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What 'Planet of the Humans' gets wrong about renewable energy

Posted on 25 June 2020 by dana1981

This is a re-post from Yale Climate Connections

Like an earthquake rumbling down the San Andreas Fault, Jeff Gibbs’ and Michael Moore’s controversial film “Planet of the Humans” tore a rift through the environmental movement, a rift its leaders would not yearn for in an election year. After activists have spent decades painstakingly building popular support for climate policies focused on developing and deploying low-carbon technologies, the film and its defenders dismiss these as false solutions, saying the focus should instead be on curbing population, consumption, and economic growth.

Both those factions agree that, as the IPCC has concluded, human civilization must cut its carbon emissions to zero within a few decades to avert a climate crisis. Is there a scientific way to determine which group is right about the best way to achieve that goal? As a matter of fact, there is.

Kaya formula

In 1990, Japanese energy economist Yoichi Kaya developed a simple and elegant formula called the Kaya Identity that can help answer the question: F is human carbon emissions, P is human population, G is economic activity as measured by gross domestic product (GDP), and E is energy consumption.

Only one plausible solution: zero emissions

For carbon emissions (F) to reach zero, just one of the four terms on the right side of the formula must be zero. So either human population (P), per-person economic activity (G/P), the energy consumed to power the economy (E/G), or the carbon footprint of energy (F/E) must be zero. Common sense gives us the answer to the debate: clean energy is the only plausible route to zero emissions.

And we’re in luck. Clean energy would not destroy humanity or human civilization, which would be the result of zeroing the population, economy, or energy use. Contrary to the false claims in “Planet of the Humans,” carbon emissions from energy can plausibly reach zero. In fact, a new report from the University of California, Berkeley concludes that U.S. electricity could be supplied by near-zero emissions sources (like wind, solar, hydro, nuclear, and geothermal, plus storage) in short order. About 40% of American electricity is supplied by clean sources as of 2020, and the report concludes that this number could feasibly be scaled up to 55% by 2025, 75% by 2030, 90% by 2035, and 100% by 2045.

If an energy-devouring economy like that of the United States can do it, one might argue, the rest of the world can too.

The Berkeley report also concludes that replacing fossil fuels with clean energy sources would prevent 85,000 premature deaths caused by air pollution and create half a million permanent jobs (mostly associated with manufacturing and construction of clean energy infrastructure), while electricity rates would only be 12% higher than business-as-usual (and cheaper than today’s rates).

A good idea whose time has come?

And this might be the ideal time to accelerate the transition to clean energy. Consider that coronavirus has triggered a recession, cost millions of jobs, and led to the worst health outcomes in areas with high air pollution. Those areas are disproportionately communities of color struggling to achieve racial, environmental, and climate justice.

The report lists numerous policy mechanisms to help achieve this goal – most importantly through clean energy standards that can be set by Congress, governors, state legislatures, public utility commissions, or through an equivalent rulemaking by a new administration’s EPA. Under current business-as-usual policies, just 55% of U.S. electricity will come from clean energy sources in 2035, so accelerating the transition to zero emissions will require implementation of the types of policies outlined in the report.

Electricity accounts for 25% of carbon emissions globally and 28% in the U.S., so achieving net-zero emissions would require additional policies addressing other sectors, for example, electrification of vehicles and building heating sources to power them with clean electricity. Emissions from agriculture, deforestation, and industry processes would also need to be reduced to zero in coming decades. Environmental groups, clean energy advocates, and some political leaders have developed plans and programs that can accomplish all these goals if the public and policymakers get on board.

Why curbing growth isn’t enough

The Gibbs-Moore “Planet of the Humans” film includes interviews with numerous individuals expressing their concerns about human population growth. But the Kaya Identity illustrates why halting or even reversing that growth cannot be the answer to achieving zero emissions. The term “P” is not population growth; rather, it represents the total human population. Zero population would mean human extinction – surely an outcome everyone wants to avoid. Even halving the population like supervillain Thanos in the “Avengers” films – which is not plausible or even desirable – would only halve carbon emissions.

In fact, global population growth has steadily declined from 2% per year in the late-1960s to just over 1% per year today. And most of the growth is happening in developing countries where citizens have small carbon footprints. The climate solutions experts at Project Drawdown note that improving education in developing countries will slow population growth further yet. That will help slow carbon emissions growth, but it cannot achieve the goal of reaching zero emissions.

