FLOTSAM & JETSAM: The environmental racket over numbers

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

The environmental racket over numbers

Sam Smith

There’s a strange debate rising to the surface, driven a distrust by traditional environemntalists of those who see population policy as far more important than most – including many ecologists – think.

There is actually no reason one can’t use a condom in the back seat of a hybrid or under a solar collectivized roof. In fact, if you did, we might ultimately need both fewer condoms and fewer hybrids. With some mates, it might even be a bit of a come on.

But living in an age of consciously cultivated conflict, such a pragmatic approach is sometimes not welcomed. Add in such factors as religion, ethnic pride, fear of critics and funders, historical horrors of population control, classic growth economics, poll figures and a pride in that we’ve been doing it this way since the Seventies, and you’ve got the making of the dislike of those who think of population as a major factor.

There’s some historical irony in this. After all, the first senator to hold hearings on ecology, amazing some scientists that anyone on the Hill knew the word, was Gaylord Nelson. In my book The Great American Political Repair Manual, published in 1997, I described how his view evolved:

|||| Former Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson, counselor of the Wilderness Society, has a good way of describinglooking at it. At the current rate of growth, he says, the population of the United States will double in 63 years. So at some point around the middle of the next century, we are likely to have ( or need) twice as much of everything we have now. Twice as many cars, trucks, planes, airports, parking lots, streets, bridges, tunnels, freeways, houses, apartment buildings, grade schools, high schools, colleges, trade schools, hospitals, nursing homes, prisons.
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Imagine your city or town as it would look with twice as much of everything. And, oh yes, don't forget to add twice as much farmland, water and food if you can find it. And twice as many chemicals and other pollutants in the air and water, twice as much heat radiation from all the new construction, twice as much crime, twice as many fires, twice as big traffic jams, and twice as many walls with graffiti on them.

Not that everyone accepts this scenario. There are those who think we can, with the help of science and technology, feed tens of billions more people. Some of them are scientists who admit that life will be degraded but think it still physically possible. Some are Roman Catholic bishops who said a few years ago that the earth could support 40 billion people.

Some are the voices of industry or in think tanks. Their argument is based on the economic notion that growth is an unmitigated virtue and that anything opposed to growth is wrong. And many of them are economists who, as Amory Lovins has said, "are people who lie awake nights worrying about whether what actually works in the world could conceivably work in theory."

Gaylord Nelson suggests some questions for them: "Do the unlimited growth folks really believe that the more crowded the planet becomes, the freer and richer we will be? Do they think a finite planet with finite resources can sustain infinite economic expansion and population growth? If not, where do they draw the line? They don't say." ||||

My own view on the matter had changed some years earlier thanks to the arguments of a physicist cousin then working for EPA who argued convincingly that nothing we do to save the environment will matter if the population keeps growing the way it is.

But, within the environmental movement, there is still significant denial of this. Part of it is just loyalty to what one has long been doing. Part of it is fear of ethnic criticism that population programs are aimed primarily at the weak. Part of it is a stunning disinterest among economists to even examine how a steady state economy might function. Part of it is fear of the religious right and its absurd views on birth control. Part of it is the sad distortion of non-profit goals based on the source of grants. And part of it is the fear that any serious concern about overpopulation will place one on the side of a new Holocaust.

Here are a few examples of the hostility towards population-based ecology policies:

- Brad Plumer, Washington Post - It’s true that seven billion people all using the same amount of energy and raw materials as the average American would utterly demolish the planet’s carrying capacity. But if we can either curb our consumption or learn to use resources more efficiently — so that everyone consumes, on average, one-fifth of what Americans do now — then we could, in theory, survive just fine…

A 2010 paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences estimated that slowing population growth (such as making birth control more accessible and improving sex education and women’s rights) could provide “16-29% of the emissions reductions suggested to be necessary by 2050 to avoid dangerous climate change.” Pretty significant. But that still means that 70 to 84 percent of the solution will involve cleaner energy sources, new technologies, improved efficiency, and (quite possibly) a reduction in overall consumption and waste.

Or, as environmental writer Fred Pearce puts it, “Even if we could today achieve zero population growth, that would barely touch the climate problem.” ||||

What if the same arguments were directed at specifics of the traditional ecological agenda? We might find ourselves forgetting about better light bulbs or solar powered road construction signs. But would that help?

