Sunday, February 8, 2009

Population irresponsibility?

A couple of weeks ago I stumbled upon a very interesting website around economics and the environment, and if you are interested in the dismal science and how it applies to environmental protections, I highly recommend it. It can get heady (read: nerdy) at times, but it is a very good, informative site with some excellent comments from readers.

Well, last week a poster at that blog linked to an article in the British Times Online on population and the environment. In it, Jonathan Porritt, Chair of Britain's Sustainable Development Commission, states: “I am unapologetic about asking people to connect up their own responsibility for their total environmental footprint and how they decide to procreate and how many children they think are appropriate,”. He goes on to state that any attempts at fixing our environmental problems need to actively work to curb population growth.

So here is a question for you all: To what extent do you believe population growth is inherently a factor in environmental degradation, and more specifically, to global warming?

Personally, I see a huge problem in pointing at population growth as a first cause, or near to it. I also think that trying to address it specifically will be an utter failure, and will build resentment and concerns about eugenics and racism. But, there is a silver lining for you ZPG people, to whit, you are aiming too high for reality.

Consider this: The very countries that A) have a population of any voice clamoring for a general population cut, and B) have very low or negative internal population growth patterns, are the very same countries that A) have very strong current social safety nets, and B) are BY FAR the largest emitters of carbon and other pollutants.

It is very easy for an upper-class bloke in England to claim that there are too many babies in the world, when England is looking at a birth rate of 1.7 per couple, and when he will never have to worry about getting support in his old age (or so he thinks). It is also easy to throw around average consumption and emission levels for a country, when it is glaringly obvious that his particular emission patterns are far higher than his country's average, what with his travel and all the papers using energy to print his drivel. It would be better to break down emissions by quintiles, like we do socio-economic patterns.

If you compare pollution emissions to development, you find that those same countries with negative population growth are also the catalysts for, by far, the largest environmental degradation throughout the earth. Why are rainforests burned? Why are we drilling all over the place? Why are we burning coal and corn and palm oil? Only countries with sophisticated infrastructure can use those highly processed products. Is it an irony, or is there some kind of logical connection in the inverse relationship between population growth and devastating consumption?

It turns out that there is a logical connection. The only successful means to curbing population growth have involved two components: 1) Women's education; 2) economic development. When women get even an eighth-grade level of education, reproduction rates fall dramatically. Also, when power grids and highways go up, reproduction rates fall. I'll leave it to smarter folks to tell me why (although I think television may be a factor in the latter case). Obviously, these components have not been instituted as a means to curb population, but they are universally seen as the only ways that have effectively and consistently brought it about.

So the real concern for folks worried about population should be on consumption, and more specifically, how we get women's education and economic development into countries without the subsequent consumption causing environmental devastation. Blaming poor people for having sex won't cut it, and when you actually begin to curb population growth, you will see a number of unintended consequences, especially with regards to social security and per capita consumption.

And that silver lining I mentioned for the ZPG people? Click here.


geomusicon said...

Very interesting arguments. Note that China is the world's number 2 polluter (behind the US)with about 20% of the world's CO2 contribution yet has the world's second highest population, with about 20% of the world's population. I realize that China is also the prime example of a nation that has clamored for population control, but the link between population and pollution is undeniable (and, let us not forget the environmental altruism was not on the government's mind when they instituted population control measures). China's pollution is likely due to the fact that it is a developing nation, one whose economic growth goes hand in hand with pollution. Economic growth is what we want for most countries, I would hope. We don't want to see children starving and diseases proliferating. Nor do we want to see the human rights violations that occur when a populace is in poverty. I don't have any references to support this, but I would suspect that the ecologic impact of a developing nation's economic expansion is directly proportional to its population size. This is certainly the case with China. As India continues to develop, I predict it will climb up the ranks of polluters as well.

I would point out, also, that anthropogenic carbon dioxide is not the only threat to the environment. Once again, look at China. The need to provide drinking water and cleaner energy has its own environmental toll.

Lastly, I think curbing population growth goes way beyond environmental degradation, especially in developing countries (and poorer countries, let's face it.) Never mind where your electricity comes from if you have no food or clean drinking water or access to medicine. Stop having kids if you can't feed them. This idea that you need to have dozens of kids so that two or three may live to take care of you in your old age is not so much environmentally irresponsible as it is morally reprehensible. It is the third world approximation of having more babies to get bigger tax breaks or wellfare checks. As much as I hate the thought of reproductive control, I shudder to think about what China would be like today had they not implemented the one child rule. China is a prime example of a country that can not humanely deal with its immense population. Once you travel to one of these absurdly overpopulated countries, you can truly begin to grasp why overpopulation frightens those of us westerners from our cushy devoloped, gross polluting countries. It is particularly hard for those of us who love nature. It hurts one to drive for hundreds of miles without seeing a single square mile of untouched space. Everyin inch of land has people or agriculture on it.

