If we were to assert that cars are the cause of traffic accidents, we would be disingenuous. Cars are hunks of metal, plastic, and rubber that just sit there. It’s people who make them dangerous missiles. We drive them around. The same is true for air pollution. So much for metaphors.
Allow us to elucidate. Last Sunday we were watching Cosmos on the Fox Network. The host and lecturer, Neil deGrasse Tyson, made an eloquent case that climate change and global warming are real, that human behavior is largely responsible for it, and the consequences are likely to be dire. Fine.
But the blame, as in most arguments we come across, goes something like this: We are burning too much coal, petroleum products, and natural gas. The argument usually goes that the burning of fossil fuels is killing our environment. In other words, just as people drive cars that cause destructive accidents, people cause the pollution that destroys our environment.
The cure? Replace our fossil fuels with wind and solar power. To that, some arguments go, add hydroelectric, geothermal, tidal and nuclear power. Fine. The problem is that no one in the mass media is saying anything about the root cause, the drivers, as it were. The root cause is too many people. Demographers estimate that human populations will grow by about 40 percent by the end of this century. It’s crazy. No matter how fast we replace fossil fuels with renewable and other alternate sources of energy, we’re still going to need to supply an additional three billion of us with electrical power.
But the communications media virtually never discuss the need to educate our ourselves about not producing more of us than the planet can handle. It seems as though we can discuss anything except the drivers of the metaphorical cars of environmental destruction who are causing the problems. Perhaps they are afraid that mentioning family planning is the third rail of environmentalism.
So, it may be up to Mother Nature to control her children by letting them destroy their home and killing them off by means of environmental disasters. Sooner or later the news media will have to talk about the dead elephant in the room.
We wish the term “global warming” had never been conceived. With a third of the U.S. population having its brains beaten out by snow and near-record cold temperatures (at this writing New York City expected a low of seven degrees this morning and Chicago looked forward to a wind-chill of about 40 below), how can anyone think about global warming?
Just hold your horses—or kangaroos—as we take a look down under. The Aussies have just lived through their hottest year on record. And so far, things don’t look much cooler for 2014. While the cities on the east coast of the country have decent temps right now, it might not be a good idea to visit the outback, and we’re not talking steak houses here. Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology reported that 34 locations in Australia set all-time high temperature records between Dec. 30 and Jan. 4. One area of south central Australia had highs above 120 degrees. These high-low ranges are why “climate change” is a better term than “global warming.”
Remember, we just experienced mega Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, preceded by “Frankenstorm” Sandy on the U.S. East Coast. Which brings us to the point. Don’t let the bitter cold that is saturating broadcast news misdirect your attention. In California, where we live, 2013 was one of the driest years on record. The northern part of the state, including the San Francisco Bay Area and the snow-dependent Lake Tahoe area of the Sierra Nevada, is practically gasping for rain and snow. We are experiencing week upon week of well-above-average temperatures. So while we are all looking at snow drifts on the tube, we feel this reminder is timely: THE EARTH IS WARMING AND THE SEAS ARE RISING. In other words, on average the surface temperatures on our planet are headed upward. And that means ice everywhere is melting faster than it is replaced.
According to the overwhelming majority of climate scientists, the preponderance of evidence places the blame on human activity. And no matter how energy efficient we become over the next century, adding three billion of us to the planet is going to make it all but impossible to reduce energy consumption overall.
Nancy Cole of Union of Concerned Scientists, writing in the fall 2013 issue of Catalyst, explains that “ … heat is also absorbed by oceans, causing water to warm and expand. Together, these mechanisms have caused the global average sea level to rise eight inches since 1880; some cities along the East and Gulf Coasts have seen even greater increases, from 12 inches in Miami Beach to 30 inches in Virginia Beach.” Cole refers to scientists’ projections that globally seas could rise an additional six to 16 inches by 2050. In the ensuing 50 years they could rise another two to six feet.
If there is one thing we have learned since diving into the myriad issues of the consequences of overpopulation, it is that such projections often don’t have merit when it comes to accuracy. 2013 for instance was supposed to be one hell of a year for Atlantic hurricanes. The reality, in a word: fizzle. But over the long haul, it is likely that the air will warm, ice will melt, and seas will rise. A lot.
