The Roman Philosopher Lucius Anneaus Seneca (4 BCE-65 CE) was perhaps the first to note the universal trend that growth is slow but ruin is rapid. I call this tendency the "Seneca Effect."
Showing posts with label Club of Rome. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Club of Rome. Show all posts

Friday, April 7, 2023

Why we Can't Change Anything Before it is Too Late.


Yours truly, Ugo Bardi, in a recent interview on a local TV station. note the "Limits to Growth" t-shirt and, as a lapel pin, the ASPO-Italy logo. 

A few days ago, I was invited to an interview on a local TV about the energy transition. I prepared myself by collecting data. I was planning to bring to the attention of viewers a few recent studies that showed how urgent and necessary it is to move away from conventional engines, including a recent paper by Roberto Cazzolla-Gatti(*) that shows how the combustion of fossil fuels is one of the main causes of tumors in Italy. 

And then I had a minor epiphany in my mind. 

I saw myself from the other side of the camera, appearing on the screen in someone's living room. I saw myself as one more of those white-haired professors who tell viewers, "look, there is a grave danger ahead. You must do as I say, or disaster will ensue."

No way. 

I could see myself appearing to people as more or less the same as one of the many TV virologists who had terrorized people with the Covid story during the past three years. "There is a grave danger caused by a mysterious virus. If you don't do as I say, disaster will ensue." 

It scared people a lot, but only for a while. And now the poor performance of TV virologists, Tony Fauci and the others, cast a shade over the general validity of science. As a result, we now see a wave of anti-science sweeping the discussion while carrying along the flotsam of decades of legends. Fake lunar landings, earthquakes as weapons, how Greenland was green at the time of Erik the Red, and don't you know that climate has always been changing? Besides, Greta Thumberg is a bitch.

But it is not so much a fault of the TV virologists, although they have done their part in creating the damage. It is the human decisional system that works in a perverse way. More or less, it works like this:

  1. Scientists identify a grave problem and try to warn people about it. 
  2. The scientists are first demonized, then ignored.
  3. Nothing is done about the problem.
  4. When it is discovered that the warning was correct, it is too late. 

Do you remember the story of the boy who cried "wolf"? Yes, it works exactly like that in the real world. One of the first modern cases in real history was that of "The Limits to Growth" in 1972. 

  1. A group of scientists sponsored by the Club of Rome discovered that unrestrained growth of the global economic system would lead to its collapse.
  2. The scientists and the Club of Rome were demonized, then ignored.
  3. Nothing was done about the problem.
  4. Now that we are discovering that the scientists were right, collapse is already starting.
More recently, we saw how, 
  1. Scientists tried to alert people about the dangers of climate change.
  2. Scientists were demonized and then ignored.
  3. Nothing was done about climate change.
  4. When it was discovered that the warning was correct, it was too late. (it is).
There are many more examples, but it almost always works like this. Conversely, when, for some reason, people take heed of the warning, the results may be even worse, as we saw with the Covid epidemic. In that case, you can add a 1b line to the list that says, "people become scared and do things that worsen the problem." After a while, line 2 (scientists are demonized) takes over, and the cycle goes on.  

So, what are the conclusions? The main one, I'd say, is: 

Avoid being a white-haired scientist issuing warnings about grave dangers from a TV screen

Then, what should you say when you appear on TV (and you happen to be a white-haired scientist)? Good question. My idea for that TV interview was to present change as an opportunity rather than an obligation. I was prepared to explain how there are many possible ways to improve the quality of our life by moving away from fossil fuels. 

How did it go? It was one of the best examples that I experienced in my life of the general validity of the principle that says, "No battle plan survives contact with the enemy." The interview turned out to be a typical TV ambush in which the host accused me of wanting to beggar people by taking away their cars and their gas stoves, of trying to poison the planet with lithium batteries, and of promoting the exploitation of the 3rd world poor with coltan mines. I didn't take that meekly, as you may imagine. 

