Greenpeace: Population and ecology

Original link: http://www.greenpeace.org/international/en/news/Blogs/makingwaves/population-and-ecology/blog/44620/
  • Blogpost by Rex Weyler – 6 May, 2013

    World  governments, the public, and the UN now recognize that the human population number matters in achieving ecological sustainability for human communities.

    For forty years, since the first United Nations environment meeting in Stockholm in 1972, environmentalists have debated whether we should include human population growth among the urgent challenges of  human consumption, industrial toxins, species loss, global warming, and so forth.

    This debate appears to be resolved. Clearly, human population figures have an impact on the health of natural ecosystems. Virtually every nation in the world seeks more commodities for its citizens, and a growing population multiplies the effect of this growing per-capita resource consumption. We could make all the right moves regarding energy systems, transportation, and recycling, and still overshoot Earth’s capacity with unsustainable numbers of humans. It is a good sign that the United Nations now recognizes this.

    UN special session on population

    Next year, in September 2014, the United Nations will convene a special session on human population. The U.N. General Assembly finally intends to implement a population stabilization plan devised  twenty years ago at the U.N. population conference in Cairo. The original strategy, adopted by 180 nations, cited women’s rights, birth control, and economic development as keys to stabilizing population growth. This strategy remains valid, but is useless if not implemented with meaningful targets and actions. It may also prove useless if we do not re-define “economic development” to focus on better lives for the world’s poor, less wasteful consumption among the rich, and less concentration of wealth among the super-rich.

    Since the Cairo conference, the world’s population has grown from 5.7 billion to 7 billion people. We add about 75 million people each year – the equivalent of five cities the size of Beijing each year – but we fail to match this growth with new infrastructure, shelter, food, water, or health care. Adding more people simply puts more strain on Earth’s limited and dwindling resources. As we add more people, we lose some 16 million hectares of forest each year, gain 6 million hectares of desert, lose 26-billion tons of topsoil, deplete aquifers, and drain rivers. These trends are not sustainable.

    The additional humans are crowded into existing cities and depleted countryside. About ten million people starve to death each year, over a billion people go hungry, and some 2 billion have no access to clean fresh water.

    Lip service or real action?

    The danger with UN meetings – as we witnessed with climate conferences –  is that no substantive action will follow. Kenya lead the movement for a UN population meeting, but Kenya’s deputy U.N. ambassador Koki Muli warned that there will be no final document from the 2014 population session. The assembly may dodge the real changes that need to occur, choosing to avoid controversial issues such as universal women’s rights, girl’s education, abortion rights, and access to contraception.

    Historical evidence shows that wherever women have rights over their own reproduction and where families have access to birth control, the fertility rate declines. Growth advocates claim that industrial development leads to lower population growth, but that is not always the case. Prior to 1964, population and GDP grow together. Since then, in Europe, fertility rates have dropped, but not in the US or Saudi Arabia where cultural resistance undermines family planning. However, in the 1970s, fertility rates fell in Spain and Italy, not because of increased wealth, but rather following the advent of women’s rights and available contraception. In Columbia, fertility rates dropped from 6 to 3.5 children per family in 15 years after contraception was made widely available.

    The U.N. is correct to focus on these measures, but to be successful, the U.N. must be willing to confront cultural resistance with education. The Cairo conference recognized the need for comprehensive population policies that include family planning, gender equality, and sex education for both young women and men. However, they also noted that such policies will conflict with cultural habits. The Cairo conference recognized that practices such as abortion should be treated as a public health issue to ensure safe motherhood.

    The U.N. Population Fund’s executive director, Babatunde Osotimehin, believes the UN has to work with individual communities to reverse out-dated cultural practices such as contraception bans and female genital mutilation.  That organization has been working with UNICEF, the UN’s children fund, to encourage communities to stop the practice. In 2012 they met directly with 1,800 communities to overcome “major obstacles related to culture,” according to Osotimehin. They have worked to educate communities in family planning and contraception, which Osotimehin calls “the most important intervention you can give to liberate a women’s energy and life.” Finally, according to Osotimehin, “the world is listening.”