Besides, we end up in a endless game of numbers. Here, for example, is a report from Australia:

“Sustainable Population Australia says even if the federal government's emissions targets are met, the benefits will be wiped out before 2020 based on current population growth. A larger population would have to reduce emissions by 20 per cent, instead of the five per cent required in 2011, to bring the nation's total emissions back to 2011 targets.”

Now, as Carl Haub points out, “Many factors may arise to cause fertility rates to drop in countries where the decline has lagged. A rising age at marriage, perhaps resulting from increased education of females and from their increased autonomy; rising expectations among parents that their children can have a better life; decreasing availability of land, forcing migration to cities to seek some source of income; real commitment from governments to provide family planning services and the funds to do so. The list goes on.”

But it also true that “as populations continue to rise rapidly in [some] areas, the ability to supply clean water for drinking and sustainable water for agriculture, to provide the most basic health services, and to avoid deforestation and profound environmental consequences, lies in the balance.”

One of the arguments made against sound population policy is that while America represents only 5% of the world’s population, it consumes about 20% of its energy. True enough, and a good reason for pursuing our present environmental goals. But what cause is there to suspect that if other lands were to improve their economic status they would not eat up more of their share of energy as well? There seems in some of the anti-population policy writing an unmentioned assumption that all those Africans dying young and starving are part of the ecological solution.

This is not a new matter. I remember writing years ago about the curious indifference of the American environmental movement to the ecological concerns of poorer humans. Aren’t starving people as worth saving as elephants?

Further, before we get the right level of carbon tax, other things could happen. Such as reported recently in the Christian Science Montor:

|||| We may also be approaching limits to economic growth. In the 12 years since we reached the 6 billion mark, oil prices have soared from just over $10 a barrel to nearly $100 a barrel today. Also, the price of grains and other basic foodstuffs have more than doubled in the past seven years, contributing to major setbacks in the fights against hunger and severe poverty. With nearly 1 billion hungry people in the world, fears grow that food production may not be able to keep pace with projected population growth. ||||

While sane population policy may not solve all our problems, it won’t hurt. And, if we can tone down the political effects of religious fundamentalists – from Baptists to Catholics – it would make a big difference, as the Monitor noted:

|||| It doesn’t cost trillions of dollars to expand family planning options for women in developing countries. The UN estimates that there are 215 million women in the developing world who want to avoid a pregnancy, but who are not using a modern method of birth control. The UN estimates that providing them with access to contraceptives would cost $3.5 billion additionally a year, a fraction of the $125 billion that the US and other donor nations spend annually on aid to developing nations. ||||

In another article, the Monitor argued:

|||| Stabilizing fertility rates – the average number of children born to a woman in her lifetime – is key to managing population growth. The starting point: more education for girls. That can start a "virtuous cycle" of delayed marriage and childbearing, which leads to fewer children and more investment in the children that are born, says Judith Bruce, a senior associate and policy analyst at the Population Council.

If a girl in the developing world spends just a few more years in school, she has more bargaining power in the home when she does marry. When girls and young women have a say, they tend to have fewer children, and those children stay in school longer, Ms. Bruce says. |||

Note that nothing proposed above mentions population “control,” a scary word sadly used even by advocates of a sane population policy. In fact, like more policies than the media bothers to credit, the decline in population rates has been due in major part to the remarkable collective choices of men and women around the world. Once again, what may save us will not be our leaders, but those they purport to lead.

Thus, simply marrying five years later than one’s parents or choosing to have one or two children instead of four or five can become a covert national policy shared by millions. In one Latin American country, they even found that slipping birth control into the story line of a major TV soap opera increased the use of these tools.

In the end, if we ever manage to retrieve a decent environment it will be thanks to a myriad of policies whose effect will be determined not only by logic, but by weather, budget choices, popular demand and numerous other factors.

For example, which is the easiest way to raise awareness of the issue among the most people: discussing the effects of overpopulation or quoting something like this from Wikipedia: “The scientific consensus is that human-induced greenhouse gas emissions are the primary cause of global warming, and that carbon dioxide is the most important of the anthropogenic GHGs. The physical effect of CO2 in the atmosphere can be measured as a change in the Earth-atmosphere system's energy balance – the radiative forcing of CO2. Carbon taxes are one of the policies available to governments to reduce GHG emissions.”

Bear in mind also that while gas emissions are the leading cause of climate change, there are other serious environmental problems in the world. . .such as millions of of people without access to decent food or water.In the end, we don’t have to choose between population policies and other environmental approaches. We can both cut carbons and carry condoms.