Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Elephant In The Room

There was some really interesting discussion that took place in the comments of the Collapse book review post, so I decided to continue the discussion.

One thing I've noticed, we green bloggers love to talk about how we don't talk about population. Every few days it seems, there's a comment at No Impact Man about how we're ignoring the elephant or the 150 pound gorilla, or what have you, in the room: population. Sharon seems to have to deal with accusations on a fairly regular basis: how DARE she talk about the environment when she had the gall to have four children!! The general idea is, most green bloggers have kids, so people feel like they don't want to talk about population. And the green bloggers without kids don't want to sound self-righteous, so no one talks about it.

So, instead of ignoring this side of the debate, let's talk about it. I actually think Sharon has talked about population in the past, and has done a decent job, but maybe people feel like she has an agenda there. But I don't have kids, and it's possible, though I wouldn't say probable, that I might never have children. So I don't feel like I really have much of my own agenda to press here. I do have an opinion though. I mean, obviously.

But before I give you my views about population, I want to give everyone the chance to express their opinion. So here it is, folks. Do you think the growing population is a major environmental concern, and more specifically, do you think it is a concern with regards to global warming?

When you're answering this question, here are some other questions I'd like to throw out there. You don't have to answer them, though you can if you'd like. I obviously ask the questions with a point of view attached, so let's all understand that I'm not asking these questions from an entirely objective point of view:

  • Does it make sense to treat population as a quantitative problem (number of people) versus a qualitative problem ( one of lifestyle?) If we had 6.5 billion people on the Earth living lives similarly to farmers in Ghana, would we have a global warming problem?
  • Is it fait accompli that more people leads to degradation of renewable resources and/or increases in carbon emissions?
  • Is disease Nature's way of "controlling" population? If so, is it fair to extrapolate from that that malaria and AIDS are Nature's way of "controlling" population, and that the Western Europe and the United States should not interfere with Nature?
  • What are the solutions? Is China's one-child policy a solution?
  • And more generally, where do we go from here? Given that we have population increases built-in, so to speak, what are the steps we can take?

I imagine that responses to this might get a little heated. Population maybe isn't talked about because it *is* personal. A good percentage of the people reading this will have children, and a good percentage of people reading this will not. So while I encourage debate, I do want to ask that people comment respectfully. I think in general the comments on this blog are incredibly civilized, and thoughtful, so I'm not too worried. I think we can have a good debate on this without resorting to personal attacks.


hgg said...

While I would probably slide into a full-blown rant on most of these questions (and prefer to avoid that), I can give my digested view as an evolutionary biologist on your third bullet point.

In my world view there is obviously no "Mother Nature" controlling anything. Disease happen because micro-organisms (viruses and bacteria mostly) are highly successful in exploiting the systems of other organisms to grow, reproduce and spread, often causing disease or death on the way. Because of their short generation times their potential for fast evolutionary change is orders of magnitude higher than ours. The higher the population density of hosts (humans in this case) the higher the possibility for spreading disease and turning into pandemics. The bird flu is an excellent example.

This is basic biology. BUT a biological truth doesn't mean it is "right" from an ethical and humanitarian point of view. Science is our modern weapon in the evolutionary arms race against pathogens and we should use it.

And I'll stop here before I go too far.

Anonymous said...

Good questions! I'm not an economist or anything, but I'll give this a try. Full disclosure: I have four children, all in their twenties; tow are married, one with two children.

1.I think we should treat it as a qualitative issue. We don't want to get to 10 billion, and have 9.5 billion living on roots and berries. There has to be some equity. Also, some of the worst environmental issues are caused by poverty and ignorance, i.e., slash and burn agriculture, poaching elephants to get ivory, horribly polluting ways of recylcling plastic in China, etc.
2. Yes, more people require more resources, but clearly we could do better with improved methods of using those resources.
3.Yes, disease is very much Nature's way of controlling population. Should we just let them suffer and die? Of course not!!!, But there will always be another disease coming along that we must wrestle with.
4.One child policy? Ask the average Chinese person. I know quite a few of them, because we have a Mandarin-speaking group in my church. They are not happy with this program, if, for no other reason than it works against the natural sense of family humans seem to have. There are gradually fewer aunts, uncles, cousins, not to mention siblings around to relate to and they feel a sense of loss about this. It's not healthy emotionally.
5.Steps to be taken: of prime omportance is better education and career oppotunities for girls and women, which, as I mentioned, delays childbearing and raises the family's standard of living; better health care for the very young and the very old, which gives parents an assurance that their children will live to be grown, but also assures that they won't need so many children to support them in their old age. Modernized agricultural methods which allow a smaller family to make a living off the same amount of land with fewer hands to do the work.

