Friday, May 08, 2009 4:05 PM
Discussing the effects of a rising human population on the environment tends to bring out heated opinions here at Utne Reader. “I’ve been accused of a variety of moral failings that range from supporting eugenics to hating babies,” wrote our publisher, Bryan Welch, in his commentary “It’s the Population, Kids.” And blog posts about population by Julie Hanus and Morgan Winters have kicked up a fair amount of dust.
The passions burn even hotter in the pages of the radical environmental journal Earth First!, which bravely addressed the issue head-on in “Rad Babies” in its March-April 2009 issue (article not available online).
“Does the decision to bear a child contradict a life in defense of the wild?” wrote “Leah” in her introduction to a host of mini-essays by fellow radicals. (Many Earth First! correspondents use pseudonyms.) Some of them had the temerity to answer “no.
“Chrysta” said shunning or isolating radical parents is exactly the wrong approach, and that children raised with an environmental consciousness can become “vehicles of change. “Erika” wrote that “resistance to parents is what keeps us from staying in the community” and suggested a greater tolerance for those who’ve chosen to procreate. And “Mike Robe” took a bigger-picture view, suggesting that “green fascism” and “a right to reproduce as much as one wants” are both flawed extremist positions.
A couple of letter writers in the May-June issue didn’t just beg to differ. They sputtered, they ranted, they fumed.
“I was horrified at the blatant justification to further increase the already metastasizing human population on this bloated, besieged, and dying planet,” wrote one.
“It is sad when an environmental magazine publishes an article that extols the virtues of an environmentally devastating and incredibly selfish act,” wrote another. “No one’s genes are that special, and it is an almost unfathomable level of arrogance to think that your child will somehow be different than the huddled masses of Earth-trampling shit machines.”
Luckily, “Ash” stepped in to stop the self-hate. Describing herself as “a rad mama to an unplanned but not unloved vegan niblet,” she says she used to be an anti-breeder but nows sees “the universal purpose in my destiny. My daughter has added a lot of chutzpah to my eco and animal activism.”
Good luck, Ash. From what I can see, you’re going to need a lot of it.
Source: Earth First!
Monday, April 27, 2009 12:28 PM
Russia has been victim to staggering death statistics for the last hundred years or so. Rapid transformations in governance and war has afflicted this country more than others in the west—Russia claimed the most casualties in WWII with varied estimates between 13-26 million dead. Since 1992, however, Russia’s population has been steadily declining, and unlike before, no social or political upheaval is to blame. World Affairs journal explains what’s causing lower birth-rates and excessive mortality rates in the resource-rich nation, and why in 2006, life expectancy is three years lower than it was in 1964. Changing ethics on marriage and children and an “explosive upsurge in illness and mortality” threaten the working population who are most at risk. A highly literate country where you can receive a good education is the same place where heavy drinking is the norm and a liter of vodka costs less than a liter of milk. According to this article, there’s no stopping the population decline until Russia saves itself—the question is when and how.
Source: World Affairs
Thursday, March 19, 2009 11:36 AM
Have you heard? In 2007 a record-breaking number of U.S. babies—nearly 40 percent—were born to single mothers. But the stat that’s not making headlines, writes Julia Whitty for Mother Jones, is the one we ought to heed: 2007 also holds the title for most babies born annually in the United States ever, period. That’s 4,317,119 bundles of joy.
According to a study published in Global Environmental Change, which Whitty cites, every American baby “costs” six times a parent’s own carbon emissions. “The bottom line is that absolutely nothing else you can do—driving a more fuel efficient car, driving less, installing energy-efficient windows, replacing lightbulbs, replacing refrigerators, recycling—comes even close to simply not having that child,” she writes.
Assuming perpetuation of the standard U.S. lifestyle, true indeed. But Whitty mitigates her argument with a final stat: “In comparison, under current Bangladeshi conditions, each child adds 56 metric tons of CO2 to the carbon legacy of the average female.”
And in a snap, we’re back where we began. Our spiraling global population is part of the climate equation, no doubt. But sitting heavy on the scales is a disparity in consumption so vast that a single U.S. newborn can be charged with 169 times the environmental havoc as a Bangladeshi infant. So much for the innocence of youth.
Plainly speaking, there’s got to be a way to combine consideration for how many people with how much each individual consumes—before nudging the door open to preposterous scenarios where the childfree American can consume with impunity, or carbon-light countries encourage their populations to boom without concern.
As Utne Reader’s publisher Bryan Welch writes in our Jan.-Feb. 2009 issue: “Conservation alone cannot save us from ourselves. With the right combination of imagination and common sense, though, we can begin to address a hard reality: that although the world can always get better, it’s not going to get any bigger.”
Sources: Mother Jones, Global Environmental Change
Image by normanack, licensed under Creative Commons.
