23 Responses

  1. Liz July 29, 2011 at 10:16 pm |

    > So the idea that “providing the means for family
    > planning to those who want it but don’t have
    > access” will somehow slow global warming makes no
    > sense. With few exceptions, birth control has
    > long been available in the countries that are
    > doing the most to destroy the earth’s climate.
    The more I think about this the more infuriated I get. If you have never had a late period, never forgotten to take a birth control pill, never had to have the IUD taken out because of cramping, don’t you DARE say this.

  2. Liz July 29, 2011 at 10:09 pm |

    Indeed, population growth in the third world doesn’t increase greenhouse gasses significantly, but this does NOT mean that we shouldn’t be working frantically to decrease population growth in countries like the U.S. and Australia. There is a new vogue for large families among the richest Americans, and you can be sure the upper-middle-class wants to emulate these folks. How can you say this won’t affect the environment?

  3. Liz July 29, 2011 at 10:02 pm |

    With few exceptions, birth control has long been available in the countries that are doing the most to destroy the earth’s climate.” True, but
    so-called “availability” is no easy thing. Social pressures, lack of childcare when visiting clinics, occasional shortages of cash to pick up prescriptions; abusive men who sabotage their partners’ birth control — all these are huge factors in countries like the U.S. Our entire evolutionary history has conspired to maximize our fertility, so don’t assume stopping fertility is easy or simple.
    Read “Quiverfull.” Work in a birth-control clinic. Counsel pregnant teens: We could be doing a far better job. In fact, our future demands it.

  4. Jeff White July 12, 2011 at 2:32 pm |

    John Meyer’s views on immigration are of course greatly admired by people such as Tim “So what if I’m racist?” Murray of the right-wing, xenophobic Immigration Watch Canada.

    His methodology is of course faulty. He takes cumulative immigration statistics and multiplies them by the per-capita emissions of the Canadian population as a whole to come up with a completely theoretical figure for how much immigration has added to Canada’s emissions. Per-capita emissions in Canada, however, include each person’s per-capita “share” of the tar sands emissions themselves; any real comparison with the tar sands themselves would first have to take out the tar sands component of the per-capita statistics.

    But the comparison itself is phony in any event. Per-capita emissions include emissions over which individuals, whether they be immigrants or not, have no control, the tar sands being just one of them. Emissions caused by forestry, agriculture, steel mills, mining, manufacturing, trucks, trains, aircraft, and many other sources are all included in the per-capita emissions statistics. They are emissions that would take place anyway, with or without the arrival of immigrants to this country.

    Ian has dealt very well with the issue of “per capita” emissions in Part 2 of the above article.

  5. John Meyer July 12, 2011 at 5:53 am |

    In the G20, population growth goes drives a substantial amount of the environmental impact growth. In Canada, mass immigration has had, since 1990, 2 1/2 to 3 times the impact of the oil sands on Canada’s Kyoto target overshoot.

    I don’t know how you can possibly invent a measure like density and relate it to carbon emissions. They aren’t related, period. It’s like the right wing red herring of “intensity” which takes something real (carbon emissions) and relates it to something unreal (money) and comes up with a measure which effectively makes dealing with the real issue impossible.

    Population growth is a bedrock right wing priority. It is their cash cow and drives their market size and structure. It is the anti-well-being / equality index.

    If you could get Marx on the phone to comment on this today, I doubt he’d phrase things quite as you have in this context.

    You are putting words in a dead man’s mouth.

    John Meyer

  6. David Bacon June 10, 2010 at 4:56 pm |

    I have a somewhat simpler viewpoint, modeled in part by Albert Bartlett’s question – can anyone think of a problem, large or small, that is made better by a larger population? I was born in 1941 and my memories of life in any detail extend back to about the time I was in high school and thereafter. The population when I finished high school in 1959 was less than half what it is today and today like most days as I drive or walk through town or try to make an airline reservation or do anything that others also are doing I think about how nice it would be if there were half as many of us as there actually are.

  7. Kim Bergström May 3, 2010 at 5:13 am |

    I should also add that I think you open yourself to the same sort of criticism your are dishing out. Seeing a correlation between present population and present emission and drawing conclusions about how *changes* in population would or would not *cause* a *change* in emissions is not the same thing I’d say.

  8. Kim Bergström May 3, 2010 at 5:11 am |

    To say that a doubliong (say) of the population would have no effect (or thereabouts) on CO2 emission opr ecological fottprint seems … a bit of a stretch. Of course, we cant focus solely on population, as you point out. But to imply that the number of consumers have nothing to do with the ammount being consumed seems … silly.