Writing that out seems so simplistic. These are HUGE problems! The U.N. has been wrestling with them for 50 years now, and we have made some progress, but we can't let up.

Anonymous said...

I'm no expert, but I do have opinions on two of the questions. Yes, I think disease/plague is Mother Nature's way of taking care of herself. It happens in the wild animal communities to keep the numbers down so everyone eats.

As far as having children vs. not having children -- that's a personal decision. I think if you decide not to have children, you should be compensated/rewarded for it in some way. This might be a better answer then China's one child policy. If you could get people to voluntarily not have children, then people who wanted two children would be able to do so.

Farmer's Daughter said...

It's very interesting. I never considered population to be the elephant in the room. And I think Sharon does a good job talking about it in her book.

As an environmental science teacher, I know that we have spent the first two months of school dealing with population dynamics. We talk about the problems and possible solutions. We talk about women's rights, the value of education, the availability of contraceptives. We talk about rich vs. poor nations, and we talk about whether or not we, the rich, have the right to set standards for the poor, or for anyone for that matter.

I guess my point is this: teenagers can discuss it rationally, site evidence, draw conclusions. Come up with intelligent solutions. Why is it that the "green blogging" or even just "green" community is ignoring the issues?

Farmer's Daughter said...

PS- Note like the true teacher I am, I didn't answer your questions with my own opinions. Just provoked further thought.

EcoBurban said...

Oh, Geez... this post is not for me, you know, as I have four kids and all. But, I will say that we love each and every one (OK, so most-times) and are raising them to be respectful and compassionate global citizens. That would be our thought process to counter-balance our family size. We implemented the Little League recycling program and saved thousands of pounds of recycling from the landfill and things of that nature. Maybe as your family size increases, so should your level of mandantory community service time? I certainly don't know the answer, but think there certainly is strength in numbers! My boys and I can get a lot of yardwork or baseball field clean up done in a single hour!

Cath@VWXYNot? said...

Hmmmm. I would come down on the side of "over population definitely contributes to our problems". Although I should say that I've never actually studied this, it is just my amateur opinion based on bits and pieces I've picked up from the media!

If we had 6.5 billion people on the Earth living lives similarly to farmers in Ghana, would we have a global warming problem?

Possibly not, but we'd have a whole heap of other problems. The thing with reducing the global population is that it (theoretically) allows for a higher average quality of life without (necessarily) a greater impact on the environment.

Is it fait accompli that more people leads to degradation of renewable resources and/or increases in carbon emissions?

Well, unless we can find a way to reduce average individual impact by the same percentage by which the population is rising, then, yes. It strikes me that reducing the population might actually be the easier thing to do. And if we can reduce average individual impact at the same time as reducing the population, then that's better than JUST reducing average individual impact!

An increasing local population DEFINITELY contributes to loss of wildlife habitat.

Is disease Nature's way of "controlling" population? If so, is it fair to extrapolate from that that malaria and AIDS are Nature's way of "controlling" population, and that the Western Europe and the United States should not interfere with Nature?

Whatever your views on whether or not diseases evolved in part to control host population levels, I think anyone saying that we should not interfere with the spread of disease in existing populations needs their head looking at. While I'm in favour of trying to encourage a lower birthrate, I am also STRONGLY in favour of doing the best we can by the people who already exist.

What are the solutions? Is China's one-child policy a solution?
And more generally, where do we go from here? Given that we have population increases built-in, so to speak, what are the steps we can take?

As already mentioned above, whole generations in China are growing up without siblings, cousins etc. That's one hell of a shame. Not to mention the gender imbalance, so many missing girls, because if people can only have one child, they're going to prefer a boy.

I think that population growth will naturally slow down and eventually (hopefully) reverse. We can speed up that process by promoting birth control and education (especially for women) in regions with higher birth rates. It is already happening in developed countries, and it always boggles my mind that governments freak OUT about this and start trying to encourage more births. Um, hello, heard of immigration? Allowing more immigration into developed countries offsets any decline in the working-age population (necessary to maintain the tax base) and eases overpopulation in developing countries, not to mention the increased quality of life for the immigrants.

(Full disclaimer: I am an immigrant myself!)

Obviously people need to keep having kids, otherwise why do any of us bother doing anything if the species is doomed?! I am not planning to have kids (with their likely environmental impact being one factor), but that's my own decision. I would never condemn an environmentalist who chooses to have a big family, because hopefully those kids will have a lower than average impact and set an example for / educate others. However I do think that some others of us need to consciously decide not to add more people to the planet.

