It is not just absolute numbers of people that have an impact on the planet but the rate at which they consume resources
The overarching theme of this column is living with less, so it really shouldn’t surprise me when each week I venture into the comments section to find dozens of people insisting that all efforts to do so are in vain – unless we are also choosing to reproduce less, too.
Recently I began to consider this question more seriously. Is overpopulation really the problem? Were the effects of all my eco-friendly initiatives wiped out the moment I had a child? Does the Earth have some sort of carrying capacity that we are rapidly approaching (or have already exceeded)?
Well, as with many issues, I quickly discovered that it isn’t quite that black and white. One of the main factors muddying the waters seems to be that humans consume resources at different rates. Prominent Canadian environmentalist David Suzuki recalls asking ecologist EO Wilson how many people our planet would be able to sustain indefinitely. His answer? “If you want to live like North Americans, 200 million.”
Determining some sort of final number that the human race can comfortably survive at is virtually impossible without considering the differing way we consume resources. Each American single-handedly produces the same amount of carbon emissions as 20 people from India, 30 from Pakistan or 250 from Ethiopia.
In some respects then, it should come as a relief to note that those of us consuming the most – those in developed countries like the UK, USA and Australia have seen birth rates fall steadily since the 1970s.
According to the 2015 UN World Population Prospects report, several countries are expected to see their populations decline by more than 15%, while “fertility in all European countries is now below the level required for full replacement of the population in the long run (around 2.1 children per woman, on average), and in the majority of cases, fertility has been below the replacement level for several decades”.
So it would seem that those in the developed world have minded the dire warnings coming from the comments section and adjusted their lives accordingly.
Reproduction is declining, there are fewer babies and indeed, that will mean fewer resources consumed by those of us who consume the most. But that’s not the whole story, of course. There’s still Africa. The continent currently home to almost 1.2 billion people is projected to be responsible for most of the population growth over the next 50 years, swelling to 2.5 billion by 2050 and 4.4 billion by 2100.
And, of course, many of the new billion people in developing countries will want to live the same lifestyles that cause disproportionate resources usage by North Americans – and they have just as much (or arguably, as little) right to adopt such environmentally unfriendly practices as we do: driving cars and SUVs, living in homes with central heating and air conditioning, eating imported foods, and filling our homes with clothing, electronics and consumer goods.
The problem is not just the sheer numbers of people inhabiting the planet, it’s also the lives we’re living once we’re here. That cannot be ignored. It’s not enough to say you won’t have kids and then declare Mission Accomplished like some sort of deranged George Bush derivative while you continue to drive your SUV and eat imported strawberries in December.
If we somehow managed to slow population growth so that we ended up with 8 billion people in 2050 instead of the projected 9.1 billion, we’d save 1-2bn tons of carbon emissions annually. That’s fantastic and, of course, there would be other implications for the resources not used by those missing billions, but erasing a billion potential people still wouldn’t be enough on its own to alter the trajectory of climate change.
Furthermore, the likelihood of preventing that billion births is constantly being cut off at the knees by backwards politicians and religious groups limiting safe and affordable sex education, birth control and abortion access. If you’re ranting about population control I’d better see you ranting for women’s reproductive rights too, but that’s an issue for another soapbox.
There may well be too many of us, and far, far too many of us if we all wish to live like North Americans. This is why it’s at least as worrisome to me, if not more so, that those of us who are here are – particularly those of us in developed countries – are consuming so much, so fast, with so little regard for the world around us.
A good handful of us will reproduce. It’s inevitable. Instead of getting tunnel vision by focusing so much on population control, why not expand the focus to educating, motivating and assisting those human beings already walking this earth to do less damage to it? Why not add support to environmental initiatives like zero waste and local food sources and reduced consumption (and yes, women’s reproductive rights) rather than bah-humbugging everything?
There’s already 7 billion of us. If we put our collective energy toward creating positive change, it could be incredible. Now, let’s hold hands and sing kumbayah, please.
This article was written by Madeleine Somerville, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 26th January 2016 16.05 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010