Shrinking the Footprint Ecotheology of human fertility and population

10 March 2016


Filed under: Personal — John @ 8:29 pm

Currently working in CLES (Geography and Biosciences) IT support at the University of Exeter.

Curriculum Vitae for John McKeown

Residential institutions

Eight months working at the Darvell Bruderhof community.

Website development

Supporters and events database built by me with PHP and MySQL for JRI, and well used from 2002 until 2015.

JRI website managed from 1999 until 2014. For example, report of JRI conference on Water.

Climate Stewards website created as freelance job in 2012.

Minor projects

Postcode mapping of JRI Associates using BatchGeo (anonymized, original version displayed name).

Social media

JRI Twitter account managed from March 2012 until January 2014.

Twitter personal account with 700+ followers, of whom a large proportion are research academics or environmental activists.


Publisher’s page for my book on Natalism with international academic endorsements.


The House-Hunting Game (screenshots and commentary) is for 2 to 4 players looking for a shared house. They learn GIS concepts while using tools to create factor-combining maps to enable them to find a suitable location to live. The game was programmed with Toolbook and C.

GeographyCAL was installed at most UK universities under campus licenses as Toolbook files running on Windows XP. A conference paper by the project Directors explains its pedagogy. A modified version for the 'A' Level Geography market was published by Springer. I developed 8 of the 17 modules, including Meteorology & Air Quality (screenshots) and these other modules: Biogeography and Ecology, Regional Economic Change, Social Survey Design, Quaternary Environmental Change, and Geographical Information Systems (with case studies on Water Utilities, Retail location, Crop yields).

2 October 2014

Crowdfunding academic publications

Filed under: Open Access — John @ 6:48 am

Crowdfunding for academic research is becoming well established in the Sciences, but so far not in the Humanities. Witness the success of many projects on,, and other specialist academic crowdfunding sites. The vast majority of crowdfunding projects are for “hard” sciences. That said, I did notice one project on Byzantine architecture succeeded on and the site has categories for “Social Science” and “Anthropology” but it is overwhelmingly for physical and medical sciences. That might just be because Humanities academics have been slow to get involved, but if your field is History or English or Theology it may not fit well at these academic crowdfunding sites.

Many of those sites are for planned research projects, and cannot be a substitute for the publication grants that academics traditionally seek from their university or from charitable Trusts, to underwrite open-access journal article publication or even books. Worth trying as an alternative is Kickstarter which specialises in creative projects. True you may feel out of place as most Kickstarter projects seem to be games, films, gadgets, comics, and a host of others – but “Publications” is one of their established categories. It even has an “Academic” subcategory though it has few projects and many are not successful. This kind of crowdfunder is not asking for donations for no return: the “Rewards” for pledges are usually equal or higher in value than the pledge. It just front-loads the funding: hence the name “Kickstarter”.

The author (John McKeown) successfully ran a Kickstarter for an interdisciplinary book – History of Ideas and Cultural Reception of the Bible – and it is doing OK having topped 70% with a few days to go. This has a specific goal: my publisher OBP is a non-profit open-access so they ask authors to seek a publication grant from their university. If one is found then OBP reduce the price of the PDF edition. So any funds from Kickstarter are acting as a publication grant. If not then the PDF sells at normal price. Meanwhile the result does not affect the price of the print-on-demand paperback and hardback, nor the Kindle version: so all these make good “Rewards” for pledges in Kickstarter. The main hurdle is that many friends and academic contacts may not have heard of Kickstarter, or may not associate it with academia.


11 September 2013

Moderates attract adults, Fundamentalists rely on babies

Filed under: Natalism — John @ 10:09 am

Table from Vegard Skirbekk, Eric Kaufmann, and Anne Goujon. “Secularism, Fundamentalism, or Catholicism? The Religious Composition of the United States to 2043.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 49.2 (June 2010): 293-310.

This matrix is dynamite: it shows how people in the USA changed their religious affiliation after age 16 and what they had moved to as adults (from Skirbekk, Kaufmann & Goujon, p.300). It uses General Social Survey (GSS) data so the classification divides Protestants into categories including “Fundamentalist” (PFU) and “Protestant Moderate” (PMO), which I have highlighted on the table.

Notice in “Net Flow” that “Protestant Moderates” are positive +10.3 – these churches are attractive to outsiders. People who grew up in other affiliations (or secular) are joining them. The denominations in this category include Episcopalians, most Lutherans, some Methodists and Baptists, and “Open” Evangelicals.

Observe by contrast that “Protestant Fundamentalists” have negative -3.3 net flow on the transition matrix – those churches are comparatively unattractive to outsiders. The FPU category includes (as far as I can tell from GSS Methodological Report 43) the Missouri Synod Lutherans, many Pentecostals, and “Conservative” Evangelicals.

Despite this, overall the Fundamentalist churches are still growing numerically. Why is this? The same article (Skirbekk, Kaufmann and Goujon p.298) found that “Fundamentalist Protestants” had a Total Fertility Rate (TFR) significantly higher than the national average. So although they “lose” a larger proportion of their kids, they have more to start with.