That will mean that coastal cities will either be swamped or have to spend big bucks on stopping the seas. Beaches, and even a country or two, like the Maldives, will disappear. And future generations will wonder, “What the hell were they thinking back in the early 21st century? Or were they thinking at all? After all, didn’t they realize there were enough of us, even back then?
We have been sounding the clarion call, warning the world that making kids, especially a lot of them, is a really bad idea. What we have been unable to describe, however, is exactly what this tiny orb in an almost unlimited galaxy will look like in a few centuries.
Author Alan Weisman described what the Earth might look like if we suddenly all disappeared, in his 2007 book, The World Without Us. In fact, it looks pretty good, if you can live without the image of The Peter Principle of all species (aka Homo sapiens) running through your imagination.
In his latest tome, Weisman projects just the opposite outcome. In Countdown he guesses what our planet will look like if we can’t keep our sperm contained.
The world’s human numbers grow by the population of Egypt each year. Reno, Nevada has a about 230,000 residents. That is approximately how much global population increases daily. Imagine building a city the size of Reno each and every day of the year, replete with energy sources, fresh water, sewage, and on and on, each day. To us, that is mind boggling. In the six years since Weisman wrote The World Without Us, our numbers have increased from 6.5 billion to 7.1 billion. In less than a century, that number will grow to more than 10 billion.
Imagine, 42 percent growth in nine decades. That’s an increase of two Chinas or nine United Stateses (if that’s how to say it). But enough of statistics. What does this mean in practical day-to-day-life terms?
Let’s start with water. “Ever-rising water demand, and climate change, are expected to boost water problems worldwide, especially in countries that are already experiencing shortages,” says Dina Fine Maron of Scientific American.
She goes on to point out, “Pakistan, one of the most water-stressed countries in the world, is on the brink of crisis. A recent report from the Asian Development Bank, highlighted by The Atlantic, states that the country’s emergency water reserve only has enough supply for 30 days – more than 30 times below the 1,000-day recommendation for similar countries.”
We must find a way to bring these numbers down or, as Weisman points out, eventually, drought, warfare, disease, or famine will. He traveled to 21 countries to speak with scientists, religious leaders, politicians, and others to research his book. While countries that adopt liberal family planning policies, like Iran – which offers voluntary state-funded birth control and education – seem to “get it,” other countries slog along, creating cities like Mumbai, India, where many of its 20 million people live under tarps strung between skyscrapers.
Weisman makes the case that our planet can provide adequate fresh air, water, and food for two billion people, which was our population in 1900. If we were to adopt China’s one-child policy, we could get back to that number in a century. “I don’t see us being able to change our lifestyles fast enough,” he opines. “The one thing we can do is contraception. We could change human impact more quickly that way, and give ourselves time to solve these other problems.”
As we are fond of saying, there are more than Enough of Us. The tools exist for us to turn things around. What is lacking is the self-awareness, the political courage, and the gumption to “Just say ‘No’”.
The so-called biological urge to have a child is most probably a myth. Danielle Friedman, senior editor of the Daily Beast, reports that “few scientists have actually studied women’s so-called biological drive to reproduce, so no universal explanation has emerged in the literature.” In her article, “Childless and Loving It,” Friedman points to evolutionary biologist David Barash’s belief that having children is more socially acceptable than not having children. He, like many scientists, believes that the drive to procreate isn’t triggered by biology but by culture. In his book, The Surprising Connection Between Sex, Evolution and Monogamy, Barash points to evolution, which has given women the desire for sex and the physical means to bear children, but the rest is free will.
Laura Carroll, author of The Baby Matrix: Why Freeing Our Minds From Outmoded Thinking about Parenthood and Reproduction Will Create A Better World, gives us something to ponder in her Huffington Post article, “The ‘Biological Urge’: What’s the Truth?” “Realizing that a yearning for parenthood is not a biological imperative allows us to look harder at why we think we want children and ferret out how much of it comes from external conditioning.”
To add a one-two punch to the probability that cultural influences shape the decision to bear children, Carroll quotes researcher and psychoanalyst Frederick Wyatt: “When a woman says with feeling she craved her baby from within, she is putting biological language to what is psychological.”
