“Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored” – Aldous Huxley
Of late, no publication, public discourse or conference has gone by without mentioning anthropogenic global warming (“AGW”), which, in the face of some scientific disagreement and reality checks, has been rebaptized “climate change”. It has had a considerable “production value” by promoting itself as the incumbent catastrophe, widely popu-larized in the Press by the Al Gore self-propaganda machine and the film “An Inconvenient Truth”, which has terrified cinemagoers and established the course for a new carbon-less era.
All other environmental, economic, societal issues arising from human activities are ignored when not visibly connected to AGW.
Population – the immediate threat
There is, however, one very important – but neglected – issue: How are we going to feed, clothe and provide health care and a decent future for the 9 billion people (or more) – a number which current UN estimates says will be reached by 2050 – if we cannot even provide the basic necessities now?
The continuous demographic growth is the natural consequence of the very young age structure of the current world population and the momentum it fosters. A large share of the population is concentrated in the developing countries, where women average five or more children. Human pressure on the ecosystems is multi-plying all human problems; all environmental crises and AGW are the fruit of the demands of an unsus-tainable human population growth.
The immediate threat is population. On 15 February 2009 at 15:21 GMT, the population of the US reached 305,822,862, while the world was at 6,760,713,753. At 15:23 GMT, the numbers were US 305,822,872, world 6,760,714,906. In those few minutes, humanity has been very busy. Doing the numbers, the dramatic rate of daily growth becomes readily apparent. These figures imply something like one million sex acts a day. It is not our wish to deny anybody a fair share of sane enjoyment; it is just that uninhibited human fertility seems to become self-destructive.
This issue is worth discussing because it has for so long been neglect-ed. Dr John Feeney, environmental writer and owner of the Global Population Speak Out (GPSO) website (http://gpso.wordpress.com) warns that, “It is the great taboo of environmentalism: the size and growth of the human population.” I would add that it may even have something to do with AGW and, quite possibly, with the current economic slowdown and the oil crisis.
Humans create environmental history
Humanity, more than any other species, has the power to modify its environment, climate included. At least 750,000 years ago, Homo sapiens changed the climate with its use of fire in order to clear the land for hunting, destroying the forests and replacing them with grassland. An agro-pastoral economy that started in the Mediterranean basin in the early Holocene period around 10,000 years ago increased the supply of energy, resulting in an increase of population, which in turn affected all aspects of human activity.
In spite of the numerous disaffected scientists that deny the human connection to climate change, many agree that the pace of global warming is likely to be much faster than predicted, due to increased burning of coal in developing countries, as well as the clearing of forests for agriculture and habitation.
As these factors are all naturally related to the size and requirements of population, the issue is self-explanatory. Technology or punitive laws won’t be much help because, according to several authorities, “reduction in greenhouse gas emissions … will be partially offset by the increase in human activity resulting from an increase in population.”
Energy and CO2
Our provision of food and materials is now 80% dependent on fossil fuels, which has increased energy use, biomass consumption and geo-graphical range. It is obvious, however, that this cannot continue forever. In a statistical trends analysis, Walter Youngquist, Consulting Geologist of the Geothermal Resources Council and New York Academy of Science, concluded that we would run out of cheap oil well before technology can find a safe and abundant replacement. With the rise of human numbers, fierce competition between regional powers for access to scarce reserves is already on. Energy-saving makes sense for offsetting the carbon footprint – the culprit of AGW – and so does the nuclear option, as suggested by environmentalist James Lovelock.
Even the Gulf States, now holding most of the world’s oil, will be experiencing soon a decline in oil production, which explains the hurry with which some of them are spending substantial accumulated wealth in alternative energy research.
But it isn’t only industry and transport that are consuming energy. Wherever we look, we find the pre-valence of oil and other forms of fossil-based energy. Civilization created by agriculture relies on topsoil. Some estimates maintain that topsoil is being lost at least 16 times faster than it can be replaced. Today, soil fertility requires oil and natural gas; modern agriculture is a way to transform oil into food.
Now that the price of oil has gone precipitously down, do the well-documented predictions of a peak in oil production loose their authority? Not a bit. According to a new research report by Merrill Lynch, “Global oil production decline rate is set to accelerate in the coming years ….” Alas, the western world is responsible for the greatest output of emissions of CO2 in the atmosphere – and it is the total amount of CO2in the air that matters. As Nobuo Tanaka, Executive Director of the International Energy Agency, stated in a recent IEA press release, “We … must usher in a global energy revolution by improving energy efficiency and increasing the deployment of low-carbon energy.”