The interview became confrontational, and it quickly degenerated into a verbal brawl. I am not linking to the interview; it is not so interesting. Besides, it was all in Italian. But you can get some idea of how these things go from a similar ambush against Matt Taibbi on MSNBC. What did the viewers think? Hopefully, they switched channels. 

In the end. I am only sure that if something has to happen, it will. 

(*) The paper by Roberto Cazzolla-Gatti on the carcinogenic effects of combustion is truly impressive. Do read it, even if you are not a catastrophist. You'll learn a lot. 

(**) CJ Hopkins offers some suggestions on how to behave when you are subjected to this kind of attack. He says that you should refuse to answer some questions, answer with more questions, avoid taking the interviewer seriously, and things like that. It is surely better than trying to just defend oneself, but it is extremely difficult. It was not the first time that I faced this kind of ambush, and when you are in the crossfire you have little or no chances to avoid a memetic defeat. 

Thursday, October 20, 2022

The Empty Sea -- An Ongoing Saga


"The Empty Sea," a Report to the Club of Rome by Ugo Bardi and Ilaria Perissi, was translated into Chinese and published in China at the end of September of this year. As a comment to this new version of the book, I am reproducing here, with the kind permission of the author, a post by Coty Perry that deals with the same basic problems that the book describes. How the marine ecosystem is being damaged by human activities. Will it survive? It is part of an ongoing saga that sees humans killing everything on this planet without realizing that, in doing that, eventually they will be killing themselves

For those of you who can't read Chinese, the English version of the book is available on Springer's site. A version in Italian is also available at this link

Overfishing, Conservation, Sustainability, and Farmed Fish

As with many other aspects of government policy, overfishing and other fishing-related environmental issues are a real problem, but it’s not clear that government intervention is the solution. Indeed, it might be one of the main drivers of overfishing and other conservation and sustainability issues stemming from commercial fishing. Much like drone fishing, there are serious ethical issues of interest to the average angler. 

There’s another commonality that overfishing has with environmental issues more broadly: The Western companies primarily concerned with serious efforts to curb overfishing are not the ones who are most guilty of overfishing. What this means is that the costs of overfishing are disproportionately borne by the countries least engaged in practices that are counter to efforts to make commercial fishing more sustainable while also promoting conservation of fish biodiversity. 

All of these are important issues not just for commercial fishermen, but also those interested in questions of conservation and sustainability in general, as well as recreational fisherman and basically anyone who uses fish as a food source. As the ocean goes, so goes the planet, so it is of paramount importance for everyone to educate themselves on what is driving overfishing, what its consequences are, and what meaningful steps — not simply theater to feel as if “something is being done” — can be taken.

Indeed, over three billion people around the world rely on fish as their primary source of protein. About 12 percent of the world relies on fisheries in some form or another. 90 percent of these being small-scale fishermen — “think a small crew in a boat, not a ship,” using small nets or even rods, reels and lures not too different from the kind you probably use.

Overfishing infographic - "90% fisheries small-scale fishermen, 12% world population relies upon fisheries"

There are 18.9 million fishermen in the world, with 90 percent of them falling under the same small-scale fisherman rubric discussed above. 

Overfishing Definition: What is Overfishing?

Overfished ocean

First, take heart: As a recreational fisherman you are almost certainly not guilty of “overfishing.” This is an issue for commercial fishermen in the fishing industry who are trawling the ocean depths with massive nets to catch enough fish to make a living for themselves and their families, not the angler who enjoys a little peace and quiet on the weekends. 

Overfishing is, in some sense, a rational reaction to increasing market needs for fish. Most people consume approximately twice as much fish as they did 50 years ago and there are four times as many people on earth as there were at the close of the 1960s. This is one driver of the 30 percent of commercially fished waters being classified as “overfished.” This means that the stock of available fishing waters are being depleted faster than they can be replaced.

There is a simple and straightforward definition of when an area is being “overfished” and it’s not simply about catching “too many” fish. Overfishing occurs when the breeding stock of an area becomes so depleted that the fish in the area cannot replenish themselves. 

