Wednesday 18 February 2009

Are we full yet?

The Earth has a lot of problems: pollution, an impending energy crisis (what will you do when the oil runs dry?), climate change, the spiralling cost and impact of food production, increasing pressure on finite water resources, deforestation (we're destroying the planet's lungs)... I could go on and on. And sure, there are lots of things we can do to try to make things better - we can re-use and recycle more, turn off appliances, not leave the tap running, switch to energy-efficient lightbulbs, make smarter choices when it comes to vehicles and transportation, make ethical purchases and investments, think more about what we eat and drink, compost things, make a conscious decision not to get caught in the vicious circle of consumerism for the sake of consumerism... god, I could go on and on about this too. I won't though, because I don't want to bore you, or come over all preachy. Besides, if you're reading this then maybe I'm preaching to the converted on a lot of this stuff already. I hope so.

Instead, I want to talk about the environmental taboo that is population size. It seems to me that there will soon be just too many people in the world to be sustainable. Think about it: there is only so much land that is viable for crop production; there's only so much of that that can be offset to allow for livestock farming; there are only so many edible fish in the sea; and, crucially, there is a finite water supply within what is effectively a closed system. Given all that, logic dictates that there must come a point where the resources that we have available to us on Earth are just not sufficient any more to support the size of the population that we will soon have, given the current rate of population growth.

The more you think about it, the more obvious this becomes. You could even argue it is the single biggest factor in pretty much all of the problems our planet faces, especially if you look at it in the simplest of economic models - if things carry on as they are, pretty soon our demand for anything will outstrip our supply of everything...

Worried yet...?

Of course, this remains the great taboo subject of environmentalism. It really is the elephant in the room, the subject no-one wants to be seen to talk about because to suggest population size is a problem gives rise to a knee-jerk reaction: you can't morally coerce or force people to have fewer children. Before I get bombarded with outraged emails, I agree with this entirely - I would not in any way support any initiative or constraint that sought to enforce population controls. Having children should be a matter of choice - always has been, always should be. But what I would advocate is that people think more about how many children they want. Whilst I don't have stats on how many unplanned children there are in the world, I would also advocate that people are more diligent and conscientious with their birth control. And of course I unreservedly support the idea that birth control methods and education are more freely available in the developing world.

I guess what I support most of all is that this issue is discussed, given open debate. Just because it's contentious doesn't mean it shouldn't be thought about. Think about it this way - if you're throwing a party, how many guests can you cater for with what you have in your cupboards, fridge and freezer? 10? 20? 30? Okay, so if you didn't have enough food and drink, you could nip out to the shop and buy some more... but what if every shop was closed? Even the 24-hour garage down the road... Could you still have your party? And if all your guests stayed over, how would you feed them breakfast in the morning? I know this seems like a fatuous and simplistic example, but I hope it gets the message across. The Earth has a finite supply of everything, just like your cupboards, fridge and freezer. It's not a bottomless pit. And many would argue we're fast approaching the point where all the shops are closed and we can't invite any more guests. Perhaps the party's over.

There are undoubtedly lots of reasons for the sharp incline in population growth. Better and more widely available healthcare means that people live longer and infant mortality rates drop, for a start. For the record, I don't dispute that these are good things - of course they are, that goes without saying. Similarly, a better diet and a healthier lifestyle mean that parents can be "productive" for much longer than might have been the case, say, a century ago. Again, let me be clear that I agree that this is a good thing - as I said before, I believe having children, when and how many, to be about choice, and so of course I support having more choice. But globally our birth rate is as high or even higher than in those darker days when people didn't live so long, when infant mortality was higher, and so on. And that's the trouble, I guess - our global birth rate belongs to a different era, and a growing number of people are starting to ask the question "does something has to give?"

Links: Optimum Population Trust | Global Population Speak Out | Is it selfish to have more than two children?

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