  9. John Rawlins May 2, 2010 at 12:34 pm |

    If you blend your analysis with facts concerning world food production, the dependence of food production on oil and natural gas, the strong correlation between oil/gas production and population increase during the 20th century, and the highly likely near-term peaking and decline of world oil production, then I suspect you will conclude (as I have) that world population a century from now will be far smaller (1-2 billion?) than it is now. There is increasing certainty that world oil production (followed shortly by peaking of gas production) is now near peak and that the decline will negatively impact everything else, including food. After reading through some of Garrett Hardin’s work on over-population, combined with William Catton’s books “Overshoot” and “Bottleneck” and a huge collection of online articles at The Energy Bulletin and The OilDrum, I am convinced that peaking of oil and natural gas will take care of world population overshoot, very likely in highly unsavory ways, in the course of the 21st century – beginning within a decade.

    The only way I can imagine to mitigate, to some extent, population collapse is to promote massive changes to world food production methods that might work in a post-carbon world – so-called sustainable food production. I fear we have waited far too long for this switch to be able to do much good, however. I also fear that, in our desperation to “solve” this “problem” we will even further reduce the planet’s inherent, post-carbon carrying capacity through various serious follies (witness large-scale projects to produce bio-fuels). Finally, climate change that we have already committed to is already reducing post-carbon carrying capacity and this trend could, for all we know in our atmospheric experiment, accelerate dramatically during this century.

    I think the big question for this century is: What is the world’s post-carbon carrying capacity? The answer will, of course, depend on the standard of living as well as the course of climate change – highly regional issues I don’t even have a clue how to address. Perhaps you can offer some insight?

  10. Dave Gardner May 2, 2010 at 10:48 am |

    The fact that people with higher fertility rates happen today to be low carbon emitters may be a temporary condition.

    I think it’s safe to assume those with a very small slice of the pie want and deserve a larger slice. The number of people getting a slice of the pie will impact whether a slice of pie will sustain you. The pie isn’t getting any bigger; in fact it’s getting smaller.

    So, while we work to get to more equal slices of the pie, we would be smart to encourage those with big slices currently AND those with small slices to think about the pie slice size implications of their family size decisions on their children and other members of the next generation.

    I suppose one can find populationists with the narrow views attributed by Mr. Angus. But I encourage Ian and others here to be open-minded about this issue and worry less about motives they cannot ascertain, and worry more about what a fair and just world will look like. Will it look better at 9, 12 or 15 billion? Or will it work better at 7?

    Dave Gardner

  11. N. Eason May 1, 2010 at 12:19 pm |

    Okay, so let’s agree that population numbers are not a problem and do not need to be tackled.

    You conveniently avoided responding to my questions: how do you propose to reduce consumption in G20 countries then? Or is the per capita consumption level also not the cause of the problem. I guess I’ll have to wait to read part 2.

    You may be right. Meanwhile Rome burns.

  12. Robert Beck May 1, 2010 at 12:06 am |

    I’m not sure where the idea came from that its either population or consumption that is the problem. Of course it is both. If America only had 100 million people consuming at the current rates, then we would not have nearly the same impact as we do at 300 million. The world could probably easily support 500 million people living at our standards.

    The effect of a population on the world is relative to their consumption patterns. And this is consumption not just of fossil fuels that directly produce green house gases but of all the other resources like fresh water, raw materials, land use for agriculture, waste and pollution, effects on biodiversity and so on.

    You could create an argument that population is not a problem by focusing on one of these consumptive items, like fossil fuel use. But this is a simplistic and artificial argument. For instance, land use for agriculture is probably more directly linked to population size than is fossil fuel use. People need to eat. They require so much soil and arable land to produce those foods. You can reduce the diet to the most efficient use, such as growing potatoes for human consumption rather than corn for animal feed, but ultimately you’re going to have come up with a minimum amount of land needed. Take Haiti for instance, it clearly has overshot its carrying capacity for growing its own food and is drawing heavily from the global commons to support itself.

    In many respects, the United States has overshot its carrying capacity with respect to most of the raw materials needed to sustain itself as well. So you could switch the entire world economy to Green Energy, move completely away from fossil fuels, and if you didn’t address the population issue, many of the resources that would be required to support a healthy population of 9 billion people would be exhausted.

    As well, don’t forget that it’s not just the burning of fossil fuels that accounts for the rise in green house gases. There is a large contribution from burning the rainforest and appropriation of other wild areas to make room for growing populations, the switch to a meat heavy diet as populations become more affluent just to name a few of the non-fossil fuel contributions. For instance the burning of the tropical forests in Indonesia made it the 3rd largest contributor to green house gas emissions in 2007.

