Friday, April 2, 2010

Save the Planet, have a baby.

© 2010 Joshua Stark

With some really good caveats, an author over at Grist makes the same mistake about overpopulation I and many others have made... well, ever since Malthus, I suppose.  With good intentions (but a bad, bad history), many people (let's call them "scared folks") today argue that overpopulation is the single biggest cause of our environmental collapse, and I believe they are truly concerned about it (yet, fortunately, many of them do not take any serious steps to address the problem).

Their arguments usually start with the scary number of the moment - which right now is 7 BILLION PEOPLE.  Then, they usually appeal to papers, scientists, and philosophers discussing the threat of an even greater population.  Nowdays, the number used is over 9 billion by the back-half of this century.  Then, they stop talking about population numbers, trends, or real-world ways that population growth is curbed (here is where my first frustration lies).

Instead, scared folks usually begin some good talk about consumption, but they cover it too lightly, especially since they left out some really important words about the long-term population trends of the world.  They almost always mention that it would take ten Earths to live like a typical American, or that all humans right now emit x amount of carbon/year or are consuming one-third more than our Earth can sustain.

They usually end with a dire warning and an admonition of sorts.

To be fair, the Grist author had a slightly different take on the concept, and also wanted to use this as a way to tell folks who've decided not to have babies that they are okay, and they should be proud of who they are.  I'm okay with that part.  As for the worries about having children and the destruction of the planet, however, I am not.

I've blogged about this before here and here, and I'll say it again:  There is no correlation between population growth and carbon emissions.  In fact, countries with shrinking populations, with few exceptions, emit levels of magnitude more carbon both in total and per capita than countries with population growth.

So what are scared folks missing?  Well, first they are missing the long-term population conversation.  The U.N. projects a declining world population within 100 years, and considering the trends of the past 50 years, their level of projected decline is conservative.

Scared folks also avoid/don't know about factors that actually cause populations to slow growth or even decline.  Two major factors correlate to slowing population growth:  Women's education and infrastructure. (Funny, but merely telling people to have fewer kids actually induces them to have fewer kids.)

You see, in societies with little or no safety nets, family is the safety net.  By increasing women's education (even through grade school), and by building and improving electrical grids, hospitals and roadways, you increase the wealth of a nation as well as its consistency and reliability.  When that happens, people have reason to wait around a little longer, and have fewer children - because they don't need the safety of young marriage and many kids to make it to adulthood and provide for them in their old age. 

Next, scared folks ignore/miss out on the real problem of human habitation on our planet:  Consumption.  Our current consumption patterns are unsustainable. Period.  By focusing on the population number, however, rather than the consumption numbers, they miss the real solutions that currently exist (and they come across as incurably elitist).  For example, two countries currently buck population decline's perverse inverse-proportion relationship to carbon emissions.  Japan and Denmark maintain very low carbon emissions (and other pollutants) while maintaining a good lifestyle for their citizens and seeing populations decline. 

Scared folks also do not consider the physicality of 9 billion people to the world.  To get a better look at consumption patterns and the potential for dramatic improvement, consider this thought experiment:

At it's projected largest amount of 9 billion people, if every person were to be housed in the U.S., and each individual person were given 1/5th of an acre (twice the size of the property my family of three lives on with three ducks and a dog), we would still have five hundred million acres left over.  Five hundred million acres is about 100 million acres more than we farm crops in the U.S.  If the thought experiment is done with family units, the amount of left-over acreage multiplies four times. 

And we are only the fourth largest country on Earth.

Now, I am not proposing everybody move here, okay?  What I'm doing is giving perspective.  There currently exists plankton blooms in single locations that are six times humanity's biomass.

Besides the silliness and ineffectiveness of inferring that people have fewer babies, and the lack of connection to the physical world's realities (complete with solutions for doing much better for our planet), scared folks join a group rife with racism and elitism.  I'm sure the vast majority of folks scared about overpopulation aren't racists or even conscious elitists, but the simple fact is that A)  brown folks' countries have the highest growth rates; and B) pollution (especially greenhouse gas pollution) is far and away the result of very wealthy regions with declining populations.  By keeping their eyes on the population ball, they ignore the real problem of the world, and by ignoring the real problem of the world (overconsumption by wealthy regions and folks) they become de facto elitists.

They also miss out on the fact that babies actually save the world.  From 1960 to 2000, the world's population doubled, from three to six billion people, and yet our air quality is far better than it was in 1960, and many pollutants we'd used daily are now gone forever.  They are gone because people had kids.  These kids both gave impetus for solving the great problems of the world, and actually helped solve them, when they grew up.  (These kids pay into social security, too.) 

Having kids isn't the big problem right now.  The problem is consumption.

To help solve this problem, we should start with a chart of carbon emissions by economic quintile.  I'm still looking for one.

In the meantime, just remember that babies can save the world.  I know my talking about it won't make people have babies, just as scared folks won't really put a dent in people choosing to not have babies, but don't fear them as a group.  As individuals, however...


Albert A Rasch said...

I don't know...

I still don't like people that

Best Regards,
The Rasch Outdoor Chronicles.
Reviewing the Nikon Monarch 8X42.

Josh said...

That is about the best over-population comment I've read in quite a while.

On a related note, I stole your button for my "Lands on the Margin" blog.