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Population: What to Do When There Are Too Many of Us

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  • Augie
    Population: What to Do When There Are Too Many of Us By Robert Engelman, Island Press June 10, 2008 http://www.alternet.org/story/87520/
    Message 1 of 1 , Jun 13, 2008
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      Population: What to Do When There Are Too Many of Us
      By Robert Engelman, Island Press
      June 10, 2008


      http://www.alternet.org/environment/87520/#comments ]

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      http://www.alternet.org/feedback/ ]

      Editor's Note: The following is an excerpt from More: Population,
      Nature, and What Women Want by Robert Engelman. Copyright 2008 by the
      author. Reproduced by permission of Island Press, Washington, D.C.

      All historical eras are shaped by the material and environmental
      realities of their time. Our own reflects the adjustments society and
      nature have made to accommodate the unprecedented 6.7 billion human
      beings now alive. And those changes are dramatic. The planet is
      warming dangerously as a result of the heat-trapping byproducts of our
      daily lives. Half of the primeval forests that existed at the end of
      the last ice age are gone. A mist of mercury and other toxic metals
      from coal combustion falls continuously on land and ocean, and to eat
      fish is to absorb these metals yourself. Half of us are now urban,
      rarely if ever meeting up with creatures wilder than crows,
      cockroaches, and, in some cities, packs of feral dogs.

      And this is just where we are today, while the beat of growth goes on.
      Little if any of this would have transpired had human numbers peaked
      long ago. Such a peak might have occurred by now, even with the gains
      in life expectancy of the past century, if the status and reproductive
      intentions of women had found consistent support rather than silence
      and censure.

      Beginning little more than a century ago, social acceptance of
      contraception began to grow and to spread around the world. That led
      to dramatic declines in birthrates that gathered force as human
      population throttled past a few billion. Who knows how much closer we
      would be to a meltdown of Greenland's ice or the collapse of critical
      ocean fisheries had this collective wisdom -- a public good derived
      from individuals acting in their private interest -- not dampened the
      rise of population? Given the increasingly plausible threat of one or
      more interacting environmental catastrophes, the slowing of population
      growth is a triumph of human wisdom and good fortune. This realization
      is only slowly dawning, however, on the community of journalists and
      other opinion leaders.

      The dominant concerns in many countries about population aging and
      decline are hardly baseless. These developments may well challenge
      societies. Populations may have more old people than young for a
      while, because yesterday's baby boomers are heading toward old age
      even as young women are having fewer children. Over time, however,
      extreme age disparities should subside as these large generations pass
      on, the more so when average fertility returns to close to two
      children per woman. Assuming it will.

      Some demographers, eyeing the stubborn low fertility of women in most
      of Europe and parts of east Asia, are beginning to wonder if such a
      return to replacement fertility is possible. Some allude in cautionary
      tones to the possibility of a "low-fertility trap," a vast pool of
      demographic quicksand that prevents women from ever returning to
      replacement fertility once their childbearing average drops below
      about 1.5 births. There's no real basis for such speculation, however.
      The world is too dynamic and our experience with intentionally low
      fertility far too new.

      What might eventually unfold is something far more appealing: birth
      cohorts of consistently equal size across generations. The most
      demographically stable age structure for a population would be for
      each year's "class" of babies to be the same size as the one the year
      before, and ten, twenty-five, or fifty years before. No single age
      group, young or old, would naturally claim any more of society's
      attention than any other, at least based on their numbers. That's a
      population structure worth striving for.

      For now, population aging is the inevitable outcome of two of the most
      positive developments of modern times: longer life spans and the
      realized intentions of women to have fewer children, later in their
      lives. Modern views on human rights and equality hardly would have
      allowed most women to continue giving birth to many more children than
      they wanted. And populations hardly could have continued growing in
      the twenty-first century at the same torrid pace as in the middle
      decades of the twentieth. Some populations had to be the first to
      experience the leveling off of growth and then decline, and in most
      cases this has occurred with no significant increases in death rates.
      That's rare, maybe even unprecedented, in human history.

      Today, humanity still grows by 78 million people annually-the rough
      equivalent of a new Texas, California, and New York each year. Unless
      death rates rise catastrophically or birthrates plummet far more than
      anyone expects, the end of world population growth is still decades
      away. It's reasonable to expect that humanity will grow to 7 billion,
      8 billion, or even higher before the number levels off for good
      reasons or bad.