The second term on the right side of the Kaya Identity, global per capita GDP, has grown at around 2% per year in recent decades, and periods in which it declines represent economic depressions. While curbing excessive consumption in wealthy countries in a shift toward greater sustainability can help slow climate change and other adverse environmental impacts, zero GDP would represent a total collapse of the global economy. Like zero population, it is not achievable if we hope to avoid catastrophe.

Bottom line: Curbing population, economic, and consumption growth can only curb the growth in carbon emissions. Imagine that carbon emissions are the water level in a bathtub that’s filling up. Curbing growth is akin to turning down the water faucet. That’s a start, but not nearly enough to get the water level down to zero; we need to turn off the faucet and unplug the drain.

Clean technologies provide the solutions

The third and fourth terms on the right side of the Kaya Identity represent the energy intensity of the economy (E/G) and the carbon footprint of energy (F/E). The third term has been and is expected to continue declining as energy efficiency improves and as inefficient fossil fuels are replaced by more efficient clean technologies. However, because running the economy will always require energy, this metric also cannot reach zero.

Unlike efforts to curb population and consumption growth, policy solutions that focus on developing and deploying clean technologies can achieve the zero-emissions goal needed in the coming decades to avert a climate crisis. Curbing economic growth can help slow climate change, but only if it doesn’t come at the expense of solutions that can achieve the zero-emissions goal and also benefit communities that have long suffered from racial, environmental, and climate injustices … and whose voices are conspicuously absent from “Planet of the Humans.”

As Mustafa Santiago Ali, vice president for environmental justice at the National Wildlife Federation, told the House Energy and Commerce Committee earlier this month:

People of color are much more likely to live near polluters and breathe polluted air. … We can lessen many of these impacts both in our communities and on our planet by moving forward with a just and equitable transition from fossil fuels, where no one gets left behind and we lower the emissions that are playing a role in COVID-19 impacts and moving us toward a climate emergency tipping point.

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Comments 1 to 16:

  1. What a simple, elegant, convincing mathematical proof!

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  2. I think the argument is generally valid, but glosses over some details. Specifically, we are unlikely to get down to true zero emissions for a long time... but we also don't really need to.

    There will likely be some applications (e.g. steel making, international commercial airlines, high speed military aircraft, etc) which cannot be run on electricity/batteries or other zero GHG emissions options based on current technologies.

    However, we don't really need to get down to exactly zero emissions as natural carbon sinks can offset some low level of emissions. So long as we don't make the world so warm that carbon sinks start delining (e.g. spreading desertification outweighing increased plant growth towards the poles) we should be 'ok' with some small level of emissions.

    The argument is still valid because it is just as implausible to reduce the human population and/or economic activity to near zero as to eliminate them entirely. Emissions intensity is the only factor that we can drastically reduce.

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  3. An important part of the Original Yale Climate Connections is missing from the Re-post.

    The statement below the title, before the body of the article is a statement that sets up the purpose of the article to be to expand the understanding more than the overly-simplistic Kaya Identity (simplicity that CBDunkerson correctly indicates is a concern - as Einstein said it is important to keep things simple but not too simple - “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.”).

    "Contrary to the argument made in Jeff Gibbs' and Michael Moore's controversial film, curbing growth can slow climate change, but only clean technologies can stop it."

    I would add that only sustainable human activity will be available to the future of humanity. All the unsustainable ways of living that have been developed are not Helpful no matter how Popular or Profitable they are. And the harmful unsustainable activities are the worst. The greatest tragedy is the way that the developed systems are able to be influenced by people who like to benefit from harmful unsustainable activity. That ability to influence things through misleading storytelling, the making-up of Ideological excuses for harmful unsustainable socioeconomic inequities and injustice harmfully prolongs the unsustainable harmful activity, making the future worse than it needs to be.

    The effects of COVID-19 have been worse than they Needed to be.

    Climate change impacts and the challenge of avoiding massive harmful future consequences have been made worse than the Need to be.

    And successful misleading marketing by selfish pursuers of Impressions of Superiority relative to Others is a major impediment to achieving a sustainable and improving future for humanity.