Overfishing infographic "> 80% fish caught in nets"

At best, this means fewer fish next year than there are this year. At worst, it means that a species of fish cannot be fished out of a specific area anymore. This also goes hand-in-hand with wasteful forms of fishing that harvest not just the fish the trawler is looking for, but just about every other organism big enough to be caught in a net. Over 80 percent of fish are caught in these kinds of nets but fish aren’t the only things caught in nets.

What’s more, there are a number of wide-reaching consequences of overfishing. It’s not simply bad because it depletes the fish stocks of available resources, though that certainly is one reason why it’s bad. Others include:

  • Increased Algae in the Water: Like many other things, algae is great but too much of it is very bad. When there are fewer fish in the water, algae doesn’t get eaten. This increases the acidity in the world’s oceans, which negatively impacts not only the remaining fish, but also the reefs and plankton.
  • Destruction of Fishing Communities: Overfishing can completely destroy fish populations and communities that once relied upon the fish that were there. This is particularly true for island communities. And it’s worth remembering that there are many isolated points on the globe where fishing isn’t just the driver of the economy, but also the primary source of protein for the population. When either or both of these disappear, the community disappears along with it.
  • Tougher Fishing for Small Vessels: If you’re a fan of small business, you ought to be concerned about overfishing. That’s because overfishing is mostly done by large vessels and makes it harder for smaller ones to meet their quotas. With over 40 million people around the world getting their food and livelihood from fishing, this is a serious problem.
  • Ghost Fishing: Ghost fishing refers to abandoned man-made fishing gear that is left behind. It’s believed that an estimated 25,000 nets float throughout the Northeast Atlantic. This left behind gear becomes a death trap for all marine life that swim through that area. While much of this is caused due to storms and natural disasters, much of it is the result of ignorance and neglect on behalf of commercial fishermen.
  • Species Pushed to Near Extinction: When we hear that a fish species is being depleted, we often think it’s fine because they can be found somewhere else. However, many species of fish are being pushed close to extinction by overfishing, such as several species of cod, tuna, halibut and even lobster.
  • Bycatch: If you’re old enough to remember people being concerned about dolphins caught in tuna nets, you know what bycatch is: It’s when marine life that is not being sought by commercial fishermen is caught in their nets as a byproduct. The possibility of bycatch increases dramatically with overfishing.
  • Waste: Overfishing creates waste in the supply chain. Approximately 20 percent of all fish in the United States is lost in the supply chain due to overfishing. In the Third World this rises to 30 percent thanks to a lack of available freezing devices. What this means is that even though there are more fish being caught than ever, there is also massive waste of harvested fish.
  • Mystery Fish: Because of overfishing, there are a significant amount of fish at your local fish market and on the shelves of your local grocery store that aren’t what they are labelled as. Just because something says that it’s cod doesn’t mean that it actually is. To give you an idea of the scope of this problem, only 13 percent of the “red snapper” on the market is actually red snapper. Most of this is unintentional due to the scale of fishing done today, but much of it is not, hiding behind the unfortunate realities of mass scale fishing to pass off inferior products to unwitting customers. 
Overfishing infographic - "fish in the Third World lost in the supply chain..."

So why is overfishing happening? There are a variety of factors driving overfishing that we will delve into here, the bird’s eye view is below.

  • Regulation: Regulations are incredibly difficult to enforce even when they are carefully crafted, which they often are not. The worst offenders have little regulations in place and none of these regulations apply in international waters, which are effectively a Wild West.
  • Unreported Fishing: Existing regulations force many fisherman to do their fishing “off the books” if they wish to turn a profit. This is especially true in developing nations.
  • Mobile Processing: Mobile processing is when fish are processed before even returning to port. They are canned while still out at sea. Canned fish is increasingly taking up the fish consumption market at the expense of fresh fish.
  • Subsidies: Anyone familiar with farm subsidies knows that these are actually bad for the production of healthy food. Subsidies for fishing are similar. They don’t generally go to small fisherman whom one would think are most in need, but rather to massive vessels doing fuel-intensive shipping. 

What’s more, subsidies encourage overfishing because the money keeps flowing no matter what — the more fish you catch, the more money you get, with no caps influenced by environmental impact fishing regulation. 