      What dominates our experience in the first decade of the third
      millennium are the technologies and institutions we have invented,
      disseminated, tinkered with, and improved over thousands of years to
      make human life on such scales possible. We've done well. Not only are
      more people alive than ever, but most of us live longer than our
      ancestors did. Quite a few of us spend our entire lives in comfort and
      with tools and toys that those ancestors never could have imagined.

      I stress the adjustments we've made to adapt to our growing population
      because I grant Julian Simon, the late twentieth-century champion of
      perpetual population growth, this point: we human beings are, if not
      the "ultimate resource," at least awfully smart. When the going gets
      tough, the tough get patents. Had hunters and gatherers never run low
      on food and turned by necessity to cultivating it, we wouldn't have
      cities or symphonies or cell phones. I certainly wouldn't be typing on
      this laptop, anticipating a book that might appear in a bookstore
      window thousands of miles from my home. Innovation indeed is much of
      what makes human beings successful, but it also keeps the angels on
      the edge of their celestial seats, wondering, Can they do it again?

      Each new pressure point creates the need for new innovation, and each
      new innovation produces effects of its own, many of them unintended
      and quite a few problematic. Why do things bite back, to borrow from
      the title of a recent book? One reason (not actually mentioned in that
      book) is that it's getting crowded in here. In societies with low
      population densities relative to available natural resources,
      innovation's side effects often waft away, unimportant and unnoticed.
      In high-density societies, there's less tolerance for error, systems
      tend to be more sensitively balanced, and the scale of everything that
      people are doing is larger relative to the natural world. "When we try
      to pick out anything by itself," Scottish American conservationist
      John Muir wrote, "we find it is hitched to everything else in the
      Universe." So what happens when 7 billion people pick out 7 billion

      Losing Nature

      We're finding out. Much of the human behavior we find unsustainable
      today is not so in its essence, but in its scale. Julian Simon used to
      say that more people leads paradoxically to more nature, but the
      history I've presented in this book makes clear that over the long
      sweep of time the trend is otherwise. The planet is in the early
      stages of a species extinction episode not seen since the dinosaurs
      disappeared. If you could somehow ask Mother Nature what she
      attributes this to, I think she'd likely say not just "people," but
      "this many people."

      Yes, some populous human societies plant trees to anchor vulnerable
      soils or set aside tracts of land for recreation or to preserve
      important ecosystems. How long the trees will grow remains a question,
      however. And the set-asides rarely protect all the land's wild
      inhabitants-not to mention the water or the steady climate that
      supports ecosystems over the long haul.

      Protection is not necessarily forever. When the needs of growing
      populations press hard enough, in wealthy and poor countries alike,
      "set aside forever" often becomes a hollow promise. The biological
      reserve near where I swam years ago in southern Mexico is now
      pockmarked by the cleared land of impoverished squatters, whose needs
      can't ethically be denied or easily redirected to biologically less
      important land. Closer to my own home, the scarcity of affordable
      housing is undermining an agricultural reserve meant to save the last
      few farms of Montgomery County, Maryland. Wealthy societies tend to do
      a better job than poor ones of cleaning up environmental messes, but
      they rarely if ever improve upon what was there before the mess was
      made. Having more people might contribute in some cases to
      strengthening environmental protection, but not enough to matter over
      the long term.

      In 1984 Simon and futurist Herman Kahn suggested that population
      growth can bring about more solitude, because more people own cars and
      elude the madding crowds on improved roads. It would be interesting to
      poll drivers around the world about this assertion today. Earlier,
      Kahn had predicted dramatically new energy sources and undersea cities
      by the year 2000. It's not just doomsayers on population and the
      environment whose forecasts sometimes don't pan out. So far, the
      twenty-first century is not proving at all kind to cornucopian
      predictions. While I was writing this book, the last backwaters of
      doubt that humans are propelling the planet toward uncontrolled
      warming dried up. Those who have claimed in the past that the
      environment just keeps getting better and better, thanks to wealth and
      technology, today seem strangely quiet.

      "Ecosystems are at a tipping point, "wrote the Washington Post, not
      usually known for tree-hugging advocacy, "verging on a collapse from
      which they won't recover." A front-page news story on "oil's new era"
      in the Wall Street Journal gave the last word on the subject to energy
      consultant Henry Groppe, who glumly suggested, "We have entered the
      era of scarcity and price rationing" ...

