Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The Elephant in the Room - How Population is Ruining the Planet

As non-human species continue to be pushed into extinction, so must the intellectual metaphors derived from them become extinct too. Trends in human expansion and exploitation of the earth are nearing crisis stage, or are already here. 

In the 2013 Consensus Statement from Global Scientists by the Millennium Alliance for Humanity & the Biosphere, released this last May, there are five major areas of concern: Climate Disruption, Extinctions, Ecosystem Transformation, Pollution and Population Growth and Resource Consumption, in addition to an "interactions" summary which describes how all these effects produce accelerated and compounded synergistic consequences. 

Over the last quarter century, birth rates, primarily in the major developed nations, have been declining. As the report details, however, the population of the earth, which presently stands at roughly 7 billion, is expected to rise to 10 billion by mid-century (2050). While birth rates have been declining in some places, in others they've been rising. The human population of the earth has tripled in just a little over half a century. The wave of increase will continue to push the numbers ever higher, despite an expected moderation of increase in the immediate coming decades. 

As the report says, although each individual contribution to global change and consumption is tiny, when multiplied by billions, the effect becomes inordinately large. The loss of habitat (and open space), the exhaustion of available resources (including food, energy, raw materials for clothing and shelter and goods), the extinction of other animals and plants, and the growing mass of pollution (sewage, garbage, and industrial waste) all are direct consequences of rapid, uncontrolled population growth. 

Today, 80% of the world's population lives below the poverty level. A third of the world's people lack basic sanitation. 15% lack access to fresh water and any kind of health services. And these numbers are growing worse. 

Despite the most dire predictions for human catastrophe, including famine, plagues, poor quality of life and hopelessness, the issue of population control has virtually disappeared from the public political arena of debate. 

Here in California, despite a mathematical decline in domestic birth rate, we've seen a 30% increase in population, almost exclusively the result of an increase in immigration (10 million of a total population in the state of 38 million), most of it illegal. The population of Mexico has tripled, in the last 50 years, to over 105 million. The direct effect of the poverty of third world nations, such as Mexico, has been to drive populations, as "diaspora" refugees, into neighboring regions, such as the U.S. Critics point out that what the streams of illegals are seeking is economic freedom and opportunity. But the real driver is uncontrolled population growth, in a country that cannot support them. 

We have seen how the "global economy" exploits these inequalities, at the expense both of the industrial nations, and the backward ones. The great irony of the modern world is that, had population not so rapidly overtaken us, the improvements of technology and farming and health and transportation would have permitted a prosperity around the world that would have astounded thinkers and dreamers just a century or so ago. The quality of life which we enjoy in what used to be called the "civilized nations" of the world--if it is to be perpetuated--depends on a sustaining balance between numbers of people, and the available resources and space.  

There are those who point out that if and when prosperity can be spread, birth rates will come down there as they have here. But the new global economy model has had just the opposite effect, by driving down the standard of living, and therefore encouraging over-population as a consequence. Rather than helping deprived nations to streamline the consumption of resources, which will only deepen the crisis, we need to be devising ways to slow population growth. 

Population growth inevitably drives demand, and over-demand destroys the environment, and the quality of life, not just for people, but for all living things, with it. Do we want a crowded planet, perpetually teetering on the edge of eco-bankrupcy, or a sustainable pathway where fewer people live better, more fulfilling lives? There are certain subjects which almost no one wants to address. Even the Sierra Club has abandoned the issue of population, worried that the public will think it's too "un-PC" a topic. When all the forests have been cut, all the rivers dammed, the aquifers drained, the atmosphere fouled, the seas barren and polluted, will it be a place anyone wants to live? 

The capitalist model demands more, always MORE! More people, more stuff, more consumers, more money. 

When the world population crashes, as theorists and economists and scientists believe it is on a course to do, the "correction" that will bring humankind back to "level" will likely involve the miserable death and suffering of billions of people--the dreaded apocalypse predicted in early religious texts. Whether this occurs as a war, or a famine, or a plague, or some combination of these, is imponderable. But we do know it will happen, without some moderation of current trends. Business as usual won't get us out of this dilemma.    

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