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Potential link between first-born children and health risks in adulthood

Sunday, November 14th, 2010

Each year, we hear that people are gaining weight and that chronic health problems like obesity, heart problems, and diabetes are on the rise.  It’s commonplace to ascribe these trends to personal lifestyle choices, such as the lack of exercise and diet, as well as the increasingly pervasive nature of fast food and processed, high-sugar foods.

However, there may be additional risk factors that are harder to control, such as genetics, and—as  a provocative new article in PLoS One (open access) suggests—birth order.  Specifically, first-born children might be more prone to these kinds of chronic health issues later in life:

Recent work has suggested that birth order may be a non-modifiable risk factor for obesity. Current evidence suggests that first-born infants grow faster than later-born infants. Dunger et al. suggest that the in-utero growth of first-born babies may be restrained as they have lower birth weight and accelerated post-natal catch-up growth, both of which are risk factors for obesity and cardiovascular and metabolic diseases, in adult life. However, whether first-born individuals have elevated metabolic risk in adulthood remains unknown. A recent study found that first-borns had a 4-fold risk of increased fat mass in early adulthood compared to later-borns. Neither of these studies evaluated the magnitude of metabolic risk induced by such greater weight and adiposity.

…Here we investigate the associations of birth-order with metabolic phenotype in early adulthood using data from a birth cohort of Brazilian young men. We tested two hypotheses. First, we wanted to confirm that first-born status was associated with low birth weight and faster infant growth. Second, we tested the hypothesis that metabolic risk was increased in first-borns compared to later-borns.

What did they find? What implications might their work have for public health given the kinds of global population changes we expect over coming decades?


Posted in gender, health, population, risk analysis | No Comments »

The diversity of values held by conservation scientists and why this matters

Monday, November 1st, 2010

Right up there with climate change, biodiversity conservation is one of the most challenging issues at the intersection of nature and culture.  Part of this challenge arises because of genuine differences in how people value other species.

In an interesting forthcoming article in Conservation Biology, Chris Sandbrook and colleagues at Cambridge University argue that these value differences not only show up in society at large, but among conservation professionals, who—like climate scientists—are drawn to the possibility of developing scientific consensuses to inform policy debates:

Conservation biology has been called a crisis science and a mission-driven discipline. Both the mission, and its urgency, seem clear, and there has been a substantial increase in activities intended to address the rapid decline in the variety of life on Earth at all levels of biological organization (structure, composition, and function). Nevertheless, there are tensions within the field about the values that underpin the conservation mission, particularly concerning the nature and singularity of these values and the role of values when conservation professionals try to inform or influence policy.

Recently, the values held by conservation professionals themselves have been debated. Conservation professionals often refer to both instrumental values (the usefulness of nature for humans) and noninstrumental or intrinsic values, and there may be an element of opportunism when they do so. Thus, although some may privately base the positions they hold on intrinsic values, they may espouse use-value arguments in public, adapting arguments to the interests of their audience. Some call for conservation scientists to return to a conservation ethic derived from intrinsic values

…[Others] propose a more pragmatic engagement with material values of nature in their focus on what they see as the “hard socioeconomic realities in real-world conservation problems.” The environmental philosophy of pragmatism, with its acceptance of both intrinsic and instrumental values of nature, is the hallmark of adaptive management

To study values held by conservationists, the research team posed a set of values to scientists and asked them to rank the degree to which they agreed or disagreed with the statements (Q methodology).  The responses were then run through a set of statistics (factor analysis) to distill the huge pile of value-by-person data into four overarching factors that summarized the main values held.

Their results suggest that consensus building may not only be difficult, it may be counterproductive…


Posted in biodiversity science, communication and framing, environmental ethics, nature and culture, policy, population, race and class, science advocacy, social science, sustainable development | No Comments »

The ultimate cause of social disparity in preventative health behavior may be rooted in environmental harm

Wednesday, October 13th, 2010

In a fascinating new article in PLOS One (open access), Daniel Nettle asks why we see social gradients in preventative health behaviors:

People of lower socioeconomic position have been found to smoke more, exercise less, have poorer diets, comply less well with therapy, use medical services less, adopt fewer safety measures, ignore health advice more, and be less health-conscious overall, than their more affluent peers. Some of these behaviors can simply be put down to financial constraints, as healthy diets, for example, cost more than unhealthy ones, but socioeconomic gradients are found even where the health behaviors in question would cost nothing, ruling out income differences as the explanation.