    A second Einstein Quote, from a July 30, 1932 letter he wrote to Dr. Freud, applies:

    "... my first axiom: the quest of international security involves the unconditional surrender by every nation, in a certain measure, of its liberty of action, its sovereignty that is to say, and it is clear beyond all doubt that no other road can lead to such security."

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  4. CBDunkerson,

    It is possible to make steel using electricity or hydrogen to reduce the iron oxide.  Likiewise both commercial and military planes can use electrofuels.  The only not to convert these sources of pollution to renewable energy is lack of will.

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  5. An extension of the Einstein quote at the end of my comment @3 that applies to many issues, not just Climate Change or COVID-19, would be that reducing harm and developing sustainable improvements for humanity requires the unconditional surrender by every person, in a certain measure, of their liberty of action, their sovereignty that is to say, and it is clear beyond all doubt that no other road can lead to sustainable improvement of humanity's condition on this planet.

    It is important to expand the understanding to be clear that the objective of human activity needs to be developing sustainable activities that all humans can aspire to develop to enjoy if they choose to and that future generations can continue to do if they wish.

    That expanded understanding has two parts:

    • The need for the developed activities to be almost infinitely sustainable given the physical resources on this One, and potentially only, amazing planet that humans can be certain of being able to live on into the distant future.
    • The need for the developed activities to not produce accumulating harm or changes of the nature of the planet in ways that diminish the robust diversity of life that humans evolved as a part of (and may be incapable of surviving without).

    Every person's actions add up to be the future. So the better presentation would be:

    The Sum Total of impacts of all Human actions must be aspired to meet the Do No Harm - Develop Sustainable Improvements Criteria. That identifies that everyone should be expanding their awareness and improving their understanding to help achieve and improve on important understanding like the Sustainable Development Goals. Only the less fortunate should be excused for behaving in harmful unsustainable ways. And every more fortunate person needs to be expected to strive to live better, more sustainably less harmfully, and help Others learn to be Better.

    The problem with the current developed systems is rather thoroughly investigated by Thomas Piketty in his most recent book "Capital and Ideology". There is evidence of a history of constant effort to reduce unjust inequality in socioeconomic systems, actions that developed understandings like the Sustainable Development Goals. However, the reality is that history is full of examples of the ability of people who get away with becoming more fortunate and are not interested in that type of development to be able to win temporary regional power to resist the corrections of developed systems that they benefit from.

    Developing sustainable improvements for Humanity, like the Sustainable Development Goals, requires everyone to be governed by the pursuit of correction of harmful developed injustice and inequality (regionally, nationally, between nations, and between current and future generations). Those who will not Self-Govern responsibly need to be Governed by Others who will help them become better people and limit the harm they do as they learn to be better people. Any other path will not be Sustainable, and likely be very harmful until its leadership direction of development is corrected.

    Ensuring that expanded awareness and improved understanding is the basis for all Leadership actions is essential to the future of Humanity. And that expanded awareness and understanding includes consideration of matters that cannot be quantified in detail or be replicated by experiments. Piketty's book makes it clear that there is a lack of information regarding the issues he is presenting, but that lack of data does not mean that proper improvements of understanding cannot be developed.


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  6. Despite the flaws in the movie theres an obvious case to combine renewable energy with getting population growth down and reducing per capita use of energy, by frugality and better efficiency. But in democracies its unlikely the public would vote for governments telling them how many children they can have, and how much they are allowed to consume, so you are reliant on rational persuasion, and its difficult to persuade people to reduce consumption and it takes time for energy efficient products to permeate through the market and to get population growth to slow. The net result is we will obviously need a great deal of renewable energy as a matter of urgency.

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  7. If we were to reformulate the Kaya identity in terms of resistance to decrease instead of absolute carbon emissions, multiplying each term by some variable R for resistance (technical + political possibility + costs), I think we could quite easily prove that any change to F in the rightmost terms will be far greater than moving to the term at the left. Instead of expressing the possibility/impossibilty of reach zero, we could express it in terms of the likelihood/costs of change to the system. Obviously P is hardest to change, G/P would also be very difficult. E/G could make substantial contributions, but F/E is by far the highest return on effort/expense.