This is my long way of saying that the observations you made hold true. However, if you consider environmental impact beyond just carbon dioxide, the US was far worse when it was becoming industrialized that it is now. This is of course because we now have the luxury of comfort and leisure with and during which to philosophize on ethics, the environment, and the future. It scares me to think of the environmental impact the US would have had during the industrial revolution had its population been 1 billion.

Josh said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

I think that China is the #2 contributor of Co2, and has so many other environmental problems not so much because of its dense population, but because it is now the site of production for the vast population of U.S. factories and manufacturing. Many U.S. companies simply moved their pollution mills over there in order to not deal with environmental standards here in the U.S. China, in the name of economic progress and a "higher standard of living" accepted these "global" corporations, and now has to provide energy, materials, infrastructure, etc. not just for its own citizens, but for these giant manufacturing plants as well. The funny thing is that once China's economy "catches up" and perhaps becomes a service driven economy (the global corporations are already moving to where the labor is cheapest)then the factories simply move to another developing nation with welcoming arms and then this nation next in line becomes a greater carbon gross polluter and suffers greater environmental damage. Instead of worrying about population growth- nature, through diseases, catastrophic events (global climate change...), and even perhaps our genetic coding (I've heard someone posit that homosexuality is a genetic response to over-population?? who knows.)will take care of population growth if that is even a factor- worry instead about the growth of unchecked and unregulated capitalism and corporations. I think that current events, both our great economic and environmental collapses show that uncontrolled consumerism, materialism, and consumption is what needs to be controlled, managed, clipped, tied, and prevented.
-Zorro Stark

Josh said...

geomusicon, great comments. We agree on much, true, and I think the holy grail for folks moving forward is to find a way for undeveloped, underdeveloped, and developing countries to cleanly develop. Also, please keep in mind the UN report I linked to at the end of the post, as it mentions some very interesting trends in population growth.

Zorro, also some great comments, especially the angle about China's pollution origins. Very vivid imagery about cutting consumption, though (ouch!).

geomusicon said...

Zorro had some excellent points about polluters moving to where the labor is cheaper. However, I disagree with the last point about natural culling of the population. This was true through much of our history as a species. However, now we're so technologically advanced and scared of death that we keep coming up with new ways to avoid dwindling our numbers. Look at all of the natural disasters in India and China--earthquakes, floods--that kill thousands of people yet do nothing to slow their unchecked population growth. The fossil record teaches us that there is a finite amount of ecospace that is monopolized by the dominant taxa. It has taken huge mass extinctions to have a changing of the gaurds, the best example of this being the switch to mammals following the extinction of the dinosaurs. Climate change may be our Chixulub Impact in that we evolved as humans during an Icehouse period of cool temperatures. However, I think we'll do our best to compensate, and it will be our heartless capitalistic corporations that will be at the forefront of innovation to solve these long as there is profit in it.

Anonymous said...

We must not have reached the point of "carrying capacity" (term from Environmental Studies)on Earth then, if our species has not encountered a curb (or culling, as Geo says) of population growth (due to over-population of a habitat's ability to sustain the population). I think many people do claim this, as there is hunger in the world, but in reality, (current)hunger is not due to scarcity, or density, but to the decisions that those in power make about what will be farmed and produced and to whom and where the goods will go to.

If we ever do reach that critical point of population growth, then I think all the technology in the world could not save us ALL in time, but who knows who will be left. Well, perhaps the technology would allow people to colonize other worlds and survive thusly, this being a common theme in Scifi.

Geo, I don't have hardly any of your expertise in Geological history and I can't talk your talk. However, there is one concept that I do understand regarding your field, and that is one tiny aspect of the concept of geological time. The last 200 years of our planet's existence (and incredible exponential increase in population growth) is but a blink of an eye in time, and our next mass extinction or whatever other great event to affect humanity may be just a couple of blinks away or less. It may be the case that the future survival of our species depends exactly on our having the greatest numbers possible in the hopes that at least a few of us (hopefully representing both sexes and fertile at that)will survive and begin the propagating anew.

But then if we were all dead, who would care, the only reason why we are having this conversation is because two people were kind enough to bring us into the world, thus adding our persons to the great numbers that make up 6.8 billion. I for one, am grateful, and I don't know how one decides what part of the 6.8 is one or two too many.

Zorro Stark

geomusicon said...

Zorro, I agree that we haven't reached a critical mass of people yet. However, I would argue that we've reached the critical point of my comfort level. For example, we could grow in population by a few times if we all lived in cities. If we all lived in cities, our environmental footprint could be drastically reduced. However, I don't want the landscape blotted with cities. I like open space and would hate to see wall to wall cities where we all had to live in extreme close proximity to people. I hate apartment living and can't wait to buy a house with some space between my neighbors and me. The arguments you and Josh make about have plenty of room on Earth for more people don't take my personal comfort into acount ;-)

Also, I completely agree that the hunger argument for the present is BS. But that is not to say that if the world's population doubled that hunger wouldn't be a real issue. As toukan81 reminded me, we may some day reach a point where the only space left will be on the seafloor or in space. I'd rather not be around when that happens.

Josh said...

Geo, did you get a chance to read the link to the UN report?