    Change in attitudes

    With present practices, the UN estimates we are on pace for 10 billion people by 2050, and possibly 12 to 14 billion by 2100. That would mean twice as many humans in a world even more depleted of resources. Since we have not been able to feed or supply basic living standards for 7 billion, these figures appear frightening. However, attitudes are beginning to change.

    In the US, the Center for Biological Diversity conducted a Public Poll a found that 60 percent of Americans now equate human population growth to wildlife extinctions; 57 percent understand the link to climate change. These represent marked changes from even a decade ago.

    Real world environmental crises are driving these changes in attitude. In the US, for example, the nation is on track to lose 15 million hectares (36 million acres) of forest to urban sprawl by 2050. In Florida, due to over-pumping of water, salt water is now intruding into the primary aquifer, which supplies water for 19 million people.

    Water shortages now appear in most parts of the world, rich and poor – US plains, Beijing, Madras, Mexico – simply because of over-consumption, too many people demanding too much of a limited resources. Since 1960, for example, the Aral Sea has shrunk to about 10 percent of its original area.

    Population, consumption & technology

    During the 1970s, American ecologists Paul Ehrlich and John Holdren published a now-famous formula to account for human ecological impact on the Earth’s systems: I = PAT, indicating that ecological Impact (I)  is equal to  Population (P) times Affluence (A), or average consumption, times a factor for Technology (T).

    Stated simply, the human impact on the planet is proportional to a certain population consuming a certain amount of resources per person, using particular technologies, such as coal, hydrocarbons, automobiles, nuclear power, and so forth. The point is: population is a factor, not to be ignored.

    This formula has been useful, but one obvious flaw in this formula, we now know, is that the “Technology” factor is non-linear, meaning that a simple change in technology can create a large, exponential leap in ecological impact. Consider for example the exponential impact of deep sea drilling after the British Petroleum oil-well blowout in the Gulf of Mexico, or the exponential impact of a disaster such as the Fukushima nuclear meltdown. A nuclear war would be the ultimate exponential impact.

    Another reason we must consider the exponential impact of technology is that the living ecological system may also respond with its own multiplying effects. Every time we disturb nature, we set in motion a sequence of system responses, which then have their own impact, usually beyond our control or influence. We witness this with global heating. Carbon in the atmosphere heats Earth’s air, land, and water, but the heating itself creates feedbacks that include: Melting permafrost that releases methane, which increases heating; melting ice that reduces Earth’s reflective qualities (albedo), retaining more heat; dying forests that absorb less carbon; increased wildfires; and so forth.

    The formula should more accurately be I = PATS; the ecological impact of humanity is related to population and per-capita consumption, as well as to technology and systems feedbacks, which can be non-linear, or exponential, factors.

    The wealthy nations and wealthy consumers have, of course, the greatest impact, but sheer numbers do count. There are ways that we can stabilize human population without unpleasantly imposed restrictions, namely with universal women’s rights, education, and available contraception. We can hope that in 2014, the United Nations adopts these policies and takes serious action.

    Rex Weyler

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25 Comments


(Unregistered) kervennic

says:

This is the first time i read such a clear statement from a mainstream organisation.

There would be much to be said, but i recommend the book o…

There would be much to be said, but i recommend the book of craig dilworth on the matter. “Too smart for our own good”.

Besides we live in a globalized world. It is a complete unaccurate picture to describe a world separated in two. This makes the classical, factorised formula, completely wrong. Both population and consumption are linked. Polluting mass production has fuelled population growth and population growth has fostered and maintained the need for economic growth.

