When The Population Bomb exploded on the scene in 1968 with breathless warnings that humans were breeding themselves into a global environmental catastrophe, it got a lot of people talking about the earth’s finite resources for the first time. It also launched many heated public discussions about ways to force the populations of other nations to make fewer people.
With many of author Paul Ehrlich’s predictions – including a projected hundreds of millions of famine-related deaths in the 1970s – failing to materialize, such population arguments have long been consigned to the sidelines. However, last week the San Antonio Express-News and other papers allowed Texas to be held up as something of a poster child for the populationists’ argument by running a dispatch from Hearst’s Washington bureau titled, “The taboo topic: Population’s link to ecological decline.” The author, Carolyn Lochhead, launches her report with a string of Lone Star statistics: “196 endangered or threatened species, severe water shortages, 63 superfund sites, the most carbon emissions of any state and one of the world’s largest ocean “dead zones” off its coast.” And our booming population, supposedly, behind each failing.
However, every one of these failures is a matter of broken policy, not population.
Our power plants and farms are perfectly capable of producing power and food without trashing the complex ecological systems that make life possible. We have simply allowed their powerful lobbies to get them around such pesky considerations. And while a growing number of conservation biologists hold that a full half of all the planet’s lands and waters should remain wild in order for them to fulfill their ecological functions, less than two percent of Texas’ wild places are protected today to expected result.
In many ways, this is the world we decided to make, not one we crowded ourselves into. Solutions abound.
Though a full third of all the food produced today is thrown away as trash, for instance, that waste could easily be collected and converted into organic fertilizer. That simple action – along with smarter use of habitat buffers around our farms – could help wither the Gulf’s dead zone while also potentially freeing up more land for wilderness.
A hundred years ago, the white-tailed deer had nearly been wiped out in our state. We decided, however, it was valuable and the rest is history.
Without a doubt, global human population – expected to plateau around 10 billion around 2060 — is growing rapidly. But it’s nothing the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations thinks we can’t handle. And, to be sure, it’s not populations in the U.S. these billionaires are seeking to stabilize. It’s in Africa and Asia where 80 percent of the planet’s population is expected to reside by mid-century.
Considering that the vast majority of the carbon in the atmosphere and oceans that has triggered global climate change has come from us in the West – and that a billion of the world’s poorest are expected to lose their livelihoods to desertification this century, desertification manufactured by those now enjoying fossil-fuel-derived affluence — one must ask: Who does the population bomb analysis serve?
“The ultra-rich,” columnist George Monbiot wrote in 2009 about a gathering of American billionaires seeking to make world population a top-tier priority, “have decided that it’s the very poor who are trashing the planet. You grope for a metaphor, but it’s impossible to satirize.”
When the planet’s seven billionth person was born sometime in 2011, science communicator David Suzuki pointed out the weakness of the Ehrlich analysis by writing that it is the wealthiest 20 percent of us that consume 80 percent of the planet’s resources. “We are the major predators and despoilers of the planet, and so we blame the problem on overpopulation.”
When it comes down to it, the entire human family could fit nicely in one giant Texas-sized city. Keeping everyone fed, clothed, and entertained, on the other hand, requires a lot of stuff. It is in the creation of that food and material that we must be a lot smarter in the choices we make. Blaming human population for what ails us not only excuses our regulatory failings but it also shortchanges our capacity for compassion and imagination, traits we will need in spades to navigate the future ahead.
Greg Harman is a San Antonio-based writer whose column, Lone Star Green, is published every other week. You can see more of his writing at harmanonearth.com.