      Faces of Want

      In the industrialized world we feel the impacts of population growth
      and density in traffic congestion, in the inability to afford a home,
      or in paychecks we might have stretched further in a less crowded
      world. In many developing countries the toll is far higher and
      climbing faster. To explore this is to wade into the endless debate on
      the relative weight of the many causes of modern hunger, poverty, and
      violent conflict present in so many developing countries. Some points,
      however, are clear and well documented. Well over 800 million
      people-the number has been rising in recent years-are chronically
      undernourished, and during the 1990s the countries with the highest
      population growth rates made the least progress in reducing hunger.

      Scarcities of water, closely tied to the tension between nature's
      fixed supply and the needs of growing human populations, are
      increasingly commonplace. Urban areas bid up water's price. Farmers
      lose access to water for irrigation precisely when rising food demand
      forces new production to rely on irrigation rather than rain. After
      generations of subdivision, farm plots are now so small in densely
      populated African countries that few young adults can hope to marry
      and launch families without moving to the city. "If I had known I
      would have so little land to pass down to my sons," a Zambian tribal
      chief once commented to his niece, my friend Wanga Grace Mumba, "I
      wouldn't have had so many sons."

      Land shortage helps explain the genocidal conflict in Rwanda, which
      has one of the lowest ratios of cropland to people and the second
      lowest ratio of renewable freshwater to people in mainland Africa.
      Such scarcities might also be behind the explosion of child
      abandonment seen most often among populations in which fertility is
      high and the use of contraceptives rare. Today some parents exile
      children they no longer want or no longer can support to urban
      streets. Or they sell them into early marriage, prostitution, or slavery.

      Certainly the progressive degradation of cropland is among the reasons
      that the UN Population Division projects that in 2008, human beings
      will cross the threshold to being a mostly urban species. Cities have
      long stimulated the rich diversity of human culture, but in the
      world's most rapidly growing ones not many people are celebrating.
      Almost all urban expansions today are not planned neighborhoods, well
      supplied with infrastructure and services, but slums. Health
      indicators are often worse in cities than in the countryside that
      urban migrants left behind. "I think we know cities in Kenya can
      hardly sustain the population they have," observed Doug Keating of
      Oxfam International on the prospects for rural exodus to cities as the
      organization helped pastoralist communities in northeast Kenya cope
      with a withering drought.

      The loss of forest cover, closely tied in developing countries to the
      ongoing need for more farmland, is among the biggest destroyers of
      species in a wave of extinctions comparable to those that occurred in
      the earth's remote and unpeopled past. It's an instructive irony that
      the places friendliest to the survival of biological diversity include
      the Demilitarized Zone between the two Koreas, various guerrilla-held
      areas of Colombia, and the "radioactive nature preserve" known as
      Chernobyl in the Ukraine.

      Without tree roots to anchor it, deforested soil easily changes form
      during heavy rains into flowing mud that seeks its own level-sometimes
      on top of a village. This is a sadly common story in densely populated
      and rapidly deforesting countries from the Philippines to Guatemala.
      The Ugandan farmers who hurt themselves falling off their steeply
      sloping fields, whose story opened this book, run the risks they do
      because nearby level land was deforested long ago and is already taken
      or has been farmed to exhaustion.

      Human incursions into forests sometimes spur new pathogens to discover
      what a vast and inviting pool of protoplasm human bodies present.
      We're a bug's banquet. Our domesticated animal companions and
      livestock spread their own pathogens around in the wild, threatening
      species that have far smaller populations than theirs. We know from
      history that most infectious diseases tend to be closely related to
      population density and mobility, but the pace of pathogen exchange is
      occurring far more rapidly today than ever before. Malarial mosquitoes
      thrive in the pond waters of deforested land, and scientists are now
      confident that HIV/AIDS made its way from chimpanzees to humans a few
      decades ago, probably when a bushmeat hunter penetrated the forest,
      butchered his quarry, and absorbed some of its blood.

      In some places, even the traditional lifestyles of indigenous people
      who thrived in forests for centuries are no longer sustainable.
      Wildlife Conservation Society biologists Elizabeth Bennett and John
      Robinson calculated that tropical rainforests can support at most one
      subsistence hunter per square kilometer. "More than that and you're
      depleting the resource," Bennett told the New York Times. "There are
      few corners of the tropics at this moment that have so few people. You
      can probably still have it in remote sections of Amazonia. In Sarawak
      [in Malaysia], the indigenous people have the legal right to hunt. But
      there's been a population explosion, and there are three of them for
      every square kilometer of forest. That's three times the sustainable
      number. If they all employ their rights, they'll hunt out the forest."

