Monthly Archives: May 2013

Book review: Life On The Brink: Environmentalists Confront Overpopulation

In Life on the Brink: Environmentalists Confront Overpopulation by Professor Philip Cafaro of Colorado State University and Professor Eileen Crist of Virginia Tech, we find top authors and scientists attempting to alert humanity to its impending future viability on this planet.

In Life on the Brink: Environmentalists Confront Overpopulation by Professor Philip Cafaro of Colorado State University and Professor Eileen Crist of Virginia Tech, we find top authors and scientists attempting to alert humanity to its impending future viability on this planet.

If you look around the United States, even in the overcrowded, overpacked and gridlocked cities of America—you won’t hear conversations about overpopulation. Los Angeles, Denver, Chicago and more cities feature enormous brown clouds blanketing their cities with an airborne toxic soup that every citizen breathes with every breath. Brian Williams reports on the horrific traffic jams on the East Coast, but he won’t mention the overpopulation factor causing them. Same with Diane Sawyer, Scott Pelley, Wolf Blitzer, Megyn Kelley, Robert Siegel and all the top anchors on all the media reports!

They convey that none of us should question unending growth. It’s like a 450 pound fat man on “Biggest Losers” TV show who can barely walk, knows he’s going to die of a heart attack—but he decides to follow the American mantra of “Sustainable Growth” and keeps shoving Big Macs with double cheese, French fries and a Big Gulp down his gullet until he reaches 550 pounds and beyond.

Both his path and the United States’ path can only end up in the same condition: human misery, suffering and ultimately collapse. But in the case of human overpopulation around the planet, we humans destroy millions of other creatures along the way to our own destruction.

In Life on the Brink: Environmentalists Confront Overpopulation by Professor Philip Cafaro of Colorado State University and Professor Eileen Crist of Virginia Tech, we find top authors and scientists attempting to alert humanity to its impending future viability on this planet.

In Chapter 4, Martha Campbell asks, “Why the silence on overpopulation?”

“By 2050, human population is projected to reach as high as 10.5 billion,” said Campbell. “Uganda is projected to grow from 33.8 million to 91.3 million. Niger from 16 million to 58 million, and Afghanistan from 29 million to 73 million.”

That’s not all the growth! India adds 11 million net gain annually to its 1.2 billion (in 2012), while China adds another 8 million net gain annually. Both countries expect to explode to about 1.6 billion. If you have watched NBC lately, Brian Williams reported on the air pollution cover Shanghai and Beijing. He hasn’t covered the water pollution, but the Ganges and the Yangzi Rivers feature open sewer pipes that turn into 20,000 square mile dead zones at their mouths. How do I know? I sailed on both rivers and the water-plastic-debris-trash-human waste made me sick to my stomach.

"OverLoaded Train" in India, more and more people are crammed into the same space, trying to live, breathe, grow food, find jobs and enjoy 'quality of life'.  In a country of 1.26 billion people (and still growing rapidly!) is there any room for tigers or elephants or other creatures?  Photo from churchandstate.org.uk

“OverLoaded Train” in India, more and more people are crammed into the same space, trying to live, breathe, grow food, find jobs and enjoy ‘quality of life’. In a country of 1.26 billion people (and still growing rapidly!) is there any room for tigers or elephants or other creatures? Photo from churchandstate.org.uk

At 82 million, Egypt, a country that cannot feed itself in 2013 and relies on grain imports, expects to hit 150 million by mid century. Do we need to guess their fate?

“In 1900, Ethiopia had 5 million, in 1950 it had 18.4 million, in 2010 it had 85 million and is projected to reach 173 million by 2050,” said Campbell. “Their rapid population growth figures in the decimation of nearly all of Ethiopia’s forests and consequently climate change.”

On a personal note, I researched to find that Africa houses nearly 1 billion people in 2013, but expects to reach 3.1 billion within 90 years. Can you imagine every human scavenging every last creature on this beautiful continent for food? Nothing will be left of all those wonderful creatures. In 1900, Africa sported 12 million elephants. Today, 475,000 remain and their numbers are dwindling fast due to poachers.

Campbell calls the subject of population “delicate” because it involves sex, cultures, religions and serves inequities around the world. Such religions as Islam, the Catholic Church, and many others don’t take kindly to birth control.

Campbell discusses the six reasons for the population “Perfect Storm” facing all life on this planet, especially humans causing it.