As we often assume with environmental or nutritional issues, maybe simply helping to better educate people is all that’s needed? Probably not, as Nettle points out, and with an interesting twist:

Socioeconomic gradients in health behavior are not easily abolished by providing more information. Informational health campaigns tend to lead to greater voluntary behavior change in people of higher socio-economic position, and thus can actually increase socioeconomic inequalities in health, even whilst improving health overall. Thus, we are struck with what we might call the exacerbatory dynamic of poverty: the people in society who face the greatest structural adversity, far from mitigating this by their lifestyles, behave in such ways as to make it worse, even when they are provided with the opportunity to do otherwise.

What are some of the possible explanations for this pattern, and are they sufficient?

Underlying socioeconomic differences in health behavior are differences in attitudinal and psychological variables. People of lower socioeconomic position have been found to be more pessimistic, have stronger beliefs in the influence of chance on health, and give a greater weighting to present over future outcomes, than people of higher socioeconomic position. These explanations seem clear.

However, they immediately raise the deeper question: why should pessimism, belief in chance, and short time perspective be found more in people of low socioeconomic position than those of high socioeconomic position? These deeper questions are at the level which behavioral ecologists call ultimate, as opposed to proximate causation

To develop more of an ultimate explanation, Nettle hypothesized that lower socioeconomic groups are subject to greater hazard or environmental harm or even simply the perception of living a more hazardous life.  This, in turn, discourages healthy behavior.

To test this hypothesis, he developed a mathematical/statistical model predicting the probability of dying in a given year, which is a combination of extrinsic risks that people cannot control as well as intrinsic risks that they can control through modified health behavior.   Thus, people choosing to take the time to engage healthier opportunities reduce their mortality risk.  Now there’s a tradeoff, however, because the more time people choose to undertake healthy behavior, the less time is left over for leisure activities and other life events.

Overall survival is therefore a combination of all of these factors, which can easily be modeled by assuming a range of values for time spent on health vs. other activities to see what kinds of mortality outcomes arise.

Here are the interesting results he found…


Posted in behavior, environmental justice, health, nature and culture, pollutants, population, race and class, the good life | 4 Comments »

New analysis of population trends and their impact on global greenhouse gas emissions

Tuesday, October 12th, 2010

In 40 years, there will be about 3 billion additional people living on the Earth (~9.5 billion total).   With all of these new folks, it’s easy to think about the added demands of energy, food, and water required to sustain their lifestyles.  And in terms of climate warming, it’s hard to escape the fact that significantly greater energy consumption will lead to rising rates of carbon emissions, unless there’s a shift to decarbonize the economy.

In this week’s early Edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (open access), Brian O’Neill and colleagues note that emissions are not just controlled by the sheer size of the human population but also by important demographic changes.

For example, how might an aging or more urban population affect emissions?  How about changes in household size?  Modelers of carbon emissions don’t usually ask these kinds of questions, so the conventionally projected emissions might be off if these additional demographic details matter.

The researchers developed a global economic model (Population-Environment-Technology, or PET) in which they specified relationships between demographic factors like houshold size, age, and urban/rural residency and economic factors like the demand for consumer goods, wealth, and the supply of labor.  Here’s a bit more on how this works:

In the PET model, households can affect emissions either directly through their consumption patterns or indirectly through their effects on economic growth in ways that up until now have not been explicitly accounted for in emissions models. The direct effect on emissions is represented by disaggregating household consumption for each household type into four categories of goods (energy, food, transport, and other) so that shifts in the composition of the population by household type produce shifts in the aggregate mix of goods demanded. Because different goods have different energy intensities of production, these shifts can lead to changes in emissions rates. To represent indirect effects on emissions through economic growth, the PET model
explicitly accounts for the effect of (i) population growth rates on economic growth rates, (ii) age structure changes on labor supply, (iii) urbanization on labor productivity, and (iv) anticipated demographic change (and its economic effects) on savings and consumption behavior.