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  8. michael sweet, to me that just seems like another way of saying that the technologies aren't viable right now.

    The growth of renewable power to replace fossil fuels has very little to do with "will" and everything to do with economics. They are succeeding because they are more cost effective.

    So long as GHG emitting methods of performing some activities are cheaper than non-emitting options it is very unlikely that we will switch.

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  9. I think your analysis is somewhat simplistic. Net zero emissions means carbon emissions not above that which is being taken up by Earth's ecosystems I.e. it is about 1.5 tCO2e per per person on the planet, or about what some African nations where people don't have cars emit. In the the US and Australia, personal carbon emissions average about 11-12 t per head and total emissions 15-20 t per head, so we've a long way to go. 100% renewable electricity is a necessary start but there are many other things to be done, including as Moore says changing and reducing our consumption habits. About half of our emissions are embodied in food, housing, cars and other goods, so in addition to consuming less and differently, all these production processes have to change. For a detailed explanation of this see my website You can do your own carbon footprint - downloadGHG-Energy Calc -and see detailed explanation by downloading the documents on at    (all are 10 second downloads).

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  10. CBDunkerson,

    You appear to be saying that technologies must be in place before we can start to implement them.

    You listed what you apparently thought were the hardest problems to solve.  I provided solutions to them using existing technology.  Yes, if you do not count the climate, pollution and health costs than fossil fuels are cheaper than electrofuels.  So what?

    Many fossil fuels remain in place because they get so many government subsidies.  In the USA several nuclear plants have been given hundreds of millions of dollars just to stay open.  Fossil companies receive hundreds of billions of subsidies per year.  Laws to require more efficient buildings, which save consumers money, are blocked.  In Florida, where I live, it is difficult to install solar power on my roof because utilities oppose it.

    As you point out, renewable energy is the cheapest energy.  That is resulting in more renewable energy being built.  If nations support renewable energy strongly not only they start to address the climate crisis but they will save money.  Nations like Germany helped advance renewable energy when it was more expensive and showed the way. 

    Laws requiring more renewable energy will mean cheaper renewable energy will be installed faster.  Current policy in Washington to remove environmental protections and allow more wasteful fossil fuels do not help.  Currently wind and solar installations in the USA are forced to install uneconomic storage which slows implementation but makes fossil fuels more competitive.  If laws are changed to make fossil fuels pay for the damage they do than renewable energy will be installed much faster.

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  11. >>But the Kaya Identity illustrates why halting or even reversing that growth cannot be the answer to achieving zero emissions.<<

    Of course, put like that, it is correct.

    But total population numbers are the problem however one tries to argue otherwise. Being simplistic, zero human population = natural carbon cycle: 100Bn population = calamity even with zero carbon emissions, due to waste, environmental degradation, "rats in a cage" effect and so on. Somewhere in between is a sweet spot where, with net zero emissions, life is tolerable.

    My opinion is that population is even now well past a sustainable level for many reasons: CO2 is but one of the factors.

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  12. Wol @11,

    The total population number is not the problem. The total impact of the population is the problem.

    Review the other comments, not just mine, to understand why. Each individual's action add up to become the future. Any form of resistance to accepting that understanding is part the problem.

    The unavoidable, but often attempted to be evaded, understanding is that it is harmful and unacceptable for any portion of the population to pursue personal benefits in unsustainable ways, especially if their actions are harmful to Others, and Others include all Future Generations. That leads to the clear understanding that the individuals living in ways that have higher consumption and related impacts are the portion of the population needing to correct how they live first and most significantly. It also leads to understanding that the most powerful and fortunate in the global population are required to lead the corrections, including helping the least fortunate who are the only portion of the population who can be excused for improving their ways of living with unsustainable harmful actions.

    The most fortunate need to set the example of how to live Sustainably and help the less fortunate live better with the least amount of unsustainable harmful activity as possible as they develop to live like the more fortunate. That understanding is the basis for the Kyoto Protocol. So it is not a New Idea. And the fact that it is so obvious and has been so for decades means that there are many people today in the more fortunate portion of the population who are very undeserving of their Perceptions of Superiority relative to Others (exactly the point that Black Lives Matter promoters have been exposing for decades ... about a similarly harmfully undeserving portion of the population (benefiting from harmful systemic developments, and resisting the corrections that would reduce their personal perception of Superiority relative to Others.

