The bomb is still ticking…

11 11 2010

Apologies for the silence over the last week – it’s been a whirlwind here with Paul Ehrlich visiting The University of Adelaide (amazing for a 78-year old man). In the meantime, Sharon Ede over at Post Growth wrote a great response to the LOLstralian‘s high-school effort to attack Paul a few days ago. Our response is coming shortly, but Sharon’s article is a great precursor.

More than forty years after its publication, the predictions made in Paul Ehrlich’s landmark book ‘The Population Bomb’ are still the subject of debate. Australian think-tank the Centre for Independent Studies (‘Population bomb still a fizzer 40 years on’, The Australian, 8 November, 2010), says Ehrlich’s warnings of dire consequences, including of mass starvation as a result of overpopulation, have not materialised:

“More than 40 years ago, American biologist Paul Ehrlich sketched a doomsday scenario for planet Earth in his book The Population Bomb…Since the publication of the book, the global population has nearly doubled but most of its gloomy predictions have not come true…”

By all means, let’s have a robust debate on population, both at the national and global level. Both are long overdue.

But let’s make it a sophisticated debate, grounded in the science we have available and a thorough understanding of all the issues in play.

According to the United Nations’ Population Division, the global population has increased from one billion in 1804 to over six billion in 2010.

It has taken most of human history to reach one billion people. It took just over a century to add the second billion.

The rate of population growth since then is such that it has taken only twelve years to add the most recent billion people.

The moderate UN scenario is for a population of 9 billion by 2050 – that’s within the lifetime of many of us.

Whether or not we admit it, and whether or not we like it, these numbers matter.

While it is true that ‘taming nature and a hostile environment’ have until now been part of the human survival story, is it possible that the Judeo-Christian approach of ‘subduing the earth’ – which is only one worldview of the many cultural traditions – may no longer be a survival strategy in a world that is ‘full’?

That we are in the middle of the largest mass extinction of species since the dinosaurs were wiped out; that we are raising the planet’s thermostat beyond what has been the survival spectrum of the species that populate Earth today; that billions are still undernourished and underfed, apparently falls outside the authors’ definition of ‘gloomy predictions’.

In this country, perhaps the competition for affordable housing and increasingly scarce water resources has somehow escaped their attention.

The article also reflects the belief that Homo sapiens is somehow separate from nature:

“It is remarkable that people now regularly put “nature” and “the environment” ahead of all other concerns. Historically, this is an oddity because not long ago taming nature and overcoming a hostile environment were humankind’s priorities…

Worshipping their new goddess nature, the environmentalists have forgotten something. We human beings may not all be cute and cuddly, but we deserve at least as much love and attention as our distant relatives in the animal kingdom.”

It is this mindset that is at the root of all our current dysfunctional relationships with nature, our ultimate means of survival. Maintaining our natural capital, our natural asset base, is a non-negotiable prerequisite for securing human survival and wellbeing.

The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment – an international collaboration of over 1,000 of the world’s leading biological scientists who analysed the state of the Earth’s ecosystems – grouped ecosystem services into four broad categories of functions that support life: provisioning, such as the production of food and water; regulating, such as the control of climate and disease; supporting, such as nutrient cycles and crop pollination; and cultural, such as spiritual and recreational benefits.

Whether or not anyone ‘worships nature as a goddess’ is perhaps not as relevant as physics and biology, which show that aside from their own intrinsic worth, ecosystems and biodiversity are the life support systems of humanity, providing us with a range of goods and services which are both essential and priceless.

The notion of Homo sapiens somehow being marginalised by concern for nature is not supported by the science – human beings have colonised every available niche on the planet we possibly can. Research by Professor Vaclav Smil from the University of Manitoba in Canada shows that as a percentage of mammalian zoomass, human beings and our domesticated mammalian animals (for food, beasts of burden and as pets) have gone from < 0.1 % 10,000 years ago, to 10-12 % at the start of the industrial revolution to between 96-98 % today. Human beings can and will expand to fill every available ecological niche within reach, and has done so at the expense of other species.

The article also failed to make the connection between protecting ecosystems and improving the lives of ‘poor’ people:

“What is disguised by nice, touchy-feely slogans about sustainability, nature and the environment is often just misanthropy by another name. It has no respect for people in developed countries and is completely oblivious to the needs of people in poorer places….

Things get even more cynical when our subservience to the planet dictates what we allow poorer peoples to do. The thought that millions of Indians would want to drive their own little cars drives Western environmentalists crazy. They would never admit it, but deep down they wish these poor Indians would just remain poor; all for the sake of the planet, of course.”

As human population grows, and as consumption continues to grow, resource constraints become ever more an issue of equity.

Development that ignores the limits of our natural resources ultimately ends up imposing disproportionate costs on the most vulnerable.

Contrary to the authors’ claims, the vast majority of people who identify as environmentalists are not misanthropists – they are absolutely concerned with humanity, which must start with maintaining the systems that support our existence.

No environmentalist would argue against the notion that there are many people in this world whose material standard of living needs to be increased.

But this raises the conundrum which is at the heart of sustainability:

The 21st Century question is not whether we can sustain more than six billion people on a western industrial model of development, but how to sustain the global population so that everyone has a good quality of life – of which material living standards are only a part – within the biophysical limits of one planet.

We cannot end extreme poverty unless we accept this.

We cannot address climate change unless we accept this.

Efficiency and technological innovation will only delay inevitable impacts, as the gains of efficiency are gobbled up by more people consuming more.

The other two thirds of the IPAT equation, the consumption and population issues, are both politically sensitive, which makes it difficult to ask the ultimate question – why do we need to keep growing?

Is the challenge now how to grow better, instead of bigger?

Human beings all have the same fundamental needs and desires. We all want a great quality of life for ourselves and our children and their children – and the vast majority would readily agree that material standards of living are only one part of what constitutes ‘quality of life’.

To secure that quality of life and well being for human beings, we need to recognise ecological limits, and accept that demand on these is a product of both numbers of people and levels of consumption.

We also need to secure the integrity of our life support services – meaning other species and ecosystems that pollinate our crops, clean our water, filter our air.

What’s anti-human about that?

Are we going to acknowledge the population bomb and defuse it, or are we going to stick our heads in the sand…and hope that’s the sound of it fizzing out?

Sharon Ede

South Australian State Chapter Director
Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy




One response

11 11 2010
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