Although there are some exceptions, households that are older, larger, or more rural tend to have lower per capita labor supply than those that are younger, smaller, or more urban. Lower-income households (e.g., rural households in developing countries) spend a larger share of income on food and a smaller share on transportation than higher-income households. Although labor supply and preferences can be influenced by a range of nondemographic factors, our scenarios focus on capturing the effects of shifts in population across types of households.

To project these demographic trends, we use the high, medium, and low scenarios of the United Nations (UN) 2003 Long-Range World Population Projections combined with the UN 2007 Urbanization Prospects extended by the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) and derive population by age, sex, and rural/urban residence for the period of 2000–2100.

What did they find?


Posted in behavior, climate economics, energy, gender, population, sustainability, urban | No Comments »

Are global energy supplies inadequate to slow human population growth?

Tuesday, October 5th, 2010

When we think of human population change and resource use, it’s easy to assume that more people will consume more resources, such as water, energy, and food. An important corollary is that resource limitations will limit population growth.  Thomas Malthus was perhaps the most influential proponent of this idea.

However, several factors complicate this story:

(1) Affluence is a multiplier such that more people in a wealthy, high-consumption society lead to a disproportionate use of resources compared to people in poor countries. As my recent article on global change in Nature Knowledge shows,

the populations of China and India are roughly 1.32 and 1.14 billion people, respectively — about four times that of the US. However, the energy consumption per person in the US is six times larger than that of a person in China, and 15 times that of a person in India. Because the demand for resources like energy is often greater in wealthy, developed nations like the US, this means that countries with smaller populations can actually have a greater overall environmental impact. Over much of the past century, the US was the largest greenhouse gas emitter because of high levels of affluence and energy consumption. In 2007, China overtook the US in terms of overall CO2 emissions as a result of economic development, increasing personal wealth, and the demand for consumer goods, including automobiles.

(2) Interestingly, resource limitations may actually inhibit our ability to slow population growth.  Yes, you read that right.  A new paper by John DeLong and colleagues in this week’s PLOS One (open access) argues exactly this.  Here’s why:

Influential demographic projections suggest that the global human population will stabilize at about 9–10 billion people by mid-century. These projections rest on two fundamental assumptions. The first is that the energy needed to fuel development and the associated decline in fertility will keep pace with energy demand far into the future. The second is that the demographic transition is irreversible such that once countries start down the path to lower fertility they cannot reverse to higher fertility. Both of these assumptions are problematic and may have an effect on population projections. Here we examine these assumptions explicitly. Specifically, given the theoretical and empirical relation between energy-use and population growth rates, we ask how the availability of energy is likely to affect population growth through 2050. Using a cross-country data set, we show that human population growth rates are negatively related to per-capita energy consumption, with zero growth occurring at ~13 kW, suggesting that the global human population will stop growing only if individuals have access to this amount of power. Further, we find that current projected future energy supply rates are far below the supply needed to fuel a global demographic transition to zero growth, suggesting that the predicted leveling-off of the global population by mid-century is unlikely to occur, in the absence of a transition to an alternative energy source. Direct consideration of the energetic constraints underlying the demographic transition results in a qualitatively different population projection than produced when the energetic constraints are ignored. We suggest that energetic constraints be incorporated into future population projections.

I love these kinds of unexpected outcomes that make us think more critically about simplified assumptions when it comes to the drivers and impacts of global change.

DeLong, J., Burger, O., & Hamilton, M. (2010). Current Demographics Suggest Future Energy Supplies Will Be Inadequate to Slow Human Population Growth PLoS ONE, 5 (10) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0013206


Photo credit: wili_hybrid

Posted in climate change science, energy, population, sustainable development | 1 Comment »

New land for agriculture coming mainly at the expense of tropical ecosystems

Wednesday, September 1st, 2010

There have traditionally been two ways to produce more food for an increasing population:  Convert native ecosystems like forests and grasslands to agricultural fields (what we call “extensification”) or make the yields on existing croplands go up, through the use of things like machinery, fertilizers, irrigation, pesticides, and GMOs (what we call “intensification”).