Monday, December 01, 2008 3:16 PM
In a bid to help reverse Europe’s serious population decline, Swedish medical student Anders Svensson recently wrote an academic thesis on the financial benefits of state-subsidized in vitro fertilization, Science Daily reports. The idea may seem odd, but Svensson isn’t the first to make the connection between IVF and the economy. Last year the Rand Corporation published a study calculating the costs and benefits of such an initiative and found that the government would theoretically turn a significant profit on its investment in the form of taxes paid by the individual throughout his or her lifetime.
Europe’s dwindling population is currently threatening many state-maintained support programs like Social Security and health care. If the birth rate doesn’t increase soon, children may be increasingly forced to support the aging European population, which by 2050 will have an estimated one in three people over the age of 65. With that responsibility looming, Svensson and others believe that investing government money in IVF programs and technology could help spur future economic growth, as well as improve the morale of thousands of couples who are involuntarily childless.
Tuesday, August 12, 2008 3:22 PM
Let’s not repeat our energy failures when addressing the global population crisis
Americans have a long history of inciting political action by shaking one problem under our politicians’ noses to draw attention to another. It’s like killing two birds with one stone. Liberals are notoriously less-than-fond of Big Oil’s rabid profit margins, so we point out the obvious need for alternative energy. Then, because we don’t want to come off as anti-business, we frame it as an environmental problem. But it is also an economic problem, a social problem, and a foreign policy problem. Our hope, however tenuous, is that the environmental issue is one that can bring everybody, liberal and conservative, together to address the oil conundrum. This has proven to be a reasonably effective approach. While our energy crisis is far from solved, at least it is being talked about by both presidential candidates. Which is a lot more mic-time than they’re giving our other global environmental catastrophe: the population crisis.
A recent report (pdf) by the Population Institute notes that global population could increase from 6.7 billion to as much as 12 billion by 2050. Most of this increase is expected to occur in developing countries. In spite of these bleak findings, the closest thing to population reform coming from the right amounts to, “If the world’s brown people would stop having so many babies, there’d be no crisis.” In other words: Population is not our problem. On the left, sentiment has been that if we ease poverty and increase education in developing countries, the trajectory of global population will even itself out. Basically, solve two pressing problems and the third is a freebee.
For the sake of argument, let’s say that as global citizens, the growing number of people inhabiting the Earth is everybody’s problem. It’s also safe to say that, based on solid statistical evidence, there is a direct relationship between lower standards of living and larger family size. Yet there is no guarantee that addressing these quality-of-living issues will solve the population problem, in part because our definition of what constitutes a problem in population is fuzzy.
We are faced with a crisis not because there are too many of us for the planet to sustain, but because we are collectively using up more resources than the planet can produce. This isn’t just true with valuable commodities, like oil and ore. The most basic of resources are growing scarce as well—food, potable water, wood. While reducing consumption in first-world countries will go a long way in addressing this problem, a population that just keeps growing will eventually overwhelm the planet, regardless of consumption. And as formerly impoverished nations achieve moderate prosperity, their consumption grows, likely negating any environmental benefits from reduced population growth via poverty aid. Therefore, a two-pronged solution is needed: reduced consumption and staved population growth.
It is widely believed that the U.S. population is in decline and has been for decades. Hence, the assumption is that limiting our own population won’t address the global problem. This is untrue on two counts. First, as Utne.com noted in January, the birth-to-death ratio in this country recently reached replacement level again. Second, a child born in a first-world country uses far more resources and therefore emits vastly more carbon than a child born in a developing country. Limiting births and limiting carbon emissions would be far more effective than addressing only one of these issues. This not only makes an impact within our own country, it sets an example for other nations as well.
One of the primary obstacles to enacting effective international policies to curtail the population explosion is that, like climate change up until recently, there is no real consensus that the present global population is a problem. Many countries, including the United States, still actively encourage family growth through tax incentives and other pronatalist policies. Population control—even of the most moderate variety, like simply advocating smaller families—is met with vehement opposition. These objections are not based on science or even logic; they are informed by the human desire to live the way we wish, consequences be damned. Or, put more generously, the biological, mammalian urge to procreate without restriction. The only way to counteract this desire is to make it less profitable to have children.
Rather than giving tax credits to parents, we need policies that attend to educational inadequacies, create affordable food cooperatives, and ensure that all children have medical coverage. Tax credits are meant to provide funds for these necessary services to families. If food, healthcare, and education are provided, actively subsidizing procreation won’t be necessary. This will increase the quality of life for families without punishing parents or promoting family growth.
Next, make birth control and voluntary procedures such as vasectomies and tubal ligations more widely available worldwide. For every unplanned pregnancy averted, one less little bundle of CO2 emissions is born. These changes are not anti-family. They are not a replication of China’s one-child policy. They simply help with family planning and give equal standing to small families, large families, and single people by de-subsidizing procreation. Pair this type of response in Europe, North America, and wealthy nations around the world with poverty relief and education in developing countries, and we may begin to make a real environmental impact that our children, if we choose to have them, can enjoy.