If my husband and I ever change our minds about wanting a kid, we have already agreed that adoption will be our first option. I think that the best thing you can do is take someone who already exists and make their life better.

Higher adoption rates as one solution maybe?!

Sorry for the long comment! In fact I think this may be my longest ever!

Cath@VWXYNot? said...

I should add that I immigrated to Canada from the UK. So I'm not really an example of what I was talking about in my last mega-comment.

knutty knitter said...

I think my system went phut! If this is a double post, my apologies.

Maybe a tax break on the first child. Nothing for the second child but tax costs for any subsequent children after that would work.

You would have to make an exception for multiple births, adoption and fostering but otherwise that should encourage most of us to have only two children and adopt if we want more.

viv in nz

Pip said...

Ok, my warning is that I will probably say some things that people will not agree with, but hopefully I will also indicate some acceptable solutions.

First: Over population is a major problem. Since our mechanisms for sustaining the current population involve taking resources from the earth that increase agricultural output (specifically oil but also many of the chemical fertilizers such as phosphate), it is highly likely that there will be a point where, quickly and drastically, food production will not be able to satisfy people's needs. The problem of world hunger at the moment, to my mind, is simply a problem of distribution. Into the future, however, it will become a matter of numbers.

Second: The benign transition theory that increasing people's prosperity will decrease the number of children they have works only in theory. In a world where prosperity also comes with an increase in resource consumption and in the urgent context of climate change this means that the benign transition will not be benign. BUT, and it's a big BUT: this does not mean that we need to stop people who live in poverty from increasing their consumption, that may seem like one possible solution but it is increadibly unethical and, to my mind, abhorrent. Instead we (in the developed world) need to simultaneously do three things.
1. Decrease our own level of consumption.
2. Work out ways to increase prosperity without increasing the toll on the earth.
3. Change the incentive structures of our political and social systems to encourage people to have less children.

To expand on 3, I don't mean to chastise those who have already done so and I don't mean to coercively regulate people to not have children (e.g. the one child policy). I do mean stopping government's like mine here in Australia from giving out "baby bonuses" (which have also been labelled the "plasma tv" bonus because that is what they are frequently spent on aparently). It also means giving women cheap and easy access to comprehensive sex education and birth control of all different types - particularly abortion so that those who find themselves with an unwanted pregnancy do not face any obstacles to carry out their own choices on how to deal with it.

Third: Disease may be an effective population control in that it kills a lot of people but to think that it is therefore a positive thing is as abhorrent as telling those people who live on the poverty line to cut their consumption. To put it into ethical terms, an "is" does not imply an "ought". Just because it happens, doesn't make it right.

Finally: While I think that population is a major problem in the environmental issue, I don't think that it is black and white and I don't think that it has to have the negative conotations that it normally has. There are a lot of women in the world who do not feel like they have control of their reproductive systems - either through lack of access to abortion and birth control, through lack of education or through direct oppression by their male relatives. This is the first and most productive place to deal with the population issue - by empowering women to make their own choices. That said, there is also a corresponding responsibility to consider the impact of your family as a whole, just as we have the same responsibility as individuals. By instilling environmental values into your children you are going a long way to ensuring that into the future the environment will be valued.

Wow, sorry for the rant but it's something that I am quite passionate about. It's good to see people discussing an issue that we normally shy away from. Nice work, Arduous, as per usual.

Donna said...

I'll throw in my two cents, for what it's worth: I find it interesting that the birth rates are going down in developed countries. It's not all choice or people deciding to wait to have kids -- even fertility rates are going down. My personal theory is that it has something to do with all the chemicals we use, but who knows. I think that if adoption were made easier and more affordable, the birth rates would go down even farther. I know of couples who wanted to adopt, but when they found out how difficult it is, they decided to just get pregnant again.

I think that as developing countries develop, they'll see the same trends, so maybe the population will actually stabilize eventually. Certainly, educating girls would be a big step in that direction.

Pip said...

clarification: in my second point I said that we don't need to stop people living in poverty from increasing their consumption but that wasn't what I meant. That is a trivially true comment. What I meant to say was population instead of consumption. The three solutions are instead of just telling the developing nations to decrease their rate of population incease and are meant to be done simultaneously.

That'll teach me for posting without re-reading.

TDP said...

I think we have to have both qualitative and quantitative measurements of population and the impact of the population on the earth's resources. The big thing that struck me when watching "An inconvenient Truth" was the population chart. While the consumption habits of the population was the focus of the chart, my concern was biological: all these people exhale carbon dioxide, a good percentage of them release methane gas in their waste. I wondered what affect that level of population would have on green house gas emissions by just their existence! Population is a concern, definately!