Historically, these processes have occurred in tandem:  an initial phase of extensification and land clearing followed by development and intensification.  Converting North America’s prairies to corn and wheat in the 19th century is a classic example of the former, whereas 20th-century rise of fossil fuels, and the machines and fertilizer they support, is an example of the latter.

So while it’s not surprising to learn that developing nations in tropical regions are experiencing significant deforestation for food production, as Holly Gibbs and colleagues at Stanford describe in the early edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (citations removed for clarity), it’s important to understand the magnitude of ecosystem change as well as the drivers of change:

This study confirms that rainforests were the primary source for new agricultural land throughout the tropics during the 1980s and 1990s. More than 80% of new agricultural land came from intact and disturbed forests. Although differences occur across the tropical forest belt, the basic pattern is the same: The majority of the land for agricultural and tree plantation expansion comes from forests, woodlands, and savannas, not from previously cleared lands.

Worldwide demand for agricultural products is expected to increase by ∼50% by 2050, and evidence suggests that tropical countries will be called on to meet much of this demand. Consider, for example, that in developed countries the agricultural land area,
including pastures and permanent croplands, decreased by more than 412 million ha (34%) between 1995 and 2007, whereas developing countries saw increases of nearly 400 million ha (17.1%). Moreover, developing countries expanded their permanent croplands by 10.1% during the current decade alone, while permanent cropland areas in developed countries remained generally stable. If the agricultural expansion trends documented here for 1980–2000 persist, we can expect major clearing of intact and disturbed forest to continue and increase across the tropics to help meet swelling demands for food, fodder, and fuel.

Indeed, recent studies confirm that large-scale agro-industrial expansion is the dominant driver of deforestation in this decade, showing that forests fall as commodity markets boom. Rising commodity prices have been implicated in the destruction of Amazonian rainforests for soy production and peat swamp forests for oil palm production in Southeast Asia. Drivers of cropland expansion may impact forests directly through local or regional demand or indirectly through more globalized demand that may occur via market-mediated effects. Although this study does not specifically assess displacement or indirect land use changes, it does highlight the likelihood that intact and degraded forests will be replaced by agricultural land when such changes occur. Regardless of the mechanism, concern continues to mount about the large emissions of carbon dioxide that result when tropical forests are felled and often burned to make room for new agricultural land.

This was more of a land use change analysis, so it didn’t include a lot on the global drivers causing deforestation.  It would be a mistake, for instance, to ascribe all of this change to population growth in these tropical regions or efforts to supply more food to people living there.  Rather, extensification today is a global phenomenon driven by international trade, as the developing world loses native ecosystems to feed other countries.  And destroying forests and peatlands is a major net source of greenhouse gas emissions, so we’re also warming climate as an unintended consequence.

Why not just halt extensification and switch to intensification on existing farmland?  It’s expensive—moreso than simply clearing more land in many cases.  When the demand for cheap food rules the world, forest clearing in poor countries with abundant, cheap land is often what you get.

It should make us all pause considering that the environmental effects of the demand for goods like soy and palm oil by the industrialized world are being externalized to tropical countries.  We are now chopping down tropical forests to make soy burgers, biodiesel, and snack foods.  As Cameron Scott notes, “The Amazon, It’s What’s for Dinner.”


H. K. Gibbs, A. S. Ruesch, F. Achard, M. K. Clayton, P. Holmgrene, N. Ramankutty, and J. A. Foley (2010). Tropical forests were the primary sources of new agricultural land in the 1980s and 1990s Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences


Photo courtesy of leoffreitas

Posted in biodiversity science, biofuels, food and agriculture, land use, population | 1 Comment »

City dwellers of the future: Urban heat island warming may be as large as doubling CO2

Monday, April 19th, 2010

I remember driving on a freeway in Phoenix after midnight in 1990.  The temperature was a cool 102 degrees F after breaking the all-time heat record of 126 F that day.  Deserts are good at cooling off at night.  But with all of the built environment in Phoenix storing heat from the day, the sidewalks, roads, and even swimming pools felt like they were being heated.

