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7 Billion – And Your Community Wants Its Share

There’s a good chance you’ve heard world population will pass 7 billion on Halloween. Most of us in the developed world haven’t given it a second thought. The hungry children whose photos accompany these news stories are not our children. Most of us don’t think of population growth as something we can or should do anything about. It’s a problem for someone else, somewhere else.

forecast-graphic-9-1024x576There are signs, however, that the planet has filled up. On a full planet, problems don’t blow away. We can’t move away from them. China’s emissions affect air quality in the western U.S. The relentless march of humankind across the planet is eliminating forests and species. It’s heating our atmosphere and acidifying our oceans. Our appetite is decimating fisheries. We’re over-appropriating and fouling fresh water supplies. We’re depleting the planet’s fertile soils and many precious elements.

Some of these impacts aren’t immediately visible to us here, but they happen all the same. Some are a little more noticeable. Hundreds of thousands of people improving their economic status and adopting our lifestyle now compete with us for oil and food, affecting availability and price. None of us would dispute their right to these resources.

But few of us recognize how our lives are directly affected – both by the economic growth occurring in places like India and China, and the growing number of people participating in that growth. These are populations that dwarf ours; if they over-consume like us, things will deteriorate in a hurry. And that appears to be the track they are on. The pie is not getting bigger. And we are going to have to share.

Still, that begs the question, “What can I do?” There are many things we can and should be doing about population growth in our own communities. First, stabilizing and reducing population is not someone else’s problem or responsibility. Each of us are accountable for our community’s impact (our “footprint”), and that means for the size of our population. In fact, a decision to have a smaller family in a developed nation can do more to move our civilization back into sustainable equilibrium than such a decision in a poorer nation.

We can also reduce our consumption, as we must. But we should not fall into the trap of thinking that changing our light bulbs allows us to ignore and escape the perils of population growth. We are way beyond the point we can focus only on one part of the equation.

I’ve campaigned actively since 2002 for my community to end its dependence on population growth as a prosperity strategy. It clearly doesn’t work, for one thing. But it also selfishly avoids accountability for doing our part to stabilize population as soon as possible. Chances are your community, like mine, has a number of public policies designed to accelerate growth. These policies are based on the myth that growth is necessary for prosperity. If all cities competing for growth get their way, we will most definitely not have a sustainable, peaceful world where our children can survive and thrive.

So, as world population streaks past 7 billion (at the rate of over 200,000 people per day), let’s pause and think long and hard about whether our own communities’ belief system and public policies are rational, responsible and consistent with the compassion we have for children everywhere, including our own.

Dave Gardner
Filmmaker

Dave Gardner is the filmmaker behind GrowthBusters: Hooked on Growth, a documentary examining our society’s worship of growth everlasting. GrowthBusters will hold its world premiere in Washington DC on November 2. The DVD is available for order now, and communities around the world are scheduling screenings.

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    clays

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    You do know most of the developed world is already doing this? All but a few western countries have fertility rates below replacement levels, so even as we speak, they are in negative growth. Their countries population growth (if any) is due solely to immigration, so, in a few generations, their societies and cultures will simply cease to exist and be replaced. So, most of western society is already heeding your advice. Our problems won’t be over population, but under-population. When there are not enough young people to support society while the elderly grow old, things will get messy. So your message is really quite pointless in the western markets, the people have already embraced and enacted that message, to the point it will threaten their existence in the coming generations if not reversed.

    Where you really need to pitch you flick, if you want to do the most “good,” is the rapidly expanding and modernizing (consuming) third world. With jack rabbit level fertility rates and steadily increased GDP, places like India, China and Africa, are set to explode in consumption as they become more and more developed and consume more and more in the process.

    The good news is, historically fertility rates decrease as GDP increases. It seems with more and more disposable income available, less want to waste time raising money sucking leaches. The down side to that is with higher GDP comes better medicine and longer life span, lets hope the reproductive inhibiting effect of an easier life hits those pesky brown people quickly.

    No sir, the answer to the environmental catastrophe humans are wrecking on the planet is not a documentary telling western audiences to do something they are already doing. Neither is the suicide of western society (a much better steward of the environment than many other industrial nations) by a collapsing birth rate. Like it or not, if your position is there are too many people on the planet, eventually, if your intellectually serious about it, your going to have to start advocating killing the poor. Ok, you might be able to get by with forced sterilization, but that is the logical conclusion to the problem you claim to be identifying.

    For example, if the American internal consumption engine, that just recently hit 300 million, has done so much damage to the world, imagine a country like India, with a population of 1.2 Billion and a GDP that has more than tripled since 2000, (it had nearly 10% growth last year) in a few decades. A billion people (and still growing) transitioning into the consumerism of middle class life… and that’s just India. China has 1.3 billion people and the African content has another billion (it was half that about 25 years ago). Many of these countries are experiencing this growth because of the helping had offered by the industrial world over the last few decades. But you can’t put the genie back in the bottle, you can’t unteach development to a society. You could cut them off from the world economy, watch them starve, but come on, we really like those shiny resources… I mean westerners are not gonna pay more for stuff… that starts riots round here. So the only logical solution left, is mass killing of these poor expanding and upwardly mobile pesky brown people. That or maybe a re-evaluation of our position.