Without industrial colonial society, which provided with cheap medecine to curb infant death as well as unsustainable ways to increase the yield of ecosystem, the traditional society of bordering nation would have never increased in number. Many traditional societies were conservative concerning demography. This conservatism has been shattered by colonialism and global economy, they then began to explode demographically, being completely disconnected to their local environement and dependent on international transportation for food, cloth and energy.

Today the birth rate are dropping in many western societies because the condition of life restrain the need and the possibility of procreating (need for long education for getting a job due to the ever more comple production system, lack of decent housing with short commuting time, due to the huge population density etc etc).

But this is not new, when the rural population fuelled the nascent european industry, towns were not sustaining demograhy, the rural area did. We are in the same configuration concerning less industrialized states: they convey the future consummers, in the form of migrant, who add up to the tired old working force.

There is, thus, no clear line and migration makes the factorized formula unaccurate: those who consume little today will probably consumme a lot more, unless the industrial system crashes… which is not so unlikely.

Posted
6 May, 2013 at 15:41

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(Unregistered) Steven Earl Salmony

says:

We need to see what is happening with regard to the unbridled growth of absolute global human population numbers. But that is not the end of t…

Steven Earl Salmony

AWAREness Campaign on The Human Population,

established 2001

Chapel Hill, NC

http://www.panearth.org/

Posted
7 May, 2013 at 17:03

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(Unregistered) Cassandra1

says:

Good to see Greenpeace acknowledge the ‘p’ word. This is the response I received from Greenpeace, only a few months ago, when I suggested it …

“We don’t currently campaign on population growth not because we don’t consider it an important factor in protecting the planet but with limited resources we need to concentrate our efforts in stopping the immediate causes of climate change. That means to stop our dependence on heavily emitting industries and move to a clean energy future. To remain effective we need to maintain our focus on this critical campaign.

We only have five to ten years at the most to stop the devastating impacts of climate change. As a non-profit organisation funded almost entirely by individuals, we must concentrate all our resources on the issues where we know we can have an immediate impact and thats inciting an energy revolution. A third of all carbon dioxide emissions come from burning coal and nearly a fifth comes from deforestation. This means to avoid runaway climate change, the world needs to urgently quit its addiction to coal and stop destroying forests.

We also feel that environmental damage is disproportionately the result of the consumption habits of a small proportion of the worlds population. For this reason we focus on reducing the ecological footprint of the very high consuming countries of the west. In developing countries we support the kind of ecologically sustainable and equitable solutions that naturally correspond with a reduction in birthrates.

Australia’s use of land and water resources continues to grow with our ecological footprint – now the fifth highest in the world. In spite of growing awareness about the environment and a push towards greener living, Australians now use more water and land per person than most other countries in the world.

Australias footprint is greater than the UK, China, Russia and India which all have far greater populations. Only the UAE, the USA, Kuwait and Denmark are rated worse than Australia.

Focusing on population growth can put blame and responsibility for environmental damage on the world’s poorest people, who have the least impact, and it doesnt help contribute to immediate and accessible solutions such as investing in alternative forms of energy and public transport, greening industrialisation in countries like China and India, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions in socially just ways.

It is for these reasons that the focus of Greenpeace work is on reducing the carbon emissions of the highest emitting countries on the planet, the majority of which are in the developed world. The greatest threat facing us today is climate change so this is our priority.”

Greenpeace now need to put their money where their mouth is and start focussing on population. If they are concerned about climate change they need to realise that an increase in population will only exacerbate it.

Posted
8 May, 2013 at 1:03

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Andreas Larsson

says:

Thanks for mentioning the “Elephant in the room”!

Everyone in the environmental movement needs to realize this basic formula:

Everyone in the environmental movement needs to realize this basic formula:

“Average human consumption of natural resources” X “Number of humans” = “Total environmental impact”

Now that even the average person in China consumes more than the sustainable level we really need to talk about human numbers. Especially since population growth will continue. At the middle of the century the average global sustainable consumption level will be on the level of Somalia of today. A few decades later when we reach 10 billion people that level will drop to the average consumption of North Korea of today. Will people accept that? Probably not, and because of that we have to talk about human numbers! One key issue is to strengthen the rights and education of women so then get fewer children.