    Population is a huge problem. Look at the update to “Limits to Growth” if you have any questions. Evidence of overshoot are all around us. Unfortunately most of us in the “Developed World” have exported our dirty industries and pollution which makes it appear that with increased wealth comes a cleaner environment, and we draw many of our raw resources from the “Developing World” such that we feel looking at our landscape with forests “aplenty” that we are a nation of unlimited resources. Globalization has blinded us to the negative feedback that would alert us to this looming problem.

    Its been said that America is one of the most overpopulated nations in the world. If we had to draw from the resources within our own borders to support ourselves, we’d be living at a much lower standard of living.

    We could probably support 9 billion people on this planet, but not in the style that any of us in the West would accept willingly. And it’s not a question of just supporting 9 billion people but for how long can we do it for before we run out of key resources and the human population crashes. You can throw at party at your house with 20 friends and comfortably feed them for one day, but if they stick around for a week, you’ll be out of everything from food to toilet paper. At the moment we are like a fraternity throwing a really large party here on planet earth burning through resources that took millions of years to produce, only to awake in the morning hung-over with an empty refrigerator and a lawn strewn with plastic cups. And unfortunately there isn’t another planet to go to in order to get more snacks.

    The argument shouldn’t be either consumption or population, but rather what is the level of population we would like to have for the type of lifestyle we’d like to enjoy. There is no way that the whole 9 billion of us will be able to enjoy the lifestyle of even the lower classes in North America.

    Currently we know that giving access to reproductive services can help to reduce populations, and families in poor countries and rich countries want these services. But I’m not sure anyone has shown how we can convince people to willingly consume less. So when you come up with a consumption condom, then perhaps you’ll have a better argument. So far we’ve found that developed countries do tend to slow their consumption of some resources as they become wealthy, unfortunately that level of consumption is so far above sustainable that this knowledge is not helpful. Getting everyone to a standard of living enjoyed by the most frugal German would still exhaust our resources.

    There is an argument that promoting lower populations in the developing world is akin to racism and “lets the rich consuming countries off the hook” by not focusing on their consumption. Again, this is a flawed argument because it is exactly these overpopulated poor countries that are going to suffer the most as resources become scarce and global warming gets into full swing. They will, and are, already suffering from the effects of overpopulation, and they will suffer much more if they do not get their birth rates to below replacement. Some rich countries like the United States can reduce its consumption by 90% and still provide food and shelter to its population, but much of the developing world like Africa and Asia with their large populations cannot tolerate even a modest reduction in consumption without massive starvation and death.

    Both the developing world and the developed world desperately need to reduce their populations, no if ands or buts. This party cannot go continue much longer. Nature will soon start to constrain consumption in spite of our grandiose ideas. A smaller population will be better able to deal with those constraints.

  13. N. Eason April 30, 2010 at 9:37 pm |

    Population Where? you ask. Pretty clearly from your table, it is the G20 that must reduce its total emissions, bringing it down from 78%. There are two ways to do that: reduce the population in the G20 or reduce the per capita numbers. Preferably both.

    What programs are required to reduce the population in the G20? Fertility rates are already pretty low, so that seems covered. That would leave immigration, a topic just as prickly as population.

    What programs are required to convince each individual of the existing population to reduce their emissions? People are going to have to give up something. Do we pass legislation which can be coercive or provide incentive, or do we mount some kind of education campaign to convince them of this fact. But will they be convinced?

    In the end, both these approaches are likely just as difficult, one as the other. Tackle both and hope to get enough gains in both to reduce the total emissions of a given country by “enough”.

  14. subgenius April 30, 2010 at 4:00 pm |

    Nice piece.

    I take the perspective that the issues of population and emissions ARE related, but they are both aspects of a greater meta-issue – that of how mankind views its place in the larger reality as an element of a global ecosystem.

    H.sap.sap tries to get by in the most comfortable way possible. In places with low access to resources and knowledge this leads to population boom (comfort #1 = finding a pleasurable experience when the sun is down and there is too little light to do much…beliefs and/or lack of contraception are the enablers); where as in areas rich in technology and resources (either indigenous or imported) there is a meme pushing individuals to seek material rewards leading to resource consumption and the resultant pollution.

    The increases in the population in the “Global South” are further enabled by the attempts to provide outside aid. The increase in pollution/consumption in the “North” is further enabled by a combination of increasingly clever ways to extract, refine, engineer and design resources and a system of regulation largely amenable to (primarily centered around?) a financial system essentially built on trust of individuals who are corrupted by too much power and the concomitant wealth.

    Nowhere in this scheme is there a recognition of the greater system beyond the knowledge of how to exploit it.

    We need a precautionary principle at the heart of our relationship to our environment at the very least.

    There needs to be a serious attempt to move rapidly to a much more harmonious relationship with the ecosystem. This ranges from minimizing pollution to vigorously protecting remaining indigenous ecosystems and instigating their growth. For humanity this translates to raising the lowest and radically reducing the profligacy of the highest.