Disease may seem like nature's control system. Malthus thought so. So did early American settlers who shared their small pox infested blankets with the native populations, decimating Native populations in North America. It is immoral to leave disease to run its course to cull a population. I have spent some time this year worrying that as the resources of the planet shrink and the demand grows, that some governments (or corporations) will resort to such tactics to retain more for themselves, particularly when water becomes more precious than gold. I have very little faith that there is a bottom to the lowest level humanity could sink.

China's one child policy has had some unintended side effects for the Chinese. A scholar friend of mine, a native of China, has talked at length about the "little emperor" syndrome that the one child policy has created. The sole child of many (he says most) Chinese couples gets doted on by not only his parents, but also his grandparents. The child gets everything he wants, doesn't have to share, doesn't have to learn to get along with others. My friend says that the one child policy will actually destroy communism because individualism is inconsistent with communism. Little emperors are all individualists. He thinks that for the sake of the country and for the survival of communism, China needs to cancel the one child policy.


Vegetarianism. Reducing the animal population (not raising them for food) will reduce methane levels -methane is a huge percentage of the green house gas emissions. Until that time of world vegetarianism, and until corporate ranching is outlawed, they could at least install biodigesters at those cattle factories so that the waste and methane can be captured and turned into energy to make electricity, heat homes, etc. Biodigesters would also help keep the effluent out of streams and waterways, reducing the e coli potential.

Reforestation, and cleaning up the oceans. Calling for a time limited ban on ALL harvesting (except manmade waste products) from the oceans, to give the oceans a rest and a chance for aquatic populations to revive. We need to increase our oxygen producers to offset the carbon producers! Odd suggestion: Jade plants "hold their breath" during the day, a natural form of "carbon capture." They release their oxygen at night, when its cooler. How about forests of Jade plants??
World Reforestation will also assist in rebalancing the rain cycle around the world so that clean water can be captured, and aquafers can be refilled.

Find a way to capture, clean and redistribute storm/flood water from flooded areas. I envision huge water trucks that suck up the water, truck it to drought areas, discharge it through a massive filter, and then the water gets distributed to areas that need it. A six year old could have come up with that. Would it work?

I have made a conscious choice to not have children. Of five siblings in my family, only two have had children. Between them there are seven children, so we have each of us sibs been replaced and only two more added.

I agree with others here who say women in developing countries need general education, and reproductive health education, and control over their own reproduction. Study after study show that family size is smaller, and age of the mother gets older as education levels increase, and as economic opportunites increase for females.
Empower females and the world improves too. Good deal, I say!

ruchi said...

Great discussion, everyone. Thank you so much for your really in depth, thoughtful responses to my questions. You guys are awesome!

I will offer my opinions next week so that everyone has more time to discuss in the open forum what they think.

Anonymous said...

Ruchi, whatevs. You're just trying to get us to write a paper for you...

I'm chiming in to say that I feel about vegetarianism the way that you're describing you feel about the population question. It's not a given - on some farms the animals are treated well and actually improve the productiveness of the farm as a whole. It's too bad that they're not all that way, and that people probably eat more meat than is good for them, and I don't know if you can demand that people become vegetarians, even in the short term. It's kind of like telling people not to have children until we can figure out how to all live together using the same amount of resources.

To be honest, I didn't even notice your point of view until a few days ago - I was taking the population explosion as a given and cheered along at the end of a recent book that described it as the ONLY SOLUTION. (Sounds a little bit like the "final solution.") Thanks for your views.


Anonymous said...

I figure it doesn't matter how many people there are on the planet, we need to develop, and support the use of, new technologies that enable us all to live in a way that is better for the environment, and fairer for the people. Those of us in rich countries do need to use our influence and our money to support the education of girls & women, (and protect & encourage contraception & sex ed in our home countries), and also environmentally friendly community development programs overseas.

Birth rates do drop when communities have education, access to contraception and a reasonable expectation that their kids will survive to adulthood (with immunisations and clean water etc). So we need to lobby our governments to make sure that happens.

Farmer's Daughter said...

I'm going to add in my own opinions a little bit. As far as I'm concerned, overpopulation is a big deal. HOWEVER, the majority of the population growth is occuring in the developing world and these folks are NOT the ones having the biggest negative environmental impact... we know that's related to affluence, population, and moderated by stewardship...

I think that some of us in the developed world are looking for scapegoats, and therefore are blaming the pop issues in the developing world, instead of changing our own ways.

