Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Taboo topic: the population time bomb

What is the Number One Global Problem? In the time it took you to read the previous seven words, the world's population increased by around 5. That's not 5 newborns cancelled out by 5 deaths. That's an overall increase of population which, as I write, is almost 6.6 billion; over three times more than when I was born 60 years ago. Every new person is a consumer of our planetary resources, just as we all are. Some will consume much more than others depending on where they are born and whether their parents are rich or poor. All will contribute in some degree to a grim trio of familiar troubles. The more people there are, the worse they will be:
  1. climate change
  2. destruction of biodiversity
  3. pollution

Yet you seldom see much about the population increase. Climate change is the subject of the moment and, in many ways, rightly so. But why do we have to tackle climate change? Because there are so many people. And of course all three issues are tightly interlinked, whilst looming behind them like the spectre at the feast is population increase and the inevitable overconsumption of resources. So biodiversity is being destroyed, partly by climate change but also by the human need for more food (farmland from forest; overfishing etc.). Pollution is caused by people and the gaseous part of it causes climate change. And climate change itself is aggravated by so many people causing fossil fuels to be burned for energy and industrial feedstocks.

Why don't we get serious about population? I suppose the answer must in part be the fear of eugenics. Who gets to have children? Who doesn't? Should they be 'rationed'? Many declare that there is no problem and that the planet can comfortably hold more. Others insist that their religion demands that women produce as many children as possible by forbidding contraception. Some countries, unbelievably, are worried about underpopulation. All these issues - and many similar - are dangerous: people have very strong feelings about what should and should not be done.

There's nothing new here. The problem of population was elucidated far better over 30 years ago [population 4.1 billion]:

The present [1976] population of Latin America [given as an example] is around 300 million [almost 550 million today], and already many of them are under-nourished. But if the population continued to increase at the present rate, it would take less than 500 years to reach the point where the people, packed in a standing position, formed a solid human carpet over the whole area of the continent. This is so, even if we assumed them to be very skinny -- a not-unrealistic assumption. In 1000 years from now, they would be standing on each other's shoulders more than a million deep.

It will not have escaped you that this is a hypothetical calculation! It will not really happen like that for some very good practical reasons. The names of these reasons are famine, plague, and war; or, if we are lucky, birth control. It is no use appealing to advances in agricultural science -- 'green revolutions' and the like [e.g. genetic engineering which has now leaped to the forefront of 'solutions']. Increases in food production may temporarily relieve the problem, but it is mathematically certain that they cannot be a long-term solution; indeed... they may well make the problem worse, by speeding up the rate of population expansion. It is a simple logical truth that, short of mass emigration into space... uncontrolled birth-rates are bound to lead to horribly increased death-rates. It is hard to believe that this simple truth is not understood by those leaders who forbid their followers to use contraceptive methods. They express a preference for 'natural methods' of population limitation, and a natural method is exactly what they are going to get. It is called starvation.

from The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins, 1976 p.119.

Full up: The world is full. There's nowhere else to emigrate to for the first time in human history. Humans now occupy the reasonably-habitable parts of every landmass including normally-uninhabitable Antarctica. Not many decades ago, countries like Australia were encouraging immigration and not many decades before that, the USA was accepting the "tired, poor and huddled masses yearning to breathe free" from overcrowded Europe. Not any more. Today, Europe is closing its borders and the US is building a fence to keep migrants out, even though much of their respective agricultural economies depend on low-paid labourforces with no right of residence.

I speak as a former immigrant. In fact, my wife and I have emigrated twice; once to Canada (1970) and, years later, to Spain (1987). In both cases, we were privileged, being educated and not without resources. Even so, the processes were not easy.

The Big Problem: As I see it, the biggest problem we have to solve as soon as possible is not climate change but population growth. If the world's population of humans was small and stable (say a few tens of millions, just to make the point), there wouldn't be a problem with climate change, biodiversity or pollution. There would be an abundance of everything: food, fuel and all the array of natural resources people depend on for their comfort and wellbeing. Those few millions could consume what they liked and they wouldn't begin to cause the problems I mentioned, simply because there wouldn't be enough of them to affect the atmosphere and oceans which control the stability of the world's climate. A small stable population of people would be benign. And they probably wouldn't be constantly warring on one pretext or another, the pretexts we're all familiar with being, generally, land and resources.

But our numbers are not small and not stable. There are nearly 6.6 billion of us, ratcheting up and up in numbers and expectations, and consuming more and more. Because we have failed dismally to even attempt to control our numbers, the result is that we have to tackle not just population growth, but climate change, pollution and biodiversity all at once.

Solutions: The de facto 'natural' solutions are already operating in uncontrolled fashion, mostly affecting the poor:

Other more intentional methods of controlling numbers of people have achieved various levels of notoriety:

  • one-child-per-couple law in China
  • mass sterilisations
  • infanticide, apparently widespread in countries where, for various reasons, male children are preferred to female
  • abortion

The only widely-acceptable method of control has, of course, been contraception. Unfortunately, some religious groups ban it and because of this influence, the Bush administration of the USA has stopped funding programmes which delivered contraception to those who could most have benefitted from it.

The stark choices: If we do nothing and continue as we are, the planetary mega-ecosystem within which we all live will solve the problem for us -- and it won't be nice for us. Some believe there may not be an 'us' at all within just a few decades, as the planet extinguishes that life which it cannot support.

If we do something, it won't be nice either but has the potential for being rather gentler to a greater number of us than the random and dreadful effects of war, disease and starvation. In short, climate change is a deadly symptom - one of several - of an even more serious malaise. I'm not saying we shouldn't be taking radical steps to tackle the climate problem. We should, but we desperately need to come to terms with the underlying fundamental issue: overpopulation. We need, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, urgent jaw jaw. Otherwise there will be war war ... and more more...


Henrique Vedana said...

Dear Bry!

FINALLY someone who stood up to say (with logical argumentation rather then politeness) about the REAL problem... overpopulation! Aldous Huxley wrote about it in 1957. E.F.Schumacher wrote about it in 1963. Again Dawkins in 1976. Daniel Quinn in 1991. WHY ISN'T IN THE MAIN DISCUSSION TABLE?? (well, I thought some reasons for that...).

Anyway, great to find out your blog, let's keep hoping for better days...

Hasta luego

Ben Murray said...

An interesting and very valid post.

But I think that the reason that overpopulation has been the elephant in the room for so long is that there's virtually nothing we can do about it.

If totalitarian China cannot hold back the rising tide of its own booming population, what chance is there for liberal Western democracies?

I think we just need to accept that the world's carrying capacity has been grossly and artificially (not to mention temporarily) inflated by the availability of cheap energy. This won't last forever, and when energy is no longer cheap and easily available, this carrying capacity will fall suddenly and dramatically.

The readjustment will be painful and ugly. No parts of the world will be spared. But at the end of it, the population will be at a much more "natural" level. Whether any of us will be around is another matter entirely.

Keep up the good work.


Kevin said...

Hi Bry,

Thanks for visiting DeSmog, I am wondering if you're interested in swapping links on blogrolls?


Tim Murray said...

Bry, You're right. As James Lovelock said, if we had the population level of the eighteenth century it wouldn't matter what energy source we used. Or as my retired oceanographer friend Buster Welch so colourfully put it, "It's OK to shit in a river or drive an SUV if you're the only one doing it. But if a million people are doing it, you have a problem. That's over-population." My point, though, is this. To paraphrase Garrett Hardin, over-population is not a global problem, it is the sum total of 194 national and a million local problems. The real population taboo is the one concerning North America, and the ugly fact that immigration accounts for two-thirds of American and Canadian population growth. And that figure is increasing with time. The population bomb is not just ticking in the third world, it is ticking right here and destroying vital biodiversity services and thwarting our Kyoto targets. "Smart growth" is still growth and does not indefinitely defend greenspace, farmland, national parks or wildlife habitat, nor does stop new consumers (immigrants) from consuming. When ever one proposes to stop such growth locally, nationally, or globally, one is met with the challenge that it is somehow unethical---as if nature's way of halting growth will be any more ethical than ours. All of the proposals you enumerate are preferable surely to the extinction of our species. Nevertheless, I am afraid it is politically impossible to enact them. What will arrest growth I fear will not be climate change or biodiversity collapse, some decades away, but the imminent depletion of oil. According to some commentators, this will kill 100-150 million Americans and 10-15 million Canadians, as well as over 5 billion people world wide in a matter of 20 years or less. Relocalization is a pipedream, our food production and distribution system will break down entirely. A disaster for humanity. A respite for the environment, perhaps.
Tim Murray

John F said...

Very good article, and a refreshing difference from the typical avoidance of this topic. It's clear to me that population growth is one of the key drivers (if not THE key driver) of our ecological crisis. It will get worse but, if we can confront the population issue, doesn't have to get as bad as it might.

Because of its importance, I made population is about 50% of the focus of my blog, the other 50% being the issue of unceasing economic growth. Of course the two interact in important ways.

BTW, there are actually some very humane solutions which should make addressing population much more palatable than it seems to be.

Again, you're to be commended for writing about this. I just posted an article about other environmental writers' avoidance of the topic, which I think they will ultimately regret terribly.

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