Indeed, according to the World Wildlife Fund, subsidies drive illegal fishing, which is closely tied with piracy, slavery and human trafficking. The University of British Columbia conducted a study that found that $22 billion (63 percent of all fishing subsidies) went toward subsidies that encourage overfishing. 

Of these, the main driver of overfishing is, predictably, government subsidies. So it is worth taking a few minutes to separate that out from the rest of these issues and give it some special attention. 

More on Overfishing and Government Subsidies

Overfishing - "Fishing boats on the water with asian writing on the sides"

The subsidies that drive overfishing are highly lucrative: The governments of the world are giving away over $35 billion every year to fishermen. That’s about 20 percent of the value of all the commercially caught fish in the world every year. Subsidies are often directed at reducing the costs for megafishing companies — things like paying for their massive fuel budgets, the gear they need to catch fish, or even the vessels themselves. 

This effectively allows for large commercial fishing operations to take over the market or recapitalize at rates significantly below that of the market, disproportionately favoring them over their smaller competitors. 

It is this advantage that drives large mega fishing companies into unsustainable fishing practices. The end result of this is not just depleted stocks, but also lower yields due to long-term overfishing, as well as lowered costs of fish at market, which has some advantages for the consumer, but also makes it significantly harder for smaller operations to turn a profit. 

Such government subsidies could provide assistance to smaller fishermen, but are generally structured in a way that favors consolidation of the market and efforts counterproductive to conservation efforts. 

What Role Do Farmed Fish Play?

Farmed fish is a phenomenon that we take for granted today, but is actually a revolutionary method of bringing fish out of the water and onto our dinner tables. Originally, it was seen as a way of preserving the population of wild fish. The thinking was this: We could eat fish from fish farming while the wild stock replenished itself. 

At the same time, communities impacted by overfishing would find new ways to get income in an increasingly difficult market. Third world countries would have their protein needs met in a manner that did not negatively impact the environment. It was considered a big, easy win for the entire world. 

The reality, as is often the case, turned out to be a little different. Crowding thousands of fish together in small areas away from their natural habitat turns out to have a number of detrimental effects. Waste products, primarily fish poop, excess food and dead fish, begin to contaminate the areas around fish farms. What’s more, like other factory farms, fish farms require lots of pesticides and drugs thanks to the high concentrations of fish and the parasites and diseases that spread in these kinds of areas. 

Predictably, the chemicals used in making farmed fish possible are not contained in the areas where they are initially used. They spread into the surrounding waters and then simply become part of the water of the world, building up over time. In many cases, farmed fish are farmed in areas that are already heavily polluted. This is where the admonition to avoid eating too much fish for fear of contaminants like mercury has come from.

What’s more, the fish that we eat are not the only fish that are living at the fisheries. Often times, the preferred fish of the human consumer are carnivores that must eat lots of other fish to get up to an appropriate size to be part of the market. These fish, known as “reduction fish” or “trash fish” require the same kind of treatment that the larger fish they feed do. 

All told, it takes 26 pounds of feed to produce a single pound of tuna, making farmed fishing an incredibly inefficient way of bringing food to market. Indeed, 37 percent of all seafood globally is now fed for farmed fish, up dramatically from 7.7 percent in 1948. 

Overfishing infographic "26 pounds of feed = 1 pound of tuna"

Perhaps worst of all, farmed fish simply do not have the same nutritional value as their wild counterparts, losing almost all of the Omega-3 fatty acids that make fish such a prized part of the modern diet. 

Salmon, for example, is only healthy when it is caught in the wild. Farmed salmon is essentially a form of junk food. This is in large part due to the diet that the fish eat in fish farms, which is high in fat and uses soy as a primary source of protein. Toxins at the farms concentrate in the fatty tissue of the salmon. Concentrations of the harmful chemical PCB are found in concentrations eight times higher in farmed fish than traditionally caught wild salmon.

 Farmed fish

The pesticides, of course, are not used for no reason, but because of the proliferation of pests due to the high concentrations of fish in the fisheries. Sea lice are one example of such pests, which can eat a live salmon down to the bone. 