Why then, do so many women want a child from their own body? Carroll asks the question another way. “What is at the essence of this feeling of longing? Is it truly to raise a child, or is it another yearning I think a child will fill for me in my life?”
Is it possible that having a child from our body has little to do with what is considered the greater good of sharing genes or the romantic notion of making a deep connection with a being that comes from our bloodline and is therefore “thicker than water?” It’s not beyond possibility that having a biological child—as opposed to an adopted one—is an ingrained habit of our culture and has so penetrated a women’s (and sometime men’s) psyches that millions continue to believe in its magic.
Modern cultures deserve a degree of shame for foisting outdated traditions on society and for not realizing that there are Enough of Us. As our book points out, millions of children are alone and in need of a nurturing environment. So why create more babies? Tune in to Part II of this column, where we discuss women who haven’t let questionable conventions influence their decisions about whether or not to give birth.
And if you are interested in more of this topic, Enough of Us is available in paperback, hard cover and as an ebook right here.
In our prior column we began our response to Jonathan Last’s essay, “America’s Baby Bust,” in the Wall Street Journal Review section. He laments the current and soon-to-be-“worsening” baby shortage that will leave our economy in bad shape. After all, without a growing population, who will pay the bills for the ever-increasing number of senior citizens?
Briefly, here is our response:
Those seniors without kids, or with fewer of them, will be better able to afford to support themselves (see last week’s column);
- If increasing the population of little ones is a good thing, why are we so stressed about being able to care for the current spate of baby boomers?
- Increasing the size of our consumerist society means more pollution, trash, demand for energy, climate change and its ramifications, demand for renewable resources, water shortages, etc.
- Increased population means expanding roads, public transportation, water supply and disposal systems, and myriad other public works needs. As things stand right now we cannot even afford to maintain America’s crumbling infrastructure.
Jonathan Last’s take on this is, “it’s unlikely to last. Historically, countries with fertility rates below replacement level start to face their own labor shortages, and they send fewer people abroad. In Latin America, the rates of fertility decline are even more extreme than in the U.S.” What does that tell us? In his essay, he lays out various plans, including tax incentives, to get folks to keep contraception out of the bedroom. This, he contends, will help motivate Americans to have the children they already desire.
For their first 18 years and beyond, children tend to be burdens on society. In the current economic crisis large numbers of recent college grads can’t find work and must remain living with their parents. Folks with advanced degrees are working as unskilled labor in an effort to pay their bills. Many jobs are being shipped overseas or transferred to robots. And we don’t know what the odds are that many of those lost jobs will be replaced by employment openings that require domestic labor.
It seems that society pays little attention to the burdens young people can place on their predecessors. These burdens are especially true for adults of any age who do not have their own children but must nevertheless share the expense involved in bringing up a new gneration..
There are no simple answers to the issues raised by increased populations, or smaller ones, both domestically and worldwide. But thinking only in current economic terms without consideration of environmental and sustainability concerns is not a healthy approach. And prognosticating is a tricky business. But sooner or later we will have to decide that there are more than Enough of Us. And if we wait until much later, the generations that Jonathan Last wants so desperately to increase may have hell to pay for their parents’ profligacy.
Deep in the rainforests of Eastern Ecuador in the early 1940s, primitive Waorani warriors killed about a dozen Shell company workers who were preparing to drill for oil. Why? Because for centuries the Waorani lived on this land and they didn’t want outsiders despoiling the indigenous people’s habitat.
Why on earth would oil companies want to invade the pristine wilderness of Yasuni National Park and the Waorani Ethnic Reserve? This is like one of the clues in the Jeopardy! “Stupid Answers” category. The correct response is: “What is, “Because there’s oil there”?
A team of National Geographic journalists, including five photographers and reporter Scott Wallace, ventured to this area, which “may be one of the most biodiverse spots on Earth.” They came back with a dramatic and visually stunning report, “Rainforest for Sale.”
The Waorani share this area with another indigenous nation, the Kichwa. Both groups participate in trade and some tourism, but those Waorani in the ethnic reserve—or Untouchable Zone—do not. It’s the latter group that has attacked oil workers, and now settlers and loggers, as recently as 2009.
