May 21st, 2010

bag bans

Some cities in California either have or are contemplating banning plastic single-use bags at grocery stores (and some other venues). There has been some pushback from the plastic bag makers, pointing out that paper isn't necessarily better (anyone who has ever watched the two deteriorate in the physical environment recognizes that at least from one end of the line, this is a bullshit argument, whatever the merits might be from the other end of the line). The pushback involved a lawsuit, and so those and other cities contemplating legal action to push people from single-use to reusable bags are doing research into the impact of paper and plastic bags on the environment -- and writing rules to discourage and/or ban either, or charge for them, or whatever.

It's nice to see this progressing in the social laboratory of the Bay Area and Silicon Valley. They'll get it figured out (they're smart like that), and then we can all copy whatever they came up with, more or less the way smoking bans and other public policy initiatives worked. But I cannot help but remember that when I went to Albert Heijn shops, you just got charged a quarter euro for each bag you used. Not so much to be a problem if you needed one (and they were thick enough plastic bags that you could reuse many times, which could be handy when traveling), but enough to help you remember to bring your daypack when you went to buy groceries to make dinner for the next couple nights in the hostel. Best of all, the clerks didn't automatically grab those bags, because you bagged your own groceries, instead of fighting to get the clerk to take and use your bag and not bag your eggs and soda and whathaveyou in yet another plastic bag you were trying so hard to avoid bringing home. It's been, what, 8 years since I first encountered this strategy; I don't understand why we can't just do that.

_The Coming Population Crash_, Fred Pearce

Subtitled: And Our Planet's Surprising Future

Kindle subtitle page: How boom is turning to bust. Half the world's women are having too few babies to sustain present populations.

Alternative title not in the US: Peoplequake: Mass Migrations, Aging Nations and the Coming Population Crash

Published this year in hardcover and on kindle by Beacon Press, which is the Unitarian Universalist imprint (I did not realize this, but it makes perfect sense).

I read Pearce's book on climate/global warming recently (_With Speed and Violence_) and really enjoyed it. Pearce seems to report on a variety of inter-related issues over a period of time in magazine articles/columns (New Scientist crops up a lot) and books; this results in some interesting comments in the text about how things have changed since his previous book(s)/article(s) on the subject and/or how other people's responses to those have changed his thinking. There's a strong sense of an ongoing dialogue, which I enjoy, but which may make some of his earlier books not particularly rewarding to track down.

As I remarked in a previous post (in which I picked on Kristof), I've read some wonky books on population. This is another of them.

Pearce surveys demography. He starts with Malthus. He visits the church Malthus was vicar at. He discusses Malthus career teaching East India hands. He walks the reader through how all the people involved in making decisions about workhouses and the Poor Law and the potato famine had been strongly influenced by Malthus' ideas. And he concludes that Malthus wasn't describing: he was prescribing. Pearce is not shy about it, either. That's part one.

Part two is a summary of eugenics, birth control pioneers, sterilization safaris (not his term), and how the green revolution (and other agricultural innovation) put the lie to the we-can-only-improve-yield-arithmetically part of Malthus' argument. He follows it with a chaser of China's one child policy after Mao died and everyone realized they couldn't continue that more-more-more policy indefinitely.

Part three starts with the usual suspects (Hoyerswerda, chunks of Russia and/or the former Soviet Union) to depict what depopulation looks like in action. Part four goes to Asia, to describe how fertility has dropped in a variety of countries in slightly different ways -- effects on the gender ratio, whether government programs were involved or not, whether those programs were purely voluntary, included incentives or were coercive. And the last chapter in this part also takes a look at a couple places with extremely high fertility rates: the ultraconservative communities in Israel and some palestinian communities.

Part five describes migration patterns around the world, what laws make it easy or hard, what creates incentives for migration, and rhetorical and political ideas that misrepresent that migration. A big rah rah for the US, not for our current policies, but as an example of a vibrant country that thrives as a result of its varied recent immigrant population.

Part six was probably the biggest eye-opener for me. I knew the creepy history of population controllers (I'd read Connelly and so has Pearce). I knew about how many countries were now below replacement rate (I think I saw an online video of a TED presentation about how a lot of poor countries were through the transition -- maybe a year or two ago?). I'd even encountered some theorizing about what produces ultralow fertility (men who don't want to participate in parenting to the extent that the women are participating in paid employment, and governments that don't replace that missing effort with public services, and career paths that are too inflexible to permit departure and re-entry -- so lots of ways to avoid ultralow fertility), and Pearce's summary is roughly what I think is reasonable. Nope, the surprise here is the age structure analysis: booms, like the tiger economies, and Japan before them, come from having high fertility, followed by a fast fertility drop (so you have lots of workers and few dependent old or very young people) _in combination with_ high rates of literacy. The combined number is "literate life expectancy". _That_ was a brand new idea to me, and I find it compelling. Other chapters in this section touch on the ecological footprint of cities, carrying capacity of the planet and a bit about ultra-dense, very low income parts of cities (like Dharavi) that nevertheless are phenomenally productive and are quite good at providing services to their residents (but still suffer from major sanitation problems).

Pearce winds it all up with a bunch of speculation/discussion/hey it's gonna be great! about what an aging/population declining world might be like to live in.

The bibliographic essays on a per chapter basis at the end of the book work quite well. I often don't like this particular style of sourcing, but Pearce does a good job.

As I noted in my review of _With Speed and Violence_, I like Pearce in part because he combines traditional research and exposition with some description of the personalities of the people involved (in the research, the politics, the decision making, etc.) Pearce is sensitive to issues of social justice and unbelievably resistant to a lot of the traps that well-educated white people fall into when contemplating developing nations. He isn't patronizing. He isn't particularly sentimental. He's generally respectful and he can usually tell the difference between something that is working pretty well even if it isn't particularly aesthetic to us and something that isn't working at all.

If you have any interest at all in this topic, run right out and get your copy (or download it on to your e-platform of choice). And if you're looking for highly-readable, well-researched, compassionate and thoughtful non-fiction on Important Topics of The Day (you know, climate, water, population, natural resources...), I recommend him generally as an author.

If you're too cheap to buy a book and not inclined to enter a library, you could always try this: