|The 7 Billion Mark: Should We Worry About Population Growth?|
As the global population officially surpasses 7 billion people, debate continues as to whether the planet can support our rising numbers. Is the problem overpopulation or the consumption habits of the wealthy, and what should we be doing about it?
2nd November 2011
26th October 2011 - Ian Angus and Simon Butler, Grist
The United Nations says that the world's population will reach 7 billion people this month.
The approach of that milestone has produced a wave of articles and opinion pieces blaming the world's environmental crises on overpopulation. In New York's Times Square, a huge and expensive video declares that "human overpopulation is driving species extinct." In London's busiest Underground stations, electronic poster boards warn that 7 billion is ecologically unsustainable.
In 1968, Paul Ehrlich's bestseller The Population Bomb declared that as a result of overpopulation, "the battle to feed humanity is over," and the 1970s would be a time of global famines and ever-rising death rates. His predictions were all wrong, but four decades later his successors still use Ehrlich's phrase -- too many people! -- to explain environmental problems.
But most of the 7 billion are not endangering the earth. The majority of the world's people don't destroy forests, don't wipe out endangered species, don't pollute rivers and oceans, and emit essentially no greenhouse gases.
Even in the rich countries of the Global North, most environmental destruction is caused not by individuals or households, but by mines, factories, and power plants run by corporations that care more about profit than about humanity's survival.
No reduction in U.S. population would have stopped BP from poisoning the Gulf of Mexico last year.
Lower birthrates won't shut down Canada's tar sands, which Bill McKibben has justly called one of the most staggering crimes the world has ever seen.
Universal access to birth control should be a fundamental human right -- but it would not have prevented Shell's massive destruction of ecosystems in the Niger River delta, or the immeasurable damage that Chevron has caused to rainforests in Ecuador.
Ironically, while populationist groups focus attention on the 7 billion, protestors in the worldwide Occupy movement have identified the real source of environmental destruction: not the 7 billion, but the 1%, the handful of millionaires and billionaires who own more, consume more, control more, and destroy more than all the rest of us put together.
In the United States, the richest 1% own a majority of all stocks and corporate equity, giving them absolute control of the corporations that are directly responsible for most environmental destruction.
A recent report prepared by the British consulting firm Trucost for the United Nations found that just 3,000 corporations cause $2.15 trillion in environmental damage every year. Outrageous as that figure is -- only six countries have a GDP greater than $2.15 trillion -- it substantially understates the damage, because it excludes costs that would result from "potential high impact events such as fishery or ecosystem collapse," and "external costs caused by product use and disposal, as well as companies' use of other natural resources and release of further pollutants through their operations and suppliers."
So in the case of oil companies, the figure covers "normal operations," but not deaths and destruction caused by global warming, not damage caused by worldwide use of its products, and not the multi-billions of dollars in costs to clean up oil spills. The real damage those companies alone do is much greater than $2.15 trillion, every single year.
The 1% also control the governments that supposedly regulate those destructive corporations. The millionaires include 46 percent of members of the U.S. House of Representatives, 54 out of 100 senators, and every president since Eisenhower.
Through the government, the 1% control the U.S. military, the largest user of petroleum in the world, and thus one of the largest emitters of greenhouse gases. Military operations produce more hazardous waste than the five largest chemical companies combined. More than 10 percent of all Superfund hazardous waste sites in the United States are on military bases.
Those who believe that slowing population growth will stop or slow environmental destruction are ignoring these real and immediate threats to life on our planet. Corporations and armies aren't polluting the world and destroying ecosystems because there are too many people, but because it is profitable to do so.
If the birthrate in Iraq or Afghanistan falls to zero, the U.S. military will not use one less gallon of oil.
If every African country adopts a one-child policy, energy companies in the U.S., China, and elsewhere will continue burning coal, bringing us ever closer to climate catastrophe.
Critics of the too many people argument are often accused of believing that there are no limits to growth. In our case, that simply isn't true. What we do say is that in an ecologically rational and socially just world, where large families aren't an economic necessity for hundreds of millions of people, population will stabilize. In Betsy Hartmann's words, "The best population policy is to concentrate on improving human welfare in all its many facets. Take care of the population and population growth will go down."
The world's multiple environmental crises demand rapid and decisive action, but we can't act effectively unless we understand why they are happening. If we misdiagnose the illness, at best we will waste precious time on ineffective cures; at worst, we will make the crises worse.