Still, there’s no mention of population. Who consumes the energy? We seem to have a big problem with that subject.
Forests and CO2
Agricultural expansion through forest depletion has multiplied emis-sions of greenhouse gases such as CO2. Poor peasants need land to grow food on it. The intensification of production to provide more food to an increased population leads to a greater increase in population, which will find its safety valve in urbanization, industrializa-tion and, at the last resort, emigration.
It is claimed that by 2030 the world population will require a 50% rise in food production. Moreover, corporate farms provide food on a huge scale, as grazing pastures for the meat that a growing market requires.
Moreover, demand for biofuel rivals food production, pushing food prices up. The plight of the developing world is echoing louder and louder in the conference rooms of international planners; however, the idea that demography has something to do with the world’s capacity to produce enough food doesn’t seem to figure in their agendas. Instead, these specialized NGOs issue proposals that recommend putting an end to malnutrition as a major policy objective of governments.
Limits to demographic expansion
The number of animals grows as fast as resources permit. This rule applies to humans even when there’s only the perception that the resources are infinite, as it has been during the past “Age of Plenty”. But economic rules apply to ecology: a growing number of consumers augmenting exponentially their consumption leads to depletion of resources and final collapse.
According to Pareto, the allocation of resources cannot improve some-body’s conditions without undermin-ing someone else’s. His calculation that 80% of effects depends on 20% of causes has been applied to every sort of phenomena, and it is especially men-tioned in the global distribution of wealth. “If the poorest 80% of humanity were to adopt the patterns of consumption presently enjoyed by the richest 20%, we would face an ecological, social and political disaster. Even so, the sole intent of the World Bank, the International Monetary
Fund, the North American Free Trade Agreement and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade is to create a so-called homogeneous, global world. Such a feat is structurally and politically impossible.” (Xabier Gorostiaga, “World has become a ‘champagne glass’ – globalization will fill it fuller for wealthy few”, National Catholic Reporter, 11.2.2009)
As the dependence on cheap energy has created an illusion of continuous growth, economic failures, due to an excess of supply, have been metabolized through massive injections of liquidity, based on public and private debt. In this entire crisis, the overpopulation is the thermometer of the limits to growth and at the same time the incentive to more economic growth: more births mean more consumers, a humanity whose main credo is compulsive consumption of useless throw- away products, which deplete more and more precious resources needed for sustaining basic necessities.
Population restraint developed in industrial countries is not sufficient. It may be that Italy, Spain, and some other European countries are below the replacement level of two babies per woman, but immigrants are more than happily obliging to fill the gap. In the US and the UK, where the population is growing due to high immigration rates, the immigrants themselves have acquired western consumption habits.
Besides, land is a limiting factor: where are we going to put them all? Newspapers have a social duty; it seems, to sustain the cause of solidarity and ethnic diversity, in order to justify immigration. Today, any state which closes its frontiers will be called fascist, so the dialogue on immigration becomes a taboo, just as the world population of migrants hits 175 millions. But now, when the local workforce finally appears willing to do the “jobs that the locals don’t want to do” and we face rising unemployment, the immigrants are becoming economically obsolete.
To answer the question of how many people the Earth can support, ask yourself another question: “What kind of world do I want?”
The way to a sustainable future
The Kyoto negotiations are more or less an ethical declaration which indicates that the natural metabolism has been fatally modified by the social and economic metabolism of a growing population.
Years of negotiations have shown that industrialized countries are not willing to sacrifice the well-being of their populations, while developing countries are reluctant to accept constraints on their growth. Similarly, Milton Friedman stated: “Only a crisis produces real change.”
If opinion makers, politicians, economists and business entrepre-neurs were obliged to study the principles of ecology, they would finally understand the connection of an affluent lifestyle based on non-renewable resources and the folly of overpopulation. They would be able to overturn pro-natalist and pro-immigrant policies and help the Third World to limit, with available humane methods, their fertility to a more sustainable level.
Maria Luisa Cohen is the founder and President of the Assisi Nature Council, Association for Environmental Education and Ethics, and an endorser of the “Global Population Speak Out (GPSO) Letter”. An author and frequent contributor to several publications, she also organizes seminars, conference and events, and is consulting editor of the journal Environmental Awareness.