These pests do not stay in the fisheries, but quickly spread to the surrounding waters and infect wild salmon as well as their farmed counterparts. The pests aren’t the only ones escaping: Farmed fish often escape from their habitats and compete with the native fish for resources, becoming an invasive species. 

Subsidies vary from one country to another and specific statistics about how much goes to fish farms is generally not forthcoming. But fish farms effectively move the problem of overfishing from the wild oceans and into more enclosed areas. This does not solve any of the problems of overfishing. It merely creates new ones with no less impact on the environment. 

Which Countries Are Overfishing?

Countries that are overfishing

As stated above, the main offenders with regard to overfishing tend to not be developed Western countries, but countries from the undeveloped world and parts of Asia. Sadly, the United States is the only Western nation that appeared on a “shame list” put out by Pew Charitable Trusts. This is known as the Pacific Six. The other members include Japan, Taiwan, China, South Korea and Indonesia. 

Overfishing infographic - "80% world's bluefin tuna"

The list only refers to overfishing with regard to bluefin tuna, but it provides a snapshot of the face of overfishing internationally. Overfishing facts say that these six countries are fishing 80 percent of the world’s bluefin tuna. These countries took collectively 111,482 metric tons of bluefin tuna out of the waters in 2011 alone. 

However, when it comes to harmful subsidies there is a clear leader: China. A University of British Columbia study found that China provided more in the way of harmful subsidies encouraging overfishing than any other country on earth — $7.2 billion in 2018 or 21 percent of all global support. What’s more, subsidies that are more beneficial than harmful dropped by 73 percent.

Overfishing infographic " 111,482 tons of bluefin tuna in 2011"

The negative effects of overfishing are not taking place far away and in very abstract ways. They are causing communities right here in the United States to collapse. In the early 1990s, overfishing of cod caused entire communities in New England to collapse. Once this happens, it is very difficult to reverse. The effects are felt by the marine ecosystem but also by the people whose livelihoods depend on fishing. 

Another example of economic instability is the Japanese fish market. Japanese fishermen are able to catch far less fish than they used to, meaning that the Japanese are now eating more imported fish, often from the United States, than ever before. This creates a perverse situation where America exports most of its best salmon to other countries, but consumes some of the worst farmed salmon in the world today. 

Just How Bad Is Overfishing?

Surely overfishing can’t be that bad, right? The seas are just filled with tons of fish and it would take us forever to overfish to the point that they began to disappear entirely, right?

Fish on dry land

Think again. Overfishing is happening at biologically unsustainable levels. Pacific bluefin tuna, the type of fish discussed in the section above, has seen a 97 percent decline in overall population. This is important because the Pacific bluefin tuna is one of the most important predators in the ocean food chain. If it goes extinct the entire aquaculture will be irreparably disturbed. 

The first fish that disappear from an ecosystem are larger fish with a longer lifespan and reach reproductive age later in life. These are also the most desirable fish on the open market. When these fish disappear, the destructive fishing operations do not leave the area: They simply move down the food chain to less desirable catches like squid and sardines. This is called “fishing down the web” and it slowly destroys the entire ecosystem removing first the predator fish and then the prey. 

There are broader effects on the ecosystem beyond just the fish, effects that resonate throughout the entire Atlantic and Pacific ocean. Many of the smaller fish eat algae that grows on coral reefs. When these fish become overfished, the algae grows uncontrolled and the reefs suffer as a result. That deprives many marine life forms of their natural habitat, creating extreme disruption in the ocean ecosystem. 

What Are Some Alternatives to Government-Driven Overfishing?

Protecting fish

While there are certainly policy solutions to rampant overfishing, not all solutions will come from governments. For example, there are emerging technological solutions that will make by catching and other forms of waste less prevalent and harmful. 

Simple innovations based on existing technologies, such as Fishtek Marine seek to save sea mammals from the nets of commercial fishermen while also increasing profit margins for these companies in a win-win scenario. Their device is small and inexpensive and thus does not present an undue burden to either the large-scale commercial fishing vessels or small fishermen looking to eke out a living in an increasingly difficult market. 