With an ever-increasing demand for energy—as populations in general, and middle classes in particular, grow—it seems that nowhere is sacrosanct, regardless of the personal and environmental impacts.
Eastern Ecuador includes a part of the Amazon Basin, parklands, native peoples reserves, and areas for oil exploration. One of the major problems is that these regions border, and even overlap, each other. An area called the ITT Block (for Ishpingo-Tamboocha-Tiputini) is the big prize for petroleum exploration. It is mostly little-explored forest. The oil companies are closing in. And if the Ecuadorean government does not receive $3.6 billion from those world entities that give a damn, President Rafael Correa is ready to open up the ITT to exploration.
He reasons that poor Ecuador needs the cash to lift itself out of poverty. And either governments and/or environmental groups cough up the cash or it will come out of the ground in the form of oil, an estimated 850 million barrels of it. Correa’s detractors refer to the so-called Yasuni-ITT initiative blackmail. “Every day,” says Wallace, ‘another bit of the wilderness succumbs to the bulldozers and backhoes,” even within the Yasuni’s limits.
If the initiative fails, oil development could overwhelm the southern Yasuni and creep into the Untouchable Zone. As things are now, the night sky glows faintly from the nearby gas flares. If exploration and drilling proliferate, there is no telling how many species might be devastated and even disappear. This includes millions of insects, many of whose species are still unknown.
It’s hard to imagine that demand for energy in Europe, Asia and North America is threatening the existence of insects, cats, a wide variety of primate species, and indigenous peoples in the remote rainforests of northwestern South America. But demand for energy from car owners, TV watchers, and people with homes to heat, mean profits for energy producers and transporters lying in the ground in a continent most of these people will never visit.
Wherever permissible, energy companies are building roads using innovative technologies that enable them to intrude through swampland and forest. These roads create a new set of problems involving the less-primitive indigenous groups. It has happened before. According to Wildlife Conservation Society biologist Galo Zapata, in the 1990s the US energy exploration company Maxus Energy Corporation, built a road. Before very long, “natives living within the (Yasuni) park moved their villages to the road and began hunting animals to sell on the black market. ‘With all the people who will move here, there will be a big demand for bush meat. It will be bad for the big birds and animals. The social impacts will be bad. The story will repeat itself.”
No country consumes energy like the United States does. Per capita, Americans are the world champ energy gluttons. But we are not alone. Middle-class populations are growing worldwide. If the United States does not lead by example in becoming greener, how can we ask the rest of the world to follow? There are Enough of Us already. In fact, there are too many of us. So fecundity in India and China can mean decimation in the rainforests of Ecuador.
We’ll conclude this story next week.
John Seager is the president of Population Connection (you may have known it by its former name, Zero Population Growth), a nonprofit that seeks to mitigate, through family planning, the problems inherent in overpopulation . We are long-time members of the organization.
John’s update on global human impacts is an eye-opener. We reproduce his insights with the permission of Population Connection. Its web site is www.populationconnection.org.As people along the East Coast struggle to recover from super storm Sandy, there has been serious talk of building giant floodgates to protect parts of New York City from the next such event.
Giant floodgates might be part of a long-term solution, but we need to find others that address the looming consequences of climate change, and recognize that family planning is part of the mix.
As weather threats have grown, so has our world population. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, last year the United States suffered a record 14 weather events, each costing at least $1 billion in damage. And every year, more than 80 million people join our human family. That’s like adding another New Jersey every six weeks.
Rapid population growth and fossil fuel emissions are two leading characteristics of our modern age. Since 1800, world population has grown sevenfold, while per capita CO2 emissions have increased 150 times. Put the two together, and you have about 1,100 times as much in terms of emissions.
It’s taken about 200 years of carbon emissions to create our current climate crisis. Barring miraculous technological breakthroughs, it’s going to take centuries to set things right again.
At first glance, it is hard to see how population growth in less developed nations is linked to climate change. After all, people who live in places with the lowest carbon emissions tend to have the largest families. Residents of the African nation of Chad have about six children each, yet their annual per capita carbon emissions are less than 1 percent of those of the average American. It would be unfair to blame climate change on people in less developed nations who seek the same creature comforts many of us take for granted.