It looks like “Fundamentalist” Protestants are doing badly at attracting outsiders. I’ve read their books, heard their audiovisual broadcasts preaching pronatalism, telling their congregations to have more kids. It sounds like they are relying on the statistical likelihood that if they bear a larger number of children some when adult will stay and follow their parents’ religion. Professor Danny Akin (a Southern Baptist) advised “if you have one child as opposed to four, five or six, then you have a much smaller initial mission field” (interview by Trevin Wax, 2009).

This is a worrying trend because there are many cases in history of religious groups that began as outgoing and open, but decades or centuries later turned inward and start relying on children to perpetuate the institution. Think of the Hutterites and the Amish; not many outsiders joining them today. It’s a recurring temptation for churches to transform themselves into ethnic groups. It’s not really easier, in fact its hard labour (pun intended), but apparently it looks like a dependable human strategy to the new pronatalists. They seem to “put confidence in the flesh” (Philippians 3:4-5) – the pronatalists should instead consider that the Holy Spirit reaches out to whoever He will regardless of ancestry and parentage. And that high birth rates are incompatible with increasing longevity and maintaining quality of life within ecological limits.

Links to chapters on Christian reproduction.

31 August 2013

USA births and deaths

Filed under: Population — John @ 5:56 pm

I like this graph from “The Changing Demographic Profile of the United States” by Laura B. Shrestha and Elayne J. Heisler, a Congressional Research Service report in 2011.

The Changing Demographic Profile of the United States 2011

The future projection is enlightening. Regarding the past, I knew already that for decades U.S. births have greatly exceeded deaths, despite forty years of having a “Total Fertility Rate” fluctuating around the “replacement rate” (a misleading phrase since most people I ask assume that “replacement” means births equal deaths, which is not what demographers mean when they use the term).

But I had been assuming that quite soon the annual number of births would dip below deaths, given the recent media hype about falling U.S. birth rates. However, this graph indicates that the U.S. Census Bureau expect the number of U.S. births each year will continue to be larger than the number of deaths for decades to come, at least until 2050.

The full report is accessible online:

17 July 2013

Danny Dorling, Population 10 Billion

Filed under: Reviews — John @ 5:14 pm

Dorling-10Billion-coverReview in progress of the new book by Danny Dorling, Professor of Human Geography, University of Sheffield.

Population 10 Billion : The Coming Demographic Crisis And How To Survive It (London: Constable, 2013)

I heard Danny Dorling speak (on the UK census) at a Population Studies (BSPS) conference in Nottingham in 2012. After many successful academic books he ventures this polemical book to calm readers’ worries about population (he is especially reacting to Stephen Emmott’s recent book which also has “10 Billion” in its title). Dorling’s book is wide-ranging, sweeping across many disciplines. I understand his wish to steer a “possibilist” path between optimists and “angry pessimists” but there are parts where his ideas are close to cornucopian optimism and I begin to critique those below.

Dorling claims “it is consumption, not population, that matters” (123). This is not a throwaway line: he spends more than a page trying to justify the idea. Dorling suggests that “some extra people can teach others to consume less and hence reduce consumption overall, even as population rises” (125). I accept that given a rising population at some level consumption per person will start declining, but his idea that total consumption by humankind could shrink (voluntarily in a non-catastrophic situation) while population grows is speculative.

Dorling’s optimism regarding the future cannot be falsified, but he also suggests that population is not a multiplier of consumption, and he claims it is “not true that human environmental impact on the planet is a product of the number of humans” (124). This can be tested. There has been research since the 1990s seeking to quantify the relationship between population size and ecological impact in terms of “elasticity” which varies regionally.

For example an elasticity of 1.0 (unity) indicates that a 1% increase in population causes a 1% increase in impact. Above 1 means the effect is more than proportional. How could that be? John Harte (2007) argued that elasticity may worsen as population rises due to nonlinear thresholds, for example farming expanding on to marginal land. Conversely, below 1 means it is less than proportional. For example in a densely populated area well organised transport may be more efficient, as is high-density housing.

Most studies are limited to greenhouse gas emissions, rather than the much broader “ecological footprint” (GFN), but even so they are worth considering. A meta-survey by Liddle (2012) found a range of results for elasticity from 0.69 to over 2. A study by Dietz and Rosa (1997) calculated a global average elasticity (with regional variations) of 1.15 – so a 1% increase in population causes 1.15% more emissions. Anqing Shi (2003) found a global elasticity of 1.42. Theoretically the same principle can be applied to population shrinkage: what reduction of impact would it deliver? For the USA, Michael Dalton (2008: 90) found that the “effect of smaller population size on emissions is somewhat more than proportional.”

Though proportionality for the broader measure of ecological footprint is less well established, I think it is safe to say that impact is roughly proportional to population. I accept that for urban areas proportionality could be less than 1, but that still means a larger population has a larger impact, just not in a 1:1 proportionality. Dorling by contrast is claiming that there is no relation, and even that total impact could be less with more people. That would require a negative elasticity, and that is well outside the range observed in any research.

