Sunday, May 24, 2009

Population, Prudence and the Precautionary Principle

The precautionary principle states that if an action might cause severe or irreversible harm to the public or to the environment, the action should not proceed until the advocates have provided scientific consensus that harm would not ensue. This statement, which is only common sense after all, has been adopted by the European Union and is promoted by the United Nations.

Unfortunately, society’s commitment to constant economic and population growth has trampled this fine tenet underfoot. There is no time for caution or common sense.

A growing population and increasing GDP demand ever more products, more services and more resources. How else can we provide jobs and a good standard of living to the growing population? The system requires never-ending innovation and production. Being careful would only slow things down. And heaven forbid that we should slow the train, it must keep chugging forward.

Take synthetic chemicals such as, for example, the organochlorines: PCBs, DDT, dioxins, furans. Only after they are shown to be toxic and have permeated the global environment is removal from the marketplace considered. These chemicals (not to mention nanotechnology and genetically modified organisms) are innocent until proven guilty; forget the precautionary principle. Why? Because we need growth: more, more, more.

Bizarre isn’t it? Not only is growth degrading the environment, destroying biodiversity and depleting resources, but it is also sapping us of the will to manage our affairs properly. It’s a lose-lose situation.

Imagine now a smaller population, say 3 or 4 billion, that is in equilibrium. There would be no pressure for growth, no need to pump out new chemicals and products heedlessly. Of the many benefits, the best is that we could re-establish the precautionary principle. We could act in a prudent, cautious manner.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Attenborough, Biodiversity and Plain Stupidity

A small controversy has been stirring in Britain these past few weeks. Well-known naturalist and broadcaster Sir David Attenborough spoke out, stating that there are too many people in the world. Furthermore, he became a patron of the Optimum Population Trust, the leading think tank in the UK concerned with the impact of population growth on the environment. The Trust ( campaigns for stabilization and gradual population decrease globally and in the UK.

What astonishes me is that many people can’t — or refuse to — see the simple logic that motivates Attenborough. Author Austin Williams, for example, attacked Attenborough, stating that ``experts can still be stupid when they speak on subjects of which they know little.'' What balderdash! Attenborough is a knowledgeable naturalist and understands that as human numbers increase other animal populations will decrease. More roads, more suburbs, more deforestation, more fishing and more monoculture agriculture will decrease natural habitat. Duh, that’s really hard to understand, isn’t it Mr. Williams?

As large predators disappear, lower forms of life will flourish. Already, we have jellyfish infestations because sea turtle numbers have declined. Many scientists feel that in the future algae, molds, rats, cockroaches, mosquitoes and other ``resilient'' creatures will flourish because all their predators will have disappeared. And there are dozens and dozens of other environmental, pollution and resource problems that are looming ever larger as human population grows.

Thumbs up to Attenborough. Thumbs down to all those who ignore simple logic.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Family Planning in Kenya: Insights from the Field

(This post is contributed by a lady who has donated many months of her time to help rural Kenyans cope with HIV/AIDS.)

Family planning and population control in Kenya deserves critical attention; it is a country whose population, despite being impacted by HIV/Aids, lack of health care and proper nutrition, is growing by 2.75% per year. In 1900 the population in Kenya was 1,352,000. By 2008 the population was 37,000,000. By 2050, Kenya’s population is projected to reach 65,200,000. Today, 32% of Kenyans are malnourished. Drought and climate change are reducing the nation’s ability to feed itself.

I talked to many women of childbearing age in rural Kenya. Almost all wish to limit the size of their families. Their biggest challenge is the strong Kenyan/African cultural belief in the succession of generations and of the strong tradition of ancestral power. In addition, many men measure their manhood in the number of wives and children they have and see condoms and other birth control methods as an affront. Abstinence for women is often not an option in a culture in which spousal rape or non-consensual sex is accepted as an entitlement.

Young people are slowly being educated in family planning and HIV awareness. However access to condoms and other birth control methods is sketchy in rural areas. In addition, approximately 33% of Kenya’s population is Catholic. The Pope’s recent message to Africa that the use of condoms is unacceptable exacerbates not only the issue of HIV but of population growth.

The change in culture that needs to take place for a real decline in population growth in Kenya may simply take too long to prevent a disaster. A basically corrupt and uncaring government has not supported the education and infrastructure needed to promote the need for population control in African. And the idea of negotiating cultural or behavioural change smacks of neo-colonialism if it comes from the international community.

The situation in Kenya is common to many developing nations. When a change in culture is necessary for major change, the process is ponderous and painful. And it must be coordinated and powered by the ruling government and supported by the international community.

Population control, which is a touchy phrase at best, is a political and religious hot potato. Few power structures seem willing to get burned.