The too many people argument directs the attention and efforts of sincere activists to programs that will not have any substantial effect. At the same time, it weakens efforts to build an effective global movement against ecological destruction: It divides our forces, by blaming the principal victims of the crisis for problems they did not cause.
Above all, it ignores the massively destructive role of an irrational economic and social system that has gross waste and devastation built into its DNA. The capitalist system and the power of the 1%, not population size, are the root causes of today's ecological crisis.
As pioneering ecologist Barry Commoner once said, "Pollution begins not in the family bedroom, but in the corporate boardroom."
Ian Angus is coauthor of Too Many People? Population, Immigration, and the Environmental Crisis. He is editor of the ecosocialist journal Climate and Capitalism.
Simon Butler is coauthor of Too Many People? Population, Immigration, and the Environmental Crisis. He is editor of Green Left Weekly.
27th October 2011 - George Monbiot, The Guardian
It must rank among the most remarkable events in recent human history. In just 60 years, the global average number of children each woman bears has fallen from 6 to 2.5. This is an astonishing triumph for women's empowerment, and whatever your position on population growth, it is something we should celebrate.
But this decline in fertility, according to the United Natinos report published on Wednesday, is not the end of the story. It has also raised its estimate of global population growth. Rather than peaking at about 9 billion in the middle of this century, the UN says that human numbers will reach some 10 billion by 2100, and continue growing beyond that point.
That's the middle scenario. The highest of its range of estimates is an astonishing 15.8 billion by 2100. If this were correct, population would be a much greater problem – for both the environment and human development – than we had assumed. It would oblige me to change my views on yet another subject. But fortunately for my peace of mind, and, rather more importantly, for the prospects of everyone on earth, it is almost certainly baloney.
Writing in the journal Nature in May, Fred Pearce pointed out that the UN's revision arose not from any scientific research or analysis, but from what appeared to be an arbitrary decision to change one of the inputs it fed into its model. Its previous analysis was based on the assumption that the average number of children per woman would fall to 1.85 worldwide by 2100. But this year it changed the assumption to 2.1. This happens to be the population replacement rate: the point at which reproduction contributes to neither a fall nor a rise in the number of people.
The UN failed to explain this changed assumption, which appears to fly in the face of current trends, or to show why fertility decline should suddenly stop when it hit replacement level, rather than continuing beyond that point, as has happened to date in all such populations. I expected yesterday's report to contain the explanation, but I was wrong: it appears to have plucked its fertility figure out of the air.
Even so, even if we're to assume that the old figures are more realistic than the new ones, there's a problem. As the new report points out, "the escape from poverty and hunger is made more difficult by rapid population growth". It also adds to the pressure on the biosphere. But how big a problem is it?
If you believe the rich, elderly white men who dominate the population debate, it is the biggest one of all. In 2009 for example, a group of US billionaires met to decide which threat to the planet most urgently required their attention. Who'd have guessed? These men, who probably each consume as many of the world's resources in half an hour as the average African consumes in a lifetime, decided that it was population.
Population is the issue you blame if you can't admit to your own impacts: it's not us consuming, it's those brown people reproducing. It seems to be a reliable rule of environmental politics that the richer you are, the more likely you are to place population growth close to the top of the list of crimes against the planet.
The new report, inflated though its figures seem to be, will gravely disappoint the population obsessives. It cites Paul Murtaugh of Oregon State University, whose research shows that:
"An extra child born today in the United States, would, down the generations, produce an eventual carbon footprint seven times that of an extra child in China, 55 times that of an Indian child or 86 times that of a Nigerian child."
And it draws on a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which makes the first comprehensive assessment of how changes in population affect carbon dioxide emissions. It concludes:
"Slowing population growth could provide 16-19% of the emissions reductions suggested to be necessary by 2050 to avoid dangerous climate change."
In other words, it can make a contribution. But the other 81-84% will have to come from reducing consumption and changing technologies. The UN report concludes that "even if zero population growth were achieved, that would barely touch the climate problem".
This should not prevent us from strongly supporting the policies which will cause population to peak sooner rather than later. Sex education, the report shows, is crucial, as is access to contraception and the recognition of women's rights and improvement in their social status. All these have been important factors in the demographic transition the world has seen so far. We should also press for a better distribution of wealth: escaping from grinding poverty is another of the factors which have allowed women to have fewer children. The highly unequal system sustained by the rich white men who fulminate about population is one of the major reasons for population growth.
All this puts conservatives in a difficult position. They want to blame the poor for the environmental crisis by attributing it to population growth. Yet some of them oppose all the measures – better and earlier sex education, universal access to contraception (for teenagers among others), stronger rights for women, the redistribution of wealth – that are likely to reduce it.
