday.org). That means we are exceeding the reproductive capacity of the planet by a factor of 1.7. Global population today is at 7.6 billion. Take 7.6 / 1.7 = 4.5 billion people the planet can support sustainably, given current consumption patterns. That does not consider the aspirational patterns in developing countries and impoverished populations even in the US.

    Letters to the editor: mothers are a prime target to inform about the pathologies in the food system. Agriculture is a crucial component in climate change mitigation, in fact without shifting into regenerative organic agriculture we will not be able to sequester the giga tons of carbon that have to come out of the atmosphere, and protect our top soil to secure the food supply. Without going into complicated discussions on climate change, this message can be communicated across the spiral of cognition, circumventing established blockages.

    Please insert your own story, personalize it and send to wherever you can find access to a media outlet willing to publish. https://www.dropbox.com/s/fk30f0nr9w0qdq7/Confessions%20of%20a%20Foodie.docx?dl=0

    • JohnTaves

      The question “How many people can the planet support” results in thousands of different answers and none of those answers, or the question itself, tells anyone that we must not average more than 2 babies.

      • it really doesn’t, the statistics are quite clear. Did you read or follow up on what I posted?

        • JohnTaves

          What statistics are quite clear?

          I did read your comment. I see nothing in that comment, or this article that your comment is in response to that mentions anything about ensuring we do not average too many babies.

          Are you under the impression that how many babies we average is under control? Or are you overlooking the fact that how many babies we average is the one and only factor that drives the environmental destruction?

          • my whole point here is that population growth is not under control and remains unchecked. Our Evangelicals led by VP Pence succeeded in cutting funding for the UN family planning efforts, its God’s will you see. No, we are adrift and miss the most important issue that must be addressed to have any chance of a peaceful transition towards a sustainable future. Because 8.6 billion people by 2030 is not going to happen. The question is only how it will not happen.

          • JohnTaves

            I don’t see how your original comment states that the population growth is not under control. However, a far more interesting statement is “the question is only how it will not happen”.

            Can you elaborate on that? What options for how the 8.6b population level will not happen are there?

    • JohnTaves

      I believe that the overshootday.org gets its information from footprintnetwork.org. The Global Footprint Network does not take into account the consumption of fossil fuels. It only takes into account the CO2 emissions. In other words given current consumption patterns we are far more overpopulated than a factor of 1.7. The last time we managed to keep our numbers alive using only renewable means, our numbers were below 1b.

      I exchanged emails with Mathis Wackernagel on this topic and he failed to comprehend the point. It seemed to me that he wasn’t willing to admit that ignoring the burning of fossil fuels was bogus because then the whole Global Footprint Network would be useless.

      Furthermore he did not seem to understand that there are 2 ways to become sustainable. 1) Continue as-is. Non-renewables cannot be consumed forever. Sustainability is the easiest thing to accomplish. 2) Average less than 2 babies until we no longer are using resources faster than they renew. The first ensures we continue to cause premature death by averaging too many babies. The second does not.

  • stevenearlsalmony

    Esteemed Colleagues and Friends,

    Anyone who is not struggling now here “in the throes” of the global predicament humans have evidently precipitated simply does not yet perceive sufficiently the gravity of the existential situation looming before us. However desperate our actual circumstances, we have to speak openly, loudly and often about them, according to the best science and the ‘lights’ we possess. Our goals may have to be reduced to the point of aiming to do nothing more than inhibit damage to our planetary home and alleviate harm to humankind and life as we know it. Without widely sharing and consensually validating the best available spoken words regarding visible global challenges, what sensible basis do we possess for responding ably to the converging ecological threats to the future of human/non-human life and environmental health?

    Sincerely yours,

    Steve Salmony

    • JohnTaves

      Agreed, but if you and the other “population experts” cannot comprehend that the following spoken words are both scientifically balls-on-dead-accurate and the one and only message that needs to be conveyed to everyone, then you are not only aiming to do nothing, you are achieving it.

      Averaging more than 2, kills only children and only kills children.

  • We’re wasting too much effort preaching to our own choir. We instead need to follow James Cameron’s lead with Avatar, and somehow reach the 6 pack crowd.

    • JohnTaves

      This will tell the 6 pack crowd and all others on this planet that we must not average more than 2 babies? How?

  • Michael Mielke

    Does anyone else see that we have been in this same conversation for decades?

    Paul and Anne’s book, in 1991 said it so clearly.

    “Healing the Planet” said it clearly, specifically, extensively and with power.

    With all due respect to this nice architect, this essay does not move the ball one inch.

    • JohnTaves

      Agreed, except the Ehrlich book did not say it clearly.

      That I=PAT formula is utterly useless. Nothing is measurable in that formula except P. Within P is an exponential that attempts to explode P to infinity.

      How many babies we average is the one and only variable that matters yet it is invisible in that formula.

      This formula (x-2)/x is useful. It is the rate that children must die when we average x babies. Let’s get this information out and start advancing the ball.

  • Geoffrey Holland

    All good answers begin with stripping power from bankers, billionaires, and corporatists. The emerging generation will have no choice. For them, it will be fascism or a fundamental remaking of the global economic structure. Fascism is already taking root here and in too many other nations. Meantime,wildlife numbers have dropped 60% in just the last 40 years. Extreme weather is.happening more often in more places, and human numbers continue grow substantively in places that are least able to manage it. It’s difficult to be optimistic given the ugly inertia already at play.

    • JohnTaves

      What nonsense. What bankers, billionaires, and corporatists are making us average more than 2? If we strip power from them, why do you have any belief that we will not continue to average more than 2?