Sunday, January 31, 2010

Time to Speak Out about Human Population

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 and it continues to rise at about 70 million people each year. And thanks to technological innovations and cheap oil, the wealth of each person on the globe, especially in developed nations, 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 degraded. It is truly scary, for the graph can only be interpreted one way: dire times lie ahead.

The fascinating part is that few care that the population freight train is steaming toward a cliff. Why?

The problem is that politicians consider economic growth as their ultimate goal, providing jobs and an ever-increasing standard of living for their constituents. But the economy can’t grow by itself; it requires a partner: an increasing population, which provides a growing consumer base and more workers to produce more consumer goods. Thus, economy and population are like two yoked oxen heaving and pulling together. And no politician dares to slow them or unyoke them.

How will it end? An ever-expanding economy that requires an ever-expanding population to make it viable is a giant pyramid scheme. We all know what happens to pyramid schemes. Since the world is finite, population-economy growth must also crash to an end.

The Suzuki Foundation, Greenpeace and other environmental organizations studiously ignore the population issue. Ditto for religious leaders led by the pontificating Pope.

So what can we do? The good news is that many steps are being taken to wean ourselves from fossil fuels and reduce our ecofootprint, such as smaller cars, public transit, compact fluorescents and wind turbines.

Truly tragic, however, is that population is being ignored. Media coverage of population is woefully lacking. It is a taboo topic. As long as human numbers continue to climb, they will cancel any gains made by conservation. It will yield not one millimeter of progress if through superhuman efforts we decrease our environmental footprint by, say, 20% per capita but the population increases by 20% over the same period. Global warming provides an excellent example. In spite of the Kyoto Protocol, the annual amount of carbon dioxide emissions between 1990 and 2005 increased 32% world wide. Quite simply, we’re not getting the job done. And the best measures in the world won’t as long as we keep ignoring population.

Just like drug addicts, the first and most important step is to admit we have a problem. We need to drag the population issue into the open, shine a spotlight on it and start talking about it.

An important initiative has been launched called Global Population Speak Out, a project that is mobilizing scientists, writers and knowledgeable individuals to speak and write about population during the month of February. It=s a simple idea. If a large number of qualified voices speak out on population all at once, perhaps people will listen. Interestingly, one of the first to add his support was Paul Ehrlich, the author of The Population Bomb, the best seller that fuelled much of the concern about population in the 1970s.

Add your voice to the movement. Visit the Global Population Speak Out website ( and pledge your support. It doesn’t cost a cent, but it could make a world of difference.