Is Overpopulation a Green Myth?

Image via Greenpacks

We hear it all the time, and have heard it since Malthus: That overpopulation is the primary cause of the world's environmental ills. It makes sense in simple logical terms: The more people there are consuming natural resources, the greater a threat humanity poses to exhausting them. Hard to argue with that. But the issue is of course more complex -- and there's an interesting back-and-forth over at Grist on the subject to prove it. One writer argues that fears of a rapidly expanding population are overblown -- constituting a "green myth", even -- and that those fears should be redirected towards consumerism. Is that right? Here's Fred Pearce arguing that population isn't the problem it's cut up to be:

A green myth is on the march. It wants to blame the world's overbreeding poor people for the planet's peril. It stinks. And on World Population Day, I encourage fellow environmentalists not to be seduced ...

For a start, the population bomb that I remember being scared by 40 years ago as a schoolkid is being defused fast. Back then, most women round the world had five or six children. Today's women have just half as many as their mothers -- an average of 2.6. Not just in the rich world, but almost everywhere.

He goes on to argue that fertility rates are dropping, and that even in developing nations, mothers are having children roughly equivalent to the 'replacement rate'. He notes that population will likely stabilize at 2 billion more people, around 2050, as many other economists and scientists have projected. And he says that obsessing over population issues removes the focus from the true threat to greater worldwide sustainability: Consumerism.

In a rebuttal piece, Robert Walker, vice president of the Population Institute, counters that population growth is still very much a problem:

Earth to Fred: 2 billion more people is a lot of people to a world that is already struggling to feed 6.8 billion people. It's a lot of people to a biosphere that is threatened with what leading biologists refer to as the Sixth Mass Extinction. And it's a lot of people to a planet that is already threatened with the effects of climate change.
He notes that though fertility rates are down in many places, they're up in others, and many poor nations still face severe problems over resource access. And he says that every person born in a rich nation -- regardless of whether the birth rate has declined -- still consumes a disproportionate amount of resources and energy.

Photo via Saschina

Reading both arguments in tandem makes for a thought-provoking exercise. As a distinct non-expert, the one thing I'll say about the general issue is this: I do think that honing in too exclusively on "the population problem" can be problematic. That's not what Walker is doing at all, and he makes many good arguments for continuing efforts to reign in population growth. But it can be an easy way to for many to wipe away complex problems with a handy mantra -- "There's too many people." Or, "If there weren't so many people, we wouldn't have problem X."

I think that it gives folks a sense of having found a solution to many seemingly unsolvable problems -- World hunger? Too many people to feed. Environmental degradation? Too many people consuming resources. Climate change? Too many people driving cars and emitting carbon. Et al.

Note that I'm not saying I don't consider population growth a problem or a challenge -- it certainly makes solving the quandary of how to live sustainably on a planet with finite resources much more improbable (and that's an understatement). But lingering on the issue, I think, can obscure pragmatism: I think family planning and education efforts in the poorer parts of the world are a great thing, and efforts to reduce unwanted pregnancies should be lauded (and better-funded). But the biggest threats to our planet do seem to be our habits of consumption, and overpopulation is a dangerous threat multiplier. The truly scary prospect is those 2 billion new people added to the population by 2050 wanting to live and consume in the same manner Americans do now.

And, pragmatically speaking (I can't imagine any way population-reducing efforts like family planning or education could be effective enough in such fast-growing nations as Somalia or Afghanistan to prevent that projected growth, but I could be wrong), there's most likely going to be 9 billion people sharing the world in the course of a couple generations. So the biggest impact we can arguably have is setting a precedent of how to consume goods and energy in a sustainable fashion, and by helping to steer developing nations towards less destructive consumption habits in the first place. How to do this, of course, beckons yet another controversial debate.

We should indeed continue education initiatives and family planning efforts, and continue to carefully examine population issues -- our still-expanding population is far from a myth. But we've also got to assume there will be some 9 billion people sharing earth's resources within 40 years, and start the difficult task of planning accordingly -- and hopefully, sustainably.

More on Population Issues
The Coming Population Crash: An Upbeat and Optimistic Outlook ...
Population Growth, Resource Over-Consumption at Center of 'Looming Catastrophe

Tags: Conservation | Consumerism | Education

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