Dorling rightly critiques the idea that population is limited by living-space, noting that even among non-human species, for example bats, numbers are not limited by roosting space (131). Cornucopian writers often rehearse the (defective) argument that suburban homes for the global population could all fit into Texas, so we have plenty more space. By contrast, even old-fashioned “carrying capacity” ideas were about food (e.g. based on grazing regrowth for livestock) not accommodation, and the capacity calculation used by people concerned about population size today is not living-space, but the ecological footprint.

P.S. This is provisional as I have not yet finished reading the book!

John McKeown

9 December 2012

Church of England should not make reproductive potential essential to marriage

Filed under: Natalism — John @ 12:58 am

Having researched Christian attitudes to human fertility, when I saw the recent Church of England statement (7 December 2012) on marriage my attention immediately focused on a phrase that looks dangerously close to the idea that a marriage is validated by its potential for reproductivity (an ideology that can be labelled “reproductionism”). My reaction appears below:

The C of E statement includes in their “definition of marriage” as an essential feature:

“the biological union of man and woman which potentially brings to the relationship the fruitfulness of procreation”

The (anonymous) authors may think the word “potentially” sufficient to avoid linking a marriage’s value to its reproductivity, but there are many people whose infertility is discernibly permanent prior to marriage i.e. they completely lack potential fertility. I want to alert the C of E authors to the danger of using these ideas, by mentioning some of the disturbing implications and historical consequences.

For example, the ideology raises questions about eligibility to begin a marriage for the following kinds of people:

  • A permanently infertile person (for example a castrated man, a woman who has had a hysterectomy, or is past the menopause, and the elderly).
  • A man and woman who intend to remain childless or childfree (for whatever reason).

It also has implications for people who have been married for years:

  • If a husband or wife is infertile for ten years is that grounds for divorce? (That was one view among diverse medieval rabbinic interpretations of the text “be fruitful and multiply”.)
  • If a childless husband and wife fail to seek medical fertility treatment, is the marriage invalidated?

These are just a few of the grotesque implications.

The church should steer well away from this. I wonder why the C of E authors chose to dredge up that line of argument. I understand their primary concern is about a different issue and I realize they have no intention to pursue the logical implications further by adding fertility-related criteria for men and women seeking marriage. Even so, in a context of defining marriage their mention of a potential for biological reproduction as distinctive of the essence of marriage is unhelpful. They are lending credibility to procreationism (and natalism). A marriage which husband and wife know in advance will be childless is just as valid as any other marriage.

I urge the Church of England to amend their statement.

21 October 2012

Johnny Miles, Constructing the Other…

Filed under: Reviews — John @ 7:57 am

A version of this book review was published last year in Theological Books Review. Johnny Miles’ book contains some reflection on modern reception of the Bible, but not as much as I expected from the Reception genre. Instead it attempts to draw parallels between Israelite attitudes to foreign peoples, and some Americans’ views of particular types of foreigners over the last century or so.

MILES, JOHNNY, Constructing the Other in Ancient Israel and the USA (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2011), pp. xxvii, 374. This monograph brings together postcolonial theory, the Deuteronomic History, and nineteenth century white-American attitudes to native Americans, Mexicans, Chinese, and Africans. Miles is concerned with the politics of re-presentation. He draws parallels between ancient and modern stereotyping of subaltern others.

Chapter 1 reviews previous work taking a postcolonial approach to biblical texts and their afterlife. Chapter 2 presents Persian Yehud as the context of the Deuteronomic History. The remaining four chapters treat stereotypes: savage, stupid, deceitful, and rebellious.

Chapter 3 pairs Edomites and native Americans. Chapter 4 pairs Moabites and Mexicans (a shorter version appears in Miles’ 2008 article ‘‟Who are you calling ‘stupid’”? Ethnocentric humour and identity construct in the colonial discourse of Judges 3.12-30’. The Bible and Critical Theory 4.1: 1–16). Chapter 5 pairs Ammonites and Chinese. Chapter 6 pairs Samaritans and Africans. One aim of the book is to bring ‘a postcolonial optic to the consumption (including effects)’ of DH in two colonial contexts: fifth century BCE Yehud, and nineteenth century USA (p. xix).

Accordingly each chapter contains two sections. The first considers how scriptures, especially from Judges and 1 Kings, served Yehud. The second section of each chapter is on the USA. These are mostly historical surveys and they work better in some chapters than others. Chapter 3 provides evidence of Anglo-American use of biblical texts, including a comparison with Edom (p.110); and chapter 6 discusses African-American use of scripture. Chapters 4 and 5 however offer little evidence of biblical appropriation concerning Mexicans or Chinese, so the link between ‘The Bible and the Modern World’ depends on coincident stereotypes.

Overall this timely book suggests that constructions of the ‘other’ shaped the Deuteronomic History and remain influential today.

John P. McKeown

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