Monday, April 28, 2008

One-Child Families

It's well recognized that environmental degradation is not just dependent on the number of human beings, but also the amount they consume. In searching for ways to lessen humanity's footprint, it's commonly argued that developed countries should decrease their relentless consumption of resources by toning down their materialistic lifestyles. At the same time, poor nations should curb their high population growth rates.

A very important factor is lost in this polemic. Unappreciated is that the United States is not only the most affluent country in the world, but it is also the third most populous with over 300 million souls and growing robustly at 1% per year. Thus, America needs to address both sides of the equation by cutting consumption and curbing its population growth.

US politicians are unaware of the population issue, and wouldn't touch it if they were. A few local groups, however, are beginning to recognize the importance of smaller family sizes. The e-zine "" is an excellent resource that not only encourages one-child families but also offers advice, information and links for only children and their family and friends.

Having a smaller family can be a difficult decision, but an enormously important one.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Surviving Converging Catastrophes

The Long Emergency by James Howard Kunstler (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2005) makes a spell-binding — and frightening — read.

He convincingly postulates that the enormous surge in human population to almost seven billion people has only been possible because of oil, which allowed humans to far exceed the Earth's carrying capacity.

Now that peak oil has been reached he bleakly predicts a breakdown of civilization. Because nothing, not solar, wind nor any other energy source, can replace the convenience, the versatility, the energy content of oil.

Less and less oil will be produced each year, as the population continues to grow robustly. Agricultural output will decrease, for the Green Revolution is based primarily on oil-based fertilizers and pesticides and oil-powered irrigation.

Society will retreat from globalization and become more localized. Diseases will spread rampantly to reduce the population to what Kunstler calls the "solar capacity" level.

The Long Emergency is fascinating, and very compellingly urges us to take action. Will we?

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Human Population Decline? Not Fast Enough

According to David Reher, a population historian at the Universidad Complutense de Madrid, "historically, a 'large and well-nourished population' has always been considered the sign of a successful society and a successful economy. The very idea of decline and of population shortage is largely foreign to our society, mostly because for several centuries there has been no experience of shrinking population."

But, he says, there are several signs that global human population is heading into decline, after two hundred years of unstoppable growth. National fertility rates are dropping nearly everywhere in the world. Women's roles are changing. The processes of modernization have tipped the cost-benefit ratio of having large families, making them uneconomic, especially in urban settings.

"Times of flux are not times that are conducive to optimism about the future," Reher says. "Having children is ultimately an expression of confidence in the future; in the security of the life you can expect your children to be able to lead."

"For our children, and especially our grandchildren, persistent population decline — and possibly lower living standards — will likely be the only reality they will ever experience and the times of runaway population growth so prevalent in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries will be but a distant memory of the past."

"Periods of decline," Reher explains, "have been equated to decadence and to societies that were somehow unable to function properly." He goes on to say that this is "a time of deepening concern about the sustainability of society as we know it."

But global population decline isn't happening fast enough to make a difference in our negative impact on the planet.

In 1989, Jean Bourgeois-Pichat, a renowned French demographer, suggested that "… l’humanité part de zéro, il y a quelque 600 000 ans, et y retourne vers l’an 2400" (humanity started from nothing 600,000 years ago, and will return to nothing around the year 2400). Perhaps Bourgeois-Pichat was factoring global warming into his population projections?

It will be sooner now, however, with the latest climate change research added in. If global overheating is left unchecked (because we don't make the necessary transition to a renewable energy economy fast enough), by 2100 most species on Earth will be condemned to eventual extinction — homo sapiens being no exception.

[Reher's paper, Long-term population decline, past and future, was presented at the 2005 International Union for the Scientific Study of Population Conference in Tours, France.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Darkness and Light and Overpopulation Per Capita

What does NASA's shot of the Earth at night tell us about overpopulation? Check out Europe, Japan, and especially the eastern seaboard of the United States and the Toronto to Montreal corridor in Canada.

Are we that afraid of the dark in the West, or are we just too over-electrified for the size of our populations — and using more power than we deserve to? Sometimes, population issues aren't simply about numbers of people.

Chinese Foreign Minister, Yang Jiechi, points out that his country's per capita emissions of greenhouse gases are still much lower than those of developed countries. "It's like there is one person who eats three slices of bread for breakfast, and there are three people, each of whom eats only one slice. Who should be on a diet?" he asked.

"If per capita energy consumption is viewed in the context of the fundamental principle that people are all born equal, then I don't think some people are justified in talking about the large emissions of China, as if they have the moral high ground."

Hmm. Not sure about that moral high ground, but we sure do have the ground well lit up for us at night.