      Bennett was not blaming indigenous people, who themselves suffer the
      effects of the growth of non-indegenous populations around them, for
      hunting out the forest. You might just as well blame an individual
      driver for a traffic jam. But the unsustainability is real, no matter
      how much we respect the dignity of indigenous individuals. It stems
      not from subsistence hunting itself, which is ancient, but from
      hunters' high population density, which is recent.

      Bags of Ice

      Thousands of years ago, subsistence hunters running out of prey, like
      those in Sarawak, became farmers whose descendents launched the
      world's great city-based civilizations. Such past adaptations made
      humans what we are today, but humanity stands in a quite different
      place now. Sum up the total mass of human beings, add all our pets and
      livestock (40 million farm animals are born each year in the United
      States alone), and factor in our processing of energy and materials.
      We are a biological and geological force never previously witnessed.
      What once may have been win-win strategies of adaptation are now more
      often win-lose strategies-or desperation lose-lose plays. We are bulls
      in a china shop. Almost any turn we make sends the porcelain flying.

      The use of fossil fuels and the Industrial Revolution itself began as
      science-based adaptations to energy scarcity and unsustainability.
      Coal, a dirty fuel long thought inferior to wood, was first used on a
      large scale around the sixteenth century as the forests of Europe were
      exhausted by large-scale land clearance for farming and the burning of
      wood for fuel and iron smelting.

      Today, the world burns nearly 5 billion metric tons of coal each year.
      That's about three-quarters of a ton for each person on earth, with
      comparable combustion of oil and natural gas for each of us-all
      driving a human induced warming of the planet whose endpoint we can't
      yet imagine. Even though the thought of tempering growth is not yet
      mainstream, the implausibility of growth without end is becoming more
      obvious in a closed-atmosphere, carbon-constrained world.

      Humanity's energy dilemma becomes more obvious when we think clearly
      about alternative fuel sources. Adaptations, again, become problems.
      The sheer scale of human energy use is so vast that even today's small
      steps toward replacing fossil fuels with biofuels boost food prices
      and put ecologically valuable land at risk. The calories needed to
      keep a Hummer humming could feed a hundred humans. And anyone wealthy
      enough to own a Hummer can outcompete a hundred hungry people for the
      energy stored in plants.

      Enough solar energy to dent fossil-fuel use significantly would
      require panels and mirrors covering thousands of square miles of land,
      much of it valuable for other purposes. Enough windmills to do the
      same would draw howls of protest for visual pollution, their tendency
      to slice up heedless birds and bats, and the likelihood that large
      enough fields of turbines might even affect local weather.

      Storing carbon in new forests will face the constraint that, as one
      analyst suggested glumly, "as the human population continues to grow
      ... the earth's surface will be too disturbed." Hydrogen as a fuel
      raises the question not only of what type of energy will be used to
      separate the element from water molecules, but of where that water
      will come from and what will be the impact of water vapor emitted by
      hundreds of millions of vehicles. Nuclear energy leaves us with the
      potential for proliferating weapons-grade plutonium and waste that
      takes hundreds of human lifetimes to become harmless. "No primary
      energy source, be it renewable or nonrenewable," write Jeffrey Chow,
      Raymond Kopp, and Paul Portney, analysts with the environmental think
      tank Resources for the Future, "is free of environmental or economic

      But suppose we fail to make this essential shift away from
      carbon-based fuels. Then, we can try to cool the earth's fevered
      surface literally with smoke and mirrors-massive injections of sulfur
      dioxide mist into the stratosphere, perhaps, or trillions of small
      reflective panels sent into orbit around the planet. Feasible? Safe?
      Probably not, but such options are taken more seriously as the gap
      grows continually wider between actions taken and actions needed to
      avert future climate change.

      One of my favorite Big Fixes is the oft-mentioned idea of towing polar
      icebergs to relieve freshwater scarcity. But how do you lasso an
      iceberg? How do you tow it, break it up, and distribute it? One group
      of scientists calculated recently that there's enough ice in the
      world's largest recorded iceberg -- a frozen island the size of
      Jamaica that broke off the Ross Ice Shelf in Antarctica in March 2000
      -- to provide everyone on earth a ten-pound bag of ice cubes every day
      for the next seventy-five years. The scientists didn't account, of
      course, for population growth. But more to the point, what happens
      when the iceberg is used up? The world's people will be standing
      there, more numerous than ever and parched, waiting for bags of ice
      that will no longer arrive.