We must also recognize that current regulations simply do not work. In one extreme case, governments restricted fishing for certain forms of tuna for three days a year. This did absolutely nothing for the population of tuna, as the big commercial fishing companies simply employed methods to harvest as many fish in three days as they were previously getting in any entire year. 

This, in turn, led to a greater amount of bycatch and waste. Because the fishing operations didn’t have the luxury of time to ensure that they were only catching what they sought to catch, their truncated fishing season prized quantity over quality with predictable results. 

Quotas, specifically the “individual transferable quota” scheme used by New Zealand and many other countries does not seem to work as intended for a number of reasons. First, these quotas are, as the name might suggest, transferable. This means that little fishermen might consider it a better deal to simply sell their quota to a large commercial fishing operation rather than go to work for themselves and we’re back to square one. 

More generally speaking, quotas seem to be a source of waste. Here’s how they work: A fishing operation is given a specific tonnage of fish from a specific species that they can catch. However, not all fish are created equally. So when commercial fishing operations look at their catch and see that some of it is of higher quality than others, they discard the lower-quality fish in favor of higher-quality fish creating large amounts of waste. These discards can sometimes make up 40 percent of the catch. 

An alternative to the current system is one that balances the need for fish as a global protein source with a long-term view of the ecosystem, planning for having as many fish tomorrow as there are today and thus, a sustainable model for feeding the world and providing jobs. One way to do this would be to tie subsidies to conservation and sustainability efforts, rather than simply writing checks to large commercial fishing operations to build new boats and buy new equipment. Such a scheme would also prize smaller scale operations over larger ones. A more diversified source of the world’s fish would also be more resilient. 

One such alternative is called territorial use rights in fisheries management (TURF). In this case, individual fishermen or collectives of them are provided with long-term rights to fish in a specific area. This means that they have skin in the game. They don’t want to overfish the area because to do so would be to kill the goose that laid the golden egg. So they catch as many fish as is sustainable and no more. They have a vested, long-term interest in making sure that there is no overfishing in the fisheries that have been allotted to them. 

Not only does this make sustainable fishing more attractive, it also means that there is less government bureaucracy and red tape involved. Fishermen with TURF are allowed to catch as much as they like. It is assumed that sustainability is baked into the equation because the fishermen with rights want to preserve the fishing not just for the next year, but for the next generation and the one after that. This model has been used successfully by Chile, one of the most economically free countries in the world (more economically free, in fact, than the United States), to prevent overfishing and create sustainability. It is a market-driven model that prizes small producers with skin in the game over massive, transnational conglomerates with none. 

Belize, Denmark, and even the United States are other countries that have used TURF, with significantly positive results. While it’s nice to support the little guy over Big Fishing and we certainly support sustainability and conservation efforts, there’s another, perhaps more important and direct reason to support reforms designed to eliminate overfishing: food security. When bluefin tuna, for example, goes extinct, it’s not coming back. That means no more cans of tuna on the shelves of your local supermarket. 

That’s a big deal for people in developed, first-world countries, but a much bigger deal in developing countries. When major protein sources are depleted forever, there will be intensified competition for the resources that remain. This also creates unrest in the countries that are less able to compete in a global market due to issues of capital and scale. Even if you’re not concerned with overfishing, overfishing and the problems it creates will soon be on your doorstep unless corrective measures are taken before it’s too late.

Monday, August 22, 2022

Pixie Dust and Overpopulation: What are the Origins of the "One Child" China's Population Policy?


