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Why is the UN so complacent in the face of over-population peril?

Title was The edge of the abyss and green denial.

Earlier this year Lindsey Grant, former US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State of Environment warned that we face a tumultuous century, as competition grows for diminishing resources. The human race will not get through it without fundamental changes of our population size, our living arrangements, our consumption patterns, and our expectations – and probably not without mounting hunger and violence. He calls for a new mindset to deal with it.

“The name of the abyss is energy. People tend to worry about one crisis at a time,” he says. “We do so at our peril. Right now, the crisis of the moment is climate warming, but the decline of fossil energy will affect more people more seriously than climate change for most of this century. Both will generate a coming crisis in food production.

“The forces now coming together – the astonishing growth of fossil fuel use in the 20th Century, – the growth of human population, quadrupling in the same period, – climate warming and rising sea levels generated by that growth, the imminent decline of those fossil fuels, the growing shortage of fresh water to meet human needs - and as a consequence, the prospect that agriculture will be unable to produce enough food to feed us, are the most important immediate challenges to humankind. They threaten the fabric of modern societies. The threat – still largely unrecognised – transcends all the other problems that transfix our policy makers: terrorism, economic recession or the transitory issues of international politics.”

A month earlier Professor Betsy Hartmann, director of the Population and Development Program and associate professor at Hampshire College USA made a claim typical of growth and development orientated non-governmental organisations.

“The United Nations projects that world population will eventually stabilise, falling to 8.3 billion in 2175,” she says. “In developing countries, attention should focus on reducing poor people's vulnerability to environmental changes related to global warming, such as sea-level rise in Bangladesh or increased rainfall variation in Africa. A focus on population diverts us from the need to take action on these critical concerns.”

Well intended as such ideas are, we are unlikely to still have the resources and habitable living space to survive in any such numbers on the planet by 2175. People like Hartmann have obviously not heard of the growing number of countries, in the 2005 UN Population Division survey, now more concerned about the over-inflated and distorted case of supporting growing numbers of older people than too many people, encouraging immigration and higher birth rates with more tax incentives. Or the crazy population explosion in Africa and Haiti – desperately poor, wrecking what's left of the environment and exporting surplus people to USA, Canada and Europe.


… in the USA, where massive Mexican immigration to a more prosperous consumer life-style has seen average birth rates increase in the Mexican immigrant community over birth rates in Mexico.

Nor, it seems, has she looked at the population explosion in countries like Saudi Arabia, where wealth and urbanisation has seen no reduction in birth rates. And in the USA, where massive Mexican immigration to a more prosperous consumer life-style has seen average birth rates increase in the Mexican immigrant community over birth rates in Mexico.


All they think about is trying to reduce everyone's consumption, to accommodate more people into an ever more stressed quality of life competing for diminishing resources – in the vain hope that populations will stabilise at a level that is already beyond the Earth's capacity to sustain.

It is so depressing that these well-meaning people just don't see the connection between higher population and all the problems they want to solve, even when the evidence is presented to them. It is a mind block. All they think about is trying to reduce everyone's consumption, to accommodate more people into an ever more stressed quality of life competing for diminishing resources – in the vain hope that populations will stabilise at a level that is already beyond the Earth's capacity to sustain. Growing populations just wipe out any gain from reducing consumption.

They selectively ignore hard evidence in the belief that the magic bullet of technology will somehow make all the problems conveniently go away, so everyone can have their cake and eat it. Trouble is, the cake is crumbling fast and their dream that all the world's growing numbers can be accommodated, using their other magic bullet of conscience-absolving ‘sustainable’ growth, is a delusion.

For many decades there has been a wilful blindness to recognise that overpopulation is at the root of so many of the critical problems we face today. Both the UK and US governments have completely ignored a Royal Commission and a Presidential Commission respectively, both of which warned that existing population levels were already high enough.

Many environmental organisations like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth are in denial or are too timid to confront reality lest they offend fundamentalist visions to go forth and multiply. They run scared of confronting the continuing high birth rates in many third world countries in case they are accused of racism. Instead, they call for our support to polish the furniture and re-arrange the deckchairs while planet earth's rapidly shrinking resources are consumed by relentless human population increase.

Living in denial suits the leaders in many poor nations. Limiting family size challenges engrained cultural habits and religious dogma. Better to hope that humanitarian aid prevents further hardship.