Posted
8 May, 2013 at 3:21

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Barry

says:

When it comes to analysing population growth, the theory of demographic transition is used as a basis for predicting growth.

The theory effecti…

The theory effectively documents population growth as going through 4 distinct phases. The 1st stage represents high birth and death rates. Stage 2 sees death rates dropping as quality of life improves, although birth rates remain high. In Stage 3 birth rates drop as living standards have improved to the point where people can invest in things beyond the need to survive such as education, family planning etc. At stage 4 population stabilises.

The key point here is that if you want to tackle population growth you have to allow the population (i.e. the people) to grow.

Poverty and inequality are the prerequisites for an expanding population.

It should also be noted here that overconsumption in the developed world is effectively exacerbating the problem. So the issue is a double edged sword. Increase affluence and you increase consumption, offsetting any potential benefits gained from a stabilising population.

Sustainable development is an issue that needs to be part and parcel within any emerging economy.

But this raises a difficult question. How can you persuade people who have put poverty behind them to live a sustainable life style?

If you have money you want to consume. If you can afford a car who wouldn’t be tempted to buy one?

Yes of course population growth must stabilise, but if everyone on the planet aspired to the sort of life style prevalent in the USA, the planet would become ecologically bankrupt within a few years.

Nothing in life is simple!

Posted
8 May, 2013 at 14:08

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Andreas Larsson

says:

First of all what you are talking about is just a model. It shows how it has been i almost every nation. But since it’s just a model it’s not …

Secondly we now knows that rights and education for women the key driver to both improved life and lower birth rates. It’s only at a very basic level that an improved life is required, I believe that every nation is past that point.

I completely agree with your last sentence!

Posted
12 May, 2013 at 4:27

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(Unregistered) Sarah Fisher

says:

Thank you Rex and Greenpeace for focusing on this critical issue.

So often important discussion on this issue is undermined by the commo…

So often important discussion on this issue is undermined by the common and simplistic misconception that it’s either population OR consumption that is to blame. When of course, given the enormity of the problems we face, we must be seizing all available strategies to advance sustainability.

Contrary to another common obstacle and mistaken belief, you can care about both population and human rights, for as pointed to by Rex, advancing reproductive rights and freedoms, as well as realization of women’s rights and the right to education, is the answer. An estimated 222 million women in developing countries have an unmet need for contraception. Giving these women access to the health services that they want and need, and empowering them to choose the number, timing and spacing of their pregnancies is not only a matter of health and human rights, but by preventing unplanned pregnancies would reduce population pressures, advancing environmental sustainability and overall sustainable development. This clear “win-win” strategy should be pursued alongside other necessary initiatives including those addressing unsustainable and inequitable patterns of consumption, and would increase their effectiveness, but is often overlooked by environmental policy making.

By Population and Sustainability Network / The Population and Sustainable Development Alliance

Posted
8 May, 2013 at 17:06

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(Unregistered) JemR

says:

Greenpeace. Thank you for your clear statement. Welcome to the struggle.

Posted
8 May, 2013 at 19:33

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(Unregistered) DGuerra

says:

State regulations concerning the number of children and/or the age at which children can be had, are often described as draconian. But wouldn’t ci…

Posted
9 May, 2013 at 0:56

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(Unregistered) DietrichS

says:

Good news!!! GP International is working on the “hot” connection between popuklation numbers and ecological burden. Several years ago, GP Ge…

Now I hope the national GP groups will follow the good example of GP International and emphasize the proximate cause.

Posted
9 May, 2013 at 9:29

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(Unregistered) vee-tail

says:

Hallelugia! At last Greenpeace is looking at the core issue affecting our survival on this planet. But has it got the cojones to confront the Catholic…

Posted
9 May, 2013 at 10:33

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