  1. While birth rates fall, the sheer number of humans causes growth, due to ‘population momentum’.  Right now that momentum adds about 1 billion people every 12-13 years.
  2. Overconsumption of water, resources, animal life, arable land and resource exhaustion accelerate with the population momentum.
  3. Anti-abortion activists, religious leaders and conservative think tanks have intentionally reduced attention to population growth.
  4. Many folks think that disease like AIDS have stopped population growth. Not so!
  5. Even after the Cairo population conference and the Rio debates, there is still not enough financing of family planning programs on a global level. Cultural and religious practices still dominate women in too many places.
  6. The dominant “endless growth” paradigms of countries like Canada, America, Australia and even Europe—maintain a death grip on any discussion of overpopulation.
"Garbage Family"  Despite China's rapid economic growth and strict no-migration laws, there remains a marked disparity between the country's wealthy and the poor. This family, originally from Guizhou Province (far-western China) moved to the rich Delta Yangtze River coast in search of a better life. They currently work in a Jiangsu landfill, sifting through garbage in search of any re-sellable items.  In a country of 1.35 billion people (and still growing!) -- is there any room for Pandas or any other wildlife?  Photo and commentary by Sheilaz314/Flickr/cc

“Garbage Family” Despite China’s rapid economic growth and strict no-migration laws, there remains a marked disparity between the country’s wealthy and the poor. This family, originally from Guizhou Province (far-western China) moved to the rich Delta Yangtze River coast in search of a better life. They currently work in a Jiangsu landfill, sifting through garbage in search of any re-sellable items. In a country of 1.35 billion people (and still growing!) — is there any room for Pandas or any other wildlife? Photo and commentary by Sheilaz314/Flickr/cc

Campbell said, “Use of family planning prevents death from unintended pregnancies and from induced abortions. Children from smaller families are more likely to enter and stay in school.”

This chapter brings home the enormity of the power of cultures and churches and corporations to squash the population discussion. It shows that cultures and beliefs trump and override reason, empirical evidence, common sense and logical action.

Thus, 10 million children and 8 million adults die of starvation and starvation related conditions every year around the globe. Another 18 million stand in the doorway of death in 2013. All life on the brink?  If we do nothing about overpopulation, iit’s only a matter of time.

Frosty Wooldridge has bicycled across six continents—from the Arctic to the South Pole—as well as eight times across the USA, coast to coast and border to border. He presents “The Coming Population Crisis facing America: what to do about it” at <www.frostywooldridge.com>.  His latest book is: How to Live a Life of Adventure: The Art of Exploring the World, copies at 1-888-280-7715.

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Filed under Consumption, Environment, Family Planning, Growth, Human Rights, Population, Sustainability, Wildlife, Women's Rights

If Norway Can Prosper with a Stable Population, Why Can’t Australia? by Charles Berger

Melbourne city sprawl.

Melbourne city sprawl.

The projection that Australia’s population will grow to 36 million by 2050, contained in the 2010 Intergenerational Report, was received very differently by Australian governments and the community.

Many Australians are deeply uncomfortable with rapid population growth. A  recent poll found that 48% of Australians thought such growth would be bad for Australia, while only 24% thought it would be good. They intuit, perhaps, that governments might not be up to the task of providing sustainable water, energy and transport infrastructure for rapidly growing cities.

The Government’s stance has vacillated between claiming that such rapid population growth is inevitable on the one hand, and assuring us that it is good for Australia on the other.

The claim of inevitability is disingenuous and easily dismissed. While some degree of growth is inevitable over the next few decades, both the pace of growth and the ultimate trajectory are well within the government’s power to influence. Migration is the largest determinant of long-term population growth for Australia, and different migration levels mean the difference between population stabilization and ongoing rapid growth.

More interesting, and more forthright, is the claim that rapid population growth is in Australia’s best interest. Finance Minister Lindsay Tanner has been the government’s most vocal proponent of the “Big Australia” preference. In a recent piece, Tanner asked “Do we want lower productivity and less economic growth?”, implying that lower population growth could only damage our economy.

Is there good evidence for or against a link between population growth and economic prosperity? Tanner unfortunately offered none in support of his argument for rapid growth. One’s view on the question depends largely on an assessment of so-called “economies of scale” and “dis-economies of scale”. Economies of scale are things that get better the more of us there are—greater diversity of restaurants is an example that rings true for me. Diseconomies of scale are things that get harder the more of us there are. For example, water supply tends to get more expensive per unit as population increases, as increasing supply requires resorting to progressively more distant and difficult to access sources. A desalination plant is more expensive than extraction from local wells, for example. Congestion is another diseconomy of scale, and greenhouse pollution is rapidly emerging as another.