That said, I believe the answer is education. Education delays reproduction, leading to fewer children born in a lifetime. Studies have shown that women with an 8th grade education have 50% fewer children than those without. You can't argue with that data. Education of women leads to empowerment, independence, better quality of life, job skills, and moms who value the importance of education, thus improving their own lives and that of their children. Women will no longer need to turn to illicit activities to support their families, like prostitution, drugs, poaching, or working in sweatshops. Now, if family planning, including birth control options and ways to discuss family planning, is part that education, that's even better.

Mama said...

Wow, this is a great conversation, and one that is suprisingly civil at the moment!
I am obviously biased, as we have 4children. But I firmly believe that the world needs MY children. Call me pompous or arrogant, but I think raising my children to be compassionate, thoughtful, and involved citizens is the best thing I can do for our environmental crisis. I don't have statistics or biological facts to back up my assertions....but I believe it in my bones. Take it for what its worth:)

ruchi said...

I agree with Mama that this has been an excellent and incredibly civil conversation. I'll be posting my follow up on Wednesday.

Cath@VWXYNot? said...

"I think raising my children to be compassionate, thoughtful, and involved citizens is the best thing I can do for our environmental crisis."

I agree... I try to engage my 6 young nephews as much as I can!

Anonymous said...

I have been wanting to write a comment here for days, but have had a packed schedule (full of community building activities!).

I haven't read the comments above yet, because I wanted to share my thoughts first...

Daharja wrote a post about this a while ago, and I respected her quite a lot for bringing it up. And I'm glad you've brought it up as well. I think it's something that really should be talked about more. It's not the only elephant in the room, but it is definitely there amongst the shadows.

I made the decision many years ago not to have children. But I haven't yet written about it on my blog, because I know how strongly people feel about their children, and I didn't want to alienate anyone on the blog. I think there are lots of other things to discuss that don't make people feel alienated.

I have had to deal with a lot of discrimination for not having children. I'm in my mid-30s, and people think there is something wrong with me physically, or that I have a terrible husband, or that I have a hatred of children. In fact I love children and have spent many years teaching and nurturing children, I have a wonderful husband, and there is nothing wrong with me physically.

But I decided that I could do a lot more to change the world for the better if I had more time, more energy, and more love to devote to change. If I were to have children, I would be a great mom, and I would spend most of my time and energy and love to nurture them. But they would be just one or two people. And I could change thousands, or even - hopefully - one day - hundreds of thousands, millions.

Plus, I do believe there is a population issue that I don't want to compound by bringing more people into the world. I'd rather make the world a better place for those who are here, for other people's children to grow up and have a sustainable world in which to live and breathe and love.

So I have fought my biological urge to procreate. Instead, I put my nurturing instincts into my friends' children, who have become like my family. And I have put my nurturing instincts into my work, my writing, and my volunteering.

I am proud of my decision, and I'm very happy. And I'm very fortunate to have found a husband who has similar beliefs. But it is not always easy in this society. Sometimes it is downright difficult and brutal. We are often outcasts even among friends, as people assume we don't like children so they don't invite us to family-friendly gatherings. With some of our friends, we have grown distant as a result, despite efforts to the contrary. Sometimes it feels very altruistic, this decision.

Yet I -we- continue on, and hold tight to our feelings. I spend my time working toward changing the world and my community for the better. I reassure my good friends that I love their children, and as soon as I hold their little babes, they know this is true. The mothering instinct remains within me. But I chose to utilize it in different ways, to create widespread change.

Thanks for bringing this up, Ruchi.

Anonymous said...

After having read the comments, I see that I didn't really answer your questions, Ruchi, except the first one: yes, I do think population is a major issue.

I think disease and war are methods of population control - but they are completely unethical. It is not ok for some of us to survive disease because we have the money to do so, while others die because they don't have money. Generally they don't have money because they were born into geographical areas that are more hard-hit by problems that we who have money created. They don't have money because we who have money exploited their labor and/or their resources. ... It is not "natural" to have changed our climate so drastically that disease spreads to other lands and kills the impoverished who did nothing to create the problem. ... ...

We can correct the imbalances of the world with education, by making up for what we have done, and by altering course substantially.


"where do we go from here? Given that we have population increases built-in, so to speak, what are the steps we can take?"

Legislation for something as personal as having children will never happen in most parts of the developed world. A good solution might be to reduce CO2 output a certain amount per household (vs per capita), but that also won't happen. What can happen?

Education*. Birth control made readily available. Women's rights. Making it socially acceptable to not have children. Making people socially accountable for the environmental impact of having children (maybe somehow there is a socially-acceptable way to correct this imbalance...?)

*When I say education, I mean education about climate change, environmental destruction, anatomy, birth control, and economics. And education to increase income and quality of life.