Is Population Reduction The Debate We Should Be Having?

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The latest reports from climate scientists are dark and gloomy. They are seeing the warmest temperatures in the Arctic in recorded history, The scientists putting together the next IPCC climate assessment due in 2019 fear that keeping global average temperature rise to 1.5º C or less is virtually impossible. They think 4º to 5º C is more likely. For those of you who still think in Fahrenheit, that means average temperatures could be as much as 8 degrees warmer by the end of this century. That means some places on Earth could be 15 to 20 degrees hotter than normal. Think about that for a moment. And yes, that also means some places may be cooler than normal. That’s what the word “average” means. We get it.

Paul Ehrlich The GuardianPaul Ehrlich made headlines decades ago with his dark vision of the future in a book called The Population Bomb. Its basic premise wass that the Earth’s human population is growing too fast for food production to keep up, resulting in mass famine and death. Ehrlich’s theory didn’t come true, largely because chemical companies figured out ways to grow more food using massive amounts of fertilizers and pesticides coupled with genetically modified seeds. That may have kicked the can down the road but created a whole new set of problems.

First off, those fertilizers and pesticides are based primarily on chemicals derived from oil. Just as introducing rabbits to Australia led to a plague of the adorable little rodents, farmers are now finding their fields are played out, stripped of the nutrients needed to continue producing such elevated crop yields. Another factor is that crops need massive amounts of water in order to grow. Competition between people and crops is growing more intense in California’s Salinas Valley and all across the United States.

A new report from the United Nations warns that more than half the world’s population — 5 billion people — could lack access to clean water in just 3 decades time. “For too long, the world has turned first to human-built, or ‘grey’, infrastructure to improve water management. In doing so, it has often brushed aside traditional and indigenous knowledge that embraces greener approaches,” says Gilbert Houngbo, the chair of UN Water in the preface of the 100-page assessment. “In the face of accelerated consumption, increasing environmental degradation and the multi-faceted impacts of climate change, we clearly need new ways of manage competing demands on our freshwater resources.”

The report says 70% of clean water is consumed by the agriculture sector, 20% by industry, and 10% by people. The struggle between agriculture and people is playing out right now in Phoenix, Arizona, known as the world’s “least sustainable city.” People are already beginning to question how long it can survive. Can you imagine Phoenix being 20 degrees Fahrenheit hotter than it is already?

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Ehrlich is back in the news this week with a new take on how quickly humanity is approaching an existential crisis. “Population growth, along with over-consumption per capita, is driving civilization over the edge — billions of people are now hungry or micronutrient malnourished, and climate disruption is killing people. It is a near certainty in the next few decades, and the risk is increasing continually as long as perpetual growth of the human enterprise remains the goal of economic and political systems,” he says. “As I’ve said many times, perpetual growth is the creed of the cancer cell.”

Ehrlich believes the world’s optimum population is 2 billion souls — about two thirds fewer than inhabit the Earth today. If the objective is sustainability (something all of us who participate in the CleanTechnica community say we favor), might Ehrlich have a point? I want to hasten to add that I am not taking a position on his comments. The only purpose of this story is to raise the topic and spark debate.

Fewer people would mean fewer carbon emissions which could lead to lower temperatures. Imagine, as John Lennon might say, a world where everyone has enough to eat and an opportunity to thrive. Is taking steps that promote the greater good for the greatest number a beneficial thing or just some feel good blather only fit for idealists?

The whole idea, of course, raises extraordinary moral questions about how to reduce the size of the human population in a way that is just. It is entirely possible that doing so is impossible. And what if one country goes that route and thereby leaves itself vulnerable to invasion from its more populous neighbors? And what of capitalism, the system that bases its success on ever-increasing market expansion and profits?

The questions are complex and fraught with thorny conundrums. Is that a reason not to have the conversation, though?


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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new." You can follow him on Substack and LinkedIn but not on Fakebook or any social media platforms controlled by narcissistic yahoos.

Steve Hanley has 5543 posts and counting. See all posts by Steve Hanley