Another barrier facing advocates of population control is that, historically, attempts to limit population growth have often been motivated by the wishes of dynastic Eurasian puppet masters to maintain their grip on the indigenous populations of desirable regions under their control. Put simply, this form of population manipulation is preemptive genocide. Nicholas Kristof offers an astute summation of the grimy history of population control in a review of a book on the subject in the New York Times. This damaging association between the tyrannical and the humanitarian motivations of limiting population bolsters the need for transparent and public worldwide policies. If these policies appear to limit African and Asian populations while France and the United States continue to reward large families, the campaign will be seen as ethnic manipulation rather than an attempt to solve a global emergency. And rightly so.
There is another telling lesson to be gleaned from the crusade to replace fossil fuels with alternative energy: the necessity of acting while we still can. It is beginning to seem that, if velocity continues to build, we may yet solve our energy conundrum. Of course, solving a problem and actually fixing it are two very different things. The one relies on scientific invention (something humanity is notoriously good at), while the other necessitates pragmatic action (something we find much more difficult). Things are still looking pretty bleak. But as the Bush stranglehold begins to weaken, it seems almost certain that we will continue the push toward alternative forms of energy.
We may still dodge the bullet. Because of some long-overdue, forward-thinking policy adjustments—and more to come, one can hope—we may still be allowed a weaning period. In this scenario, energy costs will steadily rise. The poor will bear the brunt of the burden, as they always do in times of economic and industrial transition. But innovation will balloon, and the dividends of increased innovation will grow. If this is the case—and it is far from a forgone conclusion—it will be only because we made the right calls in the nick of time, in spite of heavy opposition from those unwilling to give up the luxuries they’d grown fat on. Any longer and we surely will be forced to forgo a transitional period in favor of more drastic measures.
And what of population? It is no stretch to assume that complacency and an unwillingness to make sacrifices, to self-regulate, will ultimately result in imposed regulation by government or nature. If we do not begin the process now—cautiously and with plenty of forethought, to be sure—our descendants, perhaps only a hundred years from now, will be faced with a crisis so dire that governments will be forced to drastic action.
It is baffling that, given the intense growing pains felt during the transition between fossil and alternative fuels, such concerns are scoffed at. A lack of fortitude and forethought in energy policy almost destroyed the planet, and still might. How much more difficult will it be, sometime in the near future, to make the argument that the choice to have a child is no longer a decision that can be made freely? Better to address the problem now, while we can still stomach the sacrifices a solution requires.
Image by karimian, licensed under Creative Commons.
Friday, January 25, 2008 4:55 PM
For many of us born after World War II, the idea that America depends on its citizens to procreate in order to maintain its status as a world power seems a bit archaic. Sure, we recognize that somebody has to do it, but propagation is hardly seen as the patriotic obligation it once was. If you grew up during the Reagan/Bush years, for example, memories of massive unemployment scares might logically eclipse fears of a waning population too small to fill the jobs that make society function. But dwindling population levels have actually been a major threat to American dominance in the global marketplace, at least according to an article in the Washington Post. So it is with a palpable sense of relief that the Post reports that, for the first time since 1971, the United States has reached a fertility rate above the coveted population replacement milestone, a level where the number of children reaching adolescence is equal to the death rate. This is pretty good news for the country, the article suggests.
The San Francisco Bay Guardian offers a decidedly different response to the news of U.S. population growth in a blog posting by Amanda Witherell. The world’s resources are already stretched dangerously thin sustaining our present population, Witherell points out. An increase in population—particularly in an über-consumerist society like ours, where the increase would have an exponentially more drastic environmental impact than in a developing nation—would be unconscionable.
According to the Post article, “the ‘replacement rate’ is generally considered desirable by demographers and sociologists because it means a country is producing enough young people to replace and support aging workers....” This positive perception of the replacement rate, of course, presumes that our present population is ideal and, consequently, that changes in the size of our population and necessary workforce are unfavorable alternatives to some other, yet-to-be-discovered solution to our environmental problems. Witherell points out in another article that limiting the population is an obvious step toward corralling carbon emissions and the burden we put on natural resources. Too obvious a step, apparently. This preference for an abstract, or even nonexistent, solution reminds us that, at least in America, the simple answer is hardly ever the right answer. Better to offer our children a shot at the great legacy of solving global warming. They’ll thank us, I’m sure. Every single, last one of them.
Photo by Jenn Rensel, licensed under Creative Commons.
Monday, January 07, 2008 6:13 PM
Wild pigs are mysteriously disappearing in southern Florida, Calvin Godfrey writes for the Miami New Times. Godfrey profiles the fruitless attempts of three frustrated hunters, unable to kill the prized wild pigs.
Meanwhile, Miguel Bustillo reports for the Los Angeles Times that Texas communities are being overrun by porcine psychopaths, ravaging crops and menacing citizens. Mike Bodenchuk of the U.S. Department. of Agriculture said, “These pigs are an ecological train wreck.”
In Florida, though, there is still no clear culprit for the pig population plummet. Scientists have cited drought and fires as possible causes. Given the role animal populations play as environmental indicators, both states’ pig problems merit serious second looks.
Photo courtesy of NASA.
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