people with head in sand

Guardian Podcast Launches Important Population Conversation

Congratulations to the UK Guardian for having an intelligent conversation about the link between population growth and climate change on its monthly podcast, We Need to Talk About…:

Should We be Having Fewer Children for the Sake of the Planet?

The link above gives you an excellent written summary, but you’re well-served to listen to the conversation here:

We Need to Talk About…Population and Climate Change

Vicky Frost hosts the series, with audio produced by Stuart Silver and Rowan Slaney. For this important conversation Vicky brings in Lucy Lamble, Afua Hirsch, Damian Carrington and John Vidal. I won’t say I agree with all that’s said, but conversations like this are healthy and valuable.

“If we want to fight climate change should we have fewer children – or should we be focusing more on reducing consumption? Is the answer different depending on where you live in the world? And in any case, how might we make people and politicians engage with this issue?”

It’s inevitable these days that the conversation turns to this completely stupid and unnecessary competition between carbon-reducing actions – ought we focus on having fewer children or is the real problem our excessive lifestyles? I don’t fault Frost in any way for entertaining the question. It needs to be addressed because too many people think it’s valid.

It was raised in this podcast by a comment submitted in advance by a reader/listener, Kevin, from Canada:

“The issue isn’t overpopulation – it’s poor resource allocation. We do not live in a world of lack, but of extreme waste and inefficiency. This is true of food, energy, land use and the financial system. The overpopulation argument is a way to once again deflect from real societal change that is needed, and instead focuses the discussion on families, usually poor families, having too many children.”

Of course, it is true that we DO have inequitable and uneven allocation and distribution of resources. It is troubling that there is such a stark contrast between the excessive footprint of the rich in the overdeveloped world and the tiny footprint of the impoverished in the developing world. Why couldn’t Kevin just remind us of this? Instead he insists that if we just solve the mal-distribution and waste, this planet can sustainably meet the needs not only of today’s 7.6 billion, but also of the 11 billion U.N. demographers expect to see walking the Earth by century’s end (I think that’s a fair interpretation of his comment).

I’m going to allow that to distract me here. READ the summary. LISTEN to the podcast. You’ll find them enlightening. I want to offer Kevin a quick answer here. The most recent Living Planet Report estimates that the CURRENT levels of human population and consumption worldwide are 1.6 times a sustainable amount. We’ve been in overshoot since the 1970s, and each year in overshoot we injure ecosystems such that they have less life-supporting capacity the next year.

“global populations of fish, birds, mammals, amphibians and reptiles declined by 58 per cent between 1970 and 2012.”

I shared a link to this podcast on the GrowthBusters Facebook page. And my comments were challenged by a couple of people like Kevin, who have an irrational fear of humankind taking charge of our rate of procreation – even if done voluntarily by compassionate, informed parents and prospective parents. If you suffer from low blood pressure, read the comments under that post. Here’s an excerpt from one particularly strident objection:

“Nonsense. The side of the story with no factual basis and no reference to reality is the overpopulation argument. That a single individual in the developed world has a resource footprint orders of magnitude larger than individuals in the developing world puts lie to the idea utterly. The argument in favour of dealing with “overpopulation” is a ready made template to disguise xenophobia, intolerance and aggressive protection of Western privilege….”

Sigh. I’m sorry, but that’s ridiculous. It dismisses important actions based on misassumptions assigning negative motives to everyone advocating the action. And it seems to assume that any advocacy around returning to sustainable population levels is aimed only at the behavior of the people in the developing world. THAT is the nonsense.

Here’s a portion of my answer:

“Global Footprint Network scientists estimate the world’s biocapacity divided by the current population comes out to 1.7 global hectares available per person. The entire world will have to agree to live like the average Honduran or Guatemalan in order for your redistribution to work. The average U.S. resident uses 8.6 global hectares. So yes we are hogs and we need to dramatically reduce our consumption. I would dare to guess that your footprint is not 1.7 and you probably aren’t interested in living that way.”

If that commenter is willing to live simply enough that his footprint is 1/5 that of the average North American, then he would be wise to advocate we act to stabilize our population at today’s level. If we, as he insists, ignore population, then he needs to get his footprint down to 1/8 of the average U.S. resident in order to be sustainable at the projected 11 billion world population by 2100.

Now, that MIGHT be possible. But would it be in any way enjoyable? And would all 11 billion people be willing to do that? Wouldn’t it be much easier, much more humane, happier, and even wise to exercise a little caution and recommend that we all scale back our own footprint and at the same time stop procreating after our first child? This advice is directed to the rich as much, even more, than to the poor; and to the white as well as the black or brown.

There is just no need to have a competition between consumption-reduction and population-reduction. The emergency is upon us. We need to do both. Period. Again, thanks to Vicky Frost and the Guardian for launching this round of the conversation.

Photo credit: Peter Rees

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Dave Gardner

Producer of the documentary, GrowthBusters: Hooked on Growth. Dave writes and speaks regularly on the subject of growth addiction, including the pro-growth media bias that perpetuates prosperity-from-growth mythology.

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