Addressing Population Growth – Through Freedom, Not Control – Is Crucial to Confronting Climate Disruption

(Image: Large crowd, backlit portrait via Shutterstock; Edited: JR/TO) Arguments about overpopulation often target black and brown people, especially in developing countries, and are used to defend killings, forced sterilization and the mass denial of reproductive justice. In reality, population-related problems, which exacerbate climate disruption, stem from overuse of resources in the West.(Image: Large crowd, backlit portrait via Shutterstock; Edited: JR/TO) This story could not have been published without the support of readers like you. Click here to make a tax-deductible donation to Truthout and fund more stories like it! “We have 225,000 people at the dinner table tonight who weren’t there last night,” William Ryerson, the president of the Population Institute told Truthout. “Population is the multiplier of everything else.” Every year, the world population’s net growth is equivalent to adding a new Egypt. Very often, arguments about overpopulation are used in defense of racist, sexist, classist and even genocidal policies, including killings, forced sterilization and the mass denial of reproductive freedom. And often, those arguments target black and brown people, particularly people in “developing” countries, centering the problem on “women having too many kids,” rather than looking at what is actually having a significant effect on the planet, and how we can confront it humanely and in the service of real social and environmental freedoms. To see more stories like this, visit “Planet or Profit?” However, looking beyond the myths and dictates, the realities of population point to the contrary: Population-related problems, like anthropogenic climate disruption, stem from resource use in the West. If you live in North America and Western Europe and comprise 12 percent of the world’s population, you account for 60 percent of the world’s private consumptive spending, while the one-third of the global population that lives in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa accounts for only 3.2 percent. The United States, which comprises less than 5 percent of the global population, uses a quarter of the planet’s total fossil fuel resources. In order to have a conversation on this topic, we must first of all definitively end the equation of “overpopulation” with the birthrates of black or brown people living in so-called developing countries. Instead, we must focus on the fact that the United States, which comprises less than 5 percent of the global population, uses a quarter of the planet’s total fossil fuel resources. The carbon emissions impact of the US population far surpasses that of those living in the “developing” world. Even within the West, the disparity increases even further when we consider the fact that it is the richest who are using the majority of those resources. According to the World Bank, in 2011, US per capita energy use was 7,032 kilograms of oil equivalent, whereas in Bangladesh it was 205. In another example, 320 million Americans consume more petroleum than do 1.3 billion Chinese, and thus emit far larger amounts of greenhouse gas, per capita. As the populations of “developed” countries grow, their impacts are even greater than in less developed countries. Ryerson believes anthropogenic climate disruption (ACD) cannot adequately be confronted until the rapid increase in global population begins to be addressed. And he’s not alone. The wisest ways to address global overpopulation would be geared toward greater freedoms like wide-scale availability of free contraception, and abortion, sex and ACD education. “Overpopulation means that we are putting more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than we should, just because more people are doing it and this is related to overconsumption by people in general, especially in the ‘developed’ world,” said Dr. Allan Drew, a forest ecologist, who believes overpopulation is a worse environmental problem than ACD. As Drew pointed out, clearly overpopulation in “developed” countries, where consumption per person is so much more prevalent, is key. A report published in Science Daily in 2009 cited a poll of environmental experts who all believed that overpopulation was the single most pressing issue facing the planet. In fact, even Scientific American has said that addressing global overpopulation is “the most overlooked and essential strategy for achieving long-term balance with the environment.” What does such a “strategy” look like? In this discussion, it is essential to make a connection between population and reproductive justice, rather than reproductive control: The wisest ways to address global overpopulation would be geared toward greater freedoms like wide-scale availability of free contraception, and abortion, sex and ACD education. Meanwhile, the reality of overpopulation and its carbon dioxide emission implications continue to grow. “A Nice Utopia” There are currently more than 7.2 billion people on the planet, another human is born every eight seconds and the United States is already the third most populous country in the world. Future projections of population growth, according to the United Nations, show that the world will attain 8.92 billion people by 2050, with a peak of 9.22 billion in 2075. “The additional 2 billion [onto our current 7.2 billion] is the climate equivalent to adding two USA’s to the planet,” said Ryerson, whose organization works to educate policy makers and the public about population and the need to achieve a world population that is in balance with a healthy global environment and resource base. Additionally, rising populations also strain already vastly overstretched water resources. “So to maintain our current population, we’re already over-pumping underground aquifers,” Ryerson said. Greenhouse gas emissions have increased by record amounts each of the last several years to the highest carbon output in history, and each year is