    What is tragic is the way that Planet of the Humans has pitted people who have a common desire to help develop sustainable improvements for Humanity against each Other, with each side in some ways defending and excusing the harmfully unacceptable developed ways of living of the more fortunate portion of the Global Population. It is as harmful and incorrect to claim that 'Renewable energy can be developed in ways that do not require any reduction of Standards of Living for the most fortunate' as it is to claim that 'Population reduction and reduced energy use will allow fossil fuel use to be sustainable'.

    The pursuit of expanded awareness and improved understanding to help achieve and improve on things like the Sustainable Development Goals is the only path to a better future for humanity. Reviewing the SDGs can show how they already include Good Guidance regarding major actions like COVID-19 response, Climate Impact response, and Social Injustice and Inequity response.

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  13. Several comments. First the Kaya equation related to the carbon problem looks in form just like the famous Drake equation for the number of radio civilizations in the galaxy. Like the latter it clearly states relevant factors making it easy to see and talk about what counts.

    Second, the discussion here and in many other places under values energy conservation. I spent a decade back in the 70s and 80s running an energy consulting firm that worked on both conservation and renewables for single family and multifamily dwellings, school campuses, smalland large commercial buildings and towns. In all cases conservation measures were straightforward to find and paid off quickly, often in from 1 to 5 years. In that range they had rates of return from 20% up to 100%, better than any other type of investment at comparable levels of risk. Doing them first cut the size requirements for renewables both for collection and storage to achieve a given level of load and energy share for them.

    We should be converting to renewables but doing conservation ahead of or at the same time we do that.

    The movie supports nuclear as a serious alternative. Though waste storage may be solvable either by burialor reprocessing, neither is settled and the problems with that plus fissionable materials diversion and weapons should rule out any continued expansion, though we might want a new safer generation of reactors to replace the old ones as they wear out. We ought to require air cooling to get their sites away from water bodies, especially near ocean coastlines.

    We do need to control population and should limit ourselves to 1 child per parent, 2 per couple. The PRC tried this and found it difficult to have enough younger working people to carry the needs of the increase in numbers elderly retired people, the latter due to improvements in their health. This can be planned for, and does not have to be instituted all at once.  However, we are not in possession of studies that clearly outline how to structure an economy with enough good jobs in a future with slowly declining population. As things are now, the US generally under produces jobs, especially good jobs. Mechanization and AI add further threats to jobs which need addressing.

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  14. It's important to cut per capita consumption, but trying to mitigate the impacts of 10 billion people even at lower levels of consumption will be a nightmare, so its equally important to cut the size of global population. Various studies suggest 2 - 5 billion is optimal. There are downsides to smaller population but not huge ones.

    This has long been realised, for example in the limits to growth report published in 1972. You can use the associated world 3 interactive model as below. Just click on simulate.

    You wont get perfect sustainability because nothing lasts forever, including this solar system. You can only aim to improve sustainability and I do believe we can do a much better job than currently.

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  15. walschuler @13

    I used to work in building design, and I agree you can get some big energy efficiencies especially if you go full passive solar. The problem is persuading people to bear the initial capital costs when they often have other objectives. For this reason mitigating the climate problem and other environmental problems requires constantly promoting a wide range of solutions, including energy efficiency, wasting less, having fewer children etcetera. Theres no magic bullet once you face the realities of human nature.

    I suspect there is little difference long term between nuclear power and renewables, in terms of clean energy and ultimate costs, but nuclear power is not politically popular and the new smaller modular reactors are very expensive, and this could take a fair while to change, so renewables are proving more popular with generating companies and the public.

    Getting the size of population down is an obvious good solution, but it probably wont happen quickly because of the risk of too many older dependent people as you mentioned. But that said, its interesting that in a couple of countries in Europe where population size has fallen and there are fewer young people and a bulge of dependent elderly,  governments have tried to incentivise people to have more children, but this hasn't worked! Once the culture swings towards smaller families it seems to get quite popular.

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  16. People who want to be helpful should keep the Big Picture in mind.

