Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The problem with population

The UN has issued a final warning on the dire problem poised by overpopulation. This is an issue that seems particularly important to U.S. politics (in my opinion), as conservatives *still* don't seem to get the problem of how we impact the earth with our choices, and why "growth rates" in the economy (more people = more buying!) aren't an endlessly good thing. Instead of continually adding population and profits, can't we just hit a sustainable equilibrium? And population is *especially* on my mind after Huckabee's truly heinous comment that by banning abortion, we could "solve the illegal immigration problem." [As a side note: he's wrong on both counts. 1st, empirically, women forced to give birth before they would otherwise choose to will in most cases simply *not* have the later children they planned on having. Or those with the means to do so will have an abortion somewhere else, rather than in the U.S. 2ndly, at a moral level, is he seriously arguing that we should subject more women to unwanted pregnancies/labors/children in order to solve an economic problem?? seriously?!]

So, anyways, I'll let the International Herald Tribune explain:

The human population is living far beyond its means and inflicting damage on the environment that could pass points of no return, according to a major report issued Thursday by the United Nations.

Climate change, the rate of extinction of species and the challenge of feeding a growing population are among the threats putting humanity at risk, the UN Environment Program said in its fourth Global Environmental Outlook since 1997.

"The human population is now so large that the amount of resources needed to sustain it exceeds what is available at current consumption patterns," Achim Steiner, the executive director of the program, said in a telephone interview. Efficient use of resources and reducing waste now are "among the greatest challenges at the beginning of 21st century," he said.

The program described its report, which is prepared by 388 experts and scientists, as the broadest and deepest of those that the UN issues on the environment and called it "the final wake-up call to the international community."

Over the past two decades the world population has increased by almost 34 percent to 6.7 billion from 5 billion; similarly, the financial wealth of the planet has soared by about a third. But the land available to each person on earth had shrunk by 2005 to 2.02 hectares, or 5 acres, from 7.91 hectares in 1900 and was projected to drop to 1.63 hectares for each person by 2050, the report said.

As someone who loves open spaces and country, this seriously frightens me. Some of my happiest (most nostalgic) memories of growing up in Oregon are of running around in the woods and never thinking about who might own that land.

The result of that population growth combined with unsustainable consumption has resulted in an increasingly stressed planet where natural disasters and environmental degradation endanger millions of humans, as well as plant and animal species, the report said.

Sorry to keep interrupting, IHT, but this just reminded me of our (minor) earthquake this evening. My first earthquake! (Or at least, the first I was conscious for.)

Persistent problems identified by the report include a rapid rise of so-called dead zones, where marine life no longer can be supported because of depletion of oxygen caused by pollutants like fertilizers. Also included is the resurgence of diseases linked with environmental degradation.

Would the lakes around Madison qualify? They're too toxic to *wade* in, for heaven's sake.

He said West European governments had taken effective measures to reduce air pollutants, and he praised efforts in parts of Brazil to roll back deforestation in the Amazon. He said an international treaty to tackle the hole in the earth's ozone layer had led to the phasing-out of release of 95 percent of ozone-damaging chemicals.

Good news! And I'm sure the U.S. has done something notable. Western Europe...Brazil... oh. Well, I guess we were among the signers of the international treaty? (Can't we be leaders in anything but war?)

Steiner said more intelligent management of scarce resources including fishing grounds, land and water was needed to sustain a still larger global population, which he said was expected to stabilize at between 8 billion and 10 billion people.

Jesus Christ. We have to grow to another 2-4 billion before the madness stops? Can't we go replacement rate before *that*?!

"Life would be easier if we didn't have the kind of population growth rates that we have at the moment," Steiner said. "But to force people to stop having children would be a simplistic answer. The more realistic, ethical and practical issue is to accelerate human well-being and make more rational use of the resources we have on this planet."

Hey, hey! I have an idea. What if we like, supported family planning programs? And helped communities grow sustainably, and lower child mortality rates (through sanitation, clean water, medicine, etc.), so that people would choose to have fewer children? And what if we made it *easier* to use/obtain contraception, rather than shaming people out of using it, or making it *more* difficult to get? (And what if we started right here in the U.S., by having rational approaches to sexual health education instead of telling ourselves fantasy stories about abstinence programs that don't work? And making sure that women could afford and obtain the birth control that works for them? And that they have ready access to Plan B if accidents happen?)

Steiner said environmental tipping points, at which degradation can lead to abrupt, accelerating or potentially irreversible changes, would increasingly occur in locations like particular rivers or forests, where populations would lack the ability to repair damage because the gravity of a problem would be far beyond their physical or economic means.

Looking ahead, Steiner said parts of Africa could reach environmental tipping points if changing rainfall patterns stemming from climate change turned semi-arid zones into arid zones, and made agriculture that sustained millions of people much harder.

Steiner said other tipping points triggered by climate change could occur in areas like India and China if Himalayan glaciers shrank so much that they no longer supplied adequate amounts of water to populations in those countries.

Or is it another case of NIMBY? As long as it's not in my backyard, who cares?

He also warned of a global collapse of all species being fished by 2050, if fishing around the world continued at its present pace.

The report said 250 percent more fish are being caught than the oceans can produce in a sustainable manner, and that the number of fish stocks classed as collapsed had roughly doubled to 30 percent globally over the past 20 years.

Reports like these make me wonder how our country could seriously elect another president who thinks our biggest problem is terrorism, and that environmental issues are something to be ignored by the industry-cronies who somehow become the head of the EPA.

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