And beyond these interventions, what do they intend to do about population growth? As the UN report points out:
"Considerable population growth continues today because of the high numbers of births in the 1950s and 1960s, which have resulted in larger base populations with millions of young people reaching their reproductive years over succeeding generations."
In other words, it's a hangover from an earlier period. It has been compounded by another astonishing transformation: since the 1950s, global life expectancy has risen from 48 to 68.
What this means is that even if all the measures I've mentioned here – education, contraception, rights, redistribution – were widely deployed today, there will still be a population bulge, as a result of the momentum generated 60 years ago. So what do they propose? Compulsory sterilisation? Mass killing? If not, they had better explain their programme.
Yes, population growth contributes to environmental problems. No, it is not the decisive factor. Even the availability of grain is affected more by rising livestock numbers and the use of biofuels – driven, again by consumption – than by human population growth.
Of course we should demand that governments help women regain control over their bodies. But beyond that there's little that can be done. We must instead decide how best to accommodate human numbers which will, at least for the next four decades, continue to rise.
1st November 2011 - Worldwatch Institute
As the global population surpasses 7 billion people sometime around the end of October, addressing the challenges associated with a still-growing world population will require a two-pronged response, according to experts with the Worldwatch Institute. The combined measures of empowering women to make their own decisions about childbearing and significantly reducing global consumption of energy and natural resources would move humanity toward rather than further away from environmentally sustainable societies that meet human needs.
Roughly 4.5 billion people have been added to the world population in just the last 60 years, according to United Nations estimates, putting increased strain on the world’s ecosystems and resources. Because humans interact with their surroundings far more intensely than any other species and use vast amounts of carbon, nitrogen, water, and other resources, we are on track not only to change the global climate and deplete essential energy and other natural resources, but to wipe out thousands of plant and animal species in the coming decades. To some extent, these outcomes are now unavoidable; we’ll have to adapt to them. But in order to improve the likelihood they will not be catastrophic, we need to simultaneously work to influence the future path of population and to address the environmental and social impacts that continued population growth will have.
“It is precisely because the human population is so large and is growing so fast that we must care how much we as individuals—and nations—are increasingly out of sync with environmental sustainability,” said Worldwatch President Robert Engelman, an expert on global population. “The challenge becomes even more with each generation. Fortunately there are ways to practically and humanely both slow population growth and reduce the impacts associated with the growth that occurs.”
Earlier this year, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) launched 7 Billion Actions, a campaign to highlight positive actions by individuals and organizations addressing global development challenges. By sharing these innovations in an open forum, the campaign aims to foster communication and collaboration as the planet becomes more populated and increasingly interdependent.
“Addressing global population growth is not the same thing as ‘controlling population’,” Engelman said. “The most direct and immediate way to lower birth rates is to make sure that as high a proportion as possible of pregnancies are intended, by assuring that women can make their own choices about whether and when to bear a child. Simultaneously, we need to rapidly transform our energy, water, and materials consumption through greater use of conservation, efficiency, and green technologies. We shouldn’t think of these as sequential efforts—dealing with consumption first, then waiting for population dynamics to turn around—but rather as simultaneous tasks on multiple fronts.”
Worldwatch recommends two main approaches to mitigate the impacts of a soaring global population:
Empower women to make their own decisions about childbearing. More than two in five pregnancies worldwide are unintended by the women who experience them, and half or more of these pregnancies result in births that spur continued population growth. Engelman has calculated that if all women had the capacity to decide for themselves when to become pregnant, average global childbearing would immediately fall below the “replacement fertility” value of slightly more than two children per woman. Population would then move onto a path leading to a peak followed by a gradual decline, possibly well before 2050. Women must be able to make their own decisions about childbearing free from fear of coercion or pressure from partners, family, and society. And they must have easy access to a range of safe, effective, and affordable contraceptive methods and the information and counseling needed to use them.
Consume fewer resources and waste less food. Humans appropriate anywhere from 24 percent to nearly 40 percent of the photosynthetic output of the planet for food and other purposes, and more than half of the planet’s accessible renewable freshwater runoff. In addition to overuse of finite resources, humans waste large quantities of food every year. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, industrialized countries waste 222 million tons of food annually. If fewer resources and less food were wasted, the world would be able to feed more people and use fewer resources. With nearly 1 billon hungry people worldwide, wasting less food would also mean utilizing existing resources—not new ones—to feed them.
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