Often, I have the sensation that we live in a world of pure magic. That everything we think we know is the result of a fairy who spread some pixie dust on the real world, transforming it into an alternate reality where people can fly. Yet, it is so incredibly easy to convince people of more or less anything without bothering to bring any proof. A good example is the story that the Chinese government developed its "one-child" population policy as a result of the influence of the Club of Rome and their evil book "The Limits to Growth." It is so common on the Web that it seems to be an ascertained fact. But, is it? Or is it just a legend? For more details on the influence of the "Limits to Growth" report on world policies, you can read the recent review of the whole story titled "Limits and Beyond"

When it comes to the Chinese "One-Child" policy, two statements seem to be commonly repeated on the Web. One is that it was an abject failure, the other is that it was inspired -- or even driven -- by the evil think tank called "The Club of Rome" and by their even more evil book titled "The Limits to Growth" (1972). They are followers of the arch-evil enemy of the people, Thomas Malthus, the first would-be exterminator of humankind. 

If nothing else, this story shows how easy it is to transform facts into narratives. With a sprinkle of pixie dust, everything can be transformed into the archetypal fight between good and evil, which seems to be the current way of seeing the world in the West. It would be a long story to examine this attitude of Westerners (Simon Sheridan has some good hints, I think). In any case, the legend of an evil cabal that led the Chinese government to adopt the one-child policy  -- and that it failed -- is appealing because it provides us with a comfortable image of bad guys who are both evil and hapless. 

It is easy to find various versions of this story on the Web. A recent one was written in 2021 by Dominic Pino for the "National Review." It shows how easy it is to use pixie dust to build a story that's nearly completely fact-free. So, according to Pino, 

China’s population policy is one of the best examples of the weakness and failure of central planning. Based on the best information available at the time and the opinions of experts around the world, China instituted strict population-control measures to limit most families to have only one child. The policy then stuck around for much too long and now presents a serious threat to Chinese society.


Naturally, there were unintended consequences. Now that China needs to increase its birthrate, the Chinese government is having a hard time persuading its people to have more children. The government lifted the one-child policy in 2015, allowing any married couple to have up to two children. Despite raising the limit, the 2020 census showed that the number of births fell again — for the fourth straight year.

And therefore: 

The failure of the one-child policy has been conclusively demonstrated.

There is so much that's wrong with these statements that you don't know where to start criticizing them. The main point, I think, is how self-contradictory Pino's evaluation is. If the objective of the one-child policy was to reduce the birth rate to stop population growth, then it worked: the Chinese population DID stop growing and now is declining -- so much that China now needs to increase its birth rate. Then, how can a policy that was lifted in 2015 be still "a threat to Chinese society"? Do the Chinese tend to follow non-existing laws? That is, do they still bind the feet of their young girls to make them smaller? Do they still beat drums on eclipses to chase away the invisible dragon that's eating the sun? These contradictions are just buried by the pixie dust liberally sprinkled on the story. 

Then, is there any truth in the idea that the policy was based on "the opinions of experts around the world"? Did the Chinese really seek advice from Western scientists? Pino refers to the work of "The Club of Rome" and its "The Limits to Growth" report, published in 1972, saying that, 

In 1978, Song Jian, a missile scientist who had gained the trust of the governing elites, went to Helsinki for the Seventh Triennial World Congress of the International Federation of Automatic Control. That completely normal-sounding group was composed of Western scientists who had bought the Club of Rome’s arguments about the need for population control

This sentence is lifted almost verbatim from an article written earlier on by Susan Grenhalgh (2005), who also stated that: "....the Congress was infused with the spirit of scientific certainty, progress and messianic fervour about the potential of control science to solve the world’s problems,” and that it was "tied to the well-known work of the Club of Rome," including "a global systems model in which population growth was destroying the environment and required strong, even drastic, control."

There is a lot of pixie dust here. There was indeed a congress of the IFAC in Helsinki in 1978. It was a normal congress that lasted for 4 days, and you can still peruse its proceedings. You'll see that 294 papers were presented and discussed. Only a few of these papers are available online, so it is not impossible that some of them mentioned or discussed "The Limits to Growth" study. But there was no presentation dedicated to population growth, nor were there members of the Club of Rome among the speakers or the participants (I checked with the original authors of "The Limits to Growth," they didn't even know that such a meeting had been held). So, there is no support at all for Pino having transformed the congress into a "group" that "was composed of Western scientists who had bought the Club of Rome’s arguments about the need for population control." Of course, in the 1970s, control engineering was a new field, and it sparked enthusiasm among scientists. But the "messianic fervour" that Susan Greenhalgh mentions exists only in her mind. There is no trace of anything like that in the proceedings.

