[This is the second installment of our column on updated potential hazards that may be wrought by rapidly expanding human population. It is partially based on a report by Carolyn Lochhead in the September 2, 2013 issue of the San Francisco Chronicle.]
Twenty-nine years ago we rafted through the whitewater of the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon for five days. It was an amazing experience. It seemed as though that river, which has carved the canyon out of rock over an estimated 17 million years, wasn’t going to let anything get in its way that it couldn’t patiently dissolve on its own schedule.
How naïve! Demands on waterways have been neglected. The Colorado River, which farmers of northern Mexico have depended upon for generations, hasn’t reached the Sea of Cortez in 15 years. What rocks could not stop over a course of eons, mankind can suck dry in just a few decades. “Phoenix continues to grow at one of the highest rates in the country,’ said Jerry Karnas, population and sustainability director of the Center for Biological Diversity, the only national environmental group campaigning to limit population growth. “There is no discussion about what the future Phoenix is going to do when the Colorado River is done.”
Done? As in “kaput”? Rock 277 miles long and a mile deep couldn’t stop the Colorado in almost forever, but Arizonans are about to do it in just decades? Holy crap.
Then there’s meat. As people grow wealthier they tend to eat more of it. China is exemplary. It is gaining on the United States in its dubious distinction as being a country saturated with fatsos. But meat is a waster of vast amounts of land and water. It requires converting lots of land to livestock feed production. Both the crops and animals contribute to greenhouse gas production.
For decades the optimists among us have touted technological know-how as remedy for these environmental threats. But as technology advances it cannot keep up with human demand for ecologically self-destructive behavior. In fact, technology is contributing to the problem. Technology demands energy. So-called server “farms” suck up vast amounts of electricity that runs and cools the machines.
And while the United States has a fertility rate that should in theory lead to a diminishing population, it is also in need of immigrants for a variety of economic reasons. So, our numbers increase every year, and along with that, so does our demand for all things material and energy-needy. How then can America lead the world in family planning and population reduction when we set such a bad example? And so-called conservatives in Congress are fighting to defund family planning at home and abroad. Lochhead refers to UC Berkeley Population expert Martha Campbell’s argument that voluntary family planning is not coercive but that blocking women from controlling how many kids they produce is coercive. She makes the case that most women would prefer a better life for a smaller number of kids.
The Guttmacher Institute—which aims to advance sexual and reproductive health and rights—makes the case that it would cost a little more than $4 billion per year to provide planning for all of the over 200 million women across the globe who lack access to the contraception they desire. That’s not much of a price tag for modern industrialized nations to share in order to make a dent in overpopulation and human misery.
Parts of Asia and virtually all of sub-Saharan Africa are bucking the general worldwide trend toward decreased fertility. In Africa, reports Lochhead, “U.N. demographers sharply raised their population projections last year, adding another (italics added) billion people by century’s end, to nearly 11 billion. African fertility rates have peaked at more than five births per woman.”
Ending in 2011, the world population grew by a billion people in the previous 12 years. It will take 14 years to add the next billion. So while fertility rates are leveling off, the base number of people has increased to the extent that there are enough humans of child-bearing age to keep the population rising for quite some time.
So, while the demand for more clean water, land, natural resources, and breathable air grows, the supply remains stagnant or, even worse, shrinks. Famine, disease, and war brought on by scarcity loom over the horizon.
There are way more than Enough of Us. We know it has become cliché to quote the great Walt Kelly in the guise of his cartoon avatar Pogo, but here goes anyway: “We have seen the enemy and it is us.”