    The Big Picture is the need for Humanity to have a lasting and improving future. And that requires maintaining the system that humans developed within - the environment and the robust diversity of life constrained by the sustainability of the limits of this amazing planet (or any locations humanity spreads to). That will require expanding awareness and improving understanding to help achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, all of them. And that will require significant corrections of many things that modern-day humans have developed a liking for benefiting from, especially correcting the socioeconomic-political systems that have developed.

    Achieving many of the SDGs is made harder by rapid human caused climate change. So limiting the total human caused climate change is one of the most important things for humanity to work on. That leads to the understanding that the lack of responsible correction by the highest consuming and impacting portion of the global population, particularly through the past 30 years, has created the daunting current day challenge of limiting the total climate change impact to less a maximum of 2.0 C (an understandably harmful level of impact) with a need to try to limit it to 1.5 C (also a harmful, but far less harmful, level of impact).

    I would add that after succeeding in achieving the upper limit of climate change impact (hopefully closer to 1.5 C), humanity needs to rapidly reduce the atmospheric CO2 concentration to 350 ppm.

    It is possible, even highly likely, that many wealthy powerful people who have been resisting the required corrections understand that making the problem worse, delaying the corrections, would increase popular support for resistance to the increasingly harsher required corrections. The lack of significant penalties for people like that, a lack of responsible Governing of those who will not responsibly Self-Govern, is a developed systemic problem that needs to be corrected. The undeserving among the Perceived Superiors must be identified and corrected. That will require Peers to correct their harmfully incorrect Peers. An alternative is a Rebellion by the lower status, and that is not something to look forward to.

    Limiting the consumption and impacts of the most consuming and highest negative-impacting portion of the population, and getting every member of the most fortunate portion of the population to lead the development of truly sustainable ways to live well, is a very effective path to a lasting improving future for humanity. It is potentially the most effective way and may be the only path to a better future for humanity.

    The sum of the impacts of each individual is the math that needs to be done.

    Studies in ethical philosophy such as Utilitarianism identify the problem of a single very high consuming and impacting person ruining things for everyone else while the overall impression of the total, excluding any consideration of inequity and injustice, looks good. One bad apple can tempt others to join them in personally benefiting in unsustainable and harmful ways.

    What has developed today is: Over-population, Over-Consumption, and Harmful Unsustainable Activities that are popular and profitable. And each of those can be understood to be the result of Selfish people pursuing benefits in harmful, unjust and inequitable ways. And those unjust inequitable developments include developing the systems, including laws and their application, that produce the harmful results and resist correction.

    The Systems that have developed need to be corrected to Equitably and Justifiably: Reduce the total global population, reduce the total consumption, and eliminate activity that does harm to Others (end actions that are unjust, and end systemic inequity). That will require the Einstein Quote at the end of my comment @3 and the extension of it in my comment @5.
    In addition to Thomas Piketty's book "Capital and Ideology" (mentioned in my comment @5), "The Age of Sustainable Development" by Jeffrey D. Sachs (the presentation of the developed understanding that is the basis for the Sustainable Development Goals) is another comprehensive presentation of the issue (population, consumption, harm done, inequity, injustice). And there are many well investigated Social Science books presenting the ways that story-telling and story-believing combine to establish Ideological explanations for the harmful inequity of the system the stories are made-up to justify.
    The required helpful pursuit is Developing Sustainable Improvements for Humanity through expanded awareness and improved understanding to limit harm being done. Any other activity is irrelevant, and potentially harmful.
    The current reality is very unsustainable. And it was harmfully over-developed in ways contrary to developed understanding of the correct direction for development.  Major corrections of the developed current day reality, especially corrections of the developed systems and the stories made-up to excuse their inequity, injustices and harmfulness, will be required.
    And the correction of the current day reality will require many of the more fortunate people to give up many of their developed perceptions of Superior Standard of Living relative to Others. It is likely impossible to maintain the developed enjoyments of the higher consuming higher impacting portion of the current day population.
    I agree that there will be many who will not willingly reduce their consumption or impacts, will not wish to pursue setting the example of Sustainable Development and Sustainable Corrections. What is undeniable is that the solution will require those people who will not responsibly self-govern and self-correct to be externally governed and corrected. That is ultimately what humanity requires in order to have an Improving Lasting Future.
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