Our planet, marvellous in its diversity of plant and animal life, naturally evolved over 1,000 million years, is being converted in a geological instant to a factory farm geared to feeding a single species, Homo-sapiens.
William Stanton, geologist

Geologist, author and population activist, William Stanton wrote: “Our planet, marvellous in its diversity of plant and animal life, naturally evolved over 1,000 million years, is being converted in a geological instant to a factory farm geared to feeding a single species, Homo-sapiens.”

The idea that the human goal should seek a high quality life rather than a high quantity and low quality one, to sustain the doctrine of short-term corporate greed, seems lost on our political leaders. Do we really want the maximum number of people with the minimum standard of living - or a smaller number at a comfortable standard of living?

Misplaced confidence in the ‘demographic transition’ to population stability?

Population activists need to do more than parrot the UN prediction that population is conveniently set to stabilise at around 9.2 billion by 2050. Whatever realities we face trying to support a much larger global population in the lifetime of many people alive today, we also need to project the hard number-crunching consequences of continuing on our current track, which predicts a much larger population to absorb.


It's a grand recipe for complacency to be told that as nations achieve a prosperous western-style standard of living their population growth automatically falls to near zero.
William Stanton

Stanton observes: “It's a grand recipe for complacency to be told that as nations achieve a prosperous western-style standard of living their population growth automatically falls to near zero. On this basis there is no population problem, only a need for masses of western aid. Unfortunately, this comforting theory has been found wanting time and again.” The United States is one of the most affluent nations in the world, but on its current demographic growth rate may well see its population expand from over 300 million now to 750 million by 2075.”

From 1950 to 2000 the mean population exponential growth rate was 1.77% - a doubling time of 40 years. Over 800 million go hungry every year and 2 billion suffer from malnutrition. Today, 1.8% is the average population growth rate for 4 billion people in the less developed world, excluding China. If this rate continues the population will rise from 6.7 billion to an impossible 21 billion by 2070. (Optimum Population Trust).

Rethinking the procreative right

For most people the right to procreate is central to their belief. The world's religions, in particular, provided ample endorsement for the “go forth and multiply” message at a time when the world's population was a fraction of the resource-gobbling numbers it has now reached.

In April 2007 the Vatican Church concluded in a two-day Conference on Global-Warming-Paganism and Population Reduction that there is no evidence of man-induced climate change and that urgent priority for humanity is the development of the third world.

The 1994 Cairo conference on Population and Development concluded that “Reproductive rights embrace certain human rights that are already recognised in national laws …. These rights rest on the recognition of the basic right of all couples and individuals to decide freely and responsibly the number, spacing, and timing of their children and to have the information and means to do so, and the right to attain the highest standard of sexual and reproductive health. “The promotion of the responsible exercise of these rights for all people should be the fundamental basis for government and community supported policies and programs in the area of reproductive health, including family planning.”

The word “responsible” is not defined. However, Carter Dillard, writing in Yale Human Rights and Development Legal Journal 2007, argues that defining some limits on procreation is not inconsistent with human rights.

“What is perceived as a justified legal and moral interest to procreate freely without regard to others, including the rights of prospective children and society as a whole, has consequences for others, and such acts are subject to law, if only in its role as a guide. If each person is endowed with rights that compete with and limit others' rights, the creation of new persons in a finite space eventually results in either limiting the rights of some in favour of the rights of others, or a general limiting of each person's overall rights, as the spheres of rights begin to overlap.”


… a global agreement to address the risk of ecological meltdown and consequently the collapse of the human species, should include the option of coercive measures to reduce population to a sustainable level.

In Reproductive Liberty and Overpopulation*, Carol Yates, Professor of Philosophy at Ithaca College in the United States argues that sustainability will require population reduction as well as changes in consumption. Reproductive liberty should not be considered a fundamental human right, she argues and a global agreement to address the risk of ecological meltdown and consequently the collapse of the human species, should include the option of coercive measures to reduce population to a sustainable level.

John Feeney, an environmental writer in Boulder, Colorado, says “A purposeful drop on the part of industrialised countries to consumption levels comparable to those of the poorest areas in the world is not only wholly unrealistic but, at today's population size, would not end our environmental woes. Our sheer numbers prevent it. We have no alternative but to return our attention to population. Already in overshoot, we must aim for population stabilisation followed by a decline in human numbers worldwide.

“We have to provide easy access to family planning options while educating parents and children through the media in the benefits of smaller families. And we should end the web of government incentives for larger families, to make population stabilisation more not less likely.” The money saved could be targeted at supporting older people.

