Thursday, January 31, 2008

It's a mad, mad, mad, mad (overpopulated?) world

My somewhat indignant response to a post at "Growth is Madness" about how environmentalists avoid the "taboo" subject of overpopulation. Considering that some of the most prominent academic and NGO environmentalists have made overpopulation prominent in their discussions at various points (cf. Paul Ehrlich, Garret Hardin, David Pimentel, Sierra Club...) I'm not sure I see overpopulation as a "taboo" subject among environmentalists. Some feel its still neo-Malthusianist bent is problematic, like I do, but that's different than being unwilling to discuss it...

Anyway, the post is here, my response (here) being:


What I really don’t understand here is the disconnect between intensity of resource use and exactly where population is growing the fastest.

With the exception of the United States, most of the “1st World” has its population growth slowing or leveling off. Meanwhile, many of the areas with highest population growth are the poorest, and are people living well below their means.

Now, clearly, people rich and poor are consuming resources at some rate (both directly and in the form of consuming resources for waste disposal/redemption). However, based on per capita consumption/energy use, the United States and other 1st World countries are using (I’ve seen estimates) 3-5X our “share” of resources. Meanwhile, the poorest millions in Africa and Asia probably use somewhat less than a whole “share” of total human resource use.

Thus on one factor you have, say “4″ for mean per capita resource consumption in the US (or resource use intensity), vs., say, 0.8 in Namibia. This means that resource use intensity is 5X greater in the US. In other words, one “less” US or UK citizen is equivalent to 5 “less” Namibians in terms of resource use; yet we rarely hear the “taboo” subject of overpopulation brought up in terms of a primary emphasis on the 1st World, where growth rates are perhaps not the highest, but where changes in growth rates will have a 5X disproportionate impact on things. This gives us some initial reason to focus on the 1st World — perhaps what is meant here, but one must remember that the anti-growth discussion started with Malthus as an argument for *leaving the poor to their lot, and starving themselves into lower population sizes.* Not only doesn’t this work, it’s a reprehensible method to inefficiently reduce resource use. (Malthus said that the rich would consume “prudently” so as to keep the economy going but not overmuch so as to overtax resources. Poppycock.)

Making the problem all the more complex in poor areas and (technically) simple in the richer Global North, women in poorer countries often/usually have less choice in childbearing, and men still see it as an important sign of virility (plus, if you’re a poor agriculturalist, having more kids is individually rational for you). In the Global North, kids and number of kids is much more voluntary. Add to this the fact that population growth slows most in poor countries not with the introduction of contraceptives or draconian measures, but when women achieve some political equality gains and *increase* resource use somewhat such that they also gain access to education and sufficient health resources.

So taking the factors into account, it seems clear that we should certainly work on bringing both population and use intensity down in the 1st World, but the way to address population in the 3rd World implies “development” with substantive equality — a project involving at least short-term increases in resource use.

THESE are the items that seem taboo to me. When we talk about population problems, our problems in the 1st World start at home; the places where growth is the fastest require more complex solutions than a simple mantra or approach of population reduction or contraception can possibly achieve. Implying that the fast-reproducing food can’t have their fair share of food and water until they have less kids while Bill Gates races around on Lear Jets and procreates little mega-consumers unimpeded is the true madness.

1 comment:

Rissa said...

I am writing a paper currently on public health professionals and their taboo on discussing overpopulation. You are absolutely right in saying that there IS attention to this subject in the environmentalist world - the problem is the line that interest DOES NOT cross, which is the ability to put population controls into practice. The I=PAT formula, developed by Ehrlich and Ehrlich pretty much proves that the 3rd world would be pretty much ok if we would stop interfering (food programs to stop famine, land acquisition and degradation, medical programs, modernization, etc...)
The problem is almost entirely the 1st world. We use too much and of the wrong stuff, we throw away too much, and in the wrong places, we insanely pursue the impossible - infinite growth - AND we export our madness to other cultures.
There's nothing lacking in environmental/biological/ecological research. Nope, the problem is a consciousness/awareness/hubris/action problem on the part of everyone in the 1st world.

Which is why we're screwed.