Tuesday, June 16, 2009

When Environmental Writers Are Part of the Problem

Many thanks to guest blogger, John C. Feeney, Ph.D., a psychologist turned environmental activist and writer. The full article can be viewed at http://dissidentvoice.org/2007/07/when-environmental-writers-are-part-of-the-problem/


When talking about causes and proposed solutions for our ecological plight, few environmental writers tell us more than half the story. There is a near universal tendency to focus on the importance of cutting fossil fuel use while staying mum on the topic of population growth.
That the size and growth of the global population is a root cause of ecological degradation is well known to scientists who recognize, for example, that the ecological footprint for the world is the product of population times per capita consumption. Yet we hear all about the need to save energy by switching to florescent light bulbs. We read about the ethanol debate and carbon trading schemes. But in all the talk of ways of reducing per person consumption, how often does anyone mention the need to address the other factor in the equation?
Why the silence? Population growth received a good deal of attention in the 1960s and 1970s. But then came China’s draconian one child policy, right-wing groups pushing free market capitalism by cheerleading growth and dismissing the need to limit our numbers, and political wrangling among environmental and social justice groups. The result was the demotion of population from its status as social and environmental issue number one.
Indeed, many writers avoid the subject of population despite recognizing its importance. For instance, David Roberts, environmental writer at Grist, acknowledges he never writes on the subject. His reason? “Talking about population alienates a large swathe of the general public. It carries vague connotations of totalitarianism and misanthropy and eugenics. It has been used quite effectively to slander and marginalize the environmental movement. It is political poison.”
Is Roberts’ view wise? I don’t believe the subject of population is, in fact, “political poison.” Though they do so too infrequently, a variety of groups and writers do grapple with it. And there’s no evidence their work has set back the environmental cause. They identify population growth as a problem because it’s the truth, and they know bringing people the truth is productive while avoiding it is ultimately damaging.
Addressing population growth means taking humane measures to assist with the social and economic issues which drive it. That means improving education for girls and economic opportunities for women in developing countries. It means increasing access to family planning and reproductive health care services, and encouraging positive attitudes toward smaller families. And it means reducing infant mortality rates. Any notion that it need involve involuntary measures such as “totalitarianism and misanthropy and eugenics” is simply wrong.
True, some have tried to use the population topic to try to slander and marginalize the environmental movement. But these groups presenting irrational arguments from such vantage points as the Christian right and the libertarian right have had, at best, a marginal impact. Their attacks are best dealt with head on, exposing their agenda-driven illogic.
I frequently raise the population issue with people and have encountered almost universal recognition that it is a problem needing more attention.
Environmental writers who have avoided the subject of population should rethink their stance. Let’s embrace truth, not avoidance.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Factory Farming, Population and Human Values

The previous post looked at how the enormous human population has created equally immense numbers of domesticated animals. They are so numerous (many billions) that they can no longer range on pasture lands but must be confined in horrid, cramped “factory farms.” (OK, OK, so they also make more profit, which justifies anything.) These factories, which will only get larger and more inhumane with human numbers increasing by over 70 million a year, may be the death of us yet, for they are perfect incubators for deadly viruses, and are just waiting for the right conditions to unleash a world-wide pandemic (the recent Mexican swine flu came close).
But what worries me even more is the loss of ethics, the loss of decency. We turn a blind eye to the fact that pigs, cattle, chickens and goats are also sentient creatures. We are all animals and share a common evolutionary heritage. Animals have feelings, emotions and sensitivity just like humans. The young of all animals want to be nourished and loved. The adults of all animals want security, to care for their young and to be loved. Farley Mowat summed it up nicely, “life itself – not human life – is the ultimate miracle upon this earth.”
The saddest part of all this is the loss of our own dignity and any shred of decency. If we don’t approve of Abu Ghraib prison and human torture, how can we possibly approve of factory farms? Humans may be all-powerful on this earth, but we are pathetic, sadistic, murderous bullies. We should be ashamed. We need to put our house in order. Let’s start by bringing our populations down to levels that are in harmony with the earth and the creatures on it.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Population and Frightening Factory Farming

The growing human population has put two diametrically opposite pressures on the fellow creatures that inhabit the earth with us. Wild animals are being slowly but surely wiped out. This is called the Sixth Great Extinction. The populations of domesticated animals, that is, the ones whose body parts we place on the dinner table, however, are skyrocketing in parallel with human population.
Here are some numbers. World meat consumption went from 40 million tonnes in 1950 to 218 million tonnes in 2005 (a 5.5-fold increase!). The population of cattle in the world is over one billion. 70 billion chickens are slaughtered annually. The number of pigs and sheep are one billion and 1.2 billion, respectively.
There is no free lunch (sorry, couldn’t resist), thus, the impact of these gigantic numbers of animals is enormous. They require food, land and energy. At the same time they create methane (hello, global warming) and waste (hello, Walkerton tragedy).
But most frightening is that the crowded factory farms are perfect incubators of disease and mutant viruses (hello, mad cow disease and avian flu). The latest swine flu (A/H1N1) from Mexico, which had world health authorities in a panic, is but one of many outbreaks associated with pig farms. As human population continues to soar, so will the numbers of domesticated animals. That even more deadly diseases and viruses will follow is inevitable and unavoidable. Our children and grandchildren will face some ugly threats.
All this because there are too many humans on this planet. Let’s change our ways. Let’s leave our children animals they can love.