The people problem

By Josh Wrightpeople-prob-population-growth

Something’s missing amidst all the discussion of the most pressing environmental problems of the times: climate change the degradation of land due to agriculture, and water shortages. To date, almost all the comment in the media has been about the need for new technology to solve these problems and continue to accommodate the growing world population - and almost nothing has been said about the impact of human population growth. Yet stabilising the population at present levels might be an easier and more durable solution than developing and applying more technology, at increasing costs.

We tend to think this way because historically, population growth has been an easy path to economic growth. Many of us, particularly the younger generation, believe (or have been led to believe) that our technology has allowed us to break free from the resource constraints that limit the populations of every other species. Indeed, it’s almost as if we believe that in limiting our population we would be showing a loss of nerve as a species. But while a steadily growing population may have once contributed to improving quality of life for all of humanity, it is now leading to a high quality of life for a few and a low quality of life for many. While once population growth drove technology development, that rate of growth the resulting consumption may now be driving the need for new technology at a faster pace than it can be reliably developed and applied.

Climate Change people-prob-earth
Consider climate change. Ever since humans mastered fire over 400,000 years ago (our first big technological breakthrough), we have relied primarily on burning carbon-containing materials for our energy, a process that releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Before the Industrial Revolution 250 years ago, the natural ‘respiratory’ cycles (photosynthesis by most flora) could deal with the carbon emissions. But now our sheer numbers and per-capita consumption have overwhelmed the capacity of these cycles and started to destroy the natural environments in which they are based. This is a serious problem, with emissions accumulating rapidly and actually changing the climate.

Technological Advancements
One of the most favoured technological solutions to the problem of carbon emissions is clean coal (find out more here: people-prob-nuclear_power But clean coal, which involves the development of not one, but several new technologies, is at this stage a hope, not a reality. What if it doesn’t work, or works only one-third as well as we hoped? Nuclear energy is another technology paraded as a solution to the problem of accumulating carbon emissions. But again, there is a significant problem with the technology, which has remained unsolved for more than 50 years: what to do with the enormous amounts of waste that no natural nor man-made cycle can currently deal with in a meaningful time frame? In lieu of all this uncertainty, it could only be wise to at least simultaneously start stabilising human population, which we know we can do.

A key problem with using technology to overcome limited natural resources is that even when it works, it is never a permanent fix. The unforgiving increase in human numbers ultimately creates new problems, leading to yet another scramble to find a technological solution as quickly as possible. Take the solution to the problem of hunger for example: no sooner had the enhanced harvests achieved in the green revolution been made available to the hungry millions than we were told that we now urgently needed more advanced genetic engineering to help feed a new generation of hungry millions.

Another obvious problem is that technology alters the condition of the things to which it is applied, particularly processes in nature. Technology can turn something naturally occurring into something effectively human-made. For example, what begins as a free-flowing river ends up as a dammed, power-producing, flood-mitigating, controlled water channel. The loss of natural states and processes may not concern some. But to others, what remains of the natural world is now more valuable than the expanding number of humans for which these remnants may have be sacrificed if unlimited population growth (and as such, consumption of energy and food) continues.

What Lies Ahead?
people-prob-favelaIt is true that per capita consumption is an important contributor to the problem of limited resources. However, population growth is the primary contributor, because each birth sets into motion a lifetime of consumption at some level. In contrast, a birth foregone means a lifetime of consumption foregone, even at its most subsistent level.

There will never be a better time to think about the benefits of stabilising the human population than now! Society has dedicated its thoughts mostly to dealing with the nearly irreversible problems of climate change, peak oil and lack of clean water. A more stable population would make a lasting contribution to solving these, as well as similar environmental problems that are likely to arise. It seems irresponsible not to discuss the idea along with all the technological solutions being considered. As an economist might say, it’s time to look at the problems arising from limited natural resources from the demand side as well as the supply side.

Human Rights people-prob-one-child-policy
Of course, the stabilisation of human population is a contentious issue. The most obvious case study of population control is in China, and the one-child policy implemented there. The policy has attracted controversy and has garnered a negative reputation because of its perceived harmful side effects; that it serves to widen the gap between the rich and the poor, and rural and urban areas; that it can contribute to infanticide – particularly female, and that it is a fundamental breach of human rights But this policy, which was implemented in 1979, seems to have been effective. The Chinese government estimates that it has three to four hundred million fewer people in 2008, than it would have had otherwise. As a result of this huge number of reduced births, supporters of the policy argue that China’s health care service is of a higher quality, especially for women, and financial savings per-person have increased. Perhaps more importantly the slowing of population growth has eased the demand on the tight supply of resources, and lowered China’s ecological footprint – allowing for a better quality of life for the Chinese people.

There are now more than six billion of us. Is another billion of us going to make life better overall or worse? Isn’t it time to divert the resources that will go into managing the increasing quantity of human beings, into stabilising numbers and increasing our quality of life? Is there any problem that wouldn’t be easier to solve with fewer of us?


Population Connection
The Voluntary Human Extinction Movement
What Stops Population Growth, Hans Rosling

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2 Responses to “The people problem”

  1. jennieod says:

    Check this article out for a different perspective!

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