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The Issue of Population is More Than a Little Radioactive

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COMMENTARY
By Michael D. Lemonick

Talk to people who care about the environment and you’ll hear plenty about pollution, deforestation, sustainability and climate change. What you won’t hear is the word “population,” unless it refers to populations of endangered species. 

But if you think about it, the Earth’s booming human population is at the root of just about every environmental crisis that threatens the natural world. Last October 31, Earth’s population reached 7 billion people (unofficially, because there’s no way to pinpoint the actual day, but it was in the ballpark). Every last one of them taps into the planet’s resources as they eat, work and create waste in a myriad of different forms. By 2027 we’ll be up to 8 billion, and the U.N. predicts we’ll hit 9 billion in 2047.

Credit: flickr/MegMoggington

Even now, however, the pressure on Earth’s resources is already extreme, and more people will only make it worse. Deforestation and other forms of habitat destruction, for example, are mostly the result of all those billions of people clearing land for places to live and grow food. Destroy natural habitats and you throw ecosystems out of whack, to say nothing of wiping species off the planet at such an alarming rate that scientists believe we may be seeing Earth’s sixth mass extinction (the previous five were caused by things like asteroid impacts or gigantic volcanic eruptions). All those billions of people burning wood and coal and oil, for heating, transportation, electricity and manufacturing, moreover, generate air pollution, including heat-trapping greenhouse gases.

Most of us never stop to think about the flip side of that equation, however: if the world had significantly fewer people, all of these strains on the planet would be much less. Two thousand years ago, the world’s population stood at about 300 million people, according to the U.N., and by 500 years ago, that number had climbed to half a billion, or one fourteenth of today’s population.

What if it had just stayed there? Would our current environmental problems be slashed by a factor of 14? Well, OK, probably not. Back in 1500, even the richest people had a standard of living far below what people in the U.S. have now: they had no electricity, no motorized transportation, a monotonous and not very nutritious diet. As a result, their impact on the planet was far less than what a half-billion people living at modern U.S. standards would be — and even so, the impact of pre-industrial civilization was hardly zero.

It’s also true that in the modern world, the richest people consume vastly more resources, and contribute vastly more to the planet’s environmental ills, than the poorest. By some estimates, fully 50 percent of all human CO2 emissions come from the richest 500 million people, while the poorest 3 billion generate a mere 7 percent. If those billions can raise their standard of living significantly, as they have every right to do, the impacts of all that consumption and those emissions will become vastly worse.

It would be simplistic, then, to put all the blame for the planet’s environmental woes on population. Nevertheless, it’s clear that if the Earth’s population were to magically drop from 7 billion to, say, 1 billion  (“magically,” because you could do it with a horrifying disease or some other catastrophe, but I’d just as soon not), most of the issues environmentalists worry about would become easier to manage, even though they’d hardly disappear.

So why aren’t policymakers talking more about population? Why aren’t the media reporting more about it? One reason is that it’s a very touchy subject. Plenty of religious leaders have a real problem with family planning in any form, and China’s infamous one-child policy has led to forced abortions, forced sterilization and, thanks to a strong preference for boys, a severe gender imbalance. In large part, it was his opposition to the excesses of the one-child policy that got Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng in trouble with authorities earlier this year.

The issue of population is, in short, more than a little radioactive. Besides, fertility rates have been dropping in recent decades thanks largely to the education of women, so the problem clearly isn’t as bad as it could be. In fact, the U.N. was projecting 15 billion people by the middle of this century only a couple of decades ago, so we’re moving in the right direction. But the U.N. also acknowledges that just the slightest uptick in those rates could drive the number drastically upward again. A problem that appears to have stabilized could destabilize very quickly.

That’s why at least one environmental group has taken on the issue of overpopulation: last year, the Center for Biological Diversity began talking about population growth as a key factor in environmental degradation. According to an article in the New York Times, the group is, among other things, handing out condoms in packages with endangered animals on them and emblazoned with slogans including “Wrap with care, save the polar bear,” and “Wear a condom now, save the spotted owl.”

OK, it’s a bit silly (although not as silly as this condom promo video from India), and there’s nothing much we can do to reduce the population by any significant amount. But as July’s World Population Day approaches, it’s worth remembering that the sheer number of people on Earth makes every threat to the environment worse than it would otherwise be.

And it wouldn’t be a bad thing if more of us were talking about it.

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Comments

By Steve
on May 23rd, 2012

Population is actually not the singular factor. One American is the same as 20 Indian’s in terms of resource usage. So it would be better if one American child were not born, versus 19 Indian children.

Reply to this comment

By Charles Higley (04679)
on May 24th, 2012

No, the cause of most environmental disasters is environmentalists, particularly when they prevent undeveloped countries from developing. The worst environmental conditions are in undeveloped countries. When they develop, they will have the time wealth and resources to fix past mistakes and prevent future problems. The rest of the damage is based on the environmentalists making the convenient assumption that progress in fixing pollution has not been made and we have to do more and more to fix what is no longer a problem. Thus, they do huge damage in the developed countries as well as the undeveloped problems.

Then, the environmentalists push all kinds of bad remedies for perceived problems. The spotted owl is the best example of really bad ideas. They claimed that the spotted owl only lived in old growth forest and destroyed a lumber industry to save them. Now, we know that this is not true, but that the striped owl, a generalist predator, is out competing the spotted owl, a flying squirrel specialist. Their response? “We bad.” When a generalist competes with a specialist, the generalist always wins. So, to save the spotted owl, again, they want to spend $10 million in the next 10 years to have hunters pursue genocide against the striped owl. Oh, how naturalist and uninvasive they are! And why is it always MILLIONS to fix anything!