But we can’t escape this fact: A 2005 London School of Economics study concluded that, if each of us living in a highly developed country reduced our carbon footprint by 40 percent over 40 years, all of that would be cancelled by our present population growth rates alone. And that doesn’t even take into account the fact that emissions will rise dramatically if and when billions of people are able to escape from poverty.
What sort of future do we picture for people in the poorest places on earth, where most people live on less than two dollars a day and where people lack access to clean water and basic sanitation? Many now-impoverished people in Africa and elsewhere would like to have – as many in the developed world do – central air conditioning. And cars. And air travel to other continents. All of these luxuries will increase per capita emissions.
Rather than assume long-term poverty for billions of our fellow human beings, we must cut our own emissions even as emissions of the poorest people increase to a level that yields a decent quality of life. To insure that the reduction of emissions in the developed countries is not cancelled by increases from the developing world, we must slow the growth rate of our human family.
Today, more than 222 million women in developing nations would like to limit their family size, yet they are unable to do so because of a host of obstacles. Lack of information about modern contraception and cost are important factors. But the most serious barriers are often more subtle and complex. They include misinformation about side effects of birth control methods, including the false notion that they lead to sterility. In many societies, women – especially young brides – have no power over their own lives. Husbands, clerics and even mothers-in-law occupy the positions of authority. Failure to procreate can have violent consequences for women, some of whom are barely into their teens.
If the United States were to invest one additional dollar per American per year in awareness-raising and education campaigns, we could help break down these barriers in partnership with other nations. Added to our current investment in international family planning, this would amount to one billion dollars per year.
Meeting the challenge of climate change is likely to take dedicated efforts over many generations. We also need a plan that will help lift out of poverty people in the developing world. Family planning should be a key part of that plan.
Imagine deciding to take a gamble, but if you lose, that is if the bet goes wrong, an innocent party has to pay. In addition, just placing the bet is almost guaranteed to impact the planet negatively. Well, in his column, “More Babies, Please,” in the December 2, 2012 New York Times conservative columnist Ross Douthat (pronounced DOW-thut) exposits that by virtue of not making such bets American society is on the road to decadence.
Douthat is worried about America’s declining birthrate. “The retreat from child rearing is, at some level,” he proposes, “ a symptom of late-modern exhaustion – a decadence that first arose in the West but now haunts rich
societies around the globe. It’s a spirit that privileges the present over the future, chooses stagnation over innovation, prefers what already exists over what might be.”
This is flip-flop reasoning. And it most certainly is not “conservative” thinking. Douthat’s reasoning would make the Ponzi scheme of population growth the savior of the US economy and quality of life. He feels that because our nation has had a higher fertility rate than France, Japan, China and Brazil it is a superior economic powerhouse.
He takes no notice that our planet is going to an ecological hell in a handbasket, fueled by a population soaring toward 9 billion-plus in this century. Wealthy countries like the United States are the worst offenders because of their profligate consumption of materials and energy.
He makes the case that today’s babies will grow up to be tomorrow’s workers, entrepreneurs and taxpayers. But with fewer people, we would not need as many entrepreneurs and workers. Douthat is concerned about the worker-to-retiree ratio. He is worried about who will pay taxes in the years ahead. Let’s project this into the distant future. Will we need more babies or immigrants to feed the insatiable retiree hunger, ad infinitum? This is the essence of a Ponzi scheme. The global community of humanity will need to stop growing before we doom our own survival. If not now, when?
Human beings are currently consuming renewable resources like lumber and water at unsustainable rates. Mankind is depleting fossil fuels that will be unavailable for future generations without knowing whether today’s babies will have the know-how to develop non-fossil alternatives for airplanes, ships and a variety of other concentrated energy demands. With climate change wreaking havoc on weather patterns we cannot – at least for now—reliably predict water supplies and shortages.