We all have probably experienced urban heat islands—the mass of dark asphalt and concrete absorbing solar radiation and radiating it back to space as heat.  The lack of water exacerbates the situation because there is little-to-no evaporative cooling.  Waste heat from cars, machines, air conditioners, and even human bodies also heat up the air.  And the warmer it gets, the stronger the tendency to crank up the air conditioners, generating even more waste heat.

The problem is potentially large in areas like the Middle East, India, parts of Africa, and the American Southwest, where rapid urbanization in warm, dry environments has the potential to make some urban areas much warmer at night than surrounding rural areas.

In a forthcoming article in Geophysical Research Letters1, Mark McCarthy and colleagues at the Met Office, Hadley Centre, UK used a climate model that examines what climate might look like in a doubled CO2 world and calculates the added warming caused by urbanization and wasted heat.

Their results were eye-opening:

  • Urban regions in places like the Arabian Peninsula, Iran, and India may experience night time warming by as much as 3-5 degrees C above and beyond that caused by doubled CO2 alone.
  • The number of hot nights per year (defined as temperatures in the 99th percentile of nonurban areas) increase in the following cities:
    • London: 1-2 hot nights now vs. up to 10 hot nights in 2050
    • Sydney: 1-2 hot nights now vs. up to 15 hot nights in 2050
    • Delhi: 5-10 hot nights now vs. up to 30 hot nights in 2050
    • Beijing: 3-6 hot nights now vs. up to 50 hot nights in 2050
    • Los Angeles: 8-12 hot nights now vs. up to 40 hot nights in 2050
    • Tehran: 20 hot nights now vs. up to 60 hot nights in 2050
    • Sao Paulo: <5 hot nights now vs. up to 80 hot nights in 2050
    • Lagos (Nigeria): <5 hot nights now vs. up to 150 hot nights in 2050

As mentioned in an earlier post, we only need to remember Chicago in 1995 to recall the deadly impact that heat waves can have on urban people.  And as we saw in that unfortunate example, the victims were disproportionately the elderly and African American.

Although we may not be able to mitigate this warming, basic adaptation steps should be set into motion, including re-thinking urban design, making cities more resilient to hot environments, developing better energy and technology solutions (including cooling), installing green roofs, and putting into place emergency disaster plans and social safety nets for vulnerable populations.

1Mark McCarthy, Martin Best, and Richard Betts (2010). Climate change in cities due to global warming and urban effects Geophysical Research Letters : 10.1029/2010GL042845

Photo Credit: / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Posted in climate adaptation, climate change science, energy, environmental justice, health, land use, population, race and class, sustainability, technology, urban | 3 Comments »

Land consumption and open space loss across U.S. cities

Tuesday, March 2nd, 2010

The issue of land use change is a complex, with many factors being important historically, such as

  • population growth (more land required for more people)
  • technology (e.g., automobiles made suburban expansion feasible)
  • economics (cheaper land and rents in suburbs compared to cities)
  • policy (things like 30-yr mortgages, mortgage insurance, and FHA loans had a large impact on urban sprawl because they often made it cheaper to own rather than rent)
  • cultural values (the romanticized notion of a detached home in a safe, pollution-free neighborhood with good schools)

In this week’s PLoS One, Robert McDonald and colleagues1 examined land use change for 274 metro areas (figure 1) in the U.S. to determine tends across cities.

Their results were interesting (excerpts):

  • 1.4 million ha of open space was lost, and the amount lost in a given city was correlated with population growth.
  • American cities vary by more than an order of magnitude in their MSA-wide per capita land consumption. Generally large cities have small per capita land consumption, with the five smallest in 2000 being New York (459 m2/person), Miami (476 m2/person), Philadelphia (519 m2/person), Los Angeles (535 m2/person), and Washington, DC (536 m2/person). Conversely, many small cities have large per capita land consumption, with the five biggest in 2000 being Grand Forks, ND (5394 m2/person), Bismark, ND (3913 m2/person), Flagstaff, AZ (3381 m2/person), Enid, OK (3249 m2/person), and Cheyenne, WY (3073 m2/person).
  • The per capita land consumption (m2/person) of most cities decreased on average over the decade from 1,564 to 1,454 m 2/person, but there was substantial regional variation and some cities even increased.
  • Cities with greater conservation funding or more reform-minded zoning tended to decrease in per capita land consumption (scroll to table 1) more than other cities.
  • The inequality of land consumption varied geographically, with less inequality on the East Coast compared to the West Coast (scroll to figure 4).

