Last week’s blog post (rather wordily titled The Ecological Elephant In The Room Goes Up The Creek Without A Paddle) elicited some interesting responses. Thanks especially to Inka for pointing me in the direction of some interesting pieces on population.
This article – Stop blaming population growth for climate change. The real culprit is wealth inequality – was interesting, but I was unconvinced. It is a critique of Dr Jane Goodall‘s remark at Davos that most environmental problems wouldn’t exist if human population was at the levels of 500 years ago. As you can tell from the title of the article, the author says it’s not about population, it’s about inequality. (And apparently Dr Jane was misquoted anyway.)
While I can readily believe that consumption by the world’s richest 10% makes up half of the planet’s consumption-based CO₂ emissions, I don’t see how that makes inequality the culprit.
Don’t get me wrong – I am one hundred percent in favour of greater economic equality. And I agree with the article that a key driver of our ecological woes is:
“the waste and inequality generated by modern capitalism and its focus on endless growth and profit accumulation”.
I also agree that:
“Developing regions in Africa, Asia and Latin America often bear the brunt of climate and ecological catastrophes, despite having contributed the least to them”
…and that this is grossly unfair.
But to me there is a huge and unfounded leap of logic to the statement:
“Inequalities in power, wealth and access to resources – not mere numbers – are key drivers of environmental degradation.”
You could argue that while the world is run by those with enormous power and wealth, who have the resources to insulate themselves from the worst impacts, or to even leave the planet entirely, they will have no qualms about screwing over the rest of us to maximise their profits. But the article doesn’t say that.
Yes, the wealthiest group degrades disproportionately, but if there was greater equality, I’m guessing there would be even more degradation. If more people had the money to fly more, have more homes and cars, and generally consume more, they probably would. Even if a gazillionaire has ten or even twenty homes, that is fewer homes overall than several billion people having two homes rather than one. Even if the gazillionaire flies every single day of the year, that is still fewer flights overall than several billion people taking ten flights a year.
So while I find it obscene that 26 billionaires have as much wealth as the poorest half of the world, and I wholeheartedly support the eradication of poverty, and I agree that ecological and social justice are inextricably connected, I don’t agree that it is the differential between the billionaires and the rest that is responsible for our problems. I think they simply have too much, and could be using it for more worthwhile causes than their own extravagant, carbon-intensive lifestyles.
Yes, I’m sorry – I’m going to have to mention the IPAT equation yet again.
Impact (environmental) = Population x Affluence x Technology
I’m sure that the distribution of the affluence has some influence on overall impact, but the much greater issue is the sum total of population, and the sum total of affluence (by which I really mean “material consumption”, because affluence doesn’t necessarily have to translate into degradation – it all depends on what the money is used for).
If you know me at all by now, you will know that I’m not one to defend the uber-wealthy. But I just don’t think the author has made a compelling case, if there is indeed one to be made. There may be correlation between rising inequality and environmental degradation, but I’m not seeing the causation – whereas with population growth and environmental degradation, I do. We need to address inequality as well as ecological destruction, but it would be misleading to assume that fixing the former will fix the latter.
So I’m with Jane Goodall on this one. If there were a lot fewer of us, we would have a much better chance of living comfortably while still leaving plenty of space and resources for the other creatures unfortunate enough to share this planet with us.
Inka also pointed me in the direction of a book called Empty Planet: The Shock of Global Population Decline, by Darrell Bricker and John Ibbitson, and I’m going to do that unforgivable thing of critiquing a book without having read it. Mea culpa. But please bear with me – the book itself is not the point here.
From reading the blurb, it sounds like a reasonably balanced perspective, outlining the pros and cons of a peaking and then declining human population. The authors apparently:
“find that a smaller global population will bring with it a number of benefits: fewer workers will command higher wages; good jobs will prompt innovation; the environment will improve; the risk of famine will wane; and falling birthrates in the developing world will bring greater affluence and autonomy for women. But enormous disruption lies ahead, too. We can already see the effects in Europe and parts of Asia, as aging populations and worker shortages weaken the economy and impose crippling demands on healthcare and vital social services. There may be earth-shaking implications on a geopolitical scale as well.”
So far, so good. What really made my jaw drop, though, was a Goodreads rating by a certain Charles J who, while making the valid if somewhat pedantic observation that the authors should have written “cleft palate” rather than “cleft palette”, is also so emphatically pro-human that I would quite like to put him and Jane Goodall in a verbal cage fight together and see who wins. My money is on Dr Jane.
Charles’s concern is that, with the human population predicted to peak at around 11 billion in 2100, there won’t be enough dynamic young workers to keep the old folks in the style to which they would like to be accustomed.
Let me run some of these comments past you:
“In excess of ninety percent of such accomplishments [in science, art, exploration, or anything else] have been made by people under thirty-five. (Actually, by men under thirty-five, for reasons which are probably mostly biological, but that is another discussion.) The simple reality is that it is the young who accomplish and the old who do not.”
Ah! So a world like Logan’s Run, where humans are euthanised when they reach 30! Because who needs all that wisdom and experience that us old farts bring to the party? And while we’re at it, why not discard a load of those under-achieving females? Oh, but no, because we need them to have lots of babies. (Hello, The Handmaid’s Tale.)
He criticises the authors for not personally producing enough children, and parenthetically mentions: “(Since you ask, I have five children. I am part of the solution, not part of the problem.)” And having critiqued the selfishness of western society, he rather contradicts himself by saying: “I cannot say why (the authors do not have more children], of course, and it would be unfair to assume a selfish choice. But whatever the reason, it is undeniably true that as a result they have less investment in the future than people with children.”
As a childless/child-free person myself, dear Charles, I can assure you that many of us care passionately about the future, not out of a vested interest in our own progeny, but because the future matters to us as thoughtful and responsible human beings. In fact, a growing number of young people are choosing not to have children precisely because of their concerns about the future, wanting to reduce their impact and/or reluctant to bring new lives into such an uncertain world.
And the bigger point is: if our current economic model is creating a demographic time bomb, then rather than continuing to expand the population to keep the model happy, change the model. Find another way to fund the elderly, or to help them stay healthier for longer, or create a new range of occupations to enable them (us?!) to continue being productive and contributing members of society, or…. there are lots of options. We created the model, and if it is no longer working due to changing demographics, change it.
So, I’m not going to fall into the Charles J trap and try to tell people how many children they should or shouldn’t have. Or even how much they should or shouldn’t spend. I am sure it will all sort itself out in the end – maybe not in time to save the humans, but whatever.
After all, the Earth has all the time…. in the world.
Finally, and somewhat relevantly, it has taken me a while to get around to Russell Brand’s podcast. A couple of friends had recommended it, but I had certain preconceptions and prejudices about him that put me off the man, based on things he has done in the past. But this morning I listened to his interview with astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, who admittedly would be awesome no matter who he was in conversation with. Amongst many things, they talked about the “cosmic perspective”, also known as the “overview effect”, reported by astronauts who have seen the Earth from space. They actually paused the interview while NdGT looked up this quote on his phone, which I think is just fabulous:
“You develop an instant global consciousness, a people orientation, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world, and a compulsion to do something about it. From out there on the moon, international politics look so petty. You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say, ‘Look at that, you son of a bitch.’”
— Edgar Mitchell, Apollo 14 astronaut