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Peak Population

8/12/2008 3:22:41 PM

Tags: Environment, population, overpopulation, population crisis, energy crisis, global warming, climate change

Let’s not repeat our energy failures when addressing the global population crisis

OverpopulationAmericans 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.



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Post a comment below.

 

cb_brooklyn
8/20/2008 10:37:17 PM
See this article for much information: The 9/11 Truth Movement, Free Energy Suppression and the Global Elite’s Agenda http://www.checktheevidence.co.uk/cms/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=182&Itemid=60

Russ
8/15/2008 4:42:42 PM
Sorry -- I didn't make the link below work. Here it is. http://www.PanEarth.org

Russ
8/15/2008 4:35:59 PM
When addressing any ongoing and seemingly intractable problem or difficulty, it is vital to have an understanding of the root causes. The underpinnings of human population dynamics are no different than the underpinnings of the population dynamics of any other species. Please go to www.PanEarth.org and see the narrated slide show, which also addresses the issue of the demographic transition.

Gary Ashcraft
8/14/2008 7:05:14 PM
The solution is natural, both painful and inescapable. PANDEMIC As I write this we flutter like moth's about the flame both drawn to and inevitably destroyed by our own inability to exercise restraint. We can not apply first world solutions to third world problems, so forget about using any kind of logical solution to a global problem where 1/4 of us attempt to chastise the other 3/4 for not acting in our enlightened self interest. We will not die for lack of petroleum, we will die if not from plague, then from starvation & thirst for potable water ( You heard it here 1st, I PUT MY MONEY ON PANDEMIC )

Gerry Todd
8/14/2008 6:45:57 PM
It's great to have such an intelligent forum. I would suggest refraining from using the word "control", certainly when following "population" and even following "birth". The word instantly closes minds and stops dialog with its image of Big Government controlling our private lives and "taking away our rights." Instead I would suggest talking of a sustainable population, or a population that doesn't exceed the carrying capacity of the city/state/country/planet, and to appeal to values such as personal responsibility and creating a better future for our children. Gerry Todd

Dave Gardner
8/14/2008 4:58:24 PM
We're seeing more and more commentaries like this one, so it is nice to know the dialogue is increasing, which means we are beginning to chip away at the taboo of discussing over-population. I'm studying this for a documentary I'm producing, and I can assure you the taboo is very much alive and in need of a big chisel. If only everyone could understand the basic math: human impact on the planet equals population times per-capita resource intensity. This means the more we expand our population, the more we'll need to simplify our lifestyles if we want to somehow, someday, live sustainably on Earth (rather than in the current state of plundering the planet with no regard for future generations). It turns out that simplifying our lives and getting off the treadmill of endless growth and consumption will actually increase our happiness, but it would be nice to have some margin of error built into our equation. As for immigration, it's hard to imagine achieving global population stability when we have nations like the U.S., Canada, Australia, and Scotland, to name a few, banking on immigration as a means to keep growing their economies. And at the very same time, in nations such as Russia, Japan and Germany, baby bonuses are being paid due to concerns about declining GDP in the face of population decline. News bulletin: a little temporary population decline is the cheapest way to reduce your carbon footprint. Very nice piece! Dave Gardner Producer/Director Hooked on Growth: Our Misguided Quest for Prosperity www.growthbusters.com

Sue Holmberg
8/14/2008 11:19:50 AM
You mention education as a way to reduce population. In fact, several studies show that education of girls in particular, especially for basic literacy, strongly reduces fertility rates in developing countries. Gender inequality is a dangerous pollutant, while women and girls in possession of economic opportunities and political power is the best form of birth control.

Nick_7
8/14/2008 1:57:14 AM
Birth control is a non-sequitur. This practice, in the long run, when strictly implemented, lead to a not-sustainable society (masses of old people burdening the young, not producing but consuming the most part of the increasingly scarce resources). We need either to increase indefinitely our number, or to maintain (in a way or another) a "correct" ratio young/old, even in a not-growing society. In nature, the ecological balance is maintened, and without any "birth control", but we (the humans) have altered the "control mechanisms", which allows the spreading of new human beings getting rid of the old ones...

