Sunday, August 24, 2008

Population Issue Makes the News

Although the "population problem" is rarely discussed in any meaningful way by politicians or mainstream media, on 26 July 2006, the Vancouver Sun ran a column I wrote that generated considerable feedback, some of which I'd like to share with you. You can check out the column here:

Problem of Population Growth Needs to Be Met: No one wants to tackle the prickly question despite its extensive environmental impacts

It starts: "The most frightening — and fascinating — thing I know is a graph of human population growth over the past millennium. Starting in about 1800 the curve suddenly spikes almost straight upward, and this incredible growth in human numbers continues today. In my lifetime alone, population has increased by over four billion people. And thanks to technological innovations and cheap oil, the impact of each person on the globe has increased even faster.

"Under this onslaught, Earth's vast cradle of resources, including oil, food grains, fish stocks and water, is being severely depleted, and the environment is being trampled underfoot. Humanity's unflagging desire to procreate and improve our lifestyle (read, own more and bigger) is finally catching up with us. It is truly scary, for the graph can only be interpreted one way: dire times lie ahead.

"The fascinating part is that few care. It's the damnedest contradiction! Humans can send people to the moon, split the nucleus of an atom and transplant a heart. Yet we won't do anything about the population freight train that's steaming toward a cliff. Why?"


The article goes on to show how politicians and environmental groups are ignoring human population growth, which is yoked to a growing economy like two oxen (as I've mentioned in this blog). It also shows that savings made by conservation will be negated by population growth. If we care about the future, we need to drag the issue into the open and start talking about it.

Here are some of the (edited) responses I've received:

1) We fully agree.

"The bad news is that these are baby steps, and are totally swamped by developing countries like China and India, which are charging full-tilt ahead to raise their living standards."

And, indeed, when they look at the West, why shouldn't they? It appears that while China and India are trying to catch up with the West, we are trying to catch up with the Middle and Far East (in terms of population numbers). What an absurd race!

MW, Vancouver, BC

2) It was good to see you raise the issue of the "problem of population growth" in the Vancouver Sun today. I teach an economics course and always start the course with the basic economic concept that as humans we have seemingly unlimited demands for things and our economic systems, at the municipal, provincial and federal levels, all measure their success by the level of growth that has been achieved. Population growth underlies this global growth in demand and, as you point out, is exacerbated by the fact that income levels and economic activity are rising the fastest in the poorer countries where most of the people are located.

I was in Australia recently at a conference on Water Supply and Pricing and there was a speaker from UNESCO who was accountable for strategies on water issues. They have developed a strategy called ‘UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Scientific Cooperative Programme in Hydrology and Water Resources’ which develops strategies for dealing with challenges facing the world in the area of water supply. Not one of these strategies deals with population growth which clearly is one of the underlying problems. If the worlds’ population had not grown by 4 billion people in the last 55 years or so there would not be the same stresses on water that we now face in this world. But the even scarier problem is what impact continued population growth will have on water supplies. I asked this fellow from UNESCO why addressing population growth was not on the list of issues to be addressed and he indicated that while he understood it clearly was one of the underlying challenges to water issues, it was much too politically sensitive to be raised. He suggested that countries like India and Pakistan would never support any such reference to this issue.

I can only hope that more people like yourself raise this issue and that at some point it is taken seriously. Unfortunately history suggests that difficult issues like this are seldom taken seriously until we are forced to by impending dire consequences.

JB, by email

3) Your piece is brilliant … I have been a student and activist concerning what I perceive as major issues, and overpopulation — and its subsequent despoilation of the planet — is one of the main ones, if not THE main one.

NT, by email

4) Hi Hans, I was deeply involved in the environmental movement in the '70s with a group based out of U.B.C.

With growing concern I have also observed the fact that not only do precious few seem to care about the massive impending global trainwrecks rushing at us, I don't know more than a few people who have the slightest interest in even talking about them. Anytime I try and raise the subject of global warming, impending oil shortages or the problems of population growth, people give me an indignant, blank (why would I give a sh-t!) stare and quickly shift the conversation to another topic.

Even more disturbing is the opposition to any proposals to address global warming or population growth if they might have the slightest negative impact on the economy. Even though global extreme weather disasters are fast becoming "reality TV," there appears to be a widespread belief that there is no cost associated with doing nothing. [Even] assuming global warming is a gigantic hoax and that there is no downside to population growth (neither of which I believe), conserving resources would [still] seem to be a logical and reasonable proposition, except for the fact that it would probably negatively affect consumer spending. Here, more is indeed more when it comes to economic health.

Contemporary marketing strategies aimed at turning people into addictive, mindless consumers, and a state information overload might at least partly explain the paralyzing apathy of most. But still it seems odd that people who would normally have enough sense to seek shelter in the face of an (unproven) threat of impending rain or, worse lightning, would not be mobilized to act against a threat whose effects are seen almost daily on the news. Perhaps we as a society have reached a point where we can no longer distinguish fiction from reality.

DM, Sechelt, BC

1 comment: said...

The article on the unbridled growth of absolute global human population numbers is vital, and the discussion that follows the article needs to be occurring in the living spaces of every family on the surface of Earth.

The global growth of human numbers presents the family of humanity with an ominously looming challenge, one that appears to be the proverbial "mother" of all global challenges. Population growth must be acknowledged and addressed sooner rather than later.

Please consider reviewing the work of Dr. Jack Alpert on the subject of "one child per family. Perhaps his constructive ideas that call for voluntary, self-limiting behavior by members of each single family unit is timely and useful.

Steven Earl Salmony
AWAREness Campaign on The Human Population, est. 2001