Yet using the tax system as an incentive for reducing, not increasing birth rates is still regarded as a ‘no go area,’ an invasion of human rights, where the historic mindset of national power is boosted by growing numbers. Even now, with commodity prices soaring, ‘think tanks’ supposedly at the cutting edge of ideas, see a growing birth rate as a sign of economic well-being.

But what right is more important than trying to preserve an equitable quality of life for people instead of descending into more repressive and dangerous times, driven by the relentless pressures of ever increasing numbers? Many governments, the UK more than most, think nothing of introducing highly prescriptive and invasive regulations to control demand and behaviour – speed cameras, tax penalties and more. Why should we fear tax incentives to help save the planet and stem the decent into growing stress and chaos for our children?

The civilised choice seems obvious, yet the “growth is good” mindset of our political and business leaders, underpinned by (no longer) cheap energy, rules all.

In Estonia large baby bonuses have been offered to raise the birth rate, and have been quite widely taken up. Portugal has introduced tax incentives tied to pensions to encourage mothers to have more children and in Singapore (one of the most densely populated countries in the world) where birth rates have fallen significantly, the government has appointed a 'population czar' to encourage population growth.

In a 'scare campaign' about ageing, the Australian Government has been offering inducements of AU$5,000 for every new child born, in a country where government reports reveal constantly worsening environmental conditions. Yet the Government is encouraging more immigration each year than the natural birth rate, cheered on by the growth lobbyists. In 2005/6 the population grew by 265,800 (a natural increase of 131,200 plus net immigration of 134,600).

James Sinnamon (candobetter.org/james) Australian writer and environmental analyst describes this as “concentrated benefit" – where a minority in our community, i.e. land speculators, property developers, financiers and others collectively known as the "growth lobby", gain from population growth. "Diffuse injury" is what the rest of us pay in congestion, higher council rates, higher electricity charges, higher housing and environmental costs, hospital and education pressures for population growth. “For decades, the wider community was not fully aware of the costs they were paying because they were spread out so diffusely,” he says.” That is why the growth lobby was able to get away with it for so long.”

The UK's present population is around 60.5 million. It is more vulnerable to food imports than any other country in Europe and is increasingly dependent on energy imports. Family size and immigration levels will result in the UK population rising to 65 million over the next 10 years, 70 million in 2028, 77 million by 2051 and over 85 million by 2081 - at least 70% of this increase due to immigration. (OPT, Migration Watch UK)

All of us, politicians, business and public opinion, need to wake up fast or our children will inherit a grim future. Will they thank us for not acting in the face of such challenges?

(2,227 words)

Comments

Brian,

Thanks for your article. I do not find much to complain about and almost completely agree with you. A few points:

1) We must now begin thinking about what was formerly unthinkable and off-limits. For about a dozen years now (since I "woke up") I have been telling people that calls for higher agricultural production to feed the rising population are downright nonsense, since it's a good bet that one of the drivers of population increase is increased availability of food. However, to say that the world should cap food production in order to try to stabilise population levels would very quickly be branded as "inhumane", "racist" and so on. So what's the answer if you cannot "legally" request that people hold down birth rates? Did "It's good to have just one child" work in China? How about India? Thailand's family planning campaign (since about the mid-70s) seems to have been quite effective in both bringing down the birth rate and containing AIDS.

2) 2008 looks like being the year things start to go wrong. Sorry about the bad news. Energy and food problems are not going to go away. Look at North Korea. Still stuck in famine 15 years after the problems began there!! The growthists are in for some rude shocks very soon. I VERY much doubt that the world population is going to reach 8 billion.

3) Japan's experience is interesting. Now the population is falling. Immigration is virtually non-existent. Talking to a friend of mine a few days ago, his 40-year-old daughter is unmarried and has a very nice job. She has five girlfriends. All unmarried, all with nice jobs and very happy. The population is aging fast. The Ministry of Labour, Health and Welfare wants to raise birthrates, but they don't have a hope in hell. Socially, Japan is falling apart at the seams in many ways. The prices of oil and food don't make things any easier AND have you any ideas on how to feed 127 million people on 4.7 million hectares of farmland, because if you do, the Japanese would like to know about it. Population 1870: a little over 30 million. People still remember famines in the 17th and 18th centuries. Most of the population is asleep in front of their TVs.

You're right, Brian. We need to figure out how to get from here to there pretty quickly!

Yuki