Monday, February 3, 2020

Let's Talk about Population! (ducking projectiles)

Back in November, 11,000 scientists declared that we need to stabilize or gradually reduce the global population. Since then, I've bumped into a few people, online and in real life, who become absolutely irate at the suggestion that climate change is in any way affected by the growing population on our finite planet. There was an upsurge in vocal opposition to any discussion of population after Jane Goodall recently commented on it at Davos:
"All these [environmental] things we talk about wouldn’t be a problem if there was the size of population that there was 500 years ago.” 
This cartoon gets the gist of the concerns:

On Twitter, Felix Trash Goblin sums up concerns like this,
"Overpopulation is a myth that leads to genocide. If you’re Irish you should know this. The famine was allowed to happen because the Brits thought Ireland was overpopulated. It was seen as a good thing that a million people died, because there were already too many wretched Irish . . . We humans have become so incredibly efficient at producing food. We could feed everyone in the world if we tried. The issue is capitalism. The reason people are starving. The reason people are homeless, choking in toxic city air, unable to drink clean water. IT’S CAPITALISM. It’s so fucking sickening to see this overpopulation bullshit come back up again and again. China had the OCP for years and now they have a wildly unbalanced population. Studies overwhelmingly show that education and economic development cause population to plateau naturally."

First, I completely agree that capitalism is the problem. We have resources that don't get distributed to people in need in an efficient way because people in charge have found more lucrative methods. Absolutely. I'd hope to overthrow the unfettered neo-liberalism that's been the rule since the 1970s, and inequity in general, which has been with us for much longer. But, on top of that, I also think we need to acknowledge that, within our current system, we will not manage to eke out quite as many years with a habitable planet if population is ignored.

While I understand the fear from the reality that historically concerns with population have led to horrific solutions, a recognition of the problem doesn't necessarily lead to the worst case scenario. Within Felix's argument, it's presented that "education and economic development cause population to plateau naturally." I'd argue this line furthers my position, which is this: Population growth is a problem that requires solutions, such as sexual health education and opportunities for women beyond childrearing, etc. Even just having sit com characters be childfree by choice can have an affect on how we live, but most of them still have babies by the finale. That's the end goal of our narrative.

I've argued before that we could add financial incentives to reduce population, and even just offering free birth control and allow people access to sterilization procedures without having to wait until they've already had kids or until they turn 35 - just to be sure, but I'll never argue that we should use genocide or forced sterilization. There are many solutions to the problem that don't involve murder, but the bottom line is that it is a problem.

On overpopulation being a myth, consider this: If population isn't an issue at all, then would 50 billion people be acceptable. Is any population acceptable on our planet, or is it just the case that we're not yet near enough the breaking point to raise it as a concern??

Some argue that we have 95% of the population living on just 10% of the land, so we could easily spread out to accommodate everyone. But that ignores the amount of land that's suitable for humans. Of that land, almost 29% is uninhabitable desert or glacier, 34% forest or shrubland, 35% farmland, and 0.7% aquifers. Less than 1% is urban and built-up land. Absolutely we should change our farming practices to grow more food for people directly instead of growing food for animals to be eaten, but we also need to keep the forests and aquifers as free from human settlements as possible. We need to increase our wilderness areas. So it's really not the case that we have enough land to house a 90% increase in population.

Climate change is making water less accessible and food more difficult to grow and harvest. Rising water levels will mean for even less habitable land. We either find a way to slow our growth, or we end up watching more and more people suffer.

On all that rage:

It's to the point that I wonder if concerns with population rates should come with a trigger warning. Arvind Ravikumar explains the history of the terms we use, and suggests a shift in how we talk about the issue:
"In any context, using 'population control' or 'population reduction' is never okay. Your intentions may not be malicious, but given the genocidal history of that phrase, it is best to not use that framing. . . . saying population should be reduced when referring to the developing world has a long history in racism, eugenics, forced sterilizations, and other unspeakable horrors in our history. This isn't new. There's a long history of well-funded Malthusian overpopulation alarmism. Educating women & girls, providing reproductive health services, or workforce development are all important goals towards global equality. But we should do it because it's the right thing to do. Not because it helps climate."
I can get on board with a reframing of the discussion, but I'm not clear on the rationale for that last bit: We should provide more health and education because it's right, not because of climate change. Can't it be both?

Even while avoiding triggering terms, is it the case that the mere discussion of the number of people living here is enough to provoke government-sanctioned atrocities. We've seen with the recent Coronovirus scare, how quickly people will turn to scapegoating and sacrificing. But the solution isn't to suggest that we wash our hands regularly because it's a good idea in general, but never while discussing the new virus out there. We're still going refer to the real problem regardless how much some racist people use that to further their racist views. The problem isn't the virus and how to treat it, but that racism is still just under the surface and in need of significant work. Similarly the problem isn't with discussing population as a creeping concern, but that some governments have far too much power and ability to harm a portion of their population or migrating population (which is just going to increase). China didn't need concerns with overpopulation to set up concentration camps for the Uyghur. Overpopulation might have been the reason provided for causing harm, but it's always been a scapegoat for racism. It's clear why it's triggering to people, but we can't stop focusing on respectful solutions for it. Refusing to allow or tolerate discussion of population as a real concern for climate change because of oppressive governments of the past is trying to solve a different problem (abusive power structures). It's like dating a violent person, and insisting that the kids may never criticize your cooking because of the potential consequences from the violent partner. The children's complaints isn't the thing that needs to be restrained.

