Monday, November 3, 2008

Memphis Blues

I’m in Memphis for the National Association of Biology Teachers 70th Anniversary convention (October 17).

I have noticed a dearth of two things here. The first is trees. From my 7th floor downtown hotel window, I can see only a faint scattering of green spots dotting an otherwise gray concrete landscape. I realize that cities are not noted for being like lush jungles, but this one is clearly impoverished compared to most cities I’ve seen. Nevertheless, squadrons of pigeons do aerial circuits and alight on roofs; starlings, house sparrows and mockingbirds are commonplace; and quite remarkably, I watched a Cooper’s hawk land on a church cross as the sun set. Also, there is a loose fairy-ring of large white mushrooms on the lawn in front of the nearby Marriott. And the weeds poking through the cracking seams of run-down lots remind me that nature lies waiting to reclaim her turf when we’re done.

The other dearth is of vegetarian and vegan fare at restaurants. Most menus I’ve perused lack even a single vegetarian option. I went with a colleague for lunch at TGI Fridays. There was no veggie-burger available (unlike their menus in Washington, DC), and the waitress patiently sat down with pen and paper to negotiate our requirements. Five animal ingredients (chicken, bacon, cheddar, blue cheese and egg crumbles) were struck from my cob salad. The waitress recommended fried green beans, which came deep fried in a thick batter that oozed oil. The NABT receptions are no better: meat dishes, no vegetarian options.

I attended a plenary lecture by Dr Steve Running, a climate change expert from the University of Montana, and one of the 450-or-so lead authors on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change which was awarded the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize. As Al Gore did in An Inconvenient Truth (see my blog from Sept 2006,, Running didn’t sugar-coat the crisis, and he mentioned several steps to address rising greenhouse gas emissions, such as biking/walking to work, supporting wind power, and addressing human overpopulation. But dismayingly, Running overlooked the enormous contribution of animal agriculture — estimated at 18 percent by his own Nobel-winning Panel. That contribution exceeds the entire global transportation sector, which the IPCC has estimated at 13.5 percent. Speaking to about 700 biology teachers, he missed a huge opportunity to edify a large body of influential citizens. I was prepared to rise and ask why Running missed the boat, but there was no time for questions. Instead, I sent him an email:

… I feel it is imperative that we not skirt this issue given its central role in the problem of climate change and its potential to empower people to take immediate and personal life-style steps to address a problem of global scope. If we don’t take personal responsibility for climate change, then I see little hope for our reversing the grim trends you presented.

… As you are a person of high influence on this issue, I urge you to add the meat and dairy connection to your lectures. People must be made aware of it, and the time is now. I’m hoping you’ll also remind them of the other benefits of plant-based diets — including benefits to human health, lower health care costs, and the relief of cruelty and violence toward animals.

I await his reply (stay tuned).

All is not lost in Memphis. I did find a spot (Bigfoot’s) with a decent veggie-burger, and most servers at least know what “vegan” means. Nor will I soon forget the sight of five adolescent mallards engaging in a game of chase round their circular marble pond in the ornate lobby of the famous Peabody Hotel.


At November 4, 2008 at 5:43 AM , Blogger Pete Murphy said...

Rampant population growth threatens our economy and quality of life. I'm not talking just about the obvious problems that we see in the news - growing dependence on foreign oil, carbon emissions, soaring commodity prices, environmental degradation, etc. I'm talking about the effect upon rising unemployment and poverty in America.

I should introduce myself. I am the author of a book titled "Five Short Blasts: A New Economic Theory Exposes The Fatal Flaw in Globalization and Its Consequences for America." To make a long story short, my theory is that, as population density rises beyond some optimum level, per capita consumption of products begins to decline out of the need to conserve space. People who live in crowded conditions simply don’t have enough space to use and store many products. This declining per capita consumption, in the face of rising productivity (per capita output, which always rises), inevitably yields rising unemployment and poverty.

This theory has huge implications for U.S. policy toward population management. Our policies of encouraging high rates of population growth are rooted in the belief of economists that population growth is a good thing, fueling economic growth. Through most of human history, the interests of the common good and business (corporations) were both well-served by continuing population growth. For the common good, we needed more workers to man our factories, producing the goods needed for a high standard of living. This population growth translated into sales volume growth for corporations. Both were happy.

But, once an optimum population density is breached, their interests diverge. It is in the best interest of the common good to stabilize the population, avoiding an erosion of our quality of life through high unemployment and poverty. However, it is still in the interest of corporations to fuel population growth because, even though per capita consumption goes into decline, total consumption still increases. We now find ourselves in the position of having corporations and economists influencing public policy in a direction that is not in the best interest of the common good.

The U.N. ranks the U.S. with eight other countries - India, Pakistan, Nigeria, Democratic Republic of Congo, Bangladesh, Uganda, Ethiopia and China - as accounting for fully half of the world’s population growth by 2050. The U.S. is the only developed country still experiencing third world-like population growth.

If you’re interested in learning more about this important new economic theory, I invite you to visit my web site at where you can read the preface, join in my blog discussion and, of course, purchase the book if you like. (It's also available at

Please forgive the somewhat spammish nature of the previous paragraph. I just don't know how else to inject this new perspective into the overpopulation debate without drawing attention to the book that explains the theory.

Pete Murphy
Author, "Five Short Blasts"


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