Saturday, February 09, 2013

The planet can take care of itself

Humanists and atheists campaign about all sorts of things, from faith schools, to evolution in the science syllabus, to legal humanist weddings (why?), yet I haven’t noticed much fuss about what really matters.

What have our bad weather, the insurgency in Mali, and the world's economic downturn, got in common? They’re all linked to population increase.

The bad weather is related to climate change, and most scientists agree that climate change is due to human activity, particularly the burning of fossil fuels. We’re wet, and we’re going to get wetter, with implications for food production, property damage, and the cost of the clear-up.

What’s Mali got to do with it? Roger Howard wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald that in recent decades Mali's population has been growing at an unsustainable annual rate of about 3%. The country's population has tripled over the past 50 years. According to the latest UN estimates, it’s going to triple again over the next 50.
Such a drastic rate of population growth rate has profound implications. In particular, it means that, in an undeveloped and largely barren land, too many people are competing for too few local resources and opportunities. Young men have limited hopes of finding employment or even sustenance and are therefore deeply susceptible to the temptation of armed criminality and insurgency, and to the lure of radical preachers who seem to offer them both a sense of purpose and scapegoats who they can blame for their woes.
As for the economic downturn . . . Political leaders are floundering while they try to think of ways to generate economic growth. In the UK, the emphasis has been on encouraging people to go shopping to “kick start the economy”. Unlimited economic growth is a fantasy. It  would mean using dwindling resources even faster, as we create more stuff and more waste to satisfy an insatiable appetite for things to spend our money on. Countries like India and China are rapidly catching up with this trend, expecting to eat more meat, to own more belongings, and to drive more cars. They’ll ask, why should they be deprived, when the developed countries have been enjoying all this for the last few decades? More and more people with higher and higher expectations, with no thought about where it’s all going to come from.

Who’s going to tell the have-nots that they can’t have these things? And who’s going to tell people that they can’t have more children? Will we just have to wait until there’s no oil left, and no grain to feed the cattle, and no water to grow the crops, and no room? Will we have to wait until there’s even less room because of rising sea levels, and climate change refugees are being slaughtered on the borders of more affluent countries by nationalists waving KEEP OUT signs? Will we have to wait until hundreds of other species have been eliminated due to loss of habitat, poaching, hunting and over-fishing?

The Optimum Population Trust, which campaigns as Population Matters, says,
The mid-range global projection is that the planet’s population will increase from seven billion to nine billion by 2050. Broader estimates range from eight to 11 billion, depending on how effectively and quickly reproductive and development programmes are implemented in developing areas of the world to address the key drivers of population growth: the lack of reproductive health and contraception, lack of women’s rights and poverty. In some countries, migration also contributes significantly to the increase in population.
Isn’t this is the most important issue that any of us have to face? I’m 68, so it won’t affect me much, but I may soon be a grandparent, and I fear for my grandchild or grandchildren (hopefully, no more than two). Yet how often do you hear population growth mentioned in political speeches, unless it’s about immigration? It’s the most enormous elephant in the room, and it’s not going to go away.

The Royal Society recently published a paper headed, “Can a collapse of global civilization be avoided?” by Paul Ehrlich (Stanford Professor of Biology and Adjunct Professor at the University of Technology, Sydney) and Anne Ehrlich (Senior Research Scientist in Biology at Stanford), to mark their fellowship of the society.  It’s summarised as,
Environmental problems have contributed to numerous collapses of civilizations in the past. Now, for the first time, a global collapse appears likely. Overpopulation, overconsumption by the rich and poor choices of technologies are major drivers; dramatic cultural change provides the main hope of averting calamity.
The Ehrlichs conclude that there’s a need for rapid social and political change, and end on a cautiously positive note:
Do we think global society can avoid a collapse in this century? The answer is yes, because modern society has shown some capacity to deal with long-term threats, at least if they are obvious or continuously brought to attention (think of the risks of nuclear conflict). Humanity has the assets to get the job done, but the odds of avoiding collapse seem small because the risks are clearly not obvious to most people and the classic signs of impending collapse, especially diminishing returns to complexity, are everywhere. One central psychological barrier to taking dramatic action is the distribution of costs and benefits through time: the costs up front, the benefits accruing largely to unknown people in the future. But whether we or more optimistic observers  are correct, our own ethical values compel us to think the benefits to those future generations are worth struggling for, to increase at least slightly the chances of avoiding a dissolution of today's global civilization as we know it.
It’s true that “the risks are clearly not obvious to most people”, who prefer to imagine that we’re just going through a phase, and ask what can they do anyway, with a shrug. It’s easy to sign some online petition or other about rainforests or rhinos with a click of the mouse, before planning your next foreign holiday over a nice bottle of wine but, as the  Belgian philosopher Raoul Vaneigem said, “Ceux qui parlent de révolution sans en référer explicement à la vie quotidienne ont un cadavre dans la bouche,” or, “Those who speak of revolution without making it real in their daily lives talk with a corpse in their mouths.” In other words, make some effort and begin by changing your lifestyle. No matter whether or not you can afford it, consume less, drive less, and waste little. Then, as you sort out your own lifestyle, become a nag. It’s not necessary to join a campaign group, though organisations like Population Matters can help with lots of useful information, but you can write and email whoever has any influence, anywhere, to review and change public and/or corporate policy. One of the advantages of living in the UK is that we’re free to express our opinions, so do it, and if you need ideas, get in touch.

The planet can take care of itself but its inhabitants need urgent help.

First published in the Suffolk humanist group's newsletter, February 2013

Cartoon © Polyp

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