Curbing population must contribute to solving the climate crisis

By John Guillebaud, Martin Desvaux, February 7, 2008

With due respect to Betsy Hartmann, we will not “break loose from the population debate.” The data demonstrate clearly that removing the many barriers to family planning worldwide–including simply making contraceptives realistically accessible and providing correct birth-control information within female education–is among what Betsy terms “the real tasks at hand.” Although it’s not the only remedy needed to blunt climate change, it’s an utterly crucial and tragically underfunded one.

As numerous surveys and 80 million unwanted conceptions annually demonstrate, the good news is that this is an unmet need, and meeting it worldwide is possible with relatively little extra funding–a few billion dollars as opposed to the trillions of dollars needed to combat climate change. Can anyone show us consumer survey data of a deep unmet need perceived among people to reduce their consumption?

It’s not helpful to polarize the debate between those for whom the roots of poverty and environmental degradation are, to quote Betsy, “located in structural economic, political, and social (including gender) inequalities” and those who “see [the roots] in overpopulation.” The two viewpoints are complementary. Having fewer people on the planet doesn’t produce or reinforce those inequalities. In fact, we would argue the opposite: Consumers generate growth and profits; therefore, economic growth strategy involves encouraging more consumers, which produces more waste and emissions. Costs must be kept down to stimulate sales growth, so manufacturing goes to poorer countries where unemployed people will work for low wages. That’s why we still effectively have widespread slave labor 200 years after it was abolished! Of course, these inequalities are wrong.

History shows that while world population increased from 2.5 billion people to 6 billion people in the second half of the twentieth century, it is likely that those in a constant state of hunger more than doubled from 500 million to 1.2 billion during the same period. (See “The Fatal Inheritance,” p. 77 for more.) Trying to eliminate these inequalities without addressing further population growth (properly resourced, and, as Betsy would rightly emphasize, in a gender-empowering and totally non-coercive way) is simply pouring gasoline on the flames of poverty.

Betsy, can you not see that climate change–just one example of humanity’s environmental impact– is caused in large measure by the sheer number of climate changERS contributing (i.e. us humans)? We’ve been able to multiply sevenfold in the last 200 years only because of the transient availability of fossil fuels, which are non-renewable, and humankind has appropriated in the process major portions of all the planet’s resources for our selfish use. We lost sight of the fact that Earth has limits. When species multiply beyond the capacity of their environment, nature provides no alternative to a die off. Unprecedented global disasters loom and all of us are the problem: The rich, because of how they wastefully over consume (that must change), and the poor, because of their reasonable aspirations to leave poverty, which means increased consumption and hence inevitably more greenhouse gas production per person. And the number of persons in both subsets of the population is steadily increasing.

Unremitting population growth can only end in tears. As we argued in our previous post, we need an urgent plan to curb overpopulation. We challenge readers to refute the global ecological footprint data that show how Earth cannot feasibly accommodate, at least without a continuation of unacceptable poverty, the 9 billion humans that current demographic momentum (PDF) makes certain.

Even now, there are too many people for the average resources per capita that we’re consuming. Footprint analysis clearly demonstrates this. We need a paradigm shift in political and cultural thinking to accept the need for population reduction, in almost every country, down to environmentally sustainable levels.


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