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Monday, July 18, 2005

Populating the Future

It is becoming increasingly obvious that human activity is straining the ability of the earth’s environment to cope. World leaders are slowly accepting the reality of anthropogenic climate change, among the many environmental threats facing us. Environmental organisations and scientists are increasingly people who have known about environmental destruction for their entire working lives, and their audiences are often people who have been instructed in these same lessons since birth.

But there is one issue that is supposedly well understood, but very seldom articulated: population. Put quite simply, rising populations cause environmental harm. Rising populations that are experiencing rising per capita environmental impact rates cause even more harm.

We can chase our tails over the reduction of greenhouse gases, over deforestation, over coral reef destruction as much as we like. Unless we can either reduce our population or our per-capita impact, we are living on borrowed time.

To put it quite simply the population living on the earth at the moment is living well beyond the ability of the earth to sustain us in the long run. We are existing in the early stages of what is known as overshoot. We have overshot the carrying capacity of the earth and our population levels will eventually correct to reflect this. (Estimates have been done of the long term carrying capacity of the earth, and best estimates suggest a value of around a billion people)

Think of any resource that is vital to our survival: We are using it unsustainably. Water in aquifers is being depleted, farmland is losing precious fertility, weather patterns are becoming more violent and forests are being felled far above replacement rates. We have been able to do this because we are able to use fossil fuels as a substitute – and there is no way of using fossil fuels sustainably.

In the long run the environment of the earth will no longer be able to sustain our current lifestyles and population levels.

Now, there are four options open to us. First, we can attempt to reduce population. This will require a Herculean effort, and one that most cultures not only shy from but actively loathe. We currently see in the US the possibility of long standing rights to access abortions being reversed. The catholic church refuses to bend on the issue of contraception. In any case, such efforts are like trying to restrain a galloping horse with dental floss. Until populations actually experience a shortage of the necessaries of life they will continue to grow.

Secondly we can attempt to lower per-capita environmental impact. Some people around the world consider that their personal impact on the environment is small, but it is easy to forget that there is a certain basic impact that is unavoidable. Everybody requires an amount of water, productive land and other natural resources to survive. Many people in the world already exist at or near this minimum, so we can’t expect them to lower their standard of living. Western nations are quite simply unwilling to face the prospect of a lower impact on the environment in any serious way. This is because, in despite of the small superficial things we do or say that we do, the reduction of per capita impact in any serious way would mean a reverse to the economic growth that we take for granted.

Some will argue that we have been able to achieve economic growth through increased productivity and the growth of the service sector, rather than increasing use of resources. These are beguiling arguments, but fail to recognise that while that may be true in individual countries, for the world as a whole growth means increased impact on the environment – more trees felled, more fossil fuels burnt, more land cultivated.

While the global economy exists in its current form there is no possibility that we can face up to the difficulties of shrinking environmental impact. In any case, very few people actively strive for a reduction in their living standard. Those that do are often marginalized or ridiculed.

So, our third option is to try to a bit of both of options one and two. You can see the difficulty there, I’m sure.

Option four is to do nothing and let nature takes its course. I am quite sure that this is what we will do, given the inherent unpalatability of the other three options. What might this mean for us? Well the first thing is, when we can no longer increase the amount of fossil fuel we use, and when we have destroyed the forests, fisheries and farmland of the earth, the population at the time will start to learn some very bitter lessons about natural population fluctuations.

Whether we can use our much vaunted intellect to engineer a soft landing rather than a population crash remains to be seem. But I think the fate of bacteria in a petri dish bears thinking about.

Bacteria put into a virgin environment perfect for their growth will very quickly start reproducing at an exponential rate. They grow until they fill then environment entirely, at which point they start to become subsumed in their own waste products. This leads to a very steep reduction in population.

Like the sound of that?