Jeff Berner
8/14/2008 1:53:04 AM
I applaud this article. Many of us have been thinking about this issue for some time. As we discuss this issue in the political arena, we need to be considerate that others may not have reached the similar conclusions. I'd suggest that one can gently guide others in the discussion as follows: 1. Everyone agrees that eventually population needs to stabilize with births equaling deaths. 2. Why is it difficult to discuss the issue of how that might occur? Shouldn't this issue be part of the public dialogue? 3. At least can we agree that there are things which are good to do from a public health and policy perspective and also work to stabilize population. - It is better for a mother and child's health if she postpone's motherhood until out of her teen years - People should only have children if they are emotionally and financially able to care for their children - It is better for a child's well-being if she is born and raised in a stable environment with two committed care givers - Having children is a significant cost to an individual which will affect one's ability to buy a house, pay for college, or establish a business or career. Consider your ability to obtain these goals when you have a child.

John Anthony
8/13/2008 6:37:01 PM
Overpopulation is a problem very few want to address. It’s the proverbial elephant in the living room, although the vast majority doesn’t see an elephant. They see only a cute bundle of joy. Across the socio- and political spectrum people utilize any tactic to steer clear of the topic. When the subject is “too many humans,” at stake is the very existence of the individual or someone dear and innocent to that individual, especially a child or, that sacred of all that is sacred, the baby. Ironically, the existence of ALL individuals is the crux of the matter. Overpopulation is the most devastating problem facing the world, today. Sadly, very few want to hear about it, much less do anything about it. Arguments against the idea of decreasing the human population are emotional or hypothetical. Theology is a popular rationalization for multiplying, but it can’t be substantiated outside the parameters of belief. Subsequently, any facts about the horrible consequences of overpopulation are dismissed by the faithful, for they are in possession of “divine” knowledge, something that, in their minds, transcends reality. One thing about the “divine” and “miracle” status of human reproduction is reproduction is certainly not divine or a miracle. Rats, cockroaches, virus’, all organisms under the sun reproduce. Over 6.7 billion humans can hardly be called a “miracle.” Sometimes, the personal consequence argument is used. “How would you like it if you were never born?” or “Would you support decreasing the world population if your spouse was the one to not exist?” These are hypothetical conditions and, therefore, no response can be legitimate. Paradoxes cannot justify continued excessive breeding. These methods are from emotional perspectives using theological or imaginary scenarios to perpetuate the greatest contributor to the ails of the world. Overpopulation cannot be addressed from emotional, religious or imaginary premises. There are also those who simply wish to do

David Wright
8/13/2008 4:17:50 PM
You implied that the population of the US is not expanding. It is well documented that the influx if immigrants alone is adding between 2-3 million per year to this country, possibly more. 1.3 million are allowed in and the others arrive uninvited. I also think you are underestimating the birth/death ratio particularly if the immigrants are taken into account. I don’t think it is of value for you to be so PC that factual and complete information is not presented. However, your willingness to at least address the population issue is appreciated as few others are even slightly willing to approach it. When population growth (78 million world wide) is taken in view with the rapid approach of resource depletion it is very difficult to see solutions. I suspect it might be better for individuals to begin looking at options rather than solutions (which may feed the need to be optimistic) but may not serve pragmatic needs of getting by in an over crowed, depleted world.

Clifford J. Wirth
8/13/2008 1:38:23 PM
This is an important article. Peak Oil will bring about mass fatalities globally. The fewer people born now, the fewer of them will die. According to energy investment banker Matthew Simmons and most independent analysts, global oil production is now declining, from 74 million barrels per day to 60 million barrels per day by 2015. During the same time demand will increase 14%. This is equivalent to a 33% drop in 7 years. No one can reverse this trend, nor can we conserve our way out of this catastrophe. Because the demand for oil is so high, it will always be higher than production; thus the depletion rate will continue until all recoverable oil is extracted. Alternatives will not even begin to fill the gap. And most alternatives yield electric power, but we need liquid fuels for tractors/combines, 18 wheel trucks, trains, ships, and mining equipment. We are facing the collapse of the highways that depend on diesel trucks for maintenance of bridges, cleaning culverts to avoid road washouts, snow plowing, roadbed and surface repair. When the highways fail, so will the power grid, as highways carry the parts, transformers, steel for pylons, and high tension cables, all from far away. With the highways out, there will be no food coming in from "outside," and without the power grid virtually nothing works, including home heating, pumping of gasoline and diesel, airports, communications, and automated systems. This is documented in a free 48 page report that can be downloaded, website posted, distributed, and emailed: http://www.peakoilassociates.com/POAnalysis.html I used to live in NH-USA, but moved to a sustainable place. Anyone interested in relocating to a nice, pretty, sustainable area with a good climate and good soil? Email: clifford dot wirth at yahoo dot com or give me a phone call which operates here as my old USA-NH number 603-668-4207.






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