Planetary Emergency Calls for Drastic Measures
Here’s the 5th installment of questions from our Solving Overshoot webinar. I’m sharing the questions we didn’t have time to address, and I’m including comments received from Madeleine Somerville and Paul Ehrlich, our panelists. If you missed the first few installments, start here with installment one. Your comments are welcome below. I think today’s questions are particularly important, so I’ve jumped in and offered some of my own thoughts. I look forward to reading your thoughts.
16. Chris Bystroff asked: “Paul– Will accelerated growth lead to a cataclysm, like a nuclear war or something else, sooner? And if so would it be less damaging than waiting until the population doubles again?”
Paul Ehrlich: Nuclear war would likely result in no significant recovery – worst possible of the causes of collapse we’re facing.
Dave Gardner: Interesting question. I think we’re living a slow-motion cataclysm now. A rapid collapse earlier rather than later might leave our ecosystems a little more intact. I’m pretty sure population cannot double again. We don’t have the fossil fuels to supply, or the atmospheric/climate capacity to process waste from, a continuation of the green revolution – and only the most optimistic and clueless economists believe we’ll have yet another breakthrough to feed 14, or even 11 billion.
17. Tristan Wolf asked: “Camilo Mora has discussed the idea of a “Climate Plague” in the 2020’s, that at this point we may be facing a problem that has traveled to far to fast to save. Do any of you think that the global population reflects this problem? That we are approaching a point of no return? if so, do you think we will suffer a similar fate on the global scale, akin to that of china’s suffering after their population spike?” A collapse looks almost inevitable, and soon (Ehrlich PR, Ehrlich AH. 2013. Can a collapse of civilization be avoided? Proceeding of the Royal Society B .)
Dave Gardner: There is no doubt we’re fast approaching a point of no return. Current behavior suggests collapse is inevitable, but here we are having conversations that could lead us out of the woods. It’s a long shot, but we’ve got to try!
18. Karen Pitts asked: “Madeline, do you think telling people it is not ethical to have more than one child is the answer, or do you think women would have fewer children if their birth control was effective or if they can’t access or afford contraception?”
Madeleine Somerville: We’ve already seen a reduction of family size in most (if not all) areas where safe, legal contraception is available. When women are allowed to choose their own family size, births tend to decrease. I think this trend would continue, especially in the developing world where women know intimately the harsh realities of the world a child would be born into. In the west, many women are choosing to remain childfree, for reasons environmental and otherwise.
Dave Gardner: I don’t believe there is one answer. We need to be working on all fronts because we are so far into overshoot:
1)make affordable contraception widely available
2)educate and empower women to resist patriarchal pressure to marry young and/or have large families
3)educate men and encourage them to take some responsibility here (including vasectomies)
4)accelerate the adoption of a small-family norm in both (over)developed and developing nations
5)don’t forget that we’ve got to end the obsession with economic growth and scale back consumption in the (over)developed world.
We should not settle for replacement-level or barely sub-replacement-level fertility; this is an emergency.
19. Comment from Anonymous Attendee that I felt must be addressed: “According to the Population Reference Bureau’s 2016 World Population Data Sheet, the US experiences a net birth rate of 4 people per 1000 (12 births and 8 deaths). Canada’s net birth rate is 3 people per 1000 (11 births and 8 deaths). The Net Migration per 1000 in the US is 6. In Canada is 4. By contrast the “Less” and “Least” Developed nations are experiencing 15-26 net births per 1000 with 0 or negative Net Migration. In other words, net birthrates in North America is not the problem. Overpopulation appears to be primarily a problem among the less developed nations. By contrast, overconsumption is our problem. It appears that in North America, we need to focus on economic growth and a steady state economy. www.prb.org/pdf16/prb-wpds2016-web-2016.pdf”
Paul Ehrlich: The I=PAT equation solves this – you can’t separate population and consumption, where the basic problem is largely aggregate consumption. Roots of the equation are in Ehrlich PR, Holdren J. 1971. Impact of population growth. Science 171:1212-1217. See also Ehrlich P. 2014. Human impact: The ethics of I=PAT. Ethics in Science and Environmental Politics 14:11-18.
Madeleine Somerville: Yes, this is the basic issue I tackled in my Guardian column. Western birth rates are declining yet our consumption is still wildly out of control. Perhaps we need a double-pronged approach where we focus on reducing consumption in the developed world and reducing population growth in the developing world.
Dave Gardner: Don’t you think net birthrates in North America might actually BE a problem as long as we cling to current rates of consumption and pursue 3%-plus annual economic growth? Yes, we have an overconsumption problem, but why should we “settle” for near replacement-level fertility in a nation of 325 million that might be living sustainably if it were 100 million? So far we’ve seen little evidence that humankind is willing to simplify and scale back our consumption, but plenty of evidence we’re willing to moderate our procreation. This tells me we shouldn’t stop pressing for additional progress on the latter, even while doubling our efforts on the former.
Read the next installment in this series here.
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