Tag Archives: population

What constitutes mathematical thinking?

What constitutes mathematical thinking?  I am teaching a course on mathematical thinking without defining the term for the students or myself.  I want a working definition to arise from the explorations we undertake during the course. Continue reading


A constructive conversation about population-environment problems

I have drafted a quick activity to get input that extends this multi-party conversation from 2000 about “How do we know there is a population-environment problem?” to bring in the following additional 3 discussants:
Novelo–Novelist concerned that climate change has been omitted from most literature
Futuro–Sci Fi writer concerned with gender and race as well as the usual fantasizing about scientific and technological developments
Litero–Interpreter of literature who is prepared to branch out from fictional literature to all discourses about knowledge.
I welcome comments on this blog post so as to a) glean ideas to weave into a Part 2 of this multi-party exchange and b) begin to address the issue Activo points to at the end: what are the “conditions make interactions among people from different fields as open as our were today”?  (This activity relates to Project 2 in a course on gender, race, science, and literature.) Continue reading

Epidemiological thinking applied to reducing domestic terrorism and gun violence, a podcast

There is a contrast in epidemiology and public health between shifting a population as a whole to reduce the risk of some disease and screening for high-risk individuals then treating them.  In a 9-minute podcast, this contrast is applied to vetting or banning immigrants in order to reduce risk of terrorism on US soil and to screening for mentally ill gun owners who might commit mass shootings.

What if everything is always already unruly complexity?

Open this pdf, then listen to this mp3 (18minutes)

(An 18-minute talk related to Taylor, P. J. Unruly Complexity: Ecology, Interpretation, Engagement. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.)

How do we know we have population-environment problems? A journey from simple models to multiple points of engagement to contribute to change (Day 8 of Learning road trip)

On day 8 of the Learning road trip I led a workshop for the School for Designing a Society on “How do we know we have population-environment problems? A journey from simple models to multiple points of engagement to contribute to change.”

People consume resources and pollute the environment, so the more people, the more environmental problems we have–right? Not so fast! In this interactive workshop you will disturb that simple model. By the end you will be mapping multiple points of engagement through which you contribute to change in your particular circumstances. Along the way, you will consider how people marshall scientific knowledge to persuade others of the seriousness of the population problem, how inequalities among people qualitatively alter how “we” respond to the title question, how you can bring in social considerations to explain or interpret the directions that are taken in science, and how you can work with a perspective of being partly and jointly responsible for what is happening in society and the environment.

For more details on this workshop, see companion blog.

What if I think that everything is already unruly complexity?

What if I think that everything is already unruly complexity? What do I do?

First, I need to define for whoever is reading what I mean by that term. Unruly complexity refers to situations that
1. consist of heterogeneous components
2. are built up over time and subject to ongoing restructuring
3. are embedded in wider dynamics
Equivalently, for such situations:
1. definite boundaries are lacking
2. what goes on “outside” continually restructures what is “inside”
3. diverse processes come together to produce change

Definitions are best accompanied by an illustration. This is provided the case of soil erosion in a mountainous agricultural region in Oaxaca, Mexico.

Back to the question. What if everything is already unruly complexity?
My first Answer is there’s a Qualitative difference in analysis of causes and in implications drawn from such an analysis.
This answer is well illustrated by the two islands scenario regarding population growth.

The two islands scenario also illustrates an expository or conceptual theme, namely, the use of simple themes or scenarios that are readily digested but undermine simple, system-like formulations (such as population growth leads to environmental degradation). Instead, these themes or scenarios open up issues, pointing to greater complexity and to further work needed in particular cases (such as the case of soil erosion in a mountainous agricultural region in Oaxaca, Mexico). These “opening-up themes” call for or invite work based on dynamics that develop over time among particular, unequal agents whose actions implicate or span a range of social domains.

Back to the question: What if everything is already unruly complexity? and the first Answer that there’s a Qualitative difference in analysis of causes and in implications drawn from such an analysis. This leads to a new Question: Qualitative difference in analysis of causes and implications… for whom? See next post.

Dynamics of Inequality: A Critical Thinking Theme

A conversation that introduces critical thinking theme about environment, science, and society, namely: The analysis of causes and the implications of the analysis change qualitatively if uniform units are replaced by unequal units subject to further differentiation as a result of their linked economic, social and political dynamics.
Philoso (who asks how you support your claims): [The] dynamic relations among unequal individuals may qualitatively change our understanding of population growth.

Ecolo (natural and human ecologist): Really? How might that be so?

Reso (a researcher who analyzes natural resources issues): I can help here. Consider this simple scenario (Taylor 1997). There are two countries. Each has the same amount and quality of arable land, the same population size, the same level of technical capacity, and the same population growth rate, say 3% per year. Country A, however, has a relatively equal land distribution, while country B has a typical 1970s Central American land distribution: 2% of the people own 60% of the land; 70% own just 2%. Both countries double their populations very rapidly, but five generations (120 years) before anyone is malnourished in country A, all of the poorest 70% in country B would already be-unless they act to change their situation.
Ecolo: But sooner or later in both countries everyone reaches the carrying capacity of their land.

Reso: This is not just an issue of when the crisis occurs in the two countries. B’s poor would probably first experience what others call population pressure in the form of food shortages. They would link these shortages to inequity in land distribution (see Durham 1979; Vandermeer 1977). They might attempt to take over the underutilized land of the wealthy. The wealthy, anticipating this possibility, might fund paramilitary operations that target leaders of campaigns for land reform. Or build factories that employ the land-starved poor. The availability and nature of foreign aid would influence the actual choices in specific instances. And so on.

Activo (who asks what one can do on the basis of claims): Does this mean that we should support land reform and abandon population control programs? Or are you saying that we should back up these programs by boosting military aid to countries like B?

Reso: I would have to ask to whom “we” refers. People are never all part of a uniform “we;” no real country is like country A. The important thing to understand is that the crises to which actual people have to respond come well before and in different forms from the crises predicted on the basis of aggregate population growth rates and ultimate biological and physical limits to growth. Indeed, in a country like B the poor would be justified in viewing anyone who focuses on population control policies as taking sides with those who benefit from the inequitable access to productive resources.

Ecolo: I have always stressed that affluent countries and people have disproportionate effect on the environment because of their higher per capita consumption of resources and the corresponding higher production of pollutants.

Reso: But I’m not just saying that in any district, country, or ecosphere there are richer and poorer people. My point is that groups with different wealth and power exist, change, and become involved in crises because of their dynamic interrelations.

Ecolo: OK, but even if the dynamics of population growth are more complex, it is still true that the greater the population, the greater the environmental effects.

Reso: Not necessarily. [The] case of soil erosion in a mountainous agricultural region in Oaxaca, Mexico [presents a different picture].

Excerpted from “How do we know there is a population-environment problem?” http://www.faculty.umb.edu/peter_taylor/popdialogue.html

See also teaching activity based on the two islands scenario, http://www.faculty.umb.edu/peter_taylor/island.doc


Durham, W. D. (1979). Scarcity and survival in Central America: Ecological origins of the soccer war. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Taylor, P. J. (1997) “How do we know we have global environmental problems? Undifferentiated science-politics and its potential reconstruction,” in P. J. Taylor, S. Halfon & P. Edwards (eds.), Changing Life: Genomes, Ecologies, Bodies, Commodities. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 149-174.

Vandermeer, J. (1977). “Ecological Determinism,” in Science for the People (Eds.), Biology as a Social Weapon. Minneapolis: Burgess, 108-122.