seeing another record. This means that the aim of holding global temperatures to safe levels is now all but out of reach. The goal of preventing a temperature rise of more than 2 degrees Celsius, which scientists say is the threshold for potentially “dangerous climate change,” is now most likely just “a nice utopia,” according to Fatih Birol, a chief economist at the International Energy Agency. Making Life on Earth “That Much More Difficult” The current number of people on the planet, along with our “per capita behavior,” is unsustainable, according to Ryerson. “This is obvious in what has happened to the climate already,” he said. “There are severe consequences already. And the cost of solving this problem of overpopulation is small compared to the cost of solving climate change as it progresses.” In particular, Ryerson sees a bleak future for water-starved countries like Saudi Arabia. “Saudi Arabia has announced that the water they’ve been depending on, their underground aquifer for crops and drinking, will be gone by 2020,” he explained. “They are dependent on imports, and can pay for it now, but in the future when oil declines, that country faces a serious issue of sustainability.” John Beddington, England’s chief scientific adviser, has warned that these trends of a rising population and diminishing global resources may well constitute a “perfect storm.” In a major speech to environmental groups and politicians in 2009, he said, “It is predicted that by 2030 the world will need to produce around 50 percent more food and energy, together with 30 percent more fresh water, whilst mitigating and adapting to climate change. This threatens to create a ‘perfect storm’ of global events.” Large populations in richer countries have far greater consequences for the environment than growing populations in less “developed” countries. Statistics underscore Beddington’s point. At our current planetary trajectory, global population is likely to reach more than 8 billion by 2030, at which point demand for food will have increased by 40 percent with supplies not keeping apace. Global demand for water will have increased by 30 percent, and nearly 4 billion people will be living in areas of “high water stress.” Ryerson is also concerned about increasing biodiversity loss. “The key issue is the large populations of plants and animals that make the planet inhabitable,” Ryerson explained. “We need oxygen to breathe and water to drink. A 3 billion year evolution of plants and animals has made the planet habitable, and we are systematically destroying this biodiversity by plowing, cutting and burning areas.” Having more people on the planet naturally means greater demand for products, which leads to more and more wilderness areas being clear-cut, burned or harvested in order to provide for the demand increases of food and consumer goods. Ryerson believes ongoing demand for products and the resulting encroachment on wilderness areas “will make life on the planet much more difficult. All of this together means the future of humanity, even with assumed innovation, has some very serious concerns. None of these problems are made easier by adding more people. The only way to achieve sustainability is to hold population growth, and have it decline.” As critical as the issue of overpopulation is, the topic gets attacked from both the political left and right. “The right thinks endless growth is possible and is a good idea, and that the planet’s resources are unlimited and will make it possible,” Ryerson said. “The left thinks those who talk about overpopulation are only focused on the poorest of the poor and are also racially motivated.” In reality, large populations in richer countries have far greater consequences for the environment than growing populations in less “developed” countries. However, instead of reframing these controversial topics, even scientists who recognize that population growth is a major factor in ACD often opt to avoid mentioning it. But several paths forward are clear. Broader education in “developed” countries about how far along we are regarding ACD – and the significance of population in that equation – is a necessity. Also, statistics show that the more we pursue reproductive justice and freedom, the more birth rates fall. Full access to and education around contraception and abortion is crucial, ensuring that women have the freedom to make choices. This is not to say that making these shifts will “solve” population growth. Even imposing massive, intrusive controls on population wouldn’t “solve” it: Another study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, titled Human Population Reduction is not a Quick Fix for Environmental Problems, shows that fertility reduction in the global population, even on the scale of implementing a one-child policy globally alongside non-human induced catastrophic mortality events, “would still likely result in 5-10 billion people by 2100. Because of this demographic momentum, there are no easy ways to change the broad trends of human population size this century.” Perhaps the best solution can be found in our attitude toward the growth of the human population on the planet. In an excellent article published by Truthout several years ago, one aspect of this was addressed eloquently: “If we want to meet our goals for the development of human culture and the increase of well-being, the first prerequisite is that we change our attitude about the growth of human population,” wrote Kelpie Wilson. “We do need to think about a social and economic system that will move us to that point as quickly as possible, and that system involves complete reproductive freedom and comprehensive health care for all women. We must trust women to make the reproductive decisions that are best for them and the planet.” Those steps must happen immediately, as the human population continues to rise, along with our fossil fuel emissions and the increasing ACD impacts that result from them.


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