    Reply

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    Dave Gardner

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    @clays, I would beg to differ with you. First, the populations of developed nations are far from extinction. We really needn’t worry about that. They are, however, way above the carrying capacity of their countries, so reducing their population as quickly as possible in a humane, voluntary manner makes a lot of sense.

    Second, we can hope that developing nations soon come to realize that we in the developed world didn’t quite get it right, and are not to be emulated.

    Third, it is actually declining fertility that leads to economic improvement (not the other way around), so simply sitting back and watching the developed world follow in our footsteps and relaxing about overpopulation is not to be recommended.

    So I feel the message of the film is important for everyone.

    Dave Gardner
    Filmmaker

    Reply

  • Avatar

    clays

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    Well, extinction might still be a ways off, its now within sight, not an abstract concept. Britain is projected to loose 25% of its population by 2060, and Germany will shed 20%. Deaths are projected to outnumber births by 2015 and end natural population growth in Europe. Add to this the average age of a European will increase to nearly 50 in the next 50 years alone, and it all spells bad times. Pension plans, health care, welfare will be pushed to collapsing points.

    I really find it surprising, someone arguing developed nations need to “reduce their populations as quickly as possible” isn’t aware that is already happening. I think you would be hard pressed to find a more human way to erase 25% of a countries population in 50 years. And if these trends continue, in 100-200 years, Europe and Europeans, western culture values and beliefs will exist only in history books. Go look up the projected population for the countries of the world.

    The Earth won’t be saved though, because the un-developed and developing world are reproducing like bunnies they also have the largest growing economies, as globalization pummels ancient cultures with the consumerist middle class life. The only thing that will have changed is we are gone, and a different group of people is doing the majority of the consuming and destroying. And there is a good chance they will feel less responsibility for stewardship of the environment than the society your trying to talk into suicide.

    And how can you say developed nations are above carrying capacity if so many live so good now? With rationing and resource allocation alone developed nations could sustain a much higher population, add in to that new technologies and discoveries that increase yields, and anything close to a “carrying capacity” is Malthusian silliness.

    As for what came first the infertility or the GDP, I defiantly fall on the side of the widely accept theory that an easier life with longer life expectancy, a result of increased GDP, leads to lower fertility. I don’t think a population just gives up reproducing and material abundance falls from the sky.

    But I guess the point of the matter is, if carrying capacity really is a problem, you really need to develop a “documentary” to spread your message in the undeveloped world, if your true fear is damage to the earth. I’m not so sure it is.

    Reply

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    Jason

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    Great writing, Dave! Good points. Thank you.

    Reply

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    Dean

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    That is quite tha argument but neither of you will have to worry about those things as peak oil takes hold and causes the collapse of all economies and starts wars and mass starvation!! Check out PEAK OIL and weep!

    Reply

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      Vernon Brechin

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      I urge readers to consider the following thoughts. Homo sapiens has evolved via natural sexual selection to favor our survival over that of any creatures that get in our way. One feature of us, that sets us apart, is an immense ego which tends to convince ourselves of our superiority over all other creatures. It has served to perpetuate ourselves. Due to our overwhelmingly advanced technologies and cultural prowess it’s now clear that this combination is destroying this planet’s life support systems. Some of us may believe that if we go extinct there is no point in any other of the millions of higher lifeforms surviving. Perhaps some of us are capable of setting aside our programmed egocentric view of our species and taking a more heretical view of ourselves. Could it possibly be that our species has evolved to be like the cancer cell that eventually destroys its’ host in the quest to reproduce itself as prolifically as possible? Could it be that our programming makes us blind to that possibility?

      When we look into a child’s cute face what generates the warm-fuzzes that we feel? Does that feeling arise from some maternal/paternal programming that’s ancient and has nothing to do with maintaining a sustainable environment? Are we more likely to bring offspring into the world, not for their sake, but because ancient drives within us compel us act? Will those children follow our wishes for a better environment, or will they find ways of immersing themselves in various diversions, from the coming environmental collapse, such as by focusing on video games and by further resource consumption? How many of us take into consideration the dire near-term scientific predictions when considering bringing children into the world? My guess is this factor plays almost no role in most people’s decision. Personal and private rights seems to factor in as a major priority. In China they realized that continued survival meant giving up some of those rights. Is there any evidence that scientists, that are well aware of the coming environmental collapse, are deciding that it’s not ethical to beget their own children? If a study has not been done on this then it should be done.

      For those who are curious and want to explore more about such concepts I suggest a visit to the humorous presentations on the VHEMT website. You may want to start with the Wikipedia article on the ‘movement.’

      Reply

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