Economic modeling conducted for the Intergenerational Report concluded that lower population growth would mean lower per-capita GDP for Australia, among other ills. But a closer look reveals some flaws. For one, the modeling excluded any environmental parameters, such as the potential impact of a larger population on greenhouse pollution, water use, and congestion. The omission seems all the more glaring when you consider that climate change was identified as one of the two most important intergenerational challenges facing Australia today. In effect, the Intergenerational Report included many potential economies of scale, while excluding the most important dis-economies of scale. The result tells us more about the modeler than about what is likely to happen in the real world.

The most considered and balanced treatment of this issue in recent times is the final report of the National Population Council, an official Commonwealth body, released in 1991. Although nearly two decades old now, its analysis remains compelling and relevant. It is not, I should stress, an “anti-growth” document.

On the link between population and economy, the Council found that the jury was still out: “because of our limited present direct knowledge of economies and dis-economies of scale, it is not possible to state … that population growth per se enhances or reduces the productivity basis for economic progress.”

Unfortunately, our knowledge of economies and diseconomies of scale is no better today than it was back then. This leaves Tanner’s claim that we’d be less prosperous if we don’t grow our population on a pretty shaky theoretical base.

But enough of economic models, what about the real world? The Intergenerational Report discusses just two examples: Italy and Japan. Both nations have experienced very low fertility levels, rapidly ageing populations, and slow economic growth in recent decades. On the basis of these two countries, the Intergenerational Report concludes, “A key lesson from the international experience is that countries with low population growth or declining populations such as Japan and Italy face lower potential rates of economic growth than countries with relatively healthier population growth.”

But why focus on those two countries? A broader look across the OECD shows that rapid population growth is neither necessary nor sufficient to achieve solid per capita GDP growth. (I leave aside here the question of whether per capita GDP growth is a useful goal to strive for, except to say that Joseph Stiglitz and many other mainstream economists have cast doubt on the wisdom of an excessive focus on GDP.) In fact, no fewer than 11 OECD nations achieved faster per-capita economic growth than Australia from 1997-2007, despite slower population growth or even in some cases no population growth or a slight decline.

Clearly enough, experience shows us that rapid population growth is no guarantee of economic prosperity, and conversely a stable population does not doom a country to economic failure.

The real puzzle here is why the Intergenerational Report discusses only the two worst performing countries among OECD nations on this issue, rather than looking at some of the success stories. Norway looks like an interesting case—thriving economy, despite an ageing population and much lower population growth than Australia. Or how about Slovakia, with a stable and ageing population and a booming economy? The Netherlands, the Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary, Finland … with so many intriguing examples of countries with stable or low-growth populations that somehow continue to enjoy vibrant economies, it’s a pity the report didn’t take a more lateral approach.

As for the significant environmental, planning and social challenges of population growth, the report acknowledges them but plays them down in a single line of optimism: “The risks in these areas are manageable provided governments take early action to plan for future needs.” Sure, but that’s a pretty big proviso. It’s a bit like saying I can win a marathon, provided I run really fast: technically true, but it really begs the question of how.

Lindsay Tanner similarly suggests that we focus on better planning and less profligacy, rather than worrying about population. One can hardly argue against better planning and lower ecological footprints; they are desperately needed. What is beyond me is how he can be so sanguine about our ability to achieve those ambitious goals, in the face of all evidence that we’re nowhere close to the trajectories required even to reduce the ecological footprint of the present population.

Population growth and wildlife come into conflict.

Population growth and wildlife come into conflict.

The truth is we are struggling just to catch up with the huge backlog of infrastructure, social and environmental investments for our 22 million people, let alone the 36 million we will have if current migration trends continue.

A better approach, again, is that provided by the National Population Council in 1991. It stated: “Solutions should not be assumed for population-related problems through other policies, unless the institutional and other mechanisms required to effectively implement those solutions are in place”.

The assumption that the impacts of population growth will be defrayed by technological and planning improvements is the opposite of a precautionary approach. It is fine to hope for the best possible outcome, but reckless to pursue policies that will increase our population on the expectation that the best possible outcome will occur. And even more reckless in the face of the facts are that Australia’s per-capita greenhouse pollution continues to increase year on year, our cities continue to push beyond urban growth boundaries, and few of the policies or practices that would signal a transition to a genuinely sustainable lifestyle are in place.

In the end we as a nation have options about our future population. The Intergenerational Report and the government treat us as if we have none, confronting us with a false choice between rapid population growth or economic calamity. The truth is that we can care for an ageing population, enjoy economic prosperity and work towards ecological sustainability without rapid population growth. How? Just ask the Norwegians. Or the Slovaks. Or the Dutch. Or …

Charles Berger is director of strategic ideas at the Australian Conservation Foundation. This commentary was first posted February 22, 2010.

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Filed under Ecological Footprint, Economy, Family Planning, Growth, Immigration, Leadership, Population, Wildlife