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By Frank White (Toronto, Ontario)
on May 24th, 2012

Many times the plague or “Black Death” struck Europe from the 14th to the 19th centuries. It struck five or six times between 1348 and 1375 or so when Europe lost perhaps half its population.

Land prices dropped because there was so much vacant land. Wages rose because there was a shortage of workers. High wages meant people could afford products they could not afford previously and this stimulated trade and manufactures in the towns. The towns grew and serfs were able to escape bondage to the great landowners. Social changes in place and migration weakened both religious and political controls.

When population recovered by around 1600 or so, European societies had change so much that Europe was more different from the 13th century than to the 21st century.

We do not wish for a disease or other catastrophe to reduce population, but we can learn from our past that reducing the rate of population growth may lead to societies where labour is not so cheap, where more resources can be devoted to raising fewer children, and where people are valued more than things.

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By Peter (Faulconbridge NSW)
on May 24th, 2012

Steve,
Every discussion group or sustainable population think tank that tackles the issue of population in relation to mankind’s sustainable existence on this planet, that I have observed over many years, always recognises that population and per-capita footprint combine to give the total impact.  This article also acknowledges that association - “It’s also true that in the modern world, the richest people consume vastly more resources, and contribute vastly more to the planet’s environmental ills, than the poorest.”  Best to read the article in its entirety before making dismissive comments.
One must also be cognisant of the the massive deforestation that is now occurring in the third world, and the consequent destructive of ecosystems with their flora and fauna (Europe and much of USA did their damage some time ago).  Third world nations, for example across the Sahel, have massive youth bulges, and as this group reaches reproductive age and strives for a higher living standard at the same time, the environmental consequences, not to mention geopolitical one, will be dire.

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By Dave Gardner (Colorado Springs/CO/80906)
on May 28th, 2012

Thanks for a great commentary. To the commenters: Reducing population both in developed and in developing nations can only benefit all. And we do not have to choose between reducing population and reducing consumption. Paul Ehrlich said it well just this past Friday: Anyone arguing that we only need to be reducing consumption, not population, to achieve a sustainable equilibrium on the planet, is telling us the length of a rectangle doesn’t matter when computing its area, only the width.

Dave Gardner
Director of the documentary
GrowthBusters: Hooked on Growth

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By Jane Roberts (Redlands, CA USA 92373)
on May 28th, 2012

Well said. It’s really so simple to understand. I am cofounder of 34 Million Friends of the United Nations Population Fund. I hope you join.  Gender inequality is the moral scourge and moral challenge of the age. Gender inequality is the root cause of maternal mortality, lack of access to reproductive health and family planning, 20 million unsafe illegal abortions every year, legal, religious, and economic barriers to women playing equal roles in public policy and governance.
I’m rather of a pessimist about the future. For instance Rio+20 isn’t even REALLY putting population women’s empowerment on the agenda.  Good Grief!

Cheers, Jane

Reply to this comment

By Valentina
on May 28th, 2012

Population and consumption go hand in hand and both are huge taboos in the West. Check out the film I’m working on about those issues: www.thepopulationbomb.com

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By Survival Acres
on July 1st, 2012

It’s quite ridiculous that humans think they can “manage” the environment. This reasoning is based upon a deeply flawed understanding of environmental factors.  Nature does not need our help, if anything, it needs to be left alone.

Nature “manages” itself best.  Human involvement always mucks things up.  Environmental “problems” as you say, would indeed “magically go away” along with 6+ billion people, ie., nature would manage itself, cleaning up and repopulating / replenishing everything that we have damaged and decimated, given the chance.  But this is rather unlikely, the media is constantly reminding us that we “need to grow”, expand, consume even more resources, while somehow (magically apparently) we will “manage” our consumption and expansion to a “better world”.

This is pure hopium—an addictive drug fed to addled minds.

It is our ethnocentrism (and greed, arrogance, stupidity) that is at fault here.  We think we “own” the planet, when just the opposite is true.  The planet Earth owns us. 

Ownership means that our existence is only possible and provided by the Earth itself. We are the guests here—not the Earth.  Our ignorance of this simple fact is evident throughout our “civilization”, which is based upon arrogance and greed. 

Humans know one thing—“grow”. This is why our efforts to “manage” every single part of our civilization, consumption, “resources” and population fail.  Due to our technological prowess in agriculture, we created enough food to rapidly expand the world’s populations. Then came the industrial revolution with more growth and more social expectations.  The way “ahead” is clear—more, more, more.  Every effort to restrict this desire will be met with fierce resistance. 

Why? Because we’ve browbeaten every generation into believing that more is better, and they will resist any effort to deny them what we had.

Deep cultural changes, along with massive population reductions are required—but unlikely, leading to collapse as over-exploitation smashes headlong into anthropogenic climate change and resource depletion.  It’s virtually inevitable now.  The simple extrapolation of what happens when there are too many people demanding / using / consuming too many resources in a finite wold.  It’s happened dozens of times already in human history—we will be no different.

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By Tom (95003)
on July 30th, 2012

World population is THE issue, because everything else derives from that. It’s not just the size of our population, 7,000,000,000, but how fast the population is increasing. For 10,000 years, from 10,000 years ago until 400 years ago, population grew at an average of about 67,000 new people per year. Now it’s growing at about 77,000,000 people, or three orders of magnitude (1000 times) faster. With more people we use more land, consume more resources, create more waste, pump vastly more CO2 into the atmosphere, crowd out and kill off more other species than ever before.
Now so many of us live in cities we’ve lost touch with how much all life, including we humans, rely on the health of the planet’s ecosystem.
I saw a cartoon a few years ago that sums it up for me. In it, there’s a group of animals standing around a large pipe and grinning while the pipe pours sewer waste FROM the forest and into a into a human family’s living room.

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