    We got where we are by successfully exploiting our physical and mental resources in attaining dominance without apprehending the cost. Now we need to re-evaluate and move to a very cost-conscious mode of development. This is not going to happen unless there is a popular movement pushing strongly for it, and demonstrating an attractive model. The seeds of this can be seen in large-scale efforts such as Rob Hopkins’ Transition Town movement and in smaller more radical local groups like the Pirates on the Big Island, Hawai’i (http://sensiblesimplicity.lefora.com/).

    The question is will these initiatives break into the mainstream with enough momentum to instigate the needed change.

    We need to be very careful with how we alter our environment and where we allocate our physical and mental resources if we are going to avoid a very difficult future.

  15. Randy Serraglio April 29, 2010 at 2:37 pm |

    This article is compromised from the get-go by falling into the same old trap of framing the issues of climate change and unsustainable human population growth in terms of national boundaries. These are global issues that need to be addressed globally. Population dynamics are biological, i.e., how many people can the planet support and still maintain sufficient ecological viability to provide a quality life for ALL species, not just humans.

    Moreover, there are assumptions in the article that are simply not true. For instance, plenty of people in the U.S. do not use birth control for a variety of reasons: 1) they don’t have health insurance, 2) it is not covered by the insurance they do have, 3) they cannot afford it, 4) they face cultural resistance to it (often religious), 5) they face oppressive gender dynamics, and so on. Yes, it is very important to curb population growth here in the U.S., and yes, there are millions of people here who would benefit from improved access to birth control/family planning. Why are some people so compelled to cry “racism” every time they hear the word “overpopulation”?

    Trying to draw national boundaries around these issues is a recipe for finger-pointing and failure. Why can’t we just accept the fact that addressing consumption is crucial in the short term, but addressing population, i.e., the sheer number of greenhouse gas emitters, is just as crucial in the long term? Doesn’t anyone believe that standards of living will ever change in developing nations? In some places this is already happening, as people fight for, and win, important steps toward economic justice. In a just world, this dynamic will continue and spread, which means that any gains that the fat and happy countires make in reducing carbon footprints quite possibly will be compensated for by increases elsewhere. It is a global dynamic.

  16. Laurie Mazur April 29, 2010 at 11:20 am |

    Thanks for your welcoming words, Ian.

    I agree wholeheartedly that the public debate about population and climate change is lacking in nuance and awash in misinformation. And there is certainly a temptation to see population as an “easy out,” a solution to the climate crisis that demands no real sacrifice on our part.

    I would much rather see Brian O’Neill’s nuanced, data-driven approach informing the debate. But I think you misunderstand the conclusions of his work. O’Neill doesn’t claim that population growth drives emissions growth, but he does show that it makes a significant contribution. Like many emissions-reduction strategies we could embark on today, the impact of slowing population growth will start out small and grow over decades. That doesn’t mean they’re not worth doing.

    Slowing population growth is not a “distraction” or a substitute for meaningful action on climate change. There are many, many actions we must take immediately to avert catastrophe. Slowing population growth—by making sure that all people have the means and the power to make their own decisions about childbearing—is one of them.

  17. Laurie Mazur April 29, 2010 at 8:49 am |

    Of course aggregate population growth numbers mask staggering differences in per-capita environmental impact. And of course it is preposterous to claim that rapid population growth in the poorest countries is driving climate change today. No serious researcher studying the population-climate connection would make that claim.

    Yet those researchers do not dismiss the role of population growth, as you do. In fact, Brian O’Neill at the National Center for Atmospheric Research has shown that slowing population growth would have a significant impact on future carbon emissions. In your analysis, the inequitable divide between rich and poor remains fixed for all time. But when you consider that developing countries are, in fact, developing, it becomes apparent that population growth does matter for climate change.

    While the countries with the highest fertility are developing very slowly (there is a strong correlation between poverty and rapid population growth) there are also countries—notably India–where both population and carbon emissions are growing rapidly. O’Neill’s research shows that stabilizing world population at 8 billion, rather than 9 billion or more, would keep about 1 billion tons of CO2 per year out of the atmosphere by 2050. Nearly half of that reduction in CO2 would come from India.

    Meeting the large unmet need for family planning/reproductive health in India and other developing countries would reduce maternal mortality, which now claims the lives of half a million women each year, by more than two-thirds. It would prevent almost half of infant deaths, and reduce unsafe abortions by three quarters. And it would have a measurable impact on greenhouse gas emissions. It is, in short, a win-win for people and the planet. Many of us who advocate for reproductive health believe that the population-climate link could help mobilize funds for these long-neglected services. Denying the connection does not help that cause.

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