Saturday, February 10, 2018

Too Damn Many People

We are in a population crisis.

Virtually every serious crisis we are experiencing now, from anti-immigrant attitudes, to climate change, lack of housing, homelessness, inequality, warfare, drought, desertification, traffic, scarcity of natural resources, and loss of wildlife, share a common root cause of overpopulation. Like any wonderful thing, it is the dose that makes something great turn into something less great.

The top line of damage is of course environmental destruction. In the last 50 years, the population of wild animals has fallen by half. CO2 in the atmosphere has doubled, which promises an eon of pain for the biosphere. The oceans are awash with trash, and all habitats from the arctic, to prairies, coral reefs, and rainforests are either being directly destroyed by humans and / or are being impaired indirectly by our global effects.

Summer arctic sea ice in dramatic decline.

Politically and socially, the idea that Europe should welcome millions of refugees from Africa and the Middle East, driven themselves by environmenal degradatation and overpopulation, and the conflicts they generate, is creating an understandable backlash. Just as global heating is reducing water and arable land, populations are growing all over these regions due to a modicum of medical and agricultural technology, combined with lack of human development. But is further human development the answer? From an environmental perspective, hardly- while development typically reduces birth rates, it explodes appetites and capacities to degrade the ultimate resource- the Earth- its minerals and biosphere.

An example is China. China carried out one of the most important environmental policies of all time when it instituted the one-child policy. It was, thanks to its draconian nature, effective in keeping population growth under control. Now China has a billion more people than the US, but it could easily have been two billion, in far more miserable condition. It played a big role in enabling the ensuing economic development, which has made China the biggest emitter of CO2 in the world, and generated countless other environmental problems, of global as well as local scope. They are building coal-fired power plants at a breakneck pace, and will be almost doubling worldwide coal-fired power capacity over the next decade or two. This is not driven by population, but by development of existing populations.

We are living far beyond the carrying capacity of the Earth, and our long-term choice is to either live sustainably or to have fewer people. Both seem impossible options, given that true sustainability is far more arduous than what any country has attempted to date, and is very hard to envision. Carrying capacity has many different aspects, from aesthetic features that come with a healthy biosphere, to critical minerals, water supply and agricultural capacity. Each of these has different relations to human population, and different elasticities based on our needs and technology. But we can safely say from the many ways we are degrading the global environment that we are well beyond many individual capacities, especially those that pertain to the biopshere in general, and animals other than ourselves.

Population is unfortunately, precisely the area where we care least about others. Our desires for family and legacy are very personal, often construed as a human right of some sacred or sovereign nature. But summed over the globe, it amounts to another tragedy of the commons, where my chastity merely makes room for someone else's profligacy.

There is no population bomb in the traditional sense. The agricultural technology we have, and the economic systems that drives its use, will insure all can be fed to some degree. There is a bomb, however, in a larger environmental sense. The degradation of the biosphere by humans is a slow-motion attack, as though several nuclear bombs were unleashed every year, rendering large areas uninhabitable, and sprinkling the rest of the globe with all sorts of trashy, choking fallout. These bombs are going off steadily and silently, year in and year out, till we will end up living in a global trailer park.

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