If we limit our thinking to shortsighted issues like US economic competitiveness and producing future generations for the financial benefit of current retirees, we are doomed to fail. Ideally what would benefit Americans, along with everyone else, is enlightened political leadership that is willing to look the elephant in the room in the eye and ask, “What are we going to do about this thing – this enormous, ever-growing, ever more-consuming mass of humanity that is cannibalizing its own home?”
Certainly there are enough of us. In actuality, there are way too many of us. But let’s go back to that bet that an innocent party has to pay for. We are referring to the very act of procreating. It’s a gamble. One percent of American adults live incarcerated and six times that many spend time behind bars in the course of a lifetime. One percent have disorders on the autism spectrum. Add in mental illnesses, childhood and adult diseases, the expectation that one-third of Americans will have diabetes, and dysfunctional families raising unhappy kids. In other words, parents roll the dice and if the resultant baby comes up craps, it’s the kid who is the primary loser of the bet. We wonder how Douthat can have the chutzpah to call America’s decreasing fertility rate “decadent.” The decision to not reproduce is anything but selfish.
We’re always reading about how many billions of tons of carbon dioxide are spit into the atmosphere each year. The concept is difficult to wrap our heads around because, let’s face it, carbon dioxide is a gas (as in soda bubbles), so how do scientists weigh it? In any case, the seven-billion-plus humans on the planet are causing nine-billion-plus tons of CO2 to contribute to global warming annually. CO2 output has more than quadrupled in the last 50 years.
According to Jake Abrahamson, writing in the May/June issue of Sierra magazine, CO2 levels are likely to double again over the next half century. At that point the Greenland ice sheet will start caving in. What, you may ask, is the Greenland ice sheet? It is a sheet of thick ice that covers most of Greenland. If it melts, the world’s oceans would likely rise about 22 feet. If that happens, people will be buying beachfront property in Tennessee.
What, pray tell, could we do to stop this headlong drive to crash ourselves into an environmental brick wall? How about, say, family planning? Right now the world grows by more than the population of Akron, Ohio each day. Akron has about 218,000 people. Put another way, we need to accommodate the equivalent of another mid-size city – population-wise – each day! Housing, schools, transportation, roads, food, waste disposal, consumer supplies, the whole shebang . . . every day!
Abrahamson contends that a concerted, worldwide family planning campaign can do as much to reduce emissions as conserving electricity, trapping carbon, or using alternative fuels. What if we were to initiate five strategies to slow population growth?
The U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA) estimates there are 215 million women who would like access to contraceptives but cannot get them for various reasons. Contraceptives for these women would reduce unintended pregnancies from the current 76 million to 22 million, annually.
- Women who benefit from literacy tend to have smaller families (with the bonus of lower child mortality rates). They are also less likely to bear children before they can afford to.
- Comprehensive sex education would limit teen pregnancy rates. We have discussed the impact of consumer consumption frequently in this venue. Nearly half of the world’s population is under age 25. The reproductive decisions and behaviors of the current generation of young adults will reverberate for decades. According to Abrahamson, by having a child, an American woman increases her CO2 footprint sixfold.
- Where women lack essential human rights, they lack control over their own fecundity. Gender equality, including suffrage, education and control over women’s own bodies, has to be taught to cultures that value male dominance. This is no easy task, but it has happened all over the globe.
- “Where welfare is tied directly to the land, aid groups are promoting a development approach called population, health and environment (PHE), which integrates improved access to health services, with models for sustainable resource use.” This dynamic development is most important for societies in tropical wilderness area.
The Sierra article compares these population efforts with eight other CO2-reducing goals:
- Replacing oil and gas with renewable energy sources;
- Cut consumer power use by 25 percent;
- Run cars on clean hydrogen;
- Double vehicle fuel economy;
- Replace coal with solar energy;
- Replace coal with wind;
- Practice conservation tillage;
- Stop deforestation.
In our book, Enough of Us: Why we should think twice before making children, we direct our case at the United States. But as far as worldwide reform goes, we see little chance of wholesale reform without America taking the lead. We must lead both by example and by reaching out to people all over the globe, with both education and money. Even while our own economy is struggling mightily, we must make the effort or future generations will suffer the consequences of our lack of foresight.
We Americans have the knowledge and the means. Now we must muster the will. At seven billion, there are lots more than enough of us.