      One way to reduce climate dangers, of course, is to disperse the risk
      of unintended consequences by diversifying the alternative sources of
      energy used. The more sources of energy, the less any one of them
      needs to be relied upon and scaled up to massive proportions. That
      makes dangerous side effects and tipping points less likely. Another
      strategy for avoiding climate risk is simply to use less energy of all
      kinds through improving efficiency. There's plenty of room for that
      now. But just as dieting gets harder with each pound lost, the more
      efficient energy consumption gets, the harder it is to find the next
      improvement in energy efficiency.

      For long-term reductions in energy consumption, population decline
      counterbalances this problem nicely. The current momentum of
      population growth all but guarantees there won't be population
      declines for several decades. Those are precisely the decades during
      which humanity could make the easiest gains in energy efficiency. And
      just about when energy use is about as efficient as it can be in an
      imperfect world, human population could begin to shrink. That will
      remove much of the burden of squeezing additional water from the stone
      of a super-efficient global energy system. The need to reduce demand
      for fossil fuels will grow more urgent with each passing year as the
      global climate warms and the illusion of endless carbon-free energy
      gradually fades. And population decline reduces energy demand, all
      else equal, without any hardship for anyone.

      This is a more sensible strategy than trying to turn icebergs into ice
      cubes, but that idea is at least innocuous. Other proposed Big
      Fixes-from genetic engineering to feed the hungry to nuclear energy to
      avoid toasting the planet-are dangerous. As a species, we're running
      out of resilience to stand the cures for what ails us. Increasing
      numbers of people in all walks of life and all corners of the world
      are starting to know this in their guts, if not necessarily to think
      it through in their heads. About the most appealing vision on the
      horizon is the likelihood that rapid human population growth soon will
      be something for the history books. Just when we can see the wall
      we're hurtling toward, we're braking our demographic growth through
      the realized intentions of hundreds of millions of women and their
      partners to have just one or two children, when and only when it suits
      them to do so.

      Dreams of People Everywhere

      ... There are good reasons why the importance of population growth to
      the loss of nature is little studied and rarely remarked on. It's next
      to impossible to quantify or otherwise separate out the impact of
      demographic scale from the many other reasons the environment appears
      to be crumbling around us. But I suspect the larger problem is
      ignorance and the resulting hopelessness about population growth ("you
      can't stop people from having children") or, worse, the fear of blame.

      Who wants to be seen as implying that parents who have three or more
      children and want decent lives for them are somehow more at fault for
      our environmental problems than governments or corporations or drivers
      of sport utility vehicles? It's not that there's any compelling
      research absolving population growth as a long-term force in
      environmental degradation. It's just that researchers don't like to
      risk their reputations by appearing to hold prolific parents
      answerable for the sorry state of nature. "No demographer,"
      demographer Donald Bogue wrote recently in challenging his colleagues
      to explore the social and environmental impacts of migration, "wants
      to be seen as a neo-nativist"-or even someone worried about population

      This is not only understandable, in many ways it's commendable. The
      history of science makes clear that we're in a far better place than
      we were in the nineteenth century, when some biologists backed up
      racism with dubious science. Most of us would rather err on the side
      of believing that every human being is of equal worth and has an equal
      right to direct her or his own life. The challenge is to maintain
      these convictions and yet objectively face the root causes of
      problems, striving to imagine ways to resolve them that are consistent
      with our values. Population is one realm where this is not only
      possible, but powerfully appealing-the success of a values-based
      strategy is already evident. Leave to women, more than to anyone else,
      the decision about when and how often to bear children. The history
      I've explored in this book suggests that doing so has moderated
      population growth in the past, and contemporary evidence makes clear
      that it does exactly that

      Robert Engelman is vice president for programs at the Worldwatch
      Institute. Formerly vice president for research at Population Action
      International and founding secretary of the Society of Environmental
      Journalists, he has served on the faculty of Yale University. His
      writing has appeared in Nature, The Washington Post, and The Wall
      Street Journal.

      Live Simply So That
      Others May Simply Live
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