As Population Matters argues,
"The gross inequalities that exist between nations and sometimes within nations are an outrage that must be addressed. Many of us consume far more of the Earth's resources, and contribute far more to environmental problems like climate change, than billions of poorer people in the world. In a world in which hundreds of millions have too little to eat and nearly two billion are obese, the distribution of resources is clearly a grave injustice. An uneven and unjust distribution of resources, however, does not mean the Earth can indefinitely and sustainably provide enough to go round. . . . Coercive measures, like China's one-child policy, are not needed and abuse people's human rights. Time and time again, fertility rates have been brought down quickly and substantially in many parts of the world through ethical, positive measures. To address our current environmental crisis and achieve a global population that the Earth can sustain and a decent quality of life, we have to do more, better and quicker than we've ever done before. That goal is achievable."

Grist reports on Paul Ehrlich's views on the matter:
"Fifty years after his book’s release, Ehrlich still believes that population is an under-recognized threat in environmental degradation because it naturally drives up consumption. In collaboration with John Holdren, Ehrlich developed the 'IPAT equation' in the 1970s: Environmental impact (I) = population (P) x affluence or, essentially, propensity to consume (A) x technology (T). 
Looking at the equation, it stands to reason that if we are able to greatly reduce consumption and greatly improve the efficiency of our technology, wouldn’t that allow us to potentially forgo population control? 'It certainly would carry less weight,' Ehrlich said. 'But the problem is that the three together now are on a doomsday path. I don’t see the slightest chance of us changing to avoid what’s coming. The idea that you can just ignore how many people there are and get a technological fix to worry about food or climate or war or so on — it’s as illogical as religion.' . . . Ehrlich suggests we should aspire to have a system where everyone consumes the same amount. At the same time, he says, we should work toward making that consumption as sustainable as possible. But, he adds, 'I see no way you can solve problems of equity without the rich giving up a lot of what they do to make room for the poor to do better.'" 
Here's a more compelling argument I've written about when reading Collapse:
Population might be a bit of a red herring. China has sort of successfully implemented measures of population control. They lowered their population, but a cultural shift stopped multi-generational housing – which means they're using more resources for more and bigger homes. “The net result of those increases in the number and floor area of households is that China’s human impact is increasing despite its low population growth rate” (360). I considered this effect when I first read Weisman's book that suggests sterilization of every woman, worldwide, after one birth event. If I only had one child to raise and put through school, instead of three, I might buy me a hummer with the extra cash in my bank account. Fewer children means more spending money for me to buy excessive luxuries. We need to decrease population at the same time as decreasing individual consumption habits.
The key is in the last line. As explained by many in the "our population is a problem" camp, population is not the only problem, and it will be fruitless to reduce it if we don't also reduce consumption of luxuries. We need to provoke a cultural shift that glorifies minimalism and veganism (if that's possible at this point - it may have even more haters than population). And, we also need to establish narratives that permit childfree living that doesn't focus on having lots of cool stuff and travel opportunities instead - maybe no trace living, like the no trace camping we did as kids. We need to get back to character being the mark of a successful person instead of accumulation.


xraymike79 said...

Population reduction is a moot point now since we have already permanently destabilized the planet's climate and continue to pump out 40 gigatons of CO2 annually. Multiple positive feedback loops, such as abrupt permafrost melt, have been set in motion. The permafrost melt feedback loop alone is alarming:

"The impacts from abrupt thaw are not represented in any existing global model and our findings indicate that this could amplify the permafrost climate-carbon feedback by up to a factor of two."

Ocean acidification, the evil twin of climate change, is happening at a similar rate as that of the Permian Extinction which wiped out most life on Earth.

A mass extinction event is well underway and human population reduction will happen without our consent. Homo Non Sapiens are unique only in that they were able to recognize and document their own demise, but are powerless to stop it due to our inability to truly understand the speed of exponential growth:

My latest essay:

"The world is made for people who aren't cursed with self-awareness." ~ Annie Savoy

Marie Snyder said...

I do think that "It's too late" is the only good argument against attempting to slow population growth. But I'm still consciously going to argue that we keep trying. Subconsciously, I've resigned myself to the end. My words fork no lighting, so I'm just raging against the dying of the light all by myself over here.

I once saved a school from being demolished in the face of "It's a done deal; don't waste your energy." I rallied and got enough people to fight with me until the powers that be changed their mind at the last minute. It was a selfish move since I had just bought a house walking distance to my school and didn't want to have to buy a car to get to work! But it worked. Fighting for climate change is also a selfish move since I bought a house on this planet and want to keep living here.

It's interesting the turn in sitcoms - I watched two just this weekend - that are showing a calm acceptance of death as the finale instead of marriage with a baby on the way. Curious!

xraymike79 said...

As far as stemming the extent of damage for future life, then every new day is an opportunity to carry out a massive reconfiguration of society on a wartime footing. Unfortunately such societal changes happen over generations, as pointed out by energy expert Vaclav Smil. We humans don't have that luxury of time.

'What is the use of a house if you haven't got a tolerable planet to put it on?'
~ Henry David Thoreau