They provide a simplified snapshot of how development changes with history and geography (for a more-thorough yet readable treatment of land use in the U.S., check out Crabgrass Frontier by Kenneth Jackson):

The process of development plays out differently in cities with different socioeconomic histories. Moreover, cultural differences exist among and within many U.S. cities, leading to varying spatial patterns of development. However, a general historical pattern exists. In many U.S. cities, an urban core existed in the decades or centuries prior to the widespread use of the automobile, and these neighborhoods have high population density and small amounts of developed area per capita. The surrounding suburban and exurban areas, created predominately after WWII, contain residents living at lower population density and consume more land per capita. There are substantial economic links between these two zones, and in contemporary U.S. cities commuting occurs in both directions. Northeast U.S. cities that developed before the automobile typically follow this narrative. Many have a relatively dense urban core, but have adopted zoning policies that ensure contemporary suburban settlements occur at lower density. While they remain dense compared to other U.S. cities, they are getting less dense over time, as proportionally more of the population is in suburban areas. The declining manufacturing cities of the Rust Belt and the Southern Appalachians are an extreme example of this spreading out of population.

Southeastern U.S. cities, excluding Florida, are often newer and have less of a legacy of a dense urban core. They do not appear to be getting markedly denser, and the relatively fast population growth of these cities implies that their total impact on natural habitat in coming decades will be large. In contrast to the Southeast, Western cities appear to be getting denser, including those that do not have a historical legacy of a dense urban core such as Phoenix. These Western cities are often still growing quickly and consuming a great deal of land, but contemporary development is making these cities denser than they were previously. Many of these Western cities have a strong conservation culture, and the degree of conservation funding and reform-minded zoning correlates with how much denser they are getting. However, it should be noted that contemporary development in Western cities is still well below the densities found in the dense urban core of Northeastern U.S. cities, posing problems for designing effective public transit systems.

1McDonald, R., Forman, R., & Kareiva, P. (2010). Open Space Loss and Land Inequality in United States’ Cities, 1990–2000 PLoS ONE, 5 (3) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0009509


Photo Credit: / CC BY-NC 2.0

Posted in behavior, land use, nature and culture, policy, population, sustainability, transportation, urban | 1 Comment »

Science Magazine considers whether decreasing meat consumption can increase global food security

Saturday, February 13th, 2010


In this week’s special issue devoted to food security, Science asks what it will take to feed 9 billion people by mid century.

Food insecurity—the inability of people to feed themselves—may rise if food supply cannot keep pace with population.  This is a concern that goes back over 200 years to Thomas Malthus.

One theme shows up in a few articles:  Can reducing meat consumption help in the battle to feed more people?

Erik Stokstad’s news feature (subscription required)1 provides a nice lead:

The United States, for instance, has just 4.5% of the world’s population but accounts for about 15% of global meat consumption. Americans consume about 330 grams of meat a day on average—the equivalent of three quarter-pound hamburgers. In contrast, the U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends that most people consume just 142 to 184 grams of meat and beans daily. In the developing world, daily meat consumption averages just 80 grams. Those numbers suggest that people living in the United States and other wealthy nations could increase world grain supplies simply by forgoing that extra burger or chop.

However, he interviews researchers and cites studies that raise a number of issues potentially complicating this story…


Posted in behavior, food and agriculture, population, solutions | 2 Comments »

Haiti’s story

Wednesday, January 13th, 2010


Little good news is coming out of Haiti these days.   There’s a deep social-environmental history that needs to be explored to understand why crises like poverty, AIDS, mudslides, and this week’s earthquake have been so devastating to the Haitian people.

I have written a bit about this history for one of the book projects I’m working on.  Below are a few excerpts, but before reading further, please consider helping with the humanitarian relief for earthquake victims:


Posted in conflict, energy, food and agriculture, health, nature and culture, population, race and class, risk analysis, social science | 2 Comments »

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