But, as usual, once you blow off the pixie dust, shreds of truth start appearing.  In an earlier paper, Susan Greenhalgh describes how a top-level Chinese scientist, named Song Jian, traveled to Europe in the late 1970s. Did he attend the 1978 Helsinki congress? His name does not appear in the proceedings, but he may have been there as a participant, although not as a speaker. Then, it is not clear whether he was directly exposed to the work of the Club of Rome, although he might have been. In a citation to a paper by Song, reported by Greenhalgh, we only find a reference to the book titled "Blueprint for Survival," published in 1972. It was a study that followed lines similar to those of the "The Limits to Growth" but it didn't use world models and had nothing to do with the Club of Rome

Greenhalgh proposes that, after getting back to China, Song Jian developed a model of the Chinese economy equivalent to "The Limits to Growth." It is not impossible, although there is no evidence that it happened. It is clear from what she writes, that Greenhalgh has no training in the kind of modeling used for control engineering. All she shows as a proof is this diagram from a 1981 paper by Song. 

This is not the output of a world model. It seems to be a much simpler extrapolation of population trends. Correctly, the diagram shows that for birth rates lower than about 2, the population tends to decline. The reverse occurs for higher birth rates. For birthrates remaining at around 3 per woman, theoretically, the Chinese population could have reached 3 billion before the end of the 21st century. But to arrive at these conclusions, paper and pencil calculations would have been sufficient. 

In practice, it is likely that, during his trip to Europe, Song had been exposed to a general view of the Western way of thinking in the 1970s and 1980s that saw overpopulation as a major problem. The Chinese may have been even more sensitive to the issue: surely they still remember how the famines of 1951 and 1961 are reported to have killed tens of millions of people in China (note: the commonly reported number of deaths may have been greatly exaggerated as a result of Western propaganda. Nevertheless, famines were endemic in agrarian China). So, when Song developed some simple models to extrapolate population trends in China, the government decided that they had to do something to avoid that the Chinese population could reach levels that would have been impossible to feed. So, they decided that they had to push Chinese families toward lower birth rates. And that's what they did. 

The Chinese were those who took the most radical approach to curb population growth, but other countries reacted to the problem, too. In South America, the Mexican President, Luis Echeverría (1970-1976) implemented some policies to reduce the number of children, at the time of the order of 8/10 per woman. Apparently, that was done as a direct result of the work by Victor Urquidi, a member of the Club of Rome. So, in this case (and probably only in this case) the Club of Rome had a direct influence on the population policies of a major country. 

Other countries, instead, ignored the problem. In the Soviet Union, scientists knew about the "Limits to Growth" study and created their own versions of it. But the Soviet Union was a vast and scarcely populated country so, not surprisingly, the Soviet government didn't see an overpopulation problem and paid no attention to them. In the West, instead, governments preferred to react in the way they knew best: they buried "The Limits to Growth" under a thick layer of pixie dust (aka "propaganda") and then they ignored it. 

The interesting part of the story, though, is that, no matter what governments did or didn't do, the results were the same. You can see in the graph (data from the World Bank) how countries close to China had lower birth rates, despite not having implemented birth control policies (Taiwan is not listed in the World Bank data, but it shows the same behavior). 

During the past 50 years or so, the birth rate declined rapidly all over the areas that were called the "first world" (the West) and the "Second World" (The Soviet bloc and China). This trend was called the "demographic transition" and didn't need draconian measures by governments to occur. All the countries of the world are facing the same transition. Third-world countries are just arriving a little later. 

So, you see? The story is rather simple: things went the way they had to go. No need for evil guys plotting to destroy humankind. That's just pixie dust liberally spread over everything, as usual. 

h/t Susana Chacón, Li X, Dennis Meadows, and Jorgen Randers

To know more about the origins of world models, and their relevance for us, nowadays